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Seventeen Days

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Day One

Keep going. I'll catch up.

Daryl leaves the note tucked into the flap of Rick's knapsack. Glenn is on guard duty, and the kid don't give him more than half a glance as he leaves their makeshift camp at an old roadside diner. Probably still half lost in thoughts of Maggie.

Glenn got reunited with his girl.

It ain't right what they did with Daryl's.

Takes him a day and a half of hard walking to get back to the hospital. The walker horde that had descended minutes after they came outside has cleared out–

Beth limp and pale in his arms, smear of blood bright and accusatory on her forehead, and he can't breathe, can barely put one foot in front of the other. He sees Maggie's leg go out from under her like her strings been cut, and he grits his teeth 'cause she never said word one to him about Beth; if he hadn't offered she'd still never even know that her sister had set snares and learned to fire the crossbow and been a total badass and never stopped caring about people, either, and he can't help feeling that Maggie ain't got no right to act like her world is ending when it's him, it's him who, it's…

There's nothing left now but a couple of stragglers still milling around the parking lot that he takes out without even thinking twice. Quick blade to the skull, in and out. They fall like trees after a storm, limbs flailing and broken.

It takes him a minute to orient himself, to find the car, to take a breath and steel himself and open the trunk. The car is baking in the heat and there's a waft of hot air as he pulls on the latch, and he winces in preparation for what he's going to find, and the trunk opens, and… death has been good to his girl. Beth is pale, of course, and there are beads of perspiration on her skin, and—

Daryl jumps back at the faint sound of her respiration, the crossbow off his back and in his arms and pointed at Beth's forehead before he even has time to recognize the motion. "The fuck," he mutters under his breath, because it ain't right, after everything it ain't right, and he's not gonna let her rise, he came back to clean her up and give her a decent burial because that's what she would've wanted, his girl who thought that takin' care of someone in their last moments was beautiful, and it ain't right that he has to be the one to take her down…

Except she ain't moving. Her skin is pallid, but not grey. And he's never heard of a walker taking two or three days to rise up and start stumbling around.

He hesitates, still, and then shoulders the bow and lifts a palm to hover inches from her mouth. If he's wrong and she surges up it'll mean the end of his life, and Daryl finds he don't hate that idea so much. Been fightin' to stay alive for so long it's become a habit. Maybe it's okay to give up the fight when the sunshine is gone.

Beth's almost imperceptible breath tickles his palm. And then maybe he understands Maggie just a little, 'cause his knees give out and he has to grab onto the edge of the trunk to keep from kissing the dirt.

Alive.

Beth's alive.

Day Two

Beth doesn't move from where he has propped her up around the thin pillow. Hasn't moved or spoke or made any indication that she's aware since he lifted her from the trunk of that old sedan and humped halfway across town, back the way they came, back toward the funeral home, and found the little hunting cabin set in behind the copse of trees and settled them there.

Daryl can make it from one end of the cabin to the other in three long strides, but it's got a cot with a blanket that ain't too moth-eaten and a little cooking stove with enough fuel to last them a few weeks. It's better than he could have hoped for, and he spends too much time searching the single cupboard for anything else that might be of use, and adjusting the blanket around Beth's shoulders, and then scouting the perimeter for danger, and finally he has no choice but to crouch at the side of the bed. His fingers shake as he parts Beth's hair. Gently he traces the line of a groove etched into her skull; a groove that starts just beyond the hairline at her brow and follows the curve of her skull to the small, neat hole at the top of her head, raw and red but with no sign of infection. Near as he can Dawn's bullet must've skimmed the surface of her brain and—

Daryl leans back on his haunches, shakes his head. He's never heard of anything like that, but Beth's chest moving slowly up and down gives proof to the observation.

She's alive – and he has no fucking idea what to do.

There is nothing to sterilize or pack her wound. Nothing clean to use for a bandage. No way of knowing how long she'll remain in the coma, and he steadfastly ignores that little voice in the back of his head that says she might never wake up, tells it to go straight to hell, 'cause he's already had weeks and weeks without no Beth in his life and he already knows there's no way he's gonna live without her. He'd survive, yes, but that's just 'cause he's too damn stubborn to give up. But living is another matter.

He briefly considers going back to the hospital, forcing one of those doctors to come back and take care of Beth. But there's nothing they can do without equipment, and he'll be damned if he takes her back inside. They're never getting their hands on his girl again.

He'll make do.

He has to.

Day Four

"Ain't never made squirrel soup before," Daryl says.

Beth doesn't move.

Daryl slurps a sample from the spoon, grimaces. "Ain't too bad," he lies.

Beth doesn't move.

He carefully perches on the edge of the cot, slides his arm behind her back until Beth is resting against his side. He tips her head back to drip a little of the soup into her open mouth. As usual most of it ends up on her chin and dripping onto her shirt and the blanket, and he can hear her in his head -- Daryl Dixon, take you danged time, were you raised in a barn? -- and see the way her eyes would sparkle when she scolded him, and how her lips would turn up a little at the corners so he'd know she wasn't completely serious. Can hear his own grunt of acknowledgement that means he's sorry, and that he'll try to do better, and that he'll clean it all up when he's done. And how she'd beam at him! If anybody else looked at him like that he'd be apt to smack 'em in the head, making him feel like a damned fool, like he ain't as good as anybody else, but with Beth it just makes him want to do better. Want to please her and—

She is dead weight in his arms.

Daryl looks up at the worn beam ceiling. Don't think about it. Blink and blink and—

He finishes feeding her with crisp, precise movements. Some of the soup's gotta be getting inside her; same with the tepid water that follows.

He's just gotta be patient. She'll wake up.

She has to.

Day Ten

"It's yer own damn fault."

Three steps to the door. Three steps to the back wall.

"Always believin' there's gotta be good people left in the world. There ain't no good people, Beth!"

Three steps to the door. Three steps to the back wall.

"You wanna know who's left out there? THE DEAD. And it don't matter if they're breathin' or not, they all want a piece of us! Good people," Daryl sneers.

Noah is good.

Daryl rounds on the cot, where Beth lies motionless. Eyes closed. Respiration steady. The same. The fuckin' same. "Punkass kid left you alone! Took off from that damn hospital fast as his fuckin' feet could carry him and let you get yourself captured AGAIN. What the fuck kind of good is that?"

Three steps to the door. Three steps to the back wall. With each one he stamps down on the fact that Noah told him where Beth was, that Noah led them back to the hospital, that Noah helped try to free Beth and Carol. Did it for his own self. Did it so they'd help him get back to his own people. Self-serving bastard. Nothing good about it. Nothing good about him.

You're good.

Daryl shakes his head.

Three steps to the door. Three steps to the back wall.

Day Twelve

The walkers arrive sometime in the night.

Daryl's stretched out on his back beside the cot. One moment he's asleep, and the next he hears the thump at the door and he's sitting up, his loaded bow aimed at the old wooden slats. Sunlight leaks through the single dirty window to paint a square on the dusty floorboards, the angle and intensity telling him it's barely dawn.

Scuffle of footsteps from the rickety porch. More than one set.

He glances up at Beth. Still sleeping, her chest rising and falling steadily, her hands folded at her stomach just where he placed them the night before. Oblivious to the danger a few steps away.

He's got to protect her.

Daryl eases quietly to his feet, edges toward the window. The angle is bad, but he can see at least three gaunt figures stumbling around on the porch. Skeletal hands lift to paw at the door; skeletal fingers rake at the old wood. One figure – impossible to tell whether it was once male or female – cocks its head and then actually begins gnawing at one of the slats.

There is only one way into the hunting cabin. A single door between him and Beth and the walkers.

The last time he opened a door—

The dog is long gone and the walkers spill inside, a dozen or more, crowding into the foyer and pushing him back along its length. He hollers for Beth to get outside, there's too many of them, and she's got her bad ankle, can't run fast for at least a few more days, he's had enough sprained and broken bones to know that she can't put much pressure on in yet. He sees her hobble away and thinks she's gonna be safe, except when he finally kills the last of the walkers and gets outside there is nothing but a lost backpack and the squeal of tires and the rumble of a car engine and a plume of dust and he runs and runs until his side is splitting and then he runs some more and—

"Get a fuckin' grip," he mutters under his breath.

The crossbow won't do any good at close range. He props it against the cot near Beth's head and eases the knife from his belt, takes a deep breath and then a second for good measure. Takes another look at Beth – her long pale lashes, golden hair that he washed and finger dried as best as he could for her just yesterday. His grip tightens on the knife. If they get inside – if the walkers overwhelm him – he'll make it back to her somehow. She's not gonna walk. Not like that.

Another breath. Then he lifts the latch and opens the door and darts to the left, his blade carving through soft skull even as he's kicking out at a second walker. The first crumbles as he's pulling the knife free, and he slashes to the right to impale the third rotter in a rotting eye socket. The walker he'd kicked back doesn't take long to recover but by that time he's retrieved his knife again and can swivel past it, taking advantage of its stumbling gait to stab quickly in and out of the back of its head. And the fourth – the one he suspected was there but couldn't see from the window – is missing its legs but has managed to crawl halfway across the doorsill before Daryl manages to scramble back and end its half-life forever.

He's barely breathing heavy, yet his heart is beating triple time.

Beth sleeps through it all, oblivious.

 

Day Sixteen

"It's all my fault," Daryl says.

Dirty floorboards beneath his ass, knees drawn up to his chest. He remembers sitting like this when he was a boy, getting punished for something he did or something Merle did or some fabricated reason that his old man pulled out of his ass. Now he leans the back of his head against the cot. Can't face Beth for this.

"I thought it was the dog," he says. Closes his eyes. "Ain't no goddamn excuse. Sure as hell know better than to open a fuckin' door without checkin' first. I just got so caught up in—"

Beth's smug little smile. Teasin' him about finally listenin' to her and believing in some kind of inherent goodness in mankind, which might be a crock of shit but he's tired of running. Tired of steeling himself to deal with the worst of people. Tired of always being on the defensive. Maybe she'll be wrong, maybe whoever's been living in the funeral home and stocking it up with supplies will turn out to be someone he's gotta kill in order to protect her. But maybe she's right, too.

And when she finally gets it, when her eyes go all soft and warm, his heart stops thumpin' for a good half dozen beats before it starts up again.

"Got caught up in you," Daryl admits to the silent room. "Not that it's your fault, not at all. It's all on me, Beth. Got thinkin' maybe things didn't have to be so damned dark all the time. Thinkin' that maybe you and me…" Daryl shifts uncomfortably on the worn floorboards.

The room is blurry when he opens his eyes. He uses his sleeve to swipe at his face, makes himself get to his knees. Takes Beth's cool, dry hand in his. "Thought maybe it was you and me, Beth," he says. "Never felt like that before. But I thought it would be you and me 'til the end."

Outside, the wind rustles through the dry branches.

In the distance, a walker moans mournfully.

"Guess I was right about that after all," he says.

Day Seventeen

Daryl isn't sure what wakes him.

He fell asleep crouched on the floor with his upper body bent over the cot, and his neck and right shoulder ache like a son of a bitch, but it ain't that. He's slept in worse places, in worse positions, and with a hell of a lot worse people. The sun's up, at least an hour past dawn, but it ain't like he's got somewhere to be. He listens, one ear still pressed to the warm blanket, and there's not a sound from outside – nothing on the porch, nothing rattling the string of tin cans he set around the perimeter. He starts to ease up from his awkward position… and freezes.

His hand. Still clasped lightly in Beth's from when he took it, held it, kissed it the night before.

Daryl holds his breath.

And at the count of fifteen, Beth's fingers twitch again.

He lets out a shaky breath, lifts his head.

Her eyes are still closed and her skin is still chalk-pale, but the tension around her jaw has eased. As he watches, her lips move minutely with a soft inhalation of breath.

His own jaw is tight, his throat clammed up like a politician's purse. His lips form her name but nothing comes out but a rasping wheeze of air. Beth's awakening is exactly what he wants and everything he fears. It ain't like him to admit to that, even inside where no one can hear or see. Showing fear got him another punch in the face, another split lip, another broken finger. An admonition to 'man up, Darylina', a beer can upended on his head.

But he's afraid. That what he felt was all a dream. That a girl like Beth could never, would never…

Beth's fingers curl around his.

And when he can steel himself to look at her face, she is watching him. A slight furrow to her brow, but blue, blue eyes wide and sharp and aware.

"Daryl?" she rasps out.

His hand convulses around her smaller one, reflexively lifts it to his chest. He tries to speak, but at first all that comes out is a shaking, quivering sigh. Relief, release, wonder, awe. He has so much to tell her – that he found the others, that her sister is safe, that she's going to be okay, that he'll take care of her always and that's he's sorry, so sorry, he failed her and he'll never fail her again, he's so sorry—

"I love you," he blurts out.

It only takes a moment for her brow to smooth. For the corners of her mouth to curl up the way he remembers. "I know, silly," she tells him. "I love you too, Daryl Dixon."

She closes her eyes, but her fingers remain curled tight and strong around his.