Chapter 1: Hot Tip
It was quiet when I woke up that morning, but for some birdsong and the sound of tree branches lifting gently in the wind. Warm sunlight streamed in through the open bedroom window, and just a hint of a breeze.
Sounds nice, right?
The problem was, for every Tuesday in the past year I’d woken up to the obnoxious blaring of an alarm. An alarm that signalled that it was time for me to move my ass and get to my job waiting tables at Burke County’s only half-decent bar.
So when I woke up to the pleasant sounds of small-town Georgian life, I didn’t feel calm or relaxed. No, I felt straight-up panic.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!” I hissed at my alarm clock radio, sitting bolt upright in bed and grabbing it. Unsurprisingly, the machine made no answer. Turning it over, I found no good reason why it hadn’t gone off. “Why didn’t you work, you stupid thing?!”
The little numbers on the display blinked innocently at me. 10:00am.
Damn, I was going to be late if I didn’t seriously motor.
I jumped out of bed and started scrounging around on the bedroom floor, looking for an acceptably clean uniform. Discarding one top, which had a sizeable coffee stain on the front, I muttered to myself that perhaps I shouldn’t neglect my laundry quite so much.
Clutching a sufficiently clean tee in my fist, I scrambled for some shorts. Pulling a nightdress over my head, I wished that I’d had time to shower. It had been an unseasonably hot night and I felt the slightest sheen of sweat clinging to my skin from it.
Having slipped into my work clothes, I rushed over to the vanity and started yanking at my hair with a comb. My own haggard reflection stared back at me, almost looking accusatory.
Why can’t you be more organised, jerk? I asked myself silently. Is it really so hard to do your laundry and set your damn alarm?
My grandmother often told me that her own mother - my great-grandma - had been Cherokee Indian, but when I examined myself more closely I couldn’t find much trace of it.
I could maybe see it a little in my cheekbones, and in the darkness of my eyes. But I was as white as a damn ghost - there was no getting around that.
I was pale, with a narrow, pointed nose and wavy chestnut hair. Spectacularly average.
Still, I needed tips, and my second-day tee, half-brushed hair vibe wasn’t doing much for me. I had to primp a little. So I painted my lips and tucked the wayward strands of my hair behind my ears, and tried to smile. My boss hated when the waitresses weren’t chirpy enough.
My reflection gave me a pained grimace.
“That’ll have to do.” I muttered, grabbing my keys from the vanity and bounding down the stairs. My boss didn’t much like tardiness either.
Odette’s Bar and Grill wasn’t run by an Odette, or indeed any sort of woman.
It was run by a Huck Neoma, who had red hair, a beard, and a permanently grumpy attitude. He wasn’t the best boss in the world, that’s for sure. He’d made it pretty clear that in order to last at Odette’s you needed to do two things; keep your mouth shut and bring your own pen.
It wasn’t the stuff dreams were made of, but there weren’t many jobs to go around in Burke County, and I never did manage to get myself to college. I was smart, but I wasn’t scholarship smart.
I tied my black apron and smoothed the wrinkles from my uniform as best I could. I rummaged around behind the counter for a notepad and found one wedged between a couple of menu covers. Tucking my pen (which I’d diligently brought from home) behind my ear, I set myself to work.
Lunch on a Tuesday was always pretty slow, so it was just Lee-Ann Duckett and I out on the floor. We almost always worked the same shifts, which wasn’t entirely to my advantage.
See, Lee-Ann was a natural. She smiled, called people ‘darlin’’ and responded obliviously to all seedy comments with ‘well, aren’t you sweet?’, whereas I would pretty much just frown and panic. She was the damn spirit of Southern charm trapped in a busty 40-something’s body - everybody loved Lee-Ann. Hell, she’d been killing my tips just by existing for over a year now and I still sort of loved her.
Nobody ever gave her any trouble.
It was for that reason that I felt it was a little unfair when Lee-Ann sat a particularly rowdy party in my section. I just wasn’t equipped to deal with Merle Dixon like she was.
They came in all the time, the Dixons. Them and their buddies. But it was really only Merle who ever caused a scene. Daryl, the younger brother, didn’t make much trouble. Except for that time he threw a hunting knife at the dart board to show up some other idiot. But knife-throwing was pretty much a regular Tuesday around here.
I hurried over to them with some menus. Better to get this over with.
“Miss Adele Crawford,” Merle drawled by way of greeting. “Didn’t think I’d see you ‘round here.”
I tried that smile again, but I could feel from how my cheeks tightened that it mustn’t have looked very convincing. I work here full-time, asshole. “Fellas, what can I get you?”
“Two pitchers of Bud, darlin’.” He glanced over to the other side of the room. “Say, uh, why isn’t Lee-Ann servin’ us?”
Even though I hadn’t at all wanted to serve them, I couldn’t help but feel a little miffed. I tried to keep it out of my voice. “Well this is my section, see. And she sat you here. So I’m serving you.”
“Shame.” Merle sighed. “That woman’s a sight for sore eyes. And a damn fine waitress, too. Guess we’ll have to make do with you, won’t we, Adele?”
I knew I’d gotten off lightly, considering what Merle was known for. A backhand insult about my skills as a waitress - and perhaps my physical attractiveness - wasn’t a bad outcome. Still, with that kind of opening I couldn’t hope for much of a tip. And my bank account was so, so sad.
I must have looked pretty despondent as I stood there contemplating how desperately broke I was, because one of Merle’s friends, Coot, felt the need to try and cheer me up. Though I rather wish he hadn’t.
“I dunno, Merle, I think we’re pretty lucky.” He said with an unsavory wink. “If somebody half as pretty as Adele came up to me in a strip joint I’d be mightily pleased.”
“Yeah well you would, Coot,” Merle drawled, not really paying too much attention, “the places you end up - can’t find a good titty bar to save yer life.”
I felt a haughty look cross my face, but managed to hold my tongue. Think of the tips.
I turned away, cheeks flushed with anger. “I’ll be back with your beverages soon.”
Swiftly retreating to put in the drinks order, I nonetheless heard the remainder of the group’s conversation from my perch near the servery.
“Sorry, pal.” Merle chuckled, his voice carrying. I heard the sound of him clapping someone on the shoulder - presumably Coot. “But I’d hold off on plannin’ a weddin’ with our little Miss Crawford.”
“She’s just playin’ hard to get.” Coot said defensively. “Hunnies that act all shy like that are always wild in the sack.”
It was safe to assume that I’d never go on a date with Coot, let alone physically touch him. Not that I’d really gotten around to dating or touching anyone much. Still, I felt comfortable in assuring myself that no matter how pathetically single I was, I’d never get that desperate.
“Ya think she has any hidden tattoos?” Coot continued, musing. “I love a woman with ink. Gets me all riled-”
“Good lord.” I heard Daryl cut across him. “Shut up about that, man. She thinks you’re garbage and she ain’t gonna come near you.”
That was true, but I couldn’t help but be embarrassed that Daryl had so easily gotten the measure of me. I’d have to work on my poker face.
“I was just sayin’!” Coot exclaimed. “I ain’t ever seen her with anyone. Not in years, not ever, I think.”
Good to know that my seemingly perpetual romantic dry spell was obvious not only to all my actual friends, but also the entire county.
“That girl is never going to so much as look at you, asshole.” Daryl shot back with surprising hostility. “I bet she’d rather die an old maid then take up with one of us.”
Jeez. Now I’ll die a virgin, all because I thought I was too good for Coot. It was a sobering thought.
At this point Merle chimed back in, apparently not wholly interested in discussing my sex life (a small mercy in the midst of this otherwise completely mortifying situation). “Nice clean girl like that, with a good family name, all mannerly and polite…” He drawled. “I think I’ll have to agree with my baby brother on this one. She’s full native, pal. A regular Georgia belle. She’s livin’ in a different world and you’ve got a face that could make a train take a dirt road.”
“Screw you guys.” Coot grumbled.
I pondered Merle’s words while I waited for Huck to pour the beers. The Crawfords were one of the first families to settle in Waynesboro, and while they may had been rich back in 1789 when the family home was built, their fortunes had since turned. My Gran’s home was now little more peeling paint and flyscreen. Of course Gran kept the rooms spotlessly clean and well-decorated, but there was only so much one could do with cozy furniture and worn fittings.
Still, it was a right sight better than a trailer. I knew the Dixon brothers lived in a caravan park across town - I remembered that in high school the kids used to go there to buy drugs.
I suppose from the Dixon’s vantage point, a run-down house on the hill looked pretty great.
I tucked my notebook into my apron and took a pitcher of beer in each hand, trying to keep them both steady. Huck fixed me with a severe look that clearly communicated the consequences of spilling even a single drop.
I walked back over to the group, trying to put out of my mind all that I had overheard. Coot and Merle didn’t even notice my approach, they were bickering about something or other, having moved on from me as a topic of conversation.
Daryl was looking straight at me, though. His expression was neutral, appraising.
All of a sudden I felt very exposed under his discerning gaze. I was reminded of how easily he noticed my distaste for Coot and began to worry that he was trying to divine some other hidden truth from my expression. Are you reading my mind, Dixon? I thought loudly to myself, monitoring his expression to see if he reacted.
He didn’t, because Daryl Dixon was obviously not a psychic. I felt a little foolish, for being so preoccupied with a look.
Then my foot caught the jutted-out leg of a chair, one table over from the group.
I felt my stomach swooping unpleasantly as I tripped, still bare-knuckling the pitchers of beer. To my horror I saw the liquid rise out of them, displaced by the downwards momentum of the fall.
It was everywhere. All over the Dixons and Coot… it dripped over the sides of the table onto the booth seats in a frothy, foamy mess.
And there I was, flat on my belly holding two empty pitchers - shocked and horrified.
I might’ve expected Merle to be pissed off that I’d spilled beer all over him, but he just let out a roaring laugh. Next to him Coot was fussing, jumping up to avoid getting his pants wet. Daryl, though, gave very little response at all. He didn’t move except to calmly shift out of the way of a rivulet of booze.
“Well I’ve never showered in beer before!” Merle cackled, before turning towards the bar where my boss was wiping glasses. “Hey, Huck! Is this a new service you’re offerin’? Beer showers?”
“WHAT IN BLAZES, CRAWFORD!?” Huck roared, abandoning the bar and storming over. He bodily yanked me up off the ground . “CAN’T YOU DO ANYTHING RIGHT?”
As he yelled little droplets of spittle landed on my face. I would have liked to think I didn’t cower, but I instinctively flinched. His face was turning redder by the second, and soon very little distinction existed between his skin and his hair. He cursed me up and down, and called me every name under the sun - and I pretty much just stood there, looking a damn fool.
Eventually there was a pause in his torrent of fury, and I ventured to speak.
“I’m so sorry, I-”
“LOOK AT THIS GODDAMN MESS, CRAWFORD!” He arched right back up, as if the mere sound of my voice had given him a second wind.
“I’ll clean it right away, please, I’ll fix it.” I said, frantically trying to stop the beer from dripping onto the floor with some napkins. The result - with regards to both the table and my life - was a soggy, squishy, hopeless mess.
Huck raised his finger to me, breathing heavily in his fury. For a terrible second I was sure he was going to say I was fired. But, lowering his finger, he said instead; “Those beers are coming out of your pay, Crawford. And another stunt like that will see you out on your ass. Plenty of girls in this town want a job, and it wouldn’t be hard to find prettier and younger’n you.”
I nodded, and practically bolted to the supply closet to find some cleaning supplies. Behind me I heard Huck apologizing to the Dixons, and relocating them to a dry table.
“What can I say? The girl’s an idiot.”
My mouth set in a hard line as I pulled the mop and bucket from the supply closet. Idiot, am I? What an asshole.
That asshole is your boss. Replied a more reasonable voice. Keep your head.
There were certainly times in my life when I wished I was the kind of person who would call someone out on shitty behaviour like that. I wished I could express to Huck what a total dick he was, that I could tell him never to talk to me that way again. That I was a human being and I’d only made a simple mistake.
Assert myself, stick up for what’s right, take no shit.
Alas, I was not that person. I was just a waitress.
By the time I’d cleaned up and brought over two fresh pitchers of Budweiser - with my profuse apologies - Huck had already retreated behind the bar again. His attention was turned to some receipts, and I felt immense relief that his eyes were no longer boring into the back of my head.
It was a lucky thing that neither the Dixons nor Coot had made too much of a fuss about the spill. I suspected that I’d have been fired if any of them had gotten too mad.
No tips today, though. I thought glumly, leaning up against the servery. And my pay is being docked.
Lee-Ann gave me a sympathetic little smile as she passed me, and touched my shoulder. “It ain’t so bad, honey. Tomorrow’s a new day!”
I wanted to find Lee-Ann’s optimism annoying, but her expression was so glowing and sincere. Perhaps she was right. Tomorrow would surely bring a host of fresh and exciting opportunities for failure. I may even surpass myself.
I noticed Merle and Coot were walking to the exit, having finished their beer. Curiously, Daryl hung back by the table, fiddling with one of the menus left lying about.
“Baby brother, you comin’?” Merle yelled from the door.
Daryl looked up from the table and set off after his brother, not looking my way even once.
I walked over to grab the pitchers and return them to the kitchen, when something caught my eye.
Wedged under the menu Daryl had been fiddling with was a whole twenty-five bucks. Before Huck could notice I snatched up the cash and tucked it into my apron. It was a huge tip that more than covered my loss from the beer incident.
I felt a smile spread across my face - my first genuine smile of the day. How strange, I thought, that Daryl Dixon of all people would do something so kind…
I walked a few paces to the window, and saw Merle rummaging around in the back of Daryl’s battered ute. Merle’s motorcycle was parked right alongside it. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about through the glass.
Daryl leaned against the back of the ute with an expression of boredom, but when he looked up and saw me staring out I could swear I saw a flash of something else, if only for a second. I waved through the glass, hoping to communicate my thanks.
Maybe it was just the fact that he’d left such a good tip, but I was all of a sudden struck by the thought that Daryl was actually kinda... good-looking.
He inched his head ever so slightly, holding my gaze from across the lot. I smiled at him, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear and looking down bashfully.
I waited till he had hopped into driver’s seat of the ute before moving away from the window. It was a real effort to tear my eyes away. What had gotten into me? I’d never given him a second look before, nor he I, I bet.
I remembered his intent stare from earlier. Perhaps I had been to quick to assume his ill-intentions. Perhaps he was just interested in me.
I felt my cheeks colour at the thought. I couldn’t remember the last time a boy made blush. Flush in rage, yes. But blush? It just didn’t happen. Ever. And certainly not for unwashed local boys with bad tempers and drug connections.
No, I decided. I refused to be blushing over Daryl Dixon. It just wasn’t happening.
Chapter 2: Angel
Over a month had passed and I’d successfully avoided any further facial reddening where the younger Dixon was concerned. My capillaries had done a marvellous job of behaving in his presence, and at times I thought I almost seemed calm and professional around him. Almost.
It was a Saturday night and I had the late shift. Those nights were always the worst. They just went on and on - Odette’s would be packed, every week practically half the town would cram themselves in for a booze up. Thankfully, though, the night was coming to a close.
My feet ached from the long shift, and I groaned at the idea of dragging the trash all the way across the lot to where the dumpster was.
It was the last thing I felt like doing, but Huck had snapped at me to sort it out a whole ten minutes ago. I didn’t dare put it off any longer than that.
Slinging the heavy bag of food scraps over my shoulder, I sighed. How glamorous, I thought, trying to avoid the small amount of bin juice that leaked out on the ground as I walked.
At first, I thought the drunken hooting was just coming from some stragglers inside the bar, carried to my ears on the night breeze. But I hadn’t thought there was anyone left inside Odette’s, aside from employees.
Then I heard the sound of scuffling feet and wheeled around, scanning the darkness for the source of the noise.
There wasn’t much in the way of street lighting around Odette’s, and I found the veil of night almost impenetrable. I peered into the trees, body tensing, but couldn’t see a thing in the pitch.
Another sound startled me. This time, a laugh.
Maybe just a couple fooling around in the bushes.
Another chuckling voice shushed the first, and I spun in the opposite direction. Maybe it came from over there?
Two guys? I wondered, becoming increasingly alarmed. Laughing at me from the treeline?
It wasn’t a comforting thought. I rushed to close the distance between me and the dumpster, hurling the bag in there and not even looking to see if it landed before I bolted back in the direction of the bar.
If only they had been laughing from the treeline. I might have made it.
I didn’t see that a man had been rushing me until I’d turned to run back to safety - he stuck his arm out and clotheslined me straight in the stomach. Gasping for air, I crumbled to the floor.
“C’mon man,” came an uneasy voice from the darkness, “I didn’t think we were going to do it like that. No need to hurt her.”
The man who had attacked gazed down at me with a lascivious smirk on his lips. He had long, greasy hair that was tied back in a ponytail, and his lower lip was curled in a permanent snarl. “Don’t be a pussy, she’s only winded.” He said. “Get out here, why don’tcha?”
I expected only one shape to emerge from the darkness, but my heart plummeted when I counted three. These were nasty-looking odds.
My heart pounded in my chest as I tried to scramble backwards, gravel scraping against my hands as I tried to crawl out of ponytail man’s reach.
A vicious kick was delivered to my side. “Now, honey, did I say you could leave?”
I wheezed as the air was once again forced out of my chest by the impact. Feebly, I tried to shield my side by curling up, arms tucked down to protect my ribs.
He kicked me again, with so much force that I couldn’t choke back the sob that rose in my throat. That hurt so motherfucking much.
“Dude...” The man who had spoken before protested again. His companions, however, seemed totally unfazed by the beating that was being brought down upon me.
I needed to get up. I needed to run.
I risked lifting my head to take in my surrounds, and was rewarded with a boot to the face.
Dazed, vision blurring, I lifted my hand to my forehead to find it wet. Blood?
My eyes hurt and blurred as the one spotlight which illuminated the empty parking lot shone in my face. I could make out the indistinct shape of ponytail man as he laid into me again.
This time I didn’t cry, I was too busy spitting up blood.
Heaving and coughing, I felt blood and spittle dribbling down my chin. Tears of pain sprung in my eyes. I was curled up on my side now, every muscle tensing as I braced for the next blow.
This is it. I’m gonna die.
“Now, honey,” Ponytail grabbed a fistful of my hair and effortlessly dragged me towards the dark treeline. I tried vainly to squirm out of his grip, but staying conscious was hard enough. I don’t think my weak attempts to escape even registered with my attacker. “I’m gonna need you to shut up for this next part, okay?”
I choked back a sob and tried again to struggle free from his grasp. He stopped dragging me and knelt down, face dangerously close to mine.
“I’m gonna need you to say ‘okay’, honey.” His voice was quiet and dangerous, he re-established his grip on my hair, tugging at my scalp painfully. “And if you don’t, I’m going to wrap my hands around your puny throat and snap your pretty little neck like a twig.” He paused, giving me a moment to consider that grim picture. “Got it?”
I don’t think I ever remembered feeling so powerless, so small. “Okay,” I wheezed, terrified and struggling to speak in my state of pain.
I’d never thought of myself as weak before - I had always been tall and Gran always said I had the same sort of fighting spirit she had been known for back in her day. Before tonight, I had kind of thought of myself as tough.
How horribly laughable.
Ponytail threw me down in the brush. Twigs scratched my forearms, which were already mottled purple from when I’d tried to shield my ribs. I could feel bruises blooming all over my stomach and my sides, and my head… My head pounded something awful.
I didn’t suppose it mattered much - these men were going to kill me. I felt sure of it.
The other three men sidled up alongside Ponytail. I couldn’t make out their faces but I felt their leering eyes on me. Roughly, Ponytail grabbed my forearms and forced them down on either side of my face, pinning me effortlessly.
How the hell is he so strong? How could someone do something so awful?
Angry tears filled my eyes as I held back the guttural sound rising in my throat. More than anything, I wanted to yell, to cry for help, or just to scream in wordless rage and fear. But I remembered what Ponytail had said; ‘I’ll snap your pretty little neck like a twig.’ I couldn’t imagine anything worse than the feeling of those rough, awful hands around my throat.
A horrible piercing scream shattered the promised silence.
But I hadn’t made a sound.
Confused, I peered past Ponytail’s looming form to see one of his companions drop to the ground suddenly.
“An arrow! I’ve been shot with a fucking arrow!” The man blubbered, voice high-pitched in terror. “What the fuck, Aaron?”
Ponytail, who it seemed was called Aaron, whirled around in surprise. Looking for the location of their attacker he moved away from me, beckoning the others to follow him.
The pitiful sounds of their companion blubbering over his bleeding leg - which did indeed have an arrow protruding from it - gave them pause. Ultimately, however, they seemed to decide that it was safer to deal with the treat in numbers.
They didn’t get far, though, before another arrow whizzed in their direction.
This one, however, landed just a few inches short of Ponytail’s foot. A warning.
“Get gone, assholes, I’m only gonna say it once.” My heart leapt in my chest - I couldn’t see his face, but I would know that gruff, southern twang anywhere. Daryl.
His harsh voice carried easily across the empty lot, making it hard for my attackers to pin the exact location. I felt a small measure of spiteful satisfaction, not so nice when it’s you being hunted, now, is it?
The two men on either side of Ponytail looked ready to bolt. They clearly hadn’t expected things to go down this way. They glanced nervously at Ponytail, who seemed to have no intention of going anywhere.
“Why don't you mind your own business?” He called out, scanning his surrounds. “The girl’s not going anywhere, Robin Hood, I’m not done with her.”
“Yeah, you are.” Another arrow shot out of the darkness, tagging Ponytail squarely in the shoulder. He groaned in pain and rage, gripping the arrow shaft. For a moment I thought he was going to yank it straight out, but he faltered at the last second, face setting into a dangerous expression.
“C’mon, Aaron, let’s just split, man.” One of the other men urged, looking fearful.
“This asshole has seen us, dumbass,” Ponytail hissed, “we need to take care of him. Same as the girl. Or do you want to spend twenty-to-life behind bars?”
Ah. So they had no intention of leaving any witnesses. My instincts had been right - these men had meant to kill me.
That wasn’t going to happen, though.
Emboldened by Daryl’s appearance on the scene. I struggled to sit upright, crawling towards the man who had been shot in the leg. He was still whimpering like a child, and actually flinched when he saw my approach.
Glaring acidly at my would-be assailant, I put my finger to my lips, before drawing it across my throat threateningly. He got the message loud and clear - shut up or else.
Rummaging around in his pockets, I found what I was looking for. A small switchblade. Flipping the knife open, I crawled away from the blubbering mess, casting a final glare in his direction as a warning.
I dimly registered that I must have been hurt pretty badly, because standing was out of the question. As I tried to crawl towards the three remaining men, my vision went a bit funny. It was like I was seeing in watercolour but also… sideways? Disoriented, I rubbed my eyes with my free hand.
Pull it together, Crawford.
The three men were edging towards the source of the shots. Towards Daryl.
Slowly, I made my advance, switchblade in hand.
“Come on out and fight me like a man, Robin Hood.” Ponytail taunted, calling out.
Bizarrely, Daryl obliged. He rushed out of the pitch, knocking one guy aside with his crossbow before bodily tackling Ponytail to the ground. Savagely, he laid into him, bringing his fists down with bone-shattering force.
I might have found it scary if I wasn’t so damn glad to see Ponytail spit out his teeth onto the gravel. Vainly, he tried to raise his hands to stop the onslaught of blows, but he was no match for Daryl.
I was closer now, close enough to see the remaining man edge forward - he was going to help his depraved friend.
Switchblade in hand, I lunged, plunging the knife into the unsuspecting man’s boot.
He howled in pain and kicked me away from him. His blow was nothing to Ponytail’s, but I was already in bad shape. I landed on my back and couldn’t find the strength to rise. My vision went funny again. “Oh, God,” I groaned.
I’d done my job, though. The other man’s cry of pain had alerted Daryl to his presence, and he seamlessly switched targets, pulling him back by the scruff of the neck before he could get any closer to me.
“Fucking hell, man, let’s just get out of here!” I identified the terrified voice of the man who had been shot in the leg. It seemed that his comrades agreed that this was a good idea because in a matter of moments they had split, dragging a beaten-to-a-pulp Ponytail along with them.
Daryl seemed to consider following them, but a small sound of pain from me drew his attention away from their retreating forms.
“Hey,” Daryl expression was murderous as he kneeled down next to my head, but he was evidently trying to keep his tone calm, “c’mon, just stay with me, sweetheart.”
In spite of everything, I felt a blush colour my cheeks at the term of endearment. I groaned, which Daryl must have mistaken for physical pain, as his expression turned to great concern.
“We gotta get you to hospital,” he said, trying to mask the urgency in his voice as he scanned the lot, “c’mon, my truck’s just there. I’ll help ya walk.”
It must be pretty bad. He looks worried.
For some reason, I broke out in giggles, which really fucking hurt.
“What’s wrong?” He looked alarmed by this strange reaction.
I chuckled dryly, wincing again as a nasty stabbing pain spread across my ribcage. “Oh, I just I think I’m dying.”
“No, ya ain’t, not on my watch.” He said, agitated, positioning his arm around my back and placing his hand just under my armpit. “I’m gonna lift ya up now.”
“I must be dying if you’re being so nice to me,” I concluded, allowing Daryl to pull me to my feet. I stepped forward unsteadily, but Daryl held me in place. We moved towards the ute at a reasonable pace.
“I ain’t nice to you usually?” Daryl asked lightly, I suspect in a bid to keep me conscious. There was something in his tone, though, which gave me pause.
I thought for a minute, watching my feet as they took slow, ungainly steps forward. It felt like they belonged to somebody else, but if that were the case I wouldn’t be aching all over. “Now that I think of it, you’re not a total ass to me.”
“Psh,” he made a contemptuous noise, “since when am I ever an ass?”
“There was that time with the dart board and the knife, that was a bit childish,” I said absently, taking to counting my footsteps. We were almost there. Just as well, I could feel my vision going again, and I felt a wave of sleepiness descending upon me. That couldn’t be good. “And c’mon, I’ve seen you get into stupid fights with half the town, you and Merle.”
“That ain’t got nothin’ to do with you,” he said, monitoring my face closely, “I ain’t ever got into a stupid fight with you, never thrown a knife to show you up. Always been nice to ya.”
I conceded with a nod, which was a bad idea, given that it sent shooting pains down my neck. I must be more banged up than I had thought. “I guess I didn’t mean to say that you were ever nasty to me, just that you weren't the type to sugar coat. I must look pretty awful if you’re being so kind.”
“You’ve looked better,” Daryl said, pulling open the passenger door and lifting me into the seat. “But we’re gonna get you to hospital and you’re going to be just fine. Ya hear? No more of this dyin’ bullshit.”
“That’s more like it,” I smiled, getting funny in the head again. “That’s the Dixon spirit I know and love.”
At these words, a funny expression crossed his face. He peered at me with narrowed eyes. “You’re losin’ it.”
“I think so,” I said weakly, feeling overwhelmed by exhaustion now that I’d settled into the car seat. “Maybe faster would be better, as far as the hospital’s concerned.”
“Won’t be twenty minutes,” Daryl assured me, jumping into the driver’s side and tearing out of the parking lot.
True to his word, Daryl got me to the hospital in record time. Once my Gran had been called and my condition had stabilised, however, he slipped away completely unnoticed. I wished that he hadn’t run off like that, his silent presence at the end of my hospital bed had made me feel a little safer. I couldn’t help but think that those men who attacked me were still out there. A shiver ran down my spine at the thought.
When Gran tore into my hospital room she had a thousand questions. I mostly just gave one or two-word answers and let the nurses deal with the fine detail.
Apparently, I had no less than three broken ribs, the worst of it being that one of my lungs had partially collapsed, which I guess explained why I had coughed up all that blood. They’d had to insert chest tubes pretty much as soon as I’d gotten into the hospital - apparently things were fixing to be a lot worse. It was a good thing Daryl was such a terrifying driver.
Beyond that, I had myself a grade two concussion and some pretty extensive bruising. The skin above my brow had split from where Ponytail had kicked me, and the black-and-purple pattern that spread across the skin of my stomach, ribs and arms was occasionally punctuated with an accent of red - a touch of broken skin.
Needless to say, Gran was beside herself. She was my sole guardian - a fact of which I was frequently reminded - and she just couldn’t bear to see her only grandchild hurt. Every member of staff was harassed with endless questions, insane demands for “properly fluffed” pillows were made, and the police were called. I needed to give a statement as soon as possible, Gran said. She was determined to see the men who attacked me tracked down.
I was hesitant to speak to the police. I knew I couldn’t do so without mentioning Daryl, and I couldn’t imagine that he was super keen on cops. Not with the life he led.
Still, I couldn’t see a way around it, not while Gran was running the show, anyway.
I asked if she could stay in the room while I gave my statement, mostly because I didn’t want to have to tell the story twice. I tried to ignore the lump in my throat as I muddled through the night’s events. I recounted Ponytail’s horrible words to me and managed a decent description of him, but I had hardly any idea what the other men had looked like. Everyone was surprised to hear Daryl’s part in things - he was known to the Burke County Police Department, and not for good reasons.
“Oh, thank goodness he was there,” Gran breathed as I shared the details of Daryl Dixon’s thrilling heroics. “Oh, chére, this is nothing less than a blessin’ - you’ve got yourself a guardian angel.”
That was the thing with Gran. She saw blessings and miracles everywhere. “God is in everything,” she’d say. “It’s plain to see, if only you’d look.” I wasn’t as religious as Gran, and so it was weird to think of anyone as my guardian angel, let alone Daryl.
I stayed in the hospital for a few days. It was only after this long that I reflected on the conversation Daryl and I had following the attack. When, after he’d single-handedly fought off four men and saved my life, I’d called him an ass.
Lying in my hospital bed I felt my cheeks flush in embarrassment. I’d have to make it up to him. Somehow.
Chapter 3: The Waitress
If there was one thing Daryl hated, it was a man without a code.
The Dixon brothers had spent most of their adult lives dealing drugs, starting fights, and getting lit every weekend. But even they had their limits. Neither Daryl nor Merle would ever beat on a woman, for one.
So when he’d seen that long-haired piece of living garbage terrorising the waitress, he’d pulled his crossbow out from the flatbed of his truck and rushed in without a second thought. It had felt good to shoot that guy in the leg, and even better to beat that ponytailed asshole into a pulp.
It was only after, once he’d seen the girl safely to the hospital, once he’d found his way back home to Merle, that he started to have misgivings about what he’d done. It’d be fine, he told himself. The girl would keep her mouth shut about it and nobody’d be the wiser, least of all Merle.
Then the cops had shown up. With questions.
Did you see the attack?
When did it happen?
What did the men look like?
What did you do to them?
Daryl was no fool. He wasn’t under arrest, and he didn’t need to talk to no police officer. He’d told them to go to hell, to come back with a warrant if they wanted to charge him with anything. That was when Merle had busted in, back from a hunt. He had the good sense not to fly off the handle with cops around, but that didn’t stop him from giving them an earful. Luckily Merle’s antagonism was more than enough to make the cops back off.
“Toldya, Reg, there’s no way this redneck trash saved Miss Crawford. Poor girl must’ve been seein’ things. It was dark, wannit?” One of the pigs - Officer Blake - had snidely remarked as they left. Daryl shot him a glare. He was glad enough that they were dropping it, but their questions had created an even bigger problem.
“Miss Crawford?” Merle drawled, eyes fixed on the cops as they hopped into their squad car and rolled out of the trailer park. “You got somethin’ you wanna tell me about the waitress, little brother?”
Daryl grabbed his hunting knife and sat down at the dining table, setting to work skinning the squirrels that Merle had brought back from his hunt. He knew he’d have to answer, Merle wouldn’t drop this. “The girl got herself into a spot of trouble, is all.”
“Doesn’t have nothin’ to do with you, now, does it?” Merle’s eyes narrowed as he took the seat opposite. “You better come clean, baby brother, or I’ll ring your damn bell, don’t think I won’t.”
Daryl snorted. “Sure you wouldn’t break a hip, old man? You’re gettin’ a bit past your bell-ringin’ days.”
Merle chuckled, leaning back in the chair and putting his arms behind his head. “Still more’n a match for you, baby brother. Now, tell Uncle Merle all about Miss Crawford.” He said her name with great distaste, lips forming a snarl.
There was no point avoiding it. Better to just fess up. “Some guys jumped her in the parking lot outside Odette’s. Four of ‘em, roughed her up pretty bad, were fixin’ to do a lot worse.” Daryl paused, unsure of how to summarise his part in things. “I made ‘em stop.”
“Why didn’tcha just call for help, dummy?” Merle asked, merely watching as Daryl pulled the entrails out of a particularly scrawny-looking squirrel. He never helped with this part.
Daryl had no answer for that. It honestly hadn’t occurred to him at the time. He’d just seen her, seen them, and before he knew it arrows were flying. So he shrugged.
Merle fixed him with a long, hard look. “Y’know, pops had a waitress for a while, there.”
Daryl didn’t like where this was heading. “I remember.”
“Piece of ass, used to take her out on benders. White trash bitch with acrylic nails and a nasty attitude, if I recall.”
“You got a point?” Daryl remembered the woman - Lucy - and her lurid nails vividly. She’d never liked Daryl much and made a point of calling him worthless whenever she had the chance. He remembered how his father had taken said waitress on one particular fifteen-day bender, how Daryl had ended up fending for himself in the woods during that time. He’d never told Merle that story. Or any of them, really. What did it matter? It was in the past, and Daryl didn’t like thinking about it.
“Only now it seems you’ve taken after our dear old pops, and gotten yourself a waitress too.” Merle drawled, an unpleasant smirk overtaking his features.
“Adele ain’t Lucy.” Daryl found himself saying. “And I just helped her out. Don’t mean we’re goin’ steady.”
“How come you was makin’ eyes at her then, when we was at Odette’s the other week?” Merle asked, expression unchanged by Daryl’s denial. “Oh yeah, Old Merle noticed that, don’t you worry.”
“What is this, question time?” Daryl spat, abandoning his efforts with the squirrel and burying his knife into the table. He felt bile rising in his mouth as he crossed the room, mostly just to put some distance in between him and Merle. It wasn’t unheard of for one of them to take a swing at the other. He clenched his fists. What did it matter to Merle if he’d been looking out for the Crawford girl? “I’d’ve done it for anyone. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with her.”
Merle whistled. “My brother, the knight in shining armour.”
“C’mon, now, tell me why you really did it. Tell me why you didn’t just call for help and let the good townspeople sort it out.”
Daryl hadn’t been lying when he said he would’ve done it for anyone, but if he was honest he wasn’t totally indifferent to the Crawford girl. She had that nice smile - her real smile, not that fake shit that she put on for work - those pretty eyes, and that nice, shiny hair.
He remembered the first time he’d seen her. Years ago, now. She’d just started working at Odette’s and Lee-Ann had brought her newborn son in to work. She’d stood there, holding Lee-Ann’s kid, smiling and chatting away to the little bundle like he could understand a damn thing. He remembered the kid making these happy gurgling noises - staring up at her glowing, happy face.
He remembered feeling uncomfortable, watching the softness of her expression. It almost felt perverse to him, wrong somehow to be intruding on such a moment. He didn’t understand how she could just let her feelings shine through like that, how she could be so fearlessly animated.
He had decided it then - she must be a damn fool. Some idiot piece of skirt who’d have to learn the hard way - you don’t get to just show people your feelings. Not like that.
Still, his eyes always found her somehow. She’d be filling a drinks order at the bar or carrying plates or chatting away with the kitchen staff. He could always tell exactly how she was feeling - that girl had the worst poker face he’d ever seen. She couldn’t lie, even if she tried. Daryl didn’t mind the idea of that - of somebody he could be sure was being honest with him.
He shook his head. He needed to snap out of this.
The waitress wasn’t an option.
“Jus’ didn’t think.” He answered Merle lamely.
Merle snorted, but thankfully - sensing Daryl’s unwillingness to speak further on the matter - dropped it. He gestured to the knife and half-skinned squirrel opposite him. “You gonna deal with these, then, or are we gonna be eatin’ at midnight?”
Relieved, Daryl set his attention to skinning their dinner. And one thing was for certain - he’d have to maintain his distance with the Crawford girl. Hell if he’d be caught wandering after her like a lost puppy dog.
Chapter 4: Dinner?
A few weeks had passed and Daryl hadn’t had a single run-in with the waitress. He was, of course, doing his level best to avoid her. The shift schedule at Odette’s ran like clockwork and for the most part, he had managed to keep away during her regular hours.
He’d seen her from afar a few times, noting with some relief that she looked more or less the same as she had before. A few bumps and bruises, maybe.
He had worried that she might seek him out, but really, Odette’s was all they had in common. She couldn’t find him even if she tried. They didn’t exactly have mutual friends.
And so Daryl hadn’t spared the Crawford girl a single thought when he went out hunting late one Thursday. He’d just grabbed his gear, slung his crossbow across his back and walked on out of the trailer park.
It was a typical Georgian afternoon - sun baking and cracking the ground, the slightest hint of a breeze in the air. Daryl didn’t mind this sort of weather, especially not when he kept to the more shaded, overgrown paths.
It hadn’t been long before he’d picked up the trail of a deer. He spent a couple of hours following its ambling path, enjoying the hike and space as much as anything. Sometimes, when he’d been cooped up with Merle for too long, he’d just take off for a few days. Pitch a tent in the woods and enjoy the silence a while.
So when the deer’s trail went cold, Daryl found he didn’t mind too much. The creature had been leading Daryl closer and closer to town, and had crossed a popular walking path - human bootprints littered the ground. He hadn’t been able to identify any hoofmarks amongst them.
Giving up on the prospect of venison, he sat against a tree and picked a stick from the ground. From his pocket, he pulled a small whittling knife and got to work forming an arrow out of the piece of wood. No use wasting a proper bolt when this would do the job just as well. He’d nab a few squirrels on his walk back, maybe.
That was when he saw her - walking straight up the path.
She hadn’t seen him yet, her head was down and she seemed preoccupied with something or other. The track wasn’t even terrain, and he noticed that she walked it a little unsteadily, eyes focused on the ground in front of her - it made her look a little like a baby deer, with her uncoordinated limbs and big doe eyes. Cute.
A warm feeling spread from his core at that thought. He frowned. This really had to stop.
He considered slipping away but baulked at how it would look if she saw him. Would he, Daryl Dixon, really run away from some damn waitress like a sissy? No, he thought, best stay put.
He bowed his head and determinedly focused on his whittling. Yes, he’d ignore her.
He could have predicted that she wouldn’t ignore him in kind.
“Daryl!” Her voice was full of surprise. Looking up, he saw her frozen in place. By her expression, he could tell that she felt ambushed - which pretty much summarised his feelings on the matter too.
Begrudgingly, he nodded. “Crawford.”
She didn’t seem sure of whether to approach him, torn between moving forward and staying in place - Daryl forced himself not to make eye contact. Maybe she’d take the hint and move along without bothering him.
“Um,” she shifted uncomfortably, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you, about what you did for me.”
Daryl shrugged, and kept his eyes on his work, flicking a stray wood shaving off his knee. “It was nothin’.”
The waitress stepped forward, apparently deciding that she did want to stay and chat. Now that she was closer he could see that her dark hair was all messy and flyaway, and some of it stuck to the nape of her neck in the Georgian heat. It must have been bothering her a little because she gathered it up in her hands and held it in a bundle behind her head. When she had her arms up like that he couldn’t help but notice the shape of her body - all soft and curved. His head jerked at the unwanted thought. Shut up.
“It wasn't nothing.” She said quietly.
Daryl shrugged again, whittling away at a stick with a level of focus that wasn’t particularly necessary. He could probably do this with his eyes closed.
Annoyingly, Daryl’s focus only drew the girl’s attention to his knuckles, which were scabbed over, bloodied from the fight.
She gasped softly. “Your hands.”
For a moment Daryl thought that the girl was going to reach out to touch them, but - thankfully - she seemed to stop herself at the last moment. The mental image of the waitress gingerly nursing his injured hands in her own was just a little too much for Daryl.
“I’m so sorry that you got hurt helping me.” She said with a frown.
“It’s nothin’,” Daryl insisted, bothered by all her sincerity and concern. “It’ll heal.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “You got hurt saving my life,” she repeated, “and I wasn’t even nice to you after. I called you an ass.”
That’s right. He had forgotten about that. “I spose you did.”
“I’m sorry. You’re not an ass.” She apologised, looking at him intently.
He didn’t know why, but it really pissed him off.
“Glad to hear it.” He shot back at him. “Been waitin’ weeks for you to come ‘round and tell me what I am.”
He saw a flash of surprise cross her face for a split second before she arched up, shooting him a withering look. “That’s not what I intended to say, as you know very well.”
It made him feel a little like a schoolboy being scolded when she spoke to him with that cool, formal tone.
“Now you’re tellin’ me what I know, too?” He shot back. “And why d’ya talk like that, huh? Little Miss Prim-and-Proper?”
She glared at him and crossed her arms. “I suppose I can’t expect you to understand etiquette.”
Maybe it was just her stance or the fact that she’d replied in that snobby tone, but Daryl couldn’t help but find the waitress a bit funny all of a sudden. He chuckled to himself. Maybe he could have some fun with this.
“Etiquette. Sounds like a disease.” He said with a wry smile. “Ya know you look real petulant standin’ there with your arms like that.”
“Petulant’s a big word for you.” She replied coolly, eyebrow raised. “You’re not worried you’re using it wrong?”
“Naw, I know what it means.” He said, carving away a shaving of wood. “It means you look like a damn five-year-old stompin' her feet because daddy didn't get her a pony.”
The waitress couldn’t hold back a huff of frustration at this, which only served to amuse Daryl further.
She dropped her cool and began to rant at him. “I thought that you were secretly this super nice guy, but you are impossible to be nice to. Don’t you ever just feel like being pleasant and polite for a change?”
He kept his gaze down, more or less ignoring her. “No.”
“A bit of small-talk wouldn’t kill you.” She continued as though she hadn't heard him. “‘Oh, hi Adele! How are you doing after that pesky little near-death experience? I’m good. Just doing the usual, playing with sticks and being mean to old people.’ Something like that every now and then wouldn’t hurt, you know!”
He raised an eyebrow. “... playin’ with sticks and bein’ mean to old people?”
“Yeah.” Her voice took on a steely edge. “You heard me.”
“That’s what you think I do all day?” He asked, a little miffed.
She shifted a little under his irate gaze. “Well, don’t you?”
He paused, deep in thought, and then smirked. “Sometimes.”
It seemed that the Crawford girl couldn’t help it, her mirth bubbled over and she broke into a fit of giggles. She was clearly caught off-guard by the fact that Daryl had made a joke, even a tiny one.
Daryl could scarcely believe it himself.
He couldn’t stop the ghost of a smile from appearing on his face. Momentarily tearing his eyes away from whittling, he glanced at the girl, gaze wandering over the butterfly clip above her brow, which was encircled by a nasty looking blue-black bruise. His half-smile faltered a little.
“You alright?” He asked, gesturing at the injury. “Looks like a shiner.”
“It’ll heal.” She mirrored his earlier statement, apparently bashful in light of his concern. “I’m really fine.”
“Good.” He said gruffly, returning to his whittling. He gave no indication that he wanted to talk further - maybe she would finally decide to buzz off.
“So…” She pressed, and Daryl audibly huffed at her insistent presence. “I really must insist that you allow me to say thank you, for saving my life like that.”
“Y’allready said thank you.” He said, a little exasperated and feeling completely stuck in this never-ending conversation.
“No, I need to do it properly.” She insisted.
He gave her a sceptical glance. “Somethin’ not proper about how you said it just now?”
“I want to make you dinner.” She burst, taking him entirely aback. Where the hell had that come from? “And really, I won’t take no for an answer. I wouldn’t even be alive right now if it wasn’t for you. That gets you a free meal, at the very least.”
There was something in her manner - determined and very annoying. He sensed that resistance was futile, and after a long pause (during which he desperately racked his brain for a non-hostile way to get out of this dinner) he simply shrugged defeatedly and said; “Fine.”
She seemed a little taken aback by his agreement, but pleased all the same. “Wonderful. How’s tomorrow night?”
“Around nightfall? My place?” She peppered him with questions, and Daryl couldn’t help but feel his frustration mounting again. Would this girl ever leave him alone?
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
The girl was definitely a chatterbox. It was like she couldn’t help herself, as she started running through her plans for dinner. “You’re not intolerant to anything right? Oh, I’ll just make everything - a great big Sunday roast. Chicken, potatoes, biscuits and gravy, pie, sweet tea… If it walked, flew or swam on this earth it’ll be on that dinner table, I swear it.”
God, enough. Daryl ceased whittling abruptly and stood up, suddenly very much in her personal space. She stopped speaking in mid-sentence, completely taken aback.
His face was inches from hers. He couldn’t help but enjoy the pretty brown colour close up, even though she was annoying as heck.
“That sounds just fine.” He said with finality, trying as hard as he could to speak gently. It was well past time he got the hell out of here, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to snap at the girl after her offer to cook him a meal. He paused, and added; “Thank you, Miss Crawford.”
The girl’s cheeks reddened, and looked down as she spoke quietly; “Well, you are very welcome.”
Satisfied that he’d successfully silenced the Crawford girl, Daryl took his leave. As he did, he couldn’t help but feel mad that he had to force himself not to look back at her one last time. Dinner. He was going to dinner.
What the hell was this girl doing to him?
Chapter 5: Dinner!
The following night I was true to my word; if it swam, walked or flew on this earth I was cooking it for dinner.
Gran walked into the kitchen and settled down into a dining chair. “My word, chére. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much food for two people in my whole life. You sure you’re not trying to kill the boy?”
“I don’t know what he likes!” I huffed, stirring a pot of sauce nervously. Lifting the ladle I handed it to Gran. “Does it need more salt, do you think?”
She smacked her lips. “No, it’s perfect. I just don’t know why you’re making it to begin with.”
“It’s for the rack of lamb.” I explained. “I think it’ll need it too - I just have a feeling it's a little dry.”
“Honey, aren’t you already roasting a chicken in the oven?” Gran inquired.
“And a whole fish.”
“Oh my.” Gran sighed. “Honey, can I get you to sit down for a minute?”
“I don’t know that I have time-”
“Just for a second.”
Sensing that it was not really a request, I sank into the chair opposite her. “Okay.”
“Honey,” Gran seemed to be choosing her words carefully, “why exactly are you cookin’ up the entire county for this boy?”
“This is his ‘thank you’ dinner!” I burst. “It’s the only thing I get to do for him after he saved my life. I can’t just cook a steak and call it a day. It has to be special.”
Gran nodded in understanding, eyes twinkling. “Are you sure that’s the only reason you’re cooped up in here cooking for twenty?”
My throat tightened under Gran’s steady gaze. “What other reason would there be?” I asked in a small voice.
“You know,” Gran said wistfully, resting her chin on her palms, “the first your grandfather came to call on me, I spent all day cookin’ and decoratin’. There were flowers and candles everywhere, and the whole house smelled of cherry cobbler.”
“Well, as you can see there are absolutely no candles or flowers here.” I said, picking up on her insinuation. I rose from the table. “And I’ve made pie, not cobbler.”
“You spent an awful lot of time getting ready this evenin’.” Gran said lightly. “I can’t remember the last time you did your hair like that.”
I blushed at this, and the words started to tumble out. “Every time I see him I look terrible. I just wouldn’t mind looking like a real girl in front of him, for once.”
It was true. The last few times I’d seen him I’d either been beaten to a pulp, grossly sweaty or just disheveled as a result of my poor time management.
Gran patted my hand reassuringly. “You certainly look like a real girl. Pretty as a picture, chére. No doubt the prettiest girl he’s ever come to call on.”
From this comment I gathered that Gran was not oblivious to Daryl’s reputation. I wondered why she wasn’t more concerned at her granddaughter inviting, well, white trash, into the house. But if anything, she seemed excited.
I considered my own feelings for a moment. I couldn’t deny that I was drawn to the man. Attracted? Yes, I concluded quickly. Fiercely attracted. Not that he didn’t freak me out and make me mad, too. His manners left lot to be desired.
Some years ago, when I was about twenty, I decided I wasn’t going to date any of the guys I knew in town. They were all the same, I thought, and life with any one of them would have lead me down the same, narrow road. A small world spent inside the home, taking care of babies and arguing about what to watch on TV every night. I remembered thinking that I wanted more. Aside from that, I never got along with any of the local boys anyway. They found me a little peculiar.
And I supposed I was. Equal measures hot-tempered and anxious, I struggled to behave in a consistent, coherent manner. At least, to me it felt consistent, but I was pretty sure that nobody else got that. I remember Lee-Ann once called me a serious girl, and I guess that rang true too.
It had been so long since I’d so much as had a crush on a boy, I had little sense of what to do about Daryl Dixon. He certainly didn’t come without his complications.
I was roused from my reverie by a knock on the door.
Daryl was here.
Gran regarded me steadily. “Breathe, chére.”
I nodded and swallowed the bile in my mouth, instinctively my hand went to my hair. What was I, primping now? For Daryl Dixon? God, what a mess.
It’s just dinner. I tried to remind myself.
And it was all your idea. I thought nervously. You strong-armed him into it, pretty much. He’s probably already regretting coming.
I rushed into the hall, stubbing my toe on the corner of an end table in the process. “For fuck’s sake-” I hissed, hobbling awkwardly for the door.
Breathing deep, I gathered myself. My toe still throbbed painfully, but I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Setting a smile on my face, I pulled open the door.
I don’t know if I had expected Daryl to look any different to usual. He had perhaps showered, but his clothes were the same as ever. A military green shirt which he’d ripped the sleeves off, rough-spun, outdoorsy pants and hard-wearing boots. I noted, with some relief, that he had at least left the crossbow at home.
I must have been staring wordlessly a moment too long for comfort, because for once it was Daryl who broke the silence. “Hey.”
I snapped out of my reverie. “Hi!”
“Dunno if I was supposed to bring somethin’.” He said. He looked like almost boyish; standing on my front porch, not entirely sure what to do with his hands. “Didn’t, though.”
“Oh, we’ve got plenty already, don’t you worry.” I said, stepping aside to let him in. He passed me warily, slowly taking in his surrounds. As if he’d never been in a house before.
It was curious. I wanted to ask him a million questions but I was pretty sure he’d ignore them all. Or worse, flip his lid. He certainly wasn’t the sharing type.
“Kitchen’s through this way.” I said, pointing. “Can I get you a drink?”
He shrugged noncommittally.
Daryl obviously hadn’t expected to find Gran in the house, because when he entered the kitchen to find her sitting at the dining table he did the slightest double take. His recovery was so quick that if I hadn’t been watching him so closely I wouldn’t have noticed.
I lingered in the doorway and watched, shifting my weight off my left foot, which still throbbed painfully where I’d knocked it. Figures - my injuries from the attack had just healed and I’d already found some other stupid way to maim myself.
“Mrs Crawford,” Daryl nodded in Gran’s direction, seemingly unable to find anything else to say.
“Oh honey, please, Claudette is just fine.” Gran waved a dismissive hand, smiling good-naturedly. “After what you did for my granddaughter, I think we can safely say that we’re on first-name terms.”
She rose from her chair and wrapped her arms tightly around Daryl. This action clearly took him unawares, as he sort of just stood there stiffly and endured it. Unfazed, Gran patted his shoulder and settled herself back into her chair.
She motioned for Daryl to sit opposite her. “Please, we don’t stand on ceremony here.”
Daryl regarded the chair warily, but, perhaps sensing that he had limited options, sat down as requested. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Chére, why on earth are you doing hanging in the doorframe like a wet sheet?” Gran demanded, abruptly shifting her attention to me. “Daryl doesn’t even have a drink! Haven’t you offered him one?”
“Gran, I did ask. He wasn’t thirsty.” I replied, returning to the stove to tend to the food simmering away there.
“What kind of hospitality is this? Where a gentleman so kindly calls on us and is offered no refreshment?” Gran exclaimed, carrying on as if I had not spoken.
I shot Daryl an exasperated look. The corner of his mouth curled upward slightly.
“Wouldn’t mind a beer, ma’am.” He said to Gran, eyes never leaving me as he smirked slightly.
Gran smiled dotingly at Daryl, before rounding on me. “Well you heard the man, chére! Daryl want’s a beer.”
I shot him a look. Exasperating as it was, I couldn’t help that my cheeks coloured a little. As I grabbed a beer from the fridge I felt my own face breaking into a rueful smile.
I placed the beer down and carried on cooking. Daryl took a sip, I suspect because he didn’t know what else to do. He nodded to me in thanks.
Meanwhile, Gran regarded him with great interest.
“Now,” she said, “”Daryl, dear, you must tell me everything there is to know about you.”
Hah! Now it was Daryl’s turn to suffer.
“Ain’t nothing to tell, ma’am.” Daryl stonewalled.
“Nonsense.” Gran was unrelenting once she got going, and she’d been itching to get a proper look at Daryl ever since he’d saved me. “I want to know how a person gets to be so brave and selfless that they’d help someone in face of such terrible odds. My Adele told me all about it - it seems a miracle you weren’t both killed.”
Daryl’s eyes flickered to me. “It was nothin’.”
“But those terrible men-”
“Dealt with worse.” Daryl said shortly. “Seen bigger and tougher and meaner.”
Gran barrelled on, seamlessly changing tact in an effort to elicit a response from the taciturn Dixon. “I can’t tell you how worried I’ve been, did you know Adele still walks to work? After what happened?”
And indeed, it seemed she was on the money.
Daryl rounded on me. “You serious?”
“My car’s in the shop.” I replied, pulling a tray of baked potatoes from the oven. “I don’t exactly have a choice, y’know. Huck’s looking for any reason to fire me - I can hardly roll up and say I’m not coming in to work till my ride’s fixed.”
“Ain’t safe.” Daryl said. I was struck by the sensation that nobody was even slightly listening to a thing I said tonight. “Damn, girl. You just got outta hospital. Gotta deathwish or somethin’?”
“Would you have me teleport to work?” I quipped, straining a pot of green beans. “Cause really, I don’t see how else I’m supposed to get there.”
He snorted. “Hell, I’ll drive you.”
I froze - the colander full of beans dripping water onto the floor as I held it. I looked over at him, mouth agape. “Huh?”
He raised my brow at my expression - which must have looked pretty stupid. “I’ll drop you there. I’ll pick you up.” It was like he was explaining the concept to a two-year old, as if the logistics were the issue here.
“That’s a lot of trouble to go to - you can’t be serious.” I said, flustered.
“Went to all the trouble of savin’ your ass. Seems like a bit of a waste if you wind up dead in a ditch somewhere anyway.” He said, like it was no big deal.
“I work six days a week!” I argued. “That’s twice a day, every day, except Mondays.”
“Fine by me.” He said, unmoved by my arguments. “It’s not like I’ve got a nine-to-five or nothin’.”
Gran looked a little too smug. It seems she had known that mentioning my current transportation issues would provoke a reaction from our stoic houseguest.
Gran cut me off. “Now, chére, why don’t you thank the gentleman for his kind offer? It sounds a perfect solution to me.”
Sensing that he had won, Daryl leant back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, watching to see what I’d do next.
I definitely wasn’t imagining it this time - he was smirking at me. He inched his head in such a way that suggested he was ready to hear my words of heartfelt gratitude. A super irritating, non-verbal, ‘feel free to start praising me anytime now’, if you will.
Again, I felt this mingling of annoyance and exhilaration. Was this flirting?
I looked to Gran, who looked back expectantly. There was no way she was letting me walk to work now that another viable option had presented itself. I sighed, resigning myself to the new arrangement. After all, it wasn’t without its perks.
“You’re very kind,” I said, looking him in the eye. “I’d be pleased to accept your offer. Thank you.”
He averted his gaze, and gruffly replied; “No problem.”
Silence fell for a moment as I delivered dish after dish of soul-nourishing, artery-hardening food to the table.
After bustling around all afternoon, it was strange to sit still. I felt a flash of anxiety as I sat across from Daryl, literally no idea what to say to him. It seemed that this was a feeling we shared, because Daryl continued to avoid my gaze, focusing instead on loading his plate.
“Do you have a favourite dish, Daryl?” Gran asked, undeterred by or perhaps just unaware of the obvious awkwardness.
Daryl shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
“Really? Not a single favourite?” She pressed.
“I just eat what I hunt.” Daryl shrugged. “This is real nice, though.” He added, briefly glancing at me.
I smiled a little bashfully. “Thank you.”
Maybe it was a good thing Gran was around, given that I’d hardly managed three words on my own. Certainly her berating me seemed to entertain Daryl, a definite perk considering I didn’t really have the first clue how to act around him.
Shame she wouldn’t be carpooling with us - I’d have to figure out how to handle that one on my own, somehow.
“You weren’t kiddin’ about servin’ everything that ever lived.” Daryl continued, stabbing a piece of chicken with his fork. “I’m surprised there’s a scrap of food left in the county after you cooked all this up.”
I flushed with embarrassment. “Maybe I went a little overboard.” I said lightly, trying to retain some dignity.
He snorted. “Bet this ain’t even it, either. You got dessert squirreled away somewhere?”
“Pie.” I replied coolly. “But by all means, feel free to pass on dessert.”
“C’mon, I’m just teasin’.” Daryl said, stabbing a potato with his fork. It must be said that his table manners left much to be desired. “I’ll have the damn dessert.”
“You’re too kind.” I replied, shooting him a withering look.
He shrugged, unaffected. “There’s worse things than a full belly.”
“Quite right.” Gran said. “I remember when I was a girl, I ate whatever was put in front of me and I was grateful for it. No complainin’.”
Dinner continued in this fashion - with Gran running a steady commentary on whatever spring to mind, and the occasional interjection from Daryl or myself. Well, mostly me, but Daryl would sometimes nod or string up to three words together in response to a direct question.
I was surprised with how quickly the time had flown by - dinner, dessert, coffee, it all seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
And then my Gran had retired for the night - hobbling upstairs having pecked Daryl on the cheek (I had resisted the urge to laugh at his deeply uncomfortable expression) and bid him a good night. Daryl had said he should get going too - it was a little past 11.
And so we had found ourselves alone, out on the front porch.
Daryl had his hands in his pockets. I stood a couple feet away from him, nervously fiddling with the hem of my dress as I stood there - words had deserted me.
“Well, thanks for dinner.” Daryl said in his low, drawling voice. “It was real nice.”
I blushed. “You’re welcome. Anytime.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Anytime?”
I didn’t think I could get any redder if I were a tomato. “Uhm… Sure, I mean, I’d be delighted to cook for you again, if you, er, wished.”
Daryl surveyed me closely, and there was a long silence during which I felt like I had lost the ability to breathe.
“When d’you work next?” He finally asked.
“Oh, um,” I tried to recall my schedule for the coming week, “the day after tomorrow, I’m doing the lunch shift. Noon start.”
Daryl nodded. “I’ll pick you up half-an-hour before, then. It’s no more than a ten-minute drive.”
“Okay.” I said breathily. “Sounds great. See you then.”
Daryl stared at me for a long time, and then, without a word, he wandered into the darkness of night, leaving me standing alone on the porch.
My cheeks were flushed and my heart was racing. How on earth am I going to manage being alone with that boy six days a week?
Under my breath, I cursed my Grandma. What was she thinking, pushing us together like that?
I sat on the shaded porch steps of my Gran's house, listening to the sound of bugs chirping in the noon-day heat. It wasn't too overbearing; the sun shone in full force like always, but today it was tempered by a refreshing southerly breeze.
I sighed as the wind kissed my skin, cooling me. For a moment I almost forgot to be anxious.Almost.
And believe me, I was anxious. It was nearing midday, and I was due to start work - he was coming to get me.
Any moment now.
I half-expected that Daryl wouldn't show. He couldn't have been serious, offering to drive me to work every day. No matter how many times I went over it in my head, there seemed to be no good reason for the younger Dixon to follow through on his promise.
He won't come, and I'll be late, and I'll get fired. I thought darkly.
An independent observer might have noticed that I had made a very special effort to get ready for work, considering that I was apparently unconvinced that my ride was even going to show. I'd washed my hair (wildly novel, I know), shaved my legs, pinched my cheeks to make them rosy… hell, I'd even painted my nails. I couldn't remember the last time I'd done that (not since middle-school, if the dusty, sorry state of my solitary jar of purple nail-polish was any indication).
Speaking of which, I'd done a rubbish job of painting my usually grubby digits. Purple polish splattered all over the skin of my fingertips. I tried vainly to scratch the offending splodges away, but ultimately relented. It was futile. I'd have to accept my weird, purple nails for what they were - a physical manifestation of my peculiar, embarrassing need to impress a man best known for squirrel-hunting and the art of the monotonic response.
What is the space between a mess and a nightmare? I asked myself.
My feelings for Daryl Dixon. Came my own reply.
Cringingly inwardly at my own hands, I stood and started pacing. Maybe I should just walk.
Give him time. Another part of me argued.
Sighing, I leaned against the wooden bannister of the front porch.
Now, this bannister was old. Hella old, apparently, because as I bore my weight against it I heard an almighty groan and snap - my stomach swooped - and suddenly I was falling headfirst into the box hedge below.
I shrieked, flailing wildly as I was scratched by what felt like a hundred sharp twigs and sticks.
My humiliation was complete. The hedge was so dense, so well-maintained by my green-thumbed grandmother, that I was firmly stuck in the mire of its tightly-packed branches.
Struggling to get up, I groaned. There was no graceful way to do this, I was pretty much going to just have to shimmy my way out of the hedge, and flop onto the ground like a sack of potatoes.
A sack of sad, sad potatoes, with really bad hair. I thought mournfully. If Daryl sees me like this…
A low chuckle reached my ears.
Twisting my head around, I groaned. There he was - as if summoned by my own sense of dread, standing at the foot of the front steps. He smirked at me, oh, how he smirked. I felt my face go red and I tried to splutter out some sort of explanation.
"I was just-"
"Fallin' into a bush for no damn reason?" Daryl chuckled, finishing my sentence for me. He stepped forward and grabbed my forearm. In one fluid movement, he unceremoniously wrenched me from the hedge; I yelped and stumbled forward, displaced momentum sending me crashing into Daryl's chest.
I felt disoriented and slightly whiplashed from this abrupt, rougher-than-necessary rescue.
Daryl pushed me off of him (another small part of my negligible pride withered and died) and held on to both my shoulders firmly, peering at my face. "Ya can't seem to go ten minutes without gettin' yourself in some sort of jam, huh?"
I blushed, if possible, even brighter. I wanted to retort, but my words were stolen by a hiss of pain which came from my own mouth - Daryl's fingers had grazed a cut. I must have scuffed myself up pretty badly on the hedge branches.
His keen eyes roamed over me with laser-like focus. I could see now that my arms and legs were covered in scratches and dirt. Any effort that I had expended to improve my appearance had been utterly wasted.
Daryl, by contrast, wore the grime and grit of the outside world well. It was like his second skin - enhancing, rather than detracting from his callous features. At this close proximity I noticed - perhaps for the first time - that Daryl's eyes were grey-green.
A splintered piece of porch fell noisily to the ground, clattering at my feet.
I winced and balked inwardly at the thought that the sheer weight of me had broken a porch rail, one which I was pretty sure had survived no less than five sitting presidents. Feeling fat, and extremely sorry for myself, I avoided Daryl's gaze.
Perhaps if I go stand in that puddle of mud over by the treeline, I'll just sink right down - on account of my extreme heaviness and all. I certainly wouldn't mind the earth swallowing me up right about now.
It was a comforting thought.
Wordlessly, Daryl plucked a twig from my hair. I shivered as I felt his fingertips brush against my scalp, however briefly. "Y'all right?"
Still too mortified to speak, I nodded.
"That porch rail's rotten through." He continued in a matter-of-fact way. "Noticed last time I was here."
Now he tells me, I thought resentfully. Some of my chagrin must have shown on my face because Daryl narrowed his eyes at me.
"Cat gotcha tongue or somethin?" He asked gruffly, not waiting for me to respond as he turned away and started back towards his truck. I stared after him, and, after briefly considering my other options, followed in his wake.
"Thanks for that." I said shakily, gesturing to the hedge and the rail.
He shrugged like he always did - dismissive. "You good to go to work?"
I looked down at myself again - covered in cuts and dirt, clothes dishevelled and hair unkempt. My stomach dropped. There was no time to change. If we didn't get going now, I'd be late for work. But, if I didn't clean up first, I'd get yelled at for showing up looking like 'some kind of slattern', which was Huck's new way of insulting underperforming waitstaff (well, just me, really).
Panicked and torn, I once again failed to reply to the younger Dixon. He must have guessed the contents of my desperate internal dialogue, because he turned without a word to the flatbed of his truck and started rummaging around.
After a moment he seemed to locate what he was looking for. He pulled free a towel, a first-aid kit and a bottle of water. He tossed them to me unceremoniously. "Here." He said. "Use that to clean yourself up on the way."
I felt the tightness in my chest ease a bit. I could probably make myself presentable enough with these…
I hopped in the pickup and made use of the supplies I had been given as Daryl drove in the direction of Odette's. Most of the dirt was easily wiped away, though one or two spots stubbornly marked the fabric of my white tee.
Who chooses white as a uniform colour? I thought critically. Huck, that's who. That mean old ginger who slightly hates me.
I dabbed some of the bigger cuts which patterned my legs with antiseptic liquid and smoothed half-a-dozen bandaids over the ones that insisted on bleeding. I looked a bit like a kid who had been playing rough in the schoolyard, but at least a bandaid was less unsightly than an oozing gash.
Anxiously I combed my fingers through my hair, checking my reflection in the passenger-side mirror.
"Quit primpin', already." Daryl said, shooting me a contemptuous glance. "You look fine."
I took a deep breath. "If you say so."
He snorted. "Girls…" He muttered, mostly to himself.
I shot him a look, and replied haughtily. "I'm expected to be a professional at work, you know. I need to look presentable."
"Professional..." Daryl scoffed. "You're a damn waitress. I figure you'll pour beer and carry plates just fine, no matter how stupid your damn hairstyle is."
I flushed angrily, feeling belittled. It wasn't much of a job, I knew, but I was proud of myself for working for a living. Especially in a place like Burke County. Where did he, Daryl Dixon, an unemployed criminal, get off looking down on me?
I oughta give him a piece of my mind. I thought angrily.
But then I considered the long, dark road that led home. If I got into a fight with Daryl, I'd almost certainly be walking it tonight.
A shiver went down my spine - appearances of confidence aside, I was still very shaken after my ordeal in the parking lot.
I hadn't been sleeping well since the attack. Every night the faces of those horrible men swam before my eyes, mouths contorted in cruel smirks. I saw Ponytail, and felt the phantom twinge of his vicious blows in my side. Some of those bruises still hadn't healed - they bloomed like mottled yellow flowers on my skin, a disgusting, mustard tie-dye.
I was glad that those ones were covered by my uniform, and that the blows that had landed on my arms and legs had healed already. Now I just had the scratches from my most recent altercation with my grandmother's foliage to deal with.
I was in no fit state to get myself home after dark, I knew. I'd end up having a panic attack on the side of the road. The week I'd been without my car had thankfully been a straight run of day-shifts, and walking home with the sun still high overhead wasn't so scary. Now, however, I had a slate of evenings, and all of my travelling would have to be done in darkness.
I needed Daryl to drive me, though it pained me greatly to admit it. So, I bit back the retort that had sprung to mind and resolved to accept his incivility for what it was - he was an ill-mannered, ill-bred redneck, and he didn't know any better. I would rise above it, if only for the fact that he was my ride home. It had nothing - nothing - to do with the fact that I found him a bit handsome.
My expression was one of pained resignation. Daryl glanced at me when I didn't chastise him, as I suppose he expected I would.
"You're bein' real quiet." He commented for the second time that day.
"Didn't think you liked my talking much." I replied grumpily. So much for rising above it...
Daryl shrugged. "Never said that."
My eyebrows shot up and I looked at him in bewilderment. He glanced at me, and, noticing my expression, smirked.
"You ain't you without all the jibber-jabber." He said by way of explanation.
"Jibber-jabber?" I repeated incredulously. "I do not-"
"Sure you do. Always talking my ear off about somethin'."
I huffed, but was unable to argue against this without, well, jibber-jabbering. So I resolved to retreat into a stony, sulky silence.
Daryl did not breach this reverie of mine, and allowed the ride to pass in uneventful quiet. When we pulled up outside Odette's, however, he turned to me.
"When's your shift finish?"
"Ten." I replied, almost not daring to be hopeful.
"I'll see ya then."
I nodded and pushed the car door open, turning to slide out. Before I could, however, he lunged forward and grabbed my arm. I froze and felt every muscle in my body tense. It was all that I could do to stop my arm instinctively jerking away or hitting him in my alarm. I had been skittish of late, for obvious reasons.
Daryl must have realised that this action had been a little abrupt, because his grip immediately relaxed. I felt some of the tension leave my own body, too. It's just Daryl. I reminded myself. Just Daryl.
"Wait in the bar." He instructed me seriously, not letting go of my arm as he fixed me with an intent, serious look. "Don't go outside. I'll come in and get you."
I nodded, and, not really being able to help myself, smiled bashfully. His concern, though alarmingly presented, was very flattering. I couldn't remember a man ever going to such lengths to keep me safe. Even my own father had failed in that regard - though only because he had died when I was very young.
Daryl unwillingly let go of my arm, eyes remaining on me as I hopped out of the car and walked towards Odette's.
It was not until the door swung shut behind me and I was safely ensconced inside that I heard the rumble of an engine restarting, and glanced the pickup tearing out of the parking lot.
We had settled into a predictable routine — Daryl and I.
He’d pick me up and drive me to work, I would thank him, and he’d tell me that he’d return when my shift ended. He’d warn me to wait inside for him.
Every time, he’d warn me.
Beyond that, we didn’t talk much. Daryl seemed content to drive in silence and whenever I summoned the courage to break it with a question he seemed to tense, like a coil being wound to the point of snapping.
Mostly I just stared out the window, the familiar trees and brush whipping by as the ute kicked up dirt.
It was a regular Tuesday, the day that things started to go Very Badly Wrong.
I left Daryl’s ute, waving off the usual warnings and promising for the umpteenth time to stay inside until he got there after work. I had walked into Odette’s, grabbing my pad and plucking my pen from behind my ear, just like always.
Then Lee Ann had screamed.
I jumped and dropped my pen, whirling about to locate the source of the commotion.
Lee Ann was running towards me, full pelt, and my mind went blank as to what to do about it.
I froze in place. My eyes were wide, my guts were ice. My brain had short-circuited, opting out of the bizarre situation entirely.
Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. It unhelpfully supplied before going offline.
Lee Ann flung her arms around me and squeezed me as though she were a boa constrictor. All air left me.
“OH CHERÉ , YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT, I’M ENGAGED!”
I heaved and struggled against her vice grip, but felt a wave of relief nonetheless. Oh, thank Christ .
Slowly, my brain booted up again.
Thanks for nothing. I admonished it.
“I thought there’d been a murder!” I protested weakly when Lee Ann finally broke away. She laughed and gave me an affectionate squeeze of the shoulder. Feeling was slowly returning to my limbs.
I beamed. Lee Ann had been with Jacob for years now; he was the father of Lee Ann’s adorable baby boy and worked as a mechanic one parish over -- he’d fixed a flat for me once, free of charge. He was a nice guy. She was a nice lady.
Lee Ann and Jacob were perfectly matched.
“He’s finally makin’ an honest woman outta me!” Lee Ann’s face was bright with excitement, her already happy eyes sparkling and welling up with joyful tears.
God, if this is how she acts when she’s telling me about the engagement I can’t imagine her on an actual day. She’ll be a sobbing wreck.
The thought made me grin. That’d be a sight.
I wonder what Daryl would make of it?
I pushed the intrusive thought aside (I had no business wondering about what Daryl Dixon thought about any wedding) and gushed my congratulations to the bride-to-be.
“We’re celebratin’ with tequila!” Lee Ann continued, as I groaned. “After work. Sawyer, Jo Lynne and Billie are comin’ by and you’d better be ready to dance, sugar!”
I protested. Weakly, vainly, I protested. But it was no use.
Lee Ann was getting married, and that meant that everybody was having tequila.
Huck granted me an early mark on account of Lee Ann’s badgering — “the rest of the girls are already here, Huck, let the poor girl finish so we can start drinking , already!” She was possibly the only person in the world capable of such a feat.
So there I was, ten minutes before my official finishing time, downing not my first — oh, no, certainly not my first — but my third shot of tequila. And as I am the type of individual who gets tipsy off a mere half-glass of wine, things were not going well.
I recoiled as some of the tequila missed my mouth and dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. The girls howled with laughter as I roughly used my jacket sleeve to wipe my mouth clean, blushing furiously but too drunk to really say anything.
“Bless your soul, sugar,” Billie purred. She was all big blond hair like Farrah Fawcett and leopard-print everything , with an attitude to match. I quite liked Billie, though. She was no-nonsense, and a whole lot smarter than she looked.
“Shut up.” I replied weakly. “I can’t claim your years of experience where tequila’s concerned.”
Billie let out a great hooting laugh and slapped my shoulder. “Did you just call me an old drunk ?”
I huffed a small laugh. “What can I say? The truth hurts. But they say admitting it is the first step to recovery.”
“Didn’t realise you had an ounce of sass in you, Crawford.” Billie’s eyes were bright with mirth; this was all banter to her. “I was mistaken.”
“Well, now you know.” I grinned. “Add it to your mental catalogue. Adele Crawford - a terrible waitress, dirt poor, and occasionally sassy.”
Billie laughed. “Lee Ann, where’d you find this girl? She’s a treasure.”
“Isn’t she?” Lee Ann said warmly, turning her attention away from the conversation she’d been having with her sister, Jo Lynne, and her best friend, Sawyer. “She says the darndest things, you know. Workin’ with her is a real riot, I swear I will never understand the things she comes out with. Waynesboro’s own little genius.”
I blushed. “Aw, shucks guys.”
“Bless your heart. You absolutely need more tequila.” Billie said, snapping her fingers at Huck, who obligingly poured another couple of shots.
One day I would ask what manner of witchcraft Lee Ann had performed to make Huck her bitch. He hadn’t complained about their raucous drinking once, not even when Sawyer had gotten up on a table to demonstrate that she still had her ‘irresistible moves’ on a dare.
I could barely splutter a protest before Billie was pushing the shot glass towards me and throwing her own back like a seasoned champion. She all but pushed the thing into my mouth trying to get me to follow her lead.
“Alright, alright!” Grimacing, I threw the shot back. It burnt and I couldn’t help but wince at the taste, but at least this time I didn’t wear it.
A gruff, low voice carried from behind my shoulder. “Drinkin’ on the job, now?”
I spun around to see Daryl, leaning against the pillar by the door. His green-grey eyes were set on me so intensely that I didn’t think I could move if I tried. I merely gazed wordlessly at the mismatch of cool grey and warm brown-green intermingling around the pitiless black centre of his pupils.
Christ, they were beautiful. Even when they weren’t fixed on me in careful watchfulness, they were beautiful.
“Hey.” I said dumbly, swaying slightly on the barstool. Next to me, Billie giggled.
He fixed me with a look of mild reproach. “You’re drunk.”
Seeing no point in denying it, I nodded, but that only served to make my head spin nauseatingly.
“Lee Ann got engaged.” I said by way of explanation, waving a hand in the direction of the redhead, who was now by the jukebox selecting songs. “So… tequila.”
This at least seemed to make sense to Daryl. He snorted and said underbreath; “Figures…”
I paused for a moment, trying vainly to make sense of the situation. Daryl was here for some reason, some important reason… “Oh!”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“You’re here to pick me up!” I exclaimed in realisation, the memory of our arrangement flooding back to me.
He huffed impatiently. “Well, I ain’t here for the damn décor .”
I giggled. He stared at me with a slightly befuddled expression.
“That was funny.” I said, grinning. “You’re funny .”
“You’re drunk .” He repeated, eyes widening slightly.
“So you keep saying.”
Next to me, Billie chucked as she looked between us. I wondered idly what was so funny to her about the situation. I cast her a questioning glance and she merely shook her head, smirking. She called for another drink and turned away, leaving me effectively alone in conversation with Daryl.
He huffed again, eyeing me thoughtfully. “You’re gonna need a ride home.”
It wasn’t really a question, but I answered anyway. “I guess so.”
He nodded, and cast an assessing glance at my drinking companions. “There ain’t no way in hell I’m dealing with that .”
That seemed a fair and reasonable position. I nodded. “I’ll figure it out, maybe Lee Ann’s husband-to-be can drop me off. You don’t have to worry about me.”
His response was defensive and immediate. “I don’t worry about you.”
“You so do.” I grinned, and some shadowy, reasonable slither of my mind dimly registered that this type of talk, more than anything else, was the true signal that I was far too drunk. I was flirting, actually properly flirting .
The rest of my brain was happy enough to barrel over that cliff, however. It let my mouth keep talking.
“You worry about me,” I pressed, still grinning like an idiot. Daryl shifted uncomfortably and fixed me with a glare, though there was not much heat in it. “You look out for me. You’re a proper gentleman and sometimes I even get the feeling that you don’t entirely dislike me.”
Daryl scoffed and shook his head, though I could see the faintest trace of redness in his cheeks. “Stop.”
I pouted and fumbled slightly as I tried to rest my chin on my palm. “ Why? ”
It was more of a petulant whine than I had hoped for, and by the way that Daryl drew a deep, frustrated breath, he had also noted this. “D’you even know how many ya had?”
I shook my head. “They just keep giving them to me.”
Daryl made a noise that was almost like a growl, and eyed Lee Ann and the others with palpable irritation. “Just… slow down, will ya?”
I nodded, a little surprised by the gentleness of the request. “Okay.”
“Coot’s over there.” He added, gesturing to the other side of the bar where Coot was indeed settled in with a pitcher of beer. “I’ll hang around a while. Give you a lift back when you’re finished.”
“Oh, thanks.” It was my turn to blush now, because even though she wasn’t giving any visible signs of her attention, I was pretty sure that Billie was hanging off our every word. “You don’t have to do that."
Daryl shrugged. He’s such a shrugger , so shruggy , my drunk brain chimed in.
In that moment I was forced to acknowledge that slowing down was probably a good idea.
If only it had been up to me.
Lee Ann Duckett only planned on ever getting engaged once and that meant that every stage of the process had to be just perfect.
It also meant, as Billie had so eloquently put it — “No bitching out, Crawford! This is a celebration and you’ll match us drink-for-drink or die trying!”
That was roughly how it came to be that the room was spinning. Spinning and blurry and colours were doing things that they weren’t supposed to, bleeding out of the lines of the objects that contained them. The green of the pool table seemed to stretch past the pool table, how was that possible?
I shook my head and groaned as my whole world wobbled with the motion. This was Not Good. I laid my head down on the bar and tried to block out any sensory input with my arms, vainly shielding my eyes and ears from any light or sound.
Next to me, Billie chuckled. “I reckon your boyfriend is going to be pretty pissed at how wasted you are.”
“One, not my boyfriend.” I held up a shaky finger, not bothering to raise my head. “Two, die.”
“You’re never going to get any better at drinking if you don’t practice.” I could hear the smirk in Billie’s voice. “And bullshit that’s not your boyfriend. He’s minding you, isn’t he? Waitin’ around for us to finish up so he can walk you to your door like a proper Southern gentleman. I know who that is, sugar. Daryl Dixon wouldn’t bother to do this for someone he wasn’t fucking.”
At this I did bother raise my head. My gaze was bleary and vulnerable, and I felt my brow furrow as I looked at the blonde. She didn’t understand , Daryl didn’t like me that way.
“We’re not, though.” I said quietly. “He hasn’t tried. He doesn’t want to.”
Billie’s eyes widened. “You do?”
I shrugged, blushing. “Of course not.”
Billie gasped. “You do !”
“Shut up, please.” I let my head fall back down onto the bar, my next words muffled as I buried my face in my hands. “I’m so drunk, just don’t make me talk about it. Cause I feel so sad and I don’t even know why because he’s him and he never even talks to me, really. Just drives me around and shrugs and grunts and sometimes snaps at me.”
“Sugar…” A tender note crept into the other woman’s voice.
“I’m not supposed to feel this way, Billie.” I concluded in a muffled voice, still hiding in my hands as I slumped over the bar. Perhaps if I was very lucky all the spinny colours and lights would make me pass out and then I wouldn’t have to think about the fact that Daryl was here , and probably mad like Billie said he would be, even though he wasn’t my boyfriend and didn’t have the right.
“Oh, honey.” Billie sighed, and started stroking my hair, which felt nice. “I’m gonna go get him, it’s time for you to go to bed.”
I groaned. “He’ll hate me. I drank too much.”
“You drank too much.” Billie agreed, far too lightly for someone who had all but forced the booze down my throat. “But he won’t hate you, sugar. You’re too damn adorable to hate.”
I offered my muffled thanks and was dimly aware of Billie slipping away. She returned all too quickly, and I knew Daryl was with her before I even looked up by the smell of tobacco and woodsmoke.
“...she’s a little bit of a mess.”
I heard Daryl snort. “Thanks to you. C’mon, help me get her to the car.”
A pair of small hands slung my left arm over narrow shoulders, while another larger though surprisingly gentle pair circled around my waist. I could smell the hairspray in Billie’s Farrah Fawcett hair as well as a whiff of woodsmoke and tobacco and forest, whatever that smelled like.
The whole thing was sensory overload. The scents, all so different from each other, turned over jarringly in my brain, like the thought of being held by both Billie and Daryl at the same time was too cognitively demanding to process.
How can you be held by two people at once? Wouldn’t their limbs smoosh together or something? My drunk brain pondered.
“ Christ , she’s wasted.”
Oh, must have thought that out loud. Whoops.
There was some stumbling then, it was difficult to figure out the stairs. I feel like Daryl ended up practically carrying me down them in the end, after Billie huffed that I wasn’t listening to her instructions about where to put my feet.
Then I was sitting and I heard the sound of a car door slamming and the jostling of someone getting in the driver’s side. And then the rumbling, the engine rumbling.
“You can throw up in ten minutes.” Daryl said, and even drunk I understood this to mean that I did not have permission to throw up in his truck.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t asleep for the drive but raising my head felt like such an effort that I honestly couldn’t be sure. I just let me eyes enjoy the dark as I stared down at the floormat of the passenger’s side. There were bits of leaves and twigs and other things that had been tracked in from outside. And my feet. My feet were down there too.
Then we were stopping and the lurch that my stomach gave at that made me very glad that I’d be allowed to throw up soon. Already my mouth was filling threateningly with the acrid taste of bile.
“I'm going to be in so much trouble with Gran.” I sighed as I heard Daryl open the passenger side door and felt his calloused hands around me again. Absentmindedly I hummed at the contact and leaned into Daryl. “Feels good when you touch there.”
Daryl stiffened, but didn’t pull away. Perhaps he quite rightly understood that I’d fall straight on my ass if he let go of me.
“It’s late. We’ll go in quiet. Might be she doesn’t set eyes on you till mornin’.” Daryl said quietly, leading me up towards the porch. “How do I get to your room?”
“Left at the top of the landing.” I paused to think, and took entirely too long given that I was providing directions to the room I’d lived in literally all my life. “And then the second door on the right. Next to the picture of Che Guvera.”
“Who the hell—”
“He’s a Marxist revolutionary that my Gran thinks is very good-looking.” I explained, lowering my voice as we reached the door, having successfully conquered the front steps without incident.
Daryl snorted and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “...some commie beaner…”
“Shouldn’t say that…” I murmured as I swayed in the doorway, kept upright only by Daryl’s strong arms. I leaned against his chest and he felt so warm . I nuzzled in and breathed in the smell of him, making a soft purring sort of noise. Again I felt Daryl tense, but I didn’t care. I let my fingers trail up his chest and lace together around the back of his neck as I leaned fully into him. “Mmmm….”
Daryl did not seem to know what to do with me. He didn’t get mad, like I might’ve in my right mind expected. He stayed perfectly still for a moment, frozen in indecision or perhaps even fear.
Am I scary? I wondered.
Doesn’t matter. I decided. This feels nice.
“We gotta get you to bed.” Daryl finally said, moving to pull me towards the stairs.
I giggled, because I am a drunk idiot wrapped around a very handsome though admittedly problematic man and as such, all my brain wants me to do is press up against him like a cat in heat. “ Do we, now?”
“ Christ .” I could feel the muscles of Daryl’s jaw working as I nuzzled against his collarbone. “C’mon. Upstairs.”
Halfway up the stairs I heard Daryl huff in impatience and before I knew it he was bodily carrying me up the stairs and towards my room. He did it all like I weighed nothing and I was confused at how he never seemed to make any noise when he walked. The floorboards should have creaked, but they didn’t.
He has secret huntsman powers. I thought, determining that to be the only reasonable explanation. He can read minds and his feet don’t make any noise and he can shoot defenceless animals from miles away without even looking because he is some forest creature and not an actual human being.
Something about that explanation didn’t seem quite right, but it felt too compelling in the moment to be dismissed.
“Goodnight, Che.” I said to the picture by my door, blowing him a kiss. Che Guvera did not reply.
I pouted and shot a displeased look at the picture. We would have words tomorrow.
Daryl laid me down on my bed, and if I had been sober I might’ve had the presence of mind to be embarrassed about the dirty clothing strewn across it or the open, rifled-through drawers of my dresser. But I wasn’t sober, so I simply burrowed into my bedding like the huge sightless mole that I am and sighed contentedly. With luck, the darkness of the room would hide a multitude of sins.
Vaguely I registered Daryl leaving and then returning with a glass of water, ordering me to sit up and drink a little. Blearily I complied, and took the Tylenol he offered alongside it without complaint.
“Get some sleep.” He said gruffly, before turning to leave. I reached out and grabbed his hand in mine without thinking.
“Don’t go.” I said in a small voice. His hand, in addition to being rough and calloused, was every bit as warm as the rest of him. “Stay. Hold me.”
Daryl looked almost pained, though I couldn’t understand why. For a moment he simply stood, stuck between me and the door with a torn expression on his face.
Then, gently, he pressed me back down into the mattress — which made me shiver as heat pooled low in my belly — and pulled the covers over me. Gently, he used his thumb to brush my hair behind my ear and kissed my temple lightly. “Get some sleep.” He repeated gruffly, pulling away before I had a chance to process or react.
And then he was gone, and it was just me in my spinny, blurry room that I couldn’t leave because my limbs were too heavy from drinking to try.
Gone. I thought mournfully, feeling that a kiss on the temple was not nearly good enough.
I quickly passed into a fitful sleep.
And when I woke — oh, curse the fact that I ever woke — I was greeted with glaring sunlight, a queasy stomach, and the mother of all headaches. Not to mention an ever-repeating highlight reel of memories in which I accosted, flirted with and all but threw myself at Daryl Dixon.
Curse thee, tequila, curse thee.
Let it be known that I have, on occasion, deigned to update a fic.
Special thanks to peer pressure, half a bottle of wine, and Che Guvera, without which this chapter would not have been possible.
How'd I go with writing drunk? Who's enjoying the pre-pocalypse and who's just hanging in there for the zombies to show up?
All my love xxx