“Idiots,” Maggie hisses as she throws the car into park. “Goddamn foolheaded irresponsible—”
If Beth were a better friend, she’d be defending Amy and Jimmy right now. Instead, she unbuckles her seatbelt and refrains from commenting. When Maggie’s spitting fire like this, it’s best to just wait her out.
Also, Beth’s more than a little irked with her friends, herself. It’s a Wednesday, for God’s sake. They’ve got school tomorrow.
“—infants,” Maggie finishes triumphantly. She wrenches the key out of the ignition, twisting her wrist in such a way that it looks a little bit like she’s breaking somebody’s neck. She points the key at Beth like an accusatory finger and says, “I ain’t doin’ this again, you hear me? Next time, your dumbass friends can clean up their own damn mess, see how they like it when their parents ground them until they’re thirty.”
“You don’t mean that,” Beth says mildly, curling her fingers around the plastic door handle but not yet exiting the car. “And you didn’t have to come along.”
“Like hell I didn’t.” Maggie turns to face the windshield, glaring at the bar like it just insulted her mother and her stepmother. “As if I’d let you waltz into this damn cesspool on your own.”
In Beth’s private opinion, cesspool is a bit harsh. Sure, the Spotted Pony isn’t the sort of place she’d choose to patronize, but it’s pretty clean, as bars go, if a little rickety and slightly ancient. It’s a long, low wooden building with few windows and a tin roof, and, were business to suddenly tank, Beth suspects that the owner would simply burn the place down and collect the insurance money. It doesn’t look particularly dirty, no, but it definitely looks flammable.
Here’s hoping nobody drops a cigarette in the mulch.
“Mr. Dixon’s in there.” Beth finally climbs out of the Sable and waits for Maggie to follow suit before completing her thought. “He wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
“You’re probably right,” Maggie allows, starting up the narrow, weed-choked sidewalk to the bar’s front doors. “Supposing he got to you before anyone else did.”
Beth rolls her eyes at the back of Maggie’s head and lengthens her stride, canvas sneakers smacking off the concrete, bare legs prickling in the late-night chill. She swears that Maggie likes nothing better than to sit around and fret over all the terrible things that could happen to Beth—and while she’s always been protective, she’s only gotten worse since Shawn and Momma died.
Beth’s got no one to blame for that but herself, though. If she hadn’t reacted the way she did—but there’s no use thinking on all the things she could’ve done differently, is there? She’s made her bed, so she’ll just have to lie in it.
So Beth just says, “I’ve got pepper spray in my bag,” and is unsurprised when Maggie scoffs.
“Won’t do you much good if somebody snatches it first.”
Instead of continuing to argue the point—they’ll just keep talking themselves in circles if she does—Beth sighs quietly and holds the door open for Maggie, then slips in after her, shoulders hunching around her ears at the sudden swell of noise.
It could be worse, Beth supposes; it could be a Friday. As it is, she’d hardly describe the bar’s interior as packed—just a little more crowded than someone who spent their childhood running around a sprawl of open farmland would prefer. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find her friends in this.
“Where’d Mr. Dixon say they were?” Maggie asks, looping her arm through Beth’s and leaning their heads together. The smell of spearmint toothpaste on her breath makes Beth’s nostrils flare.
“Um.” Beth lifts up on her toes, for all the good it does her. “At the left end of the bar.”
“His left or our left?” Maggie wants to know, and Beth shrugs helplessly. Left or right, the bar’s only so large. Statistically speaking, they’ll have to spot them eventually. And if they don’t, Beth can always call Daryl’s cellphone.
Beth had just plugged her phone in to charge for the night when it started buzzing with an incoming message, and she nearly dropped the thing when she saw Daryl Dixon’s name flash across the screen. Daryl never called or texted her; she only had his number at all in case of emergency. And it turned out this was an emergency, if a fairly mild one.
Daryl had sent her a grainy photo of his big brother, Merle, who was grinning toothily at the camera, thumbs pointed up. Amy and Jimmy were tucked beneath his burly arms, their own smiles dopier than Beth had ever seen them.
These belong to you? Daryl asked.
He went on to say that he would’ve driven Amy and Jimmy home himself if he knew where they lived, but he didn’t, and he couldn’t get a coherent answer out of either of them when he asked. Apparently, Beth’s friends are lightweights.
Lightweights, and damn lucky. Some creep could’ve slipped either of them a mickey—instead, Daryl and Merle had found them and recognized them and agreed to babysit them while Beth dragged on a pair of cutoffs and woke up her extremely irate sister. When she wasn’t suppressing a panic attack, she was trying to put a lid on her welling disappointment—for a second there, she’d thought Daryl was texting her in the middle of the night just because.
Stupid. He rarely bothers to make eye contact with her for more than a second at a time—why in the name of sweet baby Jesus would he want to text her just because?
“There they are,” Maggie says, the arm she threaded through Beth’s losing some of its coiled tension. She drags Beth toward the left of the bar—their left, as it turns out—and as a couple of men in trucker hats shuffle to one side, she spots what Maggie, with her height advantage, already saw: Jimmy and Amy, balanced precariously on a pair of spindly barstools and flanked on either side by the Dixon brothers. Even with their backs turned, Beth recognizes all four of them—and supposing she hadn’t, Daryl’s hard biceps and leather vest would’ve clued her in.
She’s spent countless hours alone in bed thinking about that vest and those biceps. She’d know them anywhere.
Merle tilts his head and says something Beth can’t hear, and Amy and Jimmy burst into a flurry of giggles. God, but they must be seriously smashed; Jimmy’s never much liked Merle or Daryl, and she doubts Merle’s brand of humor would appeal to the extremely sheltered Amy regardless.
Not for the first time, Beth reflects that Daryl must have ears like a hound, because even over the not-unimpressive din of the half-filled bar, he still hears Maggie and Beth coming, swiveling on his stool to face them before the other three notice their approach. His narrow eyes slide over Maggie and latch onto Beth, and Beth is abruptly, achingly aware of the fact that she forgot to put a bra on before racing out of the house to retrieve her erstwhile friends. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem because her chest is flat enough that she can usually go without—unless it’s cold, or unless—
Blood races to the surface of Beth’s skin, scalding her throat and pulling her nipples into tight, bunched points. She crosses her arms in a hurry, fixing her eyes on the floor and hanging back behind Maggie, who’s thankfully willing to do all the talking, anyway.
“The hell were y’all thinkin’, pullin’ this kinda shit on a school night—you’re damn lucky Daryl and Merle were here to keep your asses outta trouble. Swear to God, if I had any sense at all, I’d be calling your parents—”
“Aw, Maggie.” That’s Amy, voice stretching into a slurred whine that sets Beth’s teeth on edge. “Don’t be like that. We were—we were just—”
“Just what, exactly?”
Merle jumps in, then, apparently having grown fond enough of Amy and Jimmy in the past half hour to intervene on their behalves. “Now, Miss Maggie, there ain’t no need t’fuss—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Dixon, but nobody damn well asked.” Maggie’s fingers catch in Beth’s sleeve and reel her forward till her legs bump Daryl’s, and Beth all but falls over herself trying to put some distance between them even as her eyes are drawn to his knees where his jeans are frayed the thinnest. “Beth, help me drag these damn fools out to the car.”
Daryl finally speaks up, and while they’re no longer touching even a little bit, Beth can still feel the rumble of his voice in her sternum like the aftershocks of an earthquake, and her nipples twist up even harder. Dammit. “Me an’ Merle got ’em. I ain’t had nothin’ to drink all night, so I’m good to carry ’em if I gotta.”
“I really appreciate that, Daryl,” Maggie says, and she even sounds as if she means it somewhere deep down beneath the bedrock of her irritation. “But I don’t think your brother can say the same.”
“Aw, hell, Miss Maggie.” Merle sets his pint glass down with a thud, and Beth’s finally startled into looking up. Merle scratches his stubbly cheek, lips stretching into a lazy smile. “Don’t tell me I look like some kinda lightweight, now. I could drink ten more pints’a this watered-down shit an’ still haul both’a these skinny lil’ assholes on outta here with one hand tied behind my goddamn back.”
Maggie rolls her eyes, but far from looking insulted at being described as a pair of skinny little assholes, Amy and Jimmy just start giggling again. As her laughter fades into hiccups, Amy’s bleary eyes finally focus on Beth, and she starts waving so enthusiastically that Merle has to duck to avoid an elbow to the nose.
“Beth! Hey, Jimmy, look, it’s Beth! Beth, when’d you get here? You should have a drink, you should—”
“No, she damn well shouldn’t,” Maggie snaps before Beth can even open her mouth to decline. “And she’s been here the whole time, which you would’ve noticed sooner if you weren’t piss fuckin’ drunk.”
“You shouldn’t—you shouldn’t talk like that, Maggie,” Jimmy says, vowels dripping slow as molasses. He seems to be a more introspective drunk than Amy, going by the thoughtful pinch in his forehead. “Your daddy wouldn’t like it.”
Maggie purses her lips, and Beth contemplates sidling out of the line of fire. “You wanna talk about what my daddy wouldn’t like, Jimmy?”
That shuts Jimmy up, and even Amy looks momentarily sobered. But then she starts giggling again when Maggie steps forward to tuck her hands beneath her armpits and lift her off her stool like she’s hoisting up a toddler.
“Maggie, that tickles!”
Maggie throws Amy’s slack arm over her shoulders and grabs her around the waist. “Yeah, well, it sure as hell won’t tickle when I shove my boot up your goddamn ass.”
Amy thinks that’s hilarious—so does Merle, who laughs so hard it hurts Beth’s ears a little and makes Daryl wince. But when Merle climbs off his own stool to get a hold on Jimmy, he does it with a surprising amount of grace. Guess he wasn’t lying about his alcohol tolerance.
“C’mon, Farmer Ted. Up an’ at ’em.”
Jimmy’s face pleats like a rumpled blanket. “Who. Who’s Farmer Ted?”
“Anthony Michael Hall,” says Merle. “S’his stripper name.”
“Oh,” Jimmy says, nodding for a couple seconds longer than he would’ve if he were sober. “Alright.”
Daryl starts to get up, probably of a mind to take Amy off of Maggie’s hands—which is brave of him, because alcohol apparently turns Amy into an especially clingy octopus—but then Beth grabs onto her courage before she can change her mind and blurts, “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
The suspicion with which Daryl proceeds to regard her is, uh—not flattering. “’Bout what?”
Instead of answering the question, Beth shrugs and links her fingers. If her hands shake any harder, her bracelets will start to rattle. Her bracelets. She forgot her bra but remembered her bracelets. “Just for a second. Please?”
Daryl looks over Beth’s shoulder at Maggie, probably hoping that she’ll say no and save Daryl the trouble of rejecting Beth himself. But when Beth turns to look at her sister, it’s to find her regarding the pair of them thoughtfully, like she’s mulling something over. Or maybe she’s just praying for patience, since Amy’s grabbed a handful of her hair and won’t let go.
Maggie’s eyes flick back and forth between Beth and Daryl. “Five minutes,” she eventually pronounces. “After that, I’m calling the cavalry.”
Beth nods a little too eagerly, ignoring Daryl’s stiff posture and Merle’s arched eyebrow. Maggie and Merle turn to go, only for Amy to point abruptly teary eyes at Beth and say, with better articulation than Beth would’ve expected, “Graduation’s soon, Beth. Once summer’s over, who knows when we’ll be able to do this kind of stuff again?”
Beth doesn’t know what to say to that—what can she say? Next fall, Amy and Jimmy are gonna leave for college, and Beth’s gonna stay behind on the farm. She’s probably gonna spend the rest of her life on it.
So she drops her head and picks at her cuticles and doesn’t look up again until she hears the shuffle of retreating feet. Then she turns back to Daryl, who’s reclaimed his barstool.
“Well?” he asks, the muscles in his arms flickering when he crosses them in front of his stomach. “What you want?”
A stream of people squeeze past Beth on their way to the bar, and she’s forced to sidle closer to Daryl until she’s standing in the V of his spread legs, rough denim scratching at her bare thighs and making her feel like a cat whose fur has been brushed in the wrong direction—only in a not entirely unpleasant sort of way. “I just. I just wanted to thank you. Y’know, for watchin’ out for my friends.”
Daryl plants his elbows on the bar and shifts on his stool, spreading his legs wider so they’re no longer locked quite so tightly around Beth’s thighs. If Beth wanted to, she could press her leg flush against his crotch. “Could’a thanked me in front’a the others.”
He’s got her there. Honestly, she wasn’t telling the whole truth when she said she just wanted to thank him, but she needs a minute to work up to the rest of what she wants to say. “Yeah, well, I know how you are about thank-yous, Mr. Dixon. Didn’t want you gettin’ bashful in front of your brother.”
“Ain’t goddamn bashful,” Daryl grumbles, and Beth seals her lips to hold in a giggle. Yeah, he is bashful, and it’s damn cute. Even more than his gravelly voice and hard arms, it’s one of the things she likes best about him.
But then Beth sobers, eyes flicking up to Daryl’s and staying there. “Were they alright? When you found ’em, I mean.”
Daryl nods, and a lock of hair flops into his eyes. He brushes it impatiently back, and the bar’s watery lighting plays along the scars on his knuckles. “Yeah. Some asshole was buyin’ ’em drinks and eyein’ your girl up, but Merle scared ’im off quick, just about made ’im piss his damn pants.”
Beth’s heart clenches up with retroactive fear, and she has to take a minute to compose herself. Mustering up a wan smile, she says, “Good thing you found ’em, then, huh?”
“Yeah, guess so. They gave Merle somebody to jabber at besides me, anyways.” Beth can’t hold in her giggle this time, and Daryl’s thin lips quirk before flattening out again. “Hell were they doin’ in a place like this, anyhow?”
Beth shrugs again, trying to look more blasé than she feels. She swears Daryl’s legs have tightened up around hers again. The crowd at her back has abated, so she should probably step away now. But she doesn’t. “You heard Amy. We’re graduating in two weeks. That kinda thing makes people antsy.”
“Wouldn’t know how that is,” says Daryl, and when Beth looks a question at him, he clarifies, “Dropped out.”
Beth’s pretty sure she knew that already, like maybe she heard her dad mention it, but she still asks, “How come?”
Daryl’s mouth softens with shock, like he’s surprised she asked—surprised, and uncomfortable. “Was gonna flunk out, anyways,” he mumbles, dropping his head so his hair hangs like a dark curtain across the top half of his face.
Beth’s gonna tell him that he can’t say that for sure, but then the crowd at the bar swells again like the tide coming in, and an elbow nails her in the spine, knocking her forward into Daryl. She braces her hands on his shoulders, totally reflexive, only to tense up and prepare to snatch them back—Daryl doesn’t like being touched, she thinks—but she doesn’t, in the end, because Daryl’s grabbed hold of her.
This isn’t happening, Beth thinks, mouth coming up dry.
But it is. It is happening, and it’s happening to her. Daryl’s hands are on her waist, steadying her, palms burning into her sides through her thin t-shirt, fingers curving around her back to meet at her spine, thumbs framing her navel. He’s staring at her like he doesn’t know how his hands wound up where they did—but he doesn’t let her go.
Even after Beth’s steadied herself out, he doesn’t let her go.
Beth curls her fingers against the cracked leather of Daryl’s vest, knuckles digging lightly into bunched muscle. Dropping her eyes to the level of his belt, she says, quietly, “I was gonna ask if you were comin’ to our Fourth of July party.”
Daryl’s snort stirs Beth’s hair. She’s wearing it loose; didn’t have time to bind it back. “S’May, girl.”
Beth shrugs, and Daryl’s fingers flex, like he mistook the movement for withdrawal and didn’t want her to pull away. But that can’t be it, can it? “Never hurts to be prepared.”
Daryl’s left thumb sketches a circuit on Beth’s abdomen, hands sinking farther down till they’re practically cupping her hips, and Beth’s guts clench. Her guts, her throat, her cunt. “Ain’t really big on parties.”
Beth realizes that she’s no longer staring at Daryl’s belt, but at his inseam, and her eyes bounce back to his face before settling on his brown neck. He’s a little sweaty, which isn’t really surprising; it’s stifling in here, and the stale quality of the air amplifies some of the more unpleasant smells that are native to bars. But Daryl smells good in a sticky sort of way that makes Beth want to plant her face in his throat and feel for his pulse with her teeth.
Blinking rapidly, Beth tries to put her brain back on track. “I mean, uh, party might not be the right word for it. It’ll just be my folks and Glenn and the Grimeses and maybe Carol and Ezekiel—and you and Merle’ve done so much to help out around the farm, it wouldn’t be right not to invite y’all.”
“Yeah, so? We do what your daddy pays us to do.”
“Yeah, and more,” Beth retorts, her annoyance allowing her to meet Daryl’s eyes again. She slides her hands farther up his shoulders, and the shaggy ends of his hair brush her knuckles, tickling her. “C’mon, please? Just think about it?”
“You gonna be there?” Daryl asks, voice rumbling like sullen thunder, and something about that voice and the way his lips move when he talks make Beth feel like he just reached out and slapped her on the clit.
She’s never reacted this strongly to anyone but him. This can’t be normal.
“Um.” She swears the smell clinging to his skin has gotten stronger, and it's making her dizzy. “I mean, my family’s hosting it, so. Yeah?”
Daryl’s shoulders hunch, and Beth’s fingers flex in response. “Right,” he mutters. “Dumb question.”
Beth should tell him that it wasn’t a dumb question, but she can’t get her tongue to cooperate. As the silence builds, Daryl pulls his lower lip into his mouth and releases it a second later with a wet pop, leaving it slick and shiny and dented with the impressions of teeth. Beth bites into her own lip without really thinking about it, and Daryl’s eyes flick up and down her face. Not lower, never lower, but somehow, Beth feels more exposed than if he was ogling her breasts and the outlines of her hard nipples. The hands on her hips sink, fingertips grazing the swell of her ass, and a gasp funnels up Beth’s throat and lashes the air between them like a whip crack.
Daryl’s ears flush an angry red, and he pushes Beth out of his personal space as easily as if she weighs nothing at all, leaving her cold. He stands up, but Beth doesn’t back away in time to keep the tips of her breasts from brushing up against his chest. He flinches when it happens, and his eyes finally, finally drop to her breasts, only to snap up again less than a second later. His fingers twitch and clench.
“C’mon,” Daryl mumbles, throwing a couple wrinkled bills down on the counter. “Les’ get outta here 'fore your sister calls the goddamn cops.”
“Well, so long as it’s Mr. Grimes who shows up, we oughta be good,” Beth jokes weakly. Daryl doesn’t even pretend to laugh.
He doesn’t speak to her at all on the way out, either, but he touches the small of her back a couple of times to steer her through the thicker parts of the growing crowd, and Beth feels each graze of his fingertips like an electric shock to the base of her spine. Swear to God, one of these days Daryl Dixon’s gonna kill her for real.
Amy and Jimmy are packed up in the backseat of the car, Jimmy’s head pillowed on Amy’s shoulder. Maggie’s sitting in the front with both hands chokeholding the wheel, but she relaxes a little when she makes eye contact with Beth. Merle pushes away from where he was leaning against the hood and waves, and Beth waves limply back, the knots in her stomach unraveling when Daryl peels away from her side to collect his brother like nothing happened back in the bar. Like he didn’t just give Beth the shock of her life.
Because, here’s the thing, and she’s pretty sure she wasn’t imagining it. Beth’s been flirting with Daryl Dixon for almost as long as she’s known him, but just now, just for a second, she could’ve sworn he flirted back.