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Chapter 43 - Come Down from Your Mountain and Stand Where We’ve Been 

*~*

Conversation slipped into more casual territory as they finished breakfast, the finale to which was a story of a hunt gone wrong, told with enthusiasm by Thaniel and Orion. Well-practiced and embellished to hell, though the rest of the table played along, gasping at all the right places without being overly dramatic about it. Even Diana smirked at the punch line, looking up fully for the first time since breakfast began to watch Thaniel deliver it, to a round of laughter that wasn’t faked even though they’d probably heard some version of this exact story a hundred times before.

After that, the people started drifting away from the table. Beth stood, reaching for her plate to clear it but Orion waved her off and got to it himself instead. After a minute Diana set her book down on the table with a loud thump and got up to help, prompted by Sandrine, who, sleeping baby propped up on her shoulder, had gone to the stove to make tea.

Following a word in private with the Hodges’ and a kiss on the head for both Sandrine and the baby, Greg declared their tour of the grounds would be a working tour—that is, he’d show them around while he ran the perimeter, something he did a regularly during the day, and if not him, then one of a select handful of trusted others. He chattered on about the details of that, which Daryl only sort of half listened to as he stood in the hall outside their room while Beth retrieved her crossbow and refilled her quiver to replace the bolts she had to leave behind in Dane’s camp.

They backtracked through the kitchen again once Beth was ready. Orion, now in jeans and boots and a hoodie, slid a pile of dishes into the sink a little too quickly when he saw them coming, splashing sudsy water everywhere and prompting a narrow-eyed scowl from Diana as he hurried ahead into the room beyond the kitchen. He and Beth followed Greg through after him, into the living area, a large space done mostly in wood with a narrow set of stairs leading up to a second floor above, and another one of those tall brick fireplaces with a bunch of plump couches gathered around it. Through there and onward to the mudroom they came inside last night.

Beth went out first, onto the little wooden landing and that narrow set of stairs, and down to join Orion standing in the grass of the fenced-off yard below. Daryl had only taken the first couple of steps when Sandrine called out something to Greg, and Daryl turned before he realized the call wasn’t meant for him. Force of habit, or something. A throwback to the prison when chances were good that whoever was calling out a request as he headed out for the day was calling out to him. He brushed it aside—another trick of familiarity he couldn’t let himself fall into—and turned away, intent on descending the stairs into the yard below but he stopped dead, halfway down, when he caught sight of Beth waiting there grass.

The rising sun shone behind her, turning the wisps of hair that always seemed to want to fly free into shining threads of gold. Like that day in the woods after the herd and the storm, when edges of the world went a little bit soft, and Beth, all lit up by the beam of light cutting down through the trees, hair a golden halo above the wings at her back. When his whirling head made an angel out of her, imagery hadn’t quite been able to shake ever since, awake or asleep. Now the sun at her back glowed like those luminous wings from all of his dreams, the dreams that were beginning to blend into reality in the best possible ways.

I could put your vest back on.

Even backlit like she was, he could still see her face and her smile, shining every bit as bright and warm as the light all around her. The smile she gave in answer to the one stretched wide across his aching face, without him even meaning to do it. But what else could he do, faced with that. With Beth. Just Beth, unburdened in that moment from all that threatened to drag her down, and he indulged in it. Took those few seconds for the both of them and stood there on the step, heart jumping like a drum in his chest as their gazes locked across those yards of grass, and it didn’t matter none, where they were and that they weren’t alone.

It only mattered that she was there, that she was smiling, and everything else faded into a splotchy blur in the background.

A dog barked. A deep, booming sound that bounced off the stone wall behind him, jolted Daryl back out of his head, and jerked them both around toward the source of the noise. The beast in question, some sort of pointer cross with a red and white speckled coat, cleared the old picket fence in one giant leap and bounded up to Orion, still barking and wagging his stubby little tail. A stern word from Orion silenced the dog, but the excitement stuck, trembling through his well-muscled frame as he sat like a statue at Orion’s feet.

“Whenever Pete sees Orion outdoors, he thinks they’re goin’ huntin’,” Greg said, joining Daryl on his step with a toss of his chin in the dog’s direction. “Poor fella hasn’t been outside the walls since the dead started walkin’, but he’s still hopeful.”

Daryl hummed in response, but said nothing else as he and Greg went down into the yard. Though the magic of the moment faded, the view of Beth there in the sun remained every bit as vibrant. Her smile settled into something softer, something easier on her beat up face, but just as warm, just as much a flutter in his chest as ever. Daryl expected her to at least look at the dog, but Beth Greene only had eyes for him as he stepped through the dewy grass toward her, like walking into a dream except he was wide awake.

Now wasn’t the time to get caught up in all that, as much as he wanted to. As much as holding back where Beth was concerned was something he never wanted to have to do ever again. The fresh morning air chased away the last of the clouds in his head, replacing them with a different sort of mental haze. One which made it seem like a good fucking idea to just grab hold of Beth’s hand and let her swing it back and forth between them or hell, even do the swinging himself, just to see if it’d make her laugh.

He didn’t, though it wouldn’t be the first time him and Beth walked around holding hands and he liked that, how something so simple as a tangle of fingers could mean so much, but he hadn’t forgotten Greg’s pointed question earlier. Soured his stomach, a little, even after Beth put a stop to it, and it wasn’t something he was willing to forget about just yet. Touching Beth, having his hands on her, feeling the warmth of her body no matter how many or how few layers existed between the tips of his fingers and her smooth skin, that wasn’t something he could forget about either, so he pressed his palm to the small of her back and let it linger there as they started walking.

Greg slipped into tour guide mode while they crossed the yard, pointing out the large kitchen building within the boundaries of the white picket fence—which they would have the chance to take a look at later on—before leading them through the open gate. Pete the dog trotted along at Orion’s heels, following them to the interlocking brick footpath curving around the front of the building. When Daryl let his hand fall away, Beth turned her face toward him, still wearing that same smile, and grazed his knuckles with hers.

When just kissing her was a new thing, when they stood together on that ledge bathed in the light of the rising sun and his head tried to drown him in doubt, that one little touch was all it took to ground him. That simple brush of skin on skin cut through the bullshit to what was important. To Beth and Daryl against the world, and everything else in it, even when that was his own traitorous brain. He didn't need to be touching her now to feel her there, right beside him as always. He smiled down at her instead, the warmth deepening in his belly when her smile pulled wider, and he leaned over just enough to bump his shoulder into hers.

She laughed, the littlest of sounds like the morning songs of the little birds still clinging to the final days of summer, and it was good. Made up for not being able to hold her hand as they walked, side by side, beneath the pairs of crabapple trees overhanging the path. Full of little round fruit now, but in the spring they’d be an explosion of flowers. Pink, Orion said when Beth asked about them, and though the grass beneath them was overgrown and weedy, starting to creep up over the walk and shoot up between small gaps in the brick, Daryl could easily see things as they were before.

Not picture perfect, like some fancy resort which catered to the rich, but clean. Tidy. Appreciated by the type of people a place like this would draw, the type that didn’t fuss about a weed here or there but who appreciated the care with which everything was kept just the same. The right sort of welcoming foreground leading up to the lodge, with its tall walls and high peaked roof, a remarkable display of woodwork and stone all blended together into something belonging to the nature around it, rather than setting itself apart from it. All hand done, not a pre-fab anything in sight, a fact Daryl noticed even before Greg chose that very moment to mention that exact thing.

But mention it he did, and with no small trace of pride. They passed by that grand front entrance, even more impressive in the daylight than it was beneath the stars, and Greg paused to gaze up at the sign, rich red wood against the golden stain of the beam beneath it. Hunter’s Lodge 1962. It weren’t no business anymore, not in this world, but it was still his home. It still meant something, this place and that sign, to Greg Hunter and the people he called family.

A pair of women came down the steps while they were standing there, neither one of them faces Daryl recognized from last night’s council meeting, or whatever name these people had for it here. They waved at Greg on their way by and he greeted them both by name.

“How many people live here?” Beth asked, watching the women disappear down the path ahead of them. “Do they all stay in the lodge?”

“Some.” He gestured down the path where the women had gone. “Claudia and Janeene were staff here, before, and have rooms inside. Most live in the cabins we have on-site.”

Beth ignored, for now at least, the fact that Greg had only answered one of her questions, and without pushing let him change the subject and move them along.

Felt good to walk, even though Daryl ached all over and he had to take care to keep his steps short enough not to pull on his stitches. Muscles that had tightened up overnight began loosening as he moved and he suspected it was much the same for Beth, both body and mind. The outdoors suited her, always had, and her weighted shoulders relaxed the longer they were out in it. Her steps lightened with each subsequent one she took and gone was that empty look. The armour was still there, it pretty much had to be, but some of the softness returned, too, as her gaze scanned over every inch of the grounds with open curiosity.

Greg kept his running commentary and Orion piped in now and then with some added piece of info, usually turning as he did to make sure Beth was listening. She was, always with a smile for the kid who seemed intent on impressing her—a fact she noticed, with an amused little glance in Daryl’s direction each time it happened.

The footpath made a loop around the lodge. Halfway along the short side stood a long, narrow building, also stone walled with wood trim in the same style as the lodge itself, leading away from the path at a forty-five degree angle. An armory of sorts, it turned out, when Greg unlocked the door and led them into the little front room, a space packed wall-to-wall with a collection of weapons and hunting gear. More Mossy Oak camo than Daryl had seen since before the world ended, and Greg waved his hand toward the dozens of compound bows hanging from a rack along one wall.

“I’m afraid one of these is all I can offer you,” he said, nodding at Beth and her crossbow as though to acknowledge Daryl’s missing one. “Unless you’d prefer a rifle?”

What he preferred was getting his crossbow back, assuming Lyle or whoever hadn’t wrecked it in the meantime, but for now he’d take what he could get, even if he had to wonder about Greg’s rationale for arming him, beyond the obvious.

He shrugged, keeping those thoughts to himself, for now. “Bow’ll do. Got any spare knives kickin’ around?”

Greg inclined his head in that formal way of his that should’ve been annoying but was actually starting to grow on him, and gestured to the cabinet built into the far wall. “I think we can find somethin’ that’ll do.”

Something was an ancient leather-handled thing with a sharp blade that fit well enough in the sheath meant for his missing Busse, and a compound bow selected on Greg’s recommendation as to which might suit him best. Orion picked one, too, dodging a sharp look from Greg as he slipped his arm through the shoulder sling and dashed ahead of them through the door at the back of the room.

They followed after Orion’s retreating back, into the two-lane archery range stretched out behind. In the far lane, Orion was already lining up to take a shot with the bow he borrowed, a larger one than he’d had with him yesterday. Daryl pulled a practice arrow out of the quiver of them hanging on the wall and stepped up, adjusting his hold on the unfamiliar weapon. He had used this type of bow before, a long time ago, and though he would rather have his crossbow there was still something of the same feel to nocking the arrow, drawing back, and lining up his shot.

The first couple went wide, but after that he got the hang of the way the bow worked and started making his shots well enough, each one progressively better until he thought he could reliably do some damage if he needed to use it for real. Greg watched all of this with an appraising eye from off to the side of the lane, but had the good sense not to comment on what he thought of Daryl’s performance.

Orion shared his uncle’s intent appraisal and none of his discretion, looking on, enthralled, each time Daryl prepared to shoot and letting out a loud whoop whenever his arrow hit the bullseye. Now, Orion bounded over after retrieving the last of the practice arrows, grinning wide, his eyes open even wider like he’d never seen nobody hit a target before. “Wow!”

Daryl shrugged, fighting the urge to look away or hide or something, just to escape the pairs of eyes on him that weren’t Beth’s. “Ain’t no crossbow, but it’ll do.”

Greg huffed and let a hint of a smirk slip out from beneath the neutral mask.

Orion’s lips twisted to the side and he glanced over Daryl’s shoulder with slightly more narrowed eyes, but when he refocused on Daryl’s face the grin returned twofold.  “But you’re so good, though!”

“He is.” Beth stepped in from behind him, joining the three of them in their loose circle. She caught Daryl’s eyes and a little half-smile tugged at one corner of her lip. “No matter what he’s aimin’ with.”

Girl.

A warm shiver rippled low down in his belly, followed by a rush of heat up through his ears as he thought about exactly the sort of aiming she was thinking of. And he knew his ears were going pink, same as hers now as her gaze snapped wide-eyed to his, like she only just realized what she actually said or maybe who she said it in front of. They were saved from themselves after a long minute of silently frantic staring by Orion’s request to have Beth show them her crossbow.

She blinked and broke eye contact, cheeks bright pink, and she looked down the nearest lane toward the well-used target for a good few seconds before turning to Greg. “All I have are broadheads, is that—”

“That’s fine.” After sparing them both a quick glance, he tossed his chin toward the lane. “Show us what you can do.”

The attention made her nervous and Daryl would have known that even if he couldn’t see the tension across her shoulders, like a metal rod holding her rigid. But once she stepped up to the line, got her bow in place, took her deep breaths she so rarely had to consciously make these days, the nerves cracked and fell away. He almost could feel it, the calm radiating from her as she slipped into that zone where nothing existed outside of the crossbow, the target, and her finger just kissing the trigger. She released her bolt as she released her third breath, following through with the shot until the bolt lodged dead centre.

Orion clapped and cheered—damn near jumped up and down on the spot—while Greg gave an appreciative nod that Beth didn’t see as she retrieved her bolt from the target and prepared to set up another shot. Greg watched with the same open interest while she pulled out the ropes to cock her crossbow, eyebrows raising high watching Beth essentially deadlift at least half her body weight with practiced ease. But she was guarding her left shoulder when she pulled, though she took care to keep the strings even, something Greg didn’t seem to notice but Daryl sure as hell did. After the string clicked in place, Beth gave the joint a little roll before hefting the bow back into her arms for her second shot.

She took three more, all of them hitting the centre of the target. Whether she figured she had shown them enough, or her shoulder was bothering her more than she let on, the fourth shot was her final one and after cocking and reloading, Beth shouldered her bow and graciously accepted Orion’s enthusiastic praise, though she didn’t look any more comfortable with it than Daryl felt.

Not wanting to out her in front of Greg, Daryl kept quiet about her shoulder as they left the archery building. That dog was waiting for them outside in the grass beside the path and gave a couple of excited barks, bouncing around like Tigger in a dog suit before Orion’s firm word settled him down again. They set off again, keeping to the footpath, the dog’s claws clicking on the brick while Greg resumed his commentary, first discussing the origins of the archery range before pointing out the solar panels built into the lodge’s roof.

An upgrade from the original design, he said, which now powered the water pumps and heaters and a UV filtration system which was installed around the same time—though they had taken to boiling their drinking water, as an added safeguard. The rest of the lodge was designed to utilize natural resources to the best of its ability—wood heat, candles and oil-burning lanterns, and other natural sources of light—and though there was a generator on site with limited access to non-solar power, they rarely used it even before the turn.

“A back to nature approach that was ahead of its time,” Greg concluded, glancing back over his shoulder as they approached the backside of the lodge. “Nobody was doin’ that in the sixties, when my grandparents built this place.”

Rebuilt it,” Orion said, as they came to a stop in front of an open-faced shed with half a dozen ATVs parked inside. “After the old lodge got wrecked, right Uncle Greg?”

And before Daryl could ask why or how, though Orion’s raised eyebrows and twisting fingers clearly begged for someone to do that, so he could tell the story, Beth spoke.

“There was a fire, right?”

Greg, who had been heading toward one of the bigger quads, a large four-seater in the middle of the pack, turned around to face them, leaning back against the bush bumper in front of the camo hood with his hands folded together in front of him.  “That’s right. Two fires, actually. The one you’re speakin’ of started in one of the cabins about ten years back.”

“Insurance fraud,” Orion said, with a nod of his head, speaking with the authority of a kid who had heard the story his whole life and was bright enough to figure out what it meant.

“We suspect.” Greg glanced at Orion—who had dropped down to his knees to let the dog lick at his face. “Just as my grandparents suspected the original fire, back in 1960, was deliberately set by the developer who had been hasslin’ them to sell the property. Added encouragement, Grannie used to say, from the very same fella whose dream for the land never quite met with reality.”

“He wanted some sort of nature paradise,” said Orion, making air quotes with his fingers. “You know, fancy cabins on the lake and stuff like that, for rich people to get away from it all.” He wrinkled his nose in distaste and stood up, stretching out his back with a little grunt. “But once it got rebuilt, the regular people came to the new Hunter’s instead and the rich ones went to Mexico.”

“I can see why,” said Beth, speaking to Orion still but with a flick of her eyes up to catch on Greg’s. “It’s nice here. It’s still nice.”

In half a heartbeat, the child faded away and Orion’s face took on the look of somebody much older, the same way he had yesterday in the woods only without the hellfire behind it. “I love this place. Even before I lived here it was my favourite place in the whole world.”

Even Beth didn’t know quite what to say to that, and as Daryl watched a bit of a faraway look crept into her eyes. He could almost see the reflection there in the blue of them, of that big white house surrounded by fields of green. Muggy summer nights lying out under the stars and long hazy days flying through the world on horseback. All he had to compare to that were cold concrete walls which echoed every single sound whispered between them, chain-link fences stained with gore, and a yard of scrubby grass and dusty earth, but as pathetic as that was he knew Beth wouldn’t see it that way. Knew she’d understand even though her own heart travelled to places far richer than his ever could.

“The ruins were so fun.” Orion’s voice broke through the ensuing silence with a return to his more carefree side, a childish lilt to his voice which probably wasn’t entirely an act. “My mom and Uncle Greg used to play there when they were kids. Me too. Well. Before the walkers, and, um, everything.”

Orion’s deep brown eyes shifted from Beth’s to Daryl’s, something of an apology glinting there and it finally clicked. The ruins they were talking about, the old Hunter’s Lodge, was the same crumbling stone building and muddy yard Dane and his group of assholes had claimed as their camp. While he processed that, the conversation carried on around him, Orion recounting some story of childhood misadventure his mother used to talk about, which Greg added to with a nearly identical half-pained, half-fond expression on his face.

“I bet you and Diana had adventures just like those,” Beth said, that faraway look still lingering in her eyes.

“Nah.” Orion gave a quick shrug of his shoulders turned again to face Greg where he waited by the ATV, fingers curling absentmindedly into the dog’s scruffy neck. “Uncle Greg, can we show them the baby goats before we run the perimeter?”

After a couple of beats, Greg nodded. “All right. Let’s go see the goats. And everything else Hunter’s has to offer.”

The little brick footpath split off in two directions, one branch continuing the ring around the lodge and the other leading off at ninety degrees from it, through a proper little wooded section this time rather than ornamental fruit trees. They left both options alone and piled into that ATV, Beth in the back with Orion because he blinked those big brown eyes at her and asked if she would, and followed a well-worn dirt track leading off to the left through the grounds. Pete the pointer dog loped along beside them on those long legs of his, tongue lolling out the side of his big mouth, keeping up to their pace with the ease of a dog who was built to run.

They passed a couple of the cabins Greg mentioned, the backs of them visible just inside the trees to the right of the dirt track. One of them had smoke coming from the chimney and at the second one, Daryl spotted a blonde woman hanging clothes out on a line, but they didn’t stop. A barnyard soon came into view up ahead, not unlike the one at the first farm he and Beth found, though the barn itself was smaller and still painted bright red. Orion wasn’t lying about the goats; they had a whole herd of them in the closest pen with their own little version of the big barn.

Not just goats, neither, as Daryl looked further, but chickens, horses, even a couple of cows. Beyond the barnyard was a garden in various stages of harvest, and further still an orchard of what he suspected were most likely apple trees. Nothing near commercial size or nothing, but plenty big enough for a place this size.

In a corral outside the main barn, one of the women from last night was doing some sort of exercise with a wiry young horse—lunging, Beth said, whatever that meant—while in the next pen over, a little girl of about seven or eight, with the same thick, black braid hanging long down her back, was busy gathering chicken eggs into a red plastic pail.

“Amrita was our stable master, before.” Greg nodded toward her, and then tipped his head to indicate the other animal pens. “We hired her to train the horses, but her expertise with livestock in general has been invaluable, now, in turnin’ our little hobby farm into somethin’ that helps sustain our existence.”

“We’re going to start raising hogs, too,” Orion added, with an odd pursing of his lips. “Soon as we can catch some, that is.”

Greg’s eyes passed over the empty pen and newly constructed building, sitting a little ways off in the distance. “Yes. We’ve had little time to devote to findin’ piglets, of late.”

That Daryl could understand, considering what—or rather who—was lurking in their backyard. When even something as certain as a goose hunt could turn around in a heartbeat. They didn’t linger there amongst the animals, just long enough for Orion to show them the baby goats as promised, half a dozen little beasts that jumped around their pen like giant horned kittens and tried to chew at the leather of their boots.

Daryl hopped in the back with Beth this time before Orion could ask, and to the kid’s credit he slipped into the front beside his uncle without a word. Beth didn’t say nothing, either, just smiled at him side-on and slid over in her seat far enough to rest her leg up against his. The dirt path branched out in a couple of different directions, but Greg took them to the left through the trees, past that same second cabin and then two more, toward the high stone wall in the distance and the wooden structure standing up against it.

The trees were thinner back here. Thinned. The smooth tops of a whole lotta stumps filled the spaces between the remaining trunks for the last fifty feet, and the trees at the edge had all but their highest branches trimmed away where they faced the wall. The path broke out of the wooded area onto a wide swath of clear land, low-growing grass up against the base of the wall and more of that dirt track running alongside.

Daryl had gotten only a quick look at the wall last night, looming up ahead of them as they came in through the woods with just half a moon and a field of stars lighting the way. To his fuzzy head it looked like the walls of a castle or something, a hundred foot barrier of sheer, smooth rock rising up out of the ground, ready to keep them out or maybe keep them in. In the daylight it was about ten feet high, with the rebar and wire up top giving it an extra five feet. Not nearly so imposing but impressive enough, if it encircled the entire grounds as he suspected it did. Built like that ‘cause it looked nice, but ending up functional in a way nobody would’ve ever expected it to be, and Daryl had to give credit to whoever thought to build it, way back when.

A flash of movement drew his attention to the top of that wooden structure, something like a deer blind only smaller. A one-man guard tower with ladder access through the floor, built high enough for a good view beyond the wall but closed-in to give the man inside some protection. An unfamiliar face peeked out from the little window on this side, a young red-haired guy with cheeks full of freckles and a rifle in his hand.

“Hey, Brett!” Orion waved as he slid out of the ATV to follow Greg to the tower’s base.

Greg offered a wave of his own. “How’s the view this morning? It’s a good day for lookin’ at the clouds.”

“Trees are green and the water’s fine,” Brett answered.

“Good to hear it,” Greg replied, and both the men, as well as Orion, gave a single, final nod.

Brett ducked back inside the tower. Greg climbed up with him, leaving Orion waiting at the base of the ladder, head tilted back as far as he could like he was trying to see what was happening above. When he reappeared, instead of heading right back to the ATV, Greg pulled Orion over to the wall to speak, too quiet to reach them where they waited in their seats. Daryl couldn’t see Orion’s face but he watched the boy’s shoulders droop, saw him curl his hands into fists at his sides and start to shake his head. Greg said his name once, quiet but emphasized enough to carry, and whatever protest Orion was about to stage stopped before it began.

Greg clapped Orion on the shoulder, and that curly head nodded. Shoulders still hunched, Orion set off to the right along the dirt track following the wall, dog trotting along beside him, and Greg returned to the ATV. He didn’t explain why he sent Orion off on foot, and Daryl didn’t ask. Wasn’t a stretch to think the boy’d have his chores, same as everyone else, no matter what he’d rather be doing. Greg took them the opposite way, left alongside the wall, headed for the next tower off in the distance.

It was the same deal at the next tower, and all the ones after that. Greg arrived at each one, each watch point, the guard peeked out, and they had the same conversation with little variation to the script. Afterward, Greg climbed up into the tower for a longer, private talk lasting anywhere from three to five minutes. The seventh stop, which Greg referred to as Watch Point One, had two towers. One on each side of what would’ve been the lodge’s main gate back when it was still a hunting lodge.

A metal header arched across the opening, bearing the lodge’s name and the old gate itself, an ornate iron thing, stood open alongside the packed dirt drive. In its place, closing the grounds off from what lurked outside, was a pulley-operated setup nearly identical to the one they built at the prison. Two faces peeked out at them this time, one from each tower. The man from last night with the glasses and ponytail in one, and a teenage girl in the other, who looked too much like the man for that to be coincidence.

Greg waved up at them, as he had done with every tower before. “Tamsyn. Brock. How’s the view...”

Beth bumped Daryl’s knee with hers and leaned over. “Those are code words, aren’t they?”

“Mm.” He let his gaze trickle away from the scene ahead, to watch as Beth slid her hand onto his leg. “Think so.”

She gave his thigh a little squeeze and left it there, her palm a warm weight even though his jeans. With her other hand she touched the back of the driver’s seat. “When he says the part about lookin’ at clouds, that means ‘everythin’s okay inside the walls, too’. Do you think he’s talkin’ about us?”

That was a safe bet to make, and Daryl nodded. “Probably.”

Beth’s fingers twitched against his thigh, and she let out a little huff of breath through her nose. “I guess that’s fair. I keep thinkin’ these people are the strangers, but to them, we are.”

They were, and it wasn’t a position Daryl particularly liked being in, neither. He saw the way the eyes of each watcher cut hard to him and Beth just before Greg started speaking, every time without fail. It had to matter some, that Greg appeared to trust them, that their leader claimed all was well despite the two intruders inside the walls. But Daryl wasn’t willing to bank on the faith of these others just yet, not when he knew exactly the sort of thoughts he’d be thinking if he were in their shoes. Ritual complete, the girl pushed her glasses higher on her nose and cut him and Beth another quick look, narrow-eyed and tight-jawed, before ducking back inside, while over at the left Greg started up the ladder to join Brock. The two men stood far enough inside the tower that Daryl could just barely make out the backs of their heads through the little window.

After a beat, Beth leaned into him a little more and tipped her head over onto his shoulder, which reminded him of what he’d been waiting to ask her. “Your shoulder fucked?”

“Yeah.” Still facing the tower, Beth rolled her left shoulder, while drawing little swirl patterns on his thigh with the side of her right thumb. “Lyle wrenched it pretty hard when we were fightin’. I didn’t think it was that bad...”

“Til you had to use it,” Daryl finished, and Beth’s hair swished against his shirt as she nodded. “Rub it for you later, if you want.”

Her swirling thumb paused its motions for a split second, then resumed, a slower speed with a little more pressure.  “Only if you use your magic fingers.”

Some rumbling sort of chuckle rolled out of him and as it did, Daryl reached up to flick her nose with the fingers in question. Those fingers, the pair of them that still smelled like her after what he did with them this morning, even though he washed them. The part of him that still wanted to feel dirty about liking that crumbled into tiny pieces when Beth caught his hand and breathed deep, pushed the tip of her nose right between the two digits and flicked her tongue at the apex of them. The little sigh that followed wiggled down his spine and burst warm and pleasant through his belly.

That could be a problem, if he wasn’t careful, but careful or not Daryl couldn’t resist bringing his fingers up to his own nose to sniff, needing that whiff of her almost as much as she did.

And it was Beth’s turn to groan, low and deep from the back of her throat as she pressed her thighs together tight. “God, Daryl. We still gotta get through the rest of this ‘tour’.”

The millions of other things he’d rather be doing rushed into his head, that same old film reel in the most vivid color, and yeah—problem—but only if he let it be one. It couldn’t be a bad thing, this glowing heat burning in his chest, light as air and warm as the sun, solid as the weight of her body against his, a comfort like nothing else he’d ever known even as it threatened to drive him wild.

He could let it be, let that feeling inside carry him through, as he kept an eye on the towers. On the girl watching her post instead of watching them and the pair of men talking in whispers which carried in sound but not content, staring out across the expanse of forest in front of them. And he could be here with Beth, he could have these stolen few minutes with her this way, and nothing and nobody could tell them they couldn’t. Being together, however they wanted to be, that’s what she said. That was what mattered.

Beth’s breathy laugh drew him back out of his head, just as her warm little palm smoothed down along his thigh. “I like those jeans, by the way.”

He scoffed and dropped his hands into his lap to pull at the offending denim. “I don’t. Too fuckin’ tight.”

That sigh again, this time, just as weighty as before. “I know. That’s the best part. Your ass looks so good in them.”

“Stop.”

“No, really.” Gently, she prodded at his arm with the point of her nose. “When we were walkin’ before, I just wanted to come up behind you and grab a big old handful of Daryl bum.”

He couldn’t hold in the snort that shot out of him, but Beth laughed and squeezed his thigh—a big old handful, just like she said. The warmth inside him was trying its best to shove out the other thing, the spiny little thing sitting under his sternum, certain she had to be lying ‘cause no fucking way. She wasn’t, though, ‘cause she didn’t, and god, all this talk about asses reminded him how much he liked hers all the fucking time in those tight as hell jeans. Even these ones she had on now, a size or so too big on her, did something amazing when Beth put her ass in them and—shit. If he liked looking her that way maybe it wasn’t such a farfetched idea that she might like looking him that way, too.

Beth laid her head back on his shoulder, releasing his thigh as her laughter softened to that quiet giggle, the special one which poked a hole in that creature of protest and sent it wheezing off into the background. This woman.

He pushed a piece of hair away from her face, let his fingers graze her forehead as he did. “Doin’ better? You look better.”

The sound of her hair swishing again, as she nodded. “I think so. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, even if...” Again, her fingers curled against his leg. Curled, extended, and curled again a few times before she found the right words. “Even if havin’ people look at me feels kind of like a swarm of fire ants is crawlin’ all over me.”

“Rather have me all over you.”

He felt the words coming. Felt them, and couldn’t stop them. Wasn’t all that sure he needed to, either, the way they rumbled out and made Beth shiver all over. She turned her body into his and laughed with such warmth he felt it all the way down to his toes, and he’d let every dirty thought in his head come pouring out if it meant she kept laughing just like that for the rest of her life. If they stayed on tonight there was nothing short of a breach in the wall that could stop him from making good on the promise he gave her this morning, however that looked. Even then he’d be willing to try so long as they could find a place to hide.

Reading his mind, ‘cause she always did, Beth let out a sigh that was nearly a whimper and squeezed his thigh again, fingertips pressing into the seam running along the inside. “I’m holdin’ you to that, Mr. Dixon.”

“Shit, girl,” he whispered, sweeping his nose across her forehead. “Don’t make these jeans any tighter.”

Beth laughed again and snuggled down into his side, and he let the joy of the moment seep inside him for those last few precious seconds before movement at the tower drew both of their gazes. Greg’s feet reappeared through the hole in the floor at the top of the ladder, and with his heart still pounding, Daryl straightened up and Beth did the same, each of them sliding a few inches apart, just far enough that she could still rest her leg against his.

Greg hopped back aboard and with a nod to the two of them and a couple of words about the gate which Daryl barely heard, they headed off to the next stop. Beth grabbed hold of his hand and tangled their fingers together in the empty space between their seats, down where Greg couldn’t see while he drove, and kept holding on through the rest of the circuit around the wall—not the full loop, but close to it, and Daryl suspected that’s what Orion had been sent to do.

With the work done, for now, Greg switched gears again and got right into the promised tour. Half sightseeing, half history lesson, driving through the grounds in the ATV to Greg’s practiced commentary. Wasn’t the worst way to spend a morning, even if Hunter had yet to get to the point of all this. Most of the shit he showed them was worth holding Daryl’s interest, even while, down between the seats, he and Beth battled back and forth for whose thumb got to be on top.

After they covered most of the grounds, Greg returned the ATV to the shed and led them off on foot, down the brick pathway through the wooded area, past the three cabins used for storage. The woods and the path opened again to a grassy clearing, and beyond that the glassy blue surface of the lake glittered in the mid-morning light.  Here, the wall stopped at the edges of the grass, leaving a gap of about forty feet between the two ends, blocked off by a triple layer of chain-link and watched by another pair of towers.

Greg waved to each of the guards in turn, but didn’t speak to them, which settled Daryl’s mind on Orion having been sent to run this part of the perimeter before tending to his chores. The boy stood now inside a shed at the clearing’s left edge, its barn doors thrown wide open, working with one of the dozens of kayaks stored there while the dog sprawled out in the grass, gnawing at a bone. Greg waved at Orion, too, when the boy’s sharp eyes noted their arrival, and before his arm could drop down again, gestured to the joint in the wall halfway between the left hand tower and the one beyond it—the first one they’d visited that morning.

The stone on this side of the joint wasn’t the same color, its pattern more varied, some of its pieces smaller. Same thing on the right, about the same span.

“We’ve been expandin’ the wall, as resources allow,” Greg said. “We salvaged some stone from the old lodge and other places nearby, but the progress is on hold, for now.”

Orion jogged across the grass to rejoin the conversation. “We booby-trapped the lake in the meantime. It was my idea!”

Greg inclined his head, wearing that same smile that seemed to be reserved for his nephew. “That it was.”

Orion shrugged, like even though he as the one to bring it up, he wanted to pass it off as no big deal. “I wanted to use mines but we didn’t have any.”

Beth let out a little huff of laughter and Daryl eyed up the kid, who was once again treading into scary territory. Mines. Orion might have proven himself a worthy ally yesterday, but he was still fucking scary when he wanted to be.

“Orion has been readin’ about World War II.” Greg patted Orion on the back and let his hand linger there. “There’s a path, if you know what to look for.”

Was a good idea, really, until the wall was complete and even then, if they wanted to control their lake access that was probably the best way to do it.

“What about the woods?” Beth asked, gaze lingering on the water for a moment before she turned to meet Greg’s eyes. “How do you control access there?”

“There’s one road in,” Greg replied, turning to face the front of the property now, and drawing a path in the air with his finger. “A gravel road off a gravel road that doesn’t exist on too many maps. We always have someone watchin’ the road and the western trailhead. Those two points have direct sight lines to watch points three and ten.”

“Make sense.” Beth nodded, and glanced over at Daryl before shifting her attention fully onto Greg. “And now?”

Greg took a second before answering, holding Beth’s gaze, which—despite the fire ants—held steady. “As of last night, we’re manning the entire watch line.”

Daryl had wondered, at breakfast, just how prepared these people might be for when Dane, or somebody else, inevitably wanted what they had. Beth’s thoughts must have lingered along those same lines on the ride along this morning, given her sweet-voiced interrogation now. Most of the setup here was pretty smart. Smart and organized, and he didn’t doubt Greg would have an answer for any question Beth tossed at him, so he stood back and let her run with it.

“Do you get many people out this way?”

“Some. Mostly groups we’ve found while making runs or out hunting.” Greg tipped his head as though to indicate the pair of towers behind him. “The only people who find us are those who’ve been here before.”

Orion gave a little laugh. “Except Pam and Jake.”

Of those idiots they’d seen nothing all morning, a fact which sat just fine with Daryl. But on the mention of them, Greg gave him and Beth each a knowing look in turn. “They blundered right up to the front gate.”

Daryl snorted. “Them two sure have a knack for finding hidden places.”

Beth muttered something about them being lucky they found this lodge and not the other one, and Greg gave her a nod.

“We’re meetin’ again tonight, after supper, in regards to that. I’d like it if you would join us.” He paused, and slipped again into that more formal way of speaking, hands clasped together loosely in front of him. “You’re welcome to stay on, the two of you, on a permanent basis, if that’s what you choose to do.”

It had been coming all morning, drifting closer and closer like the geese on the lake, now near enough to the shore for their honking to carry up to the clearing. Leading them around the grounds, grand as they were. Showing off the things that didn’t make or break survival but sure as hell made it nicer, like the pond out front, shaded by mature birch trees with their leaves turning gold, and the ever-growing flock of wood ducks and mallards living there and laying eggs. Or the little grove of orange trees, an experiment from a few years back, an undeniable perk now with the trees established and bearing fruit. The massive garden, the barnyard and animals, the cabins which housed the people who lived here—men, women, and children. Families.  A highlight reel on all Hunter’s Lodge had to offer, hidden here in the woods away from the ugliness outside, protected by that giant wall of stone and metal and wire, like some strange mismatch of medieval castle and maximum security prison.

Greg and his people were thriving here—a conclusion he and Beth were undoubtedly meant to reach.

Daryl looked at Beth, knowing before he caught her eye that she wasn’t remotely prepared to give an answer. Of course she knew the invitation for what it was. She might not have been part of the asking, the finding, the inviting-to-stay back then, but she was there. Always in the background. Watching. Helping out wherever she could, welcoming newcomers and doing a lot more work than she’d give herself credit for, when they did this back at the prison. Found people, maybe good people and gave them a chance, brought them into the fold.

Didn’t take much imagination to see what Greg saw, when he looked at them. Two capable bodies, used to working together. Survivors who knew the world for what it was and how to keep alive in it. In escaping Dane’s camp alone, they showed they weren’t afraid to do what they had to in order to stay alive and stay together. Whether they meant to or not, that act alone had allied them with Greg and his people against the other group and Greg didn’t seem the type to pass up that sort of advantage.

Daryl hadn’t been on this side of things before, and wasn’t sure he wanted to be, either, but he couldn’t outright refuse. Staying on in room thirteen was maybe not what they wanted in the long run, but they needed it right now, even if they chose not to take part in the rest of it. Their bodies needed to heal before they could even consider doing anything else, but that all depended on the choices they were given.

“You don’t need to answer that now,” Greg said, reading his mind or reading his face, it didn’t much matter. “I suspect neither one of you is up for travelin’ and will at least be stayin’ the night. We have another empty room, if you—”

“No.” Beth’s answer on that was firm, her voice sharp enough to cut Greg’s off completely. “We stay together.”

Greg nodded once, slowly, either conceding to Beth’s insistence or skirting around it, though he held her gaze steady. Intently. “However long you need, the room is yours.”

Beth let out the breath she was holding, and brushed at the back of Daryl’s hand with her knuckles. Daryl did the same, and left their hands hanging there, side by side, just barely touching. This was probably the best case scenario, for now at least. They were gonna leave, he was sure of that, it was just a matter of when and Daryl was happy for that to be some vaguely defined later, when his entire body wasn’t one giant pain and when Beth’s face didn’t look like she’d gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali.

Looking him now in the eyes, exhausted and bruised but glinting with steel, Beth nodded, and as one they turned back to face the waiting Greg Hunter. In the space between them, she hooked her two littlest fingers around the two littlest of his, and reached with her other hand to accept the one Greg held out in offer.

“All right.” Beth tried her hardest to smile at their host as they shook on it, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Once again,” said Greg, wearing a stilted smile of his own, “welcome to Hunter’s Lodge.”