They've been a long time on the road when Daryl spots the car come over the rise of the hill, too fast for them to run and hide.
He doesn't remember the last time they saw another person. Has it been weeks, or months? They'd only come out of the woods to scavenge the abandoned cars by the roadside, driven by hunger and need. Winter's coming again soon, and he's determined that this time she'll be warm enough - there has to be something in the long lost possessions of all those souls that fled.
It's been long enough without seeing anyone else that the car is able to take them by surprise, but not long enough that they've forgotten to be wary. By the time a man steps out from the driver's side, Daryl already has his crossbow raised, his body forward and angled to block the newcomer's view of Beth as best he can. She stays back, the compound bow not yet removed from her shoulder, but he can see that she's got a hand upon it, that she's ready to use it if she needs to.
He knows now, what needs to be done in situations like this. Knows exactly what type of trouble there is out there on the road, from men who think they've got the right to claim whatever and whoever they wish. He's got scars to tell the stories of those who've tried, Beth has a few of her own too. They've learned their lessons, and Daryl's learned just how far he'll go to protect her.
"Hello there," the man greets them, hand raised in a gesture of greeting. It's not until a woman steps out of the passenger side of the car that Daryl relaxes slightly. It lessens the risk, that there's a woman there. Lessens it enough that he's no longer prepared to put a bolt through the man's head as soon as he twitches.
"Hey." Daryl greets them gruffly, remaining firmly in front of Beth as he peers at the two travellers warily.
"You two got a camp near here?" The man asks, and Daryl shakes his head even as Beth remains silent, unwilling to attract attention to herself.
"No camp, we're just passing through. Don't want no trouble."
"You two together?" It's the woman this time, her gaze moving past him to fix upon Beth.
"It's her I'm asking." This time the woman's tone is harsh, a hint of warning in it as she peers around him more intently towards Beth. "You with him of your own free will?"
Daryl bristles at the question, but at the same time it helps him to judge them, to know that these are good people as Beth would say. They wouldn't bother to ask otherwise.
Daryl knows how it looks - he, a rough redneck on the wrong side of 30, and she, a young girl, deceptively delicate next to him even with the knife on her hip and the compound bow slung across her shoulder.
He can practically feel her take a deep breath before she steps forward to stand beside him, calming herself. They ain't so used to people anymore, she and him, not used to the good ones in particular.
"I am." She's calm as she says it, her gaze challenging, and Daryl feels her hand come up to grip his elbow, even as he keeps his own hands tightly on the crossbow. "We've been together a long time now, nothing for you to concern yourself over."
The woman frowns, "Don't look like you would've been old enough to make decisions like that for yourself before the turn."
"That ain't none of your damn business," Daryl bites out, "You want to get back in your car and let us be on our way? You heard her, we're together, her choice. Nothing further you need to do here."
He stares them down as the two of them exchange a look, a wordless understanding passing between them as Beth grips his elbow tighter. He doesn't need to look to know her other hand will be on the hilt of her knife.
"You looking for shelter?" The woman finally asks, her gaze heavy upon both of them. "We have a community, a safe space. There's other women there, children. We've got walls, fences to protect us. It can't be easy, living like this."
It hasn't been, and only they will ever know what it is they've gone through on the worst days, what it is they've survived to make it this far.
This isn't the first time they've been offered shelter since they've been out here on their own, but it's the first time in a long time that Daryl might even think of accepting it, from these people, these good people as he's hoping they are.
"How do we know you're for real?" He asks, the crossbow still trained upon them. "How do we know it's safe?"
"You can come back with us, or you can make your own way there." The woman tells them, her lips quirking as if she's thought of something humorous. "It's only ten miles down the road, then you take turnoff 61. You can't miss it, just follow the signs."
"We'll think about it." Beth's voice is quietly confident where she speaks from next to him, dismissing the newcomers.
"We have some questions we ask people though, before we let them in." It's the man's turn to speak now, his gaze calculating upon them. "You mind if I ask them now?"
Daryl shrugs, allowing himself to lower his crossbow as he prepares to answer.
"How many walkers have you killed?"
"Too many to count." It rolls off his tongue easily, and he wonders what's next, how they judge the worthiness of those who come seeking shelter.
"How many people have you killed?"
This time, he has to think. It's not that there's been so many, it's just that he hasn't kept count. Hasn't wanted to think on them overly much.
"Nine, between us."
He should've known that Beth would remember, should've known she'd kept a count of all those miserable lives, unable to let them go.
It's Daryl's turn to answer now and he meets the man's gaze head on, doesn't flinch under it or falter. "One, to put him out of his pain. The rest because they were no good sons of bitches who needed to be put down." His tone hardens before he continues, he needs to know for sure before he takes her anywhere, before he exposes her to any sort of danger. "You got men like that at your camp? Cause if you do..."
"Men like that aren't allowed in our community." The woman replies, "You'll be safe there, the both of you. We could use people like you, people who know what it's like outside the walls."
"You heard her, we'll think about it." Daryl's reply is gruff, but the pair don't seem to be offended as the woman nods.
"If you decide to turn up then tell them that Sasha and Pete sent you."
They wait until the car disappears into the distance before leaving the road and melting into the woods once more, preparing to hide themselves there, to set up a camp for the night.
Normally they might divide the tasks, one setting up their perimeter and beginning a fire while the other hunts dinner for them, but today he keeps her by his side until he's finally managed to shoot a squirrel, barely enough to fill both their bellies tonight. Good or not, he knows now that there's people nearby and he won't have either of them taken by surprise.
He's almost lost her once, and he's learned that he'll do whatever it takes to ensure that never happens again. They might be a strange team, but they make a damn good one, their instincts and responses to each other honed by so many months together.
"What do you think?" She asks him as they sit side by side, each eating their share of the squirrel, Beth chewing slowly as if to try and make the meal go further.
"I dunno, Beth. Could check it out, then make a call."
She nods, returns to her meal, her eyes downcast for a moment before she turns them back to him.
"You never know, maybe... Maybe someone we know is there. They could be."
"Could be." Daryl agrees, bumping her shoulder with his, unwilling to say more. Could be, but he's not going to get his hopes up. It's been more than a year, maybe a year and a quarter judging by the seasons, and they've seen no signs of any other member of their group. Let her believe though, let her hope at least till they get there.
"We'll go tomorrow then," Beth murmurs, "Check it out from a distance first and then decide. She said they had walls... Maybe we could be safe for awhile and just rest."
"You rest now," Daryl tells her, "I'll take first watch."
Beth finishes her meal and disposes of the bones before she takes her place on the ground, curled up next to his leg, her back pressed to it. Daryl lowers his hand to rest it on her head, runs it over her hair a couple of times until he hears her breathing slow.
If there truly is safety then he's willing to try, to give that to her. They've been out on the road too long, he knows that. Too much time out in the wild, and he's begun to forget what safety feels like, begun to forget how to be around people - how to be around anyone but her. Winter's coming soon though, just a few more weeks away if he's right, and they could do with walls around them when it does. He remembers last winter, the flu from which she almost didn't pull through, and he knows he can't let it happen again.
They'll follow the road, turn off where the lady said, and they'll see what they can see. Maybe it'll be the answer they've been looking for and maybe it won't, but he's gotta try, gotta see if it could be for them.
Beth's quiet breaths fill the air around him, and Daryl allows himself to rest his hand upon her head once more, fingertips brushing the hair that curls slightly near her ear.
Yeah, he's got reasons to try.
"What do you think the chances are that one of them could be there?"
He knows she's been thinking it since yesterday, ever since the woman gave them the offer. She thinks about it every time they come across a group, can't help herself when it comes to hoping.
"Not great," he replies, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Not impossible though."
If he was being honest, then he would admit that he's thought it too, wondered if it could be a possibility. He knows at least some of the others made it out, but can they have made it this far, through long miles and hard months? He and Beth barely scraped through at times, but they've made it, they've made it and they've kept looking, kept searching for what they might never find.
They've taken the turnoff, and by the signs he's seen he thinks he knows what they're heading for. If he's right, then these people have a good set up - proper walls and fences to keep them safe.
It's not far now, and they leave the road to make their way through the woods instead, pausing on the edge of them to get a proper feel for the place they're heading and make a decision once and for all.
He's scanning the perimeter defences when Bath places a hand on his arm, and he turns to look at her to see a smile on their face.
"Daryl, look!" She exclaims, and he follows the direction of her pointed finger to see what's gotten her attention. It's easy to see - there, inside the fences they can see children playing - can see a young woman with a baby balanced on her hip.
"You wanna do this?" He asks, waiting for the answer even though he thinks he knows what it'll be.
"We do it together," Beth replies, "As always."
He nods, his throat suddenly tight, and with a motion of his head he indicates that she should follow him back to the road.
He might be willing to take a chance, but Daryl Dixon still keeps his crossbow to hand, still keeps himself one step in front of his companion, and still keeps his eyes firmly locked upon their target as they approach it, searching for any clues about the people living there that he can find.
Ready or not, they've arrived, and the gates of the prison loom over them.