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Chapter 38 - If I Hadn’t Assembled Myself I’d Have Fallen Apart by Now

*~*

They ran.

The concept of time didn’t exist here, just one foot in front of the other as fast as they could go. Some combination of pure adrenaline and sheer hard-headedness kept Daryl going, but he was already starting to slow. He kept trying to push himself on, oh lord, so hard it brought a lump to Beth’s throat every time she heard him stumble behind her, when the trees got too thick to keep hold of his hand. He must be hurting so bad but he refused her help. Every time she turned back he grunted at her to keep moving and she was torn between trying to press on and finding somewhere to hide out so Daryl could rest.

If Orion was right, these men wouldn’t be able to track them but they could still get lucky. The fire might delay them but they couldn’t count on that, either. Best they get as far away as they could while they could, but no matter what he might say about it, Daryl couldn’t keep going much longer. Beth’s head throbbed with the reality of their situation. Half their weapons gone, their stuff gone, all their extra bolts and food and supplies. Daryl injured and in desperate need of rest, the two of them alone at night in unfamiliar woods with a potentially large number of violent men looking to take their revenge.

It wasn’t good. It was just about as not good as she could imagine.

“G’on, Greene,” Daryl near growled, dragging his feet forward to close the distance that had opened up between them yet again.

“Daryl—”

Go.

Her face hurt. Every step jarred another knifepoint right between her eyes, hot bursts of pain spreading like cracks through the bones in her skull. The headache she had lost somewhere along the way throbbed anew. Orion’s warning played on repeat and kept her feet moving despite the pain, despite the wound on her forehead trying its best to bleed in her eyes and the knots in her belly tugging tighter with every pained sound Daryl tried and failed to stifle.

She hadn’t thought she could find the cache again; figured it would be impossible in the dark while trying to run through the dense trees and keep an eye on Daryl at the same time. Was already counting her pack and the stuff in it amongst their losses. But she spotted one of the small stone circles, followed soon by another right where she thought it should be, and then there before her was the clearing ringed with trees, and the large broken one with the gathering of stones beneath it. She skidded to a stop in the leaf-strewn moss in front of the stones, swiping at the mess of blood-soaked mud on her brow with the sleeve of her sweater, her lungs burning with an ache as deep as the one pounding through her head.

Behind her, Daryl stumbled, falling to his knees in the rustling leaves with a pained groan he tried, but failed, to hold in. She hadn’t questioned his insistence that he was all right when they ran from the compound. He knew as well as she that they needed to get away from that place as fast as they could and just then his stubborn nature was a blessing. Somehow he kept up with her, looking a thousand times worse than she felt, with that bleeding wound in his flank and probably many other wounds she just couldn’t see.

Now, he clung to the trunk of a skinny tree at the far side of the little clearing, one hand pressed to his chest as he breathed, laboured, almost wheezy.

Beth left the stones and crossed the clearing to drop down beside him in the leaves. “I need to look at that, Daryl.”

“No—” He coughed hard and grimaced, curling forward into his own palm, and when he found his voice again the words shot out at her like darts.  “S’fine. Leave it.”

It wasn’t fine, and he knew it. Beth couldn’t tell the dark stain of blood apart from his dark clothes, but she didn’t need to. She already knew the wound bled while they ran ‘cause that’s what wounds did, and not knowing how bad it was gnawed at her worse and worse the longer it went unseen. “At least let me bind it with something.”

Daryl lifted his head enough that if it were lighter out, she would see little glimmers of blue peering out at her from under his hair, but now only the faintest glint of silver reflected there. He reminded her of a wounded animal, hunched and shivering there in the moonlight. Likely to snap at her fingers if she got too close.

“Beth—”

“Daryl,” she said, as loud and as firm as she dare, before he could brush off her concerns. “I’m not askin’.”

He didn’t say anything else, just sunk back on his heels and continued watching her from beneath his hair as she unbuckled her gun belt and tucked the weapon into the back of her jeans. Beth wasn’t used to Daryl looking at her in a way that didn’t spark off her skin in pleasant little bursts of warmth. Whatever was going on in his head, she felt his eyes on her now like a tremor rumbling beneath the surface, even as she dug her pack out of the cache—now emptied of the food and water that were in it before—and rummaged through its contents until she found what she was looking for, way at the bottom. Holding her little flashlight between her thighs since her mouth was too sore to hold it that way, Beth tore open the box of tampons and pulled out one of the purple wrapped packages.

Daryl reached back with his lip pinched between his teeth, biting back a groan as he lifted the edges of his shirts just enough for her to see the wound. Illuminated in the narrow beam of her flashlight was a three-inch gash in his flank, the edges gaping apart enough to show it was no superficial cut. It wasn’t going to kill him but Beth didn’t like how quick the blood was pouring out and sent a silent thank you to whoever had left behind these ultra-absorbent tampons at the farmhouse—and Daryl for thinking to grab them in the first place, bless every hair on his shaggy head.

There was no other way to do it but quickly. Using the applicator to keep her filthy fingers away, Beth pushed the tampon sideways into the wound and Daryl let out a strangled sound from the back of his throat. It was just the right size to fill the opening and honestly the best thing she could’ve had on hand to use. When Daryl got a couple more breaths into him she padded it with one of her clean spare socks, and between the two of them they got her gun belt wrapped around him and pulled tight. It wasn’t perfect, but it should hold until they had the time and the light for her to tend to it properly.

She sat back, pulling Daryl’s vest up over her shoulder where it had slipped down. Daryl’s gaze followed the motion, as clear in the dark as it would be in the day, bringing with it that same muscle-deep rumbling she didn’t know how to read.

“You okay?” she asked instead, as her head gave a little warning throb.

Daryl cleared his throat and rose up on his knees, one hand sliding up the trunk of that tree. “Gotta be.”

He waved her off when she moved to help and used the tree to haul himself, grunting, to his feet. Beth sucked at her lip, watching this as she slipped her pack onto her shoulders and ducked through the strap of her crossbow. God, he looked so bad but this was gonna have to be another moment when she let him be all right knowing full well that he wasn’t. He needed water and food and someplace warm, all the things they didn’t have and didn’t have time to worry about not having.

A twig snapped behind them, followed by another. Silence, afterward, so absolute not even the leaves rustled in the breeze. That was no accident and Beth spun around, putting herself between Daryl and whoever was out there watching them. Her arms trembled, shoulders aching with fatigue she hadn’t felt until now as she lifted her crossbow toward the disturbance just as the figure stepped out of the woods.

Moonlight shimmered weirdly in the clearing and whirled like a dizzy little cloud around her head. Beth’s stomach gave a sudden lurch and an all too familiar prickle crawled up the back of her neck, a tiny swarm of insects digging in their sharp little feet. The world wobbled, tipped the slightest bit as Beth struggled to make sense of what she was seeing, to dig through the barrier between reality and her own fucked-up head as the cloaked figure glided in around the cache tree, its face concealed beneath a dark hood.

No—oh no. Beth swallowed hard, trying to drown the dread rising like acid, scorching its way up from her belly. This couldn’t be real except it had to be, because if it wasn’t it meant she had never left the compound. It meant she failed. It meant Daryl was already dead and she might as well be, lying cold and unconscious in the hands of those men.

It meant she would breathe her last breath locked inside her own broken head, facing the monster she fooled herself into thinking she was strong enough to beat.

The figure raised both hands into the air and pushed back his hood and Beth’s finger twitched on the trigger. She didn’t want to pull it. Didn’t want this stranger—this thing, this apparition, this whatever the hell this was standing in front of her—to force her into doing it. If she had to—but she didn’t, because where Gorman’s face should be was another face altogether. A new face. A face she didn’t know, and a new sort of dizziness had her taking a half step backward, stomach squirming, until Daryl’s shaky thumb swept up her sweaty spine and she finally breathed, and the man who wasn’t Gorman smiled.

It wasn’t a large smile, but enough to shake away the last of the skittering creatures clinging to her back. This was no nightmare. That weird veil lifted, and the world stopped its strange wobble. She wasn’t still lying there in the mud or on that cold stone floor; she really was in the woods with Daryl at her back and a stranger standing there in front of her. Studying them at the same time as she studied him down the sight mount of her crossbow.

In the dark he had no striking features that Beth could see, except that he wasn’t dirty, like those other men. Some care had been taken to his appearance and even his clothing looked in good repair and perfectly suited to being outdoors on a cool autumn night. He was armed. A rifle over his shoulder, handgun at one hip and a hunting knife and machete at the other, but he kept his hands up and away from the weapons. Held outward and empty, not in submission, precisely, but in some sort of declaration of his intentions.

Beth held her aim steady and he very slowly nodded. First at her, then to Daryl behind. “My name is Greg Hunter. Orion’s my nephew.”

Greg.

Daryl’s fingers twitched against her back, clearly recognizing the name as she had. But those men knew that name, too, didn’t they? With his fair colouring he didn’t look very much like Orion, though that might not mean anything. He spoke like a Georgia native but without the rough, careless speech of those other men, but that might not mean anything either.  None of it might, but it had occurred to her, maybe the work of those instincts that she might actually have. By the way Daryl moved his fingers from her skin to press against the gun tucked into her jeans, all of it had occurred to him, too.

Use your head, girl.

“How do I know you’re really him?” Beth asked, finding the steel to brace her voice even though her insides felt like quivery Jell-O.

The man smiled again, that same cautious one that didn’t feel threatening, but didn’t exactly warm her heart, either. “Beth Greene, who found the tree,” he said, with another brief nod, “and Daryl Dixon, who knows what a mournin’ dove sounds like.”

“Curly,” Daryl muttered. She heard him shift behind her in the leaves, and his hand dropped away with the gun as he leaned in to murmur in her ear. “You got him out?”

“Mmhm.” The shiver stirred up by Daryl’s answering rumble in her ear rippled down through her body, and slowly Beth lowered her crossbow. Though she kept it pointed somewhere around the man’s knees, she met his gaze now face to face without the weapon in view. “He told me to go this way.”

Greg nodded again, and this time the smile stretched just a little wider. “The very minute he got back, he called us all to meetin’ to demand we look out for the pair of you.”

“And you did,” Beth said, a little breathless about what this might mean.

“Orion was adamant.” Greg once more looked back and forth between her and Daryl and slowly brought his hands together in front of his chest. “I’m prepared to offer you shelter tonight and treatment for your injuries.”

A lump, solid like clay and just as heavy, dropped down into her belly. Or maybe it was an anchor, rooting her to the spot, keeping her from drifting too close to the shiny red beacon flashing there on shore. Beth had little doubt Greg was telling the truth about his identity, but knowing a name, knowing one minor thing about a person, was not the same thing as knowing them. Gorman was a cop and look what he had done. First impressions didn’t always mean anything, either. Greg seemed all right, sure. Well, Beth never came face to face with the Governor, but she understood that he had been charismatic and even kind, on the surface, and Woodbury some sort of suburban wet dream before it all went to hell. That hadn’t stopped him from hurting Maggie and it damn well hadn’t stopped him from—

Just a flash, in her head, like a blink of an eye. Daddy’s serene little smile right before...

Before.

Beth’s throat closed up on her, the lump forming out of nowhere and leaving behind barely enough space to get air through, and she blinked back the prickle of tears thankfully hidden by the darkness. Now was not the time to let her emotions get the better of her and she had to think about this rationally. Had to focus on what she knew, not what she feared.

A feud she and Daryl had fallen into the middle of, that much was obvious, but no telling whether one side carried more of the blame than the other, despite her first impressions of it. A spirited little boy, courageous and genuine—but the boy was not his uncle. This man, this Greg Hunter, could just as easily be a wolf in sheep’s clothing as he might be the shepherd, and Beth’s stomach rolled with a wave of nausea she couldn’t breathe away through the stricture in her throat.

There weren’t any answers here. None that didn’t require them to take that leap of faith in order to find out. Beth kept her gaze locked on this unassuming man, standing there just across the clearing, waiting on her response. An imaginary clock ticked in her head, counting off the seconds and minutes they just didn’t have. What lurked out there in the dark searching for them would surely steal what little of it remained. She had to make a decision, and she had to make one now, before time ran out and the decision was made for her.

We’ve all got jobs to do, Bethy. This one’s yours.

What would Daddy do, if he were here? If it was him standing in her place, the very same questions in his head. Beth tried to picture his face, to place him there in the clearing, but in her head all she could see was Daryl’s—livid purple on deathly pale.

They had choices. They could decline the offer dangling before them and take their chances with the woods. Make an attempt to find a safe place to hole up until Daryl could move on, and pray that nobody found them first. Or they could follow this man. Decide to trust him. Trade uncertainty of one kind for uncertainty of another and just hope it didn’t come back to bite them in the ass.

The truth was they needed help. Daryl needed help, or at least some place where she could safely provide it, and somehow, somewhere along the way that responsibility had fallen solely on her shoulders. Maybe from the moment she put her body in front of Daryl’s to face this stranger, or maybe all the way back when she chose to go after him on her own, come hell or high water. It wasn’t like before, when she led the way knowing he was there to back her up.

Daryl wasn’t quite leaning on her, not fully, but the rhythmic shiver rolling through his body seeped into her where the front of his shoulder rested up against the back of hers. It wasn’t even subtle anymore and became less so with each tick-tock of that imaginary clock. Some strength of will as only Daryl could muster kept him upright, but it wasn’t infinite, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, he was counting on her to get this right. To make the choice for them both because the only thing he could do right now was just stay standing.

She couldn’t—she wouldn’t—let Daryl down.

The ache in her head throbbed, pounded against her forehead and behind her eyes. Beth took a breath and squared her body to face the man in front of her—the man who may or may not be their salvation—and did the only thing she knew to do.

“How many walkers have you killed?”

If Greg found the question odd, he didn’t let it show, merely held her eye contact as he thought for a moment before answering. “Too many to count.”

A flutter of nerves beat behind her ribs as she heard the next question in her head, in Rick’s voice now, instead of Daddy’s. She had never done this before, had never been the one in position to ask, but she hoped she would know—would feel it—if she heard what she was looking for.

“How many people have you killed?”

Greg’s answer came without hesitation. “Three.”

Beth let out the breath she was holding and asked the final question. “Why?”

Greg held her gaze for a long moment before he took a breath and looked up into the trees beyond her head.

“Two, ‘cause they were dyin’ and I would not see them turned.” A pause, while his fingers knotted together and then came apart again, and his gaze tipped down to meet hers once more across the clearing. “And one, because he threatened my family.”

Family. Beth was hit with the memory of Rick running full out across the field, Carl’s limp body bouncing in his arms. All he’d done, every life he took or didn’t take, he had done to keep his family safe. His people safe. Those men in the field, too, when she had her flashback. Good men reacting to her bad choice, to the threat she became when she raised her bow. A shiver ran down her neck at the thought of Gorman and the memory of reaching for her gun but she pushed those back. Gorman had no place here. This was between her and Daryl and this man in front of them who called himself Greg.

Behind her, Daryl grunted something that sounded vaguely positive. The flutter of nerves became something else she wasn’t all that certain she should trust, even though it felt like she should. Beth kept her eyes on Greg while the whirlwind of conflicting thoughts tilted the world just a bit around her, waiting to see what, if anything, he might say next.

As she watched, Greg lowered his hands down to rest at his sides, fingertips curled in against his jeans. “If you’re gonna come with me, we need to go now. We have a ways to travel, and the woods aren’t safe.”

Beth glanced over her shoulder at Daryl, a dark, shaking shadow at her back, then turned back to Greg. Time was up. No other choice but to go with what her gut decided.

“We’re comin’,” she whispered, not trusting her voice to say it any louder. “Th-thank you.”

“Thank you.” Greg had already started to turn around, but paused mid-step to meet her eyes again. “This is the least I could do, after what you did for Orion.”

And with that he was off, leading them on through the woods. Wolf or shepherd, that remained to be seen. Either way, it wasn’t exactly a comforting thought, knowing they were the sheep.

*~*

Ten minutes on, they came to a clearing with an all-terrain vehicle hidden in it, a big two-seater with a cargo box at the back, parked next to a narrow little trail leading off through the woods. Another ten minutes of riding in the ATV, and Greg paused at a spot that looked no different from the rest of the forest to whistle up into the trees. A familiar tweet of a songbird answered in kind from high above before they moved on. For the better part of an hour they rode along that narrow trail, until they came to a wall, a great expanse of boulder-sized stones and mortar made taller with rebar and razor wire, and a reinforced metal gate opened wide to receive them. Daryl’s grip on her hand around the seat tightened as they barrelled through the gap without slowing down, and Beth knew without asking that he was thinking the same thing as she. A wall like that would keep people out—just as surely as it would keep people in.

The space behind the wall was larger than Beth expected, a sprawling yard mostly shrouded in darkness despite the open field of stars shining overhead. They’d entered through a side gate, headed for the large building in the distance, approaching it from the right. It stretched out away from them, a long, single-storey structure with a high-peaked roof and multiple chimneys poking out of it, the far end hidden in inky blackness. A grand front entrance jutted out from that long face, a thing of columns and beams and more of that impressive roof, but they were angling toward the near end instead. There, a shorter wing led off ninety degrees to the main one, around which a white picket fence marked off a small yard. Greg guided the ATV in through an already open gate and parked there in the grass.

Beth climbed out of the ATV and stood by as Daryl did the same, alternating her gaze between him and the building they now stood beside. About halfway along the wall of variegated stonework, a narrow set of stairs led up to a small square porch. There waited a short, dark-haired woman in a fluffy bathrobe, a faint glow of orange light spilling out from the cracked-open door behind her. Greg bounded up the steps to greet her with a kiss pressed to her forehead and a quiet word, and as she disappeared through the doorway, he waved for Beth and Daryl to follow him inside.

Daryl was moving slow, but he was moving, following behind her and almost exactly mirroring her steps. Beth glanced back, the knots in her belly pulling even tighter at the sight of him, pale and blank-eyed in the light of the lantern held in Greg’s hand.  She was already fighting against the pounding headache and now that itch in her legs had returned, urging her to grab hold of Daryl, turn back around, and run out the door as fast as she could. But Daryl, oh god, the way his brow pulled in, the swollen mess that was the left side of his face, the tremor that had only gotten worse with the chill from riding in the uncovered vehicle for almost an hour. He’d probably willed himself not to go into shock, knowing him, but that wouldn’t last forever, either. The same flutter of adrenaline urging her legs to run also kept her moving forward, determined to get them through whatever it was Greg required so she could take care of him and let him rest.

For now they followed Greg through the darkened house, or whatever this was, stepping first into some sort of mudroom and then moving on to a living room and kitchen and finally through a doorway into a long, narrow hallway lined with heavy wooden doors, four on each side. The ceiling above opened to the beams of the roof, even with the closed off rooms to either side, and that carried over once they exited the hall into a large open space with a giant, unlit fireplace in the middle. That jutting entrance, by the looks of it, but the space stretched longer out back than it did out front, like the short arms of a cross only offset from centre. At the very back, a door stood open, the light from within flickering out, almost like it was beckoning them inside.

Light, and voices. Enough of them to spill out from the open door in a jumbled murmur and almost stop Beth’s pounding heart in its tracks. She halted mid step, a clumsy, jerking motion that almost sent her sprawling forward onto the slate floor, but some part of her remembered at the last second how to balance and kept her from falling. Still, her head spun, spurred on by the pounding inside that had now gone long past a mere ache, and she wanted to run away all over again but now her feet were rooted to the spot. Fight, flight, or freeze, and now it was all three. She could do this. She could. She didn’t want to move another foot forward, but she was Beth-Effing-Greene. Little but tough and it didn’t matter that she didn’t want to, she could. She could and she would because she had to. Because she made the choice and she was damn well gonna see it through.

Greg stopped beside the fireplace, realizing only then that she hadn’t followed. Daryl came up behind her, close enough that she could almost feel his trembling despite the fact that he wasn’t touching her. He was hardly really there at all, none of the usual weight on her from those near empty eyes, but his breath flitted over her neck in shaking little puffs and that was enough of him to steady her. Still Daryl, still her rock even half-dead on his feet, even while she was busy fighting to be his.

Beth breathed, deep ins and outs, the same old ritual to smooth the edges off her nerves. Even if it was just enough to keep her standing and maybe, eventually, to convince her to keep going. She made it this far, after all, and somehow she lifted her boot from the floor, grinding back into motion like a train on a rusted rail. The voices barely broke through the rush of her pulse in her ears but she knew they hadn’t gone away. Knew it was only a matter of time before she had to keep it together in front of yet another group of strangers.

The door was only a few paces away when one of them spoke above the others, voice tinged with agitation. “All I’m saying is, we can’t know for sure!”

The answer, when it came, was equally spirited. “Wings like that, and a crossbow? Who else could it be?”

She knew that voice. Knew both of them, and the familiarity popped her mouth open wide, a soundless gasp as her pulse surged up into her throat, racing with excitement now on top of the adrenaline. Beth gripped her crossbow so tight her fingers ached and started to turn toward Daryl, to see if he heard them, too, or if the pain wracking his body had stolen all his attention. The return of the first voice, a repeat of his original concern, pulled her attention back to the open door way in time for the second speaker to fire back a screeching retort.

“You don’t always have to be right, you stupid asshole!”

It exploded in her head, the sound of that same voice, not screeching in insult but desperately pleading—we would’ve been dead if not for you. Please, help us. The memory slammed into her, hit her in the chest like an armload of bricks, and instead of the softly glowing doorway in front of her, all Beth saw was one beady brown eye blinking at her through a narrow gap, the scent of wood smoke and baked rabbit heavy in the air.

Nice girl like you?

I ain’t no nice girl.

Somehow she kept moving, even knowing what she was gonna find on the other side of that door and entirely clueless about what to do with it. She did what she could at the time but was it enough? She had shelter and food but she turned them away, sent them out into the woods with an encroaching herd and an oncoming storm, and now her decisions, both the one she made that day and the other just an hour ago, really were going to come back and bite her in the ass. Some elaborate cosmic joke turning the tables on her and Daryl now that they were the ones in need of shelter, in need of help. Maybe she could have done something, something more to help them, something better than what she settled on, alone in the cabin without anyone else to turn to. She told herself it was enough but it wasn’t, how could it be?

As she stepped into the room, belly clenching to the point of pain, Beth steeled herself to face what she had coming. She wouldn’t have recognized them if they hadn’t spoken. None of the faces at the oblong table, too small for the number packed around it, looked like faces she had seen before, and Beth spared a moment’s thought to wonder at the workings of the human brain. She had spent so little time looking at them and so much of it listening that only their voices got stuck in her head, and she could not begin to pick them out from the crowd, a mixture of strangers in a range of skin colours and Beth couldn’t rule any of them out. Then the short, round-bodied man at the end of the table leaned forward to stare at her in open-mouthed shock, and the tall, slim woman just left of the middle reached across the two others between them to smack the man’s shoulder with the back of her thin-fingered hand.

“I told you it was her, dickhead!”

Greg cleared his throat. “Pam. Jake. Please.”

At Greg’s quiet admonishment, Jake swallowed whatever retort he had waiting on his tongue, but Pam pulled back and rose to her feet, clutching her hands together in front of her chest.

“Greg, Greg it’s her, it’s the girl we told you about! The one from the cabin! It’s her!” Pam bounced on her heels as she spoke, those thin little eyebrows—Beth remembered those now—rising up high on her forehead. “Greg, you have to help her!”

You have to help her. Pam’s statement stuck harder than the weight of the bricks in her chest, made all the heavier by the frantic nodding of Jake down at the far end of the table. They were both pleading now, words mixing together in the familiar tangle that had Beth’s belly squirming all over again, except instead of screaming at each other or begging her to let them inside, the two people she once turned away now made demands on her behalf. Beth had no idea what to do with that.

Greg said their names again, in the firmest voice Beth had heard him use since they met a little more than hour ago, and the pleas fell silent. In the beat that followed, Greg looked to the big bear of a man seated at what should have been the head of the table. A man somewhat younger than Greg himself, clean shaven, his tightly-coiled hair tied back in a ponytail and a pair of thick rimmed glasses sitting low on the bridge of his nose.

The man raised his eyebrows and shrugged, shaking his head in response to Greg’s silent question. A clear I don’t know, man, if Beth ever saw one, but before she could study this new face further, Greg spoke again, addressing Pam and Jake.

“They’re here,” he said, now that all eyes were looking on calmly in his direction, “and I’ve offered our help, like I already promised Orion. If you’re that eager to see ‘em helped, we’re gonna need to make this quick.”

A deep flush of pink bloomed across Pam’s cheeks, but she sunk down to her seat without another word. She tried to catch Beth’s eyes as she did, but Beth diverted her gaze just in time, focusing instead on a whorl in the top of the wooden table as Greg ushered her and Daryl into the room. Beth pulled out Daryl’s chair for him and waited until he’d sunk down in it before taking hers between him and a different man of about Greg’s same age. Seconds later, someone draped blankets across both their shoulders and thrust tumblers of water into her hands, and Beth glanced back just in time to see that same woman, the dark-haired one in the bathrobe who met them at the door, slipping back out of the room in silence.

Introductions followed for the five men and four women gathered there to greet them, names which Beth forgot immediately aside from Greg Hunter and the two others she already knew. Now that she was sitting down and relatively warm, the knots easing from her belly, tentatively ready to accept she may possibly have been right to trust these people, Beth couldn’t seem to keep her mind from wandering. God, she was tired, so freaking tired, and sore. Not just her pounding head but the rest of her body, too, an ache in her muscles pulsing in time with the beating of her heart. She bit her lip, hard enough to feel the sting of it and draw her focus back out of her head, tuning into what Greg was saying for just a little longer.

“...to let you rest, but first, if you’ll give us a quick rundown of what happened, it’d help us know how to prepare.”

Beth looked over at Daryl beside her, waiting what seemed like forever before he looked up from the table and met her eyes. He looked as dazed as she felt but after a couple of breaths, the fog seemed to clear, and he gave her the tiniest of nods.

All right, once again, ‘cause he had to be.  

Beth listened as he recounted his part of it, voice rough, speech slow as though he were fighting to make sure he got the words out without slurring. Much of it had the group nodding, likely having heard it already from Orion. Beth felt as though she had heard it, too, with what she read of the encounter in the signs left behind. When he got to the part where he met with Dane, though, the nodding stopped and everyone focused intently. Beth reached under the table for his hand, which he grabbed hold of and squeezed tight as he spoke, withholding most of the grittier details while he explained how Dane assumed he was part of Greg’s group and planned to use him to send a message of encouragement, so Greg would give him whatever he was after. He didn’t need to say what the message was as face told the rest of the story for him.

Daryl sipped gingerly at his water, eyes sweeping around the table at the various people staring back at him. “Don’t remember much else, ‘til Beth got there…”

Greg leaned forward a bit on the table and nodded to the young woman sitting directly across from Beth, with a long, thick braid of dark hair draped over her shoulder. “Amrita?”

The woman returned Greg’s nod before turning her dark eyes to Daryl. “Their messengers said as much. Gave us until dawn to answer, to make our plea for the safe return of Orion and yourself,” Amrita said, in a soft voice with a hint of a melodic accent. “Daryl, did Dane say anything else you feel may be of value?”

Daryl coughed softly and set his water down on the table. “Figures you owe him for somethin’. Blamed a buncha shit on Curl—Orion. Said it was time you gave ‘em what they deserved.”

Greg nodded, as though this news was not a surprise to him, but he seemed genuine when he thanked Daryl and turned his gaze over to Beth.

Beth’s face heated up when the rest of the eyes in the room shifted to follow, and she pushed through the urge to disappear beneath the blanket. “Dane said that to me too, or, sort of. They didn’t know I could hear them, but him and the other one who sounds like him...”

“Victor.”

It was the man at the head of the table who spoke, the one who exchanged some silent words with Greg earlier in regards to Pam and Jake.

Naw, Vic, ain’t his style.

Beth nodded her thanks, wishing she remembered his name, something like Ben or Brian or something, but at the same time, she didn’t really want to devote the energy to thinking on it, and reeled back instead to the topic at hand. “Dane and Victor, they thought that catchin’ me would make Daryl convince Greg to do what they wanted.”

The assembled people nodded and murmured, and then it was Beth’s turn to speak. She began with finding Orion, but had to backtrack when the man seated beside her asked how she’d come across the tree in the first place. When she came to the part of her story where the men surrounded her, Daryl’s grip on her hand tightened, harder and harder until her fingers were nearly numb by the time the Beth in her story was taken to the lodge and left with Lyle to guard her. More than a few eyebrows shot up when she told them how she got away, followed by frowns all around when she admitted to knocking Lyle unconscious and then setting fire to the compound to aid in their escape. Beth couldn’t tell what the root of that reaction was but it wasn’t comfortable, adding yet another weight to that which already sat heavy across her shoulders. Nobody commented, though, not directly about that, and when she finished the room dissolved into discussion amongst the people who belonged there.

It was probably best that she pay attention, maybe get some answers to the millions of questions she had about all this, but Beth didn’t have the energy for it, and sat back in her chair, fighting a yawn, trying not to notice how ragged Daryl’s breathing had gotten beside her. They’d done their part, and she held tight to Daryl’s hand beneath the table and hoped this meeting would come to a conclusion soon, so she could get him out of there and go, well, somewhere.

Fortunately, only a few minutes passed before Greg called for silence again, a simple raising of his hand until the voices fell away one by one and he turned again to address her and Daryl directly.

“You’ll want answers, and you’ll have them—but I won’t keep you here tonight any longer.” He nodded to the man on the other side of Beth. “Alec, if you and Brock can start rousing the extra patrols, I’ll meet you out at the main gate after I show our guests to their room. I believe they’ve earned it. Harrison?”

A round-faced man with ruddy cheeks and faded red hair rose to his feet from two seats over. “I’m a paramedic. Any help you need, it’s yours.”

“No,” Beth said, with a little more force than she meant to. She tried again, making an effort to smile even though she really didn’t feel it. Maybe she was willing to trust that these people had good intentions, but she wasn’t letting any hands but hers tend to Daryl and she wanted nothing to do with anyone else’s hands on her, either. “No, thank you. I can manage what we need.”

“Offer’s standing, if y’all change your mind,” he said, and lowered himself back into his chair.

Greg led them away, after that, back down the same hallway they walked through before. Beth followed, hyperaware of Daryl’s shuffling footsteps at her back, her own knees wobbling like gummy worms now that it was over. They stopped in front of the third door to the left, a heavy-looking wooden one with the number thirteen carved into it. Greg held out a pair of keys, and Beth’s hand jumped up to receive them before her brain could process what was happening. As she stared down at the two silver keys, Greg pushed the door open and stepped aside.

“You should have everythin’ you need,” he said, sweeping a hand toward the open door, through which Beth could now hear the crackle of flame and feel the heat of the fire drifting out into the cool hallway. “Harrison’s on duty in the common room tonight, if you’re wantin’ for anythin’. Anythin’ at all. A’right?”

Beth paused in the doorway to take her first good look at this man, no more distinctive in the candlelight than he was in the dark. A little older than Rick, sandy-haired, with a tidy beard just starting to grey. His was a face she would easily forget if she passed him in a crowd or if he’d ever stared her down through a crack in the cabin door, but looking at him now, Beth saw something like steel in his gaze, hiding there beneath pale eyes just a shade too blue to be grey. Something in that face reminded her of that little boy she set free from a cage, too, and not unpleasantly so.

He didn’t look the part. If this were a television show about a group of people surviving the rise of the walking dead, Greg Hunter would not be cast to play the title role. A secondary character at best, a Red Shirt at worst. Certainly nobody you’d expect to last the season. But this wasn’t television and there really was a leader hiding behind that plain face. Of that, Beth had no doubt. A leader, and a kind man, too. A fair man. Maybe even good man, if such a thing existed anymore. A survivor, just like them.

Beth forced her hand out, because it was the right thing to do. The human thing to do. She might have a messed up head but she was still human, still Hershel Greene’s daughter, and those two pieces of who she was pushed past the cool prickle in her chest at the thought of touching somebody who wasn’t Daryl to reach out to this stranger who might just have become an ally. “Thank you, Greg.”

Greg accepted her proffered hand without hesitation, his grip firm, strong but not aggressive. A smile tugged at his lips, and this time it brought with it the tiniest brushes of warmth, sweeping in to smooth over some of that prickling cold.

“Beth and Daryl,” he said, releasing her hand to once again meet each of their gazes in turn. “Welcome to Hunter’s Lodge.”