Beth readjusted the corners of the faded towel she was using to keep from burning her hand on the bowl of hot stew she carried. She took a deep breath and glanced up the stairs of the guard tower with trepidation. She knew Daryl was up there, and she also knew that he hadn't had a chance to eat anything since coming back from his hunt. He'd managed to find a deer, and the whole prison was in high spirits because of it. In typical Daryl fashion, he'd shrugged off the many thanks and retreated to the tower mumbling about guard duty.
It wasn't sitting right with Beth that he hadn't had a chance to enjoy any of the food that he'd been so instrumental in providing. Even though her natural inclination to take care of people was telling her to march up those stairs and make him eat, her wariness of the enigmatic hunter made her linger at the bottom. She wasn't truly scared of Daryl; in fact she knew that he'd die before he'd let anyone at their camp get hurt, but she just wasn't comfortable around him. He was older than her, he was good-looking, in a rough-around-the-edges sort of way, and since she'd known him they'd only had a handful of conversations.
Telling herself to stop being ridiculous, Beth stiffened her resolve and started up the rough, metal staircase. Besides, if she could get Daryl to do more than grunt in her general direction, maybe she could ask him for the favor that she'd been trying to work up the courage for.
When she reached the top, she shifted the bowl of stew so that she could knock on the side of the tower, but realized that would be unnecessary. Hearing her arrival, Daryl was already looking at her when she walked in. Crossbow in his lap, he looked as if he was inspecting it before she interrupted.
"Hey," she said, letting the door close behind her, "You disappeared before the stew was ready, so I brought you some."
"Figured I'd get some later," he responded tersely.
"Well, now you don't have to wait," she said brightly. She crossed the tower, which was feeling smaller every second, and set the bowl down on the bench next to him when he didn't reach for it. She knew he was expecting her to scurry back down to the others, and she could see the set of his shoulders tighten when she gingerly sat on the bench opposite him.
"So, I guess the hunt went pretty good today, huh?" she asked, feeling stupid as soon as the words left her mouth. Of course the hunt had gone well; he came back with a deer.
"Mm-hmm." he mumbled, apparently unwilling to offer any information.
"How long did you have to track the deer?" she asked, figuring he couldn't possibly answer that in two syllable.
"'Bout two miles."
Beth shifted uncomfortably, racking her brain for some better way to get a conversation going.
"When'd you learn to hunt, anyhow?" she queried in a last-ditch effort.
"I's 'bout eight, I guess," he said, finally setting the crossbow down next to him, " One of the neighbor kid's dads was teaching him, and he said I could come along. So I did."
That was probably the most Daryl had ever offered about his past, and she figured that since he didn't seem too annoyed, that she could probably stay for a bit longer. She still hadn't worked up to her question.
"Oh yeah?" she said with genuine interest, "I always figured someone from your family had taught you."
"Nah," he said, pausing for a second. Beth was just getting ready to start again when he continued, "Merle wasn't around much when I was comin' up, and my dad wasn't sober long enough to be much good to anybody."
"I'm sorry," Beth replied softly.
"S'just how it was," he murmured, "Ain't nothin' to be sorry for."
Beth wasn't quite sure how to respond to that, but she knew that she wanted to turn the conversation a little lighter. She certainly didn't want Daryl think she was prying. She'd seen him get angry with people over that before, and the thought of those sharp eyes on her with such intensity caused a shiver to run down her spine. He didn't seem upset, but she didn't want to risk it.
"Well, either way, I'm glad you learned," she said with a smile.
"Kept me alive more than once," he offered noncommittally.
Not wanting the conversation to die, Beth just kept trying.
"You really should try some of that," she motioned to the bowl of stew, "The last time I was down in the cafeteria I found some dried spices, so that's actually pretty tasty if I do say so myself."
"You made it?"
At her affirmation, Daryl picked up the bowl and stirred it a few times with the spoon. Beth wasn't sure why he'd asked about her making it, but it made her feel good that he seemed more eager after she'd said yes.
"S'real good," he said, mouth full, "Prob'ly the best thing I've ate in a while."
Beth smiled and felt some color creep into her face. Daryl had a set of survival skills that left her feeling perfectly inadequate sometimes, so it was extremely satisfying to hear that he thought she was useful for something. She watched in appreciation as he went to put more in his mouth when she noticed the smear of red near his shoulder.
"What happened to you?" she said, the instincts that marked her as her father's daughter taking effect.
He glanced at his shoulder and shrugged.
"Nothin'," he grunted through his stew, "got caught up in a fence I had to jump is all."
Before she had a chance to think properly, Beth had closed the distance between them and was gently shifting the edge of his vest out of the way.
"You need to have this cleaned," she scolded, attempting to tug his arm away from his body.
He jerked a little and scooted further down the bench.
"S'fine," he grumbled, " I heal quick."
"I don't care, it might get infected," she retorted with an air of authority that she was both pleased and surprised to hear from herself, "I'll be right back."
Daryl's expression turned stormy as he made to protest again, but she turned on her heel and marched off for disinfectant and bandages before she lost her nerve. Getting out of the small space allowed her to think for a minute, and she could hardly believe that she'd practically just ordered Daryl Dixon around. She couldn't quit now, though. He'd never take her seriously if she backed down, and she needed him to listen. Finding what she needed quickly, she made her way back to the top of the tower in just a few moments.
Once again he watched her as she approached, and the steely look in his blue eyes brought an unexpected race to her pulse. Trying to adopt an air of efficiency, she set her supplies down on the bench next to him and planted her hands on her hips.
"Take off your vest," she commanded, trying desperately to keep a waiver from entering her voice.
"And if I don't?" he challenged.
She faltered, ready to invoke the wrath of her father when she decided that she needed to handle this without help.
"Then I'll get disinfectant all over it," she stated matter-of-factly.
He sighed and slammed his fist on the wooden bench causing Beth to jump, but to her shock, he shrugged one arm and then the other out of his faded vest and tossed it to the ground by his feet.
"Thank you," she said primly.
He huffed and grumbled, but allowed her to tuck what was left of his sleeve out of the way. She tried to keep her hands from trembling as she handled his upper bicep. It was impossible, at this close of a range to ignore the fact that the muscles there were tight and toned. Beth swallowed hard and scolded herself for such a ridiculous train of thought. Feeling any sort of attraction to this cagey, intense man who was at least ten years her senior was a non-option.
"I thought you wanted me to eat, woman," Daryl ranted in a tone that let her know he wasn't truly upset.
The edge of her mouth hitched up in a smirk.
"That was before I knew you were hurt," she intoned quietly, concentrating on wiping the last of the dried blood from the edge of the long scratch.
"This ain't even that bad," he said, wincing a bit at the sting of the antiseptic, "You 'member when your damn horse threw me, an' I fell down a cliff an' ended up with an arrow in my side?"
"That was not Nellie's fault," she retorted playfully.
"I'll have you recall that I got shot that day too." he continued, ignoring her defense of her mare.
"So what we've learned," she teased, wrapping his arm tightly in clean cotton, "Is that you are extremely accident prone."
Daryl smirked, which was probably one of the closest thing to a smile she'd ever seen from him - at least as a result of a conversation with her.
"You have no idea," he mumbled, "Some of the scrapes I got into as a kid…" he trailed off.
"I'd like to hear about those sometime," she said softly before she could stop herself. What was she thinking? She had no business delving into his life like that.
"Well maybe I'll tell you about 'em," he said, with what might have actually been a tease, "You know, once I've recovered and all."
Beth giggled lightly, surprised at how willing he sounded.
"I'd listen," she teased back, tucking in the edge of his bandage, "and probably laugh."
She glanced at him after giving his bandaged a gentle pat and realized that he had looked up at her. It took her a beat too long to realize that she was still in his space with her fingertips resting lightly against his arm. This close to him, she could tell exactly how blue his eyes were and she was startled to see that they were watching her intently.
Before she had a chance to think something too stupid, Beth cleared her throat and stepped away. She seized his abandoned bowl of stew and shoved it back to him.
"You should finish that," she ordered.
He grumbled a little, but shoveled some of the food into his mouth anyway.
"You're a lot bossier than you used to be," he complained.
She felt a blush creep into her cheeks, but she noted that he was actually doing what she told him to do. She was also surprised to realize that she was beginning to enjoy her conversation with him. He wasn't nearly as gruff as he appeared once you got him talking.
As a silence settled in around them, Beth knew it was time to ask what she had come to ask. She took a deep breath and faced him as he scraped the last of the stew from the bowl.
"So, I sort of have a favor to ask you," she said hesitantly.
"Shoot," he replied, leaning back on the bench and propping his feet on the corner of the bench.
"It might sound kind of silly," she started quickly, "but I would really like to be able to contribute more to the camp."
He watched her appraisingly, waiting for her to finish.
"I feel like I'm ready to start going on runs and defending the camp more," she continued, "but I don't know anything about fighting the walkers. I mean, I can shoot pretty straight, but Maggie said I'd have to get better with my knife if I wanted to leave the prison, and I was thinkin' that maybe you could help me?"
He stayed quiet for longer than Beth was comfortable with. Her biggest fear in this situation was that he would blow her off and dismiss her as a little girl that needed protecting. That's basically what Maggie had done when she'd brought it up, but a part of her understood that it was because Maggie wanted to protect her. She was hoping if she could improve in her hand-to-hand skills, then maybe the leaders of their group would start to see her as someone that could handle herself.
She wanted to be useful beyond caring for Judith and cooking for everyone. While she enjoyed doing those things, she was tired of waiting around at home while everyone else did the dangerous work.
"Please?" she added softly, when he didn't respond.
After what felt like an eternity, Daryl shrugged his shoulders.
"Guess I can't argue with you wanting to be able to defend yourself," he finally acquiesced.
"Really?" she exclaimed, unable to hold back her excitement.
"Why do you want me to do it, though?" he challenged, "Wouldn't Maggie or Rick be a better idea?"
Beth exhaled, trying to find the words to explain.
"Everyone around here thinks I need protectin'" she explained, "and you don't seem to think I'm useless."
"You ain't useless," he countered, "everyone knows that."
"I know," she breathed in frustration, "but it sucks being here all the time while all the people I love go out and risk their lives. I wanna be there too. And I want you to teach me. You're the best."
He ran a hand through his hair, a look of deep concentration on his face.
"Alright," he finally said, "I gotta go on a supply run tomorrow, but we can get started the next mornin' if you want."
Beth felt herself break into a huge smile.
"Thank you!" she exclaimed.
"I ain't gonna take it easy on you, though," he warned, " If we do this, you gotta learn for real."
"Good," Beth said with a determination that she was proud of, "it's not an easy world out there."
"Sure ain't," he agreed, picking up his crossbow again for the first time since she'd joined him in the tower. Beth stood and dusted her hands on the side of her jeans. She decided that since he'd agreed, she leave him alone for the night. She didn't want to risk him getting annoyed and changing his mind.
"I should be getting back to Judi," she said, moving for the stairs, "Goodnight."
"Night," he replied, returning his attention to his crossbow.
Beth took the stairs two at time, and got halfway down before she paused and looked back up. She considered going back to thank Daryl one more time, but decided against it. Being friendly with Daryl was a knew development, and she didn't want to push it. She continued down the steps, the excitement of learning something new causing her to hum as she went.
What she didn't know was that Daryl had set his crossbow aside and stood up to make sure she got inside alright, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth as he heard her song.