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Fall Right In

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Chapter 1 - My Head Is Filled with Things to Say

*~*

Through the flickering candlelight in this borrowed kitchen, his eyes found hers and held, and he saw when it hit her, the moment she understood. Her little ‘oh’, the glint in her eyes as she stared back at him—yeah, she knew. She, Beth, who he was starting to believe might the one person in the world who could read through all his bullshit and see the truth of things.

As terrifying as that was, as much as it squirmed unfamiliar and heavy in his gut, he didn’t regret what he said and he didn’t regret when she asked—insisted—on knowing why. Didn’t regret wanting her to know, even if he couldn’t tell her outright, and something warm fluttered in his chest when Beth figured out that she was the good, the good who survived and made him believe it of others.

But the dog barked, and he reached for that pig’s foot and jumped up from the table before the Daryl he was could tell the Daryl he used to be to keep his ass in that chair and find out what happens next. He took the out like a coward, but not without instantly missing the way her face looked before.

“Daryl, wait.”

Her fingers grazed his arm and he turned, half way through the door to the foyer, to find her close behind him with his crossbow in her arms.

Her gaze flicked downward for a moment, but then she met his eyes again as she held out the weapon. “Just in case,” she said, with a quick shrug and a hint of teeth.

Beth leaned against the door frame and Daryl took the crossbow from her with a nod. “Good thinkin’.”

Before he could fully turn back around, the dog yelped, a high-pitched sound of terror cut short by rasping growls and the unmistakable sound of tearing flesh. Daryl jumped back a step and behind him, Beth gasped. Movement flashed in the moonlight shining between the planks nailed to the front door, and a ragged, rotting body slammed hard against them, rattling the glass and the hinges before stumbling away.

“Shit.”

That was Beth, but she stole the word right out of his open mouth. Damn dog must’ve led them right to the front door.   Daryl dropped the dripping pig’s foot and turned back to Beth, who stood ready with her knife in her hand.

They couldn’t see much from the ground floor, with the windows all boarded up, so he tossed his head toward the stairs and Beth nodded. The walkers hadn’t seen them yet. They had time to either wait them out or plan an escape route. Daryl knew her ankle hurt, but her worn old cowboy boots made hardly a sound as she climbed the stairs behind him, like she were a born hunter instead of some damn farmer’s daughter.   The staircase led up to a long hallway spanning the width of the house with doorways leading off either side. Daryl pushed open the first door on the left and crossed the room to peer out the window down into the moonlit yard.

There weren’t any walkers visible from here, but muffled sounds of feeding filtered up from below. Dog must’ve gone down on the veranda, then.

“I don’t think they saw us,” Beth said, coming up beside him, her thin fingers resting on the window ledge. Fingers delicate enough to dance across piano keys and strong enough to plunge a knife into a walker’s skull.

“No, we got lucky.”

But he meant was, if Beth hadn’t interrupted him when she did, calling him back with the melody of her voice, he might’ve done something dumb like opening the door for a doomed dog and maybe dooming them both while he was at it. Beth turned her face up to look at him, all pale and glowing in the moonlight, and smiled a little, reminding him of that moment before in the kitchen. That fluttering in his chest flared again and her eyes, wide open as always, sparkled a little like maybe she was remembering it, too.

“Let’s check the back,” he said, tearing his gaze away before he fell right into her.

Darkness obscured most of the yard at the rear of the building, and what it didn’t was accomplished by the barrier of trees between the property and the road. There didn’t seem to be anything shuffling around out there, though, which probably meant the walkers were isolated to that group out front and not a larger herd. The only movement came from the swaying of the branches in the breeze.

Beth bumped his arm with her elbow. “Do you think they’ll wander off?”

“Have to wait ‘n see, I guess.” Daryl cast another glance out the window, trying to make out anything at all in the darkness below. “Should make a plan, either way.”

“We could bust open one of the back windows,” Beth said, turning now to put her back to the window, looking up at him and making it impossible not to look back down at her. “You said the road’s just through those trees, right? We could run for it.”

It weren’t a bad plan, if they needed to get out. With luck the walkers would wander off, like she said, and they wouldn’t have to run in the dark. He wasn’t sure he could stay here anymore, though, least not much longer than it took to rest Beth’s ankle. The spell of this place, whatever it was hanging in the air giving the illusion of peace or safety, fell apart with that first raspy growl of walkers outside.

“There’s a good size window in that back office,” Daryl said, stepping back from the window. “We’ll get our shit and get ready, in case.”

They’d taken two, maybe three steps back toward the stairs when he heard it. Daryl froze, and Beth froze, too, catching his eyes immediately. He spared half a breath to be impressed, proud really, that she hadn’t been fooled. ‘Cause he’d grown up hearing sounds like that, a whistle of birdsong from amongst the trees, answered seconds later by another much closer bird, but Beth hadn’t.

Birds didn’t sing at night, but men did. And whoever belonged to those hunting calls sure as hell knew about the two of them holed up here in the house.

“Daryl…”

He heard the hitch in her voice and hated how the thought of men outside started his heart pounding and his adrenaline rushing like no walker ever could. Eyes that had looked back at him in a candlelit room, flickering with possibilities and hope and everything good, now shone wide with moonlit fear. Could be nothing, he wanted to say to her. Could just be whoever belonged to the stash downstairs, and maybe they’d be decent and they’d make it work.

But it felt wrong, every bit of it. The dog. Walkers out front. Men at the back. Whistles in the dark and every hair on his neck standing on end. Daryl’s chest heaved with a heavy breath and a single thought wove its way through all the rest.

Trap.

“C’mon!”

His whisper echoed harshly in the quiet house, but that didn’t matter. He had to get them out—out right the fuck now. He reached for Beth’s arm but she was already moving, and their boots pounded on the worn old hardwoods, Beth and her damn ankle right on his tail. One of the rooms near the stairs had French doors out to the balcony, and he pushed through them to the outside, glass panes banging when he shoved them aside and again as Beth barrelled through. Daryl hit the railing and stopped dead, Beth stumbling into his back. He caught her with the arm not holding his crossbow, drawing her in beside him as his heartbeat pounded right out through his chest and into the night.

No longer feeding, the walkers stumbled about the yard like walkers did, shuffling aimlessly when there wasn’t a meal in sight, except now one, two, half a dozen or more turned their rotten faces to look up. Daryl’s arm tightened around Beth’s waist and he hauled them back into the shadows of the overhanging roof, but it was too late. The snarling below intensified as the walkers gathered at the pillars, enticed by the sight and sound and smell of their next meal, and any thought he’d had of a quick escape off the balcony vanished.

“I could try drawing them away—”

“No!” Beth’s answer was explosive, louder maybe than she meant it to be, and she gripped the front of his shirt in her fist, shaking her head. “No,” she said, through clenched teeth. “We go together.”

Her eyes burned into his and held, driving away any more idiot thoughts of leaving her side, and he conceded with a nod and a mumbled word. She was right—again. With multiple threats, he needed her watching his back as much as she needed him watching hers. And the men, well, Daryl didn’t much care what they wanted from him, but Beth…

A shudder rolled across his shoulders, and he shook it off as they crept back inside through the French doors.

“Our pack’s downstairs,” Beth whispered from behind him, her words making little puffs of air on the back of his neck. “In the kitchen.”

Daryl nodded and held up his hand, hovering just inside the door to the room they were in, Beth a warm weight against his back.   He couldn’t see the stairs from here, just the top of the wooden handrail. He cocked his ear toward it, listening.   Inside was as quiet as ever, the only noise coming from the walkers out front.

“Okay.” Daryl kept his voice low and turned so he could see Beth’s face. “Kitchen first, for the pack, then out the window in the washroom ‘cross the hall, got it? When you get out, you run. Run to the woods and don’t stop ‘til you can’t run no more.”

“Daryl--”

“I’m right behind you, don’t worry,” he said, though with the way she was favouring that ankle, while trying to hide how much it hurt her, worry squirmed its way into his gut, heedless of his own advice. “Get your knife ready. Let’s go.”

Nobody—and no body—challenged them on the way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Beth blew out the candles and scooped them into their pack, and Daryl added the jar of pig’s feet and the rest of the peanut butter before they hurried together across the hallway. At the back corner of the parlour’s second room was the little washroom with a decent sized window and a clear shot toward the woods. Daryl had just enough time to pull the pocket door shut behind them before another whistle sounded from right outside.

Beth jerked her hands away from the window sash and crouched down in the space between the toilet and sink, looking over at him to make sure he heard. He gave her a quick nod and crouched down, too, though the light was wrong for anyone outside to see him through the glass. Nothing happened again for another minute or so until a twig snapped in the near distance, followed by a harshly whispered admonishment from outside their window.

A bark of laughter came from further out, and the words spoken after it were anything but apologetic. “…know we’re here anyway. He didn’t take the bait.”

“Keep your fuckin' mouth shut, O’Donnell,” said the one standing next to the building.

The farther-away voice—O’Donnell—laughed again. “We’ll get you your little songbird, Gorman, once we take out the trash.”

“If we don’t get eaten first,” growled the other, the one called Gorman. “Keep your voice down.”

The pair moved away, toward the back, their voices fading from his hearing though he’d stopped listening anyway. He heard enough, and so had Beth, by her too-wide eyes as she stared across the bathroom at him, breathing hard and clutching her knife with white knuckles. Daryl counted off two minutes in his head, then motioned for Beth to move to one side so he could open the window from the other. After the initial effort to get it moving, the window slid up with hardly a noise, and he neither heard nor saw anyone outside.

It took another minute to remove the planks nailed across the opening, more owing to the need for silence than the effort it took. The wood was solid but the nails weren’t meant for the task of holding the boards indefinitely; a half-hearted groan of protest and they pulled right out.

Daryl tossed the last one to the side, leaving them a spot below to land safely. “Come on, Beth.”

She stood, still favouring that ankle but not saying a word about it, only uttering a small squeak when he grabbed her around the middle to lift her up and send her out feet first.

“Okay, let go now,” she said, once seated on the sill, one hand holding her knife and the other gripping the window frame. “Don’t forget to run.”

Behind him, from somewhere inside the house, a floorboard creaked. Daryl released Beth and she dropped outside, landing with a pained cry at the same time as a crash echoed through the house—the sound of a boot kicking down a door. Quick footsteps followed, then another, closer door crashed. To the sound of careful footsteps approaching the washroom, Daryl tossed their pack out the window, pausing just long enough to see Beth running for the trees before lifting his bow and taking aim.

The pocket door near shattered with the force of the kick. Daryl released the trigger but the black outline of the body in the doorway dodged the bolt meant for its head.   A gun barrel shone in a shaft of moonlight and Daryl charged, driving his shoulder into the solid midsection of his attacker. They crashed to the floor and Daryl landed two quick punches before the asshole beneath him got a knee up and into his belly.

He landed on his back with somebody’s fists in his face, blind except for the slivers of light and the body moving in it. He swung his crossbow toward the shadow and the man grunted, landing hard against the wall, giving Daryl the chance he needed to get to his feet a split second before the other.

Daryl raced for the foyer but a foot caught his and he landed hard, sliding into the wall of the stairs. His attacker was on him immediately, but Daryl got his feet up and kicked, sending the man careening back toward the office door, but he caught the frame and launched himself back. Daryl rolled out of the way and the man crashed into the side wall of the stairs but didn’t fall, and rounded on him with two great, sweeping punches that didn’t connect.

The gun barrel caught the light again and again Daryl charged, pushing his crossbow into the son-of-a-bitch’s belly and diverting the bullet into the ceiling. He stomped his foot hard until the hand holding the gun released the weapon and kicked it away as he bolted for the front door.

The walkers clawing at the pillars saw him immediately but he didn’t pause, running along the veranda toward the side of the house where Beth had gone and hoping he was fast enough to outrun the man now charging out the door behind him. A walker stumbled close but he thrust his knife through its eye and shoved the corpse behind him, running, running, until he made the jump clear over the railing onto the grass below.

He rolled to a stop on his back, cocked, loaded, and shot his bow, imbedding the bolt clean through the forehead of a uniformed cop.

What the hell?

A walker growled and Daryl spun around to dispatch it, first knocking it off balance with his crossbow, then driving his knife deep into the side of its decayed head. Most of the others were feeding on the cop behind him, tearing the flesh from his lifeless body with their usual vigour. And in front of him, at the edge of the trees, Beth Greene landed her boot on the knee of the walker shuffling toward her, sending it sprawling to the ground before stabbing it in the side of the head.  A total of three walkers lay in a circle around her now, and two more were headed her way. Daryl loaded his bow and took out the closest one, and before he could shoot again, Beth pulled the bolt from the first one’s head and stabbed it through the eye socket of the second.

She spun back around to face him, and fuck if she didn’t look like some wild woman, a warrior goddess or something, there in the moonlight all high on adrenaline, covered in sweat and blood, breathing hard and grinning wide from a fight well fought.

I can take care of myself.

He wanted to run to her, to do something crazy like swing her through the air or hug her or worse, but at the last second he pulled back. That fluttering in his chest was getting harder and harder to ignore but they weren’t out of it yet, not until they got away from this cursed house. Mindful of the walkers still feasting behind him, Daryl went to the window to retrieve their pack.

“Dar—rmmph!”

Daryl jerked around and raised his bow at the sound of her scream. The second cop, the one he’d forgotten about in the aftermath, pressed his gun to Beth’s head.

“There, there, sweetheart,” the one called Gorman said, as he buried his nose in Beth’s hair. He took a long sniff, eyes half closing, and he slipped his hand from over her mouth to rip her knife away and toss it into the grass at her feet.

Daryl moved forward, crossbow trained on Gorman’s stupid smirking face. “Let her go!”

“Or what?” Gorman laid his palm on Beth’s belly, digging his fingers in just under the edge of her shirt. “You gonna stop me? Ah, ah—that’s close enough.”

Gorman pushed the gun harder against Beth’s temple and she bit her lip with enough force to make it bleed.

“You’re gonna let her go,” Daryl said, with calmness he didn’t feel. His insides burned and that fluttery thing in his chest ached when he breathed.

Gorman laughed, a cold, oily sound which slithered out of him like something ugly and dead, as he ducked behind Beth until only a hint of his slicked hair was visible, using her as his goddamn shield. “I don’t think so, redneck. I worked long and hard for this sweet birdie, and besides, you owe me. For O’Donnell.”

Daryl’s breath left him in a rush and he swallowed back the words waiting on his tongue, about how he owed nobody nothing and Beth weren’t no sweet birdie and any asshole who thought otherwise was begging for a bolt to the brain. But Beth’s eyes sought his and held, and Daryl bit his tongue and shut up. His finger itched on the bow’s trigger, but he couldn’t get a clean shot. Gorman’s fingers itched, too, slipping back and forth across the pale skin on Beth’s belly. Beth shook under his hold, a vibration which started in her feet and carried clean up to her jaw.

Her eyes stayed fixed on his across the space between them, which might as well have been miles instead of just a few yards. Tears stained her cheeks but in her eyes a fire blazed. Daryl followed the movement of her hand, watched as those delicate fingers gripped the gun in her holster, the one they’d taken from the walker in the woods. The one Gorman overlooked when he disarmed her of her knife.

She swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and squeezed her eyes shut. With the world spinning around them in some sort of strange slow motion, Beth drew and fired. Both she and Gorman fell to the ground, and Daryl didn’t remember moving, only landing on his knees beside her as she fought to sit up, swaying and dazed but alive.

He pulled her up and away from the dead cop with the bullet through his head and then he was running, trees whipping by, branches slapping and snapping in his face until the woods disappeared and there was the road, and a car with a painted cross in the window, lonely and waiting for two dead cops who weren’t coming back. They’d left the keys in the ignition and nobody guarding the car, unless you counted the walkers stumbling through the woods toward the sound of his footsteps.  

Beth scrambled into the passenger seat and Daryl started the engine. The car roared to life and he pulled a squealing u-turn, floored the gas and sped off into the night.

*~*

Chapter Text



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Chapter 2 - What Is Covering the Better Part of Me

*~*

After a while, Daryl didn’t even see the road anymore, just held tight to the wheel while the car sped along through the darkness.  He kept looking at the woman beside him instead, curled up asleep on bench, her head in the centre, knees bent, feet against the door. She slept fitfully, sometimes lying there all still and quiet, peaceful like she ought to be, but other times breathing hard, tossing her head and mumbling words he could barely make out, except it weren’t no happy song she was singing in her dreams.

He couldn’t get that vision of her out of his mind, Beth in the moonlight, taking out those walkers all by herself. They’d worked on that, those weeks since the moonshine and the fire, along with tracking and shooting the crossbow, and she learned how to do it quick and efficient, especially with walkers bigger than her. But she hadn’t done it alone, ‘til now, and not with men lying in wait to do worse things than trying to eat her.

As if on cue, Beth whimpered in her sleep and half rolled onto her back, her right arm reaching out for something while her other hand curled into a fist. Didn’t take a rocket scientist to know what she dreamt about. That image he tried his damnedest to keep away, no matter how amazing she’d been. How brave and strong, saving herself like she had. Part of him wanted to wake her, but she needed the sleep, even a bad one, and he didn’t know when she’d be able to rest again.

He let her sleep and kept driving, wishing he knew what was better—reliving the moment in her dreams, or thinking about it while awake.

Sometime later, when the three-quarter tank of gas had run down to less than a quarter, when the horizon started changing from black to indigo, a pair of walkers stumbled onto the road ahead. Their grotesque faces caught in the headlights, and Daryl snapped himself out of his tape-looped memory replay to swerve the car around them. The motion caused Beth’s legs to slide off the seat and she jolted her body upright, staring frantically ahead without seeing anything.

“Beth.” Daryl reached out to touch her wrist, but she pulled away, shrinking into the corner of the car, panting for breath with her eyes shut tightly.

“Beth!” he said, louder this time, resisting the urge to reach out for her again. “Beth! Wake up, girl.”

Her breathing changed from the frantic panting to a deeper, shakier kind. After two or three of those, Beth opened her eyes and as their gazes met, he knew this time she could see. Her lips twitched in something that almost, but not quite, looked like a smile, and she pulled herself out of the corner to sit squarely in the seat, staring out the windshield with too-wide eyes, arms wrapped tightly around her middle.

She stayed silent and staring for the time it took the fuel gauge to hit empty and a swath of blood red to join the indigo on the horizon. In the passing hours, Daryl considered keeping the car, but decided against the risk. It was too clean inside, like the cops themselves, which meant they weren’t living in it, probably had an established base in a building somewhere. That kind of setup took people and resources, and he didn’t want to be caught anywhere near this car when the cops’ people came looking. He pulled the off the road and into the woods in the gap between a couple of widely spaced trees. The engine sputtered and died and the car rolled to a stop against a large tree trunk. Beth swayed with the motion but stayed put, still looking straight ahead.

Daryl watched her for a moment, waiting, but she didn’t turn. Her breathing quickened, just a little, and she dug her fingers into her thighs, so he knew she was there and not somewhere else.   But she wouldn’t look at him, and something cold and heavy settled in his gut at the thought of why.

A search of the car yielded a few things they could use—a spare handgun and ammo, an old canvas bag with a stash of pre-packaged snacks, water, and cans of baked beans, a black jacket with an Atlanta PD logo on it, and a sturdy pair of women’s work boots. Through all the rummaging, Beth kept silent, not saying a word when he handed her the boots he thought might fit, as she laced them up, or even as she followed him across the road and into the woods on the other side, away from the car and the reminder of what they’d run from. What they’d left behind.

The morning lightened, the cool autumn sun filtering through the trees barely warm on their backs as they trekked through the woods. Beth followed like a ghost, a little blonde spirit without spirit at all. Quiet, limping footsteps in the underbrush, always there but somewhere else entirely. Every time he looked back, even when he could tell she’d been watching him, her gaze slipped away.

It was like after the prison all over again, but in reverse. She the sullen, quiet one, walking and breathing and doing everything like a memory, an automatic replay. He remembered the feeling all too well, the numbness of those days before the moonshine, before the fire, before Beth and her words reaching inside him to pull him out like nothing else ever had. It still crept up on him sometimes, the thought that if he’d just been faster, just kept searching, just let Carl pull that trigger—

He shook his head to clear his thoughts away, ‘cause he sure as hell didn’t need to be heading back there again, slipping into that despair until the two of them were left wandering the woods like a pair of walkers. Put it away. Stay who you are. Wise words from a woman old beyond her years. Wisdom he knew he wouldn’t ever have. He weren’t good at this kinda shit, never was.   How could he help her? How could he know what the hell to do when she wouldn’t even look at him?

Her head was a mystery and her silence let him imagine the sorts of terrible things swirling inside it, tormenting her and tormenting him with the not knowing. He knew how a person’s thoughts could build up and tear away at their insides. He knew how the voices living there could taunt, make a man doubt everything he ever knew until he was better off giving up.

Daryl tried. He tried hard to keep remembering how Beth looked just before it went down, wild and strong and so alive, but the longer her silence persisted, so did the other memory, the sight of her wide-eyed and trembling under that bastard’s hands. And if he couldn’t stop remembering, sure as hell neither could she. And maybe, maybe if he’d just been quicker, if he’d gotten to her first instead of reaching for their pack—if he’d given in to the urge to swing her through the air like a scene out of some goddamn movie—or if he’d just gotten out the window in time. Maybe then that Gorman wouldn’t’ve got his filthy fucking hands on her and she wouldn’t have to listen to his slippery voice in her head.

He weren’t no therapist.   He might be good at listening, watching, paying attention when the rest of the world liked to talk just to hear the sound of its own voice, but Daryl wasn’t good with words. Even when he thought he maybe had the right idea in his head, somewhere between thinking it and speaking things got confused, dirtied, twisted around until he couldn’t say a thing, or said everything all wrong and angry and messed up.

What changed your mind?

The kitchen seemed so long ago now, less than a day later, and he didn’t know the way back. He couldn’t even see the signs.

So instead he borrowed her silence, wore it across his shoulders like the too-big jacket he’d draped over hers, hours ago now when he caught her shivering. The day never warmed and the sun hung weak in the sky for a while before becoming shrouded in clouds and a ceaseless drizzle that stuck to their clothes and their skin and made everything gray and dreary. Sucked the colours right out of the world, Daryl thought, and wondered at the same time if that had less to do with the weather and more to do with the absence of the light usually shining out of Beth Greene’s eyes.

They didn’t stop to eat, just picked away at the stale chips and trail mix from the canvas bag as they walked, Daryl in front with Beth following silently behind. Not a single walker so much as wheezed near them and the day slowly darkened toward evening without anything more challenging than crossing a fast-moving stream and not getting their feet wet. Without so much as a squirrel to catch, neither, but they had the beans and enough wood for a fire to warm them on.

The clearing sat on a ledge overlooking a swift creek below, the bank steep and high enough that walkers couldn’t get up to them, but not so high that they couldn’t escape that way if they had to. Three large conifers made a loose semi-circle, filled in by smaller river birches, and a good amount of brush. The large trees would cover his back when he sat watch and the brush would rustle long before anything found its way in. He didn’t have anything else but dried sticks and dead leaves to ring the clearing with, a makeshift alarm that wasn’t at all ideal, but would have to do for tonight.

Beth leaned back against one of the big trunks and chewed her beans as silently as she’d done everything else today. She sat there after she finished, first picking dirt out from her fingernails with her knife, then fiddling with the laces on her new scavenged boots. And she stayed, staring out toward the edge of the bank past the birches growing there, as the fire burnt itself to ashes, as gloomy day faded into clammy twilight, then a night so black he couldn’t hardly see his own fingers.

Hours passed in that thick blackness before Daryl heard the shifting of fabric and the rustle of leaves that meant Beth had curled up at the base of her tree. He could just barely make out the shape of her lying there in the dirt, but he heard when her breathing changed and sleep caught up to her at last. She was quiet for a time, just breathing slow and deep, long enough to make him think maybe she was tired enough, exhausted enough, that the dreams wouldn’t find her tonight.

Just about the time the clouds started to break, shooting knifelike beams of moonlight through the trees above them, Beth sucked in a deep breath and her boots scraped against the packed earth beneath her.

“No. No,” she said, in a small, pained voice between shuddery breaths and what he could only describe as a whimper. “No. No—don’t…”

He’d heard enough. Daryl set down his crossbow and got to his knees, leaning over until he could reach her. A little shake on the shoulder and Beth woke easily.

“Your turn. For watch,” he said when she pushed herself up to sit.

Beth looked up at him when he spoke, a glint of moonlight, reflecting off the water below, shining in her eyes. And for a moment he was back in the kitchen, with the candlelight and her little ‘oh’, except there were no candles, no ‘oh’, no illusion of safety, no walls, no words at all. But she met his eyes in the dark, holding her gaze to his for a long moment before she nodded and drew her knife.

Daryl didn’t intend to sleep—didn’t think he could—but he lay down anyway. She knew why he woke her, of course she did, but he’d pretend for as long as she let him. He could do that much, at least.

*~*

Something splashed in the distance, and Daryl turned a slow circle, trying to reconcile the sound of water with the field of grass stretching out to the horizon on all sides. He couldn’t see anything, so he kept walking, but the splashing grew louder, louder, louder, until he was up to his waist in the water and the field was gone, but he kept walking, because he had to go, had to get there, had to—

Daryl blinked his eyes open to see a pair of little brown sparrows hopping around the clearing, picking at the remnants of trail mix and beans. He groaned and rolled his aching shoulders, turning over onto his back as the sparrows fluttered away. It wasn’t very bright out yet, but the drizzle and fog were gone, and—

Wait.

More sparrows took flight when Daryl jumped to his feet and turned around the clearing like he’d turned in the field in his dream, still hearing that damn splashing, and he’d gone and fallen asleep like he wasn’t gonna do, and Beth was gone and—oh.

There, down at the creek, Beth knelt with her back to the camp, wearing just her yellow golf shirt and jeans. She was scrubbing furiously at something, splashing water everywhere. The cop’s black jacket sat in a heap next to her tree, and when Daryl got to the edge of the bank he could see the thing in her hand, what she was so intent on washing in the half freezing water, was her tattered sweater.

Understanding women wasn’t Daryl’s best skill, but he liked to think he knew a bit about Beth, these weeks on the road with just the two of them. Beth liked to be clean, as much as it were possible living rough. This though, whatever she was doing, didn’t look right. He chewed his lip and watched a minute longer, then climbed down the bank, making noise on purpose but she didn’t hear. Just kept scrubbing.

“Beth,” he said, hunkering down beside her and keeping his voice as low as he could.

Beth dropped the sweater into the water, then reached for it with suddenly shaking fingers. She didn’t look at him, just knelt there with wet knees, staring down at the dripping ball in her hands. The shiver that began in her fingers soon spread to the rest of her, and when he tried to pull her away from the edge of the water, her skin burned like ice beneath his palms.

How long had she been at this? She came away from the stream without resisting, and by the time he got her up the bank her teeth were chattering like mad. Daryl pulled the wet wool out of her red, raw fingers and tossed it to the side, then reached for the police jacket and helped her into it when she was too shaky to do it herself.

“What the hell, Beth?” he asked, but though she looked up at him with those big blue eyes, wide and bloodshot, Beth didn’t say a word.

Heat flared in his chest and burned behind his eyes, but he bit his tongue and kicked the sweater across the clearing instead of spouting off. The sweater hit a tree with a wet splat and he tore his way through the brush to gather up all the scattered sticks, ‘cause he had to build her a goddamn fire, didn’t he, since she couldn’t manage not to go and get fucking hypothermic. What the hell was that about?   ‘Cause it sure as hell wasn’t Beth and she was gonna get herself killed, pulling this shit, oblivious to his crashing down the bank behind her. Could’ve been a walker—or worse. If she had a death wish there were quicker ways than freezing her fingers off in the creek. What the hell was she thinking?

But she weren’t thinking, was she? Not straight at least. And as Daryl passed back through the brush, he felt deflated, hollow inside where his anger had burned hot. Beneath that, the fluttering warmth that never quite went away bubbled up to fill that empty place, take it over like it never existed. And damn it if he knew what to do with that, especially when Beth just stared off into the distance while he piled the tinder and sticks on top of the ashes of last night’s fire. He flicked his lighter and held the flame until it caught, watched as the little flame came to life.

No, she weren’t right and here he was, being an ass when it weren’t even about him. Beth wouldn’t knowingly put either one of them at risk like that and she didn’t have a death wish. Not her. Not anymore. Damn it, Beth was tough. She made it. And maybe more of their people made it, too, but maybe not. And Daryl wasn’t gonna pretend anymore that he wanted to do this alone. That he wanted to do this without her.

‘Cause Daryl had learnt the word weren’t worth shit without Beth Greene, and he needed to find a way to make her see that, too.

 

*~*

Chapter Text



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Chapter 3 - Beating Me Down, Down, Into the Ground

*~*

The stain wouldn’t wipe away.  Beth was sure it had been there, right after it happened.  It had to have been, but everything had rushed by on fast-forward, a blur of motion, of running, of piling into that car and speeding away.  And when the dreams came she didn’t notice either, never got the chance.  Every time it happened, every time she pulled the trigger, it was Daryl who fell dead behind her, or Maggie. It was Carl or Judith, Rick or Glenn. Carol.  One of the kids or all of them at once. Sometimes, she missed and shot herself, and other times, when she turned around, the smoking gun still clutched in her blood-soaked hand, her father lay on the ground at her feet, a bullet wound gaping in his forehead.

Waking from that wasn’t like waking at all, even at first when Daryl’s voice dragged her back before she slipped away again.  She felt the ache in her legs like a distant memory, and the hours and miles and cooking fires passed her by like the flight of a raven, its wings stirring the air overhead without touching her at all.  In hindsight she recalled the mist, the gloomy gray surrounding her both inside and out until she blended right in.

She’d smelled it then, the only tangible thing in all that gray.  Not black and rotted like a walker’s, but fresh and red and hot, like life, mixed in with the scent of gunpowder, the mustiness of wool, the spicy whiff of hair gel and cologne.  It tickled, at first.  Teased her with its persistence until it pooled in her throat, thick and choking, before the fog caught her up again in its chilly embrace.

The fog was safety, and Beth retreated into it like the slip of a knife through rotten bone, until she forgot the stain was ever there.

Not until she was dreaming again, until she’d shot Daryl dead right before he woke her up for watch, did she remember.  It was all she could smell as she sat there against the rough tree trunk, listening for walkers in the dark, hearing the flow of the water below and Daryl’s quiet breaths beside her.  The scent of copper filled her head, wet and hot and thick enough to drown in.  She couldn’t see it, in the dark, the stain, but when she tried wiping it away it coated her hands, growing larger, wetter, darker red with every swipe.

She didn’t remember going to the creek.  Only noticed when she snapped awake to the sound of Daryl’s voice.

Daryl.  Daryl whose blood soaked her hands, her sweater.

No.  No that was Daddy’s blood.

Or—no.  Not theirs.  Gorman’s.

The man she killed.

She had drifted away again, because now she was back at the camp and there was a fire, and in her hands a warm metal can.  Beth blinked and looked down at the warm water gently sloshing around inside and took a drink, spilling some down her chin when her hands shook.  But the warmth of the can soon soaked in and she clutched it tighter, fingers aching as they thawed.  Slowly, Beth drank every last drop of the slightly beany-tasting water until she grew warm from the inside, too.

Daryl watched her from the other side of the fire, though she didn’t notice until she set the water can aside.  He leaned against his tree, knees drawn up with arms resting on top, hands dangling between them holding his knife.  From beneath too-long strands of greasy hair he stared, doing that chewing thing he did with his mouth.  Beth wanted to look away, and she tried once, but something about his gaze kept her reeled in, focused on those sharp slivers of blue.

After a long time, minutes or maybe hours, Daryl pushed up from the ground to approach. Though he wasn’t looking at her now, Beth found she still couldn’t look away and she followed his movements as he pulled another can off the fire and wrapped his old red rag around it before handing it to her.

“Eat,” he said, retreating back to his tree. 

The Washington, D.C. spoon had found its way into the can somewhere along the way.  The beans were mushy and tasted of nothing, but they were hot, and each slow spoonful she swallowed eased away a bit more of the cold inside.

Rustling plastic drew her eyes back across the fire, back to Daryl, whose fingers tore into a package of trail mix while he watched her with those piercing eyes.  Something vaguely familiar fluttered in her belly, like wispy butterfly wings, but she couldn’t remember, couldn’t quite understand why it made her cheeks feel warm.  And Daryl was still staring at her, and she didn’t understand that, either.

A long while later, or maybe just a little, Daryl crunched an almond in his teeth, and said, in that low, that quiet way of his, “Why, Beth?”

“Wh—hmm.” Beth tried to speak, but her voice wouldn’t work right away and she had to clear her throat before trying again.  “Why what?”

Some little part of her wondered why her voice sounded so flat, and why they were out here in the woods, and how they’d gotten here in the first place, why her fingers felt so stiff and sore—

The fire crackled and a spark shot up into the air.  Beth watched it float to the ground, where it smouldered a moment amidst the fallen pine needles before dying in a wisp of smoke.  There was something she should be remembering, but like the spark, the thought disappeared before she could catch it.  Must not really matter, then, or else maybe she’d remember it later...

“Beth.”

Daryl’s voice was louder this time, a little growly.  She snapped her eyes away from the crackling flames to look up at him where he watched her from across the clearing, lips drawn into a tight line, brow furrowed like he was looking for something he couldn’t quite find.

“Hmm?”

He didn’t answer, just kept looking at her like that, like something wasn’t right, but Beth didn’t know why.  Except—something prickly passed over her shoulders, a shiver she couldn’t explain, and the scent of copper swelled around her.  She coughed, gagging on the fumes, but it wasn’t copper—no, no, too foul, too rotten for that—

“Shit—Beth!”

Daryl jumped up as the walkers stumbled in behind her.  Beth leapt to her feet, ignoring the jolt of pain in her injured ankle and narrowly avoiding stepping in the fire.  The first walker fell to Daryl’s crossbow, its remains landing in the fire, and the second stumbled over it, falling forward, clawing hands reaching out to grab her but Beth got a handful of its hair and rammed her knife through its skull.  She pulled it free with a wet squelch of black filth and darted back, squared her good leg and kicked out with the other, cracking the wobbling knee of the next walker in line.  The impact sent pain zinging from her heel to her calf, but the walker went down, like she meant it to and she stabbed it quick and readied herself for the next.

It used to be a man, this one.  Big and dark haired with loops of intestines hanging out of a gash in his bloated belly, trailing on the ground as it charged at her with the enraged stagger that shouldn’t have worked but always did, and Beth missed his knee with her kick, striking his thigh instead.  Her ankle vibrated with pain against unyielding bone and she fell back, vaguely registering Daryl’s shout before the walker was on her, teeth snapping, fingers like claws pulling at her jacket.  She got her elbow up under his chin, but he was big and heavy, strong and raging with mindless hunger, and her arm shook from the strain as his rancid breath and deadly teeth inched closer, closer.

And then she was falling, sliding, head first in an avalanche of dirt and stones and walker guts.  The motion threw the walker forward and they came to a stop with her face buried in putrid bowel.  She heard the smack of its head on rock except it wasn’t enough, it was still moving, wheezy snarls and clacking teeth as it struggled to right itself, to come at her again. Beth pushed and pushed, holding her breath against the stink and the filth, and somehow with the walker’s struggles and her own, she pushed him off, rose to her knees, and imbedded her knife into its brain.

The world tilted and spun around, and Beth pulled the knife out and rammed it in again.  And again.  And again.  Her vision blurred and narrowed and each stab of her knife splattered the air with thick, red blood.  Her chest burned but she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t inhale past the sickly-sweet clot caught in her throat.  He couldn’t do this.  Don’t make her do this.  Don’t.  Don’t.  Don’t. No.

Somewhere far away, a creature howled, and the air grew so thick with blood that it turned black as night before falling away altogether.

Then there was nothing, just weightlessness.  Emptiness devoid of sound, of touch, of anything but black.  

Until a flash of colour, of warm yellow and cool blue and shady green whirled around her, and Beth sucked in a deep, shaking breath, and two strong arms pulled her back against a warm body and a beating heart.  She coughed and choked and threw up and breathed again, and the faraway creature wasn’t far away at all, it was her, and the howl, the cry, the mournful sound unlike anything she’d ever made in her life, burst out from her chest and into the morning sun.  Daryl spoke into her ear but she couldn’t hear the words, could only feel the rumble of his voice, warm, deep, soothing, as everything came pouring out right there on the rocky bank of the swift little stream at the bottom of the clearing now full of dead walkers.

And she’d killed a man.  She, Beth Greene, had pulled the trigger and shot a man dead.  Not these parodies of men who rose from the dead to consume the living, but an honest to God live breathing human being like the one holding her so tightly against him now.

No.  No not like that.  Nothing like Daryl.

The fog in her ears cleared and she could almost hear him now.  The whisper of her name, over and over.  Something else she couldn’t decipher, something warm and kind that she didn’t deserve.  But he offered, and she took it.  Beth Greene the murderer.  She curled against him, folded herself into Daryl’s arms until she felt the pounding of his heart against her cheek, heard its frantic beating in her ear, and she cried.

Cried so hard she thought her head might split open or her chest might explode.  Cried until she ran out of tears and until her whole body felt so hot and tight she couldn’t stand being in her skin.  Cried until she couldn’t cry anymore, then shut her eyes against the world and tried her hardest to just breathe without falling into the blackness again.  Daryl anchored her, kept her there.  She didn’t know why he grabbed her like he had and why he held her still, but she was grateful.  Grateful even if she didn’t deserve it.

Sleep tried its hardest to lure her in, and she nearly succumbed, with the rhythm of Daryl’s heartbeat in her ears and the rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek.  But then he spoke, the first purposeful word either of them had said in what felt like years, pulling her back from the brink.  She blinked her eyes open, saw the sunlight glittering in the water of the stream rushing by, and saw the rocks around her stained black with the walker’s blood.

“Beth,” he said, touching the side of his face to her forehead.  “We can’t stay here.”

She hated the way her body shook when she breathed, but she inhaled deeply anyway.  “I know.  I—”

“Shh.” He said, stopping her from speaking and in that moment, she was grateful. “We gotta go.”

The memory of the other time he spoke those words to her flared in her mind, and she knew he meant it.  Not to shut her up but because it wasn’t safe, out here in the open where any walkers prowling the woods would’ve heard her cries.  Slowly, carefully, she extracted herself from his arms and stood on shaking legs that felt as though she hadn’t used them in years.  Her ankle hurt worse than when she’d first injured it, but it bore her weight and that was about as much as she could hope for.  Daryl’s hand fell away from where it hovered at her shoulder and she dared meet his eyes for the first time since she’d woken up from the daze she’d been under.

Beth couldn’t quite read what she saw there, but it wasn’t what she expected. He held the contact for a moment before giving a little nod, then he climbed back up the bank to gather their things.  Beth went to the stream clean her knife, to wash her face and rinse her hands.  The walker blood came off, and though she no longer saw the red stain beneath it and knew it had never truly been there, the truth of it sat like a yoke across her shoulders, heavy and rigid.  Unyielding.

She killed somebody, and now she had to live with that while the man called Gorman lay dead on the grass amongst the walkers and the headstones.

Daryl returned, handing her the leather pack while he shouldered the canvas one he’d found in the police car.  They picked their way slowly along the stream for a time, the sun warm on their backs, until he found them a place to cross with a way up the opposite bank.  Where the day before stayed cool and grey, a consistent, miserable reminder of the changing seasons, now the sun shone bright and hot overhead in a clear blue sky, like Mother Nature trying her hardest to cling to the dying summer.  They pressed on through the day and the heat, moving as fast as Beth’s ankle would allow.  

Daryl spoke to her now and then, usually with questions or statements requiring an answer. And she was grateful, really, that he wanted to make sure she was still there with him and not slipping back to that place, that numbness of before.  She wouldn’t, she knew that but Daryl didn’t, and with everything churning inside her so violently right then, Daryl made a welcomed distraction. It wasn’t lost on her that they’d switched roles somehow and she wondered what it meant, that he would even consider doing that for her instead of getting angry, or just being his usual quiet self. Mostly though, when she wasn’t answering Daryl, Beth kept busy just trying to walk and breathe and hoping to God she didn’t cry or throw up or her ankle didn’t give out. 

She stumbled over a tree root, half hidden in the leaves and debris on the ground, and Daryl caught her, reaching to hold onto her arm with one hand while the other landed low on her back, beneath the backpack.  Beth looked up at him in thanks and found his face very close to hers, something simmering in his eyes she couldn’t quite name. Concern, yes, more than her stumble had caused but that didn’t surprise her.  But something else, too, something that tugged at her memory of a candlelit kitchen and tried its best to pierce through the storm raging inside her, leaving behind a little curl of warmth in her belly.

Still looking at her like that, Daryl said, “Gotta find somewhere to stay a few days. Get your ankle rested up.”

Beth knew he wanted a response, wanted assurance that she was there and that a simple nod wouldn’t suffice. “Maybe a cabin or something. If we find a good one.”

“Mm.” He was nodding now and broke eye contact to scan the woods around them.  “We should keep movin’. You good?”

Beth knew her breath sounded shaky, and from the way Daryl clenched his fingers into a loose fist against her back, he hadn’t missed it either. “Yeah, I’m good.”

It was a lie. They both knew it, but Daryl looked back at her with those simmering eyes, so blue with the sunlight caught in them, chewed his lip like he did sometimes when he was considering something, and gave a quick little nod that meant he’d accept it now so they could move on. 

By the time the heat of the afternoon faded to the chill of the evening, they hadn’t come across anything man-made, aside from one pile of rotten wood and rusty nails that hadn’t been habitable in decades. Beth knew she was slowing down, though the sharp pains had faded to a constant, deep ache which was better for walking but no less uncomfortable and no less draining—and she felt drained enough already.  Ever the observant one, Daryl stopped at the next suitable clearing they came to, slipping the canvas pack off his shoulders and dropping it to the ground. 

“Here’s good.”

Beth followed the path of his gaze around the clearing, ringed on all sides by large bole hemlocks.  She dropped her pack beside his, then carefully eased down to her knees to dig a little fire pit, feeling Daryl’s eyes on her back as she dug.  But she didn’t look up, knowing he would want to tell her to stop, to just rest today and let him set up. Without having to focus on taking each careful step, Beth needed her hands busy, needed to do something until darkness fell and she wouldn’t have to worry about keeping her emotions off her face. 

He didn’t say it, though. Just went about collecting sticks for them to burn before setting up what he could for alarms. Beth got the fire going and sat back against a tree, propping her aching ankle on top of her other leg.  She pulled out her knife to pry open their last can of beans and looked up as Daryl emerged into the clearing.  He paused a moment before easing down beside her, legs stretched out alongside hers.  While she worked on the lid, Daryl rummaged through their packs for their only spoon, the jar of pig’s feet, and a little bag each of crackers. 

The sight of the pig’s feet nearly brought a smile to her face. How something so hideous looking could ever have been considered food before the world ended was beyond Beth’s comprehension. Still, Daryl liked them, and when she looked up from the jar she found him already looking at her, lips pulled at the corners in what amounted to a smile. 

He didn’t say anything, just raised his eyebrow and held up the Washington, D.C. spoon for her, then opened the jar and popped one into his mouth, chewing noisily on purpose. They ate mostly in silence aside from that, passing the can of beans back and forth between them after warming it on the fire, nibbling the stale crackers when the other one had the can, and in Daryl’s case indulging in the pig’s feet.  

Beth’s thoughts wandered, as she knew they would once they stopped walking.  Everything happened so fast, when she tried to remember it, whipping through her head at double speed. She remembered the rush after taking down those walkers, the excitement and the fiery look in Daryl’s eyes from across the yard. Then it ended in a flash when Gorman grabbed her from behind out of nowhere. A walker, she’d thought, calling out to Daryl, but then came the warm hand and the cold gun, and her veins filled with ice, and—so fast, it happened so fast, and she felt the adrenaline burn through her again now as the whole sequence of events looped over and over inside her head. Daryl’s demands.  Cold laughter and groping fingers. The look in Daryl’s eyes when she pulled her gun and then—

“Beth.”

Daryl bumped her shoulder with his, jarring her out of the memory and back to the darkening clearing in the middle of the woods.  He was looking at her again as he had before the walkers, when she’d been somewhere else, but she remembered the look, the deep worry in his eyes. It worried Beth, too, that she had almost gotten caught up again, and with her heart still pounding, she took in a shaking breath and looked back at the man beside her.  

Daryl wasn’t just some person she knew, he was family, and with the world the way it was now family was everything. They’d been on their own for weeks now and she knew they’d become something like friends, but more than that, they had each other’s back. Daryl knew what she’d done. He watched it happen and he was still here beside her.   Her father always said the only way to get something off your mind was to tell someone else about it. This, well, this would never be off her mind, but maybe if she told, said the words out loud, maybe she could have even a few hours’ reprieve. 

She could tell Daryl. She could. She had to. 

Beth caught Daryl’s gaze and held it. “I killed Gorman.”

Daryl’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes narrowed just a fraction, a motion so small she wouldn’t have seen it if they hadn’t been sitting side by side.  “You did. Bastard deserved it.”

Beth swallowed and looked down, looked at her hands which weren’t red, but should’ve been. “But I killed him.”

Daryl pressed his shoulder more firmly into hers. “You heard them assholes talkin’, Beth.  You didn’t have a choice, they were gonna—”

“I know, DarylI know what they were gonna do, I’m not stupid.” Beth looked up from her hands, but not before clenching them into fists. “I wasn’t going to let that jerk touch me and neither were you.”

The spike of annoyance surprised her, lanced through her chest out of nowhere. She tilted over onto one hip to look at him straight on and Daryl just stared, waiting, like he always did, for her to speak. So she spoke, words coming out thickly past her clenched teeth. 

“But what gives me the right to decide who lives and who dies?  How does that—”

As quickly as it came, the spark of irritation died and a lump grew in her throat, the hot prickle of tears following in its wake.  She slumped back against the tree, against Daryl’s shoulder, now afraid to look at him in case he finally saw the monster she’d become. 

But the words weren’t finished, and before she could stop herself, out they came in a pitiful little voice she didn’t even recognize as her own. 

“How does that make me any different from them?”

For a long time, it seemed, Daryl just breathed beside her, and Beth leaned against him while her tears trailed silently down her cheeks.  When he spoke, he did it slowly, like he was taking great care in choosing each word. 

“You don’t set out to hurt no one. That’s what makes you different, Beth.”  When she didn’t answer, he went on, speaking in that low, rumbling voice of his. “You don’t just do what you want to someone ‘cause you think they’re weak and ain’t gonna stop you, or ‘cause it’s your right or some shit. You don’t even think like that.”

His words vibrated in her ear and a shiver rolled through her in response, but instead of leaving her cold, she felt warm inside, the gentle heat blooming out from the depths of her belly and up into her chest.  She wasn’t sure what possessed her to lay her head on Daryl’s shoulder, but he didn’t pull away, just shifted a touch to move his elbow out from where it poked into her side.  So she let her head stay there, let herself take comfort from the warmth of him next to her. 

He breathed deeply, and Beth felt the motion of his chest from the shift of his shoulder beneath her. “You ain’t like them, Beth. You’re good. Ain’t no one to blame for Gorman’s dyin’ but his own goddamn self.”

And maybe Daryl was right. He knew things, saw things others didn’t. Things Beth couldn’t ever hope to truly understand. But that didn’t stop her from feeling the guilt. It didn’t stop her from wondering if there could’ve been another way. And that was her answer, she supposed, because there wasn’t another way, not with a gun pressed to her temple and his vital bits mostly hidden from Daryl’s aim behind her smaller body. There wasn’t another way but she still wished there had been. Gorman would’ve made use of her in whatever way he saw fit, like he’d probably done to others before her without a shred of remorse, while being forced into ending his life was eating Beth up inside, chewing away at her organs with ceaseless, sharp little teeth, leaving her raw and bleeding. 

Forced. 

You didn’t have a choice.

No, she hadn’t had a choice.  She meant it when she said she wasn’t gonna let him touch her.  And that was something, and not something small either.  But still...

“You’re good, Beth.”  Daryl said, voice a gruff whisper in the dark. 

Beth sighed and let herself lean just a little bit more into Daryl’s side.  “Maybe you got to keep on reminding me sometimes.”

Daryl’s soft, amused huff of breath drew a slow smile from her lips, and they sat there together in the dark, eating stale crackers and watching the fire burn. 

*~*

Chapter Text



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Chapter 4 - You Cut Out all the Noise

*~*

Eventually, although Beth dreaded facing the dreams again, her eyelids grew heavy and she struggled to keep them open. With that and the warmth of Daryl beside her, she kept drifting off, only noticing when her head lolled forward and she jerked awake. Each time, she bumped his shoulder with the back of her head, and after that had gone on for a while he let out a little rumbled laugh. 

“Go to sleep, girl, before you fall on your face.”

His voice, low and rhythmic in the dark, was almost enough on its own to lull her to sleep. Her whole body craved it; she wasn’t used to the sleepless nights like Daryl was, like she suspected he had been long before world ended. But once she slept she knew she would dream, knew she couldn’t avoid them even after confessing her fears to Daryl over baked beans and pig’s feet.

Daryl tapped her leg lightly with his fist, just enough pressure to be purposeful before pulling it away. “Sleep. I’ll wake you up.”

Of course, he had her all figured out, the intuitive Mr. Dixon. She wasn’t the only one who suffered nightmares; alone with just the two of them out here, she couldn’t help but be aware of that. The terror was still there, throbbing in her chest no matter how much she tried to ignore it, but if he said he’d wake her, he would, she could count on it. So Beth curled up on her side on the ground, her back toward Daryl, using her pack as a makeshift pillow. She missed the warmth of having him right next to her, and wondered at that, what it meant, if it meant anything at all beyond the innate need for basic human contact. And with those thoughts tumbling around her tired mind, Beth quickly drifted off into a floaty, pre-sleep haze. 

She and Daryl stood side by side at the edge of the clearing, watching the walkers below clawing at the bank, snarling up at them while they fought and failed to climb the steep, crumbly slope, fingers leaving deep furrows in the damp earth. Knowing they couldn’t make it up, Beth put her back to them and approached the headstone, staring at the words written there. 

HERSHEL GREENE
Beloved Father

Daryl stepped forward to drape the loop of rotten bowel overtop of the granite, arranging it just so before returning to her side. 

Beth reached out to take his hand. “Don’t you think that’s beautiful?”

His fingers tightened around hers and the walkers behind them snarled and wheezed but they couldn’t get up the bank, so they were safe.

But then Daryl’s grip on her hand tightened, fingers pressing hard until his fingernails pierced her skin. She tried to jerk away, but he wouldn’t let go, and thick, heavy fog rolled in around them. Out from between the headstones, which stood tall like a forest of stone trees, the walkers started coming. One of them picked up the fly-ridden loop of bowel and fastened it to his pants like a pair of suspenders, and when the walker looked up, milky dead eyes stared back at her from Daddy’s face, blood caught in his beard and dribbling down from the wound in his neck. 

“Thanks, doodlebug,” the Daddy-walker said. “I’d forgotten where I left that.”

And then he came at her, snapping his teeth, snarling with hunger, beady eyes darting about in his pale, dead face. She tried to warn Daryl, but no sound came out, and she tried to run away but she couldn’t move.

But she knew what to do, and she raised her gun, shot the walker coming at her, but then there on the ground where the walker should’ve been was Daddy, blood pouring from his mouth, choking him as he struggled to breathe his last breath. And she screamed, screamed until her throat went raw but still couldn’t make a sound. She struggled to drop down at Daddy’s side to hold his hand while he died, but couldn’t fight past the shadow holding her motionless and stealing her voice. 

So she drew her gun and fired blind, desperate to rid herself of the monster at her back. 

They were in the clearing again, in the dark, when she spun around, smoking gun in her blood-soaked hand. Shafts of moonlight shone through the trees, illuminating the body of Daryl Dixon, dead in the dirt at her feet. She knew he was dead, could see the ground through the steaming hole in his head, already crawling with maggots. But still he spoke, said her name, over and over. 

“Beth... Beth... Beth...”

Her eyes flew open, to a different dark clearing shot through with slivers of moonlight. A clearing where Daryl Dixon wasn’t dead on the ground, but instead shook her awake with a hand on her shoulder, his real life voice speaking her name to break into the dream. Beth turned onto her back, rolling into Daryl as she did but rather glad for the reminder of him, warm and solid and alive. She took in great, shuddery breaths of cool night air, hands pressed to her eyes to keep the tears at bay, willing away the sob ready to burst out of her chest.

It’s okay. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real and you’re awake now. It’s okay. It’s okay. Daryl’s here. It’s okay. 

Daryl brushed his fingers over the back of her hand, where she held them to her eyes. The touch felt hesitant, like he wasn’t sure he should, but Beth caught his fingers in hers before he could pull away, needing that contact suddenly more than she needed oxygen. And he let her, let her lace their fingers together and hold them to her chest until the threat of tears dried and she could breathe without her whole body shaking. When she released him to pull herself up, Daryl slid over to make room for her against their tree.

“Thanks,” she said, tipping her head back into the rough bark, hating the way her voice shook even in whisper. And she didn’t think that simple word adequate enough to express her gratitude for keeping his promise, either, for having her back in this as well as everything else, but it was all she had.

“Ain’t nothin’,” said Daryl, like he always did even when he knew damn well it was something. But that was Daryl, wasn’t it, never making things like that into a big deal, and maybe a simple thanks was more than enough.

Beth locked her trembling fingers together to try and still them, and tipped her head to look at Daryl, but the moonlight didn’t reach their spot under the tree and she could only make out a vague silhouette. “How long was I asleep?”

She felt Daryl’s shrug where their arms met, felt his eyes on her even though she couldn’t see. “Couple hours. You were okay for a while, then you weren’t.”

A shudder rumbled through her, flashes of the dream still lingering in her mind. Daddy choking on his own blood and she unable to move to get to his side. Daryl with a bullet hole through his head and she holding the gun.  Beth clenched her fingers tighter.  “I think it was the worst one yet.” 

“Mmhm. Hard to wake you up, that time.” Daryl paused and took an audible breath, and Beth could feel the barest hint of tension in his shoulder. “You, uh, you wanna talk about it?”

“No,” she said, because she didn’t, but him asking in the first place soothed away some of the lingering dread, like drawing a new quilt up over cold feet. But talking about it, letting the images in her mind come to life through her words, would only make it more real when she wanted to forget it. What she really needed was a distraction. “Tell me a story.”

He chuckled, a warm little sound she hadn’t quite heard before. “I look like a storyteller to you?”

But his voice was light, a teasing tone hiding in his usual gruffness. Beth leaned her head onto his shoulder, like she had before her disastrous attempt at sleeping, again feeling him shift to accommodate her slight intrusion. “Please, Daryl? Just... tell me anythin’. First story that comes to mind.”

He didn’t answer, but the silence didn’t have the air of tension she would’ve thought. Remnants of the lingering dream tried to draw her thoughts back down, but Beth focused her mind on the good things. She was alive, so was Daryl. They hadn’t been separated at the funeral home, and they hadn’t been bitten by walkers today. It wasn’t so cold out yet that they couldn’t sleep—or not sleep—under the stars without freezing. Her new boots had better ankle support, and they fit perfectly, too. It was a game she used to play in those months after the farm, before the prison, to keep from dwelling on all the losses. She hadn’t thought of it again before today, but she needed this. Needed to coax her mind away from the bad things, even for a little while. Not to forget them—because she couldn’t, not ever—but to remind herself that something else existed beyond death and loss and this world gone to hell.

When Daryl spoke, after a long period of silence, Beth had almost forgotten asking for a story. He used that same tone of voice as when he told her about Merle and the tweaker and what he really was before all of this. Something lighter and more fluid than his usual clipped sentences and grunts, even though his words had hardly painted a pleasant picture.

“This one time, I was just a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen, you know, when you think nobody knows shit about nothin’ ‘cept you?” 

“I remember,” Beth said, smiling in the dark as she recalled many times sassing her mother over makeup or clothing or wanting to do something she’d been denied permission for, and how anyone that old couldn’t possibly have understood how hard it was to be thirteen. “I was terrible."

Daryl snorted, but didn’t comment on what he thought about that particular idea. “Merle was long gone by then, and mom. My dad—he was gone in a different way, I guess. Had no food in the house, not for days. Tried huntin’ but couldn’t even bag a squirrel. So I just started walking.”

He paused there, and while Beth couldn’t help but feel awful about the conditions of Daryl’s childhood, he didn’t want her pity and she wouldn’t offer it. So instead she took the bait he intended and asked, “Where did you go?”

Again, she felt rather than saw him shrug before he continued speaking. “Just walkin’. Found a couple bucks somewhere, not much, enough for a plate of fries at the diner down by the highway. And I was hungry, ain’t really eaten in days, so I go inside—just some dirty ass kid from up in the woods.”

Beth tried to picture Daryl at that age, building the vision using Carl as a reference. But each time she tried, she kept picturing the Daryl she knew now, all dirt and leather, watchful eyes and guarded expressions, only in miniature. Yet the image matched what Daryl seemed to be telling her, that he didn’t fit there. 

“So the waitress takes one look at me and her eyes go all wide, like she can’t decide whether to shoo me out or give me a bath,” he continued, more or less confirming Beth’s suspicions. He didn’t seem bothered by it now, almost sounded amused, but Beth wondered if he’d felt differently about it then. “But she lets me in, hides me in a little booth over by the kitchen.

“I say I want fries, and the waitress, she crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows like she’s waitin’ for something, but I’m half starved and impatient so I lean up on the table and yell loud enough that the whole diner turns to look, ‘I said, I want fries, woman!’”

That was bad, but Beth couldn’t help the giggle that tumbled out of her. She quickly covered her mouth to muffle the sound until it passed. “You didn’t!”

“I did,” Daryl said, clearing his throat a little.

When he didn’t go on, Beth tapped his foot with hers in encouragement. “Well, what happened?”

Daryl cleared his throat again, and when he spoke Beth could almost hear the hint of a smile on his face. “Fry cook himself comes charging out from the back, tells me to apologize to the lady or the only thing gonna get fried is my redneck ass. So I slide outta the booth, stand there like I’m tough shit, right, this scrawny little kid next to a guy the size of Tyreese, puffin’ my chest out and all, and I say, ‘I ain’t sorry for nothin’, and I want my goddamn fries.’”

“Oh, Daryl…” Beth brought her hand up to cover her mouth again, partly horrified, partly amused. “You really said that? Weren’t you scared?”

Daryl huffed quietly, and she felt the brush of his chin against her hair as he leaned over to whisper, “Terrified.”

Ignoring, for now, the sudden closeness of him and the weird, breathless feeling in her chest, Beth asked, “Then why?”

Daryl shifted back away from her, until they were again sitting as they had been much of the evening, now, Beth’s head tipped against the curve of his shoulder, her arm tucked in just behind his, separating where their elbows bent away from each other. Beth didn’t try to read into it too closely—after her emotional day, the bit of physical contact was a comfort and maybe it was to Daryl, too, even if she’d known him to be the type of man to avoid being touched. He was different, though, one on one, when you got to know him. He’d been part of her life, her family for a long time now, technically, and yet it felt as though she hadn’t truly met Daryl Dixon until the night they got drunk together on moonshine and burnt the shack to the ground before running off into the night like a pair of wild things.

What he said next, not in the lighter tone Beth had decided to call his storytelling voice, but the gruff whisper he used more often, caused a little pang of sadness to pulse in her chest, both for the boy he used to be, alone and threatened all because he was hungry, and the man he was now who had all that to look back on. 

“Learnt by then I had to get in the first blow, I guess.”

Beth had suspected, from what little she knew of Daryl’s father, that he wasn’t a good man, and as vague as Daryl’s admission was, it still sent a shard of ice through her chest at the thought of any man hurting his own child. She didn’t say anything, because she didn’t know the right words, or if there even were any. So she reached over instead and wrapped her fingers around his arm, just below where her head rested, letting them linger there while Daryl took deep breaths in the dark. 

After a minute, Daryl hummed and seemed to sit up a little straighter, and Beth let her hand fall away.

“But that’s not the story,” he said, his tone light again. “Just the background.”

“I knew it!” Beth poked him in the side with her finger before she could stop herself, barely suppressing her laughter when he twitched beside her. “You are a storyteller!”

“Careful, Greene,” he said, pushing her invading finger away but not before giving it a little squeeze first. “Gonna give me a reputation, talkin’ like that.”

Storyteller,” Beth whispered, a fluttery mixture of excitement and bravery flooding her veins.

Daryl’s warm chuckle washed over her and time seemed to slow around them, there alone in the forest, teasing words between them despite the weight of their situation, of the world. The air held a surreal quality to it, suddenly, thick and dreamlike though she knew she was awake. As quickly as the sensation arose, it faded into the background, but Beth could feel it there, softly pulsing away in time to the beating of her own heart. 

If Daryl noticed, he didn’t let it show in his voice. “So after that, I’m thrown outta there on my ass—”

“With no fries.”

“Not even one,” he said. “And now I’m hungry and mad, so I go out back, thinking there might be something in the trash to either eat or throw at the windows, when I hear somethin’ rustling between the cans.”

“Oh, God,” Beth said, choosing to ignore the thought of little Daryl going dumpster diving for food. “I know it couldn’t be, but for a second I was expecting it to be a walker. How sad is that?”

“Nah, no walker. Good job bein’ prepared though,” he said, and nudged her boot with his. “Was a dog. Just a pup, licking the grease off some of that chequered paper they serve the fries on.”

“Aww!” Beth pictured a little hound dog, all long legs and big ears, and at the same time remembered another dog, the one from the funeral home they hadn’t been able to save. “Poor thing must’ve been as hungry as you were.”

“Mmhm. He sees me and growls, too, like I’m gonna steal his paper stash,” said Daryl. “So I find some scraps in the bin and call him over.”

“Did he come to you?”

“Yeah, he did. Waggin’ his tail so hard he wagged his whole body, too.” Daryl’s voice held a note of excitement at the memory and Beth felt herself smiling in response. There was definitely something about Daryl Dixon and dogs.

“Did you get to keep him?”

“Nah, didn’t try. Knew my dad wouldn’t want no dog around.”

He didn’t say, but Beth could almost hear the unspoken companion to that sentence—any more than he wanted me around.

So what’d you do?” she asked, hoping to steer him away from those types of thoughts. “You wouldn’t just leave him there.”

Beside her, Daryl let out an amused little huff. “Wouldn’t I?”

And though he couldn’t really see her in the dark, Beth tipped her head to look over at him, narrowing her eyes. “Daryl Dixon, you don’t fool me.”

She couldn’t see him, either, could only sense the movement as Daryl turned his head to look back at her before speaking, his words like breath on her face. “Even if I tried.”

But before Beth could wonder what that meant, he turned away from her and continued, picking up the storytelling tone again as easily as he slipped on is winged leather vest.  “I packed that pup all through town, knockin’ on doors asking if anyone’s missing a dog.”

That didn’t surprise her in the least, but she stopped herself from saying so, not wanting to start a debate with Daryl about what sort of person he was. She knew how he thought of himself, knew it even better since his breakdown and then their talk on the porch the night of the moonshine, and the last thing she wanted was to cause him discomfort when he was only telling the story because she asked. But him trying to find the owner of the dog was just so much like how he’d been when he first came to the farm, searching for that little girl he didn’t know was already gone.

So instead she simply asked, “And did you find them?”

“Mmhm,” he said. “Real nice lookin’ lady, with two li’l girls. Tidy white house and one of them white picket fences. Thought she was gonna just shut the door in my face. Instead she watches her girls lovin’ on that dog, and asks if I’m hungry, would I like some supper.”

Beth smiled. “Did you remember your manners that time?”

“Hell if I was gonna screw that up.” Daryl snorted softly again and pressed his elbow back into hers. “I said, ‘yes ma’am, please and thank you.’ Was damn good food, too.”

Beth laughed, this time letting her soft giggle out into the darkness between them. “Reminds me about that old saying, you know? How you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Daryl grunted something non-committal under his breath, but Beth got the feeling he knew what she meant, even though he hadn’t told her the story to inspire some tired old cliché. She suspected—and knew he’d deny it if she tried to call him on it—that Daryl picked this story because he wanted her to remember about the good people, the ones she had somehow managed to convince him still existed. That the good people who survived were like the kind of good people who showed kindness to lost little boys who barely knew what kindness felt like. And though he never would, not out loud, not since he knew she understood without him needing to, Beth could practically hear him saying it in his low, gruff voice.

You were right, Beth. There still are good people. 

That last thought settled heavily in her belly, but Beth tried not to consider it too deeply tonight. After what happened, after she’d had to kill that man, Beth didn’t feel particularly good, but Daryl’s words, both real and imagined, echoed back to her again. She truly hadn’t been given any other choice, she knew that, but knowing it and feeling it in her heart were two different things.

Chewing on her lip, Beth remembered Daryl’s whispers from before she fell asleep, let the sound of his voice in her mind settle over her doubts like a blanket—not destroying them completely, but covering them up for a while. 

You’re good, Beth.

Daryl thought so, and if what she saw in his eyes back in the kitchen was true, he knew it in his heart too, in some way maybe he didn’t even understand. That counted for a lot, and made her feel a little dizzy when she thought too long on it. So maybe, maybe someday she might believe it, too. As for her heart, well…

Beth glanced over at Daryl, just visible now as the night began to wane, unsurprised to find him looking back at her. And she decided, right there, to forget the bad things for just a little while longer, at least until the sun came up. The dream’s details were all but gone, leaving behind the sense of unease a particularly troubling nightmare inspired. But she could put it away. After all he’d done for her today, he deserved at least that much from her. So she laid her head back on his shoulder, letting her eyes drift shut, hearing his voice in her mind keep her demons at bay, imagining the light press of his cheek on her hair as the day dawned around them.

*~*

Chapter Text

 



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Chapter 5 - And I'm Hanging on to the Words You Say

*~*

They didn’t say much while they broke camp that morning and set out through the woods, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Not after sitting up through the night together. Not after all they’d been through. The weight of what she’d done still pressed on her shoulders, still lingered in her thoughts like an anxious flicker, a constant reminder of having lost part of herself in those seconds before she pulled that trigger. But she could acknowledge it now without letting it pull her under. Her gaze settled on Daryl as they picked their way through the trees. If he hadn’t been there…

Beth didn’t want to consider what might have happened if not for Daryl, but at the same time she didn’t need to, because he was there. Even now, as though she were a magnet and he built of iron, Daryl turned and met her eyes, holding the contact until she felt that curl of warmth flare deep in her belly, following up with the lightest brush of his fingers across her lower back, a wordless promise. I’m here. Keep going. I got you. No, Daryl Dixon wasn’t the kind of man to give up on someone he cared about, and if nothing else was certain in this world, at least that fact remained true. She knew he cared—they were family after all. Whatever else that might mean could only be a good thing. 

Her ankle was not a good thing, however; aching constantly whether she had her weight on it or not and sending shooting pains through to her calf if she stepped too hard. She tried to keep distracted from the pain by looking for signs of animal tracks, which only sort of worked because she either had forgotten how or else there wasn’t much activity in this part of the woods. They needed to find shelter today, somewhere they could lie low for a few days. Daryl wasn’t sure, since he wasn’t as familiar with this area as others, but thought they might get lucky. Woods like these were often dotted with hunting cabins. She hoped so. Beth couldn’t take another day of walking even if she wanted to, and grunted in frustration and bit her lip as yet another spasm forced her to stop and wait. 

“All right,” Daryl said, almost grunted really, realizing half a step later that she had stopped again. He adjusted his pack and crossbow, then dropped to a crouch in front of her. “Up you get.”

“Is this another serious piggyback?” Beth asked, not hesitating this time to grip his shoulders and hop up one-footed. 

“Nah.” He hooked his hands under her knees and hefted her up higher. “This one’s silly.”

Beth carefully arranged her arms to hold on for the ride, curling her fingertips ever so slightly into the soft leather of his vest and trailing her thumb over the curve of one wing. “A silly piggyback? What’s the difference?”

Daryl started walking, weaving his way through the trees as gracefully as ever, despite the extra load he was carrying. “Serious piggybacks ain’t done us much good. Silly one’s gotta be better.”

He kept his tone light, and Beth couldn’t see his face, but it felt as though he wasn’t entirely joking. And the thing was, Beth didn’t blame him for thinking that way. 

Still, there was no point in being dreary for dreary’s sake, and if Daryl could pretend, so could she. “What makes it silly, though?”

Daryl peered back at her over his shoulder, one corner of his lips turned up in a Daryl-sort-of smile. “You. Askin’ silly questions.”

She couldn’t help smiling at that, and the corner of his lip twitched higher before he turned back around. “Well, I never had a serious or a silly piggyback before,” Beth said, hoping to keep the conversation going. “For all I knew, it could’ve been just a regular old piggyback.”

“Oh, no.” Daryl’s tone held a note of laughter to it, something so rarely heard from him. “I don’t do no regular piggybacks.”

“I’m Daryl Dixon and I don’t do no regular piggybacks,” Beth said, trying to get her voice to do the growly thing Daryl’s did, but it only made her sound like she needed to clear her throat. She bit her lip, but not before a giggle escaped. 

Daryl’s next step had a little extra bounce to it, jostling her a bit on his back. He peered over his shoulder again, very obviously trying to look annoyed, even though Beth knew he wasn’t. “Careful it don’t turn into a drop-you-on-your-ass piggyback.”

That little-bit-breathless, little-bit-fluttery feeling washed over her again, making her cheeks go warm the moment Daryl looked away. She tightened her hold on him, knowing he wouldn’t drop her but playing along at the same time. 

“I promise I’ll be good, Mr. Dixon.” As she said it, she felt him take a deeper than usual breath and she found herself doing the same, and it caught in her lungs and held as Daryl jostled her again, though more gently this time.

“You better,” he said, in a low voice full of breath and gravel.

And, God help her, Beth leaned in right close to his ear and whispered, “Yes, sir, Mr. Dixon.”

The first time she called him that, those weeks ago at the moonshine shack, she hadn’t been teasing—at least, not like this. No, this felt like flirting, with her warm cheeks and racing heart, and that little bloom of heat flickering away in her belly. She hadn’t meant to, but it just came out that way, but Daryl, Daryl didn’t flirt. Did he? Would he? With her? The breath of lightness in her chest didn’t lie, or the flutter of excitement. And, well, didn’t Daryl’s ears look a little pink where they peaked out through his hair? She could feel his deep breaths through his back and saw the glimmer in his eyes as, once again, he looked over his shoulder.

“Good girl.”

The words rumbled out of him from somewhere deep and warm, and the look in his eyes sent her right back to the kitchen and the candles. Beth swallowed down the word, but it came to life in her thoughts anyway. Oh. Because Daryl Dixon didn’t flirt, no, this was nothing so calculated as that, not from either one of them. But it was something, something that left her heart pounding in the same sort of way. 

It ended there, but Beth kept replaying the whole thing in her mind, her insides still fluttery and warm and every bit of her now acutely aware of the closeness of their bodies in this silly piggyback—her arms over his shoulders, the heat of his back against her front, and the curl of his fingers behind her knees and the way they pressed in a little harder whenever the terrain got rough. She was struck with the realization that Daryl was a man, which she knew, obviously, but just, she hadn’t ever really considered him that way, as anything other than Daryl. And she didn’t have a clue what it meant now, either, but as distractions went, this man-shaped one far surpassed anything she could’ve come up with on her own, and she surrendered to the desire to let it consume her and drown out everything else. 

A little while later, sometime past noon judging by the sun’s position overhead, Beth spotted the little cabin. She might have missed it, considering the way her focus was drawn inward right then, but a pair of crows squawking at each other in the trees made her look up at just the right moment. They’d been following this fast flowing creek for a little while, looking for a place to cross and Daryl stopped here, where the creek bed widened and the water got shallow. Then the crows startled her, and she looked up from staring at her dirty fingers against soft, worn leather and saw, beyond the pair of crows in the near distance, the corner of a roof peeking through the trees, across and upstream from their fording place. 

“Daryl, look.”

He turned his head to follow where she pointed, over his shoulder to their left, then straightened his back. Beth took the hint and slid to the ground, taking all of her weight on her good leg and letting Daryl go once she was certain of her footing. 

Daryl set his hand on her shoulder while she arranged her feet, then said, “Gonna have a look. Stay right there.”

He headed upstream toward the structure all but hidden by the layer of trees growing in front of it. The river bent around a curve just where the corner of roof peeked through, and a little ball of nerves tightened in her gut when Daryl disappeared from view around the bend. That was... interesting. From here, Beth could see anything coming long before they arrived. So she wasn’t afraid, not any more than usual these days, and she knew well the anxiety of waiting and never knowing when danger might cross their path no matter how well they could handle themselves around walkers. This wasn’t that, though, it was different and Beth didn’t understand. 

Perhaps it was just the idea of separating, even temporarily, from the only family she had right now. Beth gingerly set her injured ankle down, took a bit of weight and winced at the shooting pain through the joint. Or maybe it was this, her stupid ankle. If it wasn’t for her injury she’d be beside him right now, watching his back, maybe noticing something he missed—as unlikely as that was—instead of standing here lame and useless. 

Daryl reappeared soon, though, and hurried back to where she waited—not an urgent, let’s get outta here kind of hurry, but more of an excited one despite the lack of expression on his face.

“Looks good,” he said, breathing a little heavier than normal when he came to a stop in front of her. “Looks real good. You can walk a bit?”

Beth nodded. Even though it hurt she knew going in on piggyback was a bad idea. “I’m good.”

The pain wasn’t gone but she could bear it for a while, long enough to cross the creek and clear the building. She let Daryl guide her across the stream, carefully choosing her footing while he hovered behind her, as though ready to catch her if she stumbled, but she reached the opposite bank without incident. Side by side, they approached the structure in the woods. 

It stood up on an elevated bank, about ten feet from where the ledge dropped off to the riverbed below, with dense trees seeming to grow all around it. It wasn’t large, maybe about half the size of the barn but only one floor. They paused just before slipping out of the ring of trees at the front of the building, Beth instinctively looking for signs of living inhabitants and knowing Daryl did the same. Just the thought of another conflict with living people sent a tremor of anxiety through her chest.

She trusted Daryl, though, and when he touched her wrist and gave her a slow nod meaning all-clear, she followed him out of the trees into a small, grassy front yard. A set of steps led up to the porch spanning the width of the cabin and a solid wood door set into the windowless front wall. They had seen a few places like this before the funeral home, mostly crudely constructed and poorly maintained structures with the roofs fallen in or the walls knocked down. This one, though, looked pretty solid despite the aged wood and moss-covered shake roof. It seemed quiet, but neither one of them had survived this long by trusting the safety of a thing on first impressions alone. 

Daryl cocked and loaded his crossbow and motioned for Beth to follow him up to the porch. He positioned himself by the opening side of the door and Beth moved toward the hinges, meeting Daryl’s eyes as he rapped his knuckles on the solid wood. Beth got to the count of twelve before they heard the growls and felt the thump of bodies ramming into the door from inside. It sounded like two of them, and when Daryl held up two fingers, Beth nodded to say she understood. 

Beth pulled her knife out of its sheath and touched the door handle. At Daryl’s nod she turned the handle, feeling the catch release, and shoved the door in as hard as she could before backing away from the opening, flattening herself to the wall. Daryl whistled as the first walker shuffled out, drawing its attention to him at the other side of the doorway. He brought it down with his crossbow, and when the second lumbered out the door after him, Beth darted up behind it and took it out with her knife. Daryl stepped around the bodies after retrieving his bolt and reloading, and he entered the shack with his crossbow raised and Beth bringing up the rear.

No other walkers lurked within, though the stench of them lingered. Daryl pushed the font door shut and secured it with the iron bar propped up in the corner, while Beth surveyed the space. It may have been small, with only a single room, but the inside of the cabin was packed with stuff.

Hanging objects covered the walls to either side of the front door—tools, axes, a couple of shot guns, bunches of dried onions, a mosaic of usefulness they would need to explore later. The wall to their left faced the creek and had the only window, a small square of light brightening the dim interior. A row of closely grouped river birches grew just outside, screening the window from anyone on the opposite bank while still allowing anyone within a view to the outdoors. Along this wall and halfway around the back wall ran a solid plywood counter, braced with what looked to be hand-cut two-by-fours and standing on legs made of logs with the bark still on. Beneath the counter, top warn smooth from heavy use, sat a row of wooden trunks.

At the back wall, there was another door set just where the counter top ended, solid and wooden like the front door and barred across with the same type of heavy iron. Beside it was one of those old-time cast iron cook stoves, the type Beth had only ever seen in old movies, above which hung cast iron pots and pans and some utensils. Taking up the rest of the space between the stove and the back right corner was a low, wood-framed bed made up with an old patchwork quilt.

The right hand wall had no window, only floor-to-ceiling shelves, the highest two extending into the corner over the bed, packed full of items Beth would have to investigate. Already she could see some jars of food and other things they could probably use.

The middle of the room, aside from the clutter likely scattered there by the movements of the two walkers, was largely empty. A worn-looking rag rug filled the very centre, and there was no table, just two wooden chairs, one tucked beneath the counter, and the other lying splintered and broken in a pile on the worn plank floor. Whoever lived here liked things organized, and it might’ve been a simple little home but they had kept it well supplied.

Daryl must’ve been thinking along the same lines as she. After his own slow appraisal of the room, he dropped the canvas bag down on the rug and turned to catch her eyes. “This ain’t no hunting cabin. Someone lived here.”

Beth felt herself nodding slowly, eyes scanning the rows of shelves. “Is it wrong to just… use this stuff?”

They both looked toward the door, toward where they’d brought down the two corpses haunting this tidy cabin, a little pang going through Beth’s chest. Those two had been so prepared to survive out here and in the end they became just like everyone else—dead.

Daryl just shrugged and was silent a moment, before he looked back up at her and said, “Shame not to, all this just goin’ to waste. Here.”

He tossed something at her, and Beth caught it—his lighter—in her hands, looking back up in time to watch him lift a metal pail from the floor by the back door. Daryl nodded toward the pile of wood in the chest next to him. “Get the fire lit, I’ll be right back.”

She did as she was asked, first scraping the old ashes into the bin beside the stove, then finding enough kindling to get a small fire going by the time Daryl returned with a pail full of water. He set the pail down on top of the stove, its shape fitting into the rusted ring already there, then his gaze swept over her briefly before settling somewhere past her head.

“Thought you might wanna wash up, when the water warms,” he said, not quite looking at her as he reached to pull a half-used bar of soap off the little shelf behind the stove. “I’m gonna try and get us a rabbit or something."

Beth could hear the question there, the one he didn’t want to have to ask. Are you gonna be okay while I’m gone? It seemed like ages ago, her breakdown after the walker attack, and the incident that caused it, but it wasn’t, it was only a matter of days and she understood his concern, so Beth took the soap from his hands and gave him back his lighter, looking him in the face until he met her eyes at last.

“Thank you,” she said, hoping her smile would reassure him. “I’ll keep the fire goin’ ‘til you get back, okay?”

“Mm.” But he nodded, seemingly satisfied, hefted his crossbow went out through the back door.

Beth barred the door behind him and stared at the solid wood of it for a while, wondering at Daryl’s now solemn mood, when he’d seemed almost cheerful earlier. But she had gone quiet, too, thinking about that conversation, thinking a little too much about Daryl in ways she never had before. He could’ve been thinking, too—about that, maybe, or about them being almost out of food, or any number of other things. Daryl was different these days, but he was still Daryl, and try as she might Beth couldn’t read his mind, at least not all the time.

Her fist had tightened around the bar of soap, fingernails digging into its surface, and she remembered what Daryl had suggested she do. They were both covered in walker guts after yesterday—she’d been almost right inside the gaping abdomen of that one—more than her quick wash in the creek could fix. Though the light was dim inside the shack, she peered into the water pail and nearly recoiled at the creature staring back at her with wild, blood-caked hair and streaks of gore smeared everywhere.

The water could not warm fast enough.

Beth found some rags, stained from long use but clean, and stripped out of her clothes, leaving everything in a crusted pile at her feet. Weeks had passed since she’d last been completely naked, not since the prison and its showers. Their time on the run left her thin, ribs and hips sticking out through pale skin, a contrast to the more well-defined muscles in her legs and arms from the running and the fighting. It was like everything she used to be was gone and in its place, this new Beth—this wild woman made of blood and sweat and hard edges ingrained with dirt. 

She huffed a little breath through her nose. I wish I could just... change. It happened when she wasn’t even looking. 

Beth washed away what she could, letting the filthy water run through the cracks in the floor until the pail was empty and she was as clean as she could get without refilling it. If only the rest of it could wash away as easily as the filth, as though she could just pour a bucket of warm water over her soul to clean out the wound still bleeding there. Reality wasn’t like that, especially not now and maybe not ever, and if she were being honest she didn’t want it to go away, not completely. If she couldn’t feel the scar and remember the sting, she really might become that creature in her reflection.

Shaking away those frightening thoughts, Beth picked up her shirt, only to drop it back down into the pile of clothes when she realized how caked with filth it was. She couldn’t put any of her clothes back on, so she pulled the ratty quilt off the bed next to the stove and wrapped up in it while she searched for something to wear. One of the walkers outside was female, and sure enough, in one of the bed’s built-in drawers, Beth found her clothes.

The underwear and bra weren’t going to work, since the woman who owned them also owned more generous curves, but she found a pair of men’s boxer briefs in the next drawer which fit well enough over her slim hips and she doubted Daryl would even notice if she went without a bra until she could get hers clean. Nothing else really fit, either, but she rolled up the sleeves of a thin, faded grey and blue plaid shirt and cinched the smallest pair of shapeless blue jeans at her waist using her own belt, from which she wiped away the dried blood with one of the still-damp rags. Then she rewrapped her purple, swollen ankle, slipped on a pair of socks from the drawer, and tied her boots back on.

Daryl wasn’t back yet, so Beth banked the fire and then took the pail to the creek to refill it, lugging it back half-full to warm on the stove for him, in case he wanted to wash when he returned. Then she checked the walkers on the porch, dragging their bodies one at a time to block the stairs and maybe mask the scent of her and Daryl should any more happen by. The man-walker had a knife at his belt, a big hunting knife like the kind Daryl had. Beth cut it free along with its sheath and brought it inside, tucking it into the canvas bag.

Hanging on one of the pegs by front door was a roll of twine, and Beth used it to string an alarm across the porch, tying on empty cans and bits of noisy garbage she found in a dented old trash can outside, plus wooden dowels from the broken chair and a couple of the wrenches hanging by the door. The fast moving creek offered protection on the one side, and the trees grew so thick along the other that walkers couldn’t easily get through. That left the back door exposed, since it had no porch and no railing, just a set of stairs leading out to a little patch of grass and an overgrown garden, but she had enough twine and enough noisemakers to run an alarm along the tree line from the blind back corner of the house all the way around to the tree closest to the water’s edge. 

By the time she finished securing it, her ankle was throbbing and she knew she’d done too much. That moment replayed in her head during the quiet times, the moment she shot the man called Gorman and killed him. It felt different today, both more real and yet more distant, a bit disconnected, and she didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing, or if it just was. Either way, doing something with her hands, contributing anyway she could while Daryl was out trying to keep them both fed, was the only way she knew to stop the memory from playing on a constant loop. 

But the whole point of stopping here was to rest her ankle, and she wasn’t doing that by puttering around like this. So she went back inside, barred the door, checked the fire, sat down on the bed and wrapped herself up in the old quilt to wait, and once again her thoughts drifted back to that moonlit yard and all that happened there. 

The clatter of cans jarred Beth out of a light sleep she hadn’t meant to fall into. She jumped up from the bed, dislodging the quilt and retrieving her knife, pressing herself against the back door to listen. The alarm jangled again and her pulse raced, but then she heard the unmistakable rumble of Daryl’s voice and her breath came easier. She waited, though, just in case, listening for a shout signalling danger. It never came, but a moment later a sharp knock sounded on the door, followed by Daryl’s voice.

“Beth?”

She unbarred the door and Daryl stepped inside, catching her eyes immediately. His lip twitched, something like the Daryl Dixon not-smile that still meant he wasn’t displeased and might even be impressed. And he nodded his head toward the woods as he shut and barred the door and said, “You do all that?”

“Mmhm. I did the front, too, and I found a good knife. It’s in your bag.”

She watched Daryl’s gaze slip down to her booted feet before travelling back up toward her face. “Mmm. S’pposed to be resting that.”

Beth sighed. “I know. Just couldn’t sit still, is all.”

He said nothing in response, but the way he was looking at her made her believe he understood what she meant, and he held the contact for a minute before breaking away.

“Got some supper.” Daryl pulled the string of furry things from over his shoulder, revealing a pair of decent sized rabbits. “We can cook ‘em up with some of them onions, make us a nice redneck stew.”

With the return of Daryl’s voice, Beth felt the tension in the air dissipate. “There might be other stuff we could put in, too. This could actually be good.

Daryl nodded, lip quirked up a little. “Real stove. Almost like home cookin’.”

“Well this was somebody’s home, so I guess it will be.” Beth held out her hand, and when he just looked at her, said, “Let me do that, at least. Since you went and got them.”

She could see the protest on his lips, but held up her hand to stop him from saying it. “I can sit at the chair over there, okay? I’ll let you look around for something tasty to go with it.”

That drew a real smile, just a flash of teeth behind an upturned open lip, but real, reaching right up to his eyes. It looked so good on him, and Beth vowed right then and there that she was going to do her best to make him smile, really smile, at least once a day.

When it faded, but didn’t quite disappear, Daryl said, “Oh you’ll let me, will you?”

Beth pursed her lips and crossed her arms in front of her and knew she looked ridiculous but didn’t care, because Daryl’s eyes were still smiling. “Yes I will. But only if you’re good.”

He snorted and handed her the carcasses, turning away, but not before Beth caught a glimpse of another smile. She felt a little rush, like a surge of warmth in her chest at the sight of it, and it only made her mission seem that much more important. 

After all, the world couldn’t be so bad, could it, when Daryl Dixon was smiling. 

*~*

Chapter Text



 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 6 - Maybe I'm a Man, Maybe I'm a Lonely Man

*~*

Daryl paused at the bottom of the stairs, standing still on the final plank of wood waiting to hear the sound of the door being barred before carrying on. He hadn’t told her to, but—good—the rasp of metal on wood was clear as day even through the heavy door, taking the slightest of edges off the cold block of worry weighing in his gut at leaving her alone. Beth had looked him in the eyes, forcing the contact when he tried to avoid it, and promised she would be okay. He had to believe it were enough. Had to believe the sharp clarity of her gaze beneath the horror-movie makeup meant she wasn’t gonna slip away while he was gone. 

And here he was slipping away himself, differently he supposed but it was still an escape. He needed—well, he didn’t know what he needed, when the problem was an ache, a twisting tension in his gut he never knew before and didn’t know how to ease, shaking fingers he couldn’t control and restlessness in his legs begging him to just run run run. Daryl had enough self awareness to know he worried about things more than he should, more than others did even when maybe they needed to. Worry for Beth seeped into his body with every breath he took and he couldn’t stand it, leaving her behind, but he had to get out, had to do something, and fuck if it didn’t feel like running away. Problem was, he didn’t know what he was running from

He wasn’t gonna leave her. This cowardly flight into the forest was a temporary insanity, not a permanent one. No, he was never gonna leave Beth behind and his resolve to that burned hot in his veins. The rational voice in his head reminded him they were out of food, that if they were going to stay in the cabin he needed more assurance about its safety, and he couldn’t drag her with him when the whole point of stopping was to rest her damned ankle. All the things he’d always done—think ahead, provide, protect—but he couldn’t shake the prickle of guilt that it wasn’t any of that at all driving him out into the woods with his pulse racing and his grip on his crossbow almost painful.

A low-hanging branch brushed across his shoulders and he paused, planting his palm against the rough bark, feeling again the pass of Beth’s thumb over the wings on his back, soft and gentle and repeated again and again as he carried her. An unknowing caress of the ugliness beneath and he was completely unworthy of the immeasurable comfort in that innocent gesture, but it meant nothing. Nothing. Beth didn’t know, couldn’t know, and it weren’t her cross to bear any more than it were his right to want to fall right down into her touch, soak up every ounce of it like a benediction she didn’t know she gave. No matter how he longed for it, to let her hold his soul in her warm embrace again like she had done that day at the moonshiner’s shack, and fuck, Dixonpull yourself together. 

But memory wasn’t kind to him today and even as he pushed away from the tree, pressed onward despite not knowing where or why, another rolled in on the heels of the first. In reality this one hadn’t left him for a minute and he doubted it would. Beth at the bank of that creek, scrubbing her sweater, the vacancy in her eyes, the inhuman wail as she throttled that walker’s skull to putrid jelly and that moment—that gut-wrenching, heart shattering moment—when he thought she was gonna turn to dust right there in front of him and it was all he could do to take down the last of the walkers and fucking get to her before she disappeared. 

He didn’t know whether to admire her strength, ‘cause after she cried, cried so hard he couldn’t hold her tight enough to keep her from shaking, and later confessed her sins to him in the dark, he hadn’t seen a speck of vacancy, hadn’t felt like she were gonna up and vanish—or if the whole thing were just a cover, a flimsy façade about to crack and drag her back down where he couldn’t reach her, couldn’t pull her back. 

She ain’t like that. She’s tough. 

He didn’t think he’d ever prayed harder for anything in his whole goddamned life. 

Daryl’s boot came down hard and snapped a twig, the sound of it echoing loudly, and he cursed his stupid head and reckless legs. Leaning hard against another tree, he pulled in deep breaths of woodsy air, drawing the calm of the forest into his chest like he’d always done, but after slogging through it for endless weeks he barely felt it. How the world had changed—and weren’t that a fucking understatement—when even the solitude of the woods couldn’t soothe the ache anymore, and when the woman he left behind brought him more peace in the pass of her thumb over leather than any forest ever could. 

He was grateful when he found the rabbit tracks, a spike of relief burrowing into the bed of rocks in his belly. They needed food and he needed to get out of his head a while. The past few weeks had been a reprieve form the torment of his own thoughts and he shouldn’t’ve been surprised to find himself back here again, shouldn’t’ve let himself hope for any different. But if someone as good and as strong as Beth Greene could fall, how did he have a hope in hell of not falling with her?

He missed the shot. Knew he would before the bolt sunk into the packed dirt, the shaft splintering on impact and another one bites the fucking dust while the rabbit got away. Could never hunt with angry fingers and still couldn’t now, and if they were gonna eat tonight he needed to let it go—to put it away—before it burned him up.

Stepping away from of the rabbit path, Daryl leaned back against the largest tree, and after a minute slid himself to the ground beneath it. He closed his eyes and breathed, trying to let in the sound of the woods, feel it on his skin—the rustle of leaves, creaking of ancient trunks, scuffling of animals, and the melody of birdsong. Somewhere in the distance, the shuffle of a walker. But it was the sound he couldn’t hear he longed for the most, and the realization of that surged through him in a wave of heat tempered only by the breeze on his cheeks and the cool ground beneath him.

God, his head was a trash heap of junk and he couldn’t even begin to dig through it all, his past demons mixing with new ones and amidst all of it was Beth, and he didn’t know where she fit or how. His chest burned and his gut twisted whenever he thought of how close he’d come to losing her, back at the funeral home, and he shouldn’t be thankful, not with how torn up she was over it, but he was. He was glad she’d done it, killed that cop, because he didn’t want to know what woulda happened if she hadn’t. And that scared the shit out of him, the fear of losing her and the realization of how hard he was leaning on her, counting on her to hold him up like he’d never done with anyone or anything before.

And how could he lean so much on a fractured pillar and expect it to keep them both standing?

You fucking let her lean back.

He would. Thought maybe he already was, and just hoped to hell it was enough. He hadn’t thought twice about killing the man who attacked him inside the house, but he wasn’t Beth. Wasn’t good like her, and he didn’t know how to help her, not really, except by telling her dumb ass stories about lost dogs if that’s what she wanted or offering silly piggybacks and teasing words that made both of them blush even though he tried not to notice.

Thinking of the piggyback brought him around full-circle, and he felt the ghost of her thumb across his back, soothing the pain there that never went away, long, long after the physical wounds hardened into scars. 

This time, he got the rabbit. 

He bagged another one a short while later, and marked the spot to find again before stringing the cottontails over his shoulder. This would do, would feed them both fine, and it was past time he got back to Beth, anyway. When his foot caught in the twine as he stepped into the rear yard, Daryl spared only half a second on confusion before he figured it out, and he noted the care with which she’d constructed and secured the alarm. It was done how he would’ve, right from the corner of the house where the trees grew thick and around to the sparser growth of birches at the river’s edge, well secured and sure to alert them to anything attempting to threaten the cabin from the back.

When he knocked and said her name, she opened the door immediately. Good, she heard the alarm, must’ve heard his voice too, but she waited until she was sure. That meant, at the very least, she was focused enough to look after herself. Look after both of them, considering what she done out back. 

Their gazes met as he stepped inside, and he fought the smile at the look on her face, half sleepy, half pleased, scrubbed clean now and so thoroughly Beth. Half his tension melted away just looking at her. “You do all that?”

She smiled a little as she answered him, and even though she hadn’t been resting, even though he called her on it, and even though he suspected they had both needed the busywork, she’d still done good. Real good. 

The wave of guilt he felt over doubting her passed quickly, or maybe he just stuffed it down with the rest of what he carried with him always. And then there she was, reading his mind or sensing his mood or somehow knowing just what to do, ‘cause he was fucking smiling and she was well on her way to dragging out another one when he handed her the rabbits to dress so he could look around for something else to put in their stew.

Of course Beth was going to be okay. Might take her some time to get there, but she was, and he wasn’t gonna doubt that again. 

*~*

They thickened the stew with potatoes Daryl found in the garden out back, flavoured it with some of the onions, garlic, and dried herbs hanging on the wall by the door, and bulked it up with carrots and turnips from inside one of the wooden chests. By the time the sky darkened into night, he and Beth had eaten most of it, though it was too rich for either one of them after weeks of never enough to eat, and his gut ached like a son-of-a-bitch. He wouldn’t have done it any different, though, and Beth rubbed at her belly like she suffered the same rabbit-filled fate and wasn’t complaining either.

Beth slid out of her chair, hobbled over to the bed, and fell down on it face first with a muffled groan. Daryl wasn’t sure what possessed him to follow, to slide down from the countertop and do the same, falling beside her on the saggy old mattress and groaning, too, like making noises could relieve the bellyache.

Beth pulled her face out of the bedding to look at him after his landing bounced her toward him, and blinked a couple of times before settling her face into an almost blank expression. “I think I OD’d on bunnies.”

He couldn’t help it, neither the smile nor the little bark of laughter that followed it, but it was worth it for the way Beth’s eyes sparkled afterward. Impossible as it was right now to look at her without remembering how broken she’d been a little more than a day ago—still was, but mending—at least he knew she wasn’t gonna slip away again, not if she could tease smiles out of him the way she’d been doing all afternoon. Not when that light shone there again, dimmed for sure but still brighter than anyone he knew.

It made his heart race, the sheer strength simmering inside this woman, when even all stuffed full of guilt and doubt she would make a mission out of trying to cheer him up, and that she’d even notice he needed cheering in the first place. He wouldn’t have thought he did and never would have asked for it, too used to things wearing on him like that. Wearing him down inside where nobody knew, nobody saw him crumbling, except Beth. Beth knew, Beth saw, and here she was again, picking him back up before he even hit the ground. He still worried, couldn’t help that, but the steel in her soul was staggering and it took the edge off, more than a little, knowing she wasn’t gonna stop fighting.

A couple of minutes passed before he realized he was staring, that they both were, gazes locked across the short span of quilt between them. And he knew he oughta move, should put some distance between them, but his heart just wasn’t in it tonight and neither was hers, since she wasn’t moving away either. So he stayed, and he stared, and a flock of geese beat their wings inside his chest. He should move, he knew he should. But now that he was down, exhaustion seeped into his bones like water into sand, turning his legs, his whole body, into concrete. Warm, full for once, as safe as he’d been in a long time, Daryl felt a million miles away from the man he’d been that afternoon. 

He hadn’t slept last night, barely at all since they ran, and Beth hadn’t done much better. She wore on her face a reflection of the same warm drowsiness he felt in his. “Daryl?”

Beth’s voice almost woke him enough to listen to reason. Almost. He still couldn’t force his legs to work. “Mmm?”

She blinked her blue eyes slowly but didn’t look away. “What are we goin’ to do now?”

That question had lingered in the back of his mind for days, even when his concern for Beth overrode everything else, since they had to run from the place he thought they could stay, the two of them. The place with the piano and the little white candlelit kitchen, the place where Beth sang him to sleep and met his eyes over a white trash brunch and read his mind. Oh. She was looking at him like that now, as though his guard had slipped so far down she could read every thought in is head.

Beth reached across the space between them and brushed the hair out of his eyes, fingertips barely grazing his brow as she did, but leaving his skin tingling in their wake. Then she froze, sleep-heavy eyes gone all wide, hand hovering in midair a moment before she let it fall to the bed between them. 

“What—” He had to clear his throat, his voice gone too raspy to speak properly. “What do you wanna do, Beth?”

She didn’t answer right away, just lay there blinking slowly, her cheeks flushed with pink as she looked right into his eyes, as if she were trying to see right through to his soul. And maybe she could, and that alone should’ve made him pull away, but instead Daryl breathed out a heavy breath and looked back at her, searching her eyes like she did his. He could see the hurt there, behind the sleepy contentment. But he could see the strength of her, too, and the sweet, caring heart of her glistening at the corners.

“Do you really think they’re all dead?”

He had forced himself to believe that, right after the prison when it was just him and Beth and an insurmountable wall of grief and guilt. So much had happened since then—Beth. Beth happened—and maybe he didn’t believe it, not fully, but it weren’t impossible. He could admit that, now, that it weren’t impossible that some of their family might still be alive. Could almost let himself hope it were true. Beth believed it, though, and Daryl believed in her.

So he blinked slowly, as she had done, and chose his words. “Maybe they coulda made it. Coulda got out, like you an’ me.”

Beth’s eyes got a little shinier after that, and without looking away she reached up to pull one of the pillows down from the top of the bed. She was close enough to him that when she lifted her head to slip the pillow beneath he had to do the same, and the shock of that, of staring at Beth across a pillow, was what first kept him motionless. But when the shock faded, it was the gentle smile on Beth’s face that kept him there. 

“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” Beth said, still without having looked away.

He knew he should get up, away from Beth and the breathless sort of anticipation building in his chest as he stared back at her across that damn pillow. He should be sitting watch, searching the shack, doing anything but this, lying in bed with Beth like it were somewhere he had any right to be.

Maybe she really could read his mind, because he hadn’t so much as blinked, but Beth’s fingers curled around his bicep, her hold gentle yet deliberate. “Everythin’s alarmed and the doors are barred. You need to sleep, too, Daryl. Stay.”

Stay. The word trickled right down through his bones, into his chest where the fluttering lived, and he finally gave in to the truth. He wasn’t gonna move because he didn’t want to, because Beth’s voice in his ears asking him to stay drowned out the ones in his head telling him to go, and Daryl was pretty sure he was fooling himself if he thought he wouldn’t try to give Beth whatever she wanted, if she asked it of him. 

So he stayed, letting his eyes drift shut at last, feeling the warmth of her breath on his face, letting the sound of her breathing settle inside him until they fell into rhythm, his chest rising and falling in time with hers. 

*~*

Daryl woke partway through the night, returning to consciousness so gradually that by the time he blinked his eyes open, he knew exactly where he was even though he couldn’t see a thing. The lack of urgency in the waking kept him cradled in the comfort of the bed while he listened, but nothing moved or made a noise outside, and on top of that his sense of alarm remained silent.

His other senses, though, weren’t nearly so quiet. Sometime in his sleep he’d rolled on his side, and now Beth slept pressed up against his back, one hand resting on his arm and her breath tickling his neck. He felt the warmth of her through his ratty shirt, felt every breath she took, and his next one caught in his chest and shuddered on its way out. Maybe he’d spent more time piggybacking her across graveyards and through the woods, but it never made his heart pound like this.

Never made him hard, either, but lying there, saturated in her, he couldn’t do a thing about it. Behind him, Beth sighed and burrowed even deeper into his back. Daryl’s breath shuddered out of him again and the pounding in his chest beat out an answer to the question he didn’t want to ask. ‘Cause it wasn’t just the warm body behind him. He weren’t no horny teenager and even when he was… No, it was Beth, of course it was Beth, but he hadn’t even thought of her—not that she weren’t—’cause she was, she really was, but—fuck.

Daryl dug his fingers into the quilt beneath him, trying and failing to take a breath that wasn’t shaky. He didn’t know whether to get out of bed or stay put, and every muscle in his body itched, but he didn’t want to fucking move, he really didn’t, and that was half the problem. The other half mumbled something in her sleep and somehow snuggled even closer, and he knew he wasn’t gonna get up. Wasn’t gonna wake her when she was sleeping so good no matter what it did to him. So his heart thundered in his chest and his cock strained at his jeans, but fucking let them, wasn’t hurting anything except his chances of getting back to sleep anytime soon.

How the hell did he get here?

Daryl finally dragged in a breath that wasn’t ragged, and when he exhaled, so did Beth. Relax, Dixon. Easier said than done, but he let go of the quilt and tried to let go of the tension in his muscles, too. Beth’s breath on his neck didn’t exactly help the problem, any part of it, but it weren’t so urgent that he couldn’t ignore it—or at least, he maybe couldn’t ignore it, but didn’t need to do anything about it either.

Right. Relaxing.

She was so warm, though, and her fingers curled around his arm like they had when she asked him to stay with her, and the dangerous thought slithered into his head that he could get used to this. But he couldn’t. None of this was going anywhere and he shouldn’t even be thinking it, and—fucking hell.

He felt like laughing, actually. Beth had turned just about everything else in his world upside down, why not this, too?

Breathe

Daryl pulled in another deep breath, tried to get his lungs back into some sort of working rhythm, one that didn’t leave him quite so lightheaded. In the end he let Beth set the pace, because he could hardly not be aware of her, but it worked after a while and he felt the tension start to slip away, little by little each time he breathed out, until his body melted back into the softness of the bed and the pillow.

He didn’t sleep. Arousal lingered but didn’t rage, and he mentally made a list of everything he wanted to do after daybreak, focusing on something other than Beth, to try keeping it that way. He got as far as planning to set up some snares out where he got last night’s rabbits before the sky began to lighten outside, just a hint of it outlining the small, tree-screened window across the room. By the time he reached about lunchtime on his made up timeline, the sun was definitely up, and that’s when Beth finally stirred. 

The first thing on Daryl’s list was let Beth wake up. He didn’t know how she’d react, didn’t know what to expect at all, and the only thing he could think to do was keep his breathing even and pretend to sleep. Weren’t like she meant to cause him any discomfort and he wanted to spare her of her own as much as he could, even if that meant playing possum.

Beth groaned and stretched, then went still. He heard a sharp little intake of breath before the warm weight of her left his back, and the bed bounced a bit as she resettled. A couple of minutes passed where the only sound in the entire cabin was their breathing. 

“I know you’re awake, Daryl.”

She nudged her elbow into his spine and his ears went hot, and he slowly turned until he was lying on his back beside her. He tried not looking at her, wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to give away everything, but her blue eyes bored into the side of his head, a beacon he couldn’t resist. He tipped his head over and their gazes met across the pillow.

A flush of pink coloured her cheeks and her sleep-heavy eyes opened wide. “Hey,” she said, in a half-whisper, sinking her teeth into her bottom lip.

Daryl’s throat had gone dry, but he choked out a response. “Hi.”

They were staring again, just like last night. And just like last night, Daryl didn’t move and neither did Beth. He didn’t understand it, this inability to break away despite the squirm of nerves in his gut and the flush of heat in his face, or the stillness in his legs when he shoulda been long gone out of that bed, up with the sun and doing something, anything, but thiswhatever this was. Anyone else and he would’ve already vanished, woulda never have fallen into the bed in the first place, but something in Beth’s gaze hooked into him, anchored him to her, motionless on the outside while his heart ran a marathon inside his chest.

When Beth spoke, her voice pierced through the sleepy quiet of the cabin, making his belly lurch and his breath catch.

“How long was I…?” The flush in her cheeks deepened as her gaze swept downward before snapping back to his face. “I mean…”

She didn’t finish and Daryl’s first instinct was to brush the question off, mumble some non-answer, but he swallowed that back as he stared at her, at those wide blue eyes and pink cheeks and a hint of white tooth in her bottom lip. She maybe wouldn’t push him, being all embarrassed like she was, but it weren’t a mumble she were after. He already knew he couldn’t do anything else but answer her.

His voice caught in his throat again, dragging out of him low and gritty and far more intense than he meant it to be. “For a while.”

Her flush darkened and she dropped her gaze, pulling at her own fingers where they lay across her stomach, sighing softly, shakily. “Sorry, Daryl, I didn’t—”

“How’d you sleep?”

It was her worry that made up his mind as he cut her off, the question coming out as gruffly as everything else. It was stupid, fucking stupid, when all she’d done was sleep and all he’d done was let her.

Beth met his eyes again, her lips parted in surprise as she blinked rapidly for a second or two before answering. “Good. Real good,” she said, sucking in a deep breath. “No nightmares either.”

“Then it don’t matter.” 

Because it didn’t. It couldn’t, not when the only thing they had in the world right now was each other. No matter what, it was just him and her, two broken souls against the dying world. So who gave a fuck where she slept?

Beth’s cheeks were still stained pink, and in his peripheral vision he could see the deep rise and fall of her chest which matched his own. She smiled, a little hesitant, but slow and sweet. “Did you get some sleep, too?”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling the pull of a smile tug at his lips, while hers bloomed even brighter. “Yeah, I did.”

“Good.”

They said nothing else after that, just stayed there for a while, both of them staring up at the ceiling, elbows just touching on the bed between them. It didn’t feel like avoidance, more like indulgence, lying there when they had an entire world of other things they shoulda been doing. Daryl couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t been up with the light of day. Beth probably couldn’t either.

So they stayed, and they breathed, and let the world pass them by for just a little bit longer.

*~*

Chapter Text

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Chapter 7 – She Stares through My Shadow

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Though the sky was clear of clouds, the morning air held a chill of autumn, more than the previous days had, and Daryl felt the metallic tang of it in his lungs when he stepped out of the cabin. He paused a minute, halfway down the steps, to just breathe it in, and behind him heard Beth doing the same thing. She smiled at him when he looked over his shoulder at her, standing in the doorway, loose ends of her hair fluttering in the breeze.

He nodded back at her and she gave him a little wave before securing the door shut behind him, heavy iron scraping over solid wood, and after another deep, refreshing breath, Daryl finished his descent into the grass. As he passed over the threshold into the woods, using the same vague trailhead as yesterday, the deep greens and browns of the forest welcomed him. Again he paused to breathe, feeling the pulse of the trees in his bones, the scent of them deep in his lungs. Nothing had changed, aside from the sleep he hadn’t known how badly he needed, but it seemed like years had passed since yesterday, since the storm raging inside him had driven him out here with skin too thick, lungs too shallow to feel the sanctity of woods in the way he craved. Well, he felt it now, right down to the depths of him. Right down to the marrow. 

The whole point of coming out here, though, was to properly explore the area around the cabin, something he hadn’t managed yesterday, aside from finding that rabbit warren, and he pushed away from the tree he was leaning on to continue his journey. Just a few minutes into the woods he came across the remnants of a trapline, the kind used for catching furbearers in the winter. Not all of them were good to eat, but the signs along the line were active and varied so Daryl set a few traps as he went in case something edible wandered by. He followed the line’s oblong loop, sticking to the still-packed earth of the barely there path the two in the cabin would’ve walked each day checking their traps. The rabbit warren was close to the line, about two-thirds of the way around the loop, and he set his snares there as planned, hoping to conserve his few remaining bolts until he could figure out how to replace them.

He saw no other structures, no other signs of people as he completed the loop back to their cabin, and only a single walker stumbled by which he dispatched easily. Didn’t mean there couldn’t be more of them, and in that way it was a risk with the fur traps and rabbit snares. He’d check them later, take away whatever got caught, and he didn’t set any of them too close to the cabin. 

Aside from a bit of morning birdsong, the cabin was quiet, too, when he slipped past Beth’s alarms into the little grassy yard and headed for the back door. Daryl barely had his hand raised before the door swung inward and Beth appeared in the opening, wide-eyed and grinning like a madwoman and near vibrating on the spot. 

“What—”

Beth grabbed his hand, the one he had raised to knock, and tugged him forward. “Daryl! Come see what I found!”

He let her drag him inside, stopping only to bar the door. “I coulda been anyone, you know.”

Beth scoffed and tugged at his hand again. “I know what you sound like when you’re tryin’ to make noise. Come on!”

“All right, all right,” he said, fighting a smirk while trying to sound annoyed, but it was half-assed and she saw right through him anyway, crinkling her nose at him and squeezing his fingers until he followed her. 

She led him over to an open chest in the centre of the room, one of two she’d dragged from beneath the counter. Piles of things littered the floor around them, but his eyes passed over all of it as Beth pulled away the folded canvas lining the top of the open chest. 

Inside the chest was divided in half, one side an empty bin lined with felt, while the other looked a little like a fishing tackle box, with layers of shelves that all swung up and out on metal arms to reveal the next layer beneath. Only instead of tackle, he found tools and screws, sting wax, lubricant, stock oil and rags, and enough components—shafts, nocks, vanes, inserts, and broadheads—to replenish his dwindling supply of crossbow bolts, and then some. The deeper he dug into the chest, the more he found, including replacement strings, assorted fasteners, even a bundle of completed bolts, tied neatly with twine. 

“Shit...” He almost breathed the word as he looked up from the chest and toward Beth.

Beth, who was at that very moment carefully reaching down to pull a crossbow out of an unzipped bag at her feet. A crossbow which was cocked and loaded with one of the homemade bolts from its quiver. Daryl let his gaze slide along the broadhead tip, over the curves of the bow to the lines of Beth’s arms as she settled the weapon into them, holding as it as he had shown her with his. 

Her eyes sparkled as their gazes met again and she fought a smile, lip caught between her teeth. Daryl rose to his feet and came to stand beside her, eyes sweeping across the bow again up close. He’d seen ones like it before, lightweight and more compact, meant for a smaller-framed person, easier for her to carry and handle than his Stryker, but with at least as much draw weight and only a little less speed. And yet—

His eyes flicked back to hers. “You cock that yourself?”

Beth breathed out and grinned up at him, leaning over ‘til her shoulder brushed against his arm. “It has one of those rope-cocking things you told me about,” she said, her voice kinda shaky and breathless. “Daryl! I have a crossbow!

He felt the smile even before it opened up on his face, saw Beth’s eyes flick toward his mouth before her own grin widened.

“I remembered what you told me,” she said, her thumb stroking the only lightly scuffed finish of the stock. “Pull the string evenly and make sure it locks before loading the bolt.”

“Good, Beth,” he said, watching the path of her thumb, trying to ignore the way her stroking the crossbow made his pulse race a little bit more than it already was. “Real good.”

This was good. She was eager to learn, had the knack for it, both the bow and the tracking that went with it, and now she had a weapon she could use. A weapon she could carry on her shoulders and cock herself, a weapon she was obviously thrilled to have and it would only make teaching her that much better. He pictured the two of them, following the signs, tracking a deer through the woods, twin bolts hitting home...

Yeah, definitely a good thing. 

Beside him, Beth breathed out audibly, and it fluttered up warm against his chin. “It already feels like mine.”

“Looks like yours.” And it did, it looked damn good there in her arms. “Get that ankle healed up, Greene. Show me what you can do with it.”

“Daryl.” Beth lowered the bow, gripping it one handed to wrap her fingers around his wrist. "I wanna do it now.

Her fingers tightened and she shivered against him, a slight little shudder he only felt because he saw it roll over her shoulders, and it mighta been dark in the cabin, but not dark enough for her pupils to widen halfway toward obscuring the blue as she gazed up at him. Eyes blazing in a we-should-burn-it-down kinda way, cheeks flushed pink, and not smiling, no, but her lips parted with something infinitely more intense than that. If anyone understood the allure of a new crossbow, it was Daryl, but Beth? Christ, he couldn’t even wrap his head around it, but the ever-present flutter in his chest pulsed warm and eager and all in favour.

Jesus, girl,” he breathed, before he could stop himself.

Beth’s cheeks flushed darker, and she bit her lip and pressed her thumb a little more firmly into the softer skin on the inside of his wrist. “Please, Daryl?”

It was gonna take a better man than him to say no to that, and with a groan he couldn’t quite suppress, he tossed his head in the direction of the back door. Beth grinned and made little squealing noise as she shouldered her bow like he did his and followed him outside, fingers finding his wrist again as she navigated the narrow steps. She let go when they reached the grassy back yard, limped her way into the centre and turned a slow circle, blinking in the bright light. She came to a stop facing out toward the woods.

“I was tryin’ to find somethin’ to shoot,” she said, voice low as he stepped up behind her. “So I could show you.”

“Ain’t gotta be something,” he said, as lowly as she did even though there weren’t so much as a squirrel around to scare away. “Here.”

He pulled out his knife and strode toward the smooth trunk of the birch tree ahead of her, and carved a quick circle into the bark with a little X in the centre. Then, kind of an afterthought really, he added what he meant to look like a pair of rabbit ears. As he stepped back, Beth let out a little giggle.

“Aww, tree bunny,” she said, catching his eye with that intense, madwoman look still blazing in hers.

“Yeah, well, just don’t aim for the ears.” His own felt a little warm under her look, and he was grateful when she raised the bow because it meant he could take his place behind her again and hide it. 

She was trembling, just a little. He could see it in her fingertips, in her shoulders, in her not-quite-steady aim of the bow. Too excited for her own damn good—for his own good, too, considering the state he woke up in—but then again, maybe that was better than how she coulda been. 

“Breathe, Beth,” he said, pressing his fingertips into the centre of her back, ignoring, for now, the growing warmth in his belly. “You got this.”

She breathed, slow and deep, once, twice, three times before the trembling abated and he withdrew his fingers. Beth adjusted her hold and raised the bow again with steady arms, checking she had her thumb out of the path of the string before resting her finger on the trigger. “How’s this?”

“Good, just—” He lifted her elbow higher with two fingers, pressed his other palm to her hip until she made the slight turn he was after. “There. Got your target?”

Beth took a very slow, very deep breath. “Yes.”

Daryl’s own breath mimicked hers as he sighted with her, eyeing down the line where the scope would be if she had one, his fingers curling against his jeans, trigger finger extended. “You gotta feel the shot.”

Another deep breath. “I remember.”

“Gentle on the trigger.” He drew his own trigger finger in, just a hair, saw the minute contraction in her wrist as Beth did the same.

“Gentle,” she whispered. “Feel the shot.”

A pause, then another deep breath, and when he exhaled and pulled his imaginary trigger, Beth breathed out and sent the bolt flying toward the tree. She didn’t hit dead centre, but the bolt lodged on the inside edge of the circle just beneath one of the ears, and that was a damn fine first shot with a new weapon if he ever saw one.

Beth lowered her crossbow and turned around, that damned lip caught up in her teeth again, gaze turned expectantly to his. But she knew how this worked, knew it was a decent shot, but also knew she could do better and wasn’t gonna get a word out of him until she did.

She waited until he returned from pulling the bolt out of the tree before resting the stirrup on the ground and setting her foot into it. The rope-cocker was built right into the stock, and she tugged on the handles to unroll the rope, hooked it to the bowstring, and pulled up to cock the bow. The ropes retracted right back into the little casing once she finished, and after a bit of practice, Daryl was pretty sure it wouldn’t take her much more time than it would for him to do it manually. Even with the draw weight cut in half, though, it took a lot of strength and effort to cock that crossbow. Her shirt prevented a good visual, but he could picture the flexing muscles in her arms as she pulled, almost wished she’d found something without sleeves to wear so he could actually see.

That stray thought distracted him enough not to notice her taking the second shot until the bolt hit, an inch and a half closer toward the centre than her first. Daryl retrieved the bolt and so it continued, Beth shooting, Daryl yanking the bolt out of the tree so she could use it to shoot again.

Beth cocked her crossbow, with only the slightest tremor in her arms and shoulders giving away how much effort it took. This time when she lifted the bow, he didn’t have to correct her stance, or the angle of her arms, and before he could speak, she relaxed the tension across her shoulders and took her deep breaths. Good. She was remembering what he taught her before and taking everything else he threw at her now, absorbing it in, not making the same mistake twice.

And she looked fucking good doing it, too, in the same way she had that night after taking down four walkers by herself. Wild, somehow, or dangerous maybe, but the kinda dangerous that was thrilling, made even more so by how totally into it she was. She was gonna be amazing with that crossbow, and she was already damn good. 

Each successive shot saw her bolt land closer to the centre and though he didn’t say, the look in her eyes when she met his, without fail after every attempt, told him she knew he was watching. Knew he saw. When her bolt landed just to the left of the X he’d drawn in the centre, he gave her a grunt and a nod which left her fighting a grin as she cocked her crossbow and reloaded her bolt. 

“This time, I’m gonna hit it,” Beth said, breathing deeply as she raised the bow and adjusted her aim ever so slightly more toward the right than the last attempt. 

Beth Greene was a lotta things, a great many more than Daryl thought any one person could be, but a liar she weren’t and her bolt hit dead centre just like she said it would. When she spun around this time, he expected the bit-lip grin, or maybe the crazy-eyed excited one. Instead, she faced him with a smirk, all smugness and arched eyebrows, the face of a woman well aware she was more than a little bit of a badass with that crossbow. He was already feeling a little warm, watching her, but hell if that look on her face didn’t send a little extra spike of heat through his belly, right up into his fluttery chest as he jogged back to get her bolt. 

She was still smirking when he came up in front of her, bolt in hand, boldness thumping in his chest. “Think you’re good, Greene?”

His voice came out like gravel, and Beth’s smirk deepened. She leaned toward him, a ripple in the air as she slipped into his space, one hand on her hip and the other on the butt of her crossbow. Beads of sweat speckled her brow, trickled down her neck. “I know I’m good, Dixon.”

“A’right then, prove it,” he said, holding her gaze as he tipped his head toward the target tree, leaning in toward her, too, fully aware but not quite able to stop. “Hit it again.”

Without looking away from his face, Beth snatched the bolt from his hand, and up this close her eyes shone so intense, so fucking blue in the sunlight. “Just you watch me.”

As if he had any other choice. Dangerous.

Beth took a step back, and the buzzing in his ears faded to a hum as he watched her cock the crossbow, load the bolt, and take aim. If she were a fairy tale, if she were goddamned Robin Hood she’d have split the arrow, her bolt sinking into the tree in the middle of the hollow left by the last. Something swelled up in his chest, warm and weighty on his ribs, and fuck was he proud of her.

This time when she turned to face him, it wasn’t smug Beth, hesitant Beth, or even crazy-eyed Beth. It was just Beth, smiling sweetly, hair wild, sticking to her face where she was flushed and sweaty from exertion despite the morning chill, and kinda happy in a way she hadn’t been in a long time. Even though he knew it was borrowed happiness, he wanted to keep that going for as long as he could. 

“Yeah,” he said, slowly nodding, feeling the start of a smile he wasn’t even gonna try to hide, the smile she more than earned. “You are good.”

Her smile brightened and the flush darkened on her cheeks, and for once she seemed at a loss for words, opening her mouth to speak and shutting it again in silence a couple of times before she took a deep breath and resumed smiling at him. “Thank you, Daryl.”

Ain’t nothin’, he wanted to say, or you’re the best kinda good I know. He couldn’t though, could neither brush it off nor explain how deeply he meant that. He thought maybe she knew anyway, with how quiet she’d gone, just looking over at him with those searching eyes of hers. 

“C’mon,” he said instead. “Let’s get inside.”

Beth took a pained step toward the cabin, whimpering a little when she took the weight on her injured foot. Before he could stop to think, Daryl scooped her up like he had that morning on their way into the kitchen for pig’s feet and peanut butter. 

Beth breathed a sound somewhere between a gasp and a giggle. “Daryl!”

“Ah, you earned the ride,” he said, as her arms settled around his neck. “‘Sides, I ain’t gonna be waitin’ on your slow ass all day.”

Beth tipped her sweaty head just a little, her hair just brushing against the line of his jaw. “Nah. You’d wait for me and you know it.”

He only grunted in response—the fact that he would went without question, but she didn’t need to be so goddamn cocky about it—and Beth hummed something that sounded vaguely victorious. “Still could drop you, you know.”

“Then I’d have a broken ass and a bad ankle,” she said, with a little amused-sounding huff. “You’d have to carry me everywhere.”

They reached the steps to the cabin, and Beth let out a little sigh as he started to climb. “I hate this. Not this—” she tightened her hold a little bit around his neck “just my stupid ankle. I hate feelin’ so helpless.”

Daryl hummed and set her down on the bare floor of the cabin, his hands still hovering at her waist and shoulder while she steadied her footing. “Think you just proved you ain’t.”

That drew a slow smile back onto her face, and she leaned into him, just a little, her shoulder to his chest, forehead to his cheek. She stepped away almost before he felt her there, before he had to decide whether to pull away or lean right back, before he was sure which option he would’ve picked. He watched her limp over to the bed, set her crossbow on the quilt before sitting down, hands in her lap. 

There were thoughts stewing in that messy blonde head of hers, and Daryl could practically see them written on her face in the little furrow between her brows, in the thin line of her lips.

“I want you to teach me how not to be,” she said, after a minute.

That wasn’t something he expected her to say, and he wasn’t really sure he understood what she meant. She weren’t helpless, not even close, and maybe she weren’t Maggie or Michonne, but Beth had shown him how strength could shine in all kinds of ways he never considered, long before she ever asked him to help her get strong in the ways he knew.

Daryl shut and barred the door, then joined her on the bed, her crossbow between them. “Crossbow don’t shoot itself.”

It wasn’t enough, and he knew it, but he wasn’t sure he could articulate the rest without tripping over his tongue.

“I know.” Beth ran her fingers over the curved arms of her bow, smiling fondly down at it. “I feel really good about that, I do. But...”

She didn’t continue, and before the moonshine and the fire, no question, he woulda let it lie. But he knew how to read people, always had, and she weren’t done thinking, weren’t done trying to get whatever was on her mind out in the open. If he never cared enough before to press the issue, well, that had changed, at least as far as Beth was concerned, and whatever was bothering her had already stolen away enough of her good mood for one morning.

“But what, Beth?”

At the sound of her name she looked back at him, sliding her gaze up his arms until she met his eyes. “The trackin’, the crossbow, killin’ walkers, all of that, I’m glad you’re teachin’ me, Daryl, and I wanna keep at it. I wanna get as good at it as you. If I’m gonna survive—If we’re gonna survive—I need to be.”

Daryl bobbed his head to acknowledge her, while that heavy warmth in his chest swelled up again. “You’re gonna be.”

“But that isn’t all I need.” Beth looked away to stare down at her hands in her lap. “I need to know what to do about people.

His belly lurched a bit, at her words, and before he answered he studied her, her refusal to look at him, the tension across her shoulders, the way she pulled at her fingers. “Beth?”

She breathed out shakily. Still without looking at him, she pulled her little bone handled knife from its sheath, studying the blade, turning it over in her hands. “I got away because I had the gun, and I only had that because he didn’t bother to check me.”

“Is this about—”

“No,” she said, the word coming out quick and forced. “I’m not okay with it, but I know I had to. I’m not dumb enough to think that’s the last time someone’s gonna try an’ hurt me and next time I might not have a gun to stop them.”

He didn’t much like the sinking feeling in his belly at her words, words that sounded more like something that should’ve come outta his mouth. “Beth...”

She abandoned her knife on the bed beside her to twist her fingers together and looked up, eyes red and wet, not quite meeting his. “The world’s full of people like Gorman now, or the Governor. Like Randall, from the farm, and the people he ran with. Like Shane, who was supposed to be Rick’s friend, o-or—”

“Beth.” Daryl reached over and cupped his palm over both her twisting hands, trapping them motionless in her lap. “You ain’t wrong. You ain’t. But you know there’s still good people left.”

She finally met his eyes, gaze heated, intense in a way he couldn’t quite read, until she spoke. “I do know, Daryl. Believe me, I do.”

Oh. Oh. “I ain’t good, Beth.”

He weren’t, never was, never could be, not with all the shit he done, all the skeletons in his past both literal and figurative. 

Beth was shaking her head at him, still staring with those eyes, so big and blue and burning right into him. “But you areYou’re nothin’ like them.”

The kind of things those other men did, Gorman, the Governor, that weren’t him, she were right about that. But he’d never be the kind of good as Beth was, either, the kind of good inside where he didn’t even have to try, didn’t have to work at not seeing everything as just another fuck up waiting to happen. Never be the kind of good who—

“You’re good to me, Daryl.”

She spoke so, so quietly, he wondered at first if he only imagined it, but the way she was looking at him, looking right inside him like no one else ever could, he knew she’d said the words. Said them and meant them and if Beth thought that—’cause Beth Greene were no liar—if Beth thought that, maybe he could try. Maybe he could try for her, to be the good she needed him to be, was asking him to be, amongst all the bad. 

He swallowed, hard, trying and failing to squash the rising lump in his throat. Beth turned her hands, pulled and shuffled until she pressed his one between both of hers and squeezed tight. 

“Can you teach me to fight back?”

He nodded, gave a little grunt, not quite able to trust himself to speak. He would, though, he’d teach her anything she asked. Tracking, crossbows, self defence, how to take a man down with a knee to the junk, whatever it took to keep her alive. To keep her here. 

She threaded the fingers of her bottom hand up through his, brushing her thumb over his knuckle when he curled his fingers right back around hers.

“Beth and Daryl against the world, right?” she said, finally smiling again. 

“Yeah,” he said, grunted really, since his voice was still broken. “Like the sound’a that.”

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Chapter Text

 

 

 

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Chapter 8 - Longer than the Road that Stretches

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Nights were becoming darker, deeper, a hint of richness to the lack of light that didn’t exist in the summer. It wasn’t autumn yet, not quite, but with the days of summer waning fast, Daryl couldn’t quite ignore the growing knot of anxiety in his gut. Autumn in Georgia weren’t near long enough with the future so uncertain. Inside the cabin never got bright, with just the one small, well-screened window, and at nightfall the dimness turned to absolute dark. Warm though. Cozy. Comfortable. Beth had the window covered, the fire smouldering away in the stove, and a ring of candles lit by the time he got in from checking the snares and traps one last time at dusk. 

Daryl never thought much about candlelight before. Weren’t really a thing on his radar, candles. Never had much use for them. What a campfire couldn’t light, a flashlight would do, and there weren’t no such thing as a candlelit supper or even a Halloween jack-o-lantern in the Dixon house growing up. The only things lighting up there were cigarettes and tempers.

Candles were a little like campfires, though, now that he had some experience with them. Not for the obvious reason, but for the way the flickering flames deepened the shadows, hid away the ugly and unimportant parts of the world in inky blackness. It had always been like that, out in the woods, him and Merle or sometimes just him, back before all this started. Even when he was small and the darkness hid a different kind of monster than it did these days, the crackle and glow of the campfire kept the badness at bay as long as he remained in its light.

The glow of the candles did the same thing, like dozens of tiny campfires all around him, little pockets of flickering life in the dark, casting an orange-gold glow over just the important bits and leaving the rest to shadow. Like only the things that mattered were good enough to exist in it, and the rest just bled away into nothing. 

Beth’s hair glowed like a candle, too, owing mostly to the row of them on the headboard behind her. The ones on the wood chest in front of her lit up her face and the quiet concentration written there. His own presence within the circle of candles brought his theory into question a bit—but then who was he to be making theories on shit like that, anyway? He could hardly expect to work in the dark even if he thought sometimes he belonged in it. Accustomed as he was these days to dim lighting, the candles gave off more than enough to make his new bolts.

They both used crossbows, the man and the woman who’d belonged to this cabin. Beth found her crossbow alongside another one, ancient but well-maintained and heavy as hell compared their newer bows. Daryl could see it had been an expensive one, back in its day. Beth’s ran high-end, too, and that might’ve been out of place for a pair living off the grid like this, except it made sense to him from a practical standpoint. A person whose livelihood depended on what they could hunt would need a weapon that could perform.

That explained the bolts, too, both the making of them and the quality of the components. Front-weighted carbon shafts, wicked sharp low-profile broadheads, both new and used ones in excellent shape, and really all the parts he’d have killed for back when he used to make his own bargain bolts. When assembled, all the pieces formed strong bolts of an optimal length and weight to get the most out of using them with any of the three crossbows. This was a damn sight better than a sporting goods store raid and far superior to the few shit bolts he had left.

It felt good, making something with his hands again, building with these calloused, dirty fingers far too used to destruction these days.

Beth’s fingers, almost just as dirty and calloused as his now, but still delicate in a way despite the strength he knew lay hidden inside them, moved with great care as she assembled her own bolts with patient precision. The seriousness with which she took the task would’ve impressed him, had he not already expected it of her. It weren’t a game to her, learning the crossbow and the skills that went with it, and now, forging her own ammunition. She loved the hell out of it, no mistaking that, and some not insignificant part of him grabbed onto that and refused to let go. But she respected it, too, with the sort of depth that couldn’t be taught.

Daryl leaned against the bed frame, watching as Beth tested the fit of a nock before lining it with glue and inserting it into the back end of the shaft, tip of her tongue just poking out. It wasn’t a complicated task, but she took her time with each one, ensuring a square fit, aligning the parts as he showed her to ensure her bolts would fly true once fletched and fitted with broadheads. She had about eight of them with the nocks and inserts glued in, to his fifteen or so completed bolts. Weren’t a bad thing, though, taking her time, getting it right. 

She hadn’t spoken much after this morning’s polar opposite moods, from jittery excitement to teary realism, but her silence wasn’t a tense one, nor was it absolute. Something about it spoke to Daryl, though, how they could just navigate the course of the day without filling it with unnecessary words, a sense of peace in knowing he could speak, but didn’t always need to. She looked over at him, as always seeming to know when he’d been staring again—a bad habit he was finding hard to break—and met his eyes across the hazy glow between them, hers full of little catchlights dancing in the shadows. Her eyelashes fluttered as she blinked, making the specks of light flicker while she smiled gently at him. The one he offered in return came easy, sorta slipped into place without him meaning to, and Beth’s lingered even after she turned back to her bolt making. He couldn’t quite see the colour of her cheeks, but he felt the simmering warmth in his all right. 

During silence like this, this gentle sort of undemanding quiet, he could breathe deep and let the thoughts in his head run amuck without trying to rein them in. He still didn’t know what all of this meant, the warm flutter in his chest, the way he couldn’t look at her without breathing so deep he felt it in his spine, all the way to his fingertips and the soles of his feet. How she got right down inside him, like he were some damn open book just waiting to be read, or maybe a novel waiting to be written and she, wielding the pen. Didn’t understand it except that he knew it was something beyond his control, and the farther he got from the night of the moonshine, the more it unravelled, the more it slipped through his fingers and came to life on its own.

It was fucking terrifying, what was happening to him. But in the shroud of silence, in the warm tranquility and the flickering light, in the wake of Beth’s gentle smile, the terror couldn’t quite reach him. Could only skim the edges, hardened like armour by the part of him hanging onto this feeling with everything he had.

Beth kept working, not minding his watching her. She knew he was, could see it in the way her own breath ran slow and deep in time with his, in the little glances and subtle smiles, but she didn’t falter. Her fingers danced over her bolts as they’d danced over piano keys, nimble, capable, as quick a study as he ever knew. A shadow gathered between her eyebrows, a little furrow of focus as she lined an insert with glue and set it in place, smoothing out again into a soft expanse of orange-gold skin once the piece was complete. 

Beth laid the half finished bolt down in line with the rest, a full dozen now in a tidy row. She looked over her work a moment with a small nod to herself, then lifted her legs onto the bed and swivelled to face him. “So, I’ve been thinkin’...”

Her arms slipped around to hug her knees to her chest and she tipped her head a bit to the side without looking away. Daryl hummed lowly for her to go on, his voice not quite ready to come out and play just yet.

Beth rested her chin on top of her knees, fingers tapping softly at her denim-covered leg. “At the funeral home, before, you said you were thinking we could stay there?”

He couldn’t quite see her eyes, but felt their gaze on him anyway, sensed she was waiting for some sorta response from him. So he grunted again in a way he meant to mean yes, and Beth stopped her tapping to lace her fingers together across her shins. 

“Did you mean that?” she asked, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

There was more than just a simple question buried in her words, and what lingered unspoken was something Daryl had been trying to figure out, too. Because what did it mean, when stopping, sticking around some place made ‘just him and Beth’ into a conscious choice instead of merely the hand they were dealt?

Would you really be okay if it’s just you and me?

A long moment passed, Beth’s shadowed eyes locked on his. Daryl swallowed. Nodded. “Yeah.” 

He cleared his throat a little, watching as Beth’s tongue swept slowly across her bottom lip, and dragged his gaze away from her. His row of bolts lay on the floor by his knee and he picked one up, turning it over in his jittery fingers, feeling the weight of Beth’s gaze on him even though he couldn’t see her.

A soft sigh, a rustle of fabric from behind him. “We could stay here.”

Her words drew him back in, and when he looked up at her, though she hadn’t moved except to sit cross-legged, the distance between them seemed to have shrunk by half.

“I mean, it’s perfect, isn’t it? Good roof over our heads, everythin’ we need inside.” Her fingers started tapping again, thumping out some sort of tune against the bed’s wooden frame. “But I’m afraid it’s too good to be true.”

The thought had occurred to him—how could it not, after the disaster at their last supposed safe haven—and he drew his lips into a tight line. “Mm.”

“I just—” She sighed again, this time with a bit of an edge to it. “Just when I think we should stay, that we’d be idiots not to, I start wondering, what if they’re still out there?”

She worried her lip between her teeth, and despite the question in her tone Daryl sensed she wasn’t quite finished. After a moment, a couple of deep breaths that flared her nostrils wide as she breathed out, Beth pulled her knees back up to her chest again, wrapped her arms tight around them. 

“Staying here, just you and me, it would be okay,” she said, nodding a bit like she was assuring herself as much as him. “I’m so tired of running, and we could make this work, Daryl, like you said. We could.”

Hearing her put his thoughts to voice only made the desire to stop running pulse louder in his chest. Staying here, staying somewhere indefinitely, it wouldn’t get back what they lost, who they lost, but it would be something. Something that was theirs, his and Beth’s, and they could breathe and remember how it was before and never let it happen again. They could make it work—were already making it work. There were far worse fates out there than spending his days with Beth Greene and for some reason beyond his reckoning he didn’t think she minded his company all that much either. 

But. He could hear it there, in her voice and in the one inside his head. In that other force tugging at him, too, maybe not as strong, but insistent in its own way. He let his gaze drop to the bolt in his hand, took in a breath that reached right down to his toes. “You ain’t ready to give up on ‘em yet.”

She coughed, a forced little sound he thought might’ve served as camouflage for something else. “No. I’m not.”

Rick was dead, Daryl had long accepted that, ‘cause there weren’t no goddamn way he coulda got outta that field alive. But Michonne, he hadn’t seen her get killed, could imagine her getting away amidst the chaos. Glenn, Maggie, Tyreese, fucking Bob even, any of them who’d been in the yard could’ve made it. He and Beth got out, why not them, right? And Carol. Oh, god, Carol. Did she even know?

Neither of them spoke for a while after that, Daryl staring at the twirl of the bolt in his hand, Beth just breathing behind him, the watcher now instead of the watched. 

“Maybe it’s stupid,” she said, voice steady again as she broke the silence. “Maybe they’re all dead and it really is just me and you left. I just, if they are out there, but even if they’re not, I think we should at least try, you know?”

Daryl recognized the weight in his chest for what it was, the coolness of it in the otherwise warm room. He realized he’d been hoping she would decide to stay, even after everything. But if they were out there, he wanted to find them, for her sake and maybe his as well, and the truth of that beat louder than anything else. So he slid around again to face her, found her sitting there with her face tucked into her knees.

“What if we keep lookin’ for a while?” Daryl slipped his arm onto the bed to tug at the hem of her borrowed jeans a couple of times until she peeked out at him and he pulled his arm back down. “We don’t find them, can always come back.”

Beth uncurled again, this time letting her legs dangle over the edge of the bed. “You can find the cabin again, if we go?”

“Even better,” he said, trying to ignore the way the curve of her calf rested against his arm. “I’ll make sure you can, too.”

The candles lit up her smile, and for a second Daryl entertained the fleeting thought that it could’ve been the other way around. “If we come back, I’ll lead the way.”

“Holdin’ you to that, Greene.” He bumped her leg with his shoulder, then reached past her to take one of her bolts from the top of the chest, bringing it close to his face to inspect. “These ain’t bad.”

Beth poked at his hip with her sock-covered toe. “Says you. Yours are almost done.”

Daryl passed the bolt to her, tipping his head back to see her face instead of just turning. “Wanna fletch yours now?”

“Okay.” Beth slid off the bed to join him on the floor, and he followed her movement with his eyes as she settled into the conveniently Beth-sized space between him and the chest. “Show me how that thing works?”

Daryl picked up the fletching tool from the floor on the other side of him, released the cap, and pulled out the last bolt he made, completed now aside from the broadhead, which he would screw in later. He never used one of these jigs before, but it made quick work of placing the vanes, once he figured it out. He reached for another of his un-fletched bolts, and glanced back over at Beth. “Red or green?”

Beth chuckled. “Green, of course.”

He picked up three vanes, two green, one white, and dropped them into Beth’s waiting hand. “Should save the green for you, Greene.”

She snorted softly and nudged his shoulder with hers. “Daryl Dixon, did you just try to say something funny?”

He hadn’t thought it particularly clever, really probably something she heard a billion times before, green for Greene, but... “Yeah. Thinkin’ of startin’ a stand-up comedy routine. Call me Daryl the Crossbow Guy.”

That got her laughing, so hard and sudden she dropped the vanes in her lap to cover her mouth with both hands, eyes squinty and crinkled and finally closing tight, and she sort of just fell over against him, shoulders shaking as her laughter turned from bubbly giggles to the deep, silent kind. It pulled at his chest, too, seeing her so consumed by it, but the noise creaking out of him, rusty like old hinges, couldn’t quite do the sensation justice. It made Beth look, though, made her drag her still-shuddery self up to stare at him with wide eyes and a wider grin.

“What?” he said, as a last little chuckle popped out.

“I-I—” Beth was still fighting it, giggling a bit and fanning herself with one hand. “Oh, Lord, Daryl. I totally just imagined you shooting hecklers with your crossbow.”

He snorted, because he could picture that, too. “That’s—”

Terrible.” Beth took a couple of deep breaths, the kind that came out with a little whooo of voice at the end. “It’s really, really not funny, but, just, the look on your face…”

He probably should’ve been even a little bit irritated by that, but the only thing he felt was the goddamned flutter in his chest at making her laugh so hard and a glow of warmth in his gut, and when he bumped her shoulder with his, because he couldn’t fucking stop doing that, Beth just giggled harder. After a minute, though, she got it under control, aside from the little smile that didn’t seem to want to go away. It stuck around while he talked her through fletching a bolt using the fletching tool. Seat the nock down inside and make sure it sat squarely, place the vanes in the jig, the white one into the off-coloured arm—that was for the cock vane—apply a thin line of glue to each vane, close the tool and secure with the cap to let the glue set.

“Got it?” he asked, when she opened the cap and pulled the fully fletched bolt out a minute later.

“Yessir.” The still-smiling Beth saluted him with the bolt, then handed it back and hauled herself onto the bed again to get to work on the next stage of bolt making.

Daryl planned on fitting more of the shafts with nocks and inserts while Beth fletched her bolts, since they had the supplies and might as well use them. Told himself that’s what he was gonna do, and he got a few of them done before Beth’s humming derailed his plan altogether. It weren’t much at first, just an occasional note rising above the subtle sounds of their tasks, but pretty soon it swelled into a tune, hummed, but not in the normal way of humming, that grating thing people did sometimes. No, despite the lack of words it rang out like a song, just sung in a different way.

And he couldn’t do anything else but twist around to watch her again. Her eyes flicked toward him, acknowledging without stopping what she was doing, neither fletching her bolts nor weaving the wordless little tune into the air around them. Her lips curled up just a bit as she closed the fletching tool around her last bolt and secured the cap, and when she took a breath during a natural pause in the song and glanced back at him, Daryl nodded, twirling his bolt in his fingers like a miniature baton.

Beth breathed again and began to sing, fingers tapping out an accompaniment on the wooden chest.

Two of us riding nowhere
Spending someone’s 
Hard earned pay
You and me Sunday driving
Not arriving
On our way back home
We’re on our way home
We’re on our way home
We’re going home

He thought maybe he heard it before somewhere, a hazy memory from a life that didn’t exist anymore, but the spike of recognition was secondary to the words, words so very reminiscent of the conversation they just had, and the one they skirted around.

Two of us sending postcards
Writing letters
On my wall
You and me burning matches
Lifting latches
On our way back home

Still, as she kept singing, he could see why it had been on her mind. It weren’t word for word true—no Sunday driving or postcards nowadays—but there was a journey in those lyrics just like the one they’d decided to take, the two of them, and if they found their family that was as close as it got to going home.

You and I have memories
Longer than the road that stretches out ahead

After another verse, one about wearing raincoats in the sun and getting nowhere, the song ended with a bit of whistling, and her tapping fingers softened their strikes until they both faded out like he imagined the record had. Beth looked up from her fingers, lying still now atop the chest, a ghost of a smile lingering on her lips.

“It’s been in my head all afternoon,” she said, with a shrug and a downward sweep of her eyes. “It was one of the songs Otis liked. He’d play the guitar, Daddy would tap his feet, and I’d sing.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded around the thumbnail in his mouth. But Beth was looking at him again and he mumbled out something about the song being nice, and she just smiled and reached over to squeeze his shoulder.

“Thanks for letting me sing, Daryl.”

He wanted to say about a million things, just about as much as he wanted to say nothing at all. But his mouth decided for him, when he shrugged and the words just came. “It don’t annoy me, you know.”

A soft sigh, an even softer smile that matched the little lights dancing in her eyes. “I know. Remember the part where you can’t fool me?”

Oh, he remembered, all right, and he really couldn’t fool her most of the time. Sometimes, he almost thought he didn’t want to. “Mmm.”

Beth pulled her hand away from his shoulder to clasp both of them in her lap, and she surveyed her line of now fletched bolts, a few of them with the broadheads in too, before sweeping her gaze back to him. “I think I’m gonna get some sleep.”

There was a question there, too, and he held the eye contact a moment before deciding how he was going to answer.

“Gonna work on these a while,” he said, and Beth nodded, like she expected that response. “Light won’t bother you?”

“No, it’s fine. I like the candles.” She pulled off her socks, dropping them into the tops of her boots, and slipped beneath the quilt. “Night, Daryl.”

“Night, Beth.”

She turned onto her side, facing away from him, and after a few minutes of quiet rustling as she settled, the only sound from behind him was that of her breathing. Daryl moved a few of the candles closer now that Beth didn’t need them to work by and got lost for a while in the repetition of gluing the pieces into the shafts.

You’re good to me, Daryl.

No matter how many times he heard her voice in his head, since she said those words to him that morning, it still felt like something he made up, dreamt up maybe in the part of his brain that still wished for things despite his determination not to after years of knowing the hard way that wishes never came true. Beth believed it, though. She had to know how her words would trickle right down inside him and she weren’t the sort of woman to play games with people’s feelings. And right now he was torn between trying to understand what he’d done to make her believe it so fully, and figuring out how to carry on without letting her down. Mostly, he just felt warm inside, the sort of warmth that ran bone-deep. The sort he felt with every breath he took.

When she spoke again, he thought at first it was just the Beth in his head, until the drowsy voice repeated his name again and Daryl looked over his shoulder to see her lying on her side facing him.

“Forgot to say, I’m gonna wash our clothes tomorrow and patch all the holes.” She pulled her arm out from the blankets and pointed, joints sleep-loose and drooping, at the counter across the room. “I put some things over there that should fit you, and the water pail’s full if you wanna wash up tonight.”

He’d rinsed off in the river this afternoon, but he knew his clothes were a mess and he hadn’t seen a bar of soap in a good while. “You sayin’ I stink, Greene?”

She chuckled, propping her head up on a bent arm. “It’s not roses I’m smelling.”

“Hey, now.”

But, she weren’t exactly wrong. He knew he should wash but it weren’t quite so simple as Beth waiting outside like he’d done for her, not with her ankle the way it was. Didn’t matter how good she was with a knife or a crossbow if she couldn’t run. Like it or not, washing in the dark while she slept across the room was probably the only scenario that worked.

She was still looking at him expectantly, or as best as he could tell anyway in the bit of candlelight that reached her now. He grunted at her and she grinned, and as he got to his feet to put the pail on the stove to warm the water, a little giggle followed.

“That’s enough outta you,” he said, pointing his finger at her, and as he hoped, her smile widened and her giggle turn into something a little more mischievous. “Go back to sleep.”

Beth turned back over, still smirking and mumbling something he couldn’t quite hear, but which sounded suspiciously like yes, Mr. Dixon and that was entirely unfair of her, given the inappropriate way her saying it made his pulse quicken. He let it go, though, because there weren’t anything else to do but that, and while the water warmed on the stove Daryl plugged away at making his bolts, one ear focused on the depth and rhythm of Beth’s breathing behind him.

He waited probably longer than he needed to. Half the bolts were completed now, except the ones Beth had set aside to work on tomorrow, and Beth was long asleep. Taking just one candle with him, Daryl brought the pail of warm water and the soap across to where she set out the clothes. He undressed quickly, having debated on whether to draw the process out by doing this a piece at a time, before settling on just stripping down and getting it over with. Leaving his dirt and blood crusted clothes in a pile at his feet, Daryl poured cupfuls of water over his head, letting the warm rivers run down his back, over his shoulders and chest and beyond before scrubbing hard with the bar of soap. 

The single candle couldn’t provide enough light to see the runoff when he rinsed, but he knew how dirty he was. He wasn’t looking anyway, eyes focused on Beth’s sleeping form in the bed as he scrubbed down a second time, watching for any signs of movement. Another man might turn his back to her, but even now, he couldn’t bear the thought of that. Would rather take his chances face to face.

When her legs stretched out, he froze, watching intently for any other signs of wakefulness, but she stilled and he hurried on, a little quiver of panic beating at his chest. A quiver which intensified when she whimpered and curled her legs up again. Daryl rushed to rinse off, barely getting all the soap out of his hair before Beth’s whimpering got louder, ringing out across the cabin, accompanied by the scratch of fabric as she extended and flexed her legs, dislodging the quilt. Damn it, girl, not now. But it only got worse as he struggled to dry off and dress in the unfamiliar clothes that only sort of fit, her legs kicking violently, whimpers becoming words, garbled but frightened and finally, as he yanked the sweats up over his hips—

“No! No! Daryl! Daryl!”

He all but leapt onto the bed and pulled her over, hands on her shoulders as she screamed his name again. “Beth! Beth! C’mon, Beth, wake up!”

Her eyes flew open and she went absolutely still, shoulders rigid beneath his hands, but then she sucked in a huge, gulping breath and burst into tears. Before he could even move, Beth’s arms locked around his neck and she hauled him down, smashing his face into the pillow beside her head.

The arms around his neck pulled tight, locking him in, and for a second a wave of nausea swept through him, a stab of panic bursting out from the middle of his chest that stole his breath and pulled his muscles taut. But then the air rushed back in and the panic left, and what remained was just Beth. Beth holding onto him like she thought he was gonna disappear if she let go, sobbing so hard her whole body shook with it, her tears wetting his neck and her shuddery breath spilling hot on his throat.

Daryl turned them over, letting his arms slide around her back as she clung tight to his neck and folded into him in a tangle of arms and legs and pounding heartbeats. Beth cried harder as the minutes ticked by instead of calming down, coming back to herself as she had the last time he woke her from a nightmare. So he whispered her name, good and low like he had at the river, over and over again, dragging his thumb across her back because it seemed like the thing to do, and slowly, so slowly he wondered if she would ever stop, Beth’s sobbing eased and her ragged breathing smoothed and slowed until only the occasional spasm still rippled through her.

She didn’t let go, and the part of him that made his muscles itch and nerves twist in his gut really wished she would. The other part just kept sliding his thumb across her back and tightening his fingers at her waist whenever she shook. A long time passed and they stayed like that, Beth’s face in his neck, her arms tangled up around his head, so much of her body pressed against his that he had to clench his jaw and focus on breathing just to keep his mind off the way she felt there.

If there was a time for those kinds of thoughts—and he knew there weren’t—this wasn’t it.

When Beth spoke at last, her voice was grainy and thin, and he felt the vibration of it across his skin more tangibly than he heard her words. “I killed you. I killed you over and over again, and you were a walker, you were all the walkers, and I-I had to—”

The image of Merle flashed in his mind. Merle, staring up at him over a half-eaten body, cloudy, dead eyes hungry and haunting and everything Daryl hated inside a face he had loved. Daryl shuddered, and it rolled right through him and into Beth, and he tightened his fingers at her waist again, rested his cheek on her temple. “Shhh. Don’t, Beth. Put it away.”

“It was so real,” she murmured, dragging her arm down to rest her trembling fingers on his chest, curled them just a little into his shirt, pressing into the flesh beneath. “Please don’t go, Daryl.”

It felt like one of those moments he oughta be having some sort of internal crisis of indecision. Felt like it, but it weren’t. The pitch of desperation to her voice was a punch to the gut. There weren’t another choice, not when she was so shaken up, and he pressed his cheek a little more firmly against her. “Lemme put out the candles first?”

She let out a shuddery breath, but nodded against his neck. “Y-yeah.”

Beth’s eyes didn’t leave him from the moment he extracted himself from her to douse the candles, leaving a little one burning atop of the stove, until he climbed back into bed. He didn’t quite know what to expect as he got in under the quilt next to her, but Beth’s still trembling hands found his shoulders, pressing until he lay on his back, and she slipped beneath his arm to curl up beside him with her head resting over his heart.

“Okay?” she whispered as she settled in place, and the thought that she would be at all concerned for him and his comfort level right now nearly broke him.

Daryl swallowed hard as the fluttering in his chest threatened to tear clean through his sternum, and he was sure she must feel the way his heart pounded beneath her. What was this woman doing to him?

He didn’t say that, though, and instead settled his arm around her and tried to relax beneath hers where it lay bent over his chest, her fingers curled around the curve where his neck and shoulder met. “Sleep, Beth. I got you.”

Beth exhaled loudly and swept her thumb back and forth over the skin at the neck of his t-shirt, and he tried not to shiver but it happened anyway. His mouth opened up again without his permission, repeating his promise so she would know—or maybe so he would—that he meant what he said. “I got you.”

Beth’s thumb kept stroking, and his heart kept pounding, and into the darkness she whispered, voice already slurring with sleep, “Yeah. You do.”

*~*

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 9 – I Look at the World and I Notice it’s Turning

*~*

The first thing Beth noticed when she slipped gradually into consciousness was the way her pillow was moving, rising and falling like waves beneath her head. The second thing she noticed—remembered, really, when last night’s events flooded back in—was that her pillow was Daryl. The third thing she noticed, and this was probably the most important one, was that her Daryl-pillow was still asleep.

She couldn't quite see him from this angle, not properly in the dark of the cabin and not without moving enough to possibly wake him. What she could see, mouth relaxed around soft, breathy snores, the lines beneath his eye softened, made her hope he could stay asleep for a while longer. He got so little as it was.

It was also entirely possible she wasn't quite ready to give up the morning snuggle, and since they’d fallen asleep this way maybe she could let herself indulge in it this time, just a little. Beth expected Daryl to retreat the moment he woke up and she just wanted to cling a bit longer to the warmth of him, the unexpected comfort in the weight of his arm curled around her, in the spread of his hand over her shoulder and the steady beating of his heart beneath her cheek. 

She’d asked a lot of him last night and waking to find him still sleeping surprised her, made her stomach flip a little that he was sleeping at all. Somewhere in the haze of her nightmare-fuelled panic Beth remembered the way he had gone still and breathless for a beat before wrapping her up and letting her hold on. Remembered the thunder of his heart when she laid her head on his chest. But he still let her, still tried. More than tried. Like he had with so many things since she met him, a thousand years ago now on the farm, Daryl just got it done. He saw what she needed and gave that to her at his own expense, and that stirred something deep and weighty inside her.

Daryl had walls around himself so thick in places that even he couldn’t always see what lay beneath, and that was never more true to her than whenever she tried to let him know that she saw the kind of man he really was. He didn’t believe it. Even when he put someone else’s needs above his own, in Daryl's mind he was just doing what needed doing and didn’t think that made him worth the praise for it. But Beth knew, beneath the gruffness, the sarcasm, the shield of anger he tossed up whenever he couldn’t handle his own feelings, lay a man with a heart every bit as caring, a soul every bit as gentle, as the late Hershel Greene. A little rougher around the edges. A great deal more broken, maybe, though Daddy had his own demons, too. Beth wasn’t always right about things, but she was surer about Daryl than anything else in this stupid world, and that was not a conclusion drawn lightly.

Any sort of comparison between Daryl and Daddy ended there for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the way the scent of him, soapy and male with a lingering trace of dirt, made her want to bury her face in his chest and just sniff. But she fought that urge, unsure where it was coming from, certain it wasn't something she should be even considering entertaining. Maybe snuggling Daryl Dixon was a bad idea after all, no matter how warm and comfy he turned out to be. Probably because of that. 

Only a little time passed before Daryl did wake, and unlike Beth’s gradual slide into consciousness, Daryl’s body went from relaxed to full tension in a matter of seconds, his heart now pounding beneath her head almost as quickly as her own. Beth braced herself for whatever reaction he was working up to, but he just took in a deep breath, followed by another, and some of the tension eased out of him. He didn’t move except to tip his face toward her, and Beth lifted her head from his chest so she could see him properly. 

Daryl said nothing, though his eyes seemed to search hers for a long moment before his lips curled up on the one side in a smile so subtle she’d have missed it, if she didn’t know what to look for. He lifted his free hand to trail his fingers over her arm where it lay across his chest, a little tingling path from elbow to wrist, before getting up and out of the bed. He didn’t run, he didn’t scurry across the cabin like a frightened animal, just stood by the chest stretching and spending a couple of quiet minutes studying their handmade bolts. Beth moved to sit at the edge of the bed and waited, giving him time to take whatever space he needed. 

As she slipped on her socks and laced up her boots she took note of Daryl’s bare feet and pale ankles showing below the too-short sweats he had on. His boots sat over by his pile of filthy clothes and the water pail across the room, clean socks and long-sleeved flannel still draped over the counter. He must have barely got finished over there before he had to rescue her yet again from her stupid subconscious. 

Daryl turned around to look at her, and Beth realized she had made some sort of noise to go along with that last thought. She shrugged and flicked her eyes in the direction of Daryl’s boots. “Just, what great timing I have.”

She didn’t wait to see Daryl’s reaction and instead reached out and grabbed a bolt of her own to study. The nightmare hovered in the dark corners of her memory and Beth tried to shove away the coil of dread winding in her stomach, but it crept in away, wiping out all traces of the warmth lingering from Daryl. She couldn’t keep doing this, but how did she fend off a monster that only lived in her head? Images of Daryl’s dead face, of his live one pleading with her even as she pulled the trigger, were almost more vivid in her mind than the faded black blur of his legs moving closer in her peripheral vision. The bed dipped a little as he sat down beside her. Beth didn’t look up at him, but she felt his eyes on her anyway, as tangibly as if he was touching her face with his fingers. 

“Did a good job on these,” he said, reaching over to slide a finger along the bolt’s shaft. “Maybe we can try ‘em out later.”

He was trying to distract her, but knowing that didn’t make it any less welcomed, and Beth held on to the glimmer of excitement at the prospect of more crossbow practice. She did turn to look at him then, meeting his eyes which lately always seemed on the verge of searching for her. “What do you have to do today?”

“Need more firewood,” he said, with a little shrug of his shoulders. “Should hunt. Check the snares. Maybe see what’s left in the garden.”

“I can help with the garden, too.” Beth nodded slowly, thinking. “If I wash our clothes this morning they’ll have all day to dry and I can do the mendin’ by candlelight if I have to.”

“I’ll chop the firewood while you’re outside.” Daryl paused, fiddling with a loose string on the quilt. “Uh, ’less you need help with the washing?”

It was sweet of him to ask, really, and she knew Daryl wasn’t above a bit of clothes scrubbing, but she shook her head no. “I got it. I could chop wood, too, you know.”

Daryl’s gaze drifted to her arms and a little smirk slipped onto his face. “Way you cock that crossbow? Betcha could, farm girl.”

Beth felt the flare of warmth in her cheeks even before Daryl’s eyes caught hers again, and by that time she knew she was blushing good and hard at the unexpected compliment. She ducked her head and beside her, Daryl chuckled. 

“C’mon,” he said, nudging her with his elbow. “Let’s eat ‘n get to work.”

After they finished off the rest of last night’s possum stew—which wasn’t nearly as good as rabbit—Beth gathered up the few dishes they’d used so she could wash them, too, piling them into the small washtub she found beneath the counter. The cabin had no plumbing at all. No well, either, just the metal pail and the nearby creek to fill it in. It was funny what a little perspective could do. A few years ago Beth would have found the whole setup primitive and annoying. Now she was just happy to have a creek and a pail. 

She scooped up their clothes and dumped them into the tub on top of the dishes, startled by the stench of them. Objectively she knew they smelled, particularly hers, as crusted with filth as they were, but back to that perspective thing. She hadn’t even noticed until she got right up close after being away from it. Even teasing Daryl last night had been mostly just in fun—though her belly felt a little warm again as he paused beside her to don the socks and flannel she’d picked for him and she caught a hint of that soapy clean man-smell he was sporting this morning. It lingered in her senses after he slipped his arms into his winged vest, tugged his boots on and walked toward the front of the cabin.

“Take your crossbow with you,” Daryl said, as she grabbed the soap off the counter and brought everything over toward the door. He already had his bow over his shoulder, and he lifted the axe down from its hanging place on the front wall. “Get used to keepin’ it cocked and loaded and in arm’s reach.”

Beth set the washtub on the bed to reach her crossbow down from the wall above where she hung it last night, and turned around to face Daryl, who now stood just behind her. “Is that today’s first lesson?”

“Mmhm.” He tipped his chin up at her, eyes focused and narrowed. “Ain’t gonna cock itself, girl.”

Beth’s pulse kicked up a notch as the sound of Daryl’s voice, on the more gravelly end of the Daryl-voice-spectrum this morning, and she was grateful for the task at hand so she could avoid meeting his eyes and giving away her entirely inappropriate response to an innocent statement. Her ankle ached with the extra weight she put on it to cock the bow, but already after two days of light use it was feeling a lot better—not healed, but better. She loaded it with one of the bolts already in the quiver, but tossed a couple of her own bolts into the washtub, the few she had the broadheads screwed into, just because she figured she could.

“Good,” said Daryl, and Beth looked back up at him, pleased with the little smile on his face.

The sun had only just risen, and the yard remained shaded by the tall trees all around it. Chilly air licked at her skin but it wasn’t uncomfortable, more invigorating than anything after the closed-in warmth of the cabin. Beth navigated the stairs slowly but on her own this time, carrying the full washtub down, able to put enough weight through her ankle not to lose her balance. The path down to the water was a bit trickier, just a steep and crumbly dirt slope, and Beth let Daryl help with the tub only to avoid having to slide down on her butt.

“Got it?” he asked, passing the washtub down from the ledge.

Beth tightened her fingers around the handles, brushing against Daryl’s as she did. Their eyes met and neither of them moved, and a surreal sort of light-headedness washed over her, breaking like a sudden wave against an unsuspecting shore. She didn’t understand it but she couldn’t tear herself away, neither could Daryl, and as the moment ticked on, the air around her pressed in, thick and thrumming with an energy she couldn’t define, giving warmth to a morning that had yet to find its own.

After what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, Beth pulled in a deep breath and gently tugged the tub from Daryl’s grasp. The roar in her ears faded to a hum. Daryl blinked and swallowed and let go, stood up but didn’t look away as she mumbled her thanks.

“I—” Beth cleared her throat, settled the washtub at her hip. “I’ll just get to this, then…”

A noise like tires on a gravel road rumbled in the back of Daryl’s throat and his eyes flicked away, toward the axe resting on the ground at his feet. He lifted it as he mumbled something about firewood and took half a step toward turning away, but before he left he looked back down at her, eyes hard and serious and something else she couldn’t put a name to. “Keep your eyes open, a’right?”

Beth nodded, forcing a smile onto her face since all her mouth wanted to do was just sit there dumbly. “All right.”

Heart beating rapidly in her chest, Beth turned away from Daryl to walk to the water’s edge. Her fingers shook and her head swam lazily through the thick morning air, too cool to have allowed the sweat to break out at the back of her neck. The chill of the water on her hands helped, more than it ought to, and as Beth filled the washtub to let the clothing soak, she focused on the bite of it. Nothing about what happened at the ledge made sense. Why in the world was her pulse still racing?

And when, exactly, had Daryl Dixon started looking at her like that?

She couldn’t describe the look itself, just what she felt whenever it happened—a heat like warm honey in her belly, a tingle across her scalp like gentle fingers combing through her hair, a swarm of thousands of tiny butterflies taking up residence in her chest, stirring her up inside until she couldn’t tell the beating of their wings apart from the beating of her own heart. It hadn’t begun in the kitchen, even though that was her first awareness of it. Daryl took his time with things and the conversation he tried to have before it all went to hell was something he’d been working up to for a while. Sure as anything that look had been following her that whole time even though she hadn’t noticed until that moment.

Good Lord, that man had barely been able to keep his eyes off her yesterday, sometimes just looking but lots of times wearing that look and not even turning away when she caught him at it. She didn’t know how he could possibly not have heard her heart thundering in response, so loudly it drowned out every other noise around her. Beth didn’t know what it meant, exactly, just that it meant something, something she suspected Daryl himself was still trying to figure out. Did he even know, though, how he looked at her—eyes full of a thousand things he couldn’t say and she couldn’t understand? Would he let her see him if he did?

The dishes—just two bowls, two forks, a couple of knives and the cast iron pot—took very little time to clean. Beth laid them out to dry in the patches of sun on the rocky creek bank and prepared to take on the clothing. She sat down cross-legged at the edge of the water, in front of a nice flat rock that looked good for scrubbing on since she hadn’t found a washboard with the washtub, and pulled out the first item—one of Daryl’s socks. It would be something of his, naturally, when her thoughts were full enough of him already.

Because it wasn’t just Daryl looking at her with loaded eyes that had her mind spinning. There was that other thing, the little spark blooming in her chest with Daryl’s name written all over it, bringing all her observations into question. It was just a glimmer, something she knew she was better off ignoring, but what if it was making her read something into Daryl’s look that didn’t truly exist? Except—she had eyes and she wasn’t blind, and part of her understood she’d have to be to miss whatever Daryl was throwing out there for the world to see.

Still. She felt balanced precariously on the edge of a knife, with these feelings in her chest. The ones which beat with gratitude for all he’d done for her, for the way he cared what happened to her, for the way he just cared. And then this other thing, separate from everything else, its own little entity pulsing away. She cared about the man beneath that armour, the Daryl she’d come to know in their time alone, beyond the way she had before. Cared what happened to him, and not out of gratitude. That much she was sure of, at least—that whatever this was, it wasn’t just being thankful. It wasn’t just being glad she wasn’t on her own.

Beth laid the sock down on the rocks and pulled out the next item—her bra—and started gently working the dingy pink fabric, all torn lace and bloodstains. Her pulse raced on and her muscles felt electrified, poised to jump and run, the sort of adrenaline-laced feeling she wasn’t as unfamiliar with as she tried to tell herself.

Who do you think you’re fooling, Bethy Greene?

Daddy’s voice would be in her head the moment she pulled Daryl’s underwear out of the pile, a pair of threadbare boxer shorts almost more holes than they were fabric, so faded she couldn’t tell what colour they used to be. Beth shrugged and started scrubbing. At the end of the world, what was a pair of underwear between friends?

Friends. That word seemed better suited for the old life. Nowadays people fell into two distinct groups—family and strangers. If a person was lucky, your family were people you liked. She liked Daryl, in several different contexts of that word. The one in question, well, she could try snuffing it out now or she could run with it, but chances were it was going to take her over anyway. She wanted to give in—feeling that way about someone felt good—but wasn’t all that certain it was the smartest thing to do. No matter what Daryl’s eyes were or were not telling her, that path was doomed before it began, and the last thing she needed was the distraction of some damned schoolgirl crush keeping her from being firmly rooted in the reality of here and now.

Beth kept scrubbing clothes and letting her thoughts wander, though they didn’t wander far, listening to the thunk – thunk – thunk of Daryl chopping wood somewhere behind her. A steady streak of dark red, a mix walker blood and general filth, travelled downstream from her washing place. As the items got dirtier, Beth had to get on her knees to have the leverage to scrub hard enough, using some of the coarse sand mixed in with the soapsuds. Daryl’s jeans changed colour completely by the time she finished with them and she added two more holes for her to patch later. Her own jeans seemed doomed to a permanent tinge of rusty pink on top of the pale denim. By the time everything was as clean as it was going to get without a washing machine, Beth’s hands were half frozen and her knuckles abraded from the sand and scrubbing against the rock.

She washed out the tub last, ridding it of the dirty water and clinging bits of filth, then got to her feet, rolling her sore ankle through the air to loosen the joint a little before taking her weight on it. All the wet clothes got wrung out and tossed back into the clean washtub, and Beth was just about to stack the dishes on top when a flash of motion upstream caught her attention.

A pair of walkers—no, three of them—ambled along the bank, stumbling over the loose rocks as they moved in her general direction, about thirty yards away. They hadn’t seen her yet, and Beth reached for her crossbow, keeping her movements subtle and fluid. Moving targets were different from trees, but they were far enough away to give her time and she already had her first bolt loaded and ready. Taking a breath, Beth raised her bow and sighted on the first walker along the scope mount, like Daryl taught her with his crossbow. The walkers weren’t moving quickly. She could do this.

Beth took her deep breaths until her arms were steady, adjusting her aim to the motions of the walker, finger resting on the trigger. One. Two. Three.

Her bolt went wide, sinking in halfway through the shoulder of the walker behind the one she tried to hit.

“Damn.” Beth set her foot into the stirrup, unrolled the rope-cocker, set the hooks on and stood up as she pulled until she heard the click and felt the string lock into place. She loaded another bolt, and surveyed her targets. 

Luckily, the first shot hadn’t alarmed the trio and they still staggered unhurriedly on. Beth repeated her steps and watched the walker again, how it swayed. Last time she aimed for where she thought it would be, only to have it swing back by the time her bolt hit. Maybe this time if she reversed her strategy—

The second bolt missed, too, but only just. The target walker had a fresh ooze of dark, dead blood across the side of its head. Beth cocked her bow and loaded another bolt, and again took aim.

Her bolt lodged in just below the walker’s eye, but deep enough that it fell to the bank with a dull thud and a clunk of rock on rock. The walker behind it, the one whose shoulder still held her first bolt, stumbled over the fallen corpse, landing face first onto the rocks, high-centered over the body of the other and struggling a bit to get up, giving Beth some extra time. She cocked and reloaded her crossbow and lined up her next shot on the third walker, by now a lot closer than the first when it fell. It saw her, made to lumber forward to get her, but that only straightened out its trajectory and her bolt went through its left eye.

In the meantime the fallen walker had gotten to its feet and had seen her, too, and Beth set her crossbow down, not confident she had enough time to cock and load it and take aim before the walker reached her. She drew her knife and backed up a few paces, to a flat spot with surer footing, adjusting her stance and letting the walker come to her, hissing and snapping its teeth. Up close, this one was long decayed, its flesh drooping and falling off its bony frame, gender uncertain beneath the ragged scraps of cloth clinging to its shoulders and hips. And even though her heart was pounding with adrenaline, it was nothing, even with her sore ankle, to knock it down with a solid kick and plunge her knife through its skull.

She pulled her knife free just as Daryl jumped down off the ledge, crossbow in hand as he scanned the bank for more walkers.

A grin broke out on her face, wide and uncontrollable, and she turned to face Daryl, wiping her knife on the dishrag still tucked into her belt. “Did you see—?”

She stopped short, the smile falling away at the look on Daryl’s face, his mouth set into a tight line, eyes blazing and angry as he stalked toward her. “The fuck didn’t you call me?” 

The back of Beth’s neck went prickly hot, and she shoved her knife into its sheath. She swallowed hard and stood facing him square on, hands moving to her hips before she even meant them to. “I handled it, Daryl.”

“Yeah?” He reached down and wrenched her first bolt free of the walker at her feet, using it to punctuate his words. “Let it get this close and you call that handling it?”

“It was—” No. Beth slammed her mouth shut around the explanation that wanted to spring out of her. She didn’t need to explain anything. Daryl wasn’t stupid. If he wanted to know what happened all he had to do was look. “It’s dead, isn’t it?”

“Damn it, Beth.” Daryl tossed the bolt on the ground and took half a step back before stepping forward again. “You shoulda called—”

Beth stopped listening, and the prickly hot feeling squeezed at her forehead and pounded in her ears. The sigh she let out sounded and felt like a growl, and she dug her fingers into her hips as her jaw went stiff. “Yeah, and what, Daryl? Make noise so they noticed me? Yelled for you ‘til a herd of them came out of the woods? I had it under control!

Daryl lurched forward, one arm held awkwardly beside him as the other made a pointed finger. “And when your ankle gives out? What then, huh? What the fuck then, Beth? Shoulda fuckin’ asked for help.”

Help? You wanna help?” Beth’s breath left her in a shaking rush, her whole body hot and spiny and vibrating, she was just. So. Angry.

How dare he, as if she couldn’t—as if she was still just another useless, helpless, dead girl and she wasn’t. She just was not and Daryl was supposed to know thatShe handled it, handled it just fine and he couldn’t even bother to notice. Hot tears pricked at her eyes, blurring her vision as she glared through it at Daryl and his stupid face. Her fingers shook as she reached for the laundry tub, as they closed around the first wet thing she found.

Here.” Her voice broke as the word left her lips, but she didn’t care. The soggy shirt hit Daryl in the chest and he stumbled back a step, glaring at her from behind his hair. “You wanna help, you can help with the damn laundry.”

“Beth—”

“No!” The word tore through the lump in her throat, burning on its way out but she didn’t care about that either, and she reached back into the tub for something else. “You don’t get—” the sock hit him in the chest and fell to the ground “—to decide—” her sweater struck his stomach “—when I need—” and his jeans hit his knees and landed in a pile at his feet “—help!”

Beth’s ankle buckled, just like he said it would, and she swore at herself and bit down on her lip to keep from crying out at the jolt of pain lancing through the joint. Daryl stood there, breathing hard, not saying a word, and Beth wanted to shout at him, wanted him to shout at her so she could hold onto the heat of her anger, but it faded rapidly, settling into something cold and heavy like hurt in her belly. Daryl’s eyes had lost their hard edge and he was just looking at her, that look, and she wanted to wipe it right off his face. She threw the bundled piece of damp fabric in her hands and watched it wrap around his head.

Her bra. One cup covering Daryl’s right eye and the other over the lower part of his face, a strap hooked around his left ear and the other tangled in his hair. She couldn’t help it, the bubble of laughter erupted out of nowhere, and she was still angry, still hurt, but that was her bra on Daryl Dixon’s head, and oh Lord.

Daryl hooked a finger through the strap at his ear and lifted it from his face, eyes flicking over it first before settling back on her, lip quirking up just a little as though he wasn’t sure he was allowed to smile. But the anger was gone, mostly, and the way he stood holding her bra on one finger stirred an odd mixture of humour and heat in her belly. The hurt still stewed there, though, enough that she couldn’t ignore it.

Beth sighed, and opened her mouth to speak, but Daryl beat her to it.

“Sorry.”

That helped, it did, but— “Do you even know what you’re supposed to be sorry for?”

That look was back, and Daryl let his hands drop to his sides. He breathed in and Beth could see the way he shook with it, even from here, could read in the sudden stiffness across his shoulders that he’d rather be looking anywhere else but her face right now, yet he held the contact. “You ain’t helpless.”

Some of the tension in her belly unfurled, just a little. “You made me feel like you thought I was.”

Daryl bobbed his head, chewed his lip a little. She could see his fingers fiddling absently with the bra strap still clutched between them. “Didn’t mean to. I—” He paused, glanced down at his feet a moment and breathed deeply before dragging his gaze back up. “Your ankle’s fucked, heard you shootin’, didn’t know if it’s three walkers or three hundred…”

It wasn’t the words Daryl spoke that pierced right through her like a well-aimed bolt to the heart, but the words he didn’t. What he meant, what he couldn’t say. Daryl was scared, scared she’d been overrun or outnumbered or unable to get away, and she knew, of course she knew how Daryl handled fear. I ain’t afraid a nothin’. His anger made so much sense and Beth swallowed hard around a little whine of understanding she couldn’t hold back. The lump in her throat grew twice as thick at his not-quite admission, and she just nodded at him, trying and failing to keep her breath from shuddering out of her chest.

Daryl took a tentative step forward, cast a long look upstream at the two fallen walkers there and back to the one at their feet, before returning his gaze to her face. “Just a redneck asshole, remember?”

Beth sighed and shook her head, because no, he wasn’t, not really. He was a man who cared what happened to her, and that was far from being an asshole. Far from being just anything.

“No, you’re not,” she said, closing the gap between them and pulling him into a hug.

Daryl breathed her name, so quietly she wasn’t sure she really heard it, but the breath of a word trickled right down inside her, warm and soothing. He settled his arm around her back, pressed his chin into her hair, and Beth shut her eyes and leaned into him, breathing in the hint of sweat and leather now mingling with the soap and dirt. 

“I’m sorry, too, Daryl,” she whispered, tightening her arms around him and smiling into his chest when he tightened his, too. And she was. Sorry for scaring him, sorry for not understanding that sooner. Sorry for assaulting him with the laundry even if that had been the thing to break the tension. “I just can’t take feeling like that, not from you.”

The pressure on the top of her head felt more like his face than his chin this time, a little puff of air tickling her scalp, and her belly fluttery warm at the thought of that. But both things were fleeting, and when Daryl’s arm loosened, Beth took the hint and stepped out of his space, though maybe not as far as she could have, and tipped her eyes up to meet his.

They stood like that for a long moment, far past the point where it shifted from looking to staring but she couldn’t move. Felt like Daryl couldn’t move either. As though some unseen force worked between them, acting as an anchor, a tether from which they couldn’t escape, and not for the first time. Beth couldn’t have said how long the moment lasted, but what finally dragged them apart was the sound of another walker hissing in the distance. They turned their faces upstream to watch its shuffling progress toward them.

Daryl brushed her wrist with his fingertips. “All yours.”

Beth reached for her crossbow, cocked and loaded it, feeling the warmth of Daryl’s eyes as he watched her. The walker fell to her first shot, and without another word Daryl jogged upstream to reclaim her four bolts.

“Tell you what,” Beth said, when he again stood in front of her.

Daryl’s eyes swept over her crossbow and up until he met hers again, that subtle little smile lifting is lips. “Mmm?”

“Let’s make a rule. Beth and Daryl’s rule number one,” Beth said, shouldering her bow before crouching down to load the scattered clothing back into the washtub. “You can take care of yourself, I can take care of myself, but we have each other’s back, okay?”

Above her, Daryl made the grunty, mumbly noise he liked to use when he agreed but otherwise didn’t have anything to say. When Beth stood back up, though, washtub at her hip, she was met with a smirk and twinkling eyes, like he had a secret he only just remembered.

“But, Beth...” He lifted his hand, her bra still hanging by a strap from one finger. “Don’t think it’s your back I got.”

Heat curled in her belly and rose up to fill her chest, not stopping until it reached her cheeks. A giggle bubbled out of her as she snatched the bra back from him, and Daryl’s smirk grew into something more like a smile, though the glint in his eyes as he swept them over her flushed cheeks only made her feel warmer. 

“All right, you,” Beth said, face flaming, knees a little shaky as she tossed her bra in the washtub and nudged him in the side with her elbow. “Help me take all this up?”

“Yeah.” Daryl chuckled warmly and nudged her, too. “Now I got your back.”

*~* 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 10 – While We Have a Few Minutes to Breathe

*~*

Beth dragged the bloodstained denim back and forth across the rock, but the stain was stubborn and didn’t want to wash out. No matter how hard she scrubbed, how red the water got, the jeans remained crusted and stained.

From upstream came the sound of walkers. Beth watched them picking their way toward her, splashing in the creek as they staggered back and forth past the sharp, jutting rocks sticking up like islands. She stood up to face them, reaching for her crossbow but finding only piles of wet blue jeans at her feet. When she tried to step forward, her ankles got tangled in the piles and she couldn’t move.

The walkers were closer now, and the sounds of the dead rose up all around her, a chorus of unholy voices drowning out the call of the birds and the rush of the water. Beth pulled and pulled but her feet wouldn’t move, the soggy piles at her feet hardening to bloodstained rocks, trapping her there as the threat closed in.

“Don’t let them get too close,” Daryl said, watching from the ledge, legs swinging back and forth, cutting through the air like blades, boot heels clicking together like the cocking of a gun before swinging apart again.

Swish-swish – click – swish-swish – click – swish-swish – click.

The walkers stopped in a circle around her, tilting their heads to look at her from beneath the brims of their hats, bony, rotting hands landing on their hips. Daryl disappeared, but she could still hear the clicking of his boots, except it wasn’t his boots, it was the gun in her hand, her thumb on the hammer. Cocked and loaded and she fired, dropping the walkers one by one but they were coming fast. Too fast. Beth squeezed her eyes shut and kept shooting.

A walker grabbed her shoulders and she spun around, ankles still tangled in laundry, trying to see the monster but she could only feel its breath on her neck.

Swish, and she swung her gun through the air. Click, and she cocked the hammer. Bang, and she fired, opening her eyes to a spray of blood amidst the scent of soap and leather.

At her feet, Daryl’s body, blood-soaked arms and legs wound round her ankles, eyes pleading up at her while his brains oozed out of the blackened hole in his forehead. The walkers on the rocks around her, whose faces were Daryl’s, Daddy’s, Maggie’s, Rick’s, Carl’s, Judith’s, all of them stared back at her, red-black tears streaking down their greying faces.

“Told you—not to—let them—get close—Beth,” they said. They all said. “Beth. Beth. Beth. Beth. Beth. Beth! Beth! BETH! BETH!”

Beth bolted upright, knocking her forehead against Daryl’s with a crack and a lance of pain through her skull. A growing ache pulsed in her lungs as she struggled to breathe, but nothing moved and she fell backward, vision blurring in the dim candlelight, chest burning, a weight pressing down so hard, so heavy, and she couldn’t breathe. The more she fought the heavier it got, the deeper the burn, and this was it—she couldn’t breathe—something was wrong—so wrong—she was still dreaming—she was dying—she tried to scream but nothing came out—

Daryl hauled her up, pulled her forward and onto her knees, one hand braced on her back as his other hand pushed on her belly, and a great, heaving rush of air flooded out of her chest. Beth sagged forward but planted her fists into the quilt, holding herself up on shaking arms, and Daryl’s hands stayed where they were, steady and firm against her violent trembling, fingers cool on her too-warm skin.

“Beth.” His voice, a low murmur, trickled into her ear. “Slow. Breathe slow.”

She sucked in a breath, but it caught at the edges of the burning and would go no further. Daryl pressed his palm into her belly again, not a push this time but an anchor, a focal point, pulling her out of her struggle, easing the bit of air back out.

“Slow, Beth. Slow.”

The pressure in her chest rose up again and Daryl repeated the words, hand firm on her stomach. He took in a slow, steady breath and Beth focused on the press of his hand, the pace of his breathing, trying to match it as she finally drew enough air into her aching lungs.

Her breath shuddered back out in a rush, and again Daryl pressed his hand against her, just as her body urged her to force another breath back in. “Slow.”

He inhaled, measured, gradual, and Beth followed along with him. “Count to three,” he said, before she could let the breath out, and it strained and pushed and begged to escape, but she held it, she listened, she counted to three.

“Like that,” Daryl whispered, as she exhaled slow and smooth. “That’s it, Beth, just like that.”

Beth let the sound of his voice and his even breaths guide her, and the burning eased, the ache faded, the weight on her chest dissipated with each steady breath out. When the rhythm became natural again, Beth sat back on her heels and Daryl’s hands fell away. He left the bed but returned a minute later with a cup of water and a damp cloth, which he pressed to the back of her neck while she drank.

“More?”

Beth nodded and passed back the cup, and pulled her legs from beneath her to sit on her butt, draping her arms across her bent knees and letting her head hang in the space between. The cloth on her neck felt wonderfully cool, and when Daryl returned with another for her forehead, she moaned softly and let him hold it there for a good minute before taking over the task herself. He gave her the cup of water and she finished it in little sips, pausing to take a few good breaths between each one.

The bed dipped as Daryl climbed back in, and Beth lifted her head from between her legs to look at him. He’d been awake when she curled up to sleep, sharpening knives at the edge of the bed, but must have settled in to rest at some point. His hair stood out everywhere and he had draped his vest and long sleeve shirt over the chest beside him, leaving his upper half clad only in the familiar and still-ratty, but newly repaired brown shirt with the sleeves torn away. He’d even taken off his boots, his big brown ones sitting next to her small black ones, a tidy row in pairs of two. His toes wiggled inside his socks, and Beth didn’t know why she was looking at that, why it should matter at all what his toes were doing, that he had toes at all, and she dragged her gaze back up to his face, to the eyes gazing out at her beneath the mess of hair.

A lump rose in her throat, delayed, unexpected, as the vision of a bloody, blackened Daryl, gaping bullet hole through his forehead oozing with brains, superimposed itself over the live, sleep-lined face in front of her. She tried to hold it back but the tears came anyway, sliding warm over her cheeks, salty on her lips, dragging with them a strangled sort of sob she couldn’t keep down. 

She couldn’t see him, only a blur of dark and light moving closer, then the weight of a strong arm across her shoulders, tugging, reeling her in. “C’mere.”

Beth fell against Daryl, curling into the solid warmth of his body and the tight wrap of his arms around her, buried her face into his chest, into the pounding of his heart beneath her forehead as she cried.

*~*

Neither one of them slept after that, though Beth pretended to. Once her tears subsided, she didn’t want to let Daryl go and didn’t want to ask him to keep holding her, didn’t want to risk him saying no, didn’t know what it would mean if he said yes. So she closed her eyes and breathed deep and hoped she wasn’t being obvious. She was sure he knew. Daryl always knew. But his hold never slackened and his cheek rested against her hair, and he stayed there, tangled up with her until daybreak.

With the first hints of light seeping in through the blanket covering the little window, they moved together out of the bed, and Daryl didn’t say a word about not having to wake her, just looked at her for a long moment before turning away to slip on his layers and his boots.

A sort-of morning routine had taken shape in the few days they had been here. After getting out of bed they ate the supper leftovers for breakfast, something Beth and her stomach wouldn’t have tolerated in the old world, but apocalypse bellies were built of cast iron and food wasn’t something wasted. This morning they sat together on top of the counter, legs dangling over the edge while they nibbled bits of rabbit off the bone, ate chunks of fried potato from of the bowl between them with their fingers, and sipped water out of metal cups until the pail was empty.

Beth refilled the water pail down at the creek, able to carry it back full now, her ankle just that much better, while Daryl bundled up what little waste they had—guts, skin, bones—to bury in the forest away from the cabin during his morning trek into the woods to check for signs of walkers or people. They met on the steps as she carried the pail up and he headed out, crossbow over his shoulder just like she had hers, pausing there in the middle of the narrow stairs to share a small smile before carrying on.

It was a bright, cloudless morning, though cool enough to feel the chilly fingers of autumn through the knit of her grey sweater. After Daryl left, Beth gathered up the rest of the mending she hadn’t gotten to last night and sat out on the steps in the fresh air to finish, crossbow propped up at her feet. Her bra needed a bit more delicate stitching than she had been able to manage by candlelight, to fix the torn parts of the lacy overlay. It wasn’t practical, really, and she should probably just tear it off, but there wasn’t a lot about the world these days allowed to be pretty just for pretty’s sake, so she was going to save the damned lace.

She was more than a little anxious to put the thing back on, too, now that Daryl knew she wasn’t wearing it, and a bit of heat coiled inside as she remembered how he looked, standing there at the creek with this little piece of straps and lace dangling from his finger.

Beth sighed and slammed a mental full-stop down on that run-on-sentence of a thought in the making. She was certain she could perseverate on that moment indefinitely if she allowed it, being teased by Daryl Dixon for having thrown her bra at his face, but to do so would indulge the very thing she shouldn’t. Because it wasn’t embarrassment heating up her cheeks or trembling in her knees, and the resulting flutter in her chest, the little pulse of heat between her legs had made her feel more like a woman than she had in ages. And that was why she had to let it go, because that wasn’t fair to Daryl—to assume he meant more than he had by it—and it wasn’t fair to herself, either, to get carried away like that.

There was always the chance she could replace her stupid nightmares with something better if she did let her thoughts run wild—but knowing her luck, it wouldn’t help and her subconscious would only find more inventive ways to kill Daryl in her dreams.

With another sigh, Beth set down the bra, mended as best as it was going to be, and started in on Daryl’s denim jacket, which needed fixing long before he found it a few weeks back, after the weather turned. The chill hadn’t lifted this morning yet at all, though the sun glittered brightly over the water down at the creek and into the yard through the little gaps in the trees. It kept her awake though, after a mostly sleepless night, the crispness of the air in her lungs and the bite of it on her cheeks.

This needed to stop, this nightly terror, this waking up a complete, useless, sobbing mess. Daryl was so good about it, but he shouldn’t have to be. He didn’t see her as weak. She felt in her heart that yesterday at the creek really had just been about being afraid because she wasn’t at her best with her ankle hurt. It stung anyway, a little prick of unease at the back of her mind, a little jab of a knife in the centre of her chest, because he wasn’t totally wrong in worrying, not when she couldn’t even control her own mind. When she couldn’t even breathe on her own without needing his help. That aching bit of truth it sat there, sharp and bitter in her gut, reminding her that she wasn’t so tough after all.

Beth stayed on the steps when the mending was done, enjoying the fresh air even amidst her darker thoughts. Maybe if she played that game with herself again, the one where she looked for the good things and put the bad away for a little while, maybe that could ease away the gloom from her heart. They had clean clothes for the first time in a good long while, and that was at least nice, if not necessarily good. They had a cabin stuffed full of useful things for when they resumed their journey, and that was good. She had a crossbow—Beth stroked her thumb over the butt of it where it lay against her leg—which she still couldn’t quite believe, and as much as she loved it, Beth had her suspicions that Daryl loved it more. And that felt good in all sorts of ways. Daryl seemed happier, too, not that she would’ve ever thought of him as a happy person. Maybe happier wasn’t quite right. Maybe he was just glad to be alive, and that was good, too, considering how he was before. Living, perhaps, instead of just surviving.

Maybe they both were, Beth thought, looking out at the sparkle across the water.

By the time Daryl wandered back into the yard, she had an honest to god smile on her face, listening to the birds chirping in the trees overhead, the rush of the creek nearby. Without a walker in sight, the cabin, the creek, the forest, it was beautiful. Beauty for beauty’s sake. She shouldn't let herself forget that again. Daryl stopped just a step or two into the yard when he saw her there, and Beth couldn’t stop her smile from widening as their eyes met. The left corner of Daryl's mouth turned up, then the right followed, and just before he ducked his head she saw a flash of teeth. He looked up again, the grin still lingering on now-closed lips, and he held her gaze for a long moment before moving to the woodshed to gather up an armful of firewood. That was one Daryl smile—and another good thing—to add to her daily total, and the day had only just begun. Beth slid over to let him pass on his way up the steps, her eyes drifting shut at the brush of his fingers over the crown of her head as he headed back down.

Daryl worked outside through the morning, pulling apart the stairs and porch out front to repurpose the lumber into a makeshift fence, to better protect the back yard and also make the front door more secure. Beth had wanted to help, but they only had the one pry bar, so she resumed the on-going task of cataloguing everything in the cabin’s many shelves and chests and the few hidey-holes she found in the walls, setting some things aside to possibly take with them. Daryl came in and out, wearing fewer shirts and more sweat each time, sometimes adding something to her take-with pile if it happened to catch his eye, other times watching her work while he took a break to drink some water and mop his face with a rag. 

Having his eyes on her wasn’t anything new, not these days, but somewhere around mid-morning, when Daryl stood behind her crunching on a carrot, Beth turned to meet his gaze, because—not gonna lie—she loved the little flutter she got whenever she did, and saw something different lingering there. It took her a bit of time to figure it out, thinking on it during Daryl’s absences and reaffirming what she thought she saw whenever he came back in.

Daryl had become more open as the weeks had passed, little by little choosing to speak his mind when he had something to say rather than always keeping it to himself. Oh, she wouldn’t call him chatty, no, but there was a certain freedom to him now. An ease in talking with her that hadn’t existed before, even back at the prison when things were good—not with her, at least. But the way he was watching her now, in short flickers of contact instead of the steady stare she was used to, nibbling at his thumb or fiddling with something from the shelves while he did, meant Daryl had something on his mind that had him all clammed up again.

“What is it, Daryl?” she asked, when he wandered inside and almost knocked over her crossbow because he was so obviously not looking at her that he didn't see it lying there atop the chest. “You’ve got something you’re dyin’ to say, so out with it already.”

Daryl leaned his elbow on the counter, chewing on his thumb as he met her eyes, holding the contact for a moment before he nodded, just a brief jerk of his head.  “Just—don’t want you takin’ this wrong.”

Beth’s pulse kicked up a little and a prickle of nerves rolled through her belly, but she made sure to keep her eyes on Daryl’s as she answered, “I won’t. What is it?”

Daryl exhaled audibly, dropping his hand from his face to pick at a splinter of wood at the counter’s edge. “It—this’s about your ankle. Only about that, not—not anythin’ else, a’right?”

Beth moved toward him until the toes of her boots were just half a foot away from his. She leaned on the counter, too, forcing away the nervous flutter so she could show him she was listening. “All right.”

“Saw some tracks this mornin’, just out past the line. Deer tracks.” He paused, glanced down at their boots, shuffled his a bit against the floorboards before looking back up. “Got enough salt and wood here, we could hard smoke a good-sized one. Be an idea, havin’ that protein along, for when we go.”

It was a good idea, of course it was. Beth hadn’t thought about it, even when Daryl found the homemade smoker in the storage area beneath the front porch two days ago, built out of an old metal drum. She had imagined trying to smoke rabbits, or something, but a deer, a deer could be a lifesaver, literally.

“But, that’s good, Daryl. Isn’t it?” she said, not quite understanding the continued furrow of his brow, nor the return of his thumb between his teeth.

“This’s the part I don’t wanna get wrong,” he said, around his thumb. He tore it out of his mouth when he realized what he was doing and waited, glancing up at her in short little bursts. Beth nodded, urging him to go on, her heart pounding a little bit harder.  “Beth. I go huntin’ deer, means I leave in the morning and I’m gone all day. Maybe overnight.”

Beth let the words sink in, repeating to herself as she did what he said before. This’s about your ankle. Not anythin’ else. Still, that prickle of nerves in her belly tied itself into a knot full of doubt, even as she fought against it and tried not to let it show on her face.

Daryl must have seen, though. Of course he had, because his whole demeanour changed in a flash. His eyes met hers straight on and he reached out to circle her wrist with his fingers, pressing in tight, not enough to hurt but to drag her attention out of her own head. “Fuck, Beth, we’d go together if you weren’t hurt. You could shoot the damn thing yourself.”

“And leaving me here?” she asked, hating the way her voice wobbled. “It’s really just my ankle that’s the problem?”

“Be lyin’ if I said yes,” he whispered, still holding her gaze, thumb swiping across the inside of her wrist. “Don’t like the thought of either of us alone that long, you know?”

She thought she did. No, she knew she did, because she would never think Daryl couldn’t look after himself, but she was going to worry about him the whole time he was away, especially if he had to be gone all night. Maybe she had the cabin for safety, but her ankle made her vulnerable, and yeah, she could understand that. Aside from that, the only people they had in the world right now were each other, and the potential of losing that terrified her.

Beth nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. “I think so.”

“You’re tough,” he said, giving her wrist another squeeze. “Don’t think I don’t know it.”

Viscous warmth seeped into her belly with the way he gazed at her, and a thousand tiny wings beat inside her chest.  Beth covered his hand at her wrist with her own, gliding her thumb along the back of his.  “We need this deer, don’t we?” 

A little shiver travelled through Daryl’s hand into hers, and he whispered, “yeah, we do.” 

Beth drew in a deep breath and nodded. “I promise I’ll be careful, I won’t take any unnecessary risks, but Daryl, you gotta promise me you’ll do the same.”

He just looked at her, looked at her, for a long time before nodding his head, whispering something that sounded like yes, only with a whole lot more hiding beneath it. 

“You get us that deer, Daryl,” Beth said, heart pounding now for an entirely different reason. “And I’ll be safe and sound here when you get back.”

*~*

They spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon nailing reclaimed lumber to the trees lining three sides of the back yard, three roughly parallel rows starting at the height of Beth’s shoulders. It would keep walkers out, should any wander in from the woods. So far, aside from the one Daryl killed their first day here, the only walkers they saw were the four at the creek yesterday. Still, Beth felt better with a bit more of a barrier. It wouldn’t keep out a herd, but it was something. 

Swinging a hammer reminded her of home, of the summer she spent helping Shawn build the new henhouse, and the summer after that when she built a new doghouse for Charlie all by herself. The memories settled in her chest like a little flame, stinging a bit right in the centre, but not burning like they used to. Something wistful must have shown on her face, because Daryl paused halfway through lifting a board, eyebrow raised in question. 

“Just remembering,” she said, reaching for her end of the board to help move it into place. “It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.”

Daryl wasn’t looking at her as he fished a nail out of his pocket. “Gonna share with the class?”

The put-on gruffness in his tone brought a smile to her face. “You really wanna know, Mr. Dixon?”

He glanced at her sidelong, lip and eyebrow lifting in unison, but he uttered nothing more than a bit of a grunt. 

It meant yes, of course, because Beth could tell the difference by now between Daryl’s yes grunts and no grunts and I-don’t-give-a-fuck grunts. When she started talking she knew he was listening, tuning out the sounds of their hammer duet to hear her stories. They weren’t much, just simple things from a life long gone, but she liked sharing them. Liked sharing them with Daryl. 

“...and Shawn couldn’t stop laughing, and Daddy was so mad I though he was gonna loose his head—” Beth swallowed hard, a pressure in her chest like having the wind knocked out of her, and Daryl stopped hammering to look at her. 

Silence roared in her ears and Beth dragged a breath in, pressing her trembling palm to her sternum. “That—that still hurts,” she said, voice thin and wobbly.

“Yeah,” Daryl said, swallowing too, his own eyes a little glossy. “Was a good man, your dad.”

The sadness in her heart mixed in with all the other feelings living there, and Daddy’s death hurt, it did, but Daryl knew. Daryl understood, and a rush of warm affection for this good man beside her knocked the pressure right out of her chest. “The best.”

*~*

The sun had long set by the time they finished preparing for Daryl’s departure. It was a full day of hard work and that felt good, even if her ankle was a little sore, her arms and back, too. After a late supper, Beth pulled off her boots and flopped onto the bed, her whole body screaming for sleep. When Daryl joined her a few seconds later, landing on his stomach beside her and peering out at her from beneath his hair, she had a shiver of déjà vu for their first night in the cabin. 

“Gonna leave early,” he said. “Before sunrise.”

The weight of that settled across Beth’s shoulders, a little heavier than before. “I guess it’s too much to hope the deer will come back?”

Daryl shifted his body until he lay on his side facing her, and Beth did the same. “That’d be too easy. Almost wouldn’t trust it.”

“You’d be back before night time, though, if they did.” Beth tried to keep her tone light, but a little bit of nerves crept in anyway. 

Daryl tapped his fingers against the quilt, a faint little pat pat pat in the otherwise quiet cabin. “Gonna try to be, Beth. Can’t promise.”

“Then promise to be safe.” The words she really wanted to say, things like don’t go and I’m scared and please please please come back, hovered there beneath. She wasn’t all that certain Daryl couldn’t read it on her face like a flashing billboard, the way he chewed at his lip, gaze fixed to hers. 

“You too.” He cleared his throat, fingers now tracing the quilt’s stitching, and she thought she saw written there on his face the same sorts of things screaming inside her—please be safe and I’m scared too and please please please don’t disappear.

“I’m gonna be fine, Daryl,” she said, unsure which of them needed more convincing. She would be, in the way Daryl was concerned about. She was also pretty much gonna be worried sick about him. 

Daryl reached across the short span of quilt between them to brush a wisp of hair off her forehead, fingertips barely grazing her skin. “You better be.”

A long time passed where they stared across the quilt, just like before. Beth couldn’t look away if she wanted to, but she wouldn’t even if she could. Something whispered between them, thick like toffee, thrumming like strings on a guitar, carried on the currents of warm gazes and beating hearts. It spun her head, a weightless, excited sort of dizzy she could fall into face first and never come up for air.

“I’m goin’ west.” Daryl’s voice, raspy and low, broke through the haze but didn’t quite shatter it. “If somethin’ happens, and you need to go, head west.”

Beth swallowed, her throat parched. “Follow the creek,” Beth said, picturing in her head the path of the sun, the light playing over the features of this newly familiar landscape. “Then follow the sun.”

Daryl hummed his approval, fingers now clutching a handful of the quilt. “I’ll be back late afternoon, if I’m gonna be. By next day noon if not.”

He didn’t say, and Beth pretended not to think about the third option, about what to do if Daryl didn’t come back at all, but she could see the fear of it in his eyes all the same. 

“Any walkers get in the yard or at the fence, I’ll get them from the door with my crossbow.” Beth traced her own fingers over the pattern of stitching, feeling the rough little loops of thread beneath her fingertips. “Leave them be if they’re down at the creek.”

“Don’t let them build up,” Daryl said, though he knew she knew that. 

Beth spared a brief thought for the hordes at the prison fences, and crossed her heart. “Promise.”

A ghost of a smile flitted across Daryl’s lips. “We should get some sleep.”

An hour ago Beth would’ve agreed, and the desire for sleep tugged hard at the frayed ends of her tired body. Except she wasn’t near ready to say goodnight, knowing what morning would bring, and she knew she was tired when the thought crossed her mind that, if they just stayed up and kept talking, morning wouldn’t ever come at all. Daryl needed the rest, though, and when he lifted the quilt she got under it with him, watched him as he rolled onto his back, one arm up over his head, fingers curled in half way toward his palm.

Beth stayed facing him, turning a bit until she lay half on her stomach. “I’ll keep my crossbow ready. Bring it with me whenever I go outside. My knife and the gun, too.”

Daryl’s head tipped toward her just enough for their eyes to catch, and above that his fingers played with the air as they had with the quilt. “I know, Beth. You know how to use your head, I ain’t worried about that.”

“I just don’t want you to worry about me, when you gotta worry about yourself,” she said, tightening her arms around her pillow.

Daryl hummed a little. “Be glad when your ankle’s better.”

“Yeah, this is so not what I ordered.” Beth rolled the ankle in question beneath the quilt, sighing at the familiar ache, the stiff tug of lingering swelling.

Beth bit her lip, looking on at Daryl chewing at his. They could keep on the dismal train and go to sleep with gloomy thoughts in their heads, but maybe they shouldn’t. She snaked a hand out from beneath her pillow and poked Daryl in the shoulder. “You owe me a deer hunt, Dixon. And I’m gonna be such a badass with my crossbow, just you wait.”

“Gonna be?” Daryl turned over until he mimicked her pose, half on his stomach, arms around his pillow, wearing the smirk that always threatened to weaken her knees. “Fuckin’ hell, girl, you already are.”

Beth’s attempt to respond to that stuttered out in an incoherent giggle, and a little snorting laugh burst out of Daryl, and he was smiling, too, now, with teeth and everything. It looked so good there, so natural even if it wasn’t something he normally did. Beth wasn’t sure if he even knew he was doing it but that only made it better.

“I’ll track it myself, too,” Beth said, her own smile wide. Daryl’s faded, down to the soft one pulling at his closed lips, but his eyes, crinkly and warm, were more than enough for her. “I’ll be so good you won’t know what hit you.”

Daryl’s rumble of laughter washed over her, and she shut her eyes, letting it sink warmly right down inside, stoking the little ember burning there she couldn’t quite stuff out. 

“Night, Beth,” Daryl said, squishing his face into his pillow, just the one eye gazing out at her, and a corner of smiling mouth.

Beth did the same, burrowing down into her pillow, too. “Goodnight, Daryl.”

The weight still pressed across her shoulders, but not as heavy, settling in like an old friend instead of an unwanted guest. This would be okay, it had to be. Daryl would get the deer and make it back safely, and Beth would have everything ready for when he returned. They could do this. A day apart wasn’t going to rattle them, not after all they had been through. Because the reality in which Daryl Dixon didn’t come back to her was one that didn’t exist, and Daryl was right—she was a badass. They were tough. They were Beth Greene and Daryl Dixon against the world, and the world didn’t stand a chance.

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 11 – Even the Angels Are Losing Sleep

*~*

Beth’s eyes flew open, remnants of her dream clawing at her mind, surging through her lungs as great, heaving breaths. She rolled over and planted her face into Daryl’s chest while she caught her breath, grateful he managed to wake her this time before the dream really picked up speed.

“All right?” he asked, his thumb stroking along her spine.

“Yeah.” She let herself indulge in one good sniff, filling her head with the earthy, leathery, sweaty scent of him before pulling her face out of his shirt and falling over onto her back. “If you count tormented by your own brain as all right.”

The bed jiggled as Daryl turned over onto his back beside her. “Ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of, Beth.”

Beth stared into the darkness above her, eyes finding and following the whorls of knots in the exposed wood beams. “I just want it to stop.”

She hated how weak her voice sounded. Hated the stupid lump in her throat and the sting of moisture in her eyes. Hated how easily she could go from feeling almost normal to feeling on the verge of breaking down. 

Daryl brushed his fingertips over her wrist and let them linger there. “Ain’t even been a week. Somethin’ like that don’t just go away ‘cause you want it to.” 

Not even a week? It felt like so much longer, but she reached the same conclusion, counting back to that moment when she pulled the trigger and adding up just six days. 

“I guess.” Beth glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, thankful that for once he was staring up at the ceiling instead of looking at her. “You shouldn’t have to get dragged into my stupid problem.”

“Hey.” His eyes found hers and the fingers on her wrist dug in a bit, squeezed and held. “I know a thing or two about nightmares, all right?”

The bitter thing in her belly rose up into her chest, and Beth scoffed and jerked out of his light grasp. “Right, and you always let someone save you from yours.”

Daryl blinked his eyes shut, squeezing until his eyelids crinkled, then opened them slowly, throat moving as he swallowed.  “No. But I ain’t ever had anyone there to try.”

“Like you’d have even let that happen,” she said, hating how it sounded even as she said it, trying and failing not to see the way he narrowed his eyes and drew his lips tight. “You would have pushed away anyone who tried because you can look after yourself.”

He didn’t answer, and a stab of regret pierced through the bitterness, but it was too late to take it back, so she covered her face with her hands and wished he would just go back to sleep and leave this conversation alone. God, what is wrong with me? 

But after a minute, the bed jostled as Daryl moved again, and she felt the press of his shoulder against hers, the heat of his gaze on her even though she couldn’t see. 

“Don’t mean it wouldn’t a helped, knowin’ someone wanted to.”

The bitter thing slithered away, leaving behind a shard of ice in its place, another sliver of sorrow for Daryl’s past. Beth shivered. Daryl pressed his shoulder a little more firmly into hers, and she pulled her hands away from her face, letting her arm settle between their bodies, finding his hand and holding on when he folded his fingers between hers.

“How do I stop it, Daryl?”

He was mostly looking up when Beth turned her face toward him, but his eyes caught hers side-on and held. “You don’t. Just gotta get through it.”

Beth sighed and looked back at the darkened ceiling above, aware that Daryl hadn’t looked away. “That’s… not very reassuring.”

Beside her, Daryl let out a breath which flitted warm over her cheek, and she felt the motion of his shoulders as he shrugged. “Just how it is, Beth. It’s gonna take time.”

She let his words settle in, knowing the truth of them even if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. There was another thought, one that had lingered at the back of her mind through the day as they prepared for Daryl to go, and it pushed its way to the forefront of her mind. A problem she hadn’t wanted to think about and not just for the queasy feeling it stirred in her gut.

“What am I gonna do if you aren’t back tonight?”

He breathed out audibly and squeezed her hand. “You’re tough, remember? Just ‘cause you ain’t had to, don’t mean you can’t bring yourself out of it.”

His vote of confidence brought a smile to her face, just a little one, but it felt like she meant it, even if the fear still chewed away at her belly. “What if—like yesterday?”

“Ain’t no one ever died from hyperventilating.” Daryl turned onto his side toward her, palm coming to rest on her belly, warm and heavy through her shirt. “Get up so your lungs got room to fill. Press here—” he pressed his hand into her as he spoke “—make yourself breathe slow.”

Beth nodded, just the thought of his voice chanting slow, slow, slow, causing her to take those same measured breaths. Daryl lingered there for a minute, watching her, letting the motion of her breathing lift his palm up and down.

When he rolled away and sat up, stretching his arms out over his head, Beth pushed the quilt off and sat, too, watching the broad line of his shoulders, the play of his muscles as he stretched. “It’s time for you to go, isn’t it?”

“Mmhm.” He looked back over his shoulder at her, reached for and squeezed her wrist before standing.

Beth tied her boots on as Daryl moved about the cabin, getting ready. By the time he had all his layers on, pack and crossbow gathered she was up and waiting by the door. The weight was back across her shoulders, growing heavier by the minute, the closer he got to leaving. Last night’s confidence had vanished in the wake of yet another nightmare and she couldn’t stand the thought of him going. He needed to go hunting, she knew that. They needed that deer and wouldn’t get another chance to preserve one like they had here. Daryl could look after himself, and so could she, but she didn’t have to like this, that surviving later meant them both going it alone right now.

Despite her worries, Beth’s insides responded as they always did to the way Daryl looked at her as he approached the door; tingling warmth and fluttery butterflies, which only escalated when he passed his leather vest into her hands. She looked down at it, at the bit of the wing visible in the fold, and back up at Daryl. Daryl and his heavy breaths and emotive eyes that dug down inside her and tugged at something she couldn’t put a name to.

Trembling all over, Beth leaned up and pressed a kiss to his cheek, warm and scruffy against her lips, and when she stepped back to look at him she didn’t even try to hide the tears in her eyes. “You come back, okay? You get that deer and you come back.”

You come back to me, Daryl.

“An’ you keep tough,” Daryl said, voice low and thick as he brought his hand up to brush his thumb across her cheek. “Take care of the place while I’m gone.”

Beth nodded, blinking back her tears, and Daryl shouldered his crossbow. He stepped through the door into the cool, pre-dawn morning and Beth shut and bolted it behind him, resisting the urge to watch him disappear into the woods. Wondering, as she leaned back against the solid wood of the door, if he would turn around to look back at her before he did. Beth unfolded his vest and slipped her arms through to settle it over her shoulders. She pulled it tight across her body, wrapping herself in the soft leather, pressing her nose into it to breathe in the scent of him left behind. Whatever possessed him to leave it with her, she was grateful for it in a way she didn’t fully understand but wasn’t going to question.

Boots and vest still on, Beth went back over to the bed and lay down on it, curling up onto her side facing the door, though she knew she wouldn’t sleep. Instead she buried her nose in Daryl’s leather and prayed to the God she wasn’t sure she still believed in to bring him back to her in one piece.

*~*

Beth did sleep, after all, waking a few hours later to a brighter cabin, the scent of Daryl’s leather heavy in her nose. An ache pulsed behind her eyes, which throbbed with greater intensity when she rose from the bed. She crossed the floor to drink a couple of cups of water from the pail and, recalling Daryl’s actions from the wee hours of yesterday morning, soaked one of the clean rags and held it to her forehead. The coolness of it helped ease away a bit of the tightness in her brow, smoothed the sharp edges from the ache. 

She wasn’t hungry. The headache was the sort that always made her feel a bit queasy, but she took some more water and nibbled at a bit of boiled carrot from last night just to have something in her stomach before she went outside. Hanging with the other myriad of items on the wall by the front door was a wide-brimmed straw hat, and Beth pulled it down, sliding her ponytail lower to fit the thing over her head. As expected, the bright light outside hurt and the hat’s wide brim helped shade her eyes while she made her circuit of the yard. 

Daryl walked the trapline each morning, using it as a sort of perimeter of what they’d come to think of as the cabin’s territory. They had both agreed that Beth doing the same was one of those risks to be avoided, since she couldn’t run yet. To be honest, Beth wasn’t sure she could walk that far without setting the healing back a bit, and she was content to go along with Daryl’s insistence that she not. Instead they had discussed and agreed upon a different routine, which Beth planned to stick to no matter how much her head throbbed. 

First she walked the narrow path along the window wall of the cabin, under the birch trees growing alongside it acting as a screen. The path was narrow, barely wide enough for her and her crossbow; as she walked, her elbows brushed against the trunks on one side, and on the other, the rough skirting which enclosed the space beneath the cabin. Nothing stirred in the front yard, just the lazy buzz of flies on the two corpses moved to block the path leading into the woods, and Beth let her gaze linger on them for a moment. 

Who were they, she wondered, these two who had lived so well all alone in the woods? Well, until they hadn’t. Beth wished she knew their story, beyond what she could figure out on her own. What were their names? How old were they—it was impossible to tell now—and how long had they been alone out here? They both had bandaged arms, so it was easy to figure out how they died. At least they had gone together. Aside from that she knew a frustratingly little amount about the souls whose bed she was now sleeping in. 

The questions bounced around inside her head, throbbing with her headache, and Beth wondered if maybe she and Daryl could bury their bodies before they left. A way of thanking them for the use of their cabin and all the things in it. That idea lingered as she returned to the back yard, and the more she thought on it the more she knew they had to do it. 

Things were similarly quiet out back. Beth checked that the cabin door was undisturbed and walked the length of the back wall to the opposite corner to start her inspection of their new fence. As she went she listened, her ear turned toward the woods to catch any far-off noises that didn’t belong, but she heard nothing aside from the resident crows in the distance. A couple of the boards had loosened from their tree posts and would need to be shimmed to keep the fence strong, but she had more than enough pieces of wood to accomplish that. 

When she reached the ledge, Beth stood just in front of the pathway leading down to the creek but didn’t descend. A pair of walkers stumbled over the rocks upstream on the opposite bank, but she let them be. They couldn’t get up the slope anyway even if they managed to cross the creek, and eventually the water would sweep them downstream when the bank disappeared and the creek deepened. She wasn’t going to let them see her, since she didn’t need to go down there. She and Daryl filled the water pail, washtub, and the biggest pot full last night, agreeing on the steep path as another avoidable risk while Beth was on her own. 

Satisfied that the yard was reasonably secure, Beth took the path behind the garden to the outhouse hidden about twenty feet into the bush. She remembered Daryl’s comment when he found it—now I ain’t gotta listen to you complainin’ about pine needles stickin’ you in the ass whenever you gotta take a piss—and laughed all over again, not even caring about the way that made her head throb harder. That was one of the weirdest things about living rough just the two of them, him knowing about her pine needle problem and her not being the least embarrassed about it, when a random compliment about the strength of her arms made her blush like a bashful teenager. 

Which she was, technically, she supposed. She was pretty sure she was eighteen, though that didn’t hold the same meaning it used to. Some days—most days—Beth felt so much older than that, felt like she had lived decades in just the few years since the world changed. Beth remembered what it felt like, being sixteen back when sixteen meant something. What she felt like now was so very different from that. 

By the time Beth finished at the outhouse the throbbing in her head had worsened. This was the last thing she needed, but she wasn't surprised it happened. Before shutting the back door, Beth stood in the opening a moment, gazing out into the thick forest, eyes aching with the brightness of the sun, wondering if Daryl had found any fresh signs of deer and hoping he was all right. 

Beth drank a bit more water. Opened up a can of beans and forced down a few mouthfuls, and just sat in the dimness of the cabin for a bit with the cool cloth pressed to her forehead. She knew she needed to lie down and let the headache pass—what she wouldn’t give right now for some Excedrin—but she had to fix the fence, first. That at least, because she had promised to be safe, and if this was Daryl facing a headache and making decisions, he would fix the fence first, too. 

It took longer than she liked, and each hammer strike rattled into her cranium and jiggled her throbbing brain around just that much more. But she did it, and not a single board moved afterward no matter how hard she tugged. When she barred the door behind her and sank down into the bed, pressing her tight, aching forehead into the cool pillow, Beth almost felt as though she had earned her nap. 

*~*

Sweat slicked her neck and dampened her hair when Beth awoke later, the cabin warm and muggy as it always was during the afternoons even with the fire out. She lay still a minute and let herself wake, head fuzzy but settled for the moment. It throbbed a little when she got her knees under her to sit up, but not as badly, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. Taking care not to move quickly, Beth rose from the bed and downed a cup of water, and mopped the back of her neck with her forehead rag. She pulled the blanket away from the window and peeked out, surprised to see a group of three walkers staggering along the creek bed.

“At least they’re stickin’ to the creek,” Beth said aloud, before letting the blanket fall back in place.

She checked the yard again, retested the fence. Visited the outhouse and came back inside. The headache lingered but it was definitely better, the throb not quite as deep, the light not quite as bothersome. Beth covered her head with her rag, dampened and tied like a kerchief, and settled in to work after eating the rest of the beans and carrots.

Daryl wouldn’t want her to worry about him, out there doing what he’d done his whole life, and she tried to honour that. How many times had he gone off hunting at the prison, at the farm? It was silly to worry and she knew that, but knowing a thing wasn’t the same as feeling it. It was different now that it was just the two of them, and worry pulsed behind her eyes no matter how many times she told herself Daryl would be fine.

Throwing herself into work helped and inspecting every last item in the cabin took just enough concentration to make for a good distraction. She had the thought, sometime yesterday, that it might be a good idea to pack a bagful of supplies to bury out in the woods before they left, in case they had to come back, only to find the cabin occupied, overrun, or otherwise destroyed. She planned on surprising Daryl with the load of stuff, a lot if it useful things they couldn’t take with them. Daryl would think that was a good idea, Beth was sure of it, and she could picture the look on his face, the barely there smile, the little nod of approval.

He would joke and say she really didn’t need him anymore, and Beth would tease him back, tell him at least he was entertaining and therefore not entirely expendable. And he would chuckle at that but also see right through it, because she did need him—not just for his lessons or his muscles or his instincts, or because she didn’t want to be alone. He would know that, had to know it, because she didn’t have the words to tell him. Circumstances might have landed them together after the prison fell, but circumstances didn’t change the fact that the man Daryl was, the one she had come to know in their time together, was someone she was proud to have at her side. Not because she was stuck with him. Not nearly that at all.

By late afternoon she nearly had the bury-in-the-woods bag organized, all tucked neatly into one of the large hiking packs she found beneath the counter. What to take with them was a little trickier, since they had to carry it all in a way that left their hands free and didn’t interfere with being able to draw their crossbows in a hurry. The hiking packs were just too large to carry while maintaining that ease of movement, and while Daryl’s canvas pack could hold a decent amount of stuff, her little leather one hardly sufficed. But it was what they had, until they could find a better backpack, and Beth did her best to consider that as she added things to that pile. When Daryl got back, they could decide together what to take and what to leave.

Beth drank some more water, knowing she was going through it faster than she ought to, but the hydration helped keep the headache at bay and that was important. It lingered there, throbbing a bit if she moved too quickly, but tolerable for the moment. Still, she pulled on the straw hat over her damp rag kerchief to head outside for another circuit around the yard. If Daryl was going to be back today, it would be soon. The closer it got toward evening, the more likely the chances that he had to make camp for the night. He didn’t materialize as she stood there in the overgrown grass of the yard, or in the minutes that followed where Beth sat on the steps, crossbow at her feet, enjoying the fresh air for a little bit longer before going back inside.

Beth couldn’t shake the jittery feeling for the rest of the afternoon, fingers shaking whenever she reached for something, pulse racing at odd times no matter what she was doing. Every little noise made her stop and listen, sometimes going so far as to press her ear to the door. When the alarm jangled she swore her heart stopped beating altogether, and then sank through the floor into the dirt below when the unmistakable groan of a walker joined the rattling cans.

There was just one, tangled in the alarm and stopped from entering the yard by the fence, and it was an easy shot from the foot of the steps. Though the sun was hiding now below the tree line, there was enough light out to cross the yard to reclaim her bolt and untangle the corpse from the twine, freeing the alarm to ring again should anything else happen by. Beth dragged the fallen walker to the ledge and rolled it down to the rocky creek bed below. They would get rid of it later, when Daryl got back. She checked the perimeter again, peed one last time since she was out, and bolted herself back inside, resuming her jittery vigil all over again.

But she already knew, long before the sun set, that Daryl wouldn’t be back tonight. Her headache throbbed as darkness fell, and Beth settled in for a long night.

*~*

The sun was just starting to rise up over the trees, spilling down into the yard, when the alarm clattered. Beth threw open the door and there was Daryl, limping his way through the gap in the fence, dragging a bloody deer carcass behind him. She clambered down the stairs and ran to him, worried about the limp—was he hurt? Why wasn’t he speaking?—but that didn’t matter, because he was here, he came back, and when she threw her arms around his neck, he dropped the deer and hugged her back, arms winding around her waist so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe.

“Daryl,” Beth whispered. “I was so scared.”

But the response in her ear wasn’t her name. Wasn’t his voice. Just the chilling, rasping, wheezy breath of a walker. 

Beth struggled to get free but he held on tight, and she wrenched and pulled and fought but went down, landing hard, her breath gone from the weight of him, from the pale face and dead eyes bearing down on her between the hanging curtain of greasy hair. His teeth, straight and white, ripped into her neck, tore at her flesh until her blood spilled out, hot and red and dripping from Daryl’s face as he reared up to snarl down at her, soaking into the grass.

She screamed. Screamed as her blood poured hot and thick down her neck. Screamed until she tore herself free from the nightmare and back to the familiar dark cabin, to the weight of her terror pressing on her chest. Already her vision blurred and her head swam, but somewhere, somehow, Daryl’s voice in her head pierced through the panic. Get up! Beth struggled onto her hands and knees, and slow slow slow forced herself to breathe. 

Afterward, she couldn’t stop the tears, the full-body tremor and the cold sweat, but she buried her face in Daryl’s vest, breathing him in, wrapped her arms around the pillow he used which still smelled faintly of him, too. She lay awake for hours, her mind whirling at full speed, her thoughts a jumbled mess of weak reassurances and panicked worries. What if he wasn’t okay? What if he did get bit? What if next time she looked out to find a walker at the fence, it really was Daryl? The thought of having to shoot a bolt through his forehead—or worse, shove her knife into his skull—threatened to steal her breath all over again and no matter how hard she tried to push those thoughts away, to cling to the knowledge that Daryl knew what he was doing, she couldn’t shake the image. Any of them—a Daryl walker at the fence or the Daryl walker from her dream, those teeth she longed to see when he smiled tearing into her flesh until her life bled away.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning she fell asleep again, so exhausted she did not dream.

*~*

Beth awoke with the sun, a habit learned from Daryl—the man was like a rooster, that way, awake at dawn whether he could see the light or not, and thank goodness he didn’t actually crow. She almost smiled at her own joke, imagining Daryl throwing open the door and cock-a-doodle-doing into the back yard. Almost, because her other imaginings weren’t far behind, no matter how hard she tried to shut them out. The few short hours of rest did little to quell the squirm of worry wriggling cold in her belly, either, the lingering sense of dread hovering over her like a shroud after her nightmare, nor did her reminding herself that Daryl being gone overnight was not unexpected.

A pair of rabbits nibbled away at the overgrown garden when Beth pulled the door open, so engrossed in whatever snack they found they spared her only an ear twitch and kept eating. The little one bounded away when her bolt sunk into its larger companion, but even the thrill of her first edible kill with her crossbow fell flat in Daryl’s absence. She maybe didn’t need him around to know she had made a good shot, but she wished he’d been there to see it. He would have liked that. 

She skinned and gutted it quickly out it the yard and tossed refuse into the water from the top of the ledge, not wanting to chance attracting another walker with the scent of blood, and hung her kill up over the stove inside to resume her morning circuit. As she went through the motions, Beth waffled between feeling ridiculous—this was Daryl Dixon, of course he was fine—and so tied up inside she almost couldn’t breathe. What if he ran into trouble? How would she know? What if she could’ve helped? She had an idea of where he planned to go, but how long should she wait, if he didn’t come back? He had to be fine, he just had to, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling, a nagging prickle at the back of her skull, that something wasn’t right.

“Stop it, Beth,” she said, speaking out loud to show herself that she meant it. She pulled Daryl’s vest tight across her body and carried on. 

Morning became noon. Noon became after. After stretched on and Beth watched the sun’s path across the sky through the little window, until it disappeared behind the thickening clouds rolling in from the west. It was almost evening again when another walker wandered into the yard, the forth one that day not counting the dozen that wandered by along the creek. Like the clouds, all of them coming in from the west, the direction Daryl had gone. Beth ventured out to dispatch it, pausing to check its face before repeating the steps she had taken with each of the previous ones. She rolled the corpse down the bank, in a different place from each of the others so they wouldn’t pile up into something their still-animated brothers could use to get into the yard from below.

She looked down on them, wondering at the increasing amounts of walkers in the yard, worried that these few stumbling in could be the leaders of a herd. The cabin was sturdy, but could it withstand a herd? Even if they didn’t know she was there? While she pondered this, a sound drifted over, carried by the breeze blowing in from downstream.

Voices. Two of them, and amongst the mostly mumbled conversation, a single word which rose all the hairs on the back of Beth’s neck and threw her pulse into overdrive.

“...cabin!”

It wasn’t Daryl. It wasn’t anyone she recognized. Beth shouldered her crossbow and ran as fast as she could back across the yard, uncaring of the discomfort in her ankle. She shut and barred the door behind her and landed back against it with a thud.

They had discussed how to handle walkers.

They hadn’t spoken about what to do with people.

*~*

Chapter Text

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Chapter 12 – I’m on the Hunt for Who I’ve Not yet Become

 *~*

Beth spared only a minute to lean against the back door before she sprung into action. The voices had come from downstream, which meant they would approach the cabin from the front. With the stairs and porch torn down, the front door was more or less inaccessible. An escape route, but not an entrance, an added bonus to using that wood to build the fence. She checked that the bar was set—it was—before moving to the window, peeking carefully past the blanket and seeing nobody yet.

If she was lucky, they would see the lack of porch and move on—but she didn’t want to trust luck on that one. She wouldn’t have stopped looking. She’d have followed the path beneath the birches, between the cabin and the ledge, and explored around back. There was no reason to expect these people wouldn’t do the same. Beyond that, though, Beth couldn’t predict their actions. Would they give up when they found the door barred? She and Daryl were careful about not leaving too many overt signs of their existence outside, but still, an observant eye would know someone lived here. Would figure out pretty quick that someone had barred herself inside. 

How persistent would they be about wanting her to let them in?

Beth took a couple of steadying breaths and tried to think. What did she need? Get used to keepin’ it cocked and loaded. She checked her crossbow and gathered up all the bolts she had, filling her quiver, placing a few others on the counter by the back door, just in case. This was her cabin, hers and Daryl’s, and the need to protect it flared hot in her chest.

She wasn’t going to run, if she could help it. But she should make sure she had what she needed if it came to that, shouldn’t she? Which meant supplies. Beth stuffed the rest of her bolts and as much of what she had sorted to take as she could carry in her little pack, including some food. It was heavier that she liked, but manageable, even with her rabbit carcass tied on. Ready, just in case. She set the bag down and checked her gun, though she knew it was loaded, and as she looked up her eyes caught the box of buckshot shells sitting on the shelf near the front door.Good—more options. Beth grabbed the shells and loaded both shotguns hanging on the front wall, leaned one up behind the front door and carried one over to prop near the stove by the back.

She paused to breathe and look around the cabin. Okay, Beth. What next?

Her eyes landed on the back door, secured for now with the bar across it, but unlike the front, the set of stairs led right up to it. The bar wouldn’t break, but if for some reason she had to open the door, even a little, having something besides her own small arms to keep out unwanted intruders would be a good idea. Of all the wooden chests lined up beneath the counter, the one loaded with tools was by far the heaviest. Using the pry bar, Beth lifted one edge high enough to stuff a square of canvas beneath it, which gave her just enough glide to push it over to the back door. Wedged in against the stove and angled in toward the door, it actually made a pretty adequate door stop. She could move it back by hand, but the inward swing of the door would only force it into the unyielding stove. 

Beth went over to check out the window again, and there, standing on the opposite bank, stood two people. A short, roundish man and a tall, narrow-bodied woman, both of them draped in layers of clothing with random things tied on, hands making visors on their foreheads as they surveyed the structure. 

They couldn’t see her, but Beth kept her motions fluid as she ducked out from the blanket and set it back in place. She had a few minutes while they figured out how to cross the creek. The strange sort of calm that settled over her while she set up the cabin and gathered supplies slipped away, and the thundering beat of her heart kicked up, the itchy rush of adrenaline surged through her arms and legs. 

There weren’t supposed to be people

But there were, and like it or not she had to deal with them, even though her body couldn’t decide whether to run away or dive into the nearest wooden chest to hide. Except neither was an option, and Beth closed her eyes and forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, shoved the grains of panic back down, willed her body to calm her trembling knees and shaking fingers.

You have to handle this, Beth. So handle it. 

She kept breathing, standing there in the centre of the cabin, eyes closed, ears open, unable to quell the urge to do something even though she managed to stay mostly still. The walls were thick but Beth could hear the rush of the creek, the clatter of crows cawing back and forth in the distance. Nothing much else for a long time except the sound of her own breathing, and Beth wondered if maybe she hadn’t gotten lucky after all—maybe they decided the cabin wasn’t worth attempting the crossing. 

But no. The moment she finished thinking it, her ears picked up the clink of shifting rocks along the bank, then the din of voices not quite loud enough to hear properly. They probably only doubled back to cross where she and Daryl had, where the bank widened out and the water got shallow. The voices grew louder, no attempt at all made to hide their approach. Beth wasn’t sure what to think about that, since it went against every instinct she had. Choosing the noisy beach instead of sneaking in through the woods, continuing to talk without bothering to lower their voices—without bothering to listen. Being noisy and not paying attention got people killed, so were these two just lucky it hadn’t happened yet, or certain they could handle whatever might be waiting for them?

Beth moved to the front door, keeping her footsteps silent, and pressed her ear to the wood to listen. Grunts and curses floated back to her as the two presumably climbed the ledge from up the bank below into the copse of trees at the edge of the front yard, the male voice groaning as though he disapproved of the effort it took. 

A branch snapped, a deliberate sound like they broke it right off one of the trees. “Huh. Someone ripped the stairs down.”

“No shit, Pam.” The man sounded unimpressed with the observation, and also a little out of breath.

Footsteps on grass weren’t inherently noisy, but these two shuffled and rattled and made more noise than Beth thought possible for live humans, the racket moving closer as the bickering continued. 

“I just said—”

“I heard you. You don’t always have to say the obvious. I fucking have eyes.”

“Yeah.” There was a snort of laughter from the woman. “That’s why you saw this place.”

A forced-sounding sigh followed from the man. “Didn’t say you didn’t have eyes. Jesus fucking Christ, woman. Get off my back.”

“Don’t be such an ass, Jake.”

They were right outside the door now. Beth imagined them, at eye level with the lower third of the sturdy wooden barrier, looking up, wondering if it would open if they could somehow reach the handle. A dull patting noise thudded through the wood, like tentative prodding to see if it would budge.

The patting got a little louder. “Think anyone’s inside?”

“Well they’re not gonna let us in this door if they are,” said the woman—Pam, he had called her.

And the man called Jake grumbled and something—his fist, probably—thumped against the door. “Again with the obvious! God!”

The voices, still bickering, moved away as the pair walked along the front wall, heading toward the ledge above the creek. Beth followed, keeping time with their steps as best she could without seeing them. They were sure noisy enough though, good Lord.  When they rounded the corner of the house, whichever of them had the branch in their hands let it bounce along the cabin’s skirting, and Pam offered a running commentary on the prettiness of the row of river birches lining the ledge and overhanging their path while Jake muttered about stupid fucking trees.

“Hey, a window,” said Jake.

The rumble along the cabin stopped, followed by the tap tap tap of branches on glass, and Beth was glad for the window’s height and for un-climbable birches. They already couldn’t see in, with the angle and the blanket hanging over it, but they couldn’t get in, either.

“Now who’s being obvious? Hypocritical asshole,” said Pam, with a snort.

“Gimme that.” A grunt of annoyance sounded from Jake, and the tapping at the window stopped. “You want them to know we’re coming, or what?”

Too late, Beth thought, with a shake of her head as she followed them on toward the back of the cabin. She could hardly believe the ridiculous behaviour of these two, but at the same time she knew things weren’t always what they seemed. The funeral home hadn’t been, nor the men waiting there in police uniforms who once swore an oath to protect people like her. Maybe this was all just an act, too, no matter how unlikely.

They didn’t approach the door right away when they reached the back yard. Beth listened, ear to the wood again, at the bark of their voices while they explored, shouting back and forth at each other across the yard to comment on the path down to the creek—the steepness of it, but not the footprints found there—the stack of firewood lined up in the woodshed, but not the fresh woodchips scattered around, and the overgrown garden, but not the turned dirt where she and Daryl had pulled up the rest of the potatoes. They even discussed the fence without making note of the walker blood staining parts of it. The only decent observation they made at all was taking note of the five corpses lying down the bank, but—

“They were washed down the creek,” said Jake, with a note of authority to his voice, as though the boltholes in their foreheads weren’t completely visible. As though walkers could drown.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s around, does it?” said Pam.

Were they playing games? Or just that blind? Beth tried to think back, to remember the sorts of things she might have noticed before noticing things became the best way to stay alive. She was sure she would have seen at least some of it, even before Daryl started helping her learn how to really look. But these two?

Uncertainty tugged at her mind. On the one hand, maybe they were just a pair of bumbling idiots who meant no harm and somehow managed to survive this long without being eaten, and wouldn’t it be unkind of her not to at least offer them some of the supplies she and Daryl weren’t using?

On the other hand, though—and this is where the uncertainty vanished beneath a dark, prickly cloak—it was two against one. These weren’t people she knew, and she couldn’t trust them, no matter how hapless they appeared. Beth sucked in a deep breath and glanced down at her boots. No, this wasn’t the place for kindness or blind faith. This wasn’t the place for sharing. Beth had promised no unnecessary risks and that was a promise she wasn’t going to break just because she thought she ought to have a kind heart. They would have to break down the door before she would let them inside, and even then, they’d have a crossbow, a handgun, her knife, and some buckshot to get through.

Her hands were shaking again, her breathing fast and shallow. Beth pulled her crossbow off her shoulder just to have something to hold onto, and the already familiar weight of it steadied her hands, reminded her to breathe.

The voices approached the door, still nitpicking each other with a vehemence that made Beth wonder why the two of them travelled together at all. They may not have had a choice, though. Thrown together by circumstance, maybe, as she and Daryl were, and just not able to make it work.

Outside, Pam’s tone held a note of warning. “You’re just gonna go in?”

“Said it yourself, doesn’t look like anyone’s around.” Where Pam sounded cautious, Jake’s tone held a note of nonchalance, as if walking blind and noisy into random cabins was something he did every day.  The door handle gave a gentle creak. “Why shouldn’t we?”

Jake turned the handle, releasing the catch, and the soft thud of something—Beth envisioned his shoulder—landing against the door followed. The bar held and the door didn’t budge.

Goddamnit.” A louder thud this time, followed by Pam’s laughter which wasn’t the least bit kind.

“Foiled by a locked door. Idiot.”

Jake grunted and rattled the handle. “Door’s not locked, you dumb bitch.  Look.”

“Fucking prick.” Pam climbed the steps with clunking footsteps. The handle rattled again and another thud vibrated through the wood. “Locked from inside, then.”

The silence which followed made Beth’s stomach clench. She heard nothing from outside, other than the rush of the creek and the distant rasp of a walker down at the bank. Even the crows had gone silent. Beth tightened her grip on her crossbow and raised it toward the door, though she knew they couldn’t get through.

Finally, a firm knock. Three quick raps of knuckles on the wood. “Hello? Anyone in there?”

Beth didn’t answer Pam’s question. Wasn’t going to answer. Let them think what they wanted, but she wouldn’t give herself away that easily.

A more pounding sort of knock came this time. “Hey! We know you’re there! Come on, open up!”

“I don’t think that’s gonna work,” said Pam, in a low voice clearly not meant for Beth to overhear.

“We don’t want any trouble, honest,” Jake said, ignoring Pam. He banged the door again. “Just looking for a place to stay the night.”

Well you can’t stay here.

“Jake.” Pam’s harsh whisper travelled easily through the door. “Leave it. They’ll have to come out eventually.”

After a few seconds, two sets of footsteps descended the stairs, and Beth lowered her crossbow, letting out the breath she was holding. This wasn’t over yet, and she cast a glance over toward the counter and her water supply. She had enough for now, as long as she rationed it. Had the rabbit and enough else to eat in here with her. She could wait, with any luck she could outwait them, and if Daryl returned in the meantime all the better.

When Daryl returned. Just because he was half a day late didn’t mean he wasn’t coming. This was Daryl, he had to be—

No. Beth swallowed hard and drove her teeth into her lip, shut her eyes and took as deep a breath in as she could. Put it away, Beth. This was not the time to let her emotions interfere with her head. The only part of Daryl’s absence that mattered right now was that she couldn’t count on his help dealing with these people. She needed to figure it out on her own.

I can take care of myself.

Time to prove it.

The voices started up again outside, a discussion of sorts interspersed with more of that tiresome bickering. Beth shouldered her crossbow and crossed the cabin to peek out the window, checking the light. How long would the two of them wait out there? It wasn’t getting dark yet, just increasingly grey as the clouds thickened overhead, but dusk wasn’t far off. Were they really going to just sit there all night if she didn’t come out? That was stupidity bordering on suicidal, but with just the sort of determination to be dangerous.

The back of her neck hadn’t stopped prickling and she couldn’t settle the squirm in her stomach, the tremor in her limbs, the feeling of cold fingers walking over her scalp. Because she might technically be safe in here, locked inside the cabin, but with the two people outside, sitting around waiting for her to let them in, Beth was also very much trapped.

Hours wore on and the two unwanted guests set up camp in the backyard, talking louder than was wise at anytime of the day but particularly at night, when sounds carried and lured the dead through the dark, unseen. Amidst the mutual exchange of verbal disrespect, a plan of sorts emerged between the woman Pam and the man Jake, a plan Beth couldn’t help overhearing—wait until whoever it was inside decided to come out, then force their way in. Which made sense, to a point. She was an unknown, an unseen inhabitant, an uncertain number, something their plans didn’t consider. Beth couldn’t quiet her suspicions that the noise and the lack of any sort of common sense were all an act meant to encourage her to lower her guard. Because, unless they truly were masters of misdirection, Pam and Jake had done nothing but show Beth their hand since the moment they arrived.

Now they had raided the woodshed and lit a fire, right there in the middle of the back yard. Beth watched the flickering glow it cast across the grass when she looked out the window, heard the crackle of flames, knew it lit up like a beacon and couldn’t do a thing about it. They would be lucky, so damn lucky not to bring down a bunch of walkers on them, considering how many had wandered by over the past few days.

Beth cooked her rabbit on the stove, refusing to let it spoil, but worried they would smell it and know for sure someone was inside. If they noticed, neither of them said anything. Or at least, nothing about the savoury scent of roasting meat. They said a lot of things, those two. Beth dug in to her supper, sitting on the chest by the door to eat, listening to the prattling and wondering what to do. What to believe. Whether to take these two at face value or assume the worst sort of trickery. When Beth closed her eyes, she could picture the woods littered with people, crouched and hiding, armed to the teeth and quietly waiting while Jake and Pam spun their irritating diversion, for Beth to open the door.

And where the hell was Daryl?

Stop.

Beth willed the thoughts out of her head, dragged her mind back to the din of voices outside, and dug her shaking fingers into her knees to keep them still.

It was late, Beth reckoned sometime past midnight, when the voices outside finally settled. They didn’t bank the fire and barely a glow could be seen from the window now. Just in time, too, as walkers now roamed along the bank, on the opposite shore by the sounds of it. Beth counted the splashes as each one reached the place where the wide, rocky bank vanished into nothing but deep water. Five, so far. Now six. In the distance, more groans, more shuffling.

By morning, Beth’s count reached thirty. Thirty walkers on the creek and none of them had seen the glow of the fire, or if they had, they’d been swept away by the water before they could reach the bank on this side. It was a wonder none wandered into the yard.

Stiffened from sitting through the night, Beth rose from the crate, pulling Daryl’s vest tight around her, and walked a slow circuit through the cabin, stretching her legs, testing her ankle. She should’ve been tired, probably was if she thought about it, but the spiky pulse of unease in her chest, the prickle dancing over her scalp and down her neck energized her, kept her mind awake, her body ready to move. She hadn’t slept and didn’t think she could’ve if she had tried, listening to the walkers and to the oblivious pair snoring on the grass outside.

Something was gonna happen today, of that she was certain.

What that something looked like remained a mystery.

Beth paced circles around the cabin, appeasing the surge of adrenaline by moving, while the overcast sky grew lighter. She hardly felt the pain in her ankle, faded now to a dull ache she put away as easily as she devoured the rest of last night’s rabbit. Walkers number thirty-one and thirty-two plunged into the creek outside, and very shortly thereafter, Beth’s houseguests decided to wake up.

whack of fabric, followed by a muffled groan, then—

“Get your goddamn knee outta my back, dickhead.”

Good morning to you, too, Pam.

Beth moved toward the door to wait, bracing herself for the verbal onslaught which followed. Barbs tossed back and forth amidst complaints about the cold, hard ground and the selfishness of that guy in the cabin for not sharing. Were they trying to annoy her into opening the door? That would actually make a lot of sense and depending on how long they kept this up, Beth thought it might just work. 

If this was just gonna be an entire day of listening to them bicker—

Down at the creek, close enough to be on the near bank, the agitated groans of at least two walkers rose up above the chatter outside. Beth darted to the window to look, could just make out the tops of their heads below the ledge, the reach of their grasping fingers clawing at the wall of stone and dirt and exposed tree roots. What lay beyond that, though, held all of Beth’s breath hostage in her chest. 

Walkers filled the creek, flailing and floating downstream, the noise of them drowned out by the rush of the water over the rocks. The few wandering the bank on the far side, and the two below, were the minority. How many had floated by uncounted through the night, and what the hell did that mean? 

What was she gonna—

Pam screamed. Loud, hysterical shouting interspersed with the exact sort of high-pitched wail certain to draw every walker within a five mile radius. Jake shouted at her to stop, raising his voice to overtake hers until it was all just a wall of noise. 

“God, just shut up, both of you,” Beth said aloud, swinging her crossbow off her shoulder.

Didn’t they see that the creek walkers couldn’t make it up the bank? But no, of course they didn’t. Either that or they were setting the final snare of this elaborate trap, and the minute she opened that door to shut them up, the troops rushed in and took the cabin, or her, or whatever the desired outcome was of all this.

Beth tucked her nose into Daryl’s vest, breathed him in, prayed she was doing the right thing. She pulled the tool chest back, pivoting it enough to allow an opening for her body to slip through. Her fingers shook as she gripped the iron bar and her pulse thundered in her ears, and she had to stop, stay still, just breathe. 

Standing there, on the cusp of opening the door, Beth barely heard the clatter of the fence alarms over the cacophony, but she heard them. Heard them, heard the groans, heard the moment the arrival of the latest threat penetrated the bubble of Pam’s panic.

“Jake! Oh my god, they’re coming, Jake, do something! DO SOMETHING!”

The terror in Pam’s voice landed like a lead weight in Beth’s stomach. That wasn’t faked, Lord, that was real, continued to be real as the hungry growls grew nearer. 

Beth unbarred the door and pulled it open, squeezing through onto the top step. Three walkers had made into the yard and two more were caught up in the fence planks trying their hardest to walk through them. Jake had something in his hands and was frantically beating on the closest two walkers, only half the blows landing even close to their heads, slowing their progress by shoving them back but only by a little. Pam cowered on the grass at the foot of the steps, gripping a broken tree branch with white knuckles, eyes screwed shut, screams pouring out of her open mouth as freely as the water below flowed over the rocks. 

Beth raised her crossbow and shot the walker steadily making its way toward Jake and his friends. Cocked and reloaded and took out the first of the two tied up at the fence and then the other. They dropped and she shouldered her bow, pulled out her knife, and rushed down the stairs. The walkers had backed Jake up halfway across the yard. Beth pushed him out of the way, grabbed the first walker by the hair and thrust her knife through its skull before shoving its body into the one behind it. The second walker stumbled and Beth’s blade slid home with ease.  

Jake stared wide-eyed as Beth pulled her knife free and let the walker fall, jumping back when it crumpled to the ground at his feet. “You—”

Before he could finish speaking, Beth sheathed her knife and drew her crossbow, aiming at Jake’s face. Whatever he was going to say caught in his throat and trickled out as a startled sort of gasp as he stood there gaping at her. Beth backed up, keeping Jake in her sights, until she reached the foot of the stairs and the still-screaming Pam, then climbed the steps backward while Jake watched and Pam screamed. 

“Shut up, Pam.” Beth said, through gritted teeth, from the top of the steps. Her finger held steady on the trigger and she turned her eyes to Jake, still staring at her from the middle of the yard. “And stay right there, Jake, unless you want one of my bolts through your brain, too.”

She didn’t think she would, even if he had moved, but even Beth couldn’t tell from the tone of her voice, low and steady and completely foreign to her own ears. Something about it pierced through Pam’s hysteria, because the screams stopped, the abrupt silence of it almost ringing around the yard, and Jake just stood there, clutching the blunt-ended metal pipe half covered in walker filth. In her peripheral vision, Beth could see Pam, still crouched on the grass, craning her neck up to look at her. 

The walkers at the creek still growled, and another stumbled toward the fence but got caught up in the boards. Beth left it, for now.

“They’re attracted by noise.” Again, the voice sliding out of her mouth wasn’t quite hers, but wasn’t quite not. “Screamin’. Shouting. The worst thing you can do is everythin’ you two have been doin’ and it needs to stop now. What the hell are you tryin’ to do, get yourselves killed?”

From below, Pam whimpered. Across the yard, Jake let the pipe drop and it dangled, still tied to his belt. “We just wanted to come inside...”

“This is my cabin,” Beth said, the force of the words startling both the two on the grass, and herself. “You don’t just get to have things because you want them.”

“We–we just thought—”

“Thought you would wait until I came outside, and force yourselves in?” Jake went pale and Pam, now standing and inching back toward her companion, looked up at Beth with very wide eyes. “I heard you. I heard everythin’, Jake. You two are lucky the walkers didn’t find you last night.”

“Walkers?” That was Pam, finally, voice wobbly as she glanced over her shoulder at their undead visitor at the fence before turning that wide-eyed gaze back on Beth. “We didn’t have a name for them.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call them, if you don’t know how to handle them.” Beth sighed, and slowly lowered her crossbow, though keeping it in her arms. “How? How are you two not already dead?”

The two exchanged a look before turning their faces back to Beth. Jake scuffed his boot into the grass, twisted his hands. “We had a group, a good place. Walls and everything, and people who took care of those–those walkers. People who went out to get what we needed.”

“We were attacked by some men. Jake and I are the only ones left.” Pam looked again over her shoulder at the walker still growling by the fence. “And our place was ruined, so...”

So you went wandering through the wilds of Georgia?  Beth wasn’t sure what to believe, though if they were telling the truth it wouldn’t be all that out of character for what she had seen. That dark little prickle of doubt kept her from fully buying what they said, though, no matter how foolishly sincere they appeared. 

“Wait here,” Beth said, stepping back over the threshold, “and be quiet.”

She almost had the door shut when she heard the thunder of footsteps, and she shoved the chest back into place just in time to catch Jake’s boot in the door. The chest held, and Beth levelled the pointy end of her crossbow at the lone brown eye staring in at her through the gap. 

Foolish, but opportunistic. “Move your foot, or I’ll move it for you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Jake said, with the same sort of put-on confidence he used when talking about the drowning walkers. “Nice girl like you?”

“I ain’t no nice girl,” Beth said, lowering her voice, trying to sound confident, trying to sound like Daryl, menacing and strong even though her insides tied themselves into knots, pulling tighter the longer she stood there, holding her ground. “You know I know how to use this. Move.”

She didn’t want to shoot him. Lord, please don’t let that happen. Please move. Please. 

Not heeding her mental pleading, Jake tried to wedge his foot further into the doorway. “Just let us in—”

“Move.” Beth swallowed and inched her crossbow forward. “Now.”

“Please,” said Pam, her voice floating in from below. “You said it yourself, we would’ve been dead if not for you. Please, help us.”

The knots inside pulled tighter, tight enough to pinch, to pull at her conscience, to tug that place inside her that wanted to help,needed to help anyone who asked. But something else tugged, too, tugged harder, and that was Daryl, the Daryl in her head reminding her she knew how to use hers, and the real Daryl, somewhere out there, counting on her to keep herself safe.

She couldn’t let them in. That was not an option. But maybe, maybe she could still help. 

“You move your foot, and you move it now, and I promise I’ll help you—”

Jake let out a chuckle, cutting her off. “I knew you were a nice—”

“If,” Beth continued, as though Jake had not started speaking, “you move your foot, and do what I say.”

“Jake. Don’t be an ass, listen to her.”

The eye peeking in moved away as Jake turned his attention back to Pam. Fucking shut up, bitch—”

Outside, the walker at the fence snarled, and those down at the creek echoed its hungry cry. 

Beth tipped her eyes up toward the ceiling and signed, loud enough to be heard. “Both of you, be quiet.”

To Beth’s surprise, they listened. Pam stopped her frantic pleas and Jake’s eyeball returned to the gap in the door, half his face, really, as he looked in at her above the sight mount of her crossbow. “You promise?”

Beth nodded once, a slow bob of her head. “As long as you agree to do as I say. Startin’ with movin’ your foot out of my damn door.”

She stared at Jake and he stared back, for what seemed like hours. Jake’s lips tugged themselves down, a thin frown and his eye blinked shut, just a fraction of a second. “All right.”

He retracted his foot and Beth shoved the door closed, sliding the heavy bar across a moment later. Only then did she let herself breathe, let the tremor rolling through her insides tumble out until there wasn’t a bit of her not shaking. She set her crossbow on the floor as she sank down onto the chest and dropped her face into her hands. 

Please, please let this be the right choice. 

Just for a minute, though, because this wasn’t done. Beth breathed slow and deep, easing the tremor back inside where it needed to stay. When she was confident she had herself back under control, Beth got to her feet and dug out one of the large hiking packs from its place beneath the counter, filled it with things she didn’t need, things she thought the two of them could use. Food. Blankets. Clothing. One of two small canvas tents. A couple of small knives that would do against walkers, even if the thought of arming them didn’t sit all that well. Once everything was packed, Beth brought the bag to the door and set it atop the chest, then reached for her crossbow. 

“Jake.”

“Uh, yeah. Here. I’m here,” he said, from just outside the door. 

“Both of you, go down into yard. All the way to the back, by the ledge, and sit down.”

“Okay.”

Beth watched through the window until they had both moved into place. They might still try to storm the door, but she would have time to retreat if they did. Once the pair seated themselves on the grass, Beth went back to the door.

Jake attempted to stand when she emerged, but Beth pointed her crossbow at him and he stopped, sinking back into the grass beneath him. She had to lower it briefly to toss the bag down into the yard, but neither one of them made another move, other than to nervously glance over their shoulders at the fence walker, gradually stumbling its way toward them. 

“You can have these supplies, but you can’t stay here,” Beth said, gesturing to the bag. “And the way these walkers have been movin’ in, you need to go soon, and keep going east.” At their confused looks, Beth pointed back over her shoulder. “That way. The direction they aren’t comin’ from.”

“Where are we supposed to go?” said Pam, her barely-there eyebrows turning in, furrowing deeply. “You’ve got the room—”

“Not an option.” Beth tugged with one hand on Daryl’s vest. “I’m not alone here, and you can’t stay. Be glad I’m giving you the supplies, okay? That’s more than you’ll get if you aren’t gone when my friend comes back.”

Whether they believed her about Daryl, Beth couldn’t say, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t Daryl who needed to convince them to leave, it was Beth, and she doubted a vague threat of some absent companion who may or may not exist would make a difference. 

“Get the bag, Pam.” Beth said. “Go on. Bring it back over to Jake.”

Pam listened, sort of slinking across the yard under the threat of Beth’s crossbow and back over to her appointed place. 

“There are a couple of knives in there. You have to pierce the brain to kill a walker, all right? Otherwise they’re just gonna keep comin’.” Beth waited while they rooted though the supplies and found the knives. “If you work together, and be quiet, you can keep each other alive. That one behind you. Lure it to the gap in the fence. It’ll follow you. Jake, you hold it off with that pipe. Pam, you’re tall, you kick it in the knee while he’s holdin’ it and when it stumbles, put your knife in its head.”

Pam and Jake looked at each other, down at the knives, then over their shoulders at the walker hung up in the planks behind them, reaching for then with grabby fingers. They didn’t want to, Beth could see it in their pale faces and big-eyed stares. But somewhere between Jake’s last stand at the door and this moment right here, they must have decided indeed to listen to what Beth had to say. It was clumsy. Pam’s arms shook so hard it was a wonder she held onto the knife at all, but they did it and the walker crumpled to a heap on the grass alongside the other three lying there. 

“Go, get out of here before any more of them decide to show up,” Beth said, when they looked back up at her. “Keep quiet, listen before you open your mouths, and be nice. You won’t last long if you don’t have each other’s back.”

With two pairs of eyes staring after her, Beth slipped back inside the cabin and barred the door, pushing the chest up tight against it. Her hands were already shaking before she set down her crossbow and lowered her body to the bed. The room spun and Beth squeezed her eyes shut against the sensation but that only made it worse, and it didn’t stop even when her head hit the pillow a moment later. The walkers at the creek snarled and Pam and Jake talked lowly amongst themselves as they prepared to go. Beth lay on the bed and listened, exhausted, dizzy, heart pounding, every inch of her body shaking so hard she couldn’t stop.

Please, please let this have been the right choice…

*~*

Chapter Text

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Chapter 13 – If Only I Could Breathe what You Breathe

*~*

Beth stayed inside the cabin long after Jake and Pam left the yard, unwilling to trust them not to stick around and make one last attempt to get inside. Foolish, but opportunistic, and she wasn’t gonna give them that chance to take advantage. She sat on the counter at the window, knees pulled up to her chest and wrapped up in the quilt from the bed, watching the steady flow of walkers washing down the creek and ambling along the bank on both sides. So far no more had wandered into the yard but she knew it was just a matter of time. There were just too many now not to acknowledge this for what it was—a herd. A herd moving in toward the cabin, approaching from the same direction Daryl had gone just over two days ago now.

The sky overhead grew darker, the clouds changing from grey to steel blue to ominous black, and the wind whistled shrill and bitter through the trees. Beth ventured out once to dispatch a pair of walkers and retrieve the rest of her bolts, and the biting cold of the air had her teeth chattering before she reached the bottom of the steps. Not long after the skies opened up and the rain just poured, stirring up the creek into a raging torrent of water and groaning bodies. With the rain came walkers at the fence, no longer one or two at a time, but dozens, too many all at once for Beth to risk killing them, even with her crossbow from the door. Better they break the fence and wander through the yard than catch sight or scent of her and try to get inside.

It was possibly the longest day and night Beth had spent in her life, in the lonely dark cabin surrounded by flickering candles, clutching her crossbow and listening to the rain pounding like horseshoes on the roof, the rumbling crash of thunder and the cracking flashes of lighting, the snapping planks and the groans of the walkers outside, the thumps of their bodies against the walls as they navigated the yard in their mindless, stumbling way.

And Daryl was out there somewhere in the midst of this, caught in the storm or delayed by the herd. Beth couldn’t pull his vest tight enough to keep the hurt at bay, to drive out the fear that her worst nightmares were coming true. Maybe already had. Every walker bumping into the cabin had just as much chance of being Daryl as the last. She couldn’t see their faces and didn’t want to. Daryl had been gone too long to keep pretending nothing had happened. Even if he wasn’t dead, something was wrong. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to come back, and they were gonna find their family together. She couldn’t do it alone. She didn’t want to. Didn’t want to imagine moving on without Daryl beside her. It was supposed to be Beth and Daryl against the world, the unofficial slogan of their unlikely twosome. Cold dread seeped into every crack of her skin, flooding her veins, filling her lungs with shards of ice until they ached with every breath. When her tears fell they came freely, pouring hot over her cheeks as violently as the rain outside, while her cries drowned in the depths of the storm’s rage.   

The cabin walls held, as solid as ever, but the storm finally broke midmorning. Aside from a few stragglers down the bank, a few more floating by, the herd passed with it. Beth’s tears dried and something new settled in her chest, something as solid as the cabin and as single-mindedly determined as a walker’s hunger in the wake of her sadness. Of Pam and Jake there were no signs, and despite the trouble they caused Beth hoped they managed to find safety, somewhere. Somehow.  Beth stared out into the ruins of the yard, at the branches, broken planks, rotting bodies strewn everywhere.

Knifelike blades of sunlight pierced through the clouds and steam swirled up wherever they touched down on the sodden ground. If this was a story book, Daryl would appear at this very moment, striding in out of the woods, wet to the skin, clothing torn and bloodied, but alive, triumphant, returned home to the woman he left behind. But this wasn’t a story, not even the grimmest of fairytales. This was real, and in this reality, the dead walked and good men didn’t always make it, and the women didn’t wait around for the men to come home. Beth put down the walkers trapped by debris in the yard, knifing each one in the head before stepping back inside. She gathered her supplies, packed the bag to bury in the woods, shouldered the shotgun and slipped the pry bar through her belt, stroked her fingers down the front of Daryl’s vest, and shut the cabin door closed behind her. 

She paused before starting down the stairs to run her hand over the solid wood of it. This was a good place, and she hoped to see it again. Hoped her leaving now didn’t render yesterday’s actions meaningless. Crossbow in one hand, shovel in the other, Beth set out for the woods.

She had a cache to bury, and then a man to find.

*~*

Three days earlier

Daryl didn’t stop to look back at the cabin as he entered the woods, but he had to fight every muscle in his body to resist the urge to do it. He didn’t know if Beth was waiting there in the doorway or not, watching him walk away, but he knew he didn’t want to see the look on her face if she was. It was hard enough leaving without the visual reminder of how hard it was for her, too. She was tough as nails, that woman, but leaving her behind like this felt like he was breaking a promise, like he was setting them up for fate or whatever made the bad shit happen to swing in and deliver that final, severing blow. Cut them off from their family and now each other, and every minute he spent deliberately apart from her was as unpleasant as breaking off his fingers one at a time, and that—that landed in his chest like a load of wet concrete.

When had he ever felt fear like this, of something he couldn’t even see? Not a threat bearing down on him, a gun to his head, a walker at his back, a fist or a strap raised in drunken anger. Those things—he knew how to handle that sort of fear, knew how to ground himself against it, how to check out or fight back to get through it. This fear, though, this constant winding, biting dread in his gut, he didn’t know how to fight that.

The only solution he had was to get this deer and get back to her as soon as possible. To do that, he needed focus and he wasn’t gonna get that by letting fear get the better of him. He couldn’t fight it, couldn’t make it go away, but he could push it to the background. He could do what he’d done all his life—track, hunt, give himself to the woods and let it guide him. It was all he had and as he retraced his steps along the familiar route of the trapline, Daryl prayed it was enough.

Around him, the forest stood still and quiet apart from the occasional whisper of tiny feet through the underbrush. The birds weren’t awake yet and there weren’t so much as a breeze to stir the leaves. Daryl slipped silently through the woods, eyes adjusting to the dim light to rove across the landscape. By the time the sun came up, the first hints of daylight filtering in through the trees at his back, Daryl had found the tracks he spotted yesterday and followed them to a place where the creek split briefly into two separate streams around a small, brushy island.  

The left hand fork swung wide beneath the overhanging birches, leaving the rocky bank behind and forming a slow moving pool edged in packed red dirt. It was as good a place as any for deer or men to pause and drink. Daryl’s water bottle was full and he wasn’t thirsty, but he paused anyway, breathing deep the scent of damp earth and the slow rot of leaves, the chill of impending autumn like a sharp, metallic aftertaste. He crouched down to inspect the prints left behind in the dirt, deeper at the edges where the creek water softened the footing.  

Two deer. A pair of does traveling together going by the placement of the footprints. The two sets followed each other off the path but split near the water’s edge. One doe here, the other just beside her as they paused to drink their fill. And there, for a moment, the two moving side by side along the bank until they entered the woods again. Beth would have noticed that, where they stood beside each other at the creek. She would have seen that first, because she’d have been admiring the soft glitter of the sunrise on the water, and she’d have seen them then, and put the rest of it together.  

Glittering water wasn’t something he’d normally have given his attention to, but to teach Beth how to track he had to figure out how she saw. He’d never be fully capable of seeing the world the way she did, but he knew she’d have appreciated the way the water shone right now, not like the field of diamonds it would be in full sun, but muted, like the sheen of satin or something. He could picture her standing there as clearly as he could see the deer, her eyes turned downstream, picking up the same glint of light, soft shimmers of orange and pink mixing with the blue of her irises. Then she would’ve swept her gaze along the bank, noted the dirt there instead of the usual rocks, crouched down like he was to run her fingertips over the prints.

Her face lingered in Daryl’s mind as he stood and followed the tracks back into the trees, her big eyes bright and wide, smile soft but pleased. His own smile answered it, beyond his control, but he let it take over, for all it was barely an echo of hers.  

As far as trails went, this was one of the easier ones he’d followed. The tracks were a day old now but still clear enough in the dirt, tacky as it was with the humidity off the water, following what looked to be a long-established deer trail. They had some distance on him, these two, but their pace was unhurried, their tracks meandering a bit here and there. Conceivably he could catch them, and if not these two, chances were good on finding more tracks to follow on a trail as well-trodden as this one. Might even make it back to the cabin before sundown, the way things were looking.

Which, as unlikely and ideal a situation that would be, it would put Beth’s mind at ease—and his own.

Daryl took in a deep breath and paused to recheck the tracks, taking the couple of steps to his left needed to reach the deer trail. Prints were still there, still unhurried. Something else, too, as he crouched down beside a tree—a bit of trampled brush, a hint of a path bisecting the deer trail, the suggestion of a different sort of print, there in the dirt. The brush just here was thick and the little path tunnelled through it. Probably a rabbit warren on the other side. Daryl drew his knife and flicked a little mark low down on the tree, unobtrusive, but he’d recognize it when he saw it again.

He resumed walking, breaking his own trail through the woods roughly parallel to that of the deer, keeping it in sight without obscuring the signs. The trees grew large enough, tall enough here to navigate the underbrush without much trouble despite the lack of proper path. Groans from the occasional walker came from over by the creek, but Daryl had no trouble keeping quiet enough to go unnoticed. Even beneath the trees, though, the sun shone brighter and brighter the higher it rose in the sky and he was almost too warm going on midday. Best to keep walking for a bit longer though, and he’d shed some layers when he stopped to eat.

Beth would have long finished her morning circuit outside, and would be working by candlelight in the dark cabin right now, sorting through the shelves and wishing she could leave the door open to let some of this day inside. Open the little window, too, and get a bit of a cross-breeze going to chase away the stifling heat of the afternoon. And there it was again, that twist of alarm in his gut at the thought of her, alone, exposed, cornered there in the cabin even though she had more weapons on her than he did right now and knew well how to use them.

Daryl pushed a low-hanging branch aside, ducked beneath another, and stepped carefully through a patch of exposed tree roots spread like lace over the rise of a small hill. This wasn’t a new thing, this situation with Beth and how everything they did, every decision they made, every choice they considered, had to be about both of them. Anything less than that meant doing it alone and sooner or later alone meant dead. It was like that from the start, even when he was too numb to care.

Wasn’t just that, though, that had his insides so tied up in knots right now. Wasn’t just wanting to survive and wanting her to survive that made it so he almost didn’t even wanna breathe until he knew she was there—alive and beside him, behind him or in front, wherever but just there. That was a newer thing. Coulda been a bad thing. Shoulda been, maybe, if he thought too hard on it, and he could picture Merle’s reaction to that, his chuckle in his head, that little mocking hum and the twisted grin that went along with it. He knew the kind of shit Merle'd have to say about it, him tangled up with Beth like this, for bothering at all to consider what she thought and for being stupid enough to care about her. Merle weren’t here, though. Weren’t gonna be except as this ghost in his head and that ghost could shut the hell up about how him and Beth went about the business of surviving together.

Just ahead a little stream cut through the woods, on a diagonal to join the larger creek, hardly more than a lazy trickle at this time of year. A well-worn slope led down to it from the deer trail and back out again. Daryl pulled his pack from his shoulders and dropped down to sit at the base of a tree at the stream’s edge just beside the trail, its roots half exposed and arching thick out over the eroded bank before diving deep into the ground. He pulled off his denim jacket, newly patched and mended thanks to Beth’s sewing skills, and stuffed it into his pack after pulling out some food and his water bottle.

God, she was something though, Beth Greene. Something newer and more unexpected than all the rest of it and even the woods couldn’t drive her from his thoughts for long. Beneath the worry, that fist of fear clenching in his gut, she was still there. Always there, woven right into his brain, tangled up around his spinal cord and creeping out along his nerves, like she’d stitched herself inside with her needle and thread, looped the ends, tucked them away so that no matter how he might pull, it only drew them tighter, imbedded them deeper. Maybe that’s just how it was, when you lost everything you’d ever had and your entire world narrowed down to just one person like this. Maybe it was something different altogether, ‘cause he couldn’t imagine ever thinking about Rick or Merle or anyone else this way, even if one of them was here alone with him instead of Beth.

Maybe it was just Beth, a bright little lantern in the dark.

After several days of eating fresh meat, the canned beans tasted especially bland, but food was food. Daryl chewed and swallowed and let his gaze wander as he reined his thoughts in. Get the deer. Get back to the cabin. Then think about Beth. Even as he thought it, he knew that was a hopeless plan, but he played along with himself anyway as he got to his feet to resume his trek through the woods. The does’ pace quickened just past the watering spot, not to an alarming degree but enough to make Daryl speed up, too. They quit wandering off the trail in search of tasty nibbles, and the spread of the tracks widened, the depth of them a little more evident with harder, more determined steps. Not spooked, not exactly, but something had their attention enough to hurry them along. He followed them past several likely bedding places with no signs they had even slowed down to look.

Why became evident shortly thereafter. Walker tracks, angling in toward the trail from the direction of the creek. The deer would’ve smelled them where they wandered down at the creek before the walkers heard them, would’ve quickened their pace to move past the threat. When the zigzaggy footprints neared, the one doe ran, bounding along the trail as only a frightened deer could. The other panicked, her prints frantic, scattered, tangled up in that of the walker—no, walkers, there were at least three different shoe patterns here and one bare foot. A spot of blood just there, on a loop of tree root. She caught her foot as she tried to flee, injuring herself, spilling blood and inciting the walkers even further.

The blood trail led off away from the path, droplets splashed wherever the doe set down her hind left foot. She was lame, the blooded prints only half as deep as the others. Daryl already knew what he’d find before he got into the clearing and nearly stepped on the pile of blood crusted bones and torn hide.

Well wasn’t that just fucking wonderful.

The second doe’s tracks disappeared not long after they bounded away from where the walkers caught up to them. Daryl tracked her to the creek, but she didn’t reappear, either across the water or upstream. He walked for a bit, hoping to catch sign of her, but all he encountered were walkers.  By early evening he’d not found a track any newer than three days old that wasn’t made by something dead.

He’d gone too far out to head back tonight and it weighed on his shoulders, knowing how Beth would worry, and the ever-present ache in his gut over separating from her in the first place burned deeper. He should never have told her midday, had only done it to give her some sort of timeline to follow, because he’d been so fucking sure he’d bag a deer today. Which was worse—Beth worrying that something had happened to him, or him showing up empty handed?

Okay, so he knew the answer to that even as he asked it. If he was the one waiting behind, he’d rather she come back safe than take a risk for a bit of protein. More than a bit, though. They needed the deer. He wouldn’t be out here like this if they didn’t.

He had passed a bit of a clearing not far back that would make a good place to camp for the night, and headed there to set up. Maybe he would get lucky, and another deer would wander by overnight.

Maybe.

Daryl wasn’t all that willing these days to trust anything on luck alone.

He set up camp, ringing the little clearing with the alarm Beth made for him to bring, not bothering with a fire. Even without his vest he had enough layers to keep warm. Daryl hadn’t planned to leave it with her, not until he saw her there, waiting by the door, shoulders straight, lips drawn tight, doing her best to hide how torn up she was about him leaving. Fuck, she was so strong, so brave, and it hit him like a bolt to the gut. 

It wasn’t much. Hardly anything at all, handing her that old scrap of leather. Except it felt like something more, somehow. Like it wasn’t just his vest he was leaving with her. The look in Beth’s eyes as she leaned up to kiss his cheek, intensity glimmering there behind a shine of tears, told him he’d done something right, at least. That he hadn’t been too far off the mark thinking it might help.

Daryl wasn’t sure what any of that meant, just that it did. 

He had never had his every waking moment depend so fully on someone else before, never felt so many things all at once and he didn’t have a fucking clue how to even begin to figure it all out. Just thinking about it now—thinking about her—brought on a rush of that feeling in his chest like a flock of geese beating their wings over the water, the waves of it rippling right through to his bones. 

He ain’t ever known anyone like her.  Even before, when he knew her, he didn’t know her like he did now. She was family, before. She was something else now.

Somewhere in the distance, down toward the creek, a couple of walkers shuffled by, groaning in that unhurried way of theirs that meant they hadn’t smelled him. Daryl left them to their mindless travels and popped open a can of pears and a tin of sardines to serve as his supper.

Beth was kind of like Rick was, in a way. They maybe hadn’t gotten off to a good start, him and Rick and Merle being left behind, but Rick had earned his respect somewhere along the way and returned it in kind. He was a friend, Rick Grimes. Every bit as much a brother as Merle and more in some ways. A lotta ways. There was a give and take there. Trust. Rick mighta been the leader to his follower, but Daryl knew his opinion carried weight. Being part of the council, Rick had done that, too, by giving him the chance and that was more than Daryl’d ever had in his life.

That hurt, thinking of Rick, a hot pulse of pain in his chest and an ache spreading out behind his eyes. Always would, too. But Daryl liked to think maybe his friend, his brother, would’ve been glad to know Daryl had found something like that in Beth, too—trust. Respect. Friendship. More chances than he probably deserved. Beth saw him at his worst but made him want to be better than that. Like Rick, made him believe that maybe he could be. She wasn’t a brother, and she wasn’t a leader in the way Rick was, but she was something. Someone. Someone who balanced out parts of him he never knew needed balancing until the scales tipped.

Whatever that meant, whatever words he couldn’t pull outta his head to make sense of all this, it worked. Him and Beth worked. And maybe that was enough. Maybe that’s all it had to be—him and Beth.

Against the world.

Daryl didn’t sleep. Too risky on his own in the dark with walkers nearby. Now and then through the night one or two, sometimes more, would pass by down at the creek. He wondered at that—why always the creek—but not one stumbled near his camp. Daryl never put much stock in luck, but he might almost believe it when morning came and he had made it through the night without drawing his knife once.

Daryl didn’t wanna question it, either, when he spotted the deer tracks at first light, at the edge of the creek where he refilled his water bottle. He tracked the animal back through the brush—a buck, going by the size and depth of the prints, still fresh enough to be maybe a couple of hours old at most. He was moving at a good pace, though, and Daryl didn’t bother with breakfast, just gathered up his shit and followed. The buck stuck to the same trail as the does, though at one point he left that behind to follow a different path, established but less-trodden than the forest trail, through a grassy field, winding amongst the tall strands, dried to the colour of straw and waving in the light morning breeze.

Daryl was downwind, so far, and though the trail was more obscure, the buck’s prints were fresh enough to follow. Eventually, the path headed back into the woods and toward the creek and actually crossed it, at a spot similar to the one downstream from the cabin, where the creek bed widened and the water got shallow, babbling over the rocks and just barely covering them. It was nearing midmorning now, and though the passage of the hours tugged at him, a ticking clock in his head counting every last second, Daryl had a good feeling about this buck.

The buck’s path now took him back along the creek, on the opposite bank, but that was good. Daryl knew at least one boundary of the buck’s territory and the path took him back toward the cabin. The downside, of course, was the breeze had picked up a bit more and he was now upwind. Nothing a bit of scat couldn’t fix, though. Smelled no worse than a walker.

Smelled better than the two splashing down the creek toward him. Daryl took them out and hauled them away from the water before picking up where he left off, following the buck through the woods.

The buck had bedded down sometime during the day and Daryl lost the trail for a short time. He found it again mid afternoon when the clouds began to roll in from behind him, and the wind had become bold enough to push away the heat of the day, but the tracks were fresh, the edges of them so sharp he couldn’t be more than half an hour behind. Still, the buck was moving and it was late afternoon by the time Daryl caught up to him. He was a good size, nice rack on him that would’ve attracted the trophy hunters back when that kind of thing still mattered. Standing there, majestic as shit and drinking from the creek, and Daryl wished Beth coulda been here to see it, to ask him if he thought it was beautiful.

It was. He didn’t need Beth Greene’s eyes to see that, either. Elegant lines, strong, muscular neck, long legs full of speed and grace, the rack of antlers any hunter would be proud to hang on his wall. The little pang he always felt whenever he looked down the stock of his crossbow at a kill, pinched now with greater intensity than usual. Beth might’ve had a name for it and he might’ve, too, if he ever stopped to think about it. But Daryl had a job to do, and this buck—this buck was going to keep them alive. Keep Beth alive.

Daryl took a breath and pulled the trigger. His bolt landed true and the buck dropped on the spot.

He dressed it where it fell and let the guts float away in the creek. He was a big buck, heavy across Daryl’s shoulders as he carried it deeper into the woods. It was well into evening now and with the sky overcast, it was gonna get darker sooner. Daryl was already late, gone half a day longer than he planned, but there was no taking that back. No way to stifle the twisting in his gut at the thought of staying away, at the knowledge of what not knowing would do to Beth. But he couldn’t make the trip now, not with the buck in tow, not before dark. He would have to make camp, spend a second night in the woods, and head out again in the morning as soon as he could see well enough to navigate.

Still. He’d probably not be much later than early afternoon. Now that he had the buck he could head straight back.

The first pair of walkers shuffled into his camp just before nightfall, likely drawn by the fresh scent of the buck even with the mostly smoky fire he lit beneath the big oak tree where he’d strung it up for the night. Daryl brought them down easy, neither one of them much more than sagging skin and bones, and despite the stench he let them lie, hoping it might mask the smell of deer and the smell of man from any others nearby.

It was tempting to cook up a bit of the deer for his supper, but he settled instead for a can of peaches and the squirrel whose tree he picked to lean on, eating a bit at a time while he lashed together the travois he would use to carry the buck out in the morning. Dragging the thing would make a bit more noise than he liked, even with the ends sharpened up, but he couldn’t carry the buck over his shoulders the whole way back.

He’d set up some distance from the creek, but he could hear the groans of walkers shuffling from over that direction. The ones Beth had killed had come along the creek, too, from this same direction. There were more of them down there than the few who had wandered into his camp so far, and he kept one ear to that direction at all times. Three more walkers stumbled in while Daryl worked, and he killed each one and added them to the pile.

Daryl completed the travois just as the light ran out, and leaned it up against a nearby tree so he wouldn’t step on it in the dark. The fire still smoked away beneath the deer and he added some more green sticks to keep it going, still hopeful about masking the buck’s scent, though it kept the flies away, too. The wind could be problematic but the oak’s trunk was big enough buffer it, keep most of the smoke from billowing away.

The oak couldn’t keep out the sounds of the walkers, though, and in fact the wind carried their groans and the shuffle of their feet down to him long before they passed by along the creek bed. Daryl wasn’t sure what he expected, honestly. Now that he was listening to them, not so focused on tracking the buck, he should have maybe realized sooner that he saw more walkers today than he had since the funeral home, and instead of sticking to just groups of two, the noise travelling down the funnel of the creek now was getting louder, the groups growing larger.

More walkers. A lot of walkers.

He should’ve fucking known, really—Daryl wasn’t a complete idiot. Still, it caught him off guard when the next walker shuffled toward his campsite, that it wasn’t alone. His eyes had adjusted enough to see not one, not two, but dozens of heads bobbing back and forth through the woods behind him, the first couple just breaking into the clearing made by the big oak tree.

Too many to fight. Too dark to run. Daryl shouldered his bag and his crossbow and jumped, catching hold of the lowest limb of the oak, pulse thundering in his ears as he hauled himself up, throwing his body over the branch so hard the air rushed out of his lungs. He didn’t have time to stop.  Grabby hands tugged at his boots and wheezy, groaning faces snarled up at him in the dark. He tugged his foot out of their grasp, got his knees under him, for one dizzying moment wobbling dangerously on the branch before he leapt up and grabbed hold of the next, the one he had the buck hanging from.

It creaked a bit when he levered himself onto it, with his weight and the buck’s, and he didn’t stay there. Just above that a large branch jutted up and out from the trunk and he climbed up to wedge his body into the space, legs on either side of the branch with his back to the trunk. Below the walkers raged, more and more of them pouring into the clearing, obliterating his fire, the alarms—a herd, and he hadn’t even seen it coming.

Fuck, Dixon.

Whatever it was that fuelled walkers’ hunger also made them relentless. They’d caught sight and scent of him and more and more of them gathered at the base of the tree, their excitement triggering that of the new arrivals until the ground below him looked like a bed of writhing snakes in the dark. One or two he might wait out, might distract by throwing acorns but not this many. Not a herd. Oak trees had deep roots but how long could it last, even a tree this size, against the pressure of so many bodies?

He had exactly one option.

They needed the deer, they did. But a deer weren’t worth a fucking thing if he died before he brought it back. 

Daryl cut down the buck and it fell, landing atop the hungry corpses below. Fresh enough to catch their attention and they wasted no time in swarming the carcass. Daryl pressed himself tight to the tree, facing the trunk now, bracing his feet against the nearest branches. He looped the rest of the leather cord he had for making the travois around the trunk and across his back, tying it at his waist, tight enough to keep him from falling. If he kept still, if he kept silent, maybe, maybe they’d forget about him by the time they finished with the deer. The tree, its large branches thick with leaves, it could hide him—but only if he didn’t move.

Below, the sounds of tearing flesh, cracking bone and snapping teeth went on for ages while up in the tree Daryl’s heart pounded, beating through his chest into the trunk of the oak, pulsing in his throat, his ears, right down to his toes. He shut his eyes and tried to tune them out, tried to hear the sound of Beth’s sweet voice singing in his head.

Hours passed, or maybe minutes. He had nothing to mark time’s passage with no moon, nothing but the din of the walkers below him. The Beth in his head ran through her repertoire of songs, every word he had ever heard her sing and some he was sure he was making up.  Sometime, in the midst of the utter blackness surrounding him, when the echo of Beth’s silence bounced around his brain, when the pain in his ass and the tingle of numbness in his toes dragged him out of his own head for a moment, Daryl realized the noise below had changed.

The walkers hadn’t left, but they weren’t the writhing bed of snakes anymore. They bobbed and weaved and growled deadly through the forest below him, but they were moving. Walking. Passing beneath his tree in and endless wave of stinking, animated corpses, but they’d forgotten him. His gambit with the buck worked. If he could wait them out, he might just get out of this alive.

Daryl focused on taking slow, even breaths. Breathe in until he felt the bite of the leather cord against his back, the scrape of the bark on his chest. Exhale, slow and measured, wiggle his toes inside his boots to drive away the tingles. To keep the blood flowing.

That’s good, Daryl. Just like that, said Beth-in-his-head, her voice calm, soothing. Encouraging.

Breathe, Daryl. Just breathe.

He breathed. Minutes. Hours. Days. All he did was breathe. Beth coaxed him along, sometimes speaking, sometimes singing, and he clung to that, to the feeling of her there with him.

His head weren’t such a bad place when the only voice in it was hers.

Daryl’s eyes fluttered open sometime later, much later, because the sky overhead was bright enough for the day to have gone well into morning. He blinked, his vision bleary and crusted, everything tinted green from the canopy of leaves surrounding him. His whole body felt weightless, like it wasn’t even there, and he ignored it for now as his eyes adjusted to the scene below.

The herd was still marching. Still roaming through the forest like a horrific army, but passing beneath his tree, unaware of him. He couldn’t see anywhere but directly below him, the leaves of the oak too thick to make out any details anywhere else, but he could hear. This wasn’t over. The battalion of corpses below rolled on as thick as ever.

Better keep breathing, Daryl, said Beth-in-his-head, and Daryl shut his eyes and did as he was told. 

C’mon, Daryl. Just keep breathing.

She sang a bit. That was nice. He liked it when she sang. Then she told him a story, something sweet and funny that happened at the farm years and years ago. It made her giggle to tell it. Daryl didn’t have stories, least none he wanted to share, but that was okay. Beth was happy to keep talking, reminding him now and then to breathe. Breathe with me, Daryl, that’s it, just like that. He would do it, would take the breath she asked, and Beth would smile, the little one without teeth but it was nice. Sweet. Made him warm all over.

Just keep breathing, Daryl. Just keep breathing.

Of course he would. He’d give Beth anything she asked of him.

A booming crash of thunder dragged him back, the echo of Beth’s song still ringing in his ears. Daryl’s eyes flew open, adjusting quickly to the strange dimness, dark and thick like a deep green cloak draped over his head. Above, rain pelted down, beating a staccato on the leaves, pouring right down through to his hiding place. He was drenched, and a violent shiver tore through his body, followed by the deep ache of pins and needles as the motion threatened to wake his toes from their slumber. Below him, silence, except for the drumming of the rain, fat globes of water falling straight down from above.

The herd was gone.

His ass hurt and his throat had gone as dry and scratchy as 40 grit sandpaper, and Daryl tipped his face to the sky, neck turning slow and creaky like the joints had gone rusty.  Water dripped into his mouth, rolled over his cracked lips and tongue and he almost choked trying to swallow. It took a long time to move, to unwind his arms from around the tree, his joints simultaneously stiff and limp and painful and useless. The leather cord tying him to the tree had swelled with the rain and his thick, useless fingers couldn’t pull the knot apart. But he managed, somehow, to get hold of his knife, not to fumble and drop it, to sever the cord with an awkward flick of his blade.

The storm had been raging for a while and Daryl’s clothes were soaked right through, sticking to him like wet plaster. Everything hurt and he almost passed out twice trying to move, to climb down from the tree. Beth-in-his-head sang softly, and he fought the pain, fought the waves of nausea and vertigo, slipped down the tree from branch to branch until he crumpled in a heap at the base of it.

Daryl wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but when he swam back to consciousness, his head felt a bit more grounded, a bit less disconnected. He groped blindly for his pack and the water bottle, gulped the whole of it down until he choked, coughed and sputtered there on the forest floor. He dragged himself to his feet. Everything hurt, every step jarred through his joints like hot knives, calf muscles cramping relentlessly. He needed water, he knew that much, and stumbled his way through the underbrush to the creek.

He moved in slow motion, like swimming through jelly, no sharp edges to the world just a wavering blur. The storm raged on around him, the sky growing darker and darker with each passing minute, the rain pouring down in relentless frigid globs. Wind whipped along the creek bed, poking freezing fingers straight through the thick air surrounding him, slicing right down through to his bones. But he plodded along, shuffling and groaning like a walker, locked inside this clumsy, aching body, thoughts narrowed down to just one thing.

Follow the creek. Just follow the creek. Follow the creek home to Beth.

Sometime through the night, with the storm showing no signs of letting up and his knees threatening to buckle every other step, Daryl crawled into a hollow beneath another old oak and buried his body in as much of the detritus as he could scoop up before he fell back, exhausted, dizzy, gut roiling as violently as the swollen creek until he retched and threw up every last drop of water he drank.

Either he’d make it through the night, or he wouldn’t, but he didn’t have a choice.

He woke to the sounds of birdsong.

Bright shafts of sunlight dropped through the canopy above. Well into morning, then. Daryl stretched his limbs slowly, breath catching in his chest when even that hurt. It took a bit to crawl out of his nest, but each movement loosened his stiffened joints just enough, and using the tree to brace against he managed to get to his feet and stay there. His legs trembled a little, shot through with biting cramps, but not yet threatening to buckle. 

Taking slow steps and using trees for balance, Daryl went to the creek to drink, then rummaged through his pack for some food, coming up empty. Just drinking water wasn’t gonna help, and he tried to find something growing wild he knew he could eat as he trudged along the creek bed, but his thoughts went fuzzy round the edges and he couldn’t quite remember what to look for. 

The herd and the storm changed the landscape, obliterating anything he might’ve recognized, fuzzyheaded or not. The only landmark, the only constant, was the creek, swollen now to twice its usual size. Daryl couldn’t be sure where he was, but he knew he hadn’t passed the cabin. If he kept walking, kept the creek to his right, he would get there.

The sun crept higher, edging toward noon by its position in the sky. Warm on his face and chest, but he soaked up the heat like an alligator, letting the rays drive out the a bit of the cold left over by the rain, loosening his stiffened joints, warming his frozen muscles. Daryl rounded a slight bend and up ahead, the creek split off into two streams, a brushy island in the middle.

Sunlight sparkled over the water like a field of diamonds. He knew this place. His eyes tracked the left hand fork, sweeping along the familiar bank of red dirt, now chewed up with walker prints and only half as wide.

And there, at the water’s edge, delicately drinking from the swirling little pool, was a doe. Like the buck, she was beautiful, and just as before his bolt struck true. Daryl crouched down in the dirt to field dress her, first stroking his palm down the long line of her neck.

“Thank you,” he said, in a raw, cracked voice, though he didn’t know whether he was speaking to the doe, or something else entirely.

As he made the first cut, a twig snapped behind him. Daryl jumped to his feet faster than he thought he could and spun around, knife in hand and ready to strike.

The knife fell uselessly to the bank below him, and Daryl’s knees wobbled. He staggered back a step, then two, blinking, trying to decide whether this was real, or if he’d slipped back into his own head again without realizing it. ‘Cause there, standing at the edge of the trees, covered in dirt, sunlight on her face and sparkling in her eyes, her hair a beautiful golden mess atop her head, was Beth.  

Beth.

She breathed. He breathed too.

The only sound he heard, before she launched herself into his arms, was his broken voice calling her name, and hers answering back in kind. 

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 14 – You’re the Best Thing That I’ve Ever Found

*~*

“Daryl!”

 Beth dropped everything she was carrying and shot across the clearing, a blur of dirt streaked blonde, before Daryl could force his cramping legs to move. But he caught her, the moment she leapt at him to wrap her arms around his neck, his palms touching down over the wings on her back. And he knew then he must be hallucinating, must’ve fallen back inside his thick, delirious head, still buried in the leaves beneath the big old oak. Beth was an angel, of course she was, but she didn’t have wings.

Hold up.

His vest. Christ, she was wearing his vest. 

A gripping cramp lurched through Daryl’s calves and his knees buckled, sending them both tumbling to the ground. Beth smelled of dirt and leaves, sweat and leather, and he buried his face in her neck and breathed her in. One hand over her wings, one sliding up to cradle the back of her head, fingers tangling in her hair, strands like silk across his knuckles. Whispering, over and over, her name. Just her name, like it was the only word he knew. Beth’s shoulders shook. Her whole body shook, from her fingers clutching at the back of his neck, right down along her spine beneath his hands.

“Daryl. Daryl. I thought you were dead.”

Her words were a tremor in his ear, a sinkhole in his gut. 

Beth. Beth. I'm sorry. I’m so sorry, Beth. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Beth. Beth. Beth...

Daryl didn’t know anymore if he was speaking out loud or just inside his head, but Beth’s grip on him tightened, and her own voice or maybe just her thoughts whispered back at him.

Daryl, Daryl, oh god, Daryl, you’re alive, you’re alive. Daryl. Daryl. Daryl...

His sense of time was still fucked, he didn’t know how long they knelt there. When Beth pulled back, her eyes were red and shiny, open so wide. He slipped his hand from her hair to cradle her face, moving with some impulse he didn’t understand—he needed to touch her, to convince himself she was really here after all and not just some waking dream. Beth’s eyes drifted shut as he brushed his thumb through the wet of her tear-stained cheeks, and she leaned into his palm, her face so tiny in his large hand. She sighed, soft and breathy, and her lashes fluttered against him like butterfly wings.

Beth brought her hand up to his cheek at the same moment he leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers, and another sigh stuttered out of her, puffing warm over his face. Her thumb mimicked the path of his, the soft, warm pad of it tracing the line of his cheekbone in a feathery touch that tingled and burned, her fingertips scratching softly at the scruff along his jaw while those of her other hand twirled the ends of his hair.

Tell me you’re really here.

Again unsure if he was speaking out loud or not—his head still thick, everything blurred at the edges. He had legs, somewhere, long since gone numb, bent out at the knees with his whole weight on top of them. Really the only thing that felt real right now was Beth—her warm cheek against his palm and the flutter of her breath on his face, the press of her forehead to his and the brush of her thumb over his cheek; her body, knelt down in the space between the legs he didn’t have, the curve of her spine and the edges of her wings beneath his fingers. So real she had to be an illusion. 

Please. Please be here.

But her fingers pressed into his skin and she pulled back again, dislodging his hand to take his face in both of hers, eyes burning like brilliant blue flames as she gazed into his. Something about that hooked onto him inside, hauled him out of the gelatinous state of mind and right back to the little pool and red dirt bank and Beth.

Oh, God, Beth.

“I’m here, Daryl. I’m right here.” He nodded, or tried to, and a soft smile flitted onto her face. “Lord, you look like hell.”

A little bark of laughter burst out of him, bringing out a little giggle from Beth in response. “Feel like it. Fuck.”

Beth’s hands dropped from his cheeks to settle on his shoulders. “Can you get up?”

A spasm of pain shot up his spine, and Daryl grimaced. “Might need help.”

“Are you hurt?” she asked, her voice gone real soft, gentle, thumbs stroking his shoulders through his jacket.

He shook his head, wincing with another spasm. “Naw, just...”

Daryl let the words trail off into nothing, unsure where to even start or what to say if he tried. But Beth only nodded, like she understood—and maybe she did. She mighta been fucking beautiful, but exhaustion clung to her like cheap cologne, written there in the dark circles ringing her eyes on her paler than usual face, in the little furrow etched into her brow that didn’t seem to wanna relax. 

“We should get back to the cabin,” she said, the furrow deepening.

Daryl gave a grunt he meant to mean yes, and Beth moved out of the triangle of his knees. His hand at her back fell away as she stood up, landing heavy on his thigh. He craned his neck up to look at her. “Need to finish dressing the deer.”

Beth glanced down at him, then turned her gaze to the deer behind him. “I’ll do it.” 

Her fingers combed through his hair, nails scratching lightly across his scalp. Daryl’s eyes drifted shut and he found himself leaning into her touch. A warm shiver rolled through him as she repeated the motion and he groaned, unable to stop it from rising up out of his chest. 

Beth’s breathy little sigh floated down to him, “You tell me how, Daryl, and I’ll do it, okay?”

Daryl remembered well what he shouted at her, before, about never relying on nobody for nothing. And he’d been drunk and sad and angry at himself and had taken it out on her. He might’ve said once that he meant his words to wound, to imply she was just some useless girl who couldn’t fight her own battles. If he were honest—and he rarely was, when it came to his own shit—what he screamed at her was about himself. He ain’t ever relied on nobody because nobody’d been reliable. It wasn’t her weakness—it was his disadvantage.

He could rely on Beth and it didn’t even faze him. Everything he knew since he was old enough to know it wanted to tell him otherwise. He heard the voices there, tinny and distant, crackling like the static of an old radio, but shoving them away was easy. So fucking easy when Beth Greene’s fingers brushed across his forehead, right before she crouched back down to help get his legs out from under him. He could rely on her. He could. Beth with her angel wings and that wild halo of hair, and yeah he was skirting the edge of delirious again but that didn’t change the facts. 

He could rely on Beth. They could rely on each other, him and Beth, and that pulsed deep in his chest and settled around him like every warm embrace he never had. 

With Beth’s help he moved to sit with his back against one of the straighter growing birches at the edge of the woods. Beth left his side once he got settled there to get the stuff she dropped right before she ran to him, and knelt back down beside him now, digging around for something inside her pack. Moments later she passed him a bottle of water and something in a Mason jar.

His gaze landed on the tidy writing across the top of the sealer, then flicked up to meet Beth’s—who was, not unexpectedly, smirking. “Fruit salad?”

“Start with the juice,” she said, pressing the Washington, D.C. spoon into his hand. “If you can keep that down, then eat the chunks.”

Juice meant more of a thin syrup, and though it was sweet it tasted all right, like fruit juice and honey. He probably needed the calories anyway, so he sipped a little at a time, alternating between that and the water, while he talked Beth through field dressing the doe.

She already knew how to do this with smaller things—rabbits, possums, squirrels—and she had a deft hand with her knife. She continued what he started, making the long incision through the doe’s skin, her hand steady and precise, before slicing through the muscle and membranes to open up the doe’s belly. As good as he would’ve done it, too, and Daryl couldn’t stop the stupid grin from pulling at his lips as he watched her, up to her elbows in blood and guts as she pulled the organs out.

When just the intestines remained, pulled out but still connected inside, Beth looked up at him for her next instruction.

“Gotta cut away the diaphragm now, get into the chest.”

She made the cuts, heedless of the rush of warm blood pouring out of the chest cavity and over her hands, instead glancing up at him again.

He nodded at her, wiping a dribble of sticky fruit syrup from his chin. “That’s it, girl. Like you always been doin’ this.”

A half smile, a pleased-with-herself little grin bloomed on Beth’s face, followed by a flush of pink across her too-pale cheeks. She said nothing while she reached up into the chest to sever the windpipe and pull out the doe’s lungs and heart, but the grin lingered. The flush, too, and something about it, about all of it—her smile, her skill with the knife and her determination to dress the deer and do it right, his wings across her back, and fuck, probably just her—spread a warmth through him hotter than any amount of sunshine on his face, driving out the cold, the numbness he hadn’t been able to shake since he tumbled down from the oak tree in the middle of the storm. 

Beth’s cheeks darkened when she next looked over at him, having cleared the chest cavity. In her hand she held the doe’s heart, and her eyes flicked over his face before finally catching his gaze and holding there a minute until she spoke.

“Are you supposed to eat this, or something? I mean…” Her gaze dropped away, glancing down at the heart in her hand, then up to him for a second before settling somewhere on the ground between them. “I heard sometimes hunters do that…”

Fuck, she was adorable, flushing harder even now than she was before, thinking her question was silly but it weren’t silly at all. The lazy stupid smile pulled into something that felt a little less brainless and a little more pleased. “You gotta, when it’s your first kill.”

She looked back up at him now, cheeks still red but she had lost that hint of embarrassment, replacing it with that inquisitive little tilt of her head. “What do you do with it when it’s not?”

He shrugged. “Could eat it, still. Take it back with us. Cook it up for supper since we ain’t gonna be eating the rest of it yet.”

Now she smiled, gave the muscle in her hand a little squeeze. “Whatcha think, heart and potato soup?”

“Think that sounds fuckin’ wonderful.” He raised the Mason jar up, then took a big swig of syrup.

Her soft giggle floated across the bank and settled around him as she made quick work of the rest of the deer.  In her pack, Daryl found a bundle of rope, and she managed to use it to hoist the body up to hang from one of the sturdier birches. They let the rest of the blood drain while Beth tidied up the bank and he finished his fruit and took some more water.  The cabin wasn’t far away, if he remembered right, but he couldn’t carry the carcass back. Even resting here, his calf muscles threatened to cramp up on him and his head kept drifting between fully here and kinda not. Despite her size, Beth was strong—he would have to coax her into tearing off her sleeves one a these days—but she couldn’t pack the doe, either, not easily. 

“I see you thinkin’,” Beth said, sinking down beside him after washing up in the creek, stretching her legs out alongside his and leaning over until their shoulders met.

He turned his head just as she tipped hers up toward him. “That obvious?”

“There’s smoke, Daryl,” she said, holding the deadpan expression for only a second before the smile broke out. “But really—how are we gonna get her back?”

“Be best if we had somethin’ to drag her with. Could build somethin’, but—”

“I have somethin’,” Beth said, teeth sinking into her bottom lip. “I have to get it…” She pulled up onto her knees and half-turned to face him. “You’ll be okay? I’ll only be gone twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, tops.”

“Shit, woman, you got a cache buried in the bush, or somethin’?” he asked, mostly joking until she started nodding her head. He breathed out slow and reached to cover one of her hands on her knee with his. “Beth.”

She shrugged, like she was trying to brush it off as no big deal, but her lip shook, just a little until she caught it in her teeth again, and the dark circles stood out stark on her pale face. “Gotta be prepared for anythin’, right?”

There was more to that. A whole lot more. Whatever she dealt with while he was gone, it wasn’t just waiting around being worried, but he wouldn’t ask her now. They could talk later about what happened to them both. Right now they just needed to get back and if whatever she had buried was gonna help—

“Course I’ll be okay. Got my crossbow and the world’s greatest fruit salad,” he said, pausing to wait for her little giggle and grin. 

She didn’t disappoint. Even with exhaustion weighing on her, she flashed her teeth and rolled her eyes, her little breath of laughter washing warm over his face.

“Anything wanders by, I’ll get it with a peach half.”

“I’d use the cherries,” Beth said, her smile lingering, sparkling a little behind the exhaustion in her eyes. “They’re sneakier.”

Because he thought he could—because if she was gonna go he needed to convince himself once more that she was real—Daryl reached out to cup her cheek, fingertips slipping into her hair. She leaned in as he did and pressed their foreheads together, her own hand sliding round to the back of his neck.

“Be safe,” she whispered, fingertips making small circles beneath his hair. 

Daryl brushed his thumb over her cheek and Beth sighed softly. “You be a quick sneaky cherry and get your ass back here.”

Beth’s soft laughter lingered in the air even after she left, leaving him her pack and the shotgun but taking her crossbow with her. She wasn’t away long, just like she said, only about twenty five minutes by his best estimate. She sneaky cherried her way back to the bank, stepping out of the woods so silently he was hit with a rush of pride at just how good she was getting at all of this. How much of a survivor she really was now, probably more than she even knew. And he was grinning stupidly up at her again, but it made her smile, too, so he didn’t fight it. Honestly he didn’t have the strength and he wasn’t certain he even wanted to fight it in the first place. 

“Whatcha got?”

Beth unfolded the large square of thick canvas with reinforced grommets set along its edges, which he recognized from the crossbow chest at the cabin. “She’ll fit on this, right? And we can tie it up so she doesn’t get dirty, and use the rope to pull her.”

Daryl’s heart fluttered in his chest and the stupid smile lingered. “Good, Beth. Real good.”

He started to get up to help her, but Beth pressed her palm into the centre of his chest and pushed him back against his tree.

“You are smiling way too much right now to be well enough to help me,” Beth said, and if anyone else had done so he’d’ve grunted or scowled or something in response. 

But it was Beth, and all he did was keep grinning, which—yeah, he supposed she was right about that. He wasn’t completely out of his head, but the edges of his thoughts had gotten a little fuzzy again, sneaking up on him like Beth and her cherries. So he leaned back into his tree, sipped at his water and ate the fruit, and watched as she went off to do it herself. 

Beth spread the canvas out beneath the doe and then lowered her onto it, using the leverage of the rope around the branch to do it slowly, get her positioned right. No easy task, that—he could see the beads of sweat forming on her forehead already, and the little tremor in her arms from the strain of managing the doe’s weight. But she got her in place, and used the bundle of twine from her pack to tie the doe in, making a little pouch to keep her clean inside. Before he could say anything, Beth detached the strap from the shotgun and used it and the hanging rope and made a little harness, whipping the thing up into a complicated mess of rope loops without any hesitation at all and attaching it to the canvas bag. 

He must’ve been giving her a look, because when she turned back to face him, a little half smile slipped onto her face and she shrugged. “I used to make them for the dog so she could take my stuffed animals on hayrides.”

Farm girls.

Was a good trick, though. After she made sure his legs were gonna keep him up and arranged her pack and crossbow on her back, she handed him the shotgun to carry and stepped in. The wide, padded strap from the gun lay across her chest in the same way a backpack strap would, and once she had it settled there just above her breasts, she tied the loose tail of the rope so it rested across her hips. 

She’d put on little looped rope handles, too, which would help her pull and distribute the weight over four points instead of just two. Funny—‘cause last he looked, dogs didn’t have hands—but she must’ve been reading his mind because she looked over at him as he hobbled up beside her, grinning around the teeth in her lip.

Her eyes swept up in their sockets before meeting his again. “Sometimes I used to give the dog hayrides.”

He couldn’t stop the laugh that spilled up out of him, but it made Beth’s cheeks flush pink again, and she ducked her head and giggled, so he didn’t mind all that much.

“C’mon,” he said, his laughter fading in sound but not in feeling, still bubbling away in his chest, next to the ever-present warm flutter that he thought now mighta been Beth’s wings. Daryl glided his palm over those wings and the curve of her back beneath them, and Beth looked up at him with her tired eyes and a smile full of teeth. “Let’s go home.”

They weren’t more than an hour from the cabin, when his legs weren’t weak and cramping and when Beth wasn’t dragging a hundred and fifty pounds of deer. Even with the harness and the way it lifted much of the deer off the ground, it was tough going. Beth stopped after twenty minutes to pull off her knit sweater and the blue and grey plaid flannel. She glanced over at him when she slipped his vest back on over her yellow polo, standing there in a beam of sunlight cutting through the trees above. It lit up her hair, a wild tangle of shining gold above the battered old wings, and it stole his words right out of his head. All he could do was nod, and follow after as she resumed walking, hauling the deer he was too weak to manage, grunting with the effort, her skin flushed red, drenched in sweat with his wings still resting there on her back like they were always meant to. 

It took hours—he thought. He might’ve left his sense of time back in that oak tree—to finally reach the cabin, between his fucking useless body and Beth’s heavy load. A couple of trees had succumbed, either to the storm or the herd, thinning out the approach along the path to the back yard. Beth stopped just before the trees got thin and stepped out of her harness, then dropped her pack to the ground at his feet. 

“Stay here.” She waited until he nodded before sliding her crossbow off her shoulder and creeping away, picking through the brush toward the outhouse.

She wasn’t planning on taking a piss break, either. Took him a few seconds but he realized she was aiming to sneak into the yard closer to the cabin itself, and more importantly out of view from the only window. Daryl couldn’t see everything from where he stood on the path, but did catch the flash of yellow marking her entrance into the yard and a couple of glimpses thereafter. Wasn’t long, though, before she came jogging along the path, looking more exhausted than he ever remembered seeing her but wearing a smile so bright it bloomed over her whole face.

“It’s all clear, Daryl,” she said, talking like she expected otherwise. “C’mon. Let’s get inside.”

The yard was a mess of waterlogged corpses with knife holes through their heads, tree debris and broken fence boards. Beth ignored it all, making straight for the door, pulling that doe across the overgrown lawn like if she stopped she wouldn’t be able to go again. He helped her get the doe inside and hung up on one of the hooks set into the ceiling, fighting a wave of spotty light-headedness just to get it done. Ideally they’d have a cold room or something set up to hang her in. She’d be okay for a bit, hanging there, but they’d have to get her skinned and smoked soon to keep the meat from spoiling. For now, though…

Beth narrowed her eyes at him where he stood, bracing his hands on the counter to keep his head grounded even though it wasn’t working too well. She lifted his bag over his head, then his crossbow, and pointed at the bed. “God, Daryl, sit down before you pass out.”

Daryl wobbled his way over and eased down onto the edge of the bed, his lower back and legs protesting with various bursts of pain, head still swirling somewhere in the atmosphere above him. He sat and watched as Beth lit the fire in the stove, then grabbed the water pail, her limp noticeable again as she disappeared out the door. Over the next little while she came in and out, emptying the pail into the two big soup pots, then the washtub until it was full, too. She made one last trip, returning with the pail itself full of water, which she set on the stove alongside one of the pots to warm. After casting one last glance outside, Beth shut and bolted the door and, strangely, pushed one of the chests up against it so it wedged between the door and the stove. 

Beth looked over at him where he sat on the bed before crossing the room to grab a pile of clothes from the counter.

“You gotta get out of these damp things,” she said, dropping down to her knees in front of him, that furrow grown deep between her eyebrows again. “Can you do it?”

He had to do it. Had to. ‘Cause the alternative meant—no. No, he could do it. He would do it even if he passed out trying—

“…Daryl?”

Beth’s face swam back into view. Daryl blinked and gave his head a little shake, and some of the muddiness slipped away. “Yeah. Yeah, just—”

“Let me get your boots,” she said, voice soft and low. “Then I’ll turn around, okay?”

All he could do was nod at her. She had to get her knife out to loosen the knots in his bootlaces, swollen tight from the rain, but she worked them free and tugged the boots off one at a time. His socks were soaked and when she peeled them off, his feet alarmingly white and wrinkled beneath them.

“You’re so cold,” Beth said rubbing his left foot between her palms. “You can feel that, though, right? They’re not numb anywhere?”

He honestly hadn’t paid much attention to his feet in so long he didn’t know immediately. Maybe they were, a little, but it was a waterlogged kind of numb. A cold kinda numb that would go away if he ever got warm, and he could feel her hands on him, so he shook his head.

Her concerned look didn’t ease, and she let his foot go to rub the right one. “We gotta warm you up, get some more fluids into you, and then you’re gonna have a nice long nap, okay?”

“’Kay, Beth,” he said, reaching out to twirl his finger around a curl of hair that came loose from her ponytail.

She felt the tug and looked up, the tight set of her mouth easing into a soft little smile. “Let me know when you’re done changing.”

Daryl let his hand fall back to his knee and Beth gave it a little squeeze as she stood up, before she crossed the room back to the counter. He watched her pull off her own boots, then climb up to check out the window. Forgetting, for a moment, what he was meant to be doing while she had her back turned, he was struck once again by the fact that she was wearing his vest and probably had been since he left it with her. More than just his vest, he remembered thinking, days ago now but it felt like longer. 

So much more.

But. Right. Clothes. Daryl struggled out of his layers, each one a little damper than the last, but he didn’t really feel it until his undershirt came off and the still-cool air hit his clammy skin. A shiver so violent his teeth knocked together rocketed through him and he struggled with shaking fingers to drag the dry t-shirt over his head. The scrawny fellow who used to own it liked his shirts fitting large, but it was snug on Daryl and the edges rolled up, caught on his sticky back. His arms wouldn’t cooperate, wouldn’t bend enough, fingers too weak to hold on long enough to roll it down, and fuck, this wasn’t happening, not now. Not here, not like this. His already swimming head plunged deeper beneath the water and a stab of pain lanced through his chest to steal what was left of his breath. If he could just—

His fingers caught the edge and held, and Daryl drove his teeth into his lip hard enough to draw blood. But the pain there tore his thoughts out of his head and air rushed back into his chest, and he curled his fingers deeper into the rolled edge of the shirt and inch by inch, pulled it down to cover his exposed back. He tried not to make a sound, but a flash of movement caught his attention and his bleary eyes focused on Beth in front of him, standing still, holding a Mason jar full of water still swirling around the spoon stuck in it.

“’S okay,” he managed to grind out, pulling his trembling fingers into his lap in the hopes of stilling them.

Beth’s breath left her audibly, even from here across the room, and she resumed her stirring, the spoon clinking rhythmically against the sides of the jar, the water rushing around the spoon like a tiny whirlpool.

He could still hear the clinking in his head when Beth set the jar down, and only when she was halfway through pulling her polo shirt off her head did Daryl’s brain jolt back out of the depths of wherever it was hiding, focus drawing in on that now-bright scrap of yellow folding in on itself to reveal a long stretch of lean, pale skin broken only by straps of faded pink. His gaze followed along to where the defined muscles of her shoulders and arms flexed first to pull the shirt over her head, then again moments later when she covered back up with one of the man’s dingy white undershirts, hanging big and long on her slight frame.

When she wriggled out of her jeans, with some effort to get the dirt-caked denim down off her legs, he should’ve been surprised, because she needed to be warm and dry just as much as him. But knowing it didn’t stop the jolt of heat hitting him like a kick to the belly, heat that boiled over and spread quickly south. She was wearing hand-me-down men’s underwear for fuck’s sake, boxer briefs in a ridiculous bright red, on top of her own ‘cause he could see the lines, except now he was half-hard in his dirty wet jeans and wasn’t that a fucking joke?

He almost laughed, but held it in, sure it was gonna come out as a groan and then he’d be done for. The one part of his wretched body still working, and him the guy not exactly known for thinking with his cock—something Merle liked to remind him of as often as he could.

You forget you even got a dick ‘til you gotta take a piss with it.

Shut up, Merle.

“Daryl?”

Beth straightened up again, the hem of the undershirt falling to cover only about half the red, and Daryl dragged his gaze up to the ceiling. He must’ve spoken out loud, talking to the ghost of his dead brother no less.

He cleared his too-dry throat, tried to swallow. “Don’t—don’t turn around.”

Daryl dumped his jeans on the floor and held up the underwear she set aside for him. Same as hers, but dark grey. A bit small, considering they fit Beth—a little too well, the way the bright red stretched across the soft curves of her ass. He did groan this time, low and pained, and on second thought maybe something constrictive was a good idea. Not taking his eyes off her, where she stood still and quiet with her back to him, Daryl tugged off his damp boxers, grateful for the cold air this time, and fought his way into the dry briefs and the faded black sweats.

Not knowing exactly what to do now, Daryl just sat, eyes set on Beth even though he wasn’t sure that was wise, either. This wasn’t—this wasn’t him, wasn’t how he was wired for this to just happen like that, but here he was, cock hard, belly thrumming warm and deep with a need he ain’t ever felt before, not like this. It had to be her, something about her that made his body forget its own fucked up rules, or maybe it was just his loopy goddamn head except this wasn’t the first time, was it? She was fucking beautiful, she was; beautiful and strong and kind and good, but when had that ever mattered, before? Before Beth?

Nothing fucking mattered before Beth.

Of course it was Beth. He knew that. Knew it last time this happened, too, and the time before that. How he felt about her wasn’t like anything he’d ever known before, and maybe he was just so full up inside with feeling things about Beth they had nowhere else to go sometimes—and that was a load of bullshit, probably, but nothing else made a lick of sense.

You’re fucking delirious, Dixon.

He was pretty sure he’d said that out loud, too, because Beth let out a little huff of laughter. “You really are. Are you all dressed now? Can I turn around?”

“Y-yeah.” He coughed, clearing his throat again. The sweats were dark—she wouldn’t see unless she really looked, and that wasn’t a possibility he was gonna entertain.

She turned, and he remembered then just how exhausted she was, even if she was pretending otherwise in her determination to take care of him. He was already breathing a little harder than he should, but he was pushed into even deeper breaths as she crossed the room, a Mason jar of water in each hand, worry still etched into her forehead.  She had to be aching after hauling that deer all by herself, and he should be telling her off for bothering with him when she oughtta be looking after herself—he didn’t deserve it, didn’t fucking deserve any bit of it but Beth, Beth wouldn’t hear it. He saw it there in her sharp-eyed gaze that she knew what he was thinking and what she would say about it.

That’s bullshit.

Thing was, she believed it. It weren’t just lip service and that made his already pounding heart beat harder and his chest flutter like a jet engine. He didn’t think he could feel any warmer inside but another wave of heat rolled through him, followed a second later by an electric jolt deep in his belly when she sat down beside him. Daryl leaned into the warmth of her, thought he might melt right into her if he could. She still smelled of sweat and dirt, a tang of doe’s blood, a hint of something deep and woodsy—how a woman named Greene should smell—and he was hard as rock now, painfully so in these tight as hell shorts, but all he wanted to do was burrow his face into her neck like he had at the creek and breathe her in.

“Drink this, Daryl,” Beth said, passing him the first jar, wrapping her fingers around his when his hands shook too hard to hold it steady.

The water—a warm mixture of salty and sweat—soothed his dry throat, and he drained half the jar before she pulled it away to let him breathe. He was so thirsty, but his head was swimming again, so he let himself fall into her, his face in her soft sweaty neck, that warm woodsy smell of her filling his empty head. She let him, only shifting a little to keep him from pushing her right over, before combing her fingers gently through his hair.

“You’re gonna be okay, Daryl,” she said, speaking so softly he could barely hear her, but even his ringing ears didn’t miss the little waver there. “You’re gonna be okay.”

He finished the rest of the jar and part of the second, and Beth helped him lay down, his head still floating somewhere above his body. The swipe of a hot, wet towel over his face brought him back down and he blinked his eyes open, unaware he’d closed them, watching her as she scrubbed him wherever his skin showed. Her lip was caught between her teeth, face so pale and worried he wanted to reach out and pull her in, but his muscles had gone to jelly the moment she laid him down, evaporated into air beneath the scrub of her cloth, and he couldn’t move if he tried. She pulled the quilt over him, tucking his cold feet in last with a warm dry towel wrapped around them. He didn’t see her do it because his eyes had shut again, but he felt the press of her lips, cool and dry on his forehead and then—then nothing, and he forced his eyes open as she moved away.

Somehow, he caught her leg in his hand, fingers he could barely work digging into her bare skin, and she stopped, her blurred face turned down to look at him. He found her eyes through the fog but he couldn’t drag the words out past the tightening in his chest. But he got it now. He understood why she clung to him when the dreams ravaged her sleep because he didn’t know what was gonna happen if she left right now, but he wasn’t going to be able to keep breathing if she got any further away. Except he couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell her, could only stare mutely up at her from the depths of the fog he was rapidly falling into.

Beth didn’t need words, and if his head wasn’t so thick he’d’a remembered that. She slipped beneath the quilt, into the sliver of space between his body and the edge of the bed and curled into him, tucking her head right up beneath his chin, cheek to his chest, arm across his stomach and her leg up over his, so close to where he was still so fucking hard for her but he didn’t care about that. He just needed her here like he needed air and when he dragged his arm up around her, his fingers finding the dip of her waist, she snuggled in closer.

“I got you, Daryl,” she whispered, pressing her palm over his pounding heart, pulling his thoughts back round to when he told her the same thing. “It’s okay. I’m not goin’ anywhere. I got you.”

She did. She had him. So many more ways than she maybe even knew. Daryl covered her hand on his heart with his and turned his face into her hair, letting the strands tickle his nose, his lips, his cheek. She was warm, so wonderfully warm and the cold seeped out of him as quickly as sleep sneaked in, and he imagined, just before he fell under, the whisper of Beth’s voice wrapping her words of promise tightly around him.

I got you, Daryl. I got you. I got you and I’m never gonna leave you.

*~*

 

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 15 - Somehow Knew These Wings Were Stolen

*~*

Rain fell hard as Daryl flattened his back against the trunk of the big oak tree. His fingers sunk into the thick moss and he hung on as the moaning, stinking bodies swayed all around him. Night fell so thick and black he couldn’t see them, could only hear and smell them, taste their stink in the air and in the rain on his tongue, feel the brush of rags and cold rotting hands as they stumbled past. He stood still. If he didn’t move, didn’t breathe, didn’t make a sound, he could still get out of this. Could sneak away into the dark, rainy night as though he wasn’t ever there.

They pressed in closer. Dead bodies bumping his shoulders, knocking at his knees. Pain surged through his legs, radiating out in gripping, crippling waves from his shattered bones and he fell, blind, helpless, as the black night erupted in mindless wailing. Rain pelted down from above, pooled in the dirt, lapping at his face, growing deeper and colder and all around him, stumbling feet and grabby hands closed in, reaching, searching.

He was done. Gone. As dead as the rest of them. The water covered his face now. Covered his whole body. He was floating, drifting away amongst the dead swimming mindlessly on like thousands of rotting fish on the journey upstream. But his arms and legs were useless and all he could do was drift. Helpless. Frozen.

A crack of lightning flashed overhead. It surged through the water, jolting into him bone-deep and setting all his nerves alight with a thrumming pulse of energy. All around him the walkers floated, adrift, deadly mouths opening and shutting without sound. But now Daryl could move, and he began to swim against the current, away from the monsters held motionless in it. 

Another fork of lightning cleaved the sky, shooting down into the deep to cast the walkers away, parting the water until it rolled out in two giant waves. In its wake a shape, a bright shadow against the dark sky above, cut swiftly through the valley of the waves. He reached for it as it passed and something reached back—two arms, slender but so strong, lifted him out of the water. 

He landed at the bottom of the boat, gasping for breath, fat drops of water patting onto the wood and soaking in until the whole thing glistened. 

Breathe, Daryl. That’s it.

He could breathe at last, now that she kept speaking, her voice whispering into his lungs and pulling the air in with it. When he looked up she was waiting there in the prow of the boat, her eyes opened wide and so, so blue. Her white dress billowed around her in a luminous white cloud, all of her glowing bright like lantern lighting up the dark night.

What were you doing down there, silly?

Daryl had no voice, couldn’t speak, but Beth only laughed, a light, cheerful sound which swirled warm through his body and lit the dark even brighter. Her two strong arms reached out, drew him to her until he collapsed, warm and weightless in the pillowy cloud of her dress. She cradled his head to her breast, fingers combing through his hair, stroking his cheek. Her dress swallowed them up like a blanket, but it wasn’t a dress, it was wings, feathers downy-soft and glowing so brightly it hurt his eyes to look. So he kept them shut and let her hold him close, with her arms, her wings, her sweet warmth all around him. Beneath him, the steady beat of her heart drummed out a rhythm like oars on the water, propelling them and their little boat toward the light of the sun blooming on the horizon.

You saved me, Beth.

She laughed again, like chimes in the wind, the notes of it washing over him. 

I got you, Daryl. You know I got you.

He did know. He could feel her all around him, and he breathed in deep until all he had was warmth and Beth and nothing else mattered. 

You need to sleep, too, Daryl. Stay.

Already her gentle fingers, the steady beating of her heart beneath his cheek, the rocking of the boat as they drifted together through the night were soothing him under. She breathed out a breath so deep and warm it washed over him like sunlight and he knew this was where he wanted to stay.

I’m never gonna leave you.

Daryl floated, warm and weightless for a while, the echo of those words ringing in his mind. Beth’s voice and his mixing together into one. He drifted for a long time in a sort of half-aware limbo until consciousness got its hooks into him and he realized he was awake, that instead of a boat over the waves it was Beth’s breathing rocking gently beneath him.

Beth.

He remembered falling asleep with her, but not tangled up like this—curled around her warm little body, both sets of arms and at least three legs keeping her there. Daryl breathed deep, like he had in his dream, tilting his face down into her hair and drawing that scent of her into his lungs, sweat and earth and something inherently Beth. She nuzzled her face deeper into his neck, letting out a little sigh before getting back to the quiet snoring she was doing, breathing out over his skin with the same warm breeze from his dream.

This was nice.  A lot of thoughts jumped in Daryl’s brain right then, but that thought landed with the biggest force. Holding her, having the warmth of her there with him—that was nice. It was a lot of things other than that, too, but that was too much thinking for his tired head. It made the low-grade ache pulse a little harder, even just skirting the edges of what else it could be. He didn’t need to think about it now, though. Beth wouldn’t mind if he just let her sleep and enjoyed the niceness for a while longer. If anyone would understand that, it would be her. 

She was warm in his arms and warmth simmered away in his belly, too. Not the blaze of arousal from before but something else instead, something calmer. Not less, just a different sort of heat, but it had as much to do with Beth as had the other thing. She stayed. He needed her and she stayed and that meant more than how good she smelled or how adorable she sounded when she snorted softly and murmured in her sleep.

Yeah, she was something, all right. One of these days he might have to figure out exactly what that meant, but for right now all he wanted to do was stay here and not think about a thing, except maybe how well she fit, wrapped up in him as much as he was wrapped around her. He dragged his eyes open, but all he could see of her was her messy blonde ponytail and the curve of the braid she liked to keep in it. Holding her was enough, though. He didn’t need to see her, and he let his eyes shut again, ignoring the dryness in his throat, the pressure in his bladder just so he could keep doing it.

Muggy afternoon heat surrounded them when he woke again, dampening his forehead and the back of his neck, turning Beth into a little woodstove burning away against his chest. So warm, and after being so cold before he wanted to pull her closer and soak it all in. He really had to piss now, though, to an uncomfortable degree, and waking her was the last thing he wanted, but fate or something intervened and Beth stirred. She groaned and stretched, arching her back until her hips and belly pressed into his. She froze, still stretched out like that, face tucked into the underside of his jaw and her breath hot on his skin. But it was okay, okay that she was there, and Daryl combed his fingers through her hair where his hand cradled the back of her head, fingertips grazing her scalp between the soft strands. The curve of her back settled and the tension in her muscles eased, and Beth pulled her face out of his neck to look at him.

She blinked her sleep-lined eyes and smiled in a lazy way, her cheeks flushed pink, hair damp and plastered to her forehead from the heat.

“Hi.” She stretched again, almost like she couldn’t help it, that damn lip caught up in her teeth and stifling the little groan that went with it. “You okay?”

Okay was relative, but he was sure she wasn’t asking his opinion on feel of her body arching against his. What she was asking though, that he could answer. His thoughts were sharper than before they fell asleep, head mostly normal instead of floating somewhere above him. The ache in his legs hadn’t gone away, and he could feel the muscles there and in his back pull and strain when he stretched a bit. No spasms hit, though, no gripping cramps.

If he’d been standing he’d’ve shrugged. Instead he smiled at her, just a little. “Yeah, I’m all right. Gotta piss though.”

Beth let out a little snort of laughter before turning over and easing her way out of bed, first untangling her legs from his, then ducking out of his arms. When she stood she stretched again, long and hard with a deep groan that must’ve come from somewhere down in her toes, and rolled her shoulders with a grimace. Daryl levered himself up on his arms, a little dizzy, watching her stretch, trying not to notice the way her shirt rode up to expose a little strip of skin above the red shorts, or how much longer her legs looked without her jeans on. When the wave of light-headedness passed, Daryl swung his legs out of the bed and Beth held out her hand to him. He didn’t need it but took it anyway and let her help him up.

He still ached, but nothing like before, more like how he did after a full day of running, and the swimming in his head eased off to just a tiny annoyance in the background. Daryl drained the other half of the salty-sweet water in the jar on the chest by the bed, then took slow, easy steps toward the door. Beth had already pulled back the chest and removed the bar, and opened the door for him when he got there. Daryl didn’t bother going down into the yard, vaguely aware that he mighta just reverted back to redneck asshole by pissing off the top step into the grass but the relief was so great he didn’t think he actually cared.

All Beth did when he came back in was raise her eyebrows at him while smothering a smile. “Well, at least we know your kidneys are working. Here.”

He took the jar of water from her—plain, this time—and drank some while she did the same. She got them both refills when they finished then announced she was going outside, but not before pulling on her jeans and boots, then throwing his vest on over her top. Beth glanced at him as she settled it across her shoulders, wearing his leather like she owned it and he wasn’t all that certain she didn’t, somehow. That one image rang clear from this morning, Beth standing in a sunbeam, hair alight, his wings at her back like they belonged there. Like before, he could only look at her, but whatever she saw in his face must have answered her unspoken question. She smiled gently just before she turned toward the door, smoothed her hands down the front of the leather and glanced back at him from the top of the steps. 

Daryl watched her heading off in the direction of the outhouse, staring after her a good few seconds even when she disappeared down the path. His boots were still wet, so he kicked them closer to the stove, then crouched down to the pile of clothing he left on the floor by the bed. A spasm ripped up his back so hard it stole his breath and took the strength right out of his knees, and he had to hold onto the wooden bed frame to keep from falling onto his ass. It was late in the afternoon judging by the sun outside, not too far removed from his midday delirium. He should’ve known this wasn’t quite over, that even a few hours of sleep, no matter how blissful and solid, could fix what took almost two days to wreck, but fuck, now that his head wasn’t in the clouds this was already getting old.

He was just standing up when Beth came back in, her eyes finding him the moment she stepped inside, no doubt noting the tight set of his mouth when his back and thighs protested the movement with a spasm of warning. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her watching him as he got to his feet, but once he was up she turned to bar the door and stepped over to the counter area to gather up her own discarded clothing. Daryl followed her over to the front of the cabin as she headed there to hang her things up from the pegs in the wall.

“I was gonna do that, before we fell asleep,” she said, holding onto one of the empty pegs, half-leaning there as she watched him hang his clothes.

He grunted at her. Grunted. It came out of nowhere and left behind an unpleasant wriggle in his gut. Beside him, Beth bit her lip and twisted her grip on the peg, and the wriggling got worse, squirming inside like a bucket of worms, but he didn’t know what to do about it when he didn’t know where it came from in the first place. Fighting his fingers which were doing their best to stop him from accomplishing the delicate task of clothes hanging, Daryl ignored the squirm, tried to ignore Beth’s eyes on him, and tried not to swear when he dropped one of his shirts and couldn’t catch it in time to stop it landing on the floor at his feet.

Beth moved to grab it at the same time as he did, but he fought through the warning quiver in his muscles and bent down to get it, jerking the stupid thing away from her reaching fingers. “I got it, Beth.”

Shit. He hadn’t meant to snap at her but his fucking mouth had other ideas. He had the damn thing in his hands now, though, plus a new sharp pain in his lower back, and there wasn’t anything else he could do but shove the shirt onto an available peg. Beth stood there just looking at him, and he didn’t want to look at her because he was being a dick and he knew it, and he was just about to retreat somewhere in this tiny fucking cabin, just anywhere she wasn’t, when her fingers wrapped gently around his wrist. 

For the first time in what felt like forever, he had to fight the urge to flinch away, to withdraw from her touch like she were someone else. Someone who wasn’t Beth. He stared at her slender fingers on his wrist and didn’t flinch, but the urge tugged at him anyway. He didn’t want to. Didn’t want to pull away from her, not Beth, no matter what the vestiges of old instincts tried to tell him, so where the hell was this all coming from? 

If Beth saw his inner struggle, she didn’t let on, just gave him a little squeeze and released his arm.

When he dared look up to meet her eyes she wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t not smiling, either. “Okay, Daryl,” she said, without looking away. 

From her tone she wasn’t angry, at least he didn’t think so. Wasn’t defensive, either. It was just words, but words like only Beth could say them, warm and soft, a soothing balm to the prickle of nerves in his chest. Beth and her voice and those wide eyes of hers that he knew could see right down inside him.

It wasn’t completely gone, that unsettled feeling in his gut, but he shoved it down and tried to swallow but his throat had gone dry. He followed after Beth, his agitated back protesting with each careful step, joining her over at the counter where she was opening up a jar of peaches. One good twist on the ring and the seal released with a generous pop, the sweet scent of home canned fruit filling the cabin. She offered him a spoon and a smile this time, and Daryl took both and tried to forget what just happened before. 

“She knew what she was doin’, the woman who lived here,” Beth said, around the slice of peach in her mouth. She hopped up onto the counter and nudged the chair over toward him with her foot. “Lord, these peaches are so good. Mmm, here, Daryl, try some.”

He took the jar from her once he eased himself into the tall chair and scooped a slice out with his spoon. They were good, perfectly ripe and juicy and the flavour exploded in his mouth. “Damn. You ain’t wrong.”

Beth only giggled and held her hands out, fingers wiggling. “Don’t hog them all!”

He only ate the same as she did, but her exaggeration coaxed out a bit of a chuckle and he made a point of taking one more slice before holding out the jar to her. 

“Oh my god,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I ate something so delicious.”

Despite teasing him about hogging the peaches, she gave him back the jar after taking just a couple of slices. “Wonder if there’s an old orchard around or somethin’,” he said, watching her watching him as he took his turn. “Peach is good wood for smoking meat.”

Beth nodded. “Otis used to use it for smokin’ pork.”

She took the jar back and bit into another piece, a trail of juice dribbling down her chin. She shut her eyes and leaned her head back and almost moaned as she chewed, and a little pulse of heat replaced the squirm in Daryl’s belly. He looked away, gaze landing on the deer carcass hanging over in the corner and he made an effort to admire Beth’s tidy job of dressing it. 

So much so she was halfway through speaking again before he realized he should be listening. “...downstream somewhere maybe, since you didn’t see anything up. Oak will work though, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, answering before he was fully caught up to the topic at hand. He turned back to her, taking the jar she held out to him. “Yeah, we got lots of oak out in the woodshed.”

“We should probably get going on that now, right? So the meat doesn’t spoil?” Beth reached behind her while he had the jar, using both hands to pull open the window. “So warm in here.”

A bit of breeze drifted in, bringing with it a lingering hint of that after-rain scent and chasing out a bit of the stuffy afternoon air inside. Beth shut her eyes again and took a deep breath, and Daryl could imagine the way the breeze must feel on her face. 

He thought about suggesting they open the door, too, but she’d been so oddly vigilant about keeping it closed and blocked with that chest, so he kept that to himself. “Yeah,” he said instead. “Best to just get it done.”

Beth, her eyes still shut, tipped her face up a little closer to the breeze. “What do we do first?”

“Make a salt rub. Dries the meat out and keeps it from growin’ bacteria, then we smoke it up hard. It’ll keep for a long time, that way.” Daryl took one last peach and passed the jar back to her to finish, nudging her leg with it so she would know. “We get that mixed, then we can start butchering.”

Beth finished the last few peaches, then tipped the jar up to drink the juice left behind. It was still half full when she slid it back across the counter to him. “All yours.”

He drank it, remembering the fruit salad from earlier although the peaches tasted better. If they had time to explore he was sure they would find that orchard, probably some remnant from an old homestead long since gone wild. No grocery store peach tasted that fresh out of a jar, even in Georgia, especially out in the deep woods like this. No, lady walker had a source close by, he was sure of it. While he mused on the freshness of their breakfast—well, supper, probably—Beth filled them both a jar of water to drink and hauled the bag of salt out onto the counter. 

Daryl had done this before, though not for a long time. It had been a while since he had enough salt available to even attempt it, but they were well supplied here. So well that the couple who lived here could’ve gone on for a long while if they hadn’t ended up getting bit. Beth gathered up all the spices she could find, setting aside those she wanted to use, plus some of the garlic from the front wall since she said it was antibacterial, too. 

“And delicious,” she added, as she ground some up to add to their salt and spice mixture.

Butchering the doe inside the cabin wasn’t ideal, the light too dim and the temperature too hot, too humid. But the yard was full of rotten corpses, he didn’t have dry boots, and Beth still had that unspoken something fuelling her reluctance to spend too long outside. She wouldn’t look right at him when she said it, that she felt better staying in, instead rummaging around searching for her favourite knife which she eventually found right where she always kept it. Later. He would ask her about it later, once the deer was dealt with. He didn’t press the issue and she flashed him a look full of gratitude.

Together they skinned the doe where she hung, Beth picking it up quickly based on what she knew from skinning smaller kills. It felt good, working, even though he was sore as hell and his back complained if he moved the wrong way. It felt normal, anyway, preparing the deer, working at keeping them fed. The rest of it, the weakness tugging at his joints, the ache in his calves, the occasional moment of light-headedness, it was fading, maybe not fast enough, but it was. They’d eat well tonight, though, probably sleep better. By morning, he’d feel more like himself.

Despite his assurances to himself, or maybe because of them, a wave of dizziness washed over him when they were just about through. It hit him as he reached up above his head to free the last bit of skin, forcing Daryl to shut his eyes against the spinning of the room. He tried to breathe through it, and the worst of it passed as quickly as it hit him. Stomach queasy, all-over prickly with sweat, Daryl pried his eyes open and pressed on. He didn’t fucking have time for this.

The hide came free, dropping onto the canvas below. Beth set her knife down on the counter and wiped her hands on a rag. “Gonna hit the outhouse,” she said, already headed for the door. “Be right back.”

Cooler air burst in when she pulled open the door, the cross-breeze from the window cutting a path right through where he stood. Daryl leaned back against the counter and let it blow over him, shutting his eyes, trying to ease away the nausea one deep breath at a time. When footsteps on the stairs signalled Beth’s return, he pushed away from the counter and forced his eyes open, not entirely recovered, but recovered enough. She didn’t need to worry, she’d done enough of that.

“Let’s leave it open,” Beth said, filling their water jars and handing one to him. “It’s too hot in here.”

The breeze helped, and instead of making his nausea worse the water soothed it, and he sipped at it as they butchered the doe. Beth kept both their jars full, drinking so much herself she ran out to the outhouse again before they were through. Just as well, though. His legs were cramping again, his back gone tight, and he used the reprieve to walk off the strain of standing in one place, to stretch and rub the offending muscles.

She had a load of oak wood in her arms when she got back, and stacked them over by the stove. “Figured, since I was already out and all,” she said, when he looked over at her.

She helped herself to a carrot and passed him one, took some water and watched as he did, too, and then they got back to work. It didn’t take long, with the two of them. By the time the afternoon heat cooled into a warm evening, they had the meat off the bones and portioned into strips, ready for salting. His boots were mostly dry and he stuck his bare feet into them to trudge outside for the smoker, still waiting where he’d stashed it at the back of the woodshed. Beth came along and hauled in another load of wood, then dashed out again to refill the water pail while he got the smoker set up.

Was kind of a brilliant little rig, once he got a good look at it. Could build the fire right inside for a hotter smoke, but there was also a series of pipes meant to hook up to the woodstove. More distance from the heat of the fire made for a cooler smoke and that’s exactly what he was after. A good dose of salt and a long cool smoke made for a hard-smoked meat that would stay good for as long as they needed it to. Didn’t need no cold, no preservatives that way, which made some sort of sense. The cabin had no power, no cold room that they could find. They’d have relied on this sort of technique to keep meat through the summer.

He got the thing set up in the middle of the cabin—not its intended location, but they both agreed it was best to keep everything inside as much as possible. Beth said she felt better knowing their meat was inside with them, especially after all they had gone through to get it.

His legs wobbled in warning when he stood up from attaching the final length of pipe connecting the smoker to the stove, and he took careful steps over to join Beth. She stood at the counter, pounding the salt mixture into the venison strips, the cabin’s one chair stationed beside her. As he eased into it, trying not to groan as the throbbing in his calves settled to a dull ache, Beth glanced at him side-on, and it hit him like a baseball bat to the skull.

The peaches. The water. The too-frequent piss breaks. The open door, the chair, even the armfuls of wood. That sneaky goddamn woman had been taking care of him all fucking day and he didn’t even know it, and now that he did he couldn’t even be angry. Something let go in his belly, something he realized he’d been holding onto all afternoon. That tight, ugly, wriggling thing that made him grunt and snap and want to pull away from the only person in the world he had ever wanted to keep close.

It was okay, she was telling him, without ever saying a word. Okay to need help sometimes. Okay to need her, to rely on her just as much as she did him.

“We wouldn’t have this, if you hadn’t gone out to get it,” Beth said, like she could read his mind. “Thank you, Daryl. For doing this for us.”

For us. For Beth and Daryl against the whole fucking world.

He hated every bit of feeling weak and useless, and she knew that. Knew, too, that he had to get here on his own. Fucking knew him so well he almost couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t find a word in his head if he went in with a net and tried to catch one. But Beth didn’t need words, did she? No, she didn’t, and when he reached for her hand she reached back, simple as that, twined their fingers together and squeezed tight.

The sky was fully dark outside by the time they laid the last strips of salted venison into the smoker and secured the door. His stomach growled but Beth solved that problem, too, having whipped up her promised heart-and-potato-soup sometime between getting back to the cabin and him basically passing out on her, and it had simmered away all afternoon into something rich and oniony and thick and delicious but she only let him have enough to settle the hunger pangs.

“You will get sick if you eat too much, too fast,” she said, setting his bowl aside on the counter with the rest of the things she planned on washing in the morning.

The fact that she was probably right meant he only grumbled a little as she tidied up the rest of their mess and rearranged the candles so they had more light over at the bed. She joined him where he sat at the edge with a fresh jar of water for both of them and his vest, which she had been wearing all day until now, tucked beneath her arm.

“Here,” she said, speaking quietly, sliding it onto his lap. “I-I thought maybe you might want it back.”

Daryl looked down at it, at the wings showing between the folds of leather. Inside, a fresh bloom of heat rose up, stirring that fluttering in his chest that was always there these days, grown right in like an extra limb. He lifted the leather into his hands, unfolding the vest so he could look at the wings, aware of Beth’s eyes on him. A great many thoughts swirled around his head and he couldn’t make much sense of them, but one thing stuck out—Beth in the woods lit up by the sun and Beth from his dream, ethereal and glowing in the dark.

“Why don’t you keep it for a while?”

He didn’t know when he became such a sentimental motherfucker, but at least he knew why. If anyone was worth going sentimental for, it was Beth, and as he passed the vest back into her hands, their gazes met and held. Her fingers closed around the vest, brushing against his and he swore he could feel them trembling, just a little. Which was why next found himself helping her into it, settling the worn old leather across her shoulders, smoothing down the wings over her back with his palm.

Looks better on you anyway.

Saying things in his head only to realize he’d said them out loud was starting to become a habit, and Beth ducked her head away but not before he caught sight of her pleased grin, lip caught in her teeth as though she was trying to keep it contained. His cheeks felt warm, as warm as hers looked, flushed so deeply he could see it in the dark. But he said it, it was out there, and Beth didn’t let him feel awkward for too long before she tipped her head to rest it on his shoulder, finding his hand and twining their fingers together.

“What happened, while you were gone?” Beth asked, in a quiet voice, after a very long time of just sitting together in the stillness of the night, listening to the soft crackling of the fire in the woodstove, sipping water and staring into the flicker of candlelight around them.

He hadn’t had a lot of time to dwell on the details. The morning passed in a delirious fog and they’d been so busy through the afternoon, prepping the deer, that he hadn’t let it in. But in the quiet now it all rushed back, a dizzying flash of image memories and a thundering in his chest like the footsteps of a thousand walkers. Beth’s fingers tightened on his, pulling him back out of his head a bit, and he looked down at her just as she tipped her face up to look at him.

She was so close, leaning there against his shoulder, cheeks still flushed, pupils wide in the low light. “You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.”

Here was his out, if he wanted it. But looking down at her, at those big eyes staring back at him, he wanted to tell her everything. He needed to touch her, the urge coming upon him like a tingling rush in his chest, an itch in his fingers he couldn’t shake, and he lifted his hand to draw his thumb across the reddest part of her cheek. 

“I want to,” he said, repeating the motion on her soft skin, smiling when she let her eyes drift shut and snuggled her cheek deeper into his shoulder.

Beth squeezed his fingers and sighed, her face so close to his he felt the breath of it wash over him. “I’m not goin’ anywhere, Daryl. Take your time.”

With her eyes closed he felt daring enough to stroke her cheek one more time, letting his thumb linger there a minute before dragging his hand away. Beth shivered, the tremor rolling through her shoulder and into his where they touched. No, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Not a storyteller, no matter how Beth might tease him, Daryl told her in halting sentences about tracking the does all day only to lose them to walkers. About finding the buck the next day and making camp. Her hold on his hand grew tighter the more he spoke, almost to the point of pain when he got to where the herd appeared and he had to sacrifice the buck to keep himself alive. The more he spoke the easier it came, except for what mattered. When he tried to tell her about her voice in his head he forgot how to make sounds, all clammed up like he ain’t ever spoken a word in his life, throat thick and dry, lungs collapsed on themselves, crumpled like tinfoil inside his chest. The day spent in the tree with the walkers marching below, passing in and out of consciousness, waking to the storm and stumbling toward the creek, that all poured out of him as easy as water rushing in the creek. 

“Oh, Daryl,” Beth whispered, her breath hitching around the words. She shifted beside him, turning her face into his chest, reaching up to wrap her arm around his neck. Between them their joint hands rested over her heart, which thudded away behind her ribs like a stampeding horse.

Daryl pressed his face into her hair and his palm between her wings, ran his thumb along her spine how she liked after a nightmare. Beth sighed into his chest and whispered his name again, told him to keep going.

“Storm wasn’t lettin’ up, barely knew where I was, couldn’t walk no more,” he said, clearing his parched throat. “Fell down under a big old oak and didn’t think I’d make the night.”

At Beth’s sharp intake of breath, Daryl pulled his face out of her hair. She looked up at him, but not the way he expected, not wearing the look he imagined her to wear at the thought of him so uncertain of his fate. It affected her, it did—eyes red and glossy with unshed tears, that furrow etched so deep it might never relax. But that weren’t what made her react. 

“I know,” she said, sliding her hand up from his neck to rest along the line of his jaw. “You fell down, just where the clearing opened up and then crawled into the hollow, and you covered yourself with leaves and dirt, and you made it. You got up in the morning and you made it.”

There was a logical explanation for her words, for all of this, and of that Daryl was certain, but his brain was spinning a million miles a second and he just couldn’t get there. Something lurched in his chest and he just stared at her, and her trembling lip caught up between her teeth and her eyes, shouting a thousand things at him that he couldn’t read. “Beth?”

She pulled away, grabbing their half-empty water jars, and was across the room before he could reach out and stop her. Her fingers trembled as she took her time refilling the water, her back turned to try and keep him from seeing. But he saw. He couldn’t look away and when rolled her shoulders and groaned, he remembered again that only this morning she hauled a deer out of the woods all by herself.

This woman. God, this woman. Would she ever stop surprising him?

“Beth,” he said again, not a question this time. “C’mere, sweetheart.”

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 16 – With These Broken Wings I’m Fallin’ (and All I See Is You)

 *~*

 

“Beth,” he said again, not a question this time. “C’mere, sweetheart.”

Her fingers stilled on the jars and she breathed out a loud, shuddering breath before turning toward him, her face lit bright by the candles. Without taking her eyes off him she stepped back over, stopping when the toes of her boots touched up against his. She stood and looked down at him with that same unreadable expression, eyes so wide, lips held tight against the tremble tugging at their corners. 

He put the vest on her before. Now, after he guided her down to sit in front of him, her slight body between his knees, he slipped it off her shoulders to let it lie between them on the quilt. The moment his thumbs pressed in between her shoulder blades, Beth moaned long and loud and pushed back into his touch. Ropey knots rolled and she stifled a cry of pain. Daryl paused but she grunted at him not to stop. 

“I shoulda known,” he said, as she whimpered again. “Shoulda known you’d be hurtin’.”

“Doesn’t—ahhh—doesn’t matter.”

He remembered this game, and if she wasn’t hurting so bad he might’ve found it funny. “It does matter, Beth.”

Her giggle was half-sobbed, and she gripped his knees hard with both hands. “Okay,” she said, the word mostly breath. “Okay.”

She was a mess, tight and knotted and full of hotspots he could barely touch without making her whimper in pain. Anytime he tried to stop, though, she clenched her teeth and told him not to, just dug her fingers into his knees as he did his best to ease away the tension, to work her aching, abused muscles until they relaxed under his touch. 

“You’re—ohhh, Lord—you’re good at this, Daryl,” she said, curling forward a little as his thumbs travelled lower. 

He snorted as he touched on a spot to the left of her spine that made her jolt, only her grip on his knees keeping her from leaping up. “Ain’t good at nothin’. You’re just too sore to know the difference.”

“Still.” She all but hissed the word, holding her breath as he applied pressure, waiting for the knot to give a little before he worked it. She sighed when it did, and once again leaned into his touch. “You didn’t have to. Thanks.”

He did, though, but the words to tell her that died in his throat before he could speak them. She needed this, every bit as much as he needed her help before. Of course he would give that to her.

“Ohh, that hurts,” she whimpered, still pushing herself into the press of his thumbs despite the pain. 

He had found the twin to the spot that almost made her jump and worked his thumbs there, on either side of her spine just below her shoulder blades. “What you get for lookin’ after useless old assholes.” 

Beth snorted and squeezed his knee. “I don’t know about the useless part. Or the—ahh—the old part.”

Daryl let his hands go still for a moment. “I see how it is.”

She pushed back into his thumbs anyway, a little reminder nudge even though they both knew he wasn’t done. “Well, you’re the one who said it, I just didn’t disagree.”

“That’s a fine line of distinction, girl,” he said, with a snort, and moved his thumbs out from her spine toward her sides with a steady sort of pressure. 

“And those are fancy words for an asshole.”  Beth groaned and pressed her fingertips into his knees. “Ohh, even an asshole with magic fingers.”

Something pleasant pulsed warm and low in his belly at that, bizarre and random but no less palpable for it. Daryl drove his thumb deep into a spot that made her gasp and tip her head up to the ceiling. “So I’m a magic asshole now?”

“Yep,” she said, still looking up. “I see the glitter. There might even be rainbows.”

He couldn’t help himself, letting out a laugh when the mental image of that slammed full force into his brain. “Fuck, that’s a picture in my head I ain’t ever gonna unsee.”

Beth’s soft chuckle, broken a bit with little sighs as he worked, seemed to come from everywhere at once. “I hadn’t thought about that,” she said, and he imagined the face she might make if he could see her, eyes rolled up to the right, index finger pushed into her lip as she pretended to think. 

“Okay, maybe just a man, then,” she said, after a moment, the emphasis on man accompanied by a bit of a grunt when he found an especially sore spot. 

He dug in and she whimpered, but pushed into the pressure like always. “Just?”

And she laughed, a gravelly thing which trickled right down inside him where that pleasant warmth lingered. Stirred it up into something a little warmer, a little more insistent on being noticed. 

“You’ve still got those magic fingers,” she said, on the tail end of that laugh. “That’s somethin’. That’s—ohhha lotta somethin’.”

“Now you’re tryin’ to get on my good side,” Daryl said, taking the safe road. The teasing road that left the warmth in his belly simmering in the background—mostly. “I got you made, Greene.”

Beth craned her neck to look over her shoulder at him, though he could barely see the hint of one eye. “Yes, but is it working? ‘Cause I can up my game if I have to.”

Oh, girl, you got no idea.

That, he hoped, stayed in his head where it belonged. Out loud he tried to sound thoughtful or something, as he answered her. “You did make supper.”

She turned a little further, half her face visible now. “And got so sore and achy by being awesome, don’t forget.”

She was joking, he could hear the lilt of laughter in her words, the hint of doubt, too, like after all she done she still didn’t understand how amazing she was. He looked her straight in that one eye and couldn’t even pretend to be anything but serious. “Get all the back rubs you want for that, Beth.”

She turned more, to look at him now nearly straight on. It had to hurt, twisting like that when she was so sore, but she stared back at him like it didn’t matter at all. Like maybe she didn’t believe it, but it mattered to her that he did. That feeling was back, of being tethered, anchored to her by some unseen force, something which pulsed along with the warmth in his belly and rose up in the air to engulf them both. He couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop the slide of his thumb along her spine, or the way she shivered all over and made him shiver too. 

The moment broke when Beth’s back gave a twinge which scrunched up her face and forced her to untwist. But she huffed a bit of a laugh through her nose as she resettled in front of him, and tapped his knee with her fist. “Will you use your magic fingers?”

He set his hands on her again, thumbs poised to pick up where they left off, but he chuckled when she spoke and let his palms lay flat to soak in the warmth of her for a moment. “Yeah, yeah, rainbows and all.”

“And the glitter,” she said, swinging her legs so her feet bumped his. “Don’t forget the glitter.”

Daryl pressed his thumbs in and Beth curled her back and moaned. “That enough glitter for you?”

“Oh God, Daryl.” She straightened out again, leaned into his touch, and tipped her face up to the ceiling. “Oh, that hurts so good.”

Jesus, girl.

He knew he said that out loud, and knew she heard him. Words weren’t something he ever cared for, ever noticed the way other men might. Not the dirty things the women Merle’d thrown at him would whisper, like they thought it was what he wanted to hear, or the milder things Carol used to say to tease him sometimes, before she knew he didn’t like it. This, though, outta Beth Greene’s mouth, sparked like a match, the flames licking at the edges of the slow burning wick already smouldering inside him. Beth was no little girl, she knew exactly how it sounded, and maybe she hadn’t meant it that way, but her soft little laugh afterward made him think she didn’t mind all that much.

Fuck if he knew what to do with that.

Once her laughter faded away, Beth didn’t speak again, but the lack of conversation didn’t feel awkward. More contemplative than anything, like she had just as many thoughts in her head as he had in his. Didn’t stop the sounds his thumbs drew out of her, though, moans and sighs and little whimpers, and he stared at his hands on her back to remind himself these were noises of pain and he should ignore the coil of heat in his belly drawing tighter with every sound she made.

She breathed his name at the end of a drawn-out moan, voice gone raspy in a way he never heard before. That heat pulsed hard and Daryl swallowed harder, knowing where this was going but sure he couldn’t do a thing to stop it. He wasn’t hard, just warm, belly alight with little frissons shooting out like starbursts, tickling over his skin and pushing that fluttering in his chest into deep, sweeping beats he felt right into his bones. It felt fucking good, and that was half the problem because he still didn’t know why he was feeling it at all, but he liked it. And if he couldn’t stop it—wasn’t fully convinced he wanted to—he could at least pretend nothing was amiss. She didn’t have to know. It was just a back rub and she didn’t have to know how she affected him, how something about her—maybe everything about her—took what he knew about his own body and drowned it in the creek.

What he needed was a distraction, something to pull his mind from where it best not linger and coax it back into his head where it belonged. 

Sliding his hands up to work her neck might not have been the best idea, with how she sighed and scooted back just a bit—not too close, but close enough—but it got her attention, pulled her mind out of wherever it was. She reached up with one hand to give his wrist a squeeze, drawing her thumb across the back of his hand before letting it fall away. 

“Tell me,” he said, his voice thickened like gravel and mud. “What happened?”

Beth breathed deep, pulled both her hands into her lap. He couldn’t see but knew they’d be clenched together, fingers tangled and white-knuckled from gripping each other. He almost regretted asking her, but he knew she had a story to tell. That moment, after he told her his story but before she pulled away from him, what she said then had something to do with it and she was probably only waiting on him to ask.

Still, she was quiet for a long time before she started speaking. “Nothing really, until the second day,” she said, voice low, probably in an attempt to hide the waver in it. “Not until afternoon, when the clouds were rollin’ in. I went outside to get a walker at the fence, and then there were people.”

A cold prickling rushed up his spine and he stilled his fingers on her neck. “Beth—”

“Just let me tell it, Daryl,” she said, cutting off his concern but not unkindly. She pulled her hands apart and reached back again for his wrist. “Okay?”

He took a very deep breath. “Okay.”

“They didn’t see me,” she said, voice a little bolder now. “I heard their voices on the wind and went inside…”

She was telling him how it felt, waiting in the cabin, knowing there were people on the way, and that seemed to be the point of what she was saying. As she said it, though, as he felt an echo of her adrenaline rush coursing through his body while he listened, she was telling him so much more than that. Securing the cabin, organizing the weapons, settling her thoughts so she had a calm head to face the potential threat—she didn’t even know, didn’t even get it, how strong she’d been right from the start. How brave.

“There were two of them. A man and a woman,” Beth continued, sniffling a bit. “At first, I couldn’t tell if they were really that pathetic, or if they were puttin’ on an act, tryin’ to trick me into opening the door to an ambush, or somethin’.”

Daryl’s hands stilled on her neck and he waited, wanting to ask, wanting to tell her that was a good instinct, not to trust the first appearance of a thing until she had more to go on. But she’d asked him to let her tell it, so he didn’t, he kept his mouth shut and stroked his thumbs along the line of her vertebrae, up into her hair.

Beth shivered, a soft little shudder rolling out from shoulders to fingertips, and glided her thumbs over his knees. “I didn’t open the door,” she said, in a whisper. “Stayed inside, stayed awake through the night in case they tried something. I was okay, though. I had water. I caught a rabbit that morning so I had food, and—”

“You got a rabbit?” He couldn’t stop the interruption, the words were out before he remembered he promised just to listen. “With your crossbow?”

She twisted again to look at him, eyes a little moist, but crinkled just a bit along with her smile as she nodded at him. “My first kill.”

In this, she looked pleased with herself, as she shoulda been, and his smile came on full and easy. “Told you. Badass.”

Her grin widened even as her cheeks flushed pink. “Best rabbit I ever ate. Or it would’ve been if I wasn’t so distracted.”

Beth turned back around, and Daryl got back to massaging her, now working across the top side of her trapezius muscles. The knots there were large rolling things that made her pull her shoulders in and whimper, but he knew by then that she didn’t want him to stop, no matter how much it hurt.

“But the people. Pam and Jake, they were called. They were loud, and so awful to each other. I don’t know if I believe in luck, Daryl, but these two. Only luck coulda kept them from being dead. Oh, oww...” She paused for a minute, panting through the pain of the particular spot he was working now. “They—ahhhthey lit a fire in the yard—an effing bonfire—and in the morning they just kept right on being awful and noisy.”

Daryl couldn’t help it, he had to ask. “So we're they? Trickin’ you?”

“No.” She breathed in deeply and the breath shuddered out. “No, they weren’t. I don’t know if I believe everythin’ they told me, but they really were just two idiots trying to stay alive.” She pulled her shoulders in again, forcing his hands to pause their motions until she relaxed a moment later. “They didn’t know how to kill walkers. Didn’t even have a name for them.”

She told the rest of her story in a hushed little voice, speaking fast as though she didn’t think she had enough time to get all the words out. Various things warred inside him as she spoke; hot spikes of anger in his chest, cold, squirming dread in his gut, and a rush of pride at how she held her own, how she took charge of the situation and handled it far better than she even knew. That ripped through him like adrenaline, throwing his heartbeat into overdrive, boiling over in his chest and spilling out everywhere, a powerful surge of blood which heated him up from head to toe and filled his cock so fill he ached. All he wanted to do in the first place was forget about his unruly body but he didn’t stand a chance against Beth Greene. She didn’t think she was brave, didn’t think she was strong, but she was. She was so much more than he even had words for and all he could do was just feel it and hope someday she might understand.

But beyond all of that, above the blazing pride and the deep thrum of arousal, a gripping, twisting guilt sunk its teeth into his belly, gnawing away like an ulcer inside. She handled it, she did, so fucking well—but she shouldn’t’ve had to, not like that. If he’d been back when he said, she’d never have had to face them alone.

“I shoulda fuckin’ been there.”

He knew that time that he spoke aloud, but the words weren’t meant for her ears. She heard anyway, and twisted around, half turning toward him so she could see his face. 

“You were there,” she said, swallowing hard, her palm pressed over her heart. “You were with me the whole time, Daryl.”

Like the vest, like so many things with Beth, it meant something that he should be in her head at the same time as she was in his. It had to—he didn’t feel like this for nothing. He never felt like this before at all and she was the beating heart in the centre of it and that wasn’t nothing and neither was this. Not even close. Beth turned back around and he rolled his thumbs up her neck, pressing them in at the base of her skull. She groaned loudly and it rippled right down through him to his aching cock, but he didn’t even care anymore.

“I had to help them,” Beth said, in a quiet voice that somehow kept the strength, the boldness, he knew her capable of. “I couldn’t just let them go on with nothing.”

He might have done that, sent the two idiots on their way without so much as tossing them a scrap. At one time he knew he would’ve, before Beth, before she made him want to attain even a sliver of that goodness she carried in her heart. She was right to help, though, and he could hear it in her voice that she didn’t think she had done enough. And the guilt twisted again, but not for the same reasons—because she had, she’d done so much and he hadn’t said a word about it.

“You did good, Beth. So good.” He drew circles with his fingers on her neck, feeling the little tremble rolling through her. “Kept the cabin safe. Kept you safe.”

“I tried,” she whispered, voice shaky. “I tried so hard.”

“You did good.” He couldn’t say it enough. He couldn’t say enough to tell her how much he meant it.

She understood that, though, because she knew him. Knew him better than anyone. She leaned back, reaching up until her fingers slid into his hair and the back of her head met his forehead, and she whispered his name, just his name, but he heard the gratitude there. Heard the words she couldn’t say, either.

When she released him, she settled in front of him and Daryl again put his hands on her back. His thumbs ached but she ached more, and he retraced is path over sore muscles, listened to the noises she made, felt them warm in his belly and in his cock and just let himself feel it. She didn’t know. She wouldn’t know and it wasn’t going to hurt her.

When she spoke again, her voice had lost its waver of tears, but remained soft, almost a whisper in the quiet cabin. “I couldn’t help thinking about you and me, when they were out there,” she said. “All they had in the world was each other and they couldn’t find a kind word between them.”

Daryl didn’t know how to answer that, but it didn’t really matter. Beth carried on without needing one.

“We make it work, Daryl,” she said, thumbs tracing soft, tingling little circles on his knees again. “Even—even before the moonshine, we weren’t like that, you know? And now…”

This was the first time either of them had mentioned the moonshine out loud. It was a turning point for a lot of things, more than his tired old brain could ever pick out, but wasn’t something they spoke about. He knew it, though, knew she knew it, that neither of them came out of that fire the same as they went in and it seemed like too powerful a thing to try putting into words. But something happened that day, from that moment she stood solid up against his grief and his rage and raged right back, angry and hurting and somehow just what he needed.

And he still needed her.  He might’ve been delirious before, but not amnesic. A part of him broke inside this morning when he thought she was gonna leave him alone in the bed, when the thought of her across the room was too much to bear. He needed Beth like he never thought he’d ever need another living soul. Then, at the moonshiner’s shack, today when he thought he would stop breathing if she went away, now, tomorrow, next week, next year

It was scary as fuck, but there it was, flayed and bleeding and lying there for the world to see. And Beth Greene gathered up that frightened, trembling, broken piece of him and cradled it in her arms every bit as gently, every bit as fiercely, as she once cradled Judith. She wasn’t just strong. She saved his fucking life and he didn’t deserve a bit of it, but she thought he did and that—that was enough. It had to be.

He nodded, not trusting his voice, realizing only after that she couldn’t see him. The way she held him back at the shack pulsed fresh in his memory, and he slid his arms around her shoulders from behind and tipped his forehead down on top of her shoulder, where she was as warm and woodsy smelling as she was when they woke up so tangled together. 

Beth pressed her face into his arm where it lay across her chest, her hands coming up to settle over top of his. “Now I kinda think you and me could take on anything, you know?” she said, her words vibrating into his skin.

He did know, and he murmured something like that into her neck and shivered in response right along with her.

After a long time of just sitting together like that, Beth pulled slowly out of his arms and crossed the room, heading for the pot of stew. As she started dividing out the rest of it into two bowls, Daryl eased himself off the bed, his body protesting the movement after sitting for so long.

“Stay there a minute, Beth,” he said, trying to hold his hands in a way that didn’t make it look obvious what he was hiding from her, in case she looked back. “Don’t turn.”

Beth didn’t ask why, just finished what she was doing and leaned up against the counter to wait. Daryl’s boxers were dry now, and clean enough, not caked with mud and filth like his jeans. He couldn’t tolerate these too-small shorts any longer, with or without the erection that didn’t seem to want to go away, and he had to bite back the groan of relief when he tugged them off at last and his cock sprang free. He glanced down at it, bobbing full and heavy out in front of him. Couldn’t remember a time he’d been even half as hard as he was right now without somebody’s hands or whatever on him first, and even then he never felt warm like this, body blazing with those pleasant bursts of heat from deep in his belly that hadn’t stopped all night. Wasn’t gonna touch himself, not here, not now, but he wanted to, and that was new, too, as new as all the rest of this. Just the thought of how that would feel, the weight of it in his hand, the glide of his foreskin as he stroked himself, rolled through him like a warm wave, stirred the heat in his belly and sent a fresh surge of hot blood straight to his already rigid cock.

Beth was waiting, though, and indulging in his body’s delinquency was so far removed from the concept of a good idea that he resisted that increasingly pressing urge and pulled on his boxers, the rasp of the fabric on his sensitized flesh enough to make him shudder hard. With shaking fingers he pulled the faded black sweats over top, though he knew they weren’t hiding anything. At least he could breathe as he returned to the bed, moving to sit back against the wall with his legs drawn up, counting on the shadows and the dark fabric to conceal his current state. 

“Okay, Beth.”

She turned, eyes flicking over to the wall where he had, in his haste, left the tight as hell grey boxer briefs lying on the floor. Her lips twitched a little but she didn’t say anything, just came back across the room with the two bowls and handed him one before crawling onto the bed to sit beside him.

“There’s more,” she said, a few minutes later, halfway through her bowl of stew. “If you want to hear it.”

Daryl looked down at the woman sitting beside him, her head leaning on his shoulder and tipped up to look at him. So close, always so close, and every inch of his body tingled with awareness of that.

“I wanna hear it,” he said to her. “I wanna hear all of it.”

She smiled just before she faced forward again, then drew her knees up like his and leaned further into him. “The storm and the herd hit a few hours after Pam and Jake left, and all I could think about while I hid inside was you alone out there in the middle of it…”

 *~*

There weren’t any tracks to follow, not after the storm and the herd ravaged the landscape. The sun was at her back, for now, though it didn’t reach far into the thick trees and even layered up, the damp, shady chill whispered at her skin. The remnants of the trapline proved difficult to find, damaged as they were, but Beth knew how long it took Daryl to run it, remembered where he said he first found it. Once she spotted the first couple of traps the rest came easy, and she travelled the arc of it out away from the cabin to where she thought the apex must be, or close enough to it. From there, she walked a path roughly perpendicular to where she thought the line continued, looking for a landmark that survived the storm and the herd and might resist another.

What she found was a little hill where the tree roots grew over it like lace. The source of the lacy roots, a giant hemlock growing at the top of the slope, created a small clearing above where the underbrush grew thin or non existent beneath the carpet of needles. The earth here was soft after the storm, moist and easy to disturb when she dug the shovel into the ground. It didn’t take long to dig down deep enough, even working around the roots, to bury the hiking pack full of supplies and cover the whole thing back over with soil and debris. With the extra dirt scattered down over the hillside and the roots, an untrained eye wouldn’t notice a thing.

She had to hide the shovel next. Somewhere far enough from the bag that someone wouldn’t find both of them easily, but close enough to be useful if they needed to find it again.

That flicker of thought for Daryl made her pause, heart pounding in her chest, but she pushed it back just as she pushed away from the tree she had fallen against, made herself keep going. She was going to find him. As soon as she got this job done, she was going to find him. There just wasn’t another option.

She dipped her nose beneath the edge his vest for a moment and breathed in the scent of him still lingering there, then tugged the open front as snugly as she could around her body and kept walking. Her eyes swept over the ground, the trees, everything, looking for something even remotely recognizable as a sign. Other than the abundance of walker tracks, an overlapping mess of vaguely discernable footprints moving in the opposite direction, the woods yielded nothing.

It was getting warmer now, but still damp enough in the trees that she didn’t feel the need to pull off her sweater. Still, she’d done enough walking to warrant a water break, and sat down at the base of a tree at the edge of a small creek which cut through the woods on a diagonal. Her crossbow jutted into her back as she leaned against the tree trunk and she swung it off, noting as she did the fresh marks her bow left in the bark, and the slightly older ones beneath it.

Her heart launched itself into a pounding beat again and she twisted around to run her fingers over the marks, both sets. Daryl was here. Days ago now, because this must have been from when he first set out on his hunt, but those marks in the tree, nearly identical to the ones she just made, were from his crossbow, of that she had no doubts. And it didn’t matter that this was an old sign, it was still a sign, evidence that Daryl had come this way, that he existed three days ago in this very spot. It was something. It was more than she had all morning. More hope than she’d had in three days, fluttering there in her chest and skittering like tiny wings all over her skin.

She could barely breathe as she shoved her bottle of water back into her pack and kept walking, but she forced herself to take slower, more even breaths. Excited heads missed things; calm ones read the signs and she couldn’t afford to miss any, not when they were hidden beneath the devastation wrought by the herd. Daryl was tracking deer when he came this way, but there wouldn’t be any signs of that now; even without the herd, the storm would’ve obliterated those. But she did see something as she walked—a path of sorts, showing here and there as a distinct swath of bare, hard-packed mud amidst the soggy, debris-strewn underbrush.

A game trail.

Beth shivered, but she wasn’t cold. No, everything inside her pulsed warm and excited. He wasn’t here, probably not for days—but he had been. He followed this trail, and the deer that used it, set his feet down in the same place as hers. If she kept it in her sight, if she kept following it, she knew she would find him.

When she saw the pair of oak trees, or what used to be two separate trees but had long since twisted their trunks around one another until they fused into one big tree with a deep hollow beneath it, Beth paused and glanced at her shovel.  It was as good a place as any to stash it, far enough from the hidden bag, and the tree itself was something she would remember. The shovel fit snugly into the gap between the trunks and after packing some dirt around the blade with her hands, she couldn’t tell, just glancing, that it was even there.

Her dirty hands left muddy streaks on her already soiled jeans, but Beth didn’t care how filthy she got. All she cared about was finding Daryl—and finding him alive. The bark of the tree felt rough beneath her fingers as she ran her hand along it to step around to the other side of the clearing. Since stepping into the woods that morning, wherever exposed ground peaked out from the underbrush and even where it stayed covered, she saw blatant evidence of the herd’s passing. Trampled foliage, overlapping footprints, bits of rotten flesh clinging to trees, unidentifiable gore mixing in with the mud on the ground. It was a sign of many, not signs of one singular thing. Even the stragglers blended in with the masses, in something this devastating. And that was why this made her pause, caused her breath to catch in her chest and stick there until her lungs burned.

Something, or someone, had fallen here, disturbing the already disturbed mix of needles and soggy earth, well after the walkers passed. The marks of a body landing hard, just there, right where it would’ve broken into the clearing from the woods, and there, a pattern of marks in the ground, the press of knees and the swipe of forearms—that same body, crawling away from where it had fallen to curl up into the hollow of the tree. The detritus here had been pulled into a pile, and even though something had later crawled out of it, she could see that clearly enough. Whatever bedded down in there had been aware enough to cover itself.

Walkers don’t do that.

What burst out again, though—of that, she couldn’t be certain. The footprints, clear even where they landed atop those of the walkers that came before it, staggered off in the direction of the creek. Beth’s heart pounded and she still couldn’t breathe, not really, her head just a little bit dizzy as she followed the tracks.

She knew those boots. That wasn’t wishful thinking. One of the first things Daryl taught her, when she asked him to help her learn to track, was how to recognize her own footprints so she wouldn’t end up following herself. The second thing he taught her was how to recognize his, in case she ever needed to find him. Daryl’s boots made these tracks. Those were Daryl’s footprints zigzagging toward the creek.

The sun was bright in her eyes when she broke out of the woods and onto the bank, and the rocks clunked noisily beneath her feet. Very little earth showed here but when she found the toe of that familiar boot print, pressed deep into the mud in a space between two rocks, Beth knew she was on the right track. She ducked back into the woods, breaking her trail as quietly as she could, parallel to the water’s path. Watching. Listening. Walking for what seemed like forever without finding a single thing.

Half an hour later, give or take, amidst the birdsong, cheerful still well into morning after the violence of the storm, Beth heard noises down by the creek; a thud of impact, dulled by distance, the rustle of something moving that wasn’t leaves. Just ahead the trees thinned and she picked up her pace, following the sounds until a flash of movement showed in the spaces between the trunks. Beth peered through the trees when she reached that place and saw a familiar shape crouched down at the edge of the water, muddy boots, lank hair, crossbow across his back. Her pulse beat in her throat, whooshed in her ears, and she pulled her own crossbow off her shoulder before creeping out of the woods and onto the red dirt bank, where Daryl Dixon—or what looked like Daryl Dixon—knelt down over the body of a deer.

She was still dizzy, and watched from over her own shoulder as her body took a deep, silent breath and hefted her crossbow. Thought, objectively, that it was a good idea for her body to set its foot down hard on that twig, snapping it so the noise rang out unmistakably against the sound of the birds and the rippling of the creek. But it wasn’t until Daryl spun around, until those blue eyes in his pale face landed on her and recognition flared in them, that Beth flew back down into her body.

He whispered her name, clear as day across the space between them, and after that she didn’t remember anything, nothing at all, except the feel of his face in her neck, his arms around her back, as they fell down together into the soft, red dirt.

*~*

She wasn’t even hiding her tears as she finished speaking, stopping at the point when she saw him kneeling through the trees and not quite able to get the rest out. He was there, though, and he could fill that in himself. How she must have felt, coming down onto the bank, thinking he’d gone into that tree well a dying man and crawled out a walker. He knew so fucking well how that felt, without even needing to imagine. No matter that he hadn’t been, in the end—the hot stab of fear, that gut-wrenching twist of grief, it gnawed inside him as keenly as it did then, when he found Merle, when the thing that used to be his brother stood up where it was crouched over that body and came at him instead. Daryl knew without her saying a word that she’d felt the same thing, standing there at the creek as he knelt over the body of the doe.

But the depth of what she felt, even now when she knew the outcome, was surprising. Humbling, daunting, a million other things at once, and it tugged at him somewhere very deep inside. But as much as he regretted every action he had taken that contributed to that moment, to her finding him there and thinking him dead, it paled beneath that renewed surge of pride in her, in all she had done. In how she had embraced everything he taught her and used it, gone out into the woods and breathed it, became it, and found him not by chance as he only now realized he had assumed, but by reading the signs.

“Beth,” he said, voice all gravel again as he reached up with his thumb to swipe at the wetness on her cheeks. “I ain’t dead, and you found me.”

She smiled, watery and weak, but real, and smushed her face into his shoulder, clinging to his arm. “Not lettin’ you go again,” she murmured, smile widening against his skin.

“Takes more than a storm and a herd to get rid a me.” Even though they both knew how close it really had been.

She moved to gather up the bowls after a minute, but Daryl batted her hands away to do it himself. He might’ve been the one close to death in that tree, but he didn’t miss the part of her story where she hadn’t slept in days, aside from the nap they shared that afternoon, even if she hadn’t made a point about it.

“My turn,” he said, crawling off the bed with a groan. “If I ain’t dead, I best start actin’ like it, hmm?”

She giggled and fell back on the bed while he crossed the room to put the bowls down with the other dishes and refilled their water jars. It was warm in the cabin, with the fire burning for the smoker, so he pushed the window open as wide as it could go, before adding more wood to keep the smoke going through the night. Beth had tossed off her boots and wiggled out of her jeans—he turned just in time to see her throw them off the edge of the bed—and settled on her side on top of the quilt, facing the wall, those damn red shorts standing out like a beacon in the dark. 

Daryl set down their waters and climbed in after her, not daring to strip down to just his boxers even if it was hot enough to want to do so. His erection was long gone by now, but not the simmering heat which led up to it, and he didn’t trust his body enough anymore to risk it. So he kept the sweats on and lay down facing her, watching the motion of her ribs, her shoulders as she breathed in and out, deep and steady, fought the itch in his fingers urging him to reach out, to stroke the smooth skin on the back of her neck or trace the contours of her bicep.

Minutes passed where he just watched her, not ready yet to close his eyes and not see her there. After a bit, Beth lifted up onto one arm and looked over her shoulder at him, lip caught in her teeth, eyes catching his and holding in that way they did that made it hard to look away. Except she did, settled back onto her side after only a second, but he didn’t have time to really feel the beat of disappointment in it before she was sliding backward, moving closer, stopping only when her back met his chest.

His arm went around her without his permission, moving with some instinct he didn’t know he had. Sliding across the bed caused her shirt to shift and when his hand touched down on her, it was warm, smooth belly beneath his palm. Before he could pull away, her hand pressed down on top of his, keeping him there, flattening his fingers out over her bare skin.

Beth,” he whispered, not quite able to breathe.

She burrowed back deeper and threaded her fingers through his on her belly. “Daryl.”

His breath came out a shudder, puffing into her hair, onto the back of her neck, and Beth’s breath shuddered out, too. He felt it against his chest and beneath his palm, and wondered if her heart was pounding as fast as his, if she felt the same flutter of wings behind her ribs, the same spark of heat in her belly.

For the first time since this all started for him, he thought maybe she did. If he wasn’t so tired, so worn, so completely unable to move away from her, he might have thrown that bullshit idea right out the little window. And yet there she was, breathing hard, snuggled back into his chest because she wanted to be, holding his hand to her belly when he might have pulled away, and he was just exhausted enough not to question it. He couldn’t stop the glide of his thumb, tracing an arc across the curve of her bellybutton. She couldn’t stop the shiver that rolled through her in response, and he buried his face in the back of her neck and willed his body to relax, to calm down and stop the all-over tremor rippling through him.

Didn’t want to make more out of this than it had to be, but—but it wasn’t nothing. Even if he didn’t know what, it was something

Not lettin’ you go again.

“You were there,” he said, speaking before he knew he meant to, before his mind caught up to what his voice was trying to say. Beth hummed softly and stroked her thumb over the back of his hand, and the rest of the words, everything he wanted to say before but couldn’t get out came tumbling forth now in a breathless rush. “In the tree. You were there with me. Singing, tellin’ stories. Ordering me to breathe.  Makin’ sure I didn’t give up.”

I only made it ‘cause of you. 

The sound she made was something kind of like a sigh, kind of like a soft little whimper that sounded anything but pained. “I told you,” she said, thumb still moving over his hand. “I’m not lettin’ you go. Not now, not ever.”

That broken part of him reached out with grabby hands and hung on to those words, pulled them in as tightly as he held her body to his, begging, pleading—please, please don’t let go. And she wasn’t. She wasn’t going anywhere. No, Beth clung to him like a lifeboat and he clung right back, and it didn’t matter if her heart beat as fast, if her body raged inside with the same storm as his or not, as long as she stayed.

As though she could hear his thoughts, Beth squeezed his hand and turned her head, pressed her brow to his forehead, the whole side of her face right up to his.  “Don’t let me go, either.”

“No,” he rasped out, his words and his breath spilling over her cheek. He couldn’t say anything more than that but it was okay, because she knew, because she already said it all for him. “No.”

Her laugh was soft, almost entirely made of air, and he felt it through his chest more than he heard it. She faced forward again and wiggled back impossibly closer, pressed his hand so tight to her belly he wondered that she could even breathe. “Promise?”

Promises, at the end of the world, were dangerous things. But this, this was a promise he would do whatever he could to keep. He stroked her belly again, just to feel her shiver, pressed his face into her neck and inhaled a lungful of that deep scent of sweat and earth and Beth, and whispered his answer into her skin.

“Promise,” he said. “Promise.”

*~*

Chapter Text

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Chapter 17 – Somebody Who Looked Like You

*~*

Daryl kept waiting for the day when he would finally declare the summer had come to an end. They’d both thought it happened during the weeks leading up to the funeral home and all that went down there, days of chilled fog and drizzling rain driving them to search for more clothes. But Georgia summers were tenacious, and since finding the cabin the weather grew steadily warmer. A two-day storm followed the one which accompanied the herd, but the week since saw a resurgence of that oppressive summer heat and fierce humidity. Despite the hints of reds and yellows amongst the green of the trees, summer hadn’t given up just yet.

Mornings dawned cool, though, damp and chill until the heat of the sun beat it away by midday. Only a hint of sunlight reached into the backyard this early in the morning, beams shining in through gaps in the trees and along the creek where the sun rose up from the front side of the cabin. Drops of dew still coated the grass and it should’ve been cold, he shouldn’t’ve needed to strip down to just his shirt with the sleeves ripped off. But he did, and he had the little blonde spitfire standing across the yard to thank for it. 

Beth’s yellow polo clung to her, wet with sweat and dew and streaked with grass stains. She propped her hands up on her hips, breathing hard, cheeks and neck all glowing pink, grinning not just with her mouth but with her whole face lit up bright even in the shade of the cabin.

“That was good, right?” She didn’t wait for him to respond before nodding her head. “Can we try it again?”

She barely had the words out before he lunged at her, but she was quick. All long legs and adrenaline and she bounded away across the grass, picking a trajectory that forced him to make a hard, skidding turn in order to follow. The game was simple enough—don’t let him catch her. First few times he took her by surprise and had her within seconds, but after that she figured out how far away to stand, knew to expect him to start the next round without warning and put that knowledge to use. He still caught her sometimes before she made it to the birch with the tree bunny carved in it, but she got there more than half the time. 

She was gonna get there this time, too. Her instincts served her well, dashing off in the direction she had, giving her enough of a head start that he’d be hard pressed to catch up or cut her off before she got to the tree. Sure enough, she was well out of range of his reaching fingers when she slammed into it, arms going around the trunk so she sort of spun half way around it before finding her feet and stopping her momentum. 

“I win,” she said, voice cheerful even though she was breathing hard. “Again.”

Like he hadn’t caught her last time. “Yeah, yeah. Gettin’ cocky, girl.”

Beth just laughed and tossed her ponytail back over her shoulder as they moved toward the centre of the yard, him taking the direct route while Beth circled wide. Despite her gloating, Daryl didn’t doubt how seriously she was taking this, after reminding him last night about his promise to help her practice fighting against people. Even if the game itself was just a silly thing, not a real representation of any kind of true life situation, it was still a place to start, with her ankle all healed up and her recent run-in with Pam and Jake still fresh on both their minds.

Beth reached the centre of the yard, not taking her eyes off him, her stance offset, knees bent, balance shifting side to side instead of standing completely still. Keeping loose. Keeping moving. Daryl hadn’t told her to do that, wasn’t certain it was even a conscious decision on Beth’s part. Woman had instincts, more than she knew, more than anyone probably ever gave her credit for and that was gonna work well in her favour once she honed the skills to go along with them. 

He let her watch him for a while, feeling her eyes on him as he looked down, ostensibly at his feet except he was watching Beth’s instead.  Those black combat-style boots he lifted from the cop car didn’t suit her as well as her old cowboy boots, but they were arguably better for all of this. More support, good grip, meant to work in. He wondered, as he watched her shifting back onto her leading foot, if she regretted leaving the other ones behind or not. 

Daryl kicked at a little rock in the grass, sent it tumbling toward her. It was just a moment, as the pebble rolled between her boots, a brief settling of her stance, but it was the opportunity he needed. Daryl charged and Beth leapt back with a shriek, almost tripping over her feet in her attempt to flee. She recovered though, getting in two, maybe three of those long-legged strides before Daryl caught her from behind. 

He pinned her arms to her body and held her tight but she struggled, wiggled and pulled and made it damn hard to hold on. She freed one arm and jabbed him in the gut with her elbow, just a glancing blow but enough that he felt it, enough of a distraction that she managed to throw her body weight, slight as it was, violently to the left and loosen the wrap of his arm. Before he could haul her back in, her heel came down hard on the toe of his boot and in the throbbing aftermath she wrenched her body around, pulling free and falling down on her ass in the lawn.

He pretended to glare down at her but she started laughing, giggling in a breathless way between taking in big gulps of air. And he couldn’t stop his smile, or the ripple of laughter hers drew up out of him. Trying to get away wasn’t part of the game originally, that was Beth’s addition and he just ran with it. Still wasn’t real, wasn’t exactly what she needed to practice, but he admired her persistence, throbbing toes and all.  

Beth’s breathless grin slipped into that little proud-of-herself smirk as she stood up, brushing off the loose bits of grass from her ass. “I got away quicker that—time!”

She was ready when he charged forward, expecting that he would make his move while she was gloating. Beth ducked beneath the swing of his arm to make a straight-on run for her tree, the notes of her laughter trailing behind her as she ran. Though he had to spin around to follow, Daryl wasn’t far behind, and he caught her just as she put on a final burst of speed, slamming hard into her back and launching her forward. She got her hands up, stopping her face from smacking into the tree, but she hit hard and a second later he hit harder, driving her body into the trunk, pinning her there between it and his chest. 

Beth let out an oof when he hit, but the easy draw of air into her lungs meant he hadn’t knocked the wind out of her. Still, she rested her cheek against the smooth bark and didn’t attempt to move right away. 

“All right, there?” he asked, not moving away either. 

Beth peeled her eye open and grinned up at him, all flushed and sweaty. “You’re wearin’ me out, Mr. Dixon.”

That right there was his cue to retreat, with those damn breathless words tugging at his belly, deep inside where those nice little frissons lived these days. Never mind about Mr. Dixon and how that did things to him he didn’t quite understand—warm, pulsing things sliding in right alongside all the rest, and he shouldn’t like it, he shouldn’t like it at all, but his body had other ideas. Daryl pushed off the trunk and stepped back, while Beth turned around to lean against it, one knee bent to brace her foot on the wood, a bit of a smirk lingering on her lips.

“Ain’t worth learnin’ if it don’t wear you out.” Daryl made a show of rubbing at the place where she got him with her elbow. “You fight dirty, Greene. I’m impressed.”

He meant it, even if he’d said it mostly to tease her. This silly game, he could afford to do that, toss out a compliment that way, tease her a bit and let her tease him. Once they got right down to working on this for real there’d be no room for joking—though with Beth, especially lately, he kinda existed in a state of perpetual rule-suspension. 

Beth’s smile brightened as he spoke, but slipped away soon after, her face taking on a more serious expression as she canted her head a bit to one side. “I’d have to like, hurt you hurt you, wouldn’t I, if I wanted to get away for real?” 

Perceptive—but then, he didn’t expect otherwise. Daryl bobbed his head once. “Would. But this’s a start.”

The little furrow in Beth’s brow smoothed out and she nodded back. “Okay. Let’s go again.”

She beat him to the tree the next few attempts, the first two owed to quick reflexes and that natural speedy run. The third when she changed the rules on him and took off before he was ready, and that wasn’t just smart, that was a whole ‘nother lesson entirely and she jumped to it on her own.

“Still playin’ dirty, Greene,” he said, when he skidded to a stop in front of her.

She shrugged and tried to look neutral, but he knew her well enough to know that the little quiver at the corner of her mouth, and the way her eyes got wide and seemed to almost glow, meant she knew she done good and was trying to be modest about it.

“Well,” she said, the quivering in her lip slipping into a bit of a smile, “it’s not like I’m goin’ to just stand there and let somebody come at me, right?”

He didn’t answer, but her grin got bigger as she trotted back toward the middle of the yard to go again.

They kept at it longer than he thought they might when they got started, and sunlight brightened half the yard by the time they set out to begin what would be their last round. It was more or less even between him catching her and Beth making it to the tree, and when he did get her she got away at least a third of the time. He wasn’t trying to hold her like an attacker would, but she wasn’t trying to really wound him, either, avoiding his face and other more susceptible parts, so he figured that balanced out somewhere.

Now she tried to trip him as she scooted by, but he locked his knees and she stumbled, pitching forward to catch herself on her hands in the grass. She got upright quickly but he’d already closed the gap, and before she could get her speed back he had her, one arm across her shoulders while the other pulled tight across her middle to hold her there against him. Except she didn’t fight this time, just kind of sagged into him, her head dropping back to rest on his shoulder.

He loosened his grip, just a little, but she didn’t move except to pull her arms free and cross them over his. “Nap time?”

“Mmmhmm. You really have worn me out,” she said, voice half breathless, half giggly. She tucked her sweaty forehead up to his jaw, breath puffing warm on his neck. “Mr. Dixon.

Sometimes he wondered if Beth even knew what she was doing when she said things like this. She didn’t pull Mr. Dixon out often; it was other things she said, innocent remarks here and there that felt anything but innocent. Things he woulda ignored in the past, words like that, but not anymore. Not with her. Not with the way they quickened his pulse and throbbed hot and eager in his belly. Like now, compounded by the fact that he was still holding her and Beth wasn’t making any sorta move to change that. She liked to tease him, though, and oblivious she was not, but her exact intentions were a mystery. At the very least, she had to know he didn’t hate it, not remotely.

Just wasn’t sure how he ought to feel about that, was all. 

Still. There were less pleasant things she could be doing—like actually stepping out of his arms, as she did a few minutes later. But her fingers tugged at his elbow, brushing his heated skin in a soft little swirl of fingertips, and they walked side-by-side back to the cabin for a drink of water and a damp rag to wipe the sweat off their foreheads.

“We still gonna go?” she asked, as she set down her water jar. “It got kinda late.”

Daryl shrugged and eyed the position of the sun. Not quite directly overhead, but close to it. “If we don’t get nothin’, we’ll go out again before dark.”

“All right.” Beth took his jar from him and gathered up their rags, disappearing a moment into the cabin to put the stuff away.

Her crossbow was waiting for her, propped up at the foot of the stairs next to his, when she descended into the yard, his vest thrown on over her sweaty polo. She swung her weapon up over her back, settling it there between the wings—her wings—and not for the first time Daryl couldn’t quite look away before she caught him staring. But Beth only smiled, not a teasing smile or a gloating smirk, a gentle little thing that did a better job of warming him up inside than any pointed comment she could ever make.

“Lead the way,” Daryl said, sweeping his hand out toward the woods after shouldering his crossbow.

Every day for the past week, since the passing of that second storm, they’d gone out together to hunt for their daily meat. She looked surprised, that first trip, when Daryl insisted she take the lead, but then shrugged and agreed to try, and had led the hunt every day since. Not without making mistakes, not without looking to him for guidance or reassurance, but she was eager, confident in what she did know and not afraid to ask about what she didn’t. Only twice had they returned to the cabin afterward without something Beth caught to fill their bellies.

He followed after her now and let his mind wander, leaving Beth to remember how to find the place they discussed this morning over breakfast. He would notice if she led them astray, but until then he’d follow. The cooler air in the woods, under the shade of the trees where the heat of the sun had yet to penetrate, settled cold on his shoulders, chilly with drying sweat, but that wouldn’t last. With midday approaching even the shade couldn’t keep out the heat for long. Daryl breathed deep, as he always did, inviting the life of the forest into his lungs, tasting the rich earthiness of it with every pull. That second storm wiped away all traces of the herd and also brought on an almost spring-like freshness that the summer heat had yet to drive away.

It amazed him, sometimes. Even after his ordeal with the hunt gone wrong, even at the end of the world where every day was a survival lesson, he still felt that thrum of life deep in his bones, that blanket of peaceful solitude settled around him, inside him, with those initial deep breaths. The world had changed. Changed in ways he could never have imagined before, but not this, even if his reasons for being out here had.

Beth’s presence did nothing to disturb that connection, either.  She told him something a few nights ago now, during that suspended sliver of time after they got into bed but before they fell asleep, and it tugged at him deep down, touching some hidden place he hadn’t known existed until Beth started reaching for it. He remembered how she said it, in a whispered, dreamy sort of voice, and he’d had her words repeating on a loop in his head ever since.

I can hear it, Daryl. The woods, like they’re whisperin’ to me. The way the leaves rustle in the breeze, even how they move when there isn’t a breeze at all—it’s like little voices, callin’ me, urging me to follow them. And the trees groan and sway, creakin’ like wizened old beings sharin’ their secrets with you, but only if you stop and learn to understand their language. Even the ground makes a sound if you listen. I can feel it like energy or somethin’, like electricity beneath my fingers and it gets right inside me. It’s like I go out there and the forest becomes part of me. Do you ever feel like that, too?

All he could do was nod at her, reverting to that grunting asshole, completely stripped of his ability to speak. That was something about her he shoulda known before, but hadn’t ever considered until then, until she put into words what he had always carried in his heart. The farm girl in her thrived out here in the trees and in the breath of life whispering through them. The woods called to her like they called to him and something about that resonated deep in his bones, right alongside the pulse of the forest itself. She belonged out here, she fit, whether flying on horseback across open fields, how he imagined her spending so much of her childhood, or moving silently through the trees at his side. He pictured her sliding gracefully down off her horse to spin through that field of tall grass where he tracked that buck. Hair loose and swirling all around her, the wings on his vest peeking out between the silken strands as the waving stalks swallowed her up when she fell back into them, smiling and breathless—

Beth stepped in a pile of crumpled leaves which crackled beneath her boot, dragging his mind up from where it had wandered and back to the present. All right, so she wasn’t perfect, wasn’t always the silent little forest sprite he imagined her to be. But she was still here beside him ‘cause she wanted to be, because the woods called to her. Not only because it was just him and her.

Beth stopped and crouched down, peering at something in front of her. Daryl dropped down beside her to see what she found, saw her parting the slightly trampled underbrush to reveal several prints in the dirt.

“Whatcha got?” he asked, even though at a glance he knew. He wanted to hear what she thought.

“They’re from today,” Beth said, and before he could prompt her, she drew a circle in the air above one of the marks and kept talking. “Probably early this morning. The edges are only a bit crumbly, and the brush here is still sort of trampled-looking but it’s also had time to start bouncin’ back up.”

Daryl hummed lowly, the sound he made when he liked her answer. “Go on.”

“There’s more than one.” She moved her finger to hover over a mark that was identical to the first except for its size. “One big, one little. No. Wait.” Beth leaned in a little closer to the ground to push aside a bit more of the underbrush. “Two little. I think?”

Daryl breathed out a deep breath as those sweeping wings inside his chest launched into a deep rhythm alongside the beat of his heart. He had seen that, the prints of two little animals, same-sized, to the untrained eye easy to mistake for the same small creature. But not to Beth—she looked at the placement of the little prints and read them as he had.

Beth looked up at him, and whatever she saw on his face brought an instant deep flush to her cheeks. “I’m right?” she said, in a breathy whisper. “Two little ones?”

“Mmhm. And what’re we lookin’ at?”

Beth giggled, just a little, and leaned over until their shoulders touched. “That’s the easy part. I’d know hog prints anywhere.”

She was right, and she knew it, but still, nobody learned nothing by being right all the time. “How d’you know they ain’t deer?”

“The hooves are round. Deer have pointier feet,” Beth said, no question to her tone this time, just confidence in her knowledge. “And they’re good and wide, especially the big one’s. Deer’s are narrower. And those—” she touched her finger down between two dot-like impressions behind one of the clearer prints “—are their little piggy toes. Deer don’t have those.”

Little piggy toes, for fuck’s sake. Sometimes Daryl didn’t understand how Beth could be so silly—and adorable as hell—one moment, but serious and tough as iron the next. Weren’t a bad thing, though, not as far as he could see, it just was.

It was just her.

He hummed again and she glanced up at him, eyes wide and pleased. “Not sure about goin’ after a hog, though. Especially a sow with little ones. Maybe if she was makin’ trouble at the cabin, but…”

“Nah,” he said, bumping her shoulder with his. “We’ll leave her. Unless you feel like eatin’ Piglet.”

She crinkled her nose up, looking adorably displeased with the idea. “We’re not that desperate.”

Adorable, maybe, but also right, since they weren’t at all desperate, and feral hogs weren’t known for their docility. If she wanted to go for it he’d have followed, but it was just as well to avoid the hassle. “Get goin’ then. Find us somethin’ else for supper.”

Beth kept a careful eye on the hog trail as she led them on, and he made a mental note to comment on that later. Eventually their path deviated from that of the pigs and he watched Beth’s shoulders loosen a little as she veered right while the hogs veered left. They were getting close to the place he had in mind and sure enough, Beth slowed her pace, gaze sweeping carefully across the landscape. He’d been here, she hadn’t, but he told her what to look for and she had spotted the first sign—the stunted, twisted tree with knots patterned like some sorta demented clown face.

She swung her crossbow down off her shoulder now, slowing her pace even further as she searched for the next sign. Her eyes passed over it though and she kept walking, but he just followed for now to see if she would notice. After about ten minutes, Beth stopped and turned around, looking behind him first before meeting his gaze.

“I missed it, right?” She gestured vaguely behind her and to the left—her right—without looking back. “Because you said it was before where the game trail turned back toward the creek and I can hear the water now.”

Shit, he hadn’t even noticed that. Now that she mentioned it, though, his ears picked up the distant ripple of water over rocks, and he nodded at her, not quite able to keep the smile off his face. “You did, but good thinkin’, Beth, listenin’ for the water like that.”

Beth nodded once, tucked her lip into her teeth in that determined way she had, likely filing that comment away to enjoy later. She had a job to do now—back to that thing about her, where she could change her hat from silly to serious in the span of a heartbeat—and slipped past him to backtrack their path. He watched Beth as she searched for it, noted when her eyes passed over it once and thought she might miss it again, but on the second sweep she paused, gaze landing on the tiny knife mark at the base of the tree, then tracking on to the barely-there path and the odd little whorl in the dense, green brush were the rabbits tunnelled through.

Taking a careful step back toward him, glancing over her shoulder, she tipped her head in the direction of the tunnel and said, “Rabbits?”

“How d’you know?” His standard answer, but he never let her guess without making her think about it first.

“That tunnel’s about the right size for rabbits,” Beth said, turning again to study the scene. “I-I can’t see any prints though, not from here and I don’t want to spook them.”

Daryl stepped up behind her and she leaned back into him, just enough that he felt the brush of her shoulders on his chest, the rasp of her ponytail on his neck as he set his hands on her arms and bent over her shoulder to whisper in her ear. “Can’t really tell, without gettin’ close, you’re right. But see the way the ground mounds up back behind the brush?”

Beth let out a long, quiet breath and nodded. “Is that a warren?”

“Yeah,” he said, lowering his voice a little more as the rabbits’ brushy front yard rustled faintly. “Could be dozens of them down in there.”

“So it is rabbits.” A shiver rolled through her and she pressed back into him just a little bit further. “You already knew that, though. From before.”

He hummed, and Beth turned her head just enough to see him with one eye, holding the contact a moment before she spoke.

“So you couldn’t tell for sure from where we are.” Also not a question but a statement, and when he hummed again so did she. “Okay. C’mon. Let’s find a place to watch.”

The place in question took the shape of a depression behind a pair of trees, the gap between which left them a clear line of sight to the tunnel entrance to the rabbit warren. They crouched down there together, Daryl leaning back against the wall made by dirt and tree roots, Beth up on her knees beside him, elbows balanced on the large root serving as the ledge to steady her hold on her crossbow. He couldn’t see, sitting down here like this, but this wasn’t his hunt. She led them here, the kill was hers to take.

Beth kept still and quiet, her only movement the slight shifting of her weight from knee to knee after a good five minutes of waiting. Daryl slid down to lie on his back in a cradle of curving roots, able to see her better from this vantage point without getting in her way. She had a solid grip on her crossbow, but not a rigid one, her finger just kissing the trigger without pressing in, without looking itchy. With her arms braced like that, the weapon stayed steady, and she gazed down the scope mount, eyes squinted in concentration but both of them open. They’d found the scope for her bow eventually, a decent looking piece of glass, but she chose not to use it—if he could manage, she had told him, then so could she, without relying on something that could break and leave her vulnerable. Now she breathed in deep through her nose, the wings on her back rising each time she inhaled, sinking back down as she let the air out her mouth, lips parted just enough for the breath to escape without sound.

The word beautiful hovered somewhere in his thoughts, but it wasn’t enough. Fierce, that was closer but still not quite right. Strong couldn’t cover it either, though she was that, but she was so much more. There just wasn’t a word he could find to explain how she looked there, so into it, so focused, so intent on something as relatively simple as shooting a rabbit. Something she’d done before and would do again, but it wasn’t a game to her. Not at all.

Daryl couldn’t explain it, what he felt as he watched her taking such obvious pride in something he taught her, something that was as much a part of who he was as his hands or his heart. Most of it had become painfully familiar to him; the flutter in his chest, the shiver in his belly, the pulse of hot blood and the swelling of his cock. He couldn’t explain it, the physical effect she had on him without even knowing, and he didn’t try. She just did. It just was.

Her breath fluttered out of her as she pulled the trigger, the release of the bowstring loud in the otherwise silent forest. Daryl didn’t have to look to know she made her shot. The smile stretching wide across her face as she lowered the bow told him that well enough, and the little skip to her step as she strode over to collect her kill. She returned holding the big cottontail by its hind legs, her bolt already pulled out of its head.

“Should I try to get another one?” she asked, jumping back down into their hiding place.

“Up to you.” Daryl returned her wide smile with a smaller one of his own, shifting his legs to better conceal the fact that he was hard—a skill he was far too old to be having to learn, but his body had other ideas. “It’s your hunt.”

Beth glanced back over her shoulder, then down at the rabbit in her hand, then back to Daryl. “I think I should try for one more.”

“All right.”

Beth reloaded her crossbow and set both it and the rabbit down next to the tree. “And we know these rabbits are here. No telling what we’ll find tomorrow.” 

That was good thinking, and Daryl hummed in agreement as Beth stretched out beside him amongst the roots, turning her face toward him. The way the roots grew had her lying with her head very close to his, just skirting the edge of being too close to properly see her when he turned to look. “Have to wait awhile, ‘til they forget you spooked ‘em.”

Beth shrugged her shoulders. “That’s okay. It’s nice and cool down here.”

It was, beneath the thick canopy of trees in this little hollow, the ground below them able to hold on to its moisture this deep in the shade. “Gonna be hot again.”

“Just hope this means we’re goin’ to have a nice long autumn.” Beth tipped her face back up toward the sky, wiggling a little to get settled. “Since we’re gonna be out there in it.”

He hoped so, too. They had a long way to go just to get back even close to where they could start searching, without benefit of the car that had brought them this far south. He didn’t want to spend too much time near highways or towns, preferring to stick to the woods as much as possible, especially with just the two of them, but if they could find a vehicle that still worked, even for a little while, it would eat up a good chunk of their travel time. They would need to be careful about it, if they decided to try. He’d have to ask Beth what she thought.

“I miss swimming.”

Beth’s words, so completely not an answer to his mental question, jarred him back to the present, and he looked over at her again. “Hmm?”

“It’s not something people do anymore, you know?” she said, blinking up at the wall of green above their heads, hands clasped together over the flat of her stomach. “Not just swimming—I’m thinkin’ about that ‘cause of the weather. The things you did just because of the thing itself, not ‘cause it was essential to keepin’ alive.”

She paused a minute before speaking again, turning a onto her side within the cradle of the roots, propping her head up with one hand while the fingers of the other made little piles out of shed tree needles. “Is there anythin’ like that that you miss, Daryl?”

Some version of this game or another kept cropping up amongst the people he’d met since this thing started, and he never much cared for it. Couldn’t relate to it, most of the time. People missed the frivolous things the most, the kinda shit Daryl never had to begin with. But this was Beth, and she knew enough about who he’d been before to understand that. She wouldn’t judge him for what he didn’t miss, and more than that, she wasn’t asking just to ask. She wanted to know, because it mattered to her.

“Don’t know about no swimmin’,” he said, easing over on his side to mirror her pose. “But riding down the highway, not goin’ nowhere, just riding. I miss that.”

“On a motorcycle, you mean?” Beth asked. He nodded, and she kept speaking while he poked at her little piles of needles. “I’ve never been on one, but I guess it would feel a little like how it was sometimes when I’d ride my horse. We’d go bareback and she would just run and run until I could barely hang on, she’d go so fast. It felt like flying.”

That fit just so well with his earlier thoughts that he had to smile, and the one she flashed him in return settled warm inside him. “Too bad we ain’t got horses now. Might speed up the trip.”

“Or motorcycles,” Beth said. “Well. Maybe just one. I don’t know how to ride one of those. With or without a saddle.” 

He had just enough time for a flash of a vision, him on a bike, flying down the road with Beth on the back, holding on and laughing as her hair whipped out behind her, before the Beth in front of him laughed for real and pulled him back out of his head.

“Just thinking that maybe I’d have better luck with a motorcycle than you did with a horse,” she said, fighting not to smile at her own cleverness.

She might’ve been right, but she didn’t have to know that, and he grumbled at her even though he wasn’t really annoyed. Beth just giggled, covering her mouth with her hand to keep the noise down, eyes bright and wide and locked onto his. He tried to narrow them at her, tried to look anything but completely stupidly enthralled by the look on her face, but whatever he did only made her laugh harder and roll over on her back, giggling.

“Gonna name your bike Nervous Nellie,” he said, reaching over to poke her in the side. “See how well you do.”

Beth snorted and caught his hand when he tried to poke her again, and he didn’t fight too hard when she twined their fingers together. “You—oh—stop makin’ me laugh, Daryl,” she said, shoulders still shaking with laugh-spasms.

“Ain’t my fault you’re all giggly,” he said, putting on his best gruff voice, but the truth was he enjoyed this. Enjoyed it more than he thought was possible, making her laugh, watching the way her face lit up when she did, feeling that lightness bubbling inside him with every giggle.

Beth rolled back on her side to face him, two fingers held to her lips. “Shhh, Dawyl.”

Dawyl? His put-on grumpy face fell and he felt his brow furrowing. “Girl, what—”

She pressed those same two fingers over his lips and he stopped what he was going to say, gaze snapping up to meet hers. With very wide eyes and the most obviously fake innocent expression he’d ever seen her make, Beth shhhed again and nodded slowly.

“Be vewy, vewy quiet,” she said. “I’m hunting wabbits.”

Fucking wabbits.

The snort that shot outta him knocked her fingers away with its explosiveness, but Beth only laughed and flopped over onto her back again, still looking at him, shaking a bit with giggling at her own silliness. And this was gonna be one of those times when he couldn’t look away from her, he could already feel it winding in his chest. But something else pulled at him, too, a sensation almost like hovering just over his own shoulder, looking down on the two of them there, lying together beneath the trees, holding hands and laughing over ridiculous things like Elmer fucking Fudd and his goddamn wabbits.

Wasn’t maybe a stretch for her. Beth came from a place where touch was healthy. Healing. That hug in her cell, after Zach, she’d done it because she knew he was upset, because to her hugs healed, and he remembered how he reacted then. Too shocked at first to push her away, not stopping her after only ‘cause he knew she never meant to wound, but he couldn’t quite get to the place she was trying to take him, no matter what her intentions. It was just too much, too close, too—too intimate—for a man who’d grown up as he had. 

Now he couldn’t even find that part of him, the part that didn’t ease into the brush of her shoulders or crave the slide of her fingers through his. The part that didn’t reach out for the warmth of her body in the bed they shared even if that wasn’t something they were talking about. No magical leap happened from that day in her cell to them here in the woods, rather this all crept up on him, little by little while he wasn’t looking, since he was sure he woulda tried to stop it if he’d seen. But he hadn’t, so here they were.

Wasn’t all that certain he minded, though.

When she sighed, that sense of being in two places at once vanished, and he was there again, lying with Beth beneath the trees, gazes locked together as tightly as their hands held between them. They lay there awhile just staring and listening for movement at the warren. His belly throbbed deep and pleasant and he let it wash over him. 

Another rabbit eventually dared venture out, and Beth made her shot again despite the tremble in her fingers when she pulled away from him to take her place between the trees. She didn’t always shoot as well as she had today, and when he could talk again he’d tell her she did well, but his voice left him somewhere back a ways and had yet to catch up. 

They walked side by side on the way back to the cabin, their shoulders brushing every other step. The pair of rabbits hung over Beth’s shoulders on a cord and as they walked she sang. Daryl didn’t know the song but it sounded like another one of them old folk tunes she used to pull out sometimes at the prison. He didn’t really listen to the words anyway, because it wasn’t the words that mattered but how she sang them, voice somehow sweet and bold and clear and ethereal all at once. He soaked in it, the way it swirled up around them both, a little cocoon of sound meant only for their ears. And it seeped down inside him, too, mixing with the flutter, the heat, the lingering arousal, and the deep pulse of something he thought might be longing, though for what wasn’t clear.

Wasn’t just them who heard, though, and Beth stopped singing mid-verse at the sound of rustling brush and not-so-distant groaning coming from somewhere to their left.

“I got it,” she said, lifting the brace of rabbits from around her neck, pushing them into his hands when he hesitated. “My singing. My walker.”

The urge he had, the one that always lingered there to protect her even though he knew she could handle it was easy enough to suppress out here, when he had already spent hours watching her show him what she knew, what she could do. It was thrilling, in a way, even though it was just one walker, and she put it down with a third perfect shot long before it got close. Something about her confidence, her knowledge in her own strength, her ability to handle the threat was just so damn attractive. And he wasn’t used to thinking that way about people, or about things people did, but there was a special spark in his belly for badass Beth and it only blazed hotter the harder she tried.

She downgraded her singing after the walker’s intrusion to that tuneful humming, still a pleasant accompaniment to their trek back home, just a little less likely to draw unwanted attention. The bit of a skip to her step, in tune with whatever song she had in her brain, had her swinging her ponytail and giggling every time it swished into his face. He thought about tugging on the little braid, just to see what she’d do, but just when he decided he would, Beth looked at him and smiled, a silly, crinkle-nosed thing. Then she looped her arm through his and did her best to get him to skip along, too. 

He didn’t skip—no way in hell—but he liked that she did, and maybe the lightness he felt in his chest just then was the same feeling that made her do it. She spun away, laughing, a new tune at her lips, same skipping steps, and God, he couldn’t quite wrap his head around this woman sometimes. So strong. So good. Still singing even though the world was shit, being silly and laughing and getting him to do it too.

She’s good for you.

The thought slithered in out of nowhere, and something inside him pushed it back, rising up like a brick wall to reject the idea that anything good would dare even look at him. But the thought pushed back, poked little holes into that brick façade until it crumbled away. Because from the outside looking in a person might think this was a one-way arrangement. That his strength, his knowledge, his protection was what kept her going. But that wasn’t it at all. He helped her in some ways, he knew he did, but she had that strength inside her all along. The sort of strength he never thought he could have until she made him want to try. He wasn’t quite sure anymore what he would do without her. 

She’s good for you and you know it.

Except Beth wasn’t for anyone, least of all someone like him, and anyway it wasn’t like that— 

Oh. 

Oh.

He was a blind fucking idiot sometimes, wasn’t he? He must have made a noise or something because Beth looked over at him, those big doe-eyes smiling even as her lips formed a question he couldn’t quite hear past the buzzing in his ears. Fingers trembling, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and managed to mumble out some kind of answer, something that made her narrow her eyes at him but not question him further. And he stared over at her long after she turned her attention to the path ahead, his heart pounding so hard he was starting to get lightheaded, and he didn’t think he even had legs anymore, just wobbly sticks of rubber where they used to be.

Because—oh God, because.

He didn’t know. Didn’t think he could know for sure without somebody telling him so, ‘cause this was about as familiar to him as rocket science or alpaca farming. But all of this, everything, it all pointed here, didn’t it? All these things wreaking havoc on his insides, the fluttering in his chest, the way he sometimes couldn’t look away from her and that thing deep down he was pretty damn certain now was longing. Hadn’t he said it, at least to himself, that he felt things for her he hadn’t felt before? What the fuck had he thought that meant?

He once mocked Beth and Zach for acting like they were part of some damn romance novel, and now here he was—right in the fucking middle of one.

The rest of the trip back to the cabin passed him by in a blur, his thoughts a whirlwind, turned inward, and he thought Beth was speaking, thought maybe he was answering, but it was like watching and listening to the whole thing through frosted glass, just muffled sound and flashes of colour.  Something about laundry and washing and he didn’t really notice until he was alone in the cabin, completely naked, shutting the door after passing out his clothes into Beth’s waiting hands and oh God let him have had enough awareness to keep covered. 

Daryl stood behind the door and couldn’t make his feet move, instead lifting his shaking arms up to press against the wood and letting his head hang down between them. The air pressed in thick and hot and it hurt to breathe, but he dragged deep breath after deep breath into his lungs, past the shards of glass imbedded inside. It sent shooting pains right up through his skull, to his stupid thick head that couldn’t get out a coherent thought if he tried.

How?—what?—Beth—Beth—Beth—Oh God, Beth.

He didn’t know. How could he? This wasn’t—this was—his knees wobbled, and only his weight leaning on the solid door kept them from buckling right out from under him. With arms only barely functional, Daryl bolted the door and retreated to the bed, falling down onto his back into its springy softness and shut his eyes tight against the spinning of the room.

He felt drunk.  Thoughts like molasses. Body uncoordinated and heavy. And there was something he was meant to be doing right now and that wasn’t fighting the worst case of sober bed-spins he’d ever had. Washing. That’s right, he was supposed to be bathing, scrubbing away the sweat and the grime while Beth—Oh, God, Beth—cleaned his clothes down at the creek. One last time, he remembered now, her once-muffled words clear in hindsight. Lurching like some black and white movie monster, Daryl closed the distance between the bed and the counter to where the bucket sat, full of this morning’s fresh creek water now gone tepid in the stifling cabin heat.

The coolness of it on his too-hot skin pulled him back into his body with a jolt so solid it knocked the breath out of him, but the room stopped spinning and his legs stopped wobbling. It couldn’t stop the tremble in his fingers as he washed his hair and scrubbed hard at his prickling skin. Didn’t take away the burning ache in his gut or the freight train rumbling though his chest, and didn’t stop him from wrapping a slick, sudsy hand around his cock and stroking himself from base to tip. He groaned and dropped his head forward, bracing against the counter with his free arm, eyes shutting tight. All he saw amidst the speckled blackness was Beth, her messy blond hair, that little braid, big blue eyes intense as they bored into his, and it was her hand on him, her slender fingers curled around him, squeezing just right. A hard shudder rolled through him with the feel of it, his hand—her hand—still moving, strokes firm and slow, and oh fuck, it blazed icy-hot right down to his toes. And it was wrong, so fucking wrong but it felt so good.

Fuck, Beth—

He shuddered hard again and let himself go, rinsed away the soap and found some sort of clothing to drag on over his goddamn rebellious body. He gulped down some water to wet his throat, dry as a fucking desert in this oppressive heat. Too much, it was too much, and he threw open the door, all but stumbling outside into the still hot but wide open air.

Breathe, Dixon.

He dropped onto the steps, halfway down, hanging his head between his knees and struggling to do just that. Everything ached, not just where he was hot and hard but everywhere, his head, his chest, the back of his throat. Legs weak, fingers shaking and he wished he had a cigarette, something, anything to do but sit here—rooted to the spot while his insides jumped, jittery, skittish like a stray cat and wound about as tight. He couldn’t breathe or he was breathing too fast or his head spun and all his blood rushed there, pounding and pulsing before rushing away again to pool in his belly, in his agitated cock still buzzing with the ghost of his gliding hand. And fuck, he was freaking the fuck out and this wasn’t good, it wasn’t—

“Daryl?”

He shuddered hard and dragged his head up from between his knees, his gaze like a magnet locking onto Beth. Beth in borrowed clothes—when had she changed?—with her big eyes narrowed, brow drawn inward until that furrow dug deep, standing in the lawn with the washtub at her hip. Daryl couldn’t speak, but he thought he might have opened his mouth to try except no sound came out. He had no words in his head to offer her.

Beth set the tub down and rushed over in a few quick strides, making the air ripple around her and it sliced right through him with another hard jolt. He must have moved, jerked or shook or jumped, something, because she stopped before she reached him, tilting her head, sinking down slowly onto the step beside him. The magnet kept his head moving, following her eyes, but his face was numb. He didn’t even know what it was doing.

“Are you okay?” she asked, voice soft, careful. She reached out her hand, moving it toward him in slow motion. “Daryl?”

At the touch of her fingers on his wrist, Daryl let out the breath he was holding and he dragged his eyes from her face to where her hand lay pale and deceptively delicate against his big tanned wrist. His belly lurched at the visual and she had to feel the tremble rolling there beneath his skin, but he didn’t move and she held on, thumb moving back and forth as her gentle voice prompted him a second time.

“I—” Daryl breathed in again, slow and deep, and when he let it out some of the fog went out with it. “Just—”

“Shh,” Beth said. “You don’t have to say. Just tell me if you’re gonna be okay or not.”

A pang of something unpleasant pulsed in his chest, and he wasn’t sure what exactly but it wriggled vaguely like shame. Not for Beth. He mighta been wrecked by this revelation but shame could never touch her. Couldn’t even exist in the space she occupied. It was just his own stupid head, his own useless fucked up self freaking out about the best good thing he’d ever even come close to in all his thirty-whatever years.

His lungs didn’t ache quite as much, at least not in the same way, when he breathed in again. He looked over and met Beth’s eyes, tried to work his mouth into some sort of not-quite-smile. “Yeah. Ain’t nothin’.”

The smile she gave him in return—soft, knowing, but kind—told him she didn’t believe it, but wasn’t going to call him on that moment of bullshit. Instead she slid closer and leaned her head on his shoulder, thumb still gliding over his skin, those points of contact blazing hot and tingly. “I’ll stay for a bit, if you want.”

He wanted. God, he wanted a lot of things in a lot more ways than he’d let himself understand. And that twist of panic still lingered there, lurking in the background, in the dark corners of his head, because this, feeling this way about her wasn’t just something he could ignore, brush off, tuck away, not now that he knew. Daryl wanted to tell her she could go, if she had things to do, if staying there with him wasn’t what she wanted, but he couldn’t conjure up the words. In the end he tipped his head over to rest it against hers, shut his eyes and breathed and just let himself be there beside her without thinking too hard on never wanting her to leave.

By the time she did get up, his insides had settled back down to their usual Beth-induced buzz, that pleasant warmth and the flutter of wings, and a deeper, lingering ache he didn’t think he would quite get rid of tonight even though the erection had gone.

“I won’t be long,” she said, her fingers drifting through his hair as she stood.

Daryl stared out into the yard while Beth ducked inside the cabin, eyes roaming across the familiar scene, the overgrown garden and trampled grass, the now-repaired fence made out of recycled decking, the birch tree with a bunny carved in it, and the resident crows, yelling at one another from high up in the trees. A bit more than two weeks since he and Beth ended up here, but it felt like months when he thought about all that happened in that time. This though, with Beth, now that he understood what it meant he knew it had been brewing for a lot longer.

You know.

Somehow, he was trying to tell her even then, even before he knew what it was himself.

But knowing his feelings for what they were didn’t mean anything had to change. Him and Beth had done just fine this far without it, and finally getting through to his own thick head didn’t mean he had to tell her anything. She didn’t have to know and it wasn’t gonna hurt her if she never found out. Woman was perceptive, though, so damn good at reading him—if she had figured him out, well, wasn’t like he had to confess then, was it? She was still there, still with him in this Beth-and-Daryl-against-the-world, whether she knew how he felt or not, and that’s what was important.

Nothing else mattered as long as they stuck together.

Maybe it was okay, then, feeling like this, allowing it in, letting be what it was without trying to shove it down. Wasn’t unpleasant. Far from that, just new and frightening but also warm and shivery and good in a way he couldn’t really define, and he wondered, with a snort at his own ridiculousness, if this how he was supposed to feel as a teenager, longing after the pretty girl. He’d never longed, rarely even looked. And there was Merle again, in his head, questioning his manhood as only Merle could. Just ain’t him, though, never was, not the feelings part or the other parts, either, no matter how many times Merle shoved him at some willing woman. 

Until now. Until Beth.

Yeah, he figured maybe he could sort of understand the freak-out when he looked at it that way. On the other side, though, the side that was Beth, this made more sense than anything else these days. If anyone could get inside like that, could wake up a part of him he didn’t even know he had, it would be her. Even if he saw it coming he’d’a been powerless to stop it. 

Sometime later, the cabin door opened and Beth stepped out, barefoot, hair loose and damp, the darkened curls wetting the borrowed shirt she had on under his vest. Daryl’s pulse kicked up in his chest but a sense of ease settled across his shoulders. It was okay. They were okay.

“I found some coffee,” Beth said, reaching down to hand him one of the mugs in her hand. “All sealed up good and everything. I was saving it for today.”

He took the mug from her, their fingers brushing as he did, leaving his tingling as that scent of strong coffee tickled his nose. He breathed deep and lifted the mug to his lips, sipping even though it really was too hot. Bold and black, how he liked it, and he glanced up at Beth with a smile, lips faintly burning from the heat.

“Good?” she asked.

He nodded, once, tried not to let the grin get any wider than it already was. “Yeah. Good.”

Beth moved to sit, but instead of taking a spot beside him she settled behind him, up a couple of steps. She set her coffee down beside her and he tipped his head back to ask what she was doing way back there. She got to him first, though, fingers sliding into his hair before he could speak, her nails just grazing his scalp. And it felt fucking wonderful, the gentle tug, the scratch of her nails and the tingle it left behind, and he closed his eyes and didn’t try to keep from groaning at the sensation.

“Your hair’s so soft after you wash it,” Beth said, as if she even had to explain, fingers not stopping their motions.

He leaned into her touch, the tingling now travelling down his spine, out along all his nerves until he felt it even in his toes. “Mmm.”

Beth pulled him back until he rested there against her knees and he was pretty sure he groaned again, a rumbling thing from deep down in his chest. Who knew something like this could feel so nice? Well, Beth, apparently, ‘cause it was her idea, and she giggled softly, scratched a little harder when he tipped his head to follow the path of her fingers.

“Mmmmm. What?” he asked, not bothering to open his eyes. He could picture her little grin well enough without looking.

“I just thought—no, never mind.” Her breath huffed out, a bit giggly, but her fingers had gone still.

Daryl nudged them with his head and she laughed again but resumed scratching, giggling harder when he couldn’t stop that rumbling groan from leaking out again.

“What?” he asked again, feeling an answering bubble of laughter rising up, light and airy in his chest.

“Just—promise you won’t get mad?”

He cracked an eye open at that, finding her amused gaze immediately. “As long as you keep doin’ that.”

One corner of her mouth curled up higher and she dragged her fingers just a little harder against his scalp. “You mean that?” she asked, voice dropping a pitch lower. 

He shuddered in the aftermath of her voice, and could only rumble at her in response, feeling her shaking with silent laughter through the press of her knees at his back.

“It’s just,” she said, after a minute of that deeper, harder scratching. “Just that you’re kind of remindin’ me of a cat.”

True to his word, he couldn’t find the strength to be irritated when she had her fingers in his hair like that, but—a cat?

“You’re purring, Daryl,” she said, not quite able to keep the notes of laughter out of her voice, and hell, he kinda was.

Whatever. As long as she didn’t stop.

She didn’t, not for a good long while. He wondered what she would do if he crawled right up into her lap like the pussycat she turned him into with the touch of her hands, but stayed where he was, leaned back against her. Wasn’t comfortable, her knees in his back, neck bent over backward so he could get closer to those fingers. Didn’t matter. 

Like all good things, though, the bliss that was Beth’s fingers in his hair had to end sometime. Her coffee now cool enough to drink, she gave him one final scratch before sliding down to sit beside him. He gathered his mug into his hands and slid over to make room for her. 

“I’m gonna miss this place.” Beth leaned over and let her head fall against his shoulder, but tipped her face up so she could see his. “I’m glad it was here when we needed it.”

“Me too,” he said, looking down at her. “What else we got to do?”

“Just some last minute kind of things.” Beth took a sip of her coffee, smiling faintly around the rim of her mug. “This is good. But I think I like less sugar than I used to.”

“Next time I'll remind you to be a man and drink it black,” Daryl said, nudging her shoulder.

Beth’s chuckle washed warm over his face, where she looked up at him, eyes big and bright, a soft flush of pink across her cheeks. “I’m not a man, Daryl.”

And she was only joking, just like him, but still. 

Still.

“No.” His voice rumbled out more gravelly than he meant it to. “No, you ain’t.”

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

 

Chapter 18 – And When the Night Is Cloudy

 *~*

“I’m not a man, Daryl.”

Something subtle shifted in the air, like a hint of a breeze across her shoulders when everything before stood still. A bit of pink crept onto Daryl’s face and he swallowed, throat moving so subtly she’d have missed it if they weren’t sitting so close. 

“No,” Daryl said, the gravel of his voice rumbling out of his chest and right down into hers. “No, you ain’t.”

Heat bloomed in her cheeks, rising up so quick it almost stung, and Beth had to look away, a breathy little giggle following without her permission. The tone of his voice, something about the way he said it spread that same warmth through her belly, made her heart beat a little harder in her chest. Obviously she wasn’t a man, and obviously he knew that, but it almost felt like he was making a special effort to notice what she was instead. 

No. No, she needed to stop doing that, putting meaning into Daryl’s words when it wasn’t a sure thing that there was any other meaning to be had. Lord knows she didn’t need any more fuel for this silly crush of hers, blazing away in her chest like a campfire, least of all something she made up. Beth took a big sip of her coffee, cringing at the sweetness but determined not to waste any, trying—and mostly failing—to will away her foolishness.  

Beside her, Daryl drained the last of his and set the mug down on the step between his feet, the ceramic making a little thump as it met the wood. “Been thinkin’.”

“Hmm?” Beth didn’t look back up at him, staring instead out across the back yard, noting the places where the grass had yet to recover from this morning’s game. “What about, Daryl?”

“’Bout headin’ west for a bit, before we go north.” He lifted his far arm to gesture along the creek. “Follow it ‘til we find a good sized road.”

That made her look up, though he had his head turned, gazing to the west. “A road? But I thought we were gonna stick to the woods.”

He made a sound somewhere between the hum he used when they were hunting and a version of his yes-grunt. “Why do you think?”

His question wasn’t asked out of annoyance. Beth recognized at once the tone he used when they were in the woods and he wanted her to think about something. It was his way of teaching, to get her to put some thought into it before he gave her an answer, and she liked that. Beth didn’t think anyone had ever done that for her before, but it made sense in a Daryl sort of way. It forced her to practice finding the answers on her own, without relying on anyone’s brain but her own, and she enjoyed the process of putting the pieces together. Of looking at the signs and figuring how to read them. 

Finding a road, that was a sign of something Daryl wanted her to track with her mind. Beth raised her mug to her lips again for another sip, considering his question. Why would he want to find a road, if he preferred to travel under the cover of the trees? What advantage would there be to having a road nearby, even if they weren’t going to be using it? It would be a northbound road, or northbound enough. Daryl had a good sense of direction and knew how to navigate, but he didn’t know these southern woods like he knew those to the north, and a road didn’t vanish when the clouds rolled in and obscured the sun or the stars. A road was a constant thing, like the creek. They didn’t have to be right on its edges to follow it, but Beth always knew it was there, knew all she had to do was find its banks to get her bearings.

“A landmark, right?”

Daryl made his affirmative humming sound, and leaned a bit more of his weight into her shoulder. “What else?”

“Um…” Beth swept her gaze up into the trees, watching the two crows in their big oak, hints of red already showing in its leaves. “Well, we might find somethin’ useful along the road, right? Oh!”  The answer just popped into her mind, and beside her Daryl was already nodding. “You’re hopin’ we can find a car.”

They’d come this far south because of one, so that only made sense. If they could find one that worked, at least for a bit, they could eat up a good amount of distance in a day that would take them weeks to travel on foot. The one they abandoned at the edge of that highway southeast of the cabin would still run if they had some fuel for it, but—ah, and now she understood that part too.

Prickling fingers danced up her spine and over her scalp, and she was sure Daryl noticed the way she shook with it. Beth looked up at him, unsurprised to find his sharp eyed-gaze already waiting for her. “We’re goin’ west so we don’t run into any more of those ‘cops’, right?”

He was chewing his lip, something she hadn’t seen him do in a little while. Not since before he left hunting and returned with some of the weight lifted from his shoulders. “Figured it’s best we don’t.”

And on that, Beth agreed, nodding at him without feeling the need to say anything else about it. She didn’t want to let the thoughts of Gorman and all that happened at the funeral home burrow in too deep and spoil her good mood of this lovely day, and did her best to push them away. Still, the faint brush of those prickly fingers lingered on her neck as they sat in silence, both of them looking out into the yard and listening to the squabbling of the crows in the near distance while Beth nursed the last of her too-sweet coffee.

She looked up when Daryl spoke again a few minutes later, lifting his chin to gesture toward the creek. “You good with that? The plan?”

It took her a couple of seconds to answer him, and she couldn’t quite keep the surprise out of her voice when she did. “You’re asking me?”

“You got just as much say in this,” Daryl said, meeting her eyes now, speaking almost at the level of a whisper. “Ain’t got Beth and Daryl against the world without the Beth part.”

There it was again, that swirl of butterflies in her belly, that slow spread of warmth trickling through in their wake. Something about his easy use of her silly saying, the way he made it into just one word, Bethndaryl and—

Focus, Greene.

Beth bit her lip and tried to push it away to concentrate on what he actually said, outside of her Daryl-coloured glasses. She did have a say and she always had, when she thought about it. Maybe she followed Daryl’s lead a lot, especially in the beginning, but he considered what she wanted even when it was something as ill advised as traipsing all over the countryside just to get a damn drink. He hadn’t told her he was going hunting, simply what he found and what he wanted to do about it, but he didn’t decide to go until they talked about it first.

Daryl always put so much thought into things before he ever put them into words, and it just made sense, going west to stay away from the trouble they found to the east, following the general path of a decent sized road in the hopes they might find a car. They could always go deeper into the woods if they needed to and nothing was set in stone, but it was a place to start. Beth could not find fault in Daryl’s thinking, though she rarely did when it came to stuff like this. 

“Yes,” she said, nodding once, feeling the beat of something pleasant in her chest at simply being asked. “I’m good with the plan.”

Daryl nodded, too, that same quick bob of his head as she made, and the tight line of his lips relaxed a bit. “A’right. There any more of that coffee?”

“Enough for another cup each.” She started to get up, but Daryl grabbed hold of her wrist and tugged her back down.

“I got it,” he said, making a give-it-here gesture toward the mug in her hands. 

With Daryl gone for the moment, Beth looked back out across the yard. She meant it when she said she would miss the cabin, in more ways than she could adequately find the words for. She was in such a dark place when she first set foot on these steps and laid eyes on the now familiar scene in front of her. It still lingered there, that darkness, in her nightmares and in those quiet moments when she let her thoughts get the better of her. Even now the sharp little fingers poked at her, digging tiny bleeding holes to remind her of what she did. What she had to live with.

Her memory of that moment had grown fuzzy with distance, the details bleeding into one concussive mess of confusion, until really the only part of it that felt concrete anymore was the recoil of the gun after she pulled the trigger. She knew what happened. Gorman grabbed her from behind, held his gun to her head, dug his fingers into her belly to show her what he wanted and what he was willing to do to get it. She shot him to get away. Ended his life with a bullet to the head to save her own, but aside from the gun’s kick, she barely remembered any of that. No details, just facts. All she saw when she tried to make herself look back was Daryl standing motionless across the yard, crossbow raised even though he didn’t have a clean shot. His voice, quiet and deathly calm, demanding Gorman let her go—and the desperation in his eyes when they landed on hers. 

Daryl, the man who could get through anything on sheer force of will, thought she was done for.

She hadn’t had a choice. Part of her had known it all along—that same part that brought her hand to her gun and made her fire it—but it couldn’t sink in when everything was raw and aching. Daryl’s insistence, the slide of that look into the forefront of her memory, and enough mental distance to sort the facts from the emotions, helped her truly believe it.

She would never forget what she had to do, never forgive Gorman for being the sort of reprehensible excuse for a human being to force her into taking his life. But she thought she was starting to forgive herself, and that was enough to patch the little holes, heal the scratches left behind by those lurking dark thoughts.

The soft creak of hinges brought her back to the present, and Beth tipped her head back to watch Daryl’s approach, her hair pooling on the step behind her.  He smiled down at her, an easy smile the likes of which she never would’ve thought him capable of, before all of this. He eased down carefully beside her with a mug in each hand, placing his on the step before holding out hers.

She set it down between her feet, knowing it would be far too hot for her to drink yet, and turned to look at Daryl. He was waiting, already facing her, his eyes laden with that look. The look of warm honey and tingling fingers and fluttering butterflies. The one she couldn’t explain away no matter how tightly she tied her rational hat on. It reached right inside her, dug in its hooks, and tugged until she couldn’t tear her gaze from his, couldn’t control the things her eyes were probably telling him anymore than it seemed he could control his own. And it was like that now, too, except there was a different glimmer there, something new which drew a little smile across Daryl’s lips and had that usually steady gaze flickering, though no less intense for it.

“What?” she asked, whispering even though she didn’t intend to.

“Ain’t ever remember seein’ your hair like that.” He almost sounded shy, the way he said it, and though he had lifted his far hand up a bit as he spoke, he let it fall back down onto his knee.

She’d almost forgotten his weird mood from earlier, when she found him here on the steps well in the middle of some sort of meltdown. Really he’d been a bit off since the walk back from hunting, and at first Beth wondered if it hadn’t had something to do with her own stupid good mood, if in trying to make him smile, trying to share some of the happiness bubbling inside her chest, she had taken it too far. She didn’t think that was it, though. He seemed distracted, not irritated, before the panic or whatever it was set in, and she felt the tension ease out of him after when they sat together on the steps. No, he’d had something on his mind, and not something little, either, for it to rattle him like that.

She had let it slip her mind sometime around the moment she dared herself to play with his hair, so soft-looking and shining with strands of gold amongst the brown, the way the light caught it. And he had decided to let her, and now here he was, pointing out the state of her hair, like that was something he did every day. It was quite like Daryl to notice little details but not at all his habit to comment on something like this, something specifically about the way she looked. Definitely not in a way that made her think he liked it, with his ears all pink where they poked out from beneath his still-tousled locks, and the adorably bashful way he wouldn’t quite meet her eyes afterward. 

“Too dangerous to leave it down, usually,” Beth said in response, taking the safe approach, smoothing her hand down the back and trying to ignore the quickening of her pulse. “It’s silly, even keeping it this long, but…”

But. It wasn’t practical. Long hair was just another thing to grab, another thing to get caught up on, and maybe Carol had the right idea about hair these days. Beth had let go a lot of things from the old world, but not this. Maybe it was silly, but she liked her hair how it was. Liked the feel of it on her neck, liked keeping the little braid as a reminder of how Mama’s fingers would weave through the strands every morning when she was small, fixing her up all proper for school. She wanted to hold onto that part of her that could still be pretty, still be that girl from before even when the rest of her wasn’t, and couldn’t be, not with the way things were now.

In this heat and with the awful humidity, Beth feared what she had going on up there was turning into a frizzy blonde mess that was far from pretty, though. She let her hand glide over the damp strands again, and Daryl’s eyes followed its path as he shifted just a bit on the step, turning in toward her.

“I ain’t one to talk,” he said, the little smile slipping into more of a smirk.

He puffed a bit of breath up to ruffle the fringe of hair that would’ve been hanging in his eyes if he didn’t push it apart in the middle, and Beth couldn’t help but let out a little puff of laughter as she reached up to sweep it further out of the way. God, his eyes were so blue in this light, so pretty, even if that wasn’t something she would ever dare tell him out loud. They didn’t at all suit who he was supposed to be—who anyone who didn’t know him thought he should be—but they suited who he was. A man all kinds of rough around the edges but beautiful inside.

A little tug on the ends of her hair made Beth blink, and she realized she’d been the one staring this time.

Daryl’s eyes crinkled just a little, and when he opened his mouth to speak he couldn’t quite hide the hint of a smile lifting the corners of his lips. “I gotta ask you ‘what’?”

The flushed feeling from before hadn’t fully gone away, and now a fresh flood of heat filled her cheeks, reaching all the way up toward her ears. She wasn’t embarrassed, not in that stomach-squirming way that would make her want to hide, but in a heart-pounding sorta way, a way that prickled with awareness. Of Daryl’s boldness, drawing attention to this thing that happened between them, and that thing itself, a thing of staring and long, weighty looks. That was both of them, now, throwing it out there. Acknowledging with words each other’s lingering gaze. Beth hadn’t meant to, it just slipped out and she thought it was the same for Daryl, too.  Her breath caught in her chest and a shiver of lightheadedness rippled through her, because Daryl’s eyes still hadn’t left hers and she had yet to look away, either.

She did let her gaze drop away, though not to hide. No, all Beth wanted to do was fall right into Daryl’s insanely blue eyes so she did the only other thing she could, and leaned over into Daryl’s body instead, shifting a bit on the step to lay her head in that space where his chest and shoulder met. Instead of tugging at her hair, Daryl glided his fingers through the loose strands, tips grazing her neck, her back, laying a tingling path as they travelled. She could try to blame the heat in her chest and her racing pulse on the coffee, but she knew better. She could only fool herself so far.

“I take after my mom,” Beth said, shutting her eyes as Daryl’s fingers combed higher, scratched at her head like she had with his. The tingling skittered across her scalp and her breath came out shaky. “Everyone always said so. Except for my eyes. I got Daddy’s eyes.”

Daryl’s fingers paused for a brief moment, hardly more than the span of a heartbeat, and beneath her Beth felt his chest rise deeply and hold before falling back down. Then he was moving again, fingers pulling gently through her drying strands, breaths coming slow and deep and even. 

“Don’t much look like either one of ‘em did,” Daryl said, his voice an odd mixture of soft and strained. “Eyes’re hers, though.”

He wouldn’t want her to say what she was thinking just then. Wouldn’t want to hear about the little knot untying in her belly, one she didn’t even know she’d tied, with knowing that this part of him hadn’t come from the man who hurt him in ways she couldn’t ever truly understand. He hadn’t said, but Beth knew. Beth knew more than he probably thought she did, about the scars he kept hidden and how they came to be there. He spoke rarely of his father, though his shadow forever loomed over Daryl’s shoulders, so palpably at times Beth could almost see his shade hovering there, a swirling darkness in the periphery of her vision. Daryl spoke even less of his mother, but there was a sense of affection there, buried beneath all the bad. She wouldn’t ask him, not ever, but Beth hoped somewhere, amidst his horrific past, he’d seen those same eyes looking down on him with even a sliver of the care Beth saw when Daryl looked at her.

But that was Daryl’s story, to keep or to tell, and she wasn’t going to push him into saying any more. Still, she felt like talking, felt like she had to, and her thoughts flowed naturally from one type of family to the other.

“Do you think they’re wonderin’ about us?” she asked, turning her face just a little more into his chest, debating whether he’d notice if she buried her nose in his shirt and sniffed. “The others, I mean?”

“Dunno.” She felt the shrug of his shoulders beneath her head. “Depends, I guess. Who made it. What’s goin’ on for them.”

It was the practical answer, of course. The Daryl answer, because she knew he didn’t want to put too much faith in anyone’s survival but theirs, protecting himself from being completely let down if it turned out differently.

“I’m wonderin’ about them,” Beth said, undeterred by his pessimism on the subject. “So I’m goin’ to believe they’re wondering about us. Maggie will be, and Rick—”

“Rick’s dead.” Daryl’s fingers tightened in her hair with the hard explosion of those words, but his grip—which was never truly tight to begin with—loosened immediately.

A pang of regret burst behind her ribs, billowing out like cool mist over the warmth swirling there. “I know,” she whispered. Even though she desperately wanted to keep faith, she knew that in this, at least, Daryl could not be moved. 

She shifted a little more, turning so she could reach up to cradle his jaw in her palm. “I know, Daryl. I’m sorry.”

Daryl’s chest shuddered beneath her, and Beth brushed her thumb over his scruffy cheek while he breathed out audibly into the stillness of the afternoon. After a while, his breathing settled and Beth let her hand drop down to rest against the warmth of his chest, over the steady beat of his heart, and gave into the urge to bury her nose in his shirt and inhale. Daryl’s fingers travelled from her hair to stroke up the back of her neck, a light, barely-there touch that got a little firmer on the way down. Beneath her hand, his heart raced, and hers kicked up into a matching gallop.

She kept waiting for it to fade away, this idea in her head that what she felt for Daryl was anything but friendship, or camaraderie of shared existence. It was just the remnants of that silly schoolgirl crush all mixed up in the emotional train wreck of having almost lost him to the storm and a walker herd. Once they settled back into things, her feelings would fall back where they ought to be.

Once things settled, Daryl would start pulling back, too. He would wake up one of these mornings and realize how damn close they’d gotten and finally find it too much. He would push her away, not unkindly, but there’d be no more of this. This easy comfort between them was just another side effect, and she might have believed that, too, except every time she pushed him, with or without consciously meaning to, all he did was pull her in closer. Like today, in the yard, when she called him Mr. Dixon and pretended to nap in his arms, and he’d held her there until she decided to move.

And these unexpected things kept happening while the expected kept not happening, and it was getting harder and harder to explain it away. More than a week had passed since she found Daryl in the woods, dehydrated and delirious but beautifully alive, and while she was busy waiting for it to fade, it only beat harder. Instead of starting to shy away from her touch he only seemed to seek it out more.

This whole week, God, honestly she didn’t know how to reconcile the fact that her heart felt lighter, happier, than it had in a very long time. That spending her days with Daryl like this could make the end of the world seem not such a bad place after all. Hunting, tracking, finding landmarks and playing chasing games, working together to prepare for their journey, having quiet conversations and holding hands beneath the trees. This easy coexistence they’d fallen into like breathing didn’t take away all the bad things—the prison, Gorman, Daddy and Rick and Judy—but it made the hurt easier to live with. Made it easier, as Andrea told her so very long ago now, to make room for it. 

No. This wasn’t going away any time soon. Maybe not at all. Because—back to not fooling herself—this was no schoolgirl crush. 

There wasn’t anything girlish about the way Beth felt, not the pulsing, sparking entity in her chest which beat to the tune of Daryl’s name, or the rest of it, either, the part that stole her breath and warmed her up with a heat that had nothing to do with the weather. She wasn’t ready to take a leap and say what she thought it was, though, not to herself and certainly not to Daryl. Not even at a time like this, when it was difficult to imagine he wasn’t feeling something of the same. She’d never seen him like this with anyone, not once in the two years she’d known him, not even close, but—no.

No, she wasn’t going to go there. Analyzing it wasn’t going to change what it was or what it wasn’t.

Just let it be, Beth.

Letting it be was easy. Easier than she would have thought, had anyone presented her with the scenario of cuddling with Daryl Dixon on the steps of an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods, nurturing this not-a-crush and wondering what was going on in that shaggy head of his. He hadn’t quit with his fingers on her neck, his strokes bolder now, deliberate, tracing the rise and fall of her vertebrae from her hairline down past the edge of her shirt and back again, changing directions sometimes to follow the frayed ribbon holding her heart pendant. Beneath her palm, his heart pounded, his breathing as deep as hers and completely in sync. A shiver of tiny feet danced along her nerves, radiating out from beneath his fingers to spread over her skin, sinking right down inside to coil deep and tight in her belly. An involuntary little moan escaped her as she breathed out, floating so softly into the air she barely heard it herself, but Daryl’s breath caught, just for a second, before he breathed out her name.

“Beth.”

A crow squawked overhead, loud, raucous, invasive, and as Beth jerked her eyes open, a whirl of black streaked by with a whoosh of wings and a plunk of something landing in liquid. The splash of coffee on her bare feet wasn’t hot enough to burn, but the expectation of it had her jumping up and away from the fluid spilling down over the steps. In the grass, the second crow joined the first, cawing its displeasure at the other one hopping toward the steps—and the acorn floating in the centre of her mug.

She couldn’t help it. The spike of irritation faded and as the crows flapped their wings and shouted at the acorn-stealing coffee cup, Beth started laughing. A stuttering little giggle at first, soon launching into the full-on, breathless sort when the crows scattered, only to circle back around looking for their lost treasure. Because the only acorn in a forest full of oak trees was the one floating in her mug, right? She tossed it out at them and they resumed their battle there in the grass, and she sunk back down on the steps, meeting Daryl’s gaze as she did.

The moment was broken, and she knew they wouldn’t speak of it, but whatever was going on inside Daryl’s head, he wasn’t irritated, neither at what they’d been doing nor the interruption—or didn’t seem to be anyway. Just looked mildly amused, mouth turned up at the left side in his usual almost-smile.

“Figures,” he said, tilting his head toward the birds in the grass. “Gettin’ ready to leave and they finally welcome us to the neighbourhood.”

“Better late than never, I guess.” Now that she remembered its existence, Beth picked up her mug and took a sip of her warm and acorn-free coffee. A hint of sweetness balanced out the bitter, just a touch, enhancing the flavour instead of masking it like her heavy-handed sweetening from the first cup.

When she looked back at Daryl his smile had lifted up a bit more, and he shrugged as if to brush off what he was about to say. “Wasn’t gonna make you go cold-turkey, but...”

“Are you saying I’m sweet enough on my own, Daryl Dixon?” 

The words were out before she could stop herself—once more pushing him when she didn’t intend to—and Beth could feel the renewed flush blooming in her cheeks, but she didn’t break eye contact, didn’t allow the rush of adrenaline to turn her daring into nerves.

She wasn’t expecting him to answer, and he didn’t, just snorted at her and turned back to face the yard. But he was smiling, and not at all trying to hide it, and that was good enough for her.

They finished their coffee in silence and the rest of the afternoon passed with a comfortable sort of quiet, aside from the ongoing antics of the crows. They swooped in and out of the yard while she and Daryl made their final preparations to leave in the morning, tidied the yard and cabin and cooked up their rabbits for an early supper. They ate together out on the steps, sitting out there while the hot afternoon faded into a warm evening, until the sun dipped down below the trees.

Neither she nor Daryl spoke much, but that was okay. Sometimes they just didn’t need to, and Beth wondered if he wasn’t as lost in his own thoughts as she was in hers. Leaving this place, its relative safety even if that wasn’t absolute, the unknowns of traveling and the inherent danger in it, the unlikelihood of even finding their family well over two months later, by the time they got close, and of course, as always, Daryl – Daryl - Daryl. So many times she’d look over at Daryl to find him looking over at her, too. Was she still in his head like he was in hers?

It wasn’t dark yet when Daryl stretched and suggested they go in, ‘cause tomorrow was gonna be a long day and it was best they settle in early. He stood and held out his hand for her and she let him pull her up, and together they walked inside for the last time.

Her pulse was already racing by the time she had the door barred behind them, and it didn’t stop as they changed for bed, standing back to back in the middle of the floor. She pulled the too-big undershirt over her head and thought of how her shirt’s twin looked on Daryl, stretched tight on his bigger frame, highlighting his well muscled build. The reality was better than memory, as they turned back around and that lean form came into view. She let her eyes roam over him, lingering tonight in a way she hadn’t let herself before, and as she looked, he looked, too. The two of them staring across the cabin, her in her undershirt and little shorts, him in his matching one and those same faded sweats. 

She admired the strength simmering there, the kind forged from years of hard work. As she took in the broadness of his shoulders, the elegant lines of his collarbones, and those arms—oh, those arms—a little twist of regret curled in her gut that she didn’t have more to offer him in return besides skinny legs and small breasts, bare tonight beneath her top but hardly making a swell in the folds of fabric. But she pushed it away, because it shouldn’t matter, because no good ever came from wishing to be something you weren’t. Maggie’s words from another lifetime but Beth did her best to take them to heart now. 

She slipped into bed, settling down on her side facing the wall, heart beating even harder as she listened to the sound of Daryl’s feet patting across the floorboards. The quilt lifted, fluttering a wisp of a breeze across her shoulders and drawing an involuntary shiver through her. Daryl slid into bed behind her, the mattress dipping a bit as he settled down, and Beth fought to keep her breathing controlled. Oh, but it was hard, so hard, waiting here on that edge, wondering if tonight was going to be different.

Wondering if he was wondering the same thing.

But she couldn’t just wait, with anticipation drumming in her chest like a marching band. This whole thing was something she started in the first place and she knew she had to be the one to keep it going. So Beth slid backward in the bed, her body rustling against the sheet only a little louder than the sound of her breath rushing out. She barely made it an inch before Daryl’s hand pressed big and warm at her hip, and he tugged at the same time as she closed the distance, settling back against the warm wall of his chest. Daryl moved his hand down to her belly, slipping beneath the edge of her shirt to splay his fingers out over her bare skin, and another full-body shiver rippled through her as she covered his hand with hers.

They weren’t talking about this, even though it had happened every night since that first time, when they were both exhausted and emotional. She had only wanted to know he was there with her and he surprised her by wanting that just as badly as she, by not pulling back from the intimacy of this but sliding deeper into it instead. Him touching her like this, the way he stroked her belly with his fingertips, pressed his face into her neck, and whispered into her skin, wasn’t meant to be anything more than that, even now after so many nights. She felt that as tangibly as she felt the warmth of him at her back, the press of his hand against her skin. He never let his hand stray, never gave any indication he wanted anything but to hold her and know she wasn’t going anywhere.

They had come a long, long way from those two broken people who escaped the prison. Hell, they’d come a long way from the two ragged souls who showed up on the doorstep of this little cabin less than three weeks ago. It made her kind of breathless, the reality of how close she and Daryl had grown, and every subsequent night she lay warm in his arms, tingling from his touch, she thanked whoever or whatever might be listening for this man and what he meant to her. What she hoped, maybe, she might mean to him.

His thumb brushed in a slow arc, just grazing her skin enough to set an involuntary quiver rolling beneath, drawing out the little sigh she knew he liked because he always seemed to try to make her do it. She hadn’t put her hair up tonight and he took his time burrowing in, rooting through the strands until he found her neck at last and breathed in deep. His hot breath washed over her when he exhaled, and that combined with the torturously light glide of his thumb on her belly brought on a curl of heat and a hard, pulsing jolt that hit her like a physical punch, leaving her trembling all over, throbbing and wet and wondering whether Daryl even knew what he did to her.

“Think you oughtta take the lead tomorrow,” Daryl said, lips touching her skin as they moved, and she heard his words with her ears, felt them like air on her neck and as vibrations rippling out along her nerves. “Mark your own path, right from the start.”

Beth had to take a couple of steadying breaths before she answered, but even then her voice came out a bit shaky. “You think I’m ready for that?”

Daryl huffed into her neck. “Ain’t a matter of bein’ ready, Beth.”

No, she supposed not. He’d always operated under the theory that she learned best by doing and he had yet to steer her wrong. “All right.”

“Promised you’d know how to find your way back,” he said, drawing little circles now with the tips of his fingers.

It tickled, and she let out a soft little giggle in response, even as the tickle settled in to deepen the ache between her legs—her nightly companion, since this spooning thing started. She’d noticed Daryl before, of course, with a growing realization during their time at the cabin that she was attracted to him more than just casually, a fact made particularly apparent to her thanks to Daryl’s magic fingers and one hell of a back rub. It was all mixed in with how she felt about him, that not-a-crush she’d been brewing far longer than she probably even knew. The way Daryl always positioned his hips, drawn back just enough to leave a space between them, meant she couldn’t tell if it was the same for him, if lying here with her all these nights had him as hard for her as she was wet for him.

His breath poured out hot onto her neck, though, just as shuddery as hers, and Beth bit back a little whimper. She just wanted to push her hips back and feel him. God, she wanted to shove his hand down lower and let him feel her.

That was definitely not her rational side speaking, and she did neither of those things. Just drew her knees up higher, clenched her thighs together tighter, pressed her fingers into the back of his hand without giving in to the urge to move it southward. She wasn’t going to force this into becoming something it wasn’t when what it was meant so much already. She felt cherished, here in the arms of a man who kept most people at arms’ length. Cherished and safe. 

As if sensing her thoughts, Daryl rumbled lowly into her neck, like he had on the steps while she played with his hair, and he pushed his hand more firmly into her. That hard press on her belly deepened the throbbing beneath it and pulled a little whimper out of her that she couldn’t contain, but she welcomed it. The feel of his hand on her, reminding her he was still there with her. 

“Can’t promise we’re gonna find them, Beth,” he whispered.

“I know,” she said, and she did. They hadn’t found anyone in the weeks spent searching, before the funeral home stay that went awry, and the chances were even slimmer now. “I have to believe somebody else made it out, though. We can’t be the only ones.”

Daryl hummed, more a buzz at her neck than a true sound. “Still might not find them.”

She understood why he felt the need to tell her, she did. He only meant to protect her from potential disappointment, and she couldn’t fault him for that. But still— “I have to try, Daryl.”

“I know,” he said, a little bit louder, though the gruffness remained. “I wanna find them, too.”

“We’re goin’ to,” Beth said, putting as much conviction into her voice as she could muster. “Mark my words, Daryl Dixon.”

There was a long pause, during which time Daryl just breathed into her neck, fingers gone still against her belly. Beth pushed down on his hand, pressing him into her even harder. 

“And if we don’t?” he asked at last, hesitantly, as though he almost didn’t want to push her but just couldn’t let it go. 

But her answer was easy, so damned easy she didn’t need the time she took to think about it because it was always right there at the front of her mind anyway. 

This wasn’t about sex, her and Daryl, no matter what her body might think it wanted right now. That was genuine, not just a side effect of being eighteen or due to her only companion being male, but wanting him this way was such a small speck on the surface of everything else. Maybe he felt the same, but maybe not. Beth didn’t know and she wasn’t going to push to find out. Even if that was the direction they were heading, they weren’t there yet, and anyway it didn’t matter.

What they were to each other was so much more than that, and maybe it wasn’t something Beth could put into words, but that didn’t make it any less real, not with everything she and Daryl had endured together to get here. She knew what she saw when Daryl looked at her and what she felt when she looked at him. The unlikeliest of duos but they made it work, and they made it work well.

That was what mattered, the two of them in this side by side no matter what lay ahead, whether they found their family or not, and it exploded in her in her chest, like a helium balloon filled up ‘til it burst. She opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t quite make the words come out, just another quiet whimper floating up toward the ceiling, lighter than air. 

Daryl’s thumb again moved across her belly in a gentle arc which made her shiver all over, and he sighed into her neck. “What, Beth?”

She swallowed hard and mimicked the motion of his thumb with hers on the back of his hand, knowing he could feel the way she trembled. “I still have you, Daryl.”

His next breath tumbled out, loud and ragged, and he dug his fingertips into her skin, as if he needed to show her that he heard her, that he understood, that he felt the same way. 

“Yeah,” he whispered, voice low and gravelly and rumbling in her ear. “Yeah you do.”

Here in their own little world, these small confessions that weren’t small at all came easily. They wouldn’t speak of it in the light of day, outside of the place where they slept each night, a place out of time where the real world couldn’t touch them and nothing mattered but Beth and Daryl. That was okay, though. It didn’t change anything, not where it counted. 

Beth burrowed back into his chest as far as she could, and let her fingers slide in between his. “Beth and Daryl against the world, remember.”

She thought she felt him smile against her neck, and when he spoke, there was a note of humour in his voice. “No matter what, huh?”

“No matter what. Goodnight, Daryl.”

“Night, Beth.”

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

 

Chapter 19 – Just Hanging by a Moment Here with You

*~*

Beth picked her way carefully across the creek, avoiding the sharp rocks jutting out like islands, breaking the already fast-flowing water into little rapids, swirling with white, droplets launching in the air to catch rainbows and soak through her jeans. The opposite shore seemed so far away with the path ahead strewn with bigger and bigger rocks.

Daryl’s voice rumbled from behind her, but she couldn’t hear what he said over the rush of the water. From somewhere far away came the groans of the dead, but Beth wasn’t afraid. She had her knife and she had Daryl. As long as she didn’t turn around she knew he was there at her back, and she kept walking, kept moving through the water to reach the other side.

She stepped out of the water onto the lawn, the once tended grass grown long and unruly amidst the graves. The sun beat down overhead, a blistering heat across her shoulders and not a tree around to throw even a sliver of shade. Beth picked her way through the headstones toward the house in the distance. If she could only get there she could get out of this heat, get away from the sun before she burnt.

The graveyard stretched out long before her, the house growing further and further away and no matter how hard she tried Beth couldn’t walk any faster. Her legs wobbled beneath her. She couldn’t get them to work right, and the sun was so hot. It scorched her neck and her shoulders, burnt her hands. She stumbled on her useless legs and caught herself on a headstone with hands all blackened and oozing, skin peeled away in big rotten strips hanging off her like rags, and she screamed and screamed and screamed but all that came out was a wheezy, inhuman growl.

She lurched forward, the house so distant now she couldn’t see it except for the tiniest speck on the horizon. Bodies wandered through the field, bumbling amongst the headstones, turned toward her now, drawn in by the sickening sound tearing out of her throat. Beth spun around, searching for Daryl. He had been right behind her before, but she lost track of him somewhere.

There. Wandering a few rows behind her, his face caked in dark blood, deep gashes slashed across his body. He saw her when she turned, snapping his cloudy gaze up to her face, and staggered forward with his rotting hands outstretched. 

Dead. Dead like the rest of them, wandering all around her now, wearing faces she knew and loved on the bodies of monsters. 

Rick, there in front of her, dragging one mangled leg behind him as he shuffled forward, head cocked to the side, milky dead eyes flickering over her face.

Maggie, down the aisle to the right, lurching up from the ground between the stones where she hovered over Glenn’s steaming, twitching body, a great big hunk of his flesh dangling from her lips, caught in her teeth as she chewed. 

Carol, creeping around the bottom of a giant cross straight ahead, weeping holes where her eyes should be, torn nose raised to smell the breeze in search of her. 

Michonne, marching slowly in from the left, snarling and snapping her teeth, leading two more Michonnes behind her on chains, their mouths and arms all chopped away while their passive eyes stared dead ahead. 

Daddy, a stumbling body behind her which ended at the neck, strong old hands carrying his own head upside down, fingers tangled in the bloody thatch of once white beard. 

Carl, sheriff’s hat tipped to one side as he crossed the grounds, striding between the stones and leaving bits of his body behind, falling off him in squelching chunks.

Everywhere she turned, they surrounded her. They were coming for her.

Judith cried up at her from the ground, tiny hands like claws digging into Beth’s ankles, leaving deep, festering pits where her flesh used to be. Beth tried to pick her up, but her hands wouldn’t work, wouldn’t hold. She tried to tighten her grip but her fingers broke off, dangling bits of tissue and bone, one at a time as she struggled to hold onto Judy’s little body. 

But it wasn’t Judy any more, just a tiny dead thing wearing her sweet baby’s face, wriggling and gasping and devouring Beth’s fingers as fast as they fell. 

The others kept coming. Groaning. Reaching. Beth tried to move away, tried to go toward the house but as they closed in, the house on the horizon vanished completely. The scent of copper rose up thick in the air, billowing in on a gust of chill wind that also carried with it the cloying stink of bad cologne over something dark, oily, and dead. 

“There, there, sweet birdie,” said Gorman, stepping in between Beth and the others. 

Maggots crawled out from the hole in Gorman’s forehead, and he raised his gun at Daryl and shot. Daryl collapsed in a heap of rotting flesh and old black blood, and when Beth tried to scream she could only wail like a dead thing instead. 

One by one Gorman shot them all, each one reverberating amongst the headstones until her ears rang so badly they burned. Rick. Carol. Maggie. Glenn. Michonne. Carl. Daddy. One at a time each face dissolved into a puddle of putrid, stinking flesh until Beth was the only one left standing, cradling to her chest the thing that wasn’t Judith but wore her face. 

BANG 

Gorman’s bullet made a splattered mess of that tiny body, nothing left of it but the dark red stain splashed across Beth’s white sweater. 

She stared down the barrel of his gun, at the smirking face behind it with the skin peeling away, grey, slimy muscle just visible beneath. His other hand tapped the hole in his head, festering there beneath his slick greasy hair. 

“You owe me, Beth,” Gorman said, fingers poking at the wriggling mass of maggots crawling around the wound. “Beth. Beth. Beth. Beth. Beth—”

“Beth!”

With a gasp she popped awake, the echo of the bullet that meant to end her life bouncing around inside her head. Beside her loomed the shadow that was Daryl, a blacker shape against an already black background, and she rolled over into him just as the first tremor hit her. Daryl murmured something she couldn’t hear over the ringing in her ears, but she felt the rumble of his voice where she pressed her face into his warm neck. She burrowed in deeper, fingers clawing at his shirt to try to get closer; to climb inside him maybe if that would keep the images out of her head. Tiny dead Judith, Daryl reduced to a pile of filth, Gorman’s awful smirking face—

“Beth. Beth, shh, it’s over.” Daryl’s arm wound tight around her, and he glided his thumb along her spine, right up beneath her shirt so she felt the warmth of him, the life of him right against her skin. 

“It’s over,” he said again, voice rumbling through her skull, down along her nerves. “I got you.”

She thought she spoke, some words not in English, not in any language she knew, muffled into his skin and wet with the tears she didn’t realize had started flowing. Daryl kept whispering, soothing things she couldn’t quite hear, and when he turned over she went with him, unable to pull herself out of the groove she dug into his chest. His fingers tangled into her hair and his thumb kept moving along her spine, laying down a path of warmth slowly driving out the cold and easing the violent shaking until it became just the softest of tremors.

If she could climb right into his chest she would, dig a hole between his ribs and slip inside to wrap herself around his heart and let its beating pound out every last thought from her head besides Daryl - Daryl - Daryl. Instead she held on, wrapped herself around his body since she couldn’t get inside, a trembling mess of legs and arms and she didn’t know which were hers and which were his and didn’t care. 

Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go.

He held on tighter, as though he could hear her pleas, as if maybe somehow her thoughts came out through the muffled words she breathed into his throat. Or maybe he just knew. No. No. Of course he wouldn’t let go. He promised. He promised, and his fingers curled tight in her hair, and his thumb kept stroking, and she couldn’t climb inside him but she could hold on. She could hold on and he held right back.

Daryl – Daryl – Daryl.

“I got you, Beth. I got you.”

He did. He did.

God, did he ever. 

*~*

Beth woke again slowly, vaguely aware of Daryl shifting beneath her, turning the both of them onto their sides. She had moved in her sleep, face now pressed into his chest instead of his neck, and against her cheek his heart beat hard and fast. Not quite ready to fully commit to wakefulness, Beth nuzzled into the warmth of him and listened to its pounding, groaning into his shirt when his fingertips brushed across the bare skin of her lower back.

“Beth,” he murmured, voice dry and rough as though he’d only just woken, too.

She wriggled in deeper, pinning his leg between her knees when he started to pull it away. “Mmm, sleepy.”

He chuckled into her hair, pausing there a moment after to take in a deep breath. He didn’t try to move away again, though, and Beth celebrated her temporary victory by squeezing the arm she had thrown around his back, reeling him in just a little bit closer. He came unresisting, burying his face right down into the top of her head with a little rumble. Daryl’s other leg, the top one, which had been draped over hers a moment ago found its way there again, and he flattened his palm over her back the same way he did with her belly at night when they fell asleep. 

They lay there awhile, Beth listening to the beating of his heart, still running fast despite the stillness of the rest of him. Daryl’s breath ruffled her hair and his fingertips drew lazy patterns on her skin. A bit more aware now, even though she had yet to open her eyes, Beth could hear the birdsong drifting in on the breeze through the open window. Morning, and therefore time to go, but her arms and legs had lead weights dangling from them, inert, heavy, and not just with sleep. 

They needed to leave, that was not in question. Her ankle was long healed, their deer now preserved and ready for travel, they had no more reason to stay, not when they both agreed they wanted to try to find the others. She would miss the cabin and the pleasant little sliver of life they’d eked out here, and she would miss this. This little bubble outside the world where all that lay between them could just be and they didn’t have to question it. Nights spent in quiet conversation, curled up together as they fell asleep, and these lazy, close mornings, waking all tangled with Daryl in one way or another. They were more knotted up than usual this morning, but she couldn’t quite mind that no matter how horrible her nightmare was leading up to it. If it bothered Daryl, he did a good job of pretending otherwise. Aside his initial attempt to roll away, he had yet to try to make them any less entwined.

In fact, the way his fingers slid up her back, slowly tracing each bump of her spine, Beth thought he might be trying to get closer. 

Maybe he was going to miss this, too. 

But they did need to go, to make the most of the daylight since they wouldn’t risk traveling at night, and after a few short minutes of indulgence they separated, pulling apart at the same time, moving through their morning routine on autopilot—dressing back to back, sitting up on the counter to share a breakfast of leftover rabbit and turnips and water, a trip outside to visit the outhouse then fixing her hair while Daryl made the trip himself, meeting back inside to begin their day. Except this time they were leaving for good, and Beth couldn’t force down the little lump in her throat or the swell of tears in her eyes as she put away the borrowed clothes and made the bed for the last time. 

 

The sleepy contentment left her as soon as they dragged themselves out of bed, and looking down at it now, the lump in her throat grew thicker. Beth didn’t remember her dream, just the aftermath of it. That almost feverish need to crawl right into Daryl’s body to escape the horrors of her subconscious. Left behind now was the heaviness in the base of her skull, details lost beneath a scratchy dark cloak. Outside the parallel universe of what used to be their bed, it settled in and promised to stay awhile, alongside the whirling snatches of familiar thoughts, sharp little knife blades marking her with tiny precise cuts. The what ifs and the how could I’s and if onlys that had plagued her since this all started. 

Put it away, Beth.

If she didn’t shut it down now, it would worry at her all day, a squeezing fist of dread in her gut she wouldn’t shake, and it would only make tonight’s dream that much worse. 

You had no choice. Put it away. 

“Hey.” Daryl set a hand on her shoulder, solid and warm, squeezing just enough to draw her thoughts away from the swirling darkness. “You ready?”

She wasn’t, not really, but they had no reason to linger aside from silly sentimental ones. So she nodded without looking back at him, reaching for his vest where it lay atop her pack. Beth lifted the soft old leather into her hands and the back of her neck tingled with awareness of Daryl’s gaze on her as she traced the edges of the embroidered wings with her fingertips. There was a certain sense of pride she felt, wearing these wings at her back. Almost surreal, in a way, these wings that were so much a part of Daryl as a whole, and while he hadn’t actually given them to her, he hadn’t let her give them back, either.

Why don’t you keep it for a while? 

Still, wearing them herself couldn’t displace the little glow of comfort that came from the image in her mind, burned into all her memories of the time before, of these wings across Daryl’s back. Safety. Strength. Heart. They were all those things to her during that long winter after the farm and throughout their time at the prison, and they were still those things now, just differently. In a deeper way, maybe. Richer. Bursting with new facets and layers and details she never had the chance to see until her world shrunk down to just the two of them. Even when the wings lay across her back, that didn’t change—and they were never hers to keep.

Beth turned around to face Daryl, and he shifted his gaze to meet her eyes.

“I don’t wanna give it back, but out there…” She paused, holding out the vest toward him. It just seemed the right thing to do. “Out there I think you should wear it.”

Daryl hesitated a moment before he took the vest from her. He put it on, looking away a moment to tug it properly into place, sliding his hands down the front of it the same way she did. When he tipped his face up again, a hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Maybe you can borrow it sometimes, all right?”

Beth leaned against him for a moment before she pulled away to gather up her things. “All right.”

She had found, in her exhaustive search of the cabin and its contents, a pair of matching padlocks with four keys. There was enough hardware around to rig up a way to lock the doors from the outside, and they’d done so during the hours spent out hunting together over the past week. They left the cabin unlocked now as they descended the stairs for the final time, setting down the padlock and one key atop the stove just inside the back door. The cabin had saved them, being here when they needed it, and maybe it could help save someone else, too.

Beth had a key stitched into her pocket and Daryl had one in his, and they buried the third one out in the woods, protected inside a small mason jar, in a spot they would both recognize. Just in case they didn’t find what they were looking for out there.

Just in case they needed to come back.

Daryl asked her to lead, so he didn’t question her when she took them along the path lined with river birches overlooking the creek below, around to the front of the cabin even though their journey would take them the opposite way. There in the middle of the grassy front yard, surrounded by a patch of fresh, dark earth, were the two wooden crosses marking the place where she and Daryl buried the bodies of the couple who had lived here. Whose hands had built this cabin and gathered everything in it, the people who made a home for themselves out here in the woods. 

Beth touched the top of each one in turn, and knelt down in front of them. She didn’t know their names. If they had identification, they’d hidden it so well that even her thorough search couldn’t locate it, but Beth had wanted to mark the crosses somehow. She settled on Charles and Caroline, since the tiny cabin on the banks of a swift little creek reminded her of the books she’d read when she herself was a small girl in braids. It wasn’t a perfect fit—there were no daughters, no rolling prairies, no brindled bulldogs named Jack—but these two people deserved to be remembered as something other than nameless walkers.

She traced the letters of the names she picked, which Daryl had carved carefully into the horizontal pieces of each cross. He hadn’t said much about her need to do this, but he hadn’t brushed her off as being silly, either, just went about her request with as much determination as he did everything else. Now, he dropped down to crouch beside her and reached out to push a couple of acorns into the soft dirt at the base of each cross.

“Ain’t got no flowers,” he said, when she looked up at him. “Thought you’d want ‘em to have somethin’ though.”

Oh, that sweet, beautiful man—and nobody could ever tell her he wasn’t, not even Daryl himself. Beth felt a fresh flood of moisture rising in her eyes, and a fluttery feeling in her chest as she found his hand and twined their fingers together.

He squeezed her hand when she squeezed his, and Beth gave in and let her head fall to rest on his shoulder. “Maybe someday they’ll grow an oak tree,” she whispered, looking at the little piles of disturbed dirt where he pushed the acorns in. “And when the cabin’s long gone, it’ll still be here, this giant old tree watchin’ over this place.”

“Yeah,” Daryl said, brushing his thumb across her knuckles. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

They knelt there together for another few more minutes, Beth’s eyes retracing the path her finger took over the names carved there. 

“Thank you,” she whispered. 

Beside her, Daryl hummed softly, then reached out to peel away a tiny splinter from the edge of one of the letters. “We should go.”

“Yeah,” Beth said, her voice thickened around the growing lump in her throat. She swallowed hard, and met Daryl’s eyes as they stood, hands still held tight between them.

He wasn’t teary. He didn’t show his emotions as overtly as she did sometimes. But she could read it there in his eyes, his reluctance to leave despite all the reasons why they needed to, the same as her. They could stay. They could stay here and make it work and turn that little sliver they’d built into some sort of life, out here together in the woods like Charles and Caroline before them.

But that wasn’t how their story went, or at least, not the whole of it. Something whispered in the back of her mind, a spark like the one beating in her chest, about just what sort of together that might be, no matter how she might try to rationalize it away. That was harder to do in times like this where everything she was feeling, the good, the bad, the so enormous-it-was-terrifying, just wanted to tumble out of her in a roaring flood. But if they stayed they would always wonder about the others. Always regret not trying to find them before the trail went even colder. The conclusion to this chapter would write itself, but they were still here at the beginning and needed to find out how it ended before turning the page.

Beth led the way back along the tree lined path into the familiar backyard with its dew dampened grass. She couldn’t look back at the narrow stairs or that solid wooden door, though the image of them would forever live inside her head. She didn’t glance up at the tree bunny, roughly carved there into the birch bark, bolt holes marring its little face, as they passed through the fence into the woods. Would not look back at any of it, because she knew if she did the lump in her throat would grow big enough to choke, and the ache in her chest would burst, and she’d never be able to keep the tears from flowing.

Maybe Daryl wouldn’t mind. He’d probably understand, because he wasn’t looking back either. But now wasn’t the time for tears.

We all got jobs to do, Beth. And this one’s yours.

Daryl wanted her to lead the way, so she would. Beth set off through the woods, making her own path which followed the creek, one good man’s words in her head, another’s footsteps at her back.

*~*

It was somewhere around midday, the sun more or less overhead whenever she could catch a glimpse of it, when Daryl stopped walking behind her. She had taken a couple more steps onward before she realized he wasn’t with her, and when she turned back to see he was leaned up against a tree, staring off into the woods. Without speaking, he lifted his hand from where it lay against his leg, fingers curling in toward his palm. He might not have meant for her to take his hand, but when she did anyway he let his fingers slide between hers and returned the squeeze she gave him before leading her way from the deer trail, heading deeper into the woods. 

They emerged from a patch of thick underbrush and tall, skinny trees into a clearing, at the centre of which was a big old oak, some of its limbs bigger around than she was. Its canopy spread out wide, covering the whole of the clearing, causing the trees at the periphery to grow at an angle in an attempt to find the sunlight. Here beneath, the thick leaves which had yet to turn colour bathed everything in a soft green hue.

Daryl’s hand tightened on hers, a little harder than she was used to, and when she looked up at him in question he had his thumb stuck in between his gnawing teeth, eyes fixed on the scene ahead.

Oh. This was that tree.

Beth pressed in closer to Daryl’s side, felt him lean into her and watched his face as his eyes roamed over the scene. All that remained of his ordeal was a length of cracked leather cord, lying there at the base of the tree, and a broken piece of antler trampled into the ground. When he moved, he did so with suddenness, neither warning her nor letting her go, crossing the clearing to dig that scrap of antler out of the dirt.

“That our buck?” she asked, crouching down beside him as he held it his hand under that weird green light.

Daryl’s lip quirked up at one corner and his gaze slid over to her. “What’s left of him, anyway.”

Beth plucked the piece of antler from his fingers, turning it over in her palm. It was the part which grew from the buck’s head, broken off about six inches up from the knobby base, the edges of the break jagged and sharp. Walkers had done this, while Daryl clung to the tenuous safety of the tree above them.

She only had Daryl’s words to form the image of the buck in her head, but even he had gone a little poetic about it in his remembrance. This antler, all that was left of that magnificent buck—that beautiful creature reduced to this sad scrap of useless bone.

It could have been Daryl.

That fist of dread in her gut squeezed and her next breath caught tight and heavy in her chest. It wasn’t until everything became a watery green blur that she realized she was crying, tears welling up and pouring down over her cheeks. Beth tried to wipe them away before Daryl saw, but she should’ve known. There were times she thought they must be magnetic, the two of them, the way Daryl’s gaze followed her, and the green blur became a red one as he swiped his favourite rag through the rivers on her cheeks.

He slipped the antler from her hands and replaced it with the rag, and Beth used it to dry her eyes. The sting of tears lingered as Beth got to her feet and so did the heaviness in her chest, but she needed to let it go, needed to shove it all down so she could focus again. Daryl was counting on her to lead them, and she couldn’t do that if she let her emotions get the better of her.

He was looking at her, of course, when she finally met his eyes again, and something odd shimmered there in the depths of them. Whatever it was had him chewing his thumb with only a little less veracity, lost in his own head for a minute before let out a deep breath and gave his head a small shake. That odd glimmer vanished and he released his thumb, then closed the short distance between them to pull her into a hug.

Beth let her face fall into his chest as his arms wound around her back, and when she breathed out at least half of the weight in her lungs went with it.

“That ain’t me, Beth,” Daryl said, murmuring the words into her hair. “It ain’t either one of us.”

Her next breath, though shaky, pushed the rest of the tightness away, and when she breathed back in, a lungful of leather and sweat and Daryl, the truth of that seeped into her bloodstream, spread out through her body like a sun-warmed river. It didn’t matter that it could’ve been Daryl, because it wasn’t. Because he was here now and so was she and getting bogged down in the what ifs of this, of fixating on all that could happened but didn’t in a world gone to shit, was just as silly and unhealthy as the doubts still plaguing her about shooting Gorman.

Beth smiled into his chest. “I think maybe you gotta keep remindin’ me about that, too.”

He chuckled, his breath puffing into her hair and tickling her scalp beneath, and they stood there for another few minutes before Daryl’s arms loosened and Beth stepped out of them with dry eyes and a pulse of determination beating in her chest. 

It was her job to lead them. Daryl was here in front of her, not some broken piece of bone lying forgotten in the dirt. Beth was going to lead them and she was gonna make both of them proud.

Told you. Badass.

“C’mon,” she said, not quite hiding her smile in response to the amusement in his eyes, sparkling there like he knew what she was thinking. “We got a long way to go.”

They retraced their steps back toward the game trail, which Beth had chosen to follow for this leg of their journey. It paralleled the creek well enough and though narrow, the well-trodden path had returned to its former hard-packed dirt after the late summer heat drove away the effects of the storms. Easy to walk on, easy to follow, built-in side paths down to choice places to stop and drink. Daryl hadn’t commented on her choice—that wasn’t his style—but she knew he approved. She wasn’t perfect at this. She wasn’t Daryl and she never would be, but she liked to think she was learning. Maybe even getting good at this.

They made good time, since they weren’t tracking anything, weren’t trying to be as quiet as they would if they were hunting. Daryl pointed out things he remembered from his own travels along this path, where he made camp the first night, the place he first spotted the buck’s tracks, and where the second, lesser used deer trail branched off from the main path and later crossed it. They followed it down to the creek for a drink before continuing on.

“This is as far as I’ve gone,” Daryl said, scuffing the toe of his boot at the place where the paths crossed. “Here on in, trail’s all yours.”

Beth understood what he meant of course. Even though she was leading before, she was following a known path and now she would be leading them into the unknown. But he was wrong.  It wasn’t her trail. It was theirs.

Daryl never made much noise when he walked, and Beth rarely heard him except for when he spoke. But even silent, she knew he was there. Felt his presence behind her in a strangely solid sort of way, despite the lack of sensory detail. Whenever a rush of tingling trailed over her scalp and down her spine, she knew he had his eyes on her, and something about that quickened her pulse and made her belly squirm with butterflies.

She couldn’t help wondering which expression he’d be wearing, when she couldn’t see his face. Maybe that look, the one that sunk right down inside her and made it hard to look away. Or even something even more intense, when she had her back turned and he let his guard down. Something that would shatter her into a million tiny pieces if she saw.

A shiver rolled through her in the wake of that thought, followed by that rush of Daryl’s gaze at her back. Beth kept walking, fighting the urge to turn since this was almost better, leaving her imagination to run a little wild. She felt so good just speculating that it would almost spoil her mood to find out for sure. 

The game trail looped away from the creek not long after the crossroads, and while it now headed northward, their eventual direction, Beth chose not to follow it. Since the creek was her landmark, she led them closer to its banks, still in the woods but close enough to keep the sound of the water in hearing range. The underbrush was thin enough here to make breaking their trail not too tough, and Beth practiced looking ahead to plan her path, working at keeping her footsteps as quiet as possible. Daryl made a little more noise behind her than he had on the well packed trail, but not much, though every time she took a particularly noisy step, he did, too.

Daryl never got angry at her noisemaking, didn’t tell her off for the misstep or anything, but every time he reminded her, Beth tried that much harder to focus on being quiet. It took her mind off other things, too, though not as thoroughly as it probably should. Pleasant and highly distracting thoughts about Daryl kept crashing through, quickening her pulse, lighting up like fireworks deep in her belly. It seemed whenever she felt it the most, she felt his eyes on her, too, and everything already simmering inside ramped up a level. One of these times she might float up into the trees with her wobbly knees and her head in the clouds. 

Yes, it was safe to say that this was definitely not a crush. 

By mid afternoon, both she and Daryl were drenched in sweat from the heat, even in the shade of the trees. Beth took them back toward the creek, keeping their path as close to the water and the slightly cooler funnel of air as possible after wetting their heads to cool down. It wasn’t long after that when Beth caught a glimpse of something man-made peeking through the gaps in the trees up ahead. She lifted her hand up to signal to Daryl she was stopping and slid her crossbow off her shoulder. Daryl came up beside her and she leaned into his arm just enough to feel the solidness of him, while she stood there trying to discern what the thing might be.

“Looks like maybe a bridge?” she said, turning her head until she found the blurry, Daryl-shaped outline in her peripheral vision.

He let out a soft grunt, the yes sort of grunt. “Think so. Wanna check it out?”

“Yeah. I mean, we pretty much have to, right?” He didn’t respond, which usually meant he wanted her to keep going with her train of thought. “We either need to cross whatever kinda road it is to keep followin’ the creek, or maybe this is what we’re lookin’ for to follow north.”

At Daryl’s answering hum, Beth resumed walking, taking slow, careful steps toward the structure ahead. Maybe she was overdoing it on the caution, but that was probably preferable to not being cautious enough. She glanced back once at Daryl, who had his crossbow out, too, and he nodded at her.

Good. Keep going.

It was difficult to push away the pleased flutter in her chest at Daryl’s approval, so she didn’t try, just kept walking with her bottom lip held in her teeth to keep the smile at bay. 

It was a bridge, or at least, it used to be. The old wooden structure, a simple back road bridge like many she knew from around home, had collapsed in the centre, rotten old beams splintered and crumbling to sawdust where they lay across the creek bed, some of them submerged fully beneath the water. The worst of it must’ve washed away when the creek swelled up double from both the storms, but not all, and it said something about the state of the world nowadays that neither she nor Daryl had smelled it sooner.

Body parts, caught between broken beams. Torsos, crushed heads. An arm here, a leg there. A whole corpse dangling from the twisted railing, a bit of the metal just poking out through its forehead. Beth watched the flies buzzing around the rotting remains, and felt Daryl’s eyes on her but didn’t turn, considering instead what story the scene in front of her told.

Broken bridge, and parts of broken walkers. Deep water beneath. A long stretch of narrow gravel road running north-south on either side. The herd that passed through these parts a week and a bit ago, the leaders of which had mostly wandered in down the creek bed.

The herd must have moved in along the road, but when they got to the bridge their weight was too much for the derelict structure. It collapsed, sending them tumbling down into the deep water below, crushing some of them and tearing others apart. A few washed away quickly, maybe beaching themselves downstream, getting to their feet like they always managed, to wander along the rocky bank. Perhaps interrupting the end of her laundry day and falling to her new crossbow. The others would’ve piled up, likely used that as a bridge to get to the shore as more and more of them poured like a nightmarish flood from the spout made by the broken bridge.

Whichever ones couldn’t get to the woods washed down the creek. The ones who did resumed their mindless trek through the trees, first bursting into Daryl’s camp and then finding Beth at the cabin. Daryl nodded as she spoke her theory out loud, and the more she said the more it made sense. The more it answered some of her niggling questions about the sudden influx of walkers and the near total lack of them since.

“Huh.”

Beth followed Daryl’s pointing finger, and when her gaze settled on the object in question, she couldn’t contain her snort of laughter. “Walker Creek? Really?”

“Ain’t nothin’ much surprises me anymore,” Daryl said, squinting up at the little sign bearing the creek’s name. He snorted and shook his head, glancing at her wearing a bit of a smirk. “Shit. That’s almost funny.”

“It is funny, now that it’s over,” Beth said, side-stepping until they stood shoulder to shoulder. “Don’t think I woulda thought so at the time.”

Daryl hummed and brushed his knuckles across hers.  Beth resisted the urge to take his hand, even though her fingers itched to twine around his. He put up with that most of the time, but she didn’t want to push her luck. 

“Couldn’t’ve been, like, Pussycat Creek or somethin’,” Daryl said, the back of his hand coming to rest against hers. “Think we coulda handled a herd of cats?”

The image of him on the stairs yesterday flashed in her mind, bringing with it the flutter of butterflies dancing deep in her belly. “All your friends, you mean?” 

Her voice did that thing where she didn’t mean to sound kind of deep and raspy, but did anyway. Beside her, Daryl chuckled, a rumbly sound not unlike his purr from the day before, and when he swept his gaze down to meet hers it burned right down through to her spine.

He didn’t look away and neither did Beth, her gaze held firm by that one blue eye staring back at her from behind his sweat-dampened fringe. On impulse, Beth reached up to slide her fingers through his hair, holding that oddly heated gaze, sure she must have been throwing something out there herself, the way his pupil darkened. She let her nails scratch at his scalp as she had yesterday, and Daryl didn’t disappoint, groaning lowly while he swivelled to face her. His eyes drifted shut as she did it again, getting both hands involved now and scratching just that little bit harder. He groaned again, rumbling and deep, leaned forward to drop his forehead down to rest on her shoulder.

Beth’s fingers stilled, buried deep in Daryl’s hair. They were standing on the banks of what was literally called Walker Creek, below the ruins of the bridge which sent a massive herd shambling toward them, and this is what they were doing?

Daryl nudged at her collarbone with his nose.  “You don’t gotta stop.”

With the way his voice rumbled, so low she could only hear it because they were standing close enough to share a pair of boots, Beth really didn’t want to. But the sight of the body hanging from the bridge, the buzz of flies and the open stretch of road in front of her brought her crashing back down to reality. 

“We should keep moving,” she said, giving him one final scratch before shifting him off her.

She watched as his expression changed from dreamy and unfocused to his normal sharp-eyed self, then nodded toward the overgrown gravel path leading up to the road. “Should we see what it looks like?”

He took a moment before he answered, during which time he slipped into the most non-expression she had ever seen on him. It was only a flash though, vanishing in a blink, replacing itself with the warmth she had grown used to seeing there lately. That easy lightness he carried the past week at the cabin, showing there in the little crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the tiny smile barely lifting his lips. 

“You’re the shepherd,” Daryl said, brushing his thumb across her cheek where it felt warm and flushed. “I’m just the sheep.”

A sheep with teeth, Beth thought, her knees gone a bit shaky. A sheep who’s guiding me as much as I’m leading him. She didn’t say the words out loud, though, but she thought maybe Daryl knew that anyway. He followed her up to the road, her big bad sheep who had her back. 

The road was, as she had predicted, an overgrown, narrow strip of gravel tunnelling through the thick woods to either side of it.

Daryl hummed, turning a slow circle on the spot to survey the entire three-sixty view. “Whatcha think?”

“Too small. Too remote,” Beth said, still looking ahead to where the road disappeared over hill rising in the distance. “No guarantees it doesn’t just end somewhere up there.”

Daryl grunted softly. “Could lead to a bigger road.”

“Maybe,” she agreed, because of course that was always a possibility. But her head was telling her this wasn’t the right path, and so was her gut. So were the remnants of the herd, almost but not entirely wiped away by the storms.

No. The only thing they were gonna find that way was more destruction.

“We’ll keep going,” Beth said, and once again Daryl nodded, the barest hints of a smile betraying his approval.

He pressed his palm to the small of her back, just briefly as they crossed the road to head back into the woods. Though her shirt was drenched in sweat and his palm pressed cool and wet through the soggy fabric, the contact rippled warmly up along her spine to tingle across her scalp, lingering even after he pulled his hand away. 

His eyes stayed on her and the tingling at her neck wriggled right inside until she was all over warm and fluttery. And she shouldn’t, she knew she shouldn’t, especially since her steps got a little noisier. But with Daryl watching her, she couldn’t help swaying her hips a little while she walked. Even though he probably wasn’t looking at her that way. This wasDaryl, after all. He never looked at anyone that way.

She wished he would.

They way they’d been, though. Maybe he never had looked at anyone that way before. Maybe he still wasn’t, but he was doing a lot of things lately she never imagined he would. Lying in bed with her at night, for example, curled up with her like that was a perfectly normal thing to do. The way it started made sense, but falling back into it night after night?

It wasn’t just a matter of comfort, of helping her with her nightmares. Not when he held her like that long before they fell asleep and sometimes even longer after they woke up. Not when he touched her like he did, delicate but deliberate and she could argue that maybe he didn’t know, maybe he had no clue, but Daryl was not an idiot. He had to at least suspect what his touch might stir up inside her whether he meant it to or not, and if that didn’t stop him doing it he must not mind. Right? Must know she didn’t mind.

Maybe he might even like it...

Beth swallowed back a groan of frustration, letting out instead a loud breath through her nose. God, what did this all mean? She could double talk herself for ages and still never know, not really. Not unless Daryl came right out and said something, and that was even more of a stretch than her falling for him in the first place. Sometimes she could read him so well, and others he was a complete mystery to her. She couldn’t really be all alone in this, as she told herself sometimes, like yesterday on the stairs and this morning in bed. Other times she was certain her feelings for him had her reading everything tragically, pathetically wrong.

Because it was absurd, really, to think that Daryl could have feelings for her.

And yet. He was still there. Still watching her. As they came upon another road, the edges of it visible through the trees ahead, Daryl stepped up beside her, brushing her knuckles again with his. Waiting—because when he asked her to lead he meant it—for her to decide their next move. 

What if he does? What if he’s fallin’ for me like I’m fallin’ for him?

“Let’s go and see,” she said, not quite able to look at him. Not quite able to breathe

This road had pavement, potholed and cracking, but a step up from gravel. Its bridge was of sturdier construction, metal and concrete instead of wood, suggesting it saw more traffic. Still, it was hardly a main thoroughfare; wide enough for two cars to pass, but no painted lines marking the divide, and only dirt shoulders now overgrown with grass and weeds. 

Beth didn’t have to turn to know Daryl would be looking at her, but she did anyway. He wasn’t wearing any specific expression, just one suggesting an interest in what she had to say, but simply meeting his eyes set her insides alight and she had to force herself to breathe to keep from trembling all over. 

“Whatcha think?” he asked, prompting her while her brain struggled to remember how to speak. 

The things this man did to her without even meaning to. Beth took one more deep breath, blinked her eyes shut for a moment as she turned back to gaze along the road winding through the trees ahead. 

“I like it,” she whispered, voice gone hoarse.

She feared he might ask her to explain why, and she could probably come up with some reasons, maybe even some good ones. But it just felt right, the same way the other road felt wrong, and while Daryl would understand that, he wouldn’t let it slide, either. 

He didn’t ask, though. Just nodded and brushed her hand again and followed her down to the creek to fill their water bottles, before slipping back into the trees behind her. 

Keeping the road to her left in place of the creek wasn’t a conscious choice at first. They easily could have crossed into the woods on the other side before turning north. But it seemed intuitive, keeping the landmark to the left for the journey away from the cabin, like the creek, so much so she had not considered it until they’d been walking for an hour. Left to leave, right on the way back, if that’s how their journey ended. She would have to remember to ask Daryl about that later, when they stopped for the night.

Afternoon pushed toward evening and the heat had yet to dissipate. They caught some squirrels for supper but wouldn’t eat them until they made camp. Which, since they had achieved their goal of finding a road to follow, would not be a bad next move, especially with the day waning toward night. 

“First place we find that looks decent, we should make camp,” Beth said, swinging her leg over the log that was just too high to easily step over. 

“Mmm,” came Daryl’s reply from close behind her. 

They had been gradually climbing since changing course to follow the road, and now the incline sharpened. The heat made the exertion even worse, but the trade off for climbing through dirt and roots was the protection of the trees from the worst of the sun beating down on them, and they struggled through it, eventually cresting the hill onto a bit of a ridge. The trees here grew thinner, and between their trunks Beth could just make out the change in view from thick woods to some sort of ledge or lookout. She led them to it, breaking out of the trees into a clearing of moss-covered rock and scrubby brush ending in a cliff edge overlooking the land below. 

To her left she could see where the road wound its way down the hillside, a more gradual slope than the abrupt ledge before her. Beneath them the road disappeared into the woods again, and though she could maybe see some signs of once populated places in the distance, it seemed they would have another day of thick woods to travel through, at least.

On the horizon, wispy clouds gathered, and towards the west the sun dipped low, making for the tree line and casting a pinky orange glow over the sky and everything below it. Beth set down her pack and crossbow in a smoothed out bowl of rock at the edge of the trees, and stepped toward the ledge just to look. She hadn’t seen a sunset this beautiful in ages.

Beth heard Daryl’s soft sigh from behind her, followed by the muffled thump of his pack joining hers and the more careful placing of his crossbow. She didn’t turn, but all of her was so in tune to Daryl that she knew when he stepped up behind her, even though his feet hadn’t made a sound. He sighed again, so close the breeze of it washed warm over her neck, throwing her pulse into overdrive, curling sparkling tendrils of anticipation into her belly.

He hovered there what felt like ages, breathing on her neck, making hardly a sound while Beth was certain her pounding heart could be heard all the way to Atlanta. If her knees hadn’t lost their ability to move she would have jumped when he set his hand down at her hip. But she couldn’t move, could hardly even breathe. He slid his hand round to pull her back against his chest, and Beth shuddered hard and melted into him.

His palm stayed big and warm on her belly, and just like she did when they lay together in bed, Beth covered it with both of her own. Her fingers shook, and so did his when he lifted his other hand up to curl around the bend of her elbow. They could hear her heart in Nashville by now. Could probably feel it the way it pulsed through her, right down into the rock beneath her feet and into Daryl, too. He breathed shuddery and deep at her back and dragged her lungs right into his rhythm. 

Beth wished she could read Daryl’s mind. Wished that the press of his cheek to the side of her head made some sort of telepathic circuit, and then she would know how he felt about all of this. Know if she was just being silly and young and hopeful about something that wasn’t even on his radar. They were close, she and Daryl, and that wasn’t something she could worry away. He trusted her, felt safe enough with her to open up like he never had before, and if that was as far as it went, Beth could live with it. She could, if she knew. 

But it felt like more. Felt like he was just as on edge about this as she was, but what if he wasn’t? She wouldn’t risk what they had now just to find out, but at the same time, she feared if she didn’t push him, he would never work up the courage to tell her how he felt.

If he felt the same way, because maybe he didn’t. 

Maybe she was too good at this double talk because she could argue equally as well for both ends of that spectrum.

But what if he does?

He was never like this with anyone before. Never touched as freely, spoke as openly, as he did with her. No, she wasn’t privy to all his conversations since the farm, but the way he was on the porch that night, the things he told her then and since, he had never told anyone and that wasn’t remotely in question. And all of that might come down to him trusting her and nothing else, but...

But what if it meant more? 

Daryl hadn’t been with anyone that she knew of, not in any of the meanings she could apply to that word. Beth was the sort of girl who knew lots of things by being quiet and observant. He’d forged friendships, with Rick and Carol, Daddy and Glenn and Michonne, all the core group on some level, including her. He found companionship, earned the respect of their group and the others who joined them. But Daryl Dixon never looked at anyone the way he looked at her, and he never disappeared into the showers or the tombs or the obsolete guard tower with anyone but himself, not even when the Woodbury group arrived and brought new faces with it. 

He was different with her and that wasn’t just wishful thinking. She tried to overlay the Daryl she remembered with the Daryl behind her, close and warm and holding her tight, and the edges wouldn’t quite match up. If somehow Maggie could see them, here on the ledge right now, or at any random point over the past few weeks, she would call bullshit on Beth’s worries over Daryl’s feelings, Beth knew she would.

When Beth was small, maybe five or six, Mama broke Daddy’s favourite bowl, the one he used every morning for his porridge. It was an accident, of course; the bowl slipped from Mama’s fingers while she was drying it and shattered to the floor in so many tiny pieces. Beth had cried, worried that Daddy would be mad, that he would never forgive Mama for breaking his favourite thing. 

But when Daddy got home, and Mama told him, he didn’t get mad. He didn’t even frown. He smiled at Mama and asked if she remembered the day she won him that bowl at the county fair. And of course Mama did, because Mama remembered everything, and she said as much as she turned on the old record player and a song Beth didn’t know started playing. Beth watched from her hiding place beneath the table as Mama and Daddy danced and laughed long into the evening. 

Love doesn’t fuss over broken bowls, sweetheart, Mama told her later, when she was tucked up warm in her bed with the music still playing softly downstairs. It only wants you to remember why you loved it in the first place. 

I want this.

It hit her like a bolt to the chest, and it was bigger, infinitely bigger than she could get her head wrapped around. Her and Daryl. Beth Greene and Daryl Dixon. She wanted him—wanted them—in every way she could think of. Broken bowls and sweet county fair memories and dancing in the kitchen. Flying down an abandoned highway on the back of a motorcycle and hunting in deep woods and making love under the stars, and oh, Lord, it scared the shit out of her. 

Maybe Daryl was just as scared as she was. 

Maybe they were just standing here both wanting the same thing, too terrified to reach for it. 

How do we do this, Daryl? How do we take that leap?

Daryl murmured her name into the side of her head and Beth leaned into the sound of his voice. God, she wanted this so much she ached, a deep, thrumming burn from her forehead down to her toes. Standing there with him, watching the sun dip down below the trees, she pleaded with the universe to let them figure out how to get there. 

Or else she feared they’d stay here forever, standing on the ledge and too afraid to jump. 

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 20 - Under the Light of a Thousand Stars

*~*

When the sun dipped below the trees, Daryl tucked his face into her neck and held on a bit longer. He breathed deep, the way he always did, the point of his nose sliding up toward her ear and back down, leaving a trail like thousands of tiny bubbles tickling her skin. She wondered what she smelled like—sweat, probably, and trees. A hint of soap, maybe, left over from yesterday. Each deep breath he took had her drawing one of her own, and she imagined turning around, tipping her face up to drag her nose under his jaw, press her lips to his throat, drinking in the taste and the scent of him. The thought of doing that sent a shiver rolling through her, and she almost asked, then and there while her desire to act warred with those nagging, circling doubts.

Had her mouth open and everything, the words there on her tongue—Where are we goin’, Daryl? What does this mean? Are you feelin’ it, too?— but they stuck and refused to move from thought to reality. For all her pleading, it seemed they would linger here in limbo for yet another night. A pleasant limbo—warmth like bath water bathed her cheeks and filled her chest, pulsed low in her belly—but limbo nonetheless. 

In the end, the rumbling of her stomach was what drew them apart, and they lit a little fire to cook their squirrels and sat shoulder to shoulder in the deepening twilight, eating and gazing out over the landscape below.

It was funny—or maybe it was just them—how they could go from a moment like the ledge to this easy silence, even though she could still feel the brush of his nose at her neck, the warm tickle of his breath. It was there, along with the little tremble in her chest, but Daryl was there, too, beside her as he always was. As much as he stirred her up inside, this quiet togetherness happened without effort, and simply having him there with her set every worry, every dark thought in her head at ease.

As she pondered that, how he could be so many things to her at once, Beth nibbled the last of the meat off a tiny thigh bone and dropped it into the coals of their fire. She sucked the juices from her fingers and broke off another chunk to nibble on, pulling the meat off the bones with her teeth. It wasn’t the meatiest of beasts, squirrel, but it tasted wonderful after a long day of travelling. 

Beside her, Daryl snorted—the first purposeful sound he had made since whispering her name into her hair. He was smirking when she turned to look at him, driving the spike of breathlessness down beneath a spark of curiosity, and she watched as his gaze drifted toward the ribcage she was gnawing on.

“What?” she asked, unable to stop the smile pulling at her lips.

Daryl chuckled lowly and his smirk shifted toward a smile of his own as he pointed to her dinner with the half-eaten squirrel in his hand. “Here I thought you were tryin’ to civilize me. Now you’re chewin’ on that squirrel like some backwoods woman and I’m thinkin’ maybe I uncivilized you.”

Oh, lord, he was not wrong. They both had squirrel grease dripping down their chins. Even in this light she could see it glinting there on Daryl’s face, caught in his beard, and knowing he could see the same thing on hers made tip her head forward and laugh. 

“Maybe we’re just meetin’ in the middle,” she said, when the laughter settled into bubbly giggles. “Half-civilized forest people.”

“Nah,” said Daryl, bumping her shoulder with his. “Think I’m gonna make a proper redneck woman outta you.”

She tossed the now meatless ribcage at him, a fluttery mixture of playfulness and heat building in her chest. There were a lotta ways he could do that, after all, and not all of them involved devouring squirrels like carnivores. Beth didn’t think she imagined how Daryl’s eyes widened as he watched her suck her fingers clean, when their meal was finished and it was time to set up camp. If she exaggerated a little to see just how wide they would go, well, who could blame her?

Daryl was quick to get to his feet when she finished, digging through his pack for the alarm to string up at their backs. A slow pulse of arousal spread through Beth’s belly, suffusing her with just the right amount of brazenness to quiet the worst of the doubts plaguing her about Daryl’s side of this. She was hardly gonna attack him, but she could tease him a little. Maybe even work up the courage to get her face in his throat like she wanted to earlier. Clearly he wasn’t completely oblivious, the way he was eyeing her from beneath his hair as he untangled the twine. 

She helped him set up camp, though, because no matter how on-edge she felt, no matter what delightful ideas her brain thought up, they still needed to keep safe through the night. She helped Daryl with the alarm, securing it back a bit in the trees to give them ample warning, though they both doubted walkers could navigate the slope. Daryl made a quick circuit along the ridge, since both of them had neglected to do so earlier. Though it wasn’t a goodthing, in a practical sense, Beth’s mood was high enough to feel a beat of pride that Daryl could be so distracted by wanting to hold her that he would forget his own rules. 

By the time he returned, just a few minutes later, Beth had the fire smothered and their big canvas mat laid out over the thickest patch of moss, and was standing near the ledge, looking out at the horizon. Light still glowed where the sun went down, a pink haze overlaying the pale blue, which darkened gradually until the nights’ first stars twinkled into existence on a field of deep cerulean overhead. 

Beneath that, nothing. The expanse of trees faded off into a grainy monochromic blur in the distance. That part was the same, she suspected, as it always was. But a few years ago, even way out here, she would’ve seen the evidence of people there in the darkness past the trees. Lights flicking on as night fell, the glow of street lamps, neon signs, traffic lights, all mixing together to pollute the beauty of this twilight scene. 

Maybe some things were better at the end of the world, though she felt a little bad for thinking it. 

Beth didn’t turn her head as Daryl came up beside her, but she felt him approach as clearly as if she had been looking, his presence there in the quickness of her pulse, in the warmth blazing inside her, the tingle rushing down her spine. He brushed his knuckles against hers again, and Beth did the same. It was new, that gesture, but she liked it. It was a tiny anchor, that point of contact. A little reminder. I’m still here. Or maybe—and her belly pulsed warm as she heard his voice in her head, low and raspy, whispering the words in her ear—I got you. Beth slipped her hand into his, smiling when he threaded their fingers together.

“I was just thinking,” Beth said, still staring out ahead, “about how I used to lie out in the fields at night in the summer, with Maggie and Shawn.”

Jimmy, too, though there were several reasons why she didn’t mention that. Daryl hummed, her cue to continue, and Beth put Jimmy out of her mind as she remembered those endless summers of her childhood.

“We would just look up at the stars for hours, and sometimes we’d take sleeping bags and sleep out there,” she said. “The farm was far enough from town that I used to think the light didn’t really get in the way, but I was wrong about that. I think the stars are brighter since this all started, don’t you?”

“Reckon you’re right.” Daryl hummed again quietly, his fingers squeezing hers a little. “Used to be a place kinda like this, back when I was a kid. I’d go there sometimes, if I needed outta the house for a while, or whatever.”

Beth would never fully understand the depths of the badness that was Daryl’s childhood, and she could scarcely imagine how much worse things had to get than they already were for Daryl to need to escape. She didn’t comment, because what she thought about it wasn’t something Daryl needed to hear, so she just squeezed his hand tighter.

Daryl let out a little grunt. “Weren’t no daddy’s field, but...”

He used that dismissive tone he had sometimes, times Beth knew he was slipping back toward that place in his head where he just wasn’t good enough, where he squashed the importance of his own experiences to nothing in favour of everyone else’s. She tugged on his hand until he looked at her, swept her thumb along the length of his, back and forth, hoping to soothe away some of the darker thoughts.

“But it was still yours,” she said, trying to tell him with her eyes, if not her words, that he was good enough. That that he didn’t need to prove it because he already had a thousand times over. “I’m glad you had a place to go, when things got bad.”

Some of the distance faded from Daryl’s eyes, and they regained that intensity she was used to, even in the low light. They took her right back to that night in the kitchen—that tiny, candlelit moment in time before everything went to hell—and every single moment since when he had looked at her as he was doing right now. Her heart pounded as it had then, as it always did for Daryl these days, and her head spun in a dreamy, pleasant sort of way with the echo of his words unspoken—You. You changed my mind—and other things he had voiced. Confessions whispered into her neck when he didn’t mean to—I only made it ‘cause of you—and promises, given with intent, not to let go. To stick together no matter what. 

That breathlessness returned, pressing like warm wool in her chest, weighted with everything she felt for this man beside her, everything she thought he might feel for her. Beth tore her gaze away to look out over the fading landscape in front of her, aware without seeing of Daryl’s lingering gaze. She hadn’t stopped the motions of her thumb and he was moving his thumb, too. Two thumbs sweeping along each other’s backs, drawing circles over dimpled knuckles, neither fighting for dominance but gliding together in some sort of dance. And it was nothing, just thumbs, but the heat in her belly tightened and burst, rippling out like a wave. 

She’d been a little wet all afternoon, the way everything Daryl did and every thought in her head had her on edge, and more so into this evening with the ache of wanting him thrumming inside while she stood in his arms at sunset. Now she was drenched, and all because of thumbs. 

Thumbs still dancing, or whatever it was they were doing. Daryl, still looking, sure as shit able to see the deep flush rising up from her neck to heat her whole face. Beth’s breath shuddered out of her and she couldn’t fight the urge to shift her hips, trying to align the seam of her jeans so it hit her just right. Her motions bumped her hip against Daryl’s, and the contact drew her gaze up to his face. 

Oh. She should not have looked, because the second she did, her hip wiggle worked, and she couldn’t keep the little whimper down, letting it out through parted lips the moment their gazes met. Daryl swallowed hard, eyes blazing bright even in this flat light. And oh, what burned there.

“Let’s pretend we’re in my daddy’s field,” her voice was saying, deep and raspy, the words unplanned, uttered without permission. 

Daryl cocked his head, questioning, but Beth’s body only giggled, a delicate little sound like wind chimes, and tugged at his hand. 

“C’mon,” she heard herself say. “I don’t bite.”

That made him laugh, the low chuckle washing warm over her face. “Know a couple squirrels might say different.”

Before he finished speaking, Beth was moving, pulling Daryl along unresisting, her consciousness flowing behind in a stream of molasses while her body acted on its behalf. She wasn’t thinking of Jimmy as she and Daryl stretched out side by side on the mossy rocks, but of what the stars witnessed when they used to lie out in the field beneath them. She was only thinking of Daryl when she bit down on his thumb, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to make him yelp.

Beth giggled around his hostage thumb, and he just stared, mouth gaping open in stunned silence.  When he finally managed to speak, his words rolled out like tires on gravel. “Thought you said you don’t bite?”

His voice rumbled through her, and before she released him, Beth bit down gently again, thrusting her tongue up against his thumb until he shuddered, too. 

“Yeah, but, Daryl,” she said, surprising herself with how raspy she still sounded. “You taste like squirrel.”

Daryl groaned, not even trying to hide it, and muttered, “Jesus, Beth.”

He didn’t move away, though. Didn’t pull his hand from hers when she reached for it. Beth held tight and tried to just breathe, tried to force herself to focus on the stars, to think about anything else but what he might do if she nibbled at his ear. Or maybe his lip. The bottom one, definitely the bottom one, all plump and delicious-looking. Or that bit of his collarbone peeking out from the neck of his shirt, well-defined and biteable and—

Beth Greene, get ahold of yourself. 

She was certain her mind didn’t mean literally. 

Well, I am a redneck in trainin’, right?” she heard herself say, as though that explained everything. 

Daryl was quiet for a minute, during which time he just stared up at the sky. Beth watched him swallow, wondered what his Adam’s apple might taste like if she dragged her tongue across it. Saw him lift his far hand up as though to chew on his own thumb, then think better of it and let it fall back down into the moss. 

“Was just jokin’,” he said, in that rasp of a whisper. “You ain’t like that.”

The seriousness in his tone was enough to pull her back down, to shave the edges off her Daryl-high far enough to make her consider her response before she spoke. 

“Like what, Daryl?” she said finally, carefully. He grumbled something she couldn’t quite hear, but Beth ignored it to press on. “What’s a redneck, anyway? ‘Cause if it’s hunting and tracking and surviving, eatin’ squirrel with my teeth and bein’ strong enough to keep me and mine safe?”

She paused, and took a breath, because this next part, this next part he needed to hear. “If it means being like you? That ain’t a bad thing, Daryl. Not even close.”

Beth didn’t wait for his answer before she turned her face up toward the stars, but it wasn’t much longer before a flash of movement at the corner of her eyes, followed by the rush of tingling warmth over her scalp, told her Daryl was looking at her. 

He hummed softly, and his thumb swept once along the length of hers. “Ain’t always good, bein’ me.”

In spite of the semi-seriousness of that, it made her giggle, and she tipped her face back to look at him, at the tension in his mouth and the furrow in his brow. “It’s not always good bein’ me, either, Mr. Dixon, but we both have our moments.”

She felt the vibration of his laughter in the air more than she heard it, saw the way it tugged a smile onto his reluctant lips and smoothed the worry out of his face. Her own laugher came easily and seemed almost to carry his, deepening it from the near silent rumble to something richer. And he kept laughing, even when she pulled their joint hands back up to nibble at the wrinkle of his thumb. After a beat he stroked his fingers over her cheek, cool where she was so warm, and Beth didn’t know if the shiver that followed was hers or his or if it belonged to both of them. 

When she let him go, he wasn’t laughing anymore, but he was looking, searching her face in the dark. He lowered their hands to rest back between them without letting go, his twice-bitten thumb gliding over hers again. The tremble was hers, this time, but didn’t stop her from joining him, sliding her thumb along his, too. Every stroke pulled another shaky breath out of her chest, and she crossed one leg over the other as she turned her face back upward. 

The sky had grown dark enough for the stars to shine, more of them winking into view every second. And though they were beautiful, Beth could barely appreciate them, so hyperaware of Daryl and their thumbs and every other point of contact. She attempted to be subtle, hoping he wouldn’t notice her fidgeting with her attempts to use her jeans or her thighs, just anything, to get even a tiny bit of relief. 

But Daryl shifted beside her, enough to rustle the moss beneath him. “You all right?”

She knew the little noise she made sounded pained, and anything but all right. But where nibbled thumbs were one type of boldness, this was quite another—the sort she didn’t possess, no matter how soaked her panties were, no matter how tight her muscles clenched, quivering and empty, around an ache that throbbed deep inside. 

“Just—just restless,” she said, on the heels of a fluttering breath. 

Daryl shifted again, bending his knees up and planting his feet on the ground. “We walked all day, and you’re restless?”

There was nothing at all girlish about the little giggle that wriggled out of her, but either he didn’t get it, or he was pretending not to. Beth couldn’t find it in her to mind, even if she barely knew what to do with herself right now. 

“Seems like it.” She wasn’t at all surprised to meet his eyes the moment she turned to look at him. “Do you ever feel like you just wanna run?”

Daryl groaned lowly, thumb sweeping down to draw a circle on the inside of her wrist. “Beth...”

She shuddered hard, but the words wouldn’t be silenced. “If I ran, would you catch me?”

Her heart was already pounding, and she thought it might just burst through her ribcage and jackhammer its way through Daryl’s when she jumped to her feet. She knew all the reasons she shouldn’t—too dark, too steep, ledge too high and too close, the threat of walkers, however unlikely. But she didn’t care. She had to do something before she exploded, before she started something even more reckless than a game of chase in the fading light. 

He was up and following before she even reached the trees. Beth darted between the trunks, dipping into the woods just a few rows, careful despite her mania not to stray too close to the slope on the other side of the ridge. Daryl caught up quick, but she avoided him by weaving a path through the trunks, her smaller frame offering the advantage his large one denied. Laughter bubbled up and out as she dodged his reaching hands, but he caught her just as she broke back out into the clearing before the ledge, fingers hooking onto her belt loops. 

She fell.They fell, landing and rolling until Beth came to a stop on her back with Daryl’s arms on either side of her head, his hips pinning her to the ground. And she looked up at him as he looked down at her, both of them breathless and laughing, the joy of it thundering hard in her chest, pumping adrenaline through her veins until even her toes hummed with it. 

As she shifted to relieve the bite of his belt buckle, she felt him there, the length of him, hard against her thigh. Beth froze and Daryl’s expression tightened into something vaguely pained, his laughter ending in a strangled-sounding groan as he rolled off her to land heavy in the moss beside her. Her breath caught in her chest, squeezing, and she half expected him to retreat even further but he didn’t, just lay there on his back, arms above his head like hers, breathing hard and staring up at the stars. 

Beth’s thoughts whirled at ten thousand miles per second. Did he realize she felt him? He must have, the way he reacted. Was he ashamed? Embarrassed? Trying to be a gentleman? God, did he think she wouldn’t be okay with it? That she would be afraid or offended by him being hard, when she had the most raging lady-boner ever? Okay, so he maybe didn’t know that part, unless he figured out what she meant by restless. But despite the—err—solid evidence that he wasn’t entirely unaffected by all of this, she still didn’t know. It was just an erection, not a declaration of any sort, and she was double talking again but that was all self preservation at this point. 

So Daryl was hard. Okay, really hard, and the memory of him pressed into her thigh coiled hot and shivery in her belly. It still didn’t tell her anything, though. Still didn’t answer the million questions she had about him and her and them and all of this. It only added more. 

A long time passed, with the two of them lying there staring up at the stars, the only noise the sound of their breathing once the cicadas went to sleep. She wasn’t seeing the sky, though, as bright as it was in the full darkness. Instead her vision turned inward, to the easy smile on Daryl’s face as he laughed above her right before it all fell apart. Finally, when the chill of the night settled as goose bumps on her arms, Daryl stroked the side of her hand with his pinkie.

“C’mon,” he said, voice soft, almost gentle in a way she’d never heard from him before. “Gettin’ late. I got first watch.”

They moved together to where Beth had set out their canvas. Daryl settled back against a tree while Beth pulled on the old blue and grey flannel she had taken from the cabin and her knit cardigan over top. Behind her, Daryl rustled through his pack, too, and when she glanced back she watched him slip his vest over top his denim jacket. His eyes caught hers and held for a minute, but in the shadow of the trees it was too dark to read what might shimmer there.

“Goodnight, Daryl,” Beth said, because there wasn’t anything else to say. Or, there was, but she had no idea where to begin. 

In the dark, Daryl nodded, a slow bob of his head. “Night, Beth.”

She lay down on the canvas, curling up on her side with her back to him, like they used to before the cabin, only quite a bit closer. Except the gap between her back and Daryl’s legs, for all it spanned just a couple of inches, felt like a gaping chasm, and a prickle of uncertainty kept her from closing it. 

Beth shifted a bit, trying to get comfortable, but the cabin’s bed, no matter how old and lumpy the mattress, had spoiled her. The canvas covered moss was not cutting it for muscles achy from a day of walking, and neither was the cold ground in any way a good substitute for the warmth of Daryl’s body or the profound comfort of having him close. This was ridiculous.So ridiculous, considering they had spent every night for more than a week sleeping like spoons in a drawer. If Daryl was trying to keep the evidence of his physical reaction from her it was probably to prevent this very thing, this spike of awkwardness driven down into the centre of their easy closeness.   

She should just do it, slide back against his leg and throw the uncertainty out of the metaphorical window. He wouldn’t stop her. He probably even wanted her to—

Daryl let out a loud breath, and his hand landed on her shoulder. Two fingers pressed in, inviting her to turn over. He didn’t have to pull to bring her closer, she moved on her own, sliding her head onto his thigh and curling her fingers over the curve of his knee. It wasn’t a bed, but it was  Daryl, and Beth let out a quiet sigh which he echoed half a second later.

Fingertips brushed her forehead, across her cheek, along her jaw, down and around to the back of her neck to stroke along her spine. Repeating their journey from finish to start, start to finish, the touch so feather-light sometimes all she felt was the shiver he left behind. It didn’t take long, with the warmth of Daryl’s thigh beneath her head, the glide of his fingers absolving the night of its discomfort, for the first tendrils of sleep to wrap around her. The questions hadn’t gone away, but they settled in the background as Beth drifted under, warm and weightless, heart beating out its favourite song. 

Daryl - Daryl - Daryl.

*~*

Beth woke surrounded by the warmth of Daryl’s body, his chest at her back, hand big and hot on her belly. His erection nestled in the crack of her ass and his hips pushed lazily against her while he whispered words she couldn’t hear into the back of her neck. Her whole body came alight, tingling hot through her veins, to her toes, between her legs where she was already so wet for him. She arched back, pressing hard into him, and Daryl’s breath rushed hot and heavy at her neck.

“Beth...” He breathed her name and thrust against her ass, no longer lazy. No longer anything but hard.

His fingers stoked her belly, widening circles that made her shiver and sigh. She gasped when he popped the button on her jeans and pressed back into him, loving how hard he was. As hard for her as she was wet for him. He trailed his fingertips down, drawing a rasping moan out of her long before he slid through her curls to the soft, slick flesh beneath. When he circled her clit she called out his name, the jolt of pleasure striking hard, shaking through her shoulders and down into the rocks beneath her. 

He brought her to the cusp before he stopped, leaving her shaking and desperate when he withdrew his fingers to nudge her shoulder. His lips were on hers the moment she turned in his arms, all but swallowing her moans, drawing them into his mouth along with her tongue. He rolled forward, tucking her half beneath him, erection pressing just right against the seam of her jeans. 

“Oh, God, Daryl,” she moaned, between kisses which stole her breath. 

Her fingers pulled at his shirt, slipping the buttons through the holes, and he reached for her, tugging at the hem of her top. Still kissing, they shed each other of their clothes and Beth cried out when she felt his cock, so thick and hard, sliding through her wet folds to press right where she wanted him. 

She gazed up at him and he gazed down at her, fingers brushing her cheeks where they glowed warm. Beth arched her back, squeezing around him as he sunk into her, breathing her name into the night. She was so close already, so close and now so full, and she thought she might die if he didn’t move.

But it wasn’t long before Daryl withdrew, never taking his eyes off her, and when he thrust back in they both cried out.

“Daryl!” Beth drove her hips up to meet him when he rocked into her again, so hard and deep and good. “Daryl!”

“Beth,” he moaned, breath hot and heavy on her face. “Beth. Beth! Beth!”

“Beth!”

Beth gasped, eyes flying open to the sight of Daryl hovering over her, fully clothed with his back to the tree. A hard shudder rolled through her whole body, the tail ends of it licking at her throbbing clit like the ghost of dream-Daryl’s fingers. The trembling didn’t stop when he pulled her up, gathered her into his arms the way he did after her nightmares. She let herself be gathered, pressed her face into his neck, clung to him with fingers barely able to hold on. If she wasn’t shaking so hard, if she could do anything else but breathe while teetering here on the cusp, Beth might have laughed.

Oh, Daryl, that was no nightmare.

What usually soothed, the stroke of his fingers along her spine, the heat of his breath as he whispered to her, only made it worse. Beth moaned into his neck, lips open and wet on his skin, her breath rushing out in shaky little puffs. She needed—oh God, she needed a different kind of touch altogether, and no matter what they’d got up to in her dream that wasn’t something she could ask of him.

She pulled out of his arms, wrenching her body up and away with enough force that he didn’t have time to attempt to hold on. But she needed to move before she did something she’d regret, something he wouldn’t want, out of sheer desperation. She couldn’t see his face, hidden as it was in the shadow of the trees despite the glow from the not-quite half waxing moon overhead. He could see her, though, would read the turmoil written there when she stammered out something about having to pee and struggled up on shaking legs. He didn’t try to stop her from dragging herself into the trees, or if he did, Beth didn’t notice. She just—she just needed and couldn’t get away fast enough.

In the dark, she couldn’t go as far from Daryl as she wanted, not with terrain this steep. She barely managed to avoid tripping over the alarm, but saw the glint of metal just in time and pressed her back to a tree just inside the line. So close to Daryl but it didn’t matter; she couldn’t wait. Beth shoved her jeans to her calves, pulled down the red shorts and her worn old panties, threadbare and soaked right through. The rough bark scraped her back as she slid down, parting her legs as far as her jeans would allow.

The first swipe of her fingers on her swollen clit had her biting her lip to keep from crying out. Something like a whimper sneaked past anyway, but she couldn’t stop, not the sound, and not this either. Not now, not when she was so fucking close. Beth moved her fingers in tight, hard circles, biting her lip with so much force she knew it would bruise. Her vagina ached, muscles clenching and fluttering around nothing, and she just needed more.

She slipped two fingers inside, where she was so wet there was no resistance, just slick, greedy muscles drawing her digits in deeper, and she moaned, too loud, too raspy, but it felt so good finally having something to squeeze that she didn’t try to stop it. Just the brush of her fingertips over that spongy spot inside, along with the circles on her clit, erupted in a starburst that rocketed through her belly, fluttering inside where her fingers pressed, shooting icy-hot down to her toes. She pressed in hard, harder, stoked firm over her clit once, twice more before she shattered, coming with such force she barely had enough presence of mind left to bury her face into the wool of her sweater and muffle the sounds tearing past her throat.

She hadn’t managed to stay upright, in the shuddering aftermath, landing hard on the debris-strewn ground with her fingers still inside and her pants around her calves. Daryl called out to her in question and she managed something in response—she wasn’t sure what, except that it kept him from leaving his post. When her body finally calmed enough she got up again to pee for real, biting back a small whimper when that bodily function caused an aftershock of the other. But she managed, and dragged her clothing back into place with shaking, sticky fingers. 

There was no water here, no place to wash off. Beth sucked her fingers clean and wondered if doing that made her a proper redneck woman, too.

She couldn’t look at Daryl when she came back into the clearing, her legs only a little less shaky than when she left. If she looked he would know—if he didn’t already suspect it—and if he knew, Beth wasn’t prepared to see the look she imagined him wearing, some mixture of disgust and pity. She knew that was stupid, she did, but rational thoughts weren’t running the show just now, and she sunk down cross-legged beside him, locking her hands together in her lap to keep them from shaking as she stared out into the blackness of the ledge beyond.

“You okay?” His voice was quiet and gravelly, but she couldn’t tell if it was out of disuse or tiredness or something else.

I don’t think I’ll be okay again.

“Y-yeah. Fine. Just—” Beth’s breath sighed out of her, followed by a little shiver. “I-I’ll take watch now, if you want.”

Even without looking, Beth felt Daryl’s eyes on her from the shadows beneath his tree. After minute which seemed to stretch out around them, long and silent, Daryl made a rumbling sound in the back of his throat. “All right.”

Something about the words felt weighted in a way Beth couldn’t decipher, but they poked a hole through her ballooning shame, too, deflating it down to rumpled little piles of colour inside her chest. But she could navigate that, and her lungs didn’t ache quite so badly anymore as she and Daryl traded places. Beth slid over to the centre of the tree and Daryl lay down on the canvas, using her legs as a pillow as she had done with him. It felt a little wrong, after what she had just done, to slide her still-trembling fingers into his hair. To scratch his scalp after scratching her own itch. But his sleepy, contented groan drove those thoughts right out of her head.

The other thoughts still swirled there, the old doubts and the new ones, the questions, what she knew to be true battling with what she feared actually was. Everything was a jumbled, confusing, gut-twisting mess inside her head, overlaid by the too-real flashes, like a flickering slideshow of images, from her dream. Not just images, though, but all the sensations that went with them, from the sound of his ragged breath and raspy voice moaning her name, to the taste of squirrel on his lips. He’d smelled of leather and sweat and sex, she remembered that so clearly, and oh, how he felt inside her, hard and thick and filling her so full, more real than any dream had the right to be. She had never dreamt with such vivid detail before these nightmares started, and dreaming of Daryl like that, with the same intensity—she was still trembling, she realized, and not just from her orgasm.

Daryl’s groans soon turned to quiet snores, and Beth didn’t stop trailing her fingers through the still-soft strands. The motion was as soothing to her as it was for him, and Beth had to crack a smile at that despite the tornado wreaking havoc in her head. It had been years since she’d settled down to think with a cat curled up on her lap, one of them always seeming to know when the troubles on her mind needed a little furry intervention. Daryl made as good a cat as any.

Oh, Daryl.

Beth stared down at her pale fingers moving through his dark hair. God, why did she feel so unsettled? She hated this, these little voices whispering in her mind that all her fears were coming true, that Daryl didn’t want any part of this, that he’d turn his back to her now that he knew what kind of girl she really was.

And what is that, Beth? 

That voice sounded suspiciously like Maggie, but the Maggie-in-her head made a lot of sense lately. The real Maggie would tell her she hadn’t done anything wrong, no matter what those prodding little voices tried to say. It was just a dream, something entirely beyond Beth’s control. What came after that, well, there was nothing to be ashamed of about that. Women have needs just the same as men, Maggie would remind her, and she had done what she could to keep it private.

Like Daryl had, when he rolled away from her. Because—and it struck her like a tree branch to the face, whipped back with abandon as the thought rolled through—he was just as in the dark about how she felt as Beth was about him.

That’s it, Beth. Use your head.

Her dream and everything leading up to it didn’t define how she felt. No, that deep attraction, the wanting of him in that way, came from her feelings for Daryl, not the other way around. What she came to understand at the ledge at sunset hadn’t changed, growing and building far longer than she even knew, tunnelling so deep, deeper that she could imagine. And it was scary and huge and beautiful and so many things at once that all added up to the truth. Beth Greene knew her heart, knew it beat for Daryl and had for some time now. 

But Daryl didn’t.

She imagined, for a moment, that Daryl felt the same way. That he’d had a revelation of his own there on the ledge and that’s why he clung to her as he had. But the same doubts, the same fears she had about him, he’d have about her. He would, with the way he never thought he was good enough, and that was the big old bucket of water dumped over the burning coals of his feelings. So he held on in silence, keeping what they had, not wanting to risk it for something he feared they had not. 

After supper, maybe she pushed his boundaries a little, and maybe he let her. He was okay with it because she didn’t seem to mind. But the doubts still lingered, the worries, the idea that what had deeper meaning for him didn’t mean the same to her. And then—and this was what weighed on her now, the realization of it like a second blow from that wayward branch—what if she felt him there, on top of her, hard for her, and thought that wasallhe wanted.

Turning the tables around, back to being Beth now. What if Daryl knew what she’d gotten up to in the woods and thought the same thing?

She snorted, and Daryl mumbled something in his sleep.That was ridiculous. Of course she hadn’t thought that, when she realized he was hard. If that was all Daryl wanted, she’d have known about it long before now. No, she knew him better than that, so why would he believe it of her?

He wouldn’t, because he knew her better than that, too, but he also wouldn’t be able see it from her point of view. Wouldn’t be able to convince himself that she could see past his physical reaction to what lay beneath it. 

Beth knew her heart, knew what she wanted and that was everything. She couldn’t know Daryl’s heart, not officially, but she knew he cared about her, trusted her, felt safe with her. She knew the strength of his arms, a shield against the worst of her demons; knew the warmth of his body and the comfort of his touch when she needed it most. She had felt the rush of his breath on her neck, the way he trembled when she whispered that she’d never let him go, and the rumble of his voice in her ear, on her skin, speaking those pearls of truth in the safety of their bed.

Beth remembered the spark of his eyes on her as they travelled, knew the power in his gaze and felt the pull of it even now with his eyes shut in sleep, reaching out from inside him and burrowing deep into her. 

She’d listened to the beating of his heart beneath her cheek, felt the rise and fall of his strong chest as he breathed deep. Had basked in the look of pride on his face when she excelled at something he taught her and bore witness to the easy smiles he granted no one else. 

Beth knew the brush of his knuckles across hers and the shape of his fingers when she slipped her hand into his, felt the way he held on like he never wanted her to let go. And she saw the way he reached for her now, instead of just letting her reach for him, needing her touch, needing to touch her as much as she needed to touch him. 

She knew all of that, because she knew Daryl. Knew the kind of man he was, a good man who cared about her in a way no one else ever had, because he did. God, it was so obvious that he did, that they were in this together, and she only had her own silly head to blame for having doubted that. 

“We’re gonna be okay, you and me,” she whispered, heart thundering in her chest as she brushed her fingers across his brow, smooth and relaxed in sleep. “We’re gonna make it work, Daryl. You’ll see.”

*~*

Daryl woke before dawn, stirring with the first hints of light cutting through the dark, well before the sun came up. He stretched before he came fully awake, driving his face into her thighs and curling his arm up around her hip. Despite the flutter of nerves quickening her pulse, Beth glided her fingers through his hair, smiling when he moaned softly and mumbled her name into her jeans.

He turned over onto his back after a while, his head still in her lap, hair a mess from her fingers combing through it. When he blinked his sleep-heavy eyes open with a lazy smile on his face, her own stretched out wider in greeting.

“Morning.”

Daryl’s lazy smile widened. “Mmm, mornin’, Beth.”

“You slept well,” she said, giving his scalp a little scratch. 

“Mmm.” He groaned and stretched, tipping his head to follow her fingers. “Keep doin’ that and I ain’t gonna get up,” he said, voice still thick and sleepy. 

He shut his eyes again and Beth gave him another scratch, grinning wide as he stretched out like a great big kitten, rumbling from somewhere deep in his chest. If Maggie were watching this, she’d have an awful lot to say about that. About how a man like Daryl didn’t turn into a lap cat for just anyone.

It was so simple, after a long night spent settling her thoughts, to carry on how they’d been for some time now, before she let her brain get too bogged down in the details. Not two days ago she had told herself to just let it be and that was all they needed to do now. Leave the thinking out of it for a while and just be. After all, it got them this far, hadn’t it?

She couldn’t stop her gaze from lingering on Daryl as they packed up camp, her heart still pounding away in her chest except it wasn’t nerves anymore. He watched her, too, like he always did, and her whole body tingled with it, alight with bubbles on her skin. Beth imagined them leaping up from her like tiny, effervescent sparks, spreading out around her like a lively, multicoloured aura.

They sat together by the ledge to eat a small breakfast of leftover squirrel, and Beth leaned over to lay her head on his shoulder, remembering last night’s sunset, rich with golds and pinks and oranges in all the hues she could imagine. She and Daryl weren’t a sunset, but in her heart they shone in that same brilliant way, layers of light and colour and form coming together at the right time to build something almost magical. And that might be the songwriter in her, waxing poetic, but she liked the way the thought curled and nestled, warm and shivery, inside her head. 

Daryl tucked his arm around her, fingers settling naturally in the curve of her waist, and though she couldn’t hear his heart she knew it would be pounding just as fast as hers. Beth wasn’t at all surprised to meet the bright blue of his eyes when she tipped her face up to look at him. A splash of pink coloured his cheeks, the same tint she felt warming hers, and that gentle smile pulled easy at his lips, which she could only answer in kind. 

It was nothing at all to shift, to tuck her knees underneath her and cuddle deeper into his side. She shivered as his thumb swept across the warmth of her cheek, and before he could withdraw, Beth caught his wrist and pulled him back in, eyes locked on his as she grazed the knuckle of his thumb with her teeth. Daryl groaned, so softly it flitted out like a breath on the morning breeze, and turned his hand to cradle her cheek in his trembling palm.

Their foreheads met and Beth didn’t remember moving. In the middle their breath mingled, puffing out in ragged gasps until she couldn’t tell his from hers. Beth slid her palm onto his leather over top his pounding heart, pressing her fingertips in so he’d feel her through the layers, and breathed his name into the space between them.

She didn’t know which of them moved, or if maybe they both did, but she caught the whispered breeze of her name on her lips just before they brushed across his. He was still trembling, she felt it in his fingers where they tucked into her hair, beneath her hand, and on his lips, even as they parted, slowly sliding against hers. She trembled, too, right through to her toes, and her head felt so light she thought she might float away. 

Then the hesitant slide became something else entirely, something warm and wet and deep, and a new heat caught fire in her chest, spreading out through her body until she thought she might burst into flames. Somebody groaned, maybe her, maybe him, she didn’t know but she felt it like the buzz of a jet engine on her lips. His were warm and full and firm and she bit down on the bottom one, just enough to make him moan, the sound tearing up from his chest beneath her fingers. She swallowed it down, chased another one with her tongue, sliding it into his open mouth alongside his. 

They drew apart, both gasping for breath, foreheads knocking together. Daryl breathed her name, and as quickly as they parted, they came together again. No hesitation this time, just lips and tongues and teeth, sighs and moans and stolen, shuddering breaths that belonged to both of them at once. There on the ledge in the early morning light, the brightest of the night’s stars still looking down from above, Beth poured everything she had into kissing Daryl Dixon, because this was it. This was them, and nothing the world could throw at her was ever gonna make her let go.

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 21 – Dance with the Devil Inside of Me

*~*

She tasted like squirrel. Of all the thoughts that could’ve been in his head while he was kissing Beth Greene, the first of them was the taste of squirrel on her lips, her tongue, her breath as it puffed outta her mouth and into his. 

Any other thoughts he mighta had crumbled to dust, leaving only the heat of her mouth, the wet slide of her lips, and the way she sighed, soft and feminine but with an edge to it, an edge that sliced down inside him and stirred up that fluttering in his chest so violently he thought he might explode with it. This couldn’t be happening, he must be dreaming, musta died in his sleep because never in a million years—except he was wide awake and kissing Beth and nothing ever felt as real as this. 

Beth slipped onto his lap sometime after pausing to breathe and them surging together again like oxygen didn’t matter. Her legs pressed in on the outsides of his thighs and the hand that was at her waist now lay flat across her back, fingertips sliding beneath soft flannel to graze even softer skin. He had a handful of hair he didn’t remember reaching for and one of Beth’s hands tugging at his. If she got any closer she’d feel just how bad he was burning for her. Feel it again and Daryl wasn’t all that sure he’d wanna stop it this time.

And oh, she was fire, this woman, a blaze unto herself. Magic. He never kissed like this in his life, never thought he knew how. Never thought he wanted to try until Beth Greene wandered in, unzipped his sternum and made a home for herself in the chambers of his heart. It beat for her, with her, into her beneath the weight of her palm, the press of her fingers. 

Beth’s teeth sunk into his bottom lip again and he groaned as she tugged, a sound unlike anything he ever remembered making before. She released him to press their foreheads together, sitting there on his legs like the little ball of flame she was. His brain failed to grasp the task of finding words, with his lungs on fire, his heart pounding so hard he could taste it in his throat. He clutched at her instead, with the hand at her back and the other in her hair, and her breath shuddered out, hot as it washed over his face.

Daryl,” she whispered, between deep, ragged breaths. “Daryl.”

“Fuck, Beth.” 

He felt the rumble of her laughter, silently shaking through her body into his, and she pulled back, the weight of her resting atop his thighs. Daryl dragged his eyes open, blinking against the blinding orange of the sun pouring in from the east.  How did he miss the sunrise? Then his gaze focused, sharpened, landed on Beth.

Beth, lit up like a candle, the whole one side of her bathed in that intense orange light, making a shining, burnished gold halo of her hair. Of her, like some sorta statue, but alive. God, so alive, all flushed up to her forehead and down her neck,  lips red and glossy, glistening in that fiery light as brightly as the thin ring of blue left in her eyes. 

“Beth.”

He needed to speak, to say something, but even her name caught in his throat now and wouldn’t budge. Needed to tell her—tell her something, anything. Couldn’t just kiss her like that and say nothing, but what did he say, what could he say, and his words vanished into the vortex of his thick head, his useless, short-circuit of a brain. You ain’t worth shit. Ain’t nothin’ good about you. He was going to fuck it all up if he couldn’t speak and if he could it would be all wrong anyway, ‘cause he didn’t know, and Beth. Beth. 

Oh, God, Beth.

“Daryl.”

Both her palms pressed against his cheeks, and he only realized he had looked away when she dragged his face up to look at her. 

“Daryl,” she said again, voice so soft yet it hooked right in to the back of his skull and pulled tight, until he couldn’t fall away from her again if he tried.

Her eyes hooked in, too, the blue intensity of them boring right into his. She wasn’t gonna let him shrink away. God, she knew he was trying, not because he wanted to but because his stupid ass head didn’t know what the fuck to do with this. But she wasn’t letting him go. Was gonna keep him right there with her.

Girl like that ain’t interested in no worthless redneck. Whatcha got to offer her anyway? Nothin’ she wants, ya sorry excuse for a—

“Daryl.”

His name again, and this time, finally, the word tossed the voices out of his head, thawed his frozen limbs, relit the flame in his belly burning so hot for her. He curled his fingers in her hair and into the skin of her back and watched her face as her parted lips formed a smile. What else was there to do but haul her in and taste that smile and let it spill over into him. Beth giggled against his lips and he swallowed it down until it filled his chest with its lightness, and he wanted to laugh, too, but he wanted to kiss her even more than that. So he let it linger, let the feeling build up as the kiss deepened, until he thought he might float away with Beth in his arms and her tongue in his mouth and he was a goddamn kiss-drunk fool but there were far, far worse things to be. 

The sun was even higher when they dragged apart again, after an amount of time that passed in seconds and hours and days all at once. He was shaking again, a rolling tremble starting at the core of him and spreading out in little waves that only deepened when he looked at her. Beth’s eyes were opened so wide, wider than he thought he had ever seen them, and it was too much, everything simmering there. Too much to take when his own head was still trying to catch up, when a plague of voices, gone silent for a time now hovered again in the periphery, just waiting to inflict their particular brand of torment. Sensing that, maybe, ‘cause she could probably read him like a flashing billboard about now, Beth leaned forward and let her forehead rest against his again, both her hands sliding down to lay on his chest. 

Daryl stroked her cheek with his thumb, let his fingers curl into her hair, into her scalp beneath, and Beth leaned into his palm with a little sigh. It trickled right through his nerves, covering over the buzzing edges of them and he let out a sigh of his own in the soothing aftermath.

Oh, he could get used to this. 

After a long time of sitting there, motionless aside from their synced up breathing, Beth pressed her fingertips into his chest and brushed her nose across the tip of his. “We gotta go, Daryl.”

Sun was up. They’d lost some travel time, and he should care, he should, but the part of him that bothered with that sort of thing had taken a hike with the first glide of her tongue on his lips. Same time, though, she was right. They should go, now, use the day for travel like they must, no matter how much he ached to just stay right here and spend another hour or two getting lost in kissing her. 

“Yeah,” he said, dragging the word up and out, reluctant and raspy. “Got a lotta ground to cover.”

She slipped away, sliding off him to stand over him a moment, casting him dark in the shadow of her legs before she stepped away. He watched her back as he stood, adjusted himself in his jeans while she was busy with her pack and crossbow. He’d gone to sleep hard, woken hard, no surprise kissing her made him harder still and he wondered that he had enough blood left in his brain to even think. In truth, both his spinning head and his aching cock were full of the same thing. Heart too, still pounding beneath his ribs like a heavy metal backbeat even though Beth was half way across the clearing.

No way and no desire to be away from her, but he knew he needed to pull back from these desperate edges he kept climbing toward, least while they travelled. Daryl took a moment to look out over the lightening landscape below them, to breathe and remind himself that the world was more than just Beth even if she was the most important goddamned thing in it.

His head spun, just a little harder, in the wake of that thought, but before he could let it rock him too hard, before the voices in his head could interject, Beth’s knuckles brushed the back of his hand. It pulled him back down, that little slide of skin on skin as she came to stand beside him, like last night but in reverse, and this time he was the one to turn his hand and twine their fingers together. She squeezed tight and he felt it in his chest, too, like her fingers, maybe all of her, wrapped around his heart. 

Beth wore the tiniest of smiles when he looked down at her, but the sort of thing that lit up her whole face despite the subtlety of it. He let his shoulder bump into hers and her smile widened, and Daryl couldn’t keep the same stupid grin from sliding onto his face, too.

Yeah. A damn romance novel, all right. Fuck.  

Beth lifted her arm to point out toward the first of a series of gaps in the otherwise solid expanse of trees. “Think we can make that clearing today?”  she asked, the wobble in her voice suggesting she was still just as stirred up inside as he was no matter how calm she looked on the outside. 

Daryl had spent a relatively brief time yesterday considering that very thing, making for what looked like it might be farmland there at the edges of the road. They’d lost some time—not that he was willing to give it back—but they could, the two of them, cover that kind of distance in a day, if nothing happened to slow their progress. 

To Beth, though, he gave a quick nod. “Mmhm. Whatcha thinkin’?”

Her smile changed, just a bit, and she squared her shoulders, standing a little taller even while still half leaning on him. She’d never say, but he knew what it meant to her, him asking her to lead them, deferring to her decision making as he was right now. Could see it in her eyes, that confidence, that spark of pride in herself. He’d do what he could to keep it there.

Beth took a deep breath and cast her gaze out into the distance again before sweeping back to catch his eyes. “I think it’s a farm.” She brought her arm up again to trace in the air the suggestion of fences and fields there in the distance. “Even if we don’t find any food or a workin’ vehicle, it might mean shelter for the night at least.”

There were other points to consider, since nothing these days was simple or easy or certain, but she was probably already thinking about some of that anyway. Most of this was about trusting her to get there on her own, to get used to thinking this way, relying on her own knowledge and trusting her own instincts. Like she done when she set out to find him, after the storm, and later with their daily hunting trips, he knew of no better way for her to hone her skills than to dive head first into it, to be the one making the calls for both of them. She was smart, Beth, and she was good. Not perfect, but just the right kinda naturally observant that she took to it fast and learned even faster, lapping up every drop of knowledge he had to give her, figuring a lotta shit out on her own, putting all of it to use like she’d been doing it her whole life.

“All right,” he said to her, glancing down at her again while she was still looking out over the terrain below. “Lead the way.”

He attempted, at first, to focus on the journey. To put his mind to descending the hillside once the sharp ridge gave way to a gentler slope, settle into the woods as he had done all his life, and leave the ledge and everything that happened there behind. Awareness of his surroundings wasn’t something Daryl could turn off, ingrained as it was in the fibre that made him, but his mind wasn’t on the woods, not the way it should be. They’d barely reached the bottom before he gave up any pretence of not letting his focus shift onto Beth Greene. Not, as he might’ve once tried to tell himself, just ‘cause she was leading the way.

Some ways it was a good thing, walking behind her. Following, able to watch her without her knowing it, admiring the lean grace of her, the purposeful sway of her hips and the curve of her ass in those tight as hell jeans. Taking in the strength of that lithe little frame that a person might miss if they didn’t know it was there. Hell, replaying every second of kissing her without having to worry about what his face was doing. No risk of spilling open and bleeding out everything there in front of her when he walked in her shadow. 

Two days. 

Two days since it hit him, since he came to understand what it meant to feel this way. To feel this way about Beth. Two days, but it might as well have been a lifetime with how deep the truth burned into him. How solid it stood alongside every single thing he knew. Not a new thing, after all, just a new understanding of something that had been coming on for a long time. Made it easier, the unwavering nature of it, to accept it. To let himself feel it, the ripples of it coursing pleasant through is veins. To be able to look at Beth and know that it was her, out of all the people in the world, before and after it went to hell, who caught his heart. Who dug her delicate fingers down into the depths of his fucking soul. 

He couldn’t say why she would even want that blackened old thing, withered and rusted. Anemic. Atrophied from lack of use. Barely able to beat from being buried so long beneath the demons of his past and the ones of his own making. But it was hers all the same, whether she knew it or not; now that he’d given it away it wasn’t his to take back.

She said once that he was good to her. Once not so long ago yet it felt like years had passed since that morning in the cabin. He felt it then and felt it even more deeply now, the desperate, aching need to be the good she thought him capable of. Never be good enough, but maybe. Maybe if she—if she showed him how, he could be. He could be that for her.

That girl’d just as soon drive her knife through your thick head as a fuckin’ walker. ‘Bout as good to her dead as ya are alive, ya piece a shit…

Wasn’t true. On some level he knew that. On a lot of them, maybe, ‘cause for once in his life he wanted to argue with the voices rather than just letting them tear into him. As hard as it was to shake off the mental commentary, he’d gotten used to thinking without it somewhere along the way, before the demons of his past started poking holes in the box he’d buried them in. Now that familiar lead weight in the back of his head battled with the fluttering warmth in his chest that was all Beth’s doing, pulling him in opposing directions, stretching him apart inch by inch.

Beth, though. He swore she glowed, even outside the bits of sunlight starting to filter in through the tree cover. Walked on like her feet were made of clouds or something, light as air, breezy though he had no clue what that even meant. And every time she glanced over her shoulder to look at him, her eyes bright and her smile soft, his heart squeezed in his chest and the warmth in his belly deepened. He didn’t know how she did it but she made it look effortless, just existing as she always had despite the flurry of changes, and he wanted to reach out and borrow some of that for himself. Soothe his head and figure out how he was supposed to do this now that he knew how she tasted.

Daryl couldn’t go back to pretending any part of this was platonic and he didn’t think Beth could either. Wasn’t just about kissing her. Wasn’t about how he burned for her all the time, how she got him so hard without ever laying a hand on him. Wasn’t about Beth’s dream that was not a nightmare, how she’d called out his name before he woke her, or what she got up to in the woods after when she fled his arms in desperation.

Ya know she ain’t after your heart, ya pussy. Ain’t gonna want the rest of it either once she knows how useless it is. Dick’s limper than a dead catfish. Hell, catfish prolly knows what to do with a woman better than you do, Darylina.

Pain burst in his palms where he’d dug in his broken, bitten nails. No. Merle—Merle’s fucking ghost—was wrong.

He wanted her. Was a slow-starter of a revelation and he should’ve figured that out sooner, but it ain’t like he’d ever wanted anyone before—as Merle never tired of reminding him—not like this. Not ever like this. Even now he burned for her, a heat like a volcano boiling in his belly just waiting to erupt, and he wasn’t hard but it wouldn’t take much to get him there. And Beth, Christ. No maybes about what her desires were, not after last night.

But it wasn’t just physical, this thing between them. Not even by half, though he couldn’t really separate it out like that. There was overlap. Mixing. Emotional and physical and everything else all tossed into a blender on high. Daryl couldn’t trust his brain to tell him the truth, not with something so important as Beth Greene, not when old demons took particular pleasure in fucking with his head like this. But he could trust Beth.

He only needed reason to look for it, reason to want to see what was right there in front of him. To see her.

Reason hit him two days ago, when he finally got it through his idiot brain what it meant to feel this way. Sitting with Beth on the steps and lying wrapped up with her in bed, traveling through the day yesterday and looking back over the past weeks while he held her at the ledge—he saw. He knew. It was all there in her eyes whenever she looked at him. Shit, it was there in everything she did and every word she said. 

I still have you, Daryl.

Didn’t make no sense, him and Beth, but he suspected this sorta thing never did.

The real Merle would’ve taunted him for it and never let up, this shit about feelings, damn romance novels and beating hearts. Merle’d never had a shortage of women in his life but Daryl knew his brother had never felt like this. ‘Cause if Merle had he’d’a known how good it was, falling for someone like Daryl had fallen for Beth and feeling all of it shining back at him from her big blue eyes. Warmth and fluttering and this thrilling sort of energy, zipping through him all the time, even with the quicksand he was stuck in right now. Daryl never knew he could be as caught up in another person as much as he was with Beth. Beth and her smile, her voice when she sang, her small hand in his, the fire in her eyes, and the strength in her heart. He just hoped she knew that it was both of them feeling this way. That she wasn’t alone in any part of it. 

There was something there to reach for. He couldn’t quite make out the shape of it but it was there in the distance, and that’s where his certainty ended. Their lives were already one complicated knot, the two of them woven together out of necessity, somewhat, but he had enough brains, if not the experience, to know that a lot of that weaving happened because they wanted it to. A morning’s worth of kisses, as incredible as it was, was only one shining thread amongst many. They were standing on the cusp of something massive, only Daryl had no clue how to get there or where to start.

What was so easy before, actions taken on instinct, in the midst of emotions too powerful to control, now impossible when considered with intent. It felt like he toppled off the high of this morning’s kiss and landed at the bottom on the wrong side of a wall. He could see her. Could touch her if he reached for her. Knew where he wanted to be but he couldn’t coordinate his arms and his legs to get him there. 

Daryl ploughed into Beth’s back, almost knocking her forward but she planted her feet and he caught her by the arms. So lost in his head, he hadn’t seen her stop, and he was about to question her on it when he saw the water. A meandering section of a small river swung out into their path, the same one Daryl had noticed from the ledge last night. Though the trees grew thick right up along its banks, he’d seen enough of these to recognize the pattern of the water woven into the canopy from above. Beth, clearly, hadn’t expected it.

As he moved to stand mostly beside her, Beth pressed her shoulder back into his and craned her neck around to look at him. “You know this was here?”

She gently tapped her fingers against the back of his hand, a little one-two-three-four count, repeating until it occurred to him what she wanted. He caught her fingers and held them, pulse racing a bit at the contact. And it was stupid but he couldn’t help it, with that or the little weight of breathlessness in his chest when he leaned close to her ear. “Mmhm. You’re slippin’, Greene. Shoulda picked that out last night.”

Daryl almost didn’t recognize his own voice. Hadn’t planned on saying any of those things, they just sorta rolled out, all full of grit.

Beth shivered in response and pressed her shoulder back a bit more, tipping her face up until her eyes found his and held. “Mmm. Must’ve been distracted.”

That mighta been an understatement, if he ever heard one. Weren’t just her, though, distracted  last night. Distracted right now. Weren’t just her at all.

Beth lingered there with him a few minutes before giving his hand a firm squeeze and stepping away to kneel down at the water’s edge. In the swift current she rinsed her hands, then splashed some of the chilly water on her face. Daryl got down beside her to do the same, cupped some into his hands and drank. When he lowered his hands, she was looking at him, waiting for their eyes to catch and the moment they did, she flashed him a small smile that set his heart fluttering like mad.

Then she flicked her hands, speckling his face with a little shower of cold river water. He gasped and she started laughing, getting in another shot before she was up and running away from his potential retaliation. All he could do, though, was watch the motion of her legs and ass as she ran, gaze up the grin on her face when she spun around to look for him, a faint pink tinge to her cheeks. He got to his feet as she trotted back, still giggling, not really breathless from the short sprint but breathing hard anyway. Lightness filled his chest, like laughter except it just stuck there and held instead of busting out, and he was sure with the way she grinned at him that all of that must be showing on his face.

He shook his head at himself, at how ridiculous he was being and how much he didn’t care. Oh, this woman.

Daryl,” she said, her tone teasing as she stepped up in front of him. “You were supposed to try to get me, too.”

The laugh did rumble out now, just a bit, and he couldn’t resist reaching out to tuck an errant curl of hair behind her ear. “Maybe I’m just waitin’ til you don’t expect it.”

Again, these words, coming out of some previously hidden corner of his brain, a part devoted to making Beth Greene blush, given the way her already pink cheeks darkened. She curled her shoulders forward, lowering her head with her lip caught between her teeth. As quick as she did she looked back up at him, still flushed but grinning now, and she reached out to plant her finger square in the center of his chest. 

“Oh, you’re on, Mr. Dixon.”

He didn’t think he could feel any warmer inside, but the heat rose anyway with the rasp of her voice and that goddamned Mr. Dixon. Beth’s grin hadn’t quit and he wanted to kiss it right off her face. Wanted to reach out and slide his hand into her hair and pull her in, taste the hint of squirrel on her tongue, feel the bite of her teeth in his lip and maybe try a nibble of hers. He held back, uncertain if he should. If he could. If this was something they did now that they’d done it once or if there was a procedure, a set of rules to follow and him, the clueless jerk who didn’t know.

What, I gotta fuckin’ show you what to do, baby brother? Christ, man, I sent her to ya on a goddamn platter…

That shard of memory spread a vein of ice through the warmth in his belly, stopped him from moving, and he wanted to say something but he choked on the words before they could even form, forced them down while his brain battled itself. But Beth just smiled, sweet and warm as she stepped forward to hug him, her arms sliding around and beneath his pack so her palms lay open over his wings. She nuzzled into his neck, the tip of her nose just grazing his raging pulse, and he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and just held on, already second guessing his second guessing. Trying to shove Merle back out of his head and keep Beth in it, Beth and the ledge and all of this...

“Daryl,” she whispered, pressing her nose in just a little bit. “I can hear you thinkin’.”

He sighed, the sound rattling out of him like one of their camp alarms. “You got no idea, girl.”

The breath of her answering laugh washed over his throat, warm, tickly. “I know it’s, like, your natural state to worry, Daryl. But don’t, okay?”

It shouldn’t surprise him anymore how well she could read him. Walking ahead of him for hours and she knew. She always fucking knew. He shifted his hand to cradle her cheek, thumb stroking across the warmest part of it as she pressed her face even deeper into his neck. “Beth.”

“Just don’t worry,” she said, lips moving against his skin.

Maybe they weren’t ready to talk about things yet. They hadn’t, not really at all. Still weren’t except they kinda were, in a way. He let her words, few as they were, seep inside him. Let them repeat on a loop in his head as Beth slipped out of his arms and gifted him with one of those soft but luminescent smiles. Told himself to listen to her, ‘cause if she told him not to worry, she meant it, and when she grabbed his face in her hands and leaned in to brush her lips across his he thought he just might manage it.

She didn’t linger. Didn’t deepen the kiss at all, just stroked his cheeks with her thumbs and smiled again as she stepped away. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her as they continued walking, first skirting the curve of the river before resuming their northward course. Couldn’t stop reaching for her whenever they stopped, that brush of knuckles she seemed to like, the press of his hand low on her back where maybe he might draw his fingertips across a strip of bare skin. Same as before, same as it had been except now that a morning of kissing lay between them it wasn’t the same at all. Christ, there was so much to think about he could barely keep track of all of it. Lines of thoughts like roads on a map, crossing and joining up, all leading back to that centre point, that gold star, that destination that was Beth.

He never did this before, been in anyway involved with a woman outside of half-hour windows—Merle’s goddamn platters and times he was just too out of it to say no. He endured those moments but never wanted them in the first place and would just as soon forget they even happened. That wasn’t Beth, none of that. Beth was a creature unto herself and she meant the fucking world to him—would, still, even if she wasn’t the only one in it anymore—and the only thing more frightening than that was the thought of getting this wrong and hurting her.  Ain’t like he had any stunning examples of this sorta thing to go by, never in his old life and not in this one, either, unless he counted Glenn and Maggie—and they were not Glenn and Maggie. 

Beth looked back over her shoulder at him as she walked, just long enough that he caught the flash of her soft smile before she faced forward again.

Naw, they weren’t Glenn and Maggie. Weren’t anyone else but them, but they were something, him and Beth. They were definitely something, all on their own, without even trying.

Maybe—maybe this was one of those things that just needed to happen. Maybe that’s what Beth meant when she told him not to worry.

So he watched her. He reached for her. He thought he might drive himself clear round the bend with how completely insane he felt, trying to figure out his head. But he knew his heart, that broken, blackened old thing beating steadily back to life to the tune of her name, picking up the rhythm of her strides as she led them through the woods. 

He’d follow her anywhere. Was pretty sure wherever she took them, it was right where he’d wanna be. 

*~*

Chapter Text

 photo FallRightIn_zpsglam605p.png

Chapter 22 – If I Had the Time, I’d Stop the World and Make You Mine

*~*

An uneventful morning—well, aside from the part of it that he couldn’t stop thinking about—led into another hot, humid afternoon. After the river bank, a bit of that weight he’d been carrying slipped away, and he and Beth slid right back into that easy, quiet way of theirs as they trekked on through the woods. All that lay between them, that wasn’t going away, no matter what his demons might tell him, no matter that it made no fucking sense that they were standing here at all. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t gonna make sense overnight, either.

The more he thought on it, the more right it felt, leaving words out of this for the time being. Was more than good enough to just feel it and know she was feeling it, too. He let it wash over him, warm with a different kind of weight to it that didn’t smother, didn’t sit heavy on his shoulders or drag at his brain, but wrapped him up like a hug from Beth, and it was possible he was treading into sappy territory with that, but whatever. 

They didn’t stop to eat, just sipped from their water bottles to keep hydrated, nibbled on a strip each of smoked venison, and helped themselves to whatever edibles they found along the way. Beth was getting better at identifying what to eat and what to avoid, though she always asked him first unless it was something she knew from before. The berries she paused to examine now weren’t edible, and she didn’t even touch them before leaving them be.

“I gotta pee,” she said, gaze drifting away from the berries to look off in the direction they were heading. “And I think I hear water up ahead a bit. Did that river make another loop around this way?”

He was inclined, right about now, to think of anything she did or said as magnificent—and when had he ever even used that word before—but the shred of rationality he had left agreed that the proximity of the river was particularly well noticed. “Mmhm.”

“Kay.” Still facing away, she nodded. “We’ll make it a one-stop shop, then. I can hold it.”

They reached the river in less than ten minutes, and Beth ducked off their path to do her thing. He kept his back to her, trusting her to stay close enough to get his attention without having to shout, since she was left particularly vulnerable whenever she had to take a piss. Last thing they needed was her getting caught with her pants literally around her ankles and him too far away to help. She went farther today than she usually did, though, going by the count of her footsteps, the distant trickle of her stream of urine, which he tried not to listen to but heard anyway. Daryl shifted his balance from foot to foot, awaiting the sound of her return, fighting the urge to turn around the longer she was away. He couldn’t hear her at all now, though he didn’t always hear much, and he clenched his hands into fists to keep from tapping them on his legs. Don’t turn. Don’t turn. Being able to see her might make him feel better, but Beth deserved that sliver of privacy, the best they could manage given the circumstances.

“You done pissin’?” he called, not turning around in case she wasn’t finished or—or whatever. 

A flurry of rustling followed, and then a quiet sigh from Beth. “Yeah, all clear. Just lost supper, though.”

Letting out a breath of relief, he turned in time to watch her shoulder her crossbow and stride back through the underbrush. As she came up beside him, Beth explained about the rabbit she spotted, which she had hoped to catch for supper before he sent it running when he called out to her. She shrugged it off with a small smile of understanding.

“It’s too bad there wasn’t a way we could let each other know what’s up without usin’ words,” she said, shoulders falling back into place.

Daryl hummed at her as she stepped past him to the river and knelt down to rinse her hands. There was a way, but the moment he thought of it he wondered whether it was wise to suggest it. She had a point, though, a damn good one, and despite the trouble she’d had—still had, most nights—after everything that went down with Gorman, Beth weren’t no delicate statue. She could handle it. 

He tore his thumb from his mouth as he crouched down beside her and hummed again, just loud enough to catch her attention. She turned her eyes toward him, eyebrows up in silent question. “You remember, at the funeral home, them bird calls?”

A visible shiver rolled across her shoulders, but she nodded, looking back down at her hands, trembling as she held them above the river, little droplets shaking off them and making little ripples in the water’s surface. “Yeah.” She paused and took a couple of deep breaths, curled her fingers in toward her palms so the tremor stopped. “You think we can make something like that for us?”

“Mmhm.” He glided his fingers down the back of her neck, the only part of her spine he could reach with her pack in the way. He wasn’t sure it would help her, but she liked that when she woke from her nightmares so maybe she’d like it now. Her eyes fluttered shut and she breathed out deep and steady as he made a couple of passes over her sweat-slicked skin.

When she shivered again, he was pretty sure it had little to do with thoughts of Gorman, and he felt a burst of heat rising in his cheeks to match the color rising in hers. Beth groaned softly, so quiet he barely heard it, and half turned to smile at him, her pupils wide as she opened her eyes. “Okay.”

Sunlight glinting off the water caught in the blue of her irises, brightening them up from their usual blue, changing them into something almost sparkly. Caught, for a moment, by the way she looked, all Daryl could do was stare, hand falling away from her neck to land on his knee. 

Beth reached out and covered it with hers, blinking slowly. “What do we do?”

Drawn back out of his head by the contact, Daryl turned his hand to twine their fingers together. “Gotta decide what we wanna say an’ what bird voice we wanna say it in.” 

“Maybe just two things?” Beth squeezed his hand, nodding as she spoke. “Somethin’ that means ‘all clear’ and another for ‘come-now-help’?”

“And ‘keep away’,” he said, tightening his grip even further as an imaginary fist tightened in his gut. “In case one of us runs into trouble.”

Beth didn’t need him to add any more to that, surely filling in the blanks herself on why that might be necessary. She nodded once more and held his gaze, eyes wide and serious. “Three things, then. All-clear, come-now-help, and keep-away.”

“Mmm.” Daryl brushed the back of her thumb with his and waited for the little grin to tug at her lips before he continued. “Figure it out when we stop tonight.”

“All right,” she said, the grin pulling a little more. “But you gotta find us some supper first. And I’ve got a craving for rabbit now, so…”

Her teasing rippled warmly through his chest and he chuckled, watching as her grin widened even more until all her teeth were showing. “Oh, I’ll get you your rabbit, woman, and it’ll be better than some skittish piss-break cottontail, too. Just you wait.”

This was one of those times when his own ridiculousness astounded him, but it made her laugh, so he didn’t much care. He’d stand on his head and sing the opening number for Cabaret or some musical shit if it kept her smiling like that. The last of the haunted look faded from her eyes and she leaned her head over onto his shoulder, letting out a soft sigh when he pressed his face into the top of her head. Not quite a kiss. Not quite not, either. 

Fuckin’ coward. 

She stayed there for a minute before straightening up and letting go of his hand to help herself to a drink of river water. They both had their fill, then topped up their bottles before standing. Daryl figured they must be getting close to the first of those fields, if he judged the distance correctly. Maybe within the hour if they kept moving. Beth didn’t say, and he wouldn’t volunteer anything unless she asked, but she didn’t linger long at the stream. As soon as they were on their feet she was already leading them on.

Daryl followed, admiring the set of her shoulders, the confident way she walked. Made her look tall for all she wasn’t truly tall at all. He could barely remember how it was before, that blip in time when instead of confidence she wore a cloak of doubt across those shoulders, weighing her down. Before even that, though, there’d been glimmers of this woman, eager to learn, to show that she wasn’t just some dead girl. Well, she never was and she weren’t gonna be, neither, and he’d never get enough of watching her this way.

Branches snapped from somewhere to the left of them. Far enough away that the threat wasn’t immediate and Daryl flicked his eyes toward Beth, to see if she had noticed. Not yet, but—another distant snap and Beth stopped walking, her focus now drawn toward the disturbance. 

Walkers? she mouthed, as he stepped up bedside her. 

He nodded, and waited. It took her a second to understand his lack of action, but once she did she gave a quick nod and turned an ear toward the approaching clatter. Still listening, she held up her hand, alternating between showing him two and three fingers. He nodded again when she flicked her gaze up to him. Beth listened another couple of seconds before drawing her crossbow, decision made. Daryl drew his and they each ducked behind a large enough tree to wait.

Two walkers lumbered into view half a minute later, and Beth, from behind her tree, pointed to herself and then indicated the right-sided walker. Was a good assumption that she would take the right and he the left, considering that’s the way they were standing, but he liked that she had the forethought to designate targets. No point, after all, in both of them shooting the same one. 

Beth loosed her bolt a split second before his, the offset of the strings making a sound like a heartbeat as the bolts sailed toward their targets. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d usually notice except he was so focused on Beth right now, and as dumb as the thought felt on the surface there was something so fitting about him and Beth and heartbeats and crossbows.

Beth lowered her bow after following the shot through and set about cocking it again, hooking on the rope-cocker and pulling up in a practiced, fluid motion until the string clicked into place. Daryl delayed cocking his own crossbow to watch, her arms mostly in plain view since she’d stripped down to just her polo in the heat of the afternoon. All the practice in the weeks since she found the crossbow had toned her already strong arms that little bit more and she could probably get the bow cocked without the rope now if she had to. Be a strain, drawing more than she weighed, but he was sure she could do it, so sure he almost suggested she try cocking his, just to see, but Beth had already reloaded, turned a circle to check for more walkers, and was halfway to retrieving the used bolts before he thought to even move.

The smirk she wore as she trotted back toward him, both bolts in her hand, told him she had noticed.

“Now who’s distracted?” she said, her tone matching her smirk as she wiped the blood from the bolts in a patch of moss.

When she straightened up, Daryl reached out to tug at the hem of her sleeves, then let his hands slide down over the supple curves of her biceps. The muscles flexed beneath his touch, in an automatic way at first, but when he squeezed a bit, she contracted them tighter on purpose.

“Those arms of yours get any stronger and we’re gonna have to tear the sleeves off of that shirt,” he said, arcing his thumbs across the still-flexed muscles and smiling at the hint of pink spreading over her pale cheeks. “Start callin’ you Big Guns Greene.”

Beth laughed as her blush deepened, and swept her gaze over his arms in an obvious sort of way before she met his eyes again, wearing a smirking half smile. “Well, if I’m gonna start dressin’ like you, maybe you should start wearin’ your hair like mine.”

She reached up to twirl her finger into his hair, dislodging his hand in the process. “Little braid maybe, right about here.”

He snorted, gave her arm a final squeeze before releasing her. “All right, all right.”

Beth just grinned and gave his head a quick scratch—too quick, hell, she could do that all day—then stepped away to look out at their surroundings again.  “We should be getting close to the field, right?”                

“Think so.”

Without saying anything more, Beth nodded and resumed walking, once again showing that ability of hers to switch gears. Rather than just following behind her this time, though, Daryl stepped up to walk beside her. Beth glanced up at him as she slipped her hand into his, and they continued on that way, hand-in-hand for a little while, until the heat turned their palms slick with sweat. He stayed beside her when they let go, enjoying the little game of sneaking glances at her while trying not to let her notice. He failed miserably, every time, ‘cause it seemed whenever he wanted to look at her, she wanted to look at him, too, and they’d catch eyes and smile and she would laugh and they’d brush knuckles or tickle the other’s palm. His insides pulsed with a warmth that was as bright as the pink splashed across her cheeks, thick like honey, fluttery like her eyelashes, and they were both absolute idiots, but there weren’t anyone else he’d rather be an idiot with than Beth.

They reached the edge of the first field a little less than an hour later, by his estimate, stopping just inside the tree line to try to get a look at the area. The field was overgrown with tall grasses and weeds and the remnants of some sort of grain, limiting their view. Beth dropped her pack and crossbow at Daryl’s feet and scanned the woods’ edge, then scampered up a likely looking tree faster than he thought possible. He never seen her climb a tree before, but she sure must’ve done some climbing in her day. With those arms he’d been admiring, she climbed high enough in no time to see clear out over the field. After several minutes of silent surveillance, Beth climbed back down, jumping the last few feet to land in front of him. After reaching for her stuff, she looped her arm through his and led him back to the edge of the overgrown field. 

“Four fields,” she said, lifting her arm up to draw a map in the air as she continued speaking. “This one here and two more after it all in a row, and a smaller one kind of alongside the top of the third field, looks like maybe it goes on past it a ways. There’s a barn at the end and a yard beside it with more buildings and then the house behind that. Woods to the right side all the way along, but the left is pretty close to the road where that side field lies.”

Daryl gave a quick nod, picturing the layout in his head as she described it. “The plan?”

Beth spent a few minutes staring out across the field, and let out an audible breath. “I think we should stick to the woods to the right until we get up close to that barn. Then we can check for signs of people, and maybe check out the buildings if it looks okay?”

When she finished, he looked at her where she stood beside him, gazing out over the field with her lips drawn tight and her fingers in a tangle in front of her. “Whatcha worryin’ about?”

She let her breath out between pursed lips, still looking out toward the distance. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to go messin’ about the buildings now, this late in the day, or if we should just camp in the woods tonight and go in tomorrow. But then if we do that, and there’s, like, a bunch of walkers lingerin’ around, it would be worth knowin’ about that before they hear or smell us in dark. But how do we know unless we go in now, and then we’re back to plan A and I’m still not sure that’s the wisest move, either.”

That was good, her considering the possibilities like that, and he was nodding even as she sighed and turned to face him.

“What do you think?” she asked, voice dropping down to a whisper. “I-I know you want me to lead, but—”

“Hey.” Daryl tapped the toe of her boot with the toe of his. “Askin’ my opinion ain’t wrong.”

A little grin flitted onto her face. “Ain’t got Beth and Daryl against the world without the Daryl part, right?”

His words, but somehow her saying them made his already warm insides get warmer. He matched her grin with one of his own, and she leaned over against him until their shoulders met. They’d been saying that, them against the world, for a long while now, and he liked the way it sounded. Beth and Daryl. Against the world or otherwise.

Before he could think too hard on that, ‘cause he promised her he wouldn’t, and they had a job to do, Daryl cast a quick glance across the field, even though he couldn’t see much. Beth was waiting to meet his eyes when he glanced down at her there at his shoulder. “My vote’s for plan A. Scout out what we can first from the woods, ‘fore we go in.”

She nodded once, her expression shifting back into one of focus. “All right. Then we can decide whether to go in or get the hell outta there.”

Neither he nor Beth saw any overt signs of human activity in the woods alongside the fields, aside a few pre-turn remnants. Except for the usual forest sounds, everything was quiet as they approached the barn, the faded old red of it showing in bits and pieces through the trees, more of it visible the closer they came to the woods’ edge. Bordering the yard was a simple barbed wire and post fence running right up to the edge of the woods. Beth crouched down behind the screen of tall, weedy grass growing along the fence line and Daryl dropped down behind her beneath the overhanging branches.

He could see well enough over her shoulder. A barn, quite a bit smaller than the one from the Greene farm and a good few decades newer, stood about twenty feet from the tree line, separated by a swath of patchy, weedy grass that didn’t look like it ever grew well. Neither the barn, nor any of the three smaller buildings visible beyond it, showed any signs of damage, at least from this side-on view. The yard, between the structures and pens plopped at random in it, was as overgrown as he’d expect after a couple years’ neglect. Nothing much suggested, from back here at least, that anyone was still hanging around.

Beth moved back from the fence to join him in his little pocket beneath the trees. “Looks like they’d’ve had chickens and pigs. Maybe goats. That thing that looks like a miniature barn could be a goat house. Horses, probably. Maybe a couple cows but I don’t think they raised beef, just milk cows.”

This was the sort of thing he couldn’t’ve known, but of course she would. And he was certain she was well aware that none of that mattered to the task at hand, but it was so like her to see the story behind something, like she had with the walker couple back at the cabin. It maybe didn’t matter in a practical sense, what came before, but it mattered to her and that—that mattered to him.

He hummed, to let her know he was listening, turned his head to watch her instead of the farmyard, as she pointed out the corner of the house in the distance, behind the back of the barn to the right, and what looked like maybe an orchard beyond that. Their hiding place stood within the late afternoon shade thrown by the barn, but in the brighter light outside the cover of the woods Beth’s eyes shone a particularly brilliant blue as they swept across the scenery. Little wisps of hair stood out, those bits always determined to escape her ponytail no matter how many times a day she tried to contain them. Unable to stop himself, Daryl trailed a finger through the worst of them, curling golden just above her ear, and Beth turned her head toward him, the softest hint of a smile playing at her lips.

“C’mon,” she said, tipping her head to the right, her ponytail sliding off her shoulder as she did. “Let’s look at the house.”

The farmhouse stood in the middle of what would have been some quality lawn, once upon a time, deep green and lush, the kind a man was tempted to run through barefoot. Farther away from the fence, roughly at the centre point between it and the road, the house, like the barn, remained in good repair. Less than twenty years old if he were to guess, though the orchard beside it, tidy rows on rows of mature peach trees, the scent of their fruit heavy in the air, was old enough to suggest there’d been an older house sometime before. Of that, he couldn’t see no remnants, at least not from this vantage point.

The house faced the road, which was visible now straight ahead at the end of a long gravel driveway.  Wasn’t a big house, about twice the size of his and Beth’s cabin on the main floor with an attic-like second floor above it. A covered porch wrapped around the whole of it and a big old oak tree grew right out front. Probably had a tire swing and branches just waiting for the farmer’s teenage daughter to climb out an upstairs window, off to whatever mischief rebellious farm girls got up to. Wood siding was stained a bright yellow, probably had matching flowers in them white window boxes once upon a time. Looked like it coulda been something out of a postcard when it was new, but now it was just another empty house at the end of the world.  

None of the windows were boarded up, and aside a broken railing at the near corner of the porch, the place looked pristine, just neglected. Abandoned as it stood. Grass growing tall and undisturbed at least to the back steps which faced them, flower beds overgrown with weeds, white paint peeling from open shutters, and a couple years’ worth of oak leaves scattered about everywhere, gathered in the corners where the wind tossed them in but couldn’t reach to blow them away. 

Beside him, Beth smiled fondly as she eyed the house, but if the place tugged at any memories, she didn’t let on. Daryl let his eyes linger on her in profile, all of her splashed gold with the sun out here away from the barn’s shadow. Her gaze roamed over the yard in front of them and for a long time she just looked, unmoving except for her fingers slowly stroking the little braid in her hair. When she did turn, she wore that same soft smile he couldn’t help but return. 

“What do you think?”

Don’t you think that’s beautiful?

Daryl shook the thought away, but didn’t turn from her. “Looks all right from here.”

“Should we go in?” she asked, but by the sharp edges to her gaze, he knew she was already anticipating his reply.

“Your call, Beth.”

She studied his face, those sharp eyes flicking over his features as though she were searching for answers, for an insight into what he was thinking. Truth of it was, there was no right answer, just a choice. If he were calling the shots he’d have gone for it, but this was Beth’s journey, and he might be standing at her side through it but he wasn’t gonna take it from her.

Beth took in a breath and held it a beat before letting it out, and with it the tension across her shoulders. Only the slight downturn of her mouth betrayed her uncertainty, but when she spoke, none of it showed in her voice. “We go in.  Approach the house from the orchard side, out of view of those big windows...”

She detailed her plan, which she must have been working on even as she examined the yard. He had done the same, and noted with a beat of pride that she picked the same angle of approach as he. Times past he mighta strode right up to the door, front or back, knocked for walkers without really considering finding people. Like Beth, though, he couldn’t let what happened at the funeral home count for nothing. He wasn’t gonna waltz into another trap, not if he could help it. 

The abandoned feel of the place didn’t change up close, and a peek around the front showed the same long, undisturbed grass as out back. Doors were unlocked and when Beth knocked, nothing knocked back. They cleared the house quick, both the main floor and the two small bedrooms upstairs. 

“Looks like they left before it got bad,” Beth said, waving her arm toward the mantle above the fireplace, full of picture frames but all of them empty. “I wonder if they made it.”

He rolled his shoulders, not having an answer but sensing she wasn’t really after one. With the house clear, and possibly useful items filed away in their heads to examine later, Beth shut the door behind them and led him on to phase two.

The barn and the other three buildings in the fenced off yard—a chicken coup, pig sty, and that goat house—were similarly empty of bodies, living or dead, and just as abandoned. Same went for the workshop which sat halfway between the house and the barn, but right up against the edge of that side field, which up close looked more like an overgrown garden. Beth wondered whether the family had taken their animals or just let them go before they fled. Except for a single pile of what might’ve been chicken bones, and horse shit so ancient it didn’t even stink, no physical signs of the animals remained. 

Once the buildings were clear, they explored the yard a bit more freely. Whatever vehicles might have once parked here were gone, taken by the farmers when they left or long since nabbed by someone else. Much of the contents of the workshop seemed undisturbed, though the whole inside was a clusterfuck of tools and scraps and junky shit they didn’t have time to sort through. 

No gasoline, though, especially disappointing when Beth discovered the ATV with the key still in it and its tank completely empty. Their only other option was the ancient tractor, and even he couldn’t keep a straight face long enough to suggest using it. 

“Well,” she said, patting the rusted side of the old John Deere. “At least we got shelter tonight, and there’s probably somethin’ we can use in the house. I think I wanna stay in the barn, though.”

Sounded good to him. Closer to the woods if they needed to make a quick getaway, a ladder they could pull up after them into the loft above, no way for anyone to see them once they secured themselves inside.

Beth led them back over to the house, skirting alongside the shed and angling over toward the centre of the yard through the knee-high grass. Even if they couldn’t take them along, she thought there might at least be some blankets they could use for the night. She just finished suggesting that when she spun around with a little gasp, face lit up like she just remembered something good. 

“Peaches, Daryl! Remember the can—”

A loud crack rang out, cutting off Beth’s words, echoing around so loud he started to duck out of instinct. Gunshot, his brain shouted, as he frantically searched the yard for the source of the shot, but a second crack followed, and Beth screamed.

A blur of yellow and she was gone, before he could move, before he could even think about catching her. Down, falling, landing with a distant thud and what the hell—?

Daryl dropped to the ground at the edge of the gaping hole, dark and deep where moments ago there’d been nothing but tall, dead grass. Beth lay at the bottom, curled in a ball in a pile of rotten wood and brown grass and big clots of dirt.

No, no. Don’t let her be—

“Beth! Fuck, Beth! Tell me you ain’t hurt.”

A pained little groan floated up from below, and his heart gave a giant thump and started beating again, abusing the insides of his ribs with the force of its pounding. Slowly, she uncurled, dug herself out of the debris and pushed herself up. She shook her head but didn’t look up, gasping like she’d had the wind knocked out of her. But she was up, conscious and moving and shit, his heart was pounding so hard he was bordering on lightheaded.

Stop. 

Work on getting Beth out, then worry about his own hide. They had the rope they’d used to hang the doe in her pack, enough length for him to haul her out. Looking down now, while she worked at breathing, he saw the cracked old concrete block walls around the pit she’d fallen into. Part of the original house, probably some forgotten cellar with the way it was covered over without having been filled in. She could brace her feet on the wall and climb while he pulled, soon as she caught her breath.  

“Talk to me, girl.”

“I-I’m okay. Just—winded,” she said, words a bit clipped. “Lemme get—the rope.”

While she rearranged her gear to search for the rope, Daryl looked up from the hole, checking the light, breathing slow to get his heart to stop racing. Beth was fine, just had to get her outta there. They had more than enough time to search the house before the sun went down, and plenty of time after that before it got dark. Provided she wasn’t telling stories about not being hurt, they could pick some peaches and then set some snares up in the woods beside the barn, catch her that rabbit she wanted.

A flash of motion drew his eyes from the sun’s position in the sky over toward the house, ahead and to their right. The house, its yellow paint turned golden in the evening light. The big old oak tree, waving lazy in the breeze, tire swing swaying back and forth. And the walkers, a dozen of them staggering through the yard, a dozen more still weaving through the orchard trees, heading right for them.

“Beth,” he said, voice grave and calm despite the panic rising in his belly. “Need that rope now. We got company.”

*~*

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 23 – You’re a Bonfire and I’m Gathered ‘Round You

 *~*

Beth,” he said, voice grave and calm despite the panic rising in his belly. “Need that rope now. We got company.”

From the pit below, Beth groaned. “Shit.” 

The sounds of rummaging got louder, and Daryl glanced down just quick enough to see her pulling the rope out of her pack before turning his focus back to the approaching walkers. The leaders were edging toward the border between the cultivated grass and this rougher stuff, moving with purpose, their hungry growls growing more intense by the second. They’d spotted him now. Smelled them both, likely. 

“Beth...”

“I got—” She coughed, then sucked in a slightly wheezy breath. “Got it. How—”

“Like that harness you made. Get it under your arms,” he said, with another quick glance down. The walkers were moving quick now, closing the gap faster than that lumbering run should’ve allowed. “Toss me the end. Hurry, Beth.”

He had enough time to take out the closest one with a shot from his crossbow before Beth got the rope up to him and he threw the bow back over his shoulder. There was nothing to brace on, nothing near enough use for leverage, so he tied the rope around his hips and hoped to hell this worked. 

“C’mon, Beth!” he called, not bothering to lower his voice. They were already coming and yelling or not yelling wasn’t gonna make no difference. “Get your feet up on the walls. Gonna pull you up.”

Beth grunted from below and gave the rope a sharp tug. “Go!” 

The rope went taut, digging into him through his jeans, the weight at the end threatening to draw him down, but he dug his toes into the dead grass, into the crumbly dirt beneath it. Pulled against the bite of the rope, moving forward one heavy step at a time while behind him, the growls of the dead grew closer. 

He couldn’t afford to look back. “Beth! Climb, girl, come on!

Beth tugged hard on her end of the rope, near growling as she called up to him. “Almost! 

Daryl surged on, sinking his teeth into his lip when the rope jerked tighter. Amidst the walkers’ agitated growls, Beth let out a loud grunt of exertion, cracking toward the end into something more resembling a scream. Then the rope went slack, throwing him forward without warning, sending him face first into the ground. Before the pain could register he flipped over, dragged his body out of the rope, Beth a yellow blur in the foreground. Had to get up, had to get to her before they did. Get her into that barn, get that thick door between her and them and make damn sure she was okay.

“Beth!”

She’d gotten up as far as her knees, crossbow raised, rope still tied around her waist. Her bolt ripped through the skull of the closest walker and imbedded into the one behind it. Daryl reached her just as the pair of them fell, the leader crumpling sideways into the path of another still scrambling on. Both of them tumbled into the hole in the ground, landing with a pair of wet thumps, and Beth reached for him as he reached for her and between the two of them they got her up and free of the rope. With no time to reload, Beth swung her crossbow at the next rotting body trying grab at her, knocking it off balance before kicking it snarling toward the opening.

Daryl knifed another through the forehead and shoved it into the pair behind it, then grabbed Beth by the arm and hauled her back away from the edge. “C’mon!”

He tugged her toward the barn but Beth pulled free of his hold, shaking her head. “This way!” she shouted, shouldering her crossbow and tearing off across the yard before he could get a word in.

Running, not for the barn behind them, but straight into next wave of walkers waiting for them in the lush green grass.

Fuck. “Beth!”

But she was already gone, running headlong into trouble. All Daryl could do was run after her, catching up as she skirted a tight circle—too fucking tight—around the advancing horde, limping just enough that he noticed on that same ankle, but hardly slowed for it as she raced across the yard, angling toward the house. Only thing louder than his heart in his ears as he ran after her were the excited groans of the walkers, changing course to follow them, about to box them the fuck in between the house and safety, and what the hell was she thinking.  It was only ‘cause he hadn’t caught her yet that he wasn’t hauling her crazy ass back to the barn. 

Two walkers lumbered up close and Beth, her knife already clutched in her hand, took one of ‘em down with a well-aimed strike through the eye. The other grabbed at her, fingers like claws catching hold of her sleeve but she wrenched away and Daryl kicked out its knees, knocking it down. Before he could move, Beth slammed her boot onto its skull, flattening it with a sickening squelch of rotten bone and liquefying brains, and took off again. Daryl groaned and kept running, swiping his arm across his forehead as the sweat dripped into his eyes.

“Beth!”

Her ponytail whipped around as she spared him a quick glance over her shoulder. “The tree, Daryl!”

The tree. The big old oak standing up against the house. The house, with its wrap-around covered porch, three hundred and sixty degrees of high ground, second floor windows, and at least five ways out.

Well, shit.

Beth reached the tree seconds before he did, jumping up to catch the lowest branch. Daryl got his hands on her hips and shoved her onto it, climbing after her as she scampered up the branches like some sorta long legged monkey. A walker grabbed at his boots but he kicked its hands away and followed. Beth landed on the porch roof just as he reached the branch leading to it, had her crossbow off her shoulder and reloaded by the time he hit the shingles beside her. The straggling walkers were already gathering at the base of the tree and not much further out, the rest of them were closing in fast.

Beth got off her first shot as Daryl swung his crossbow off his shoulder and cocked it, swiped at the sweat dripping into his eyes again. He loaded a bolt took aim at one of the ones growling up from below, bolt striking the ugly asshole straight through the forehead.

“You okay?” Beth called, from somewhere just behind him. Her bolt sailed past his ear, out into the yard to take down one of the outliers.

He didn’t turn to look at her, just cocked his crossbow with a grunt and sighted on his next target. “Peachy. Keep shootin’!”

One by one, he and Beth thinned the group, emptying their quivers of bolts until less than ten of them remained. In his pack were the bolts they’d made at the cabin, the ones they tried to keep for hunting but there weren’t no other choice now, and Beth was already tugging at the pack to get them.

Four, five, half a dozen more, and the wheezy snarls of the dead fell silent. He waited, listening. Felt Beth hovering at his back doing the same thing. Distant growls came from the hole across the yard but nothing else made any noise aside from his and Beth’s heavy breaths and the rustle of oak leaves high up in the tree. Daryl slumped back against the wall of the house, heart still pounding, legs gone rubbery now that the threat was done and they’d made it out mostly unscathed.

Mostly. She’d taken a pretty hard fall and Daryl knew how adrenaline could mask an injury. Beth sunk down beside him just as he turned toward her, eyes raking her form for anything amiss. “You sure you ain’t hurt?”

Beth shook her head. “I’m alright, but—”

“Your ankle—”

“Daryl.” Just his name, in that firm, don’t-mess-with-Beth-Greene tone of voice. She leaned up on her knees and reached around behind her to pull his red rag out of her back pocket. “Daryl, it’s fine. I’m fine. You’re the one who’s bleedin’.”

“I—what—?” Just before she pressed the rag to his forehead, he caught a glimpse of his arm, a mess of blood instead of the sweat he thought he’d been wiping at. A stinging pain erupted in his forehead, somewhere above his left eye, and his mind flashed with the memory of landing face first in the grass. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh ,” she said, with a little laugh, letting go of the rag once he got a hand on it. “Like a stuck pig.”

Daryl peered out at Beth where she leaned against the side of the house wearing this adorable little smirk, all sweaty and flushed, hair an even bigger mess than usual. God, she was gorgeous like this, and he’d forgotten it with everything that had happened since but he remembered it now, Beth standing there in the moonlight, a pile of walkers on the ground around her. Holding her own and proud of herself for it, and he’d wanted to hug her even then. Wanted to do a lot more than that now but he settled for laughing with her as she giggled softly at him, at the bloody mess he must be with this forehead wound, no matter how minor.

“You’re fucking insane, woman, you know that, right?” he said, as the laughter filled his chest with warm relief.

“Maybe,” she said, with a shrug, her smile fading just a little. “Don’t think your plan was any better, though.”

Something about that coiled tight in his gut, pressed cool against the warmth from a minute ago, but before he could think too hard about why, Beth pulled out her knife and slid across the roof toward the window.

“Let’s go inside and get you fixed up.”

A little wood shim stuck out from the window, just enough to notice it from close up, and it left a gap just big enough for Beth to get her slender fingers in and push the unlatched window open. He’d imagined the farm girl climbing out of it before and now he followed after Beth climbing in.

Beth stood for a moment in the middle of the room, with its slanted walls following the lines of the rafters, looking around at the delicate white furniture and all manner of girly things strewn about the small space. He’d never seen her bedroom on the farm, never much thought about it ‘til now, but it would’ve been like this, he imagined. Soft. White. Feminine in this same simple way. She’d been that farm girl, once. Still was in some ways, and those were the parts of her he hoped she never lost hold of. But the picture she made now, the woman he knew her to be didn’t quite fit the image in his head, stood out stark against the backdrop of her past, and he didn’t know whether he ought to be sad about that or proud of her for it.

Beth didn’t speak, once she finished looking around, just caught Daryl’s eyes before she moved on to the narrow hallway leading to the second bedroom, and the steep staircase down to the main floor below. The farmhouse only had one bathroom, and that’s where she led him after they descended the creaking staircase. The little frosted window faced the sun, this time of day, lighting the room in a muted orange glow.

“Musta hit it on a rock, or somethin’,” Daryl said, watching Beth out of one eye as she wetted a ratty old towel with water from her bottle.

“I’ll stitch it if I gotta,” she said, nodding toward the toilet to indicate he should sit. He dropped his pack and crossbow to the floor and did as he was bid. “Kay, lemme see.”

A fresh warm trickle oozed toward his eyebrow when he peeled the rag away, and he shut his eyes as Beth swiped the towel over the area, more gentle than she needed to be, her other hand holding the back of his head as she worked, fingers curled into his hair. After a minute of that, she set the towel down and prodded at the wound, humming a bit under her breath. 

“I gonna live, or what, doc?” he asked, reaching blindly for where he thought he might find her knee and closing his fingers around it when he did. 

“It’s small but it’s deep,” she said, wiping again with her towel. “Bleedin’ pretty good, too. Don’t think it’ll stop easy on its own.”

He swept his thumb along the contour of her knee, smiling when she sighed a little above him. “Best get it done, ‘fore we lose all the light.”

Beth pressed the towel to his face again and Daryl held it there. He kept his eyes shut as she set down her crossbow and moved to rummage through her pack for the first aid supplies she’d found in the cabin. He didn’t remember ever seeing her stitch someone up before, but she must’ve, helping Hershel with the injured after every scrape they’d gotten into, and helping Dr. S, too. Didn’t doubt she could handle it now, whether she’d done it before or not. He didn’t much care about scars, anyway. Not this kind.

The snick of her lighter, another cabin find, drew his focus out of his head and back to the present, and he peeked out at her from beneath the towel, watching as she passed the curved needle through the flame.

Her eyes drifted to catch his once she closed the lighter. “You ready?”

“I been stitched up by sketchier hands than yours, Greene,” he said, no word of a lie.

Beth threaded the needle without trouble, black sewing thread on a suture needle but that didn’t matter. It’d do the trick. Daryl shut his eyes as she poured the last of her water over his forehead, rinsing out the wound as best she could, though the amount of bleeding it had done likely left it pretty clean. After one last swipe with the towel, Beth got to work. Didn’t hurt much; she was quick with her needle, no hesitation just practiced stitching on a wound already numbed by swelling and time. He barely noticed the prick of the needle or the tug of the thread, and just like that, it was done.

Beth sighed loudly, and Daryl opened his eyes as she wiped her bloody fingers on the red-stained towel. Something about the way she was looking at him tightened that coil of nerves in his gut again. In this light her eyes weren’t their usual bright blue, instead more of a grey as she studied him, her lips curled oddly into not a smile, not a frown, but something all its own and he wasn’t sure what it meant, just that the sight of it there made his heartbeat stutter in his chest 

She stared at him for a long minute, the grey cast to her eyes like little storm clouds blocking out the summer sky. That minute stretched on forever to the tune of his pulse rushing in his ears, until she leaned her back against the wall and slid down until they were face to face. 

“If we’d gone to the barn, like you were tryin’ to, we’d be stuck inside right now with no light, no water, and a small herd of walkers tryin’ to get in.” She spoke in an even voice, her tone soft, but her words firm. “I get it, Daryl. I’m not mad, but you hear what I’m sayin’, right?”

He understood, all right, like a landslide of rocks sinking into the pool of his gut. His first thought, his only fucking thought, was to shove her back behind that solid barn door. Get her safe, no matter the consequences, while Beth looked for a way out, a solution, and made a plan that not only got them out of danger but gave them the advantage they needed to eliminate the threat. He should’ve seen it, but he didn’t, because his gut shouted at him to protect her and he listened. 

That was the last thing Beth needed from him, as she just let him know in that kind-hearted way of hers. Should’ve torn a strip off him like he deserved. She was just so good, too good for this bullshit world, too fucking good for someone as broken as him, and she needed him at her back, at her side, fighting with her, not for her. 

Daryl knew that, he did, but he’d lost his head in the moment and gave the reins to the rising panic. That was the kinda shit that got people killed, and he’d fallen right into it. He shoulda known better. Should’ve been better than that. The fist in his gut squeezed tighter, twisting his insides into knots, and he couldn’t look at her anymore. 

His hands, covered in his own blood, clenched into fists in his lap, and Daryl stared down at them, forehead throbbing now where she’d stitched him back together. 

One way or another it seemed Beth was always picking up the pieces of him. After the prison, after the herd, after every single trip down the wrong path in his head. And she was there now, too, right there in front of him instead of back by the wall, reaching out to take his face in her hands. Didn’t even need to coax him into looking up at her. Beth Greene was a magnet and he was as drawn to her in shame as he was every other waking moment. 

Maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe just his imagination, turning her eyes to grey before. They were blue again, her usual blue, bright and wide open, though a little wrinkle dimpled her brow above them. When she smiled, though, that subtle little one that did strange things to his insides, the fist in his belly loosened its hold just enough. Just enough that he could smile back at her. Just enough to let that fluttering of wings rise up in his chest, the flutter that was Beth’s, competing with his heart for which beat the loudest.

The little furrow in Beth’s brow smoothed out. “C’mere, you.”

She drew him to her, sliding one hand around to cradle the back of his head as he tucked his face into her neck. He wrapped his arms around her back and breathed her in, sweat and dirt and dried grass, warm and soft and alive and hell, that was close. Too fucking close, and he couldn’t shake the vision of her lying there motionless at the bottom of that hole, the walkers closing in on her. Reading his mind again, probably, Beth’s arm around his shoulders tightened, and she curled her fingers against his scalp as a little shudder rolled through her chest. 

They stayed that way long enough for the throbbing in his forehead to bloom into a full-on ache, pulsing out from the wound with increasing intensity. Beth pulled away, easing slowly back, still in the circle of his arms and just far enough away for him to see her clearly.

“Beth and Daryl, remember?” Beth said, swiping her thumbs across his cheeks.

The grin that lifted his lips came easily on the heels of her words, which curled warm and rich in his belly. “Might need you to keep reminding me.”

“Oh, I plan on it.” Beth’s smile widened, just a touch, and he swore he saw a hint of pink creeping into her cheeks to match the warmth in his as she got to her feet. “Now c’mon. Help me loot this place.”

Daryl tried to hold onto that feeling, that warmth in his belly that was all Beth’s doing, as they left the little bathroom behind to search the house. He filled a cloth shopping bag with whatever he could get his hands on, working one end of the house while Beth worked the other, and focused on that feeling. On the woman who inspired it and so many other things in this body, his blackened old heart so completely unused to feeling anything like this at all. What Beth was becoming to him—hell, what she already was—had to be protected. Held tight within the very depths of him because he knew there’d never be another soul in the world like her, for him. 

That warmth stayed, all right, a blazing furnace burning there in his belly. The pleasant ache of wanting her that never went away from the moment he first understood it for what it was. But even Beth couldn’t keep out the other things, the darker things, weighty, sitting heavy in the back of his brain. Slinking down to press at his shoulders, compress his spine. Try as he might to shake it, to hold it back from where he knew this was going, it only sunk deeper, grew heavier, as they looted the house. 

It clung to him while they made their first deposit of stuff in the barn. Lingered, dark and dirty, while they washed up in the horse tough with water from the well, and collected enough to last the night. Drove in like splinters in his fingers when he gathered firewood from the corner of the workshop that doubled as a woodshed. Throbbed, a pain between his shoulder blades, as they raided the orchard and came away with armfuls of ripe, fragrant peaches. By the time Daryl pulled shut the barn door, daylight fading rapidly around them and no time left for snaring rabbits, he had become an old man, hunched, crouching, doubled over by the weight on his back no matter that he walked as straight as ever.

Nothing special, about the barn. Rows of stalls lining the long sides. Ladder at one end to a hayloft above. It had a dirt floor, the centre of it worn smooth by years of both two and four legged traffic, mostly free of the straw covering the rest of it. He left her there, standing in the middle of the ring of candles she dragged down from the house and laid out so perfectly, grunting his no to her offer of a peach as he turned away from her.

Beth’s gaze followed him, an itch at the back of his neck, scratching little holes into the dark thing writhing there as he strode toward the corner and crouched down by the first of the horse stalls, swept away the covering of brittle old straw. The dirt below was just as hard as that in the centre, not quite as smooth but still compressed by years of use, marked here and there with the faint impression of horseshoes. To break the surface he had to use his knife, and he gouged, he stabbed, he thrust his blade into the dirt an inch at a time, let the jolt of that rattle through his arms, just to have somewhere to dig.

Beth had a garden trowel from the cabin packed with them somewhere, but he didn’t bother. Didn’t wanna bother her. Once broken, he tore into the ground with his fingers. Dirt packed under his nails like concrete as he deepened the hole, ground itself into every line, every crack, every pore. God, he was so stupid, to think he could ever do this without fucking it all up. To think he could hope to reach even a whisper of the good that Beth was. That warmth she gave him so fully, so freely, sat heavy in his belly.

He couldn’t even make it a full day without letting her down.

That day at the creek, when her ankle still hurt and she’d only just found her crossbow, he shouted at her then in a moment of panic. A moment, like today, when she proved without a shred of doubt she could take care of herself—take care of both of them—but something in him hadn’t wanted to give her the chance. The chance to show she wasn’t helpless.

“You made me feel like you thought I was,” she had said to him in the wake of his outburst, hurt and honest just like today. “I just can’t take feeling like that, not from you.”

Not from you.

But he did it again. The same fucking thing. All these thoughts about her strength, her confidence, her ability to handle just about anything, all this admiration for the survivor she made of herself, and he couldn’t even let himself trust her enough to show it.

Ya worthless sack a shit. Fuckin’ waste of a man. Shoulda made your mama swallow you down…

After calling him out in the bathroom, Beth hadn’t said another word about it. No, she just gifted him with the warmth of her forgiveness, her gentle understanding. Even now he couldn’t cast it out, tainted as it was with the knowledge that he hadn’t earned it, not even an ounce of her grace. Maybe Beth wasn’t mad but she should be.

He let her down. Tried to lead the both of them into even deeper shit because of it, and she should be fucking pissed.

A shiver rolled across his shoulders. The fire pit was deep enough, wide enough, finally. Sweat beaded his forehead, slid stinging over the cut which throbbed beneath the weight of everything else, and dropped into the dirt in microscopic mud puddles. He dug the air vent, and after that lighting the fire at the bottom was easy. Well seasoned wood from the shed, paper torn from some glitzy ladies’ magazine crumpled up as tinder. When the blaze roared, far larger than what they could risk outdoors, Daryl covered the opening with a toaster oven rack and set the stock pot from the kitchen, full of well water, on top.

Even watched pots boiled, eventually. Left long enough over a flame and anything would. Daryl stared into the water, at the tiny bubbles rising slowly to the top. He didn’t know how he was supposed to do this, how to be the kind of man Beth deserved to have at her side instead of just the one she got stuck with.

The first bubbles broke the surface, bringing with them the weight of the steam coiling out of the pot. Daryl dumped their bolts, rinsed of walker gore but not at all clean, into the now-boiling water and leaned back against the door of the stall behind him, arms draped over his bent knees, to watch it roil around the gathered shafts.

Beth didn’t see it that way, like they were stuck. He knew it, he did, and he felt anything but stuck with her, but it didn’t make a lick of sense. God knows what she even saw, when she took his measure and found something worthy when he’d only ever been wanting. She must’ve known something he didn’t, tapped into some otherworldly knowledge because he couldn’t find it, whatever she saw that made her think he could be good for her. Could be man enough for the woman she was.

Ain’t ever gonna make a man outta you. Why don’tcha just grow a pair a tits, boy, then ya’d at least be good for somethin’…

He couldn’t be both things, couldn’t reconcile what he knew with what she did but trying to deny her only twisted his guts tighter. Beth knew her own mind. Her own heart. If he was her choice—and he was, he was, because they could have carried on forever without any of this, closer, maybe, but not like they were now—then she must believe he could do it.

But how?

He let her down. And he almost lost her.

It would’ve been bad, and he shouldn’t do this, dwell on the what-ifs, shouldn’t even be heading down that crumbling road but like a landslide he couldn’t stop. Two seconds later and Beth would’ve had a horde of walkers raining down on top of her, tumbling into that pit. She was tough, Beth Greene, and so, so strong, but two seconds later and Beth would be dead. Eaten alive still dangling from that rope or lying here on the floor of the barn, fever pouring out of her in rivers of sweat and blood, begging him to put her down before she turned.

Not until he heard the crack, felt the sting of splinters in his fingers, did Daryl realize he’d all but shattered a piece of kindling.

Get yerself a pair a balls and man up. Fuckin’ bitch deserved what she got and so’ll you, boy, you don’t quit cryin’ about it like some pussy ass li’l girl…

No. No. A million times no. Daryl gripped the shards of wood tighter, trying to force away the voice, the flashes of smoke, and the bitter taste of ashes, but it stuck there, like the burn of a cigarette on tender flesh, like the bite of a belt into already flayed skin. That slippery, emphysemic drawl settled across his scalp, a bed of rusted nails hammered into his skull one by one until his whole head erupted in pain.

“Daryl.”

Appearing from nowhere at his side, Beth curled her hands around his, and he stopped breathing. Stopped doing anything but watch as she peeled his fingers away from the wood one at a time, until he dropped the remnants of the kindling onto the dirt floor.

He felt her stare but he couldn’t look at her. Tried to force the lump in his throat back down to his gut where it belonged, but he couldn’t do that, either. Couldn’t do anything but be the worthless redneck asshole he always was ‘cause he could never be anything else.

“Daryl, stop.

Beth’s hands tightened on his, imbedding the tiny splinters of wood even deeper. But the sting of it sharpened his focus, drew him out and up finally to meet her hard gaze. He’d been wrong before; the blaze of anger in her eyes, the clench of it in her jaw, slammed into him, like falling face first into a brick wall. The lump in his throat tightened. Constricted. He tasted bile. He tasted blood where his teeth clamped down on his tongue as he waited for whatever she had to unleash on him.

He deserved it.

“Look at me.” She released his hands and reached for his face, pressing her palms to his cheeks, holding firm to make sure he didn’t look away. Her breath tumbled out in a barely contained stutter and when she spoke again she did so through clenched teeth. “You’re gonna listen to me, Daryl Dixon, and you’re gonna listen good, understand?”

Not trusting his voice, Daryl nodded as best he could with her hands where they were, tried to hold that flaming gaze of hers no matter that it burned into him. Because it burned into him.

“I’m remindin’ you,” she said, in that hard-edged voice. “Whatever, whoever, is in your head right now—put it away. You got out, remember? Don’t go back. You gotta stay who you are.

She was—she—oh.  Oh. Christ, this woman. 

He meant to snort, meant to make some sort of sound of derision to cover up everything else that wanted to burst out of him, but with the understanding of what fuelled Beth’s anger, all that fell from his lips was a wobbling sigh. His voice, when he pulled the words up past that goddamn lump in his throat, the burn in his chest, rasped out in hardly more than a whisper. “Yeah? And who’s that?”

Her anger crumbled. Shattered. Fell away from her body like shards of a broken mirror. It left behind shining eyes holding back tears and a tremble in her jaw she couldn’t keep in. “You’re a good man, Daryl Dixon. Maybe you don’t believe it, but don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong.”

That stricture in his throat tightened further and something shattered in him, too. An explosion, a blunderbuss of emotional wreckage like shattered mirror glass tearing through the walls of his chest. He felt deflated. Small, his face still caught there in her hands, though her hold had softened and her palms now cradled his cheeks instead of penning him in. Wasn’t the first time he wondered if she didn’t know him better than he knew himself, in some ways. A lotta ways. The two sides of this warred in his head, the part of him that knew he was no good and the part of him that believed in her.

You’re good to me, Daryl.

Christ, just this morning he thought he could be, if only she showed him how. Why—why couldn’t he get there again? He wanted to. Wanted to give Beth everything he had and everything he didn’t, but she had to show him. He couldn’t—couldn’t do it without her.

And whatcha think she’s doin’ now, asshole?

His head was too much a mess to sort this out. He couldn’t shake that voice, those memories. A small crack in the surface where so much lay buried, hidden. Locked away and just waiting to escape, to fuck him up when he let down his guard. He wished—God, he wished he could let it all fall outta his head and tumble down into the fire blazing beneath the pot of boiling water.

But then there was Beth, a little sliver of sunshine, a little bolt of lightning tearing through the shadows. Beth, who believed he was better than the shadows, better than the past which haunted him. Beth, who proved to him a thousand times over that good still existed in this world, this amazing woman who wanted him like he wanted her, not just with this physical need but a deeper ache, a deeper longing, something he didn’t know himself capable of until he felt it with her. No matter that they hadn’t talked, hadn’t put the words out into the universe. He knew it was true.

And so does she, you jackass. Fuckin’ believe her.

Light from the fire flickered against one side of Beth’s face, throwing the other half into shadow but he could still see, still feel, the tiniest of smiles as it tugged at her lips. “Just because you did something I don’t like, doesn’t mean I don’t like you.” Beth glided her thumbs slowly over his cheeks. “Stop beating yourself up about it, okay?”

“I just—” He shuddered so hard his teeth rattled and his joints ached. “Beth. Dunno if I know how.”

The little whimper she made sliced into his chest, squeezed his bruised heart until he thought it was gonna burst. He should be past this bullshit, thought he was for a long, long time, but no, no he wasn’t, and Beth— oh, God, Beth—Beth was hurting because of it. Because of some wretched old ghost trying to drag him back down to places he’d left behind a long time ago. He had to remember how to stop listening, how to put it away, before it destroyed them both.

“Yeah, you do.” Beth pulled one of her hands from his face, wiped at her tears with the back of it.

She was on her knees beside him, body half leaned over the rise of his leg and the arm slung over it so she could reach his face. Now she pushed his arm away, pressed down until the angle of his bent knees flattened out a bit and slipped right on into his lap. Daryl’s chest rose quick with a heavy breath as she settled, her legs pressing in on either side of his hips, pulling her body even closer to his than she had this morning at the ledge. 

God, was that only this morning? Felt like forever ago. 

Didn’t notice ‘til he was doing it, his palms sliding along the length of her legs, from the bend of her knees to the subtle flare of her hips. He looked up at her and Beth’s eyes flickered to catch his, all the anger gone from them. What shone there now burned him in a different way.

“You do know how,” she whispered, draping one arm over his shoulder and bringing the other hand up to slowly trace her fingers across his brow. “You burnt it down, remember? We burned it down, you and me.”

He remembered. He’d never forget, no matter how much moonshine had roared in his veins. Him and Beth standing there, rebellious, stupid, more alive than they’d been since the prison fell, facing the blazing wreckage of so much more than just their shelter for the night. Beth, herself lit like a flame from the inside out, moonshine and that fiery spirit, middle finger raised high in the night.

Shit like he had buried never went away, not by burning down no moonshine shack like a couple of drunken fools. But it helped. Letting down the walls, letting Beth in. Setting fire to that place and watching it burn to ashes. That night he found solace, for the first time in his life, in another’s awareness of where he came from.

He hummed, a little rumble he knew she heard. Christ, she was close enough she probably felt it. “I remember.”

“They’re just ghosts,” she said, pushing his hair away from his face. “I’m not gonna let them haunt you.”

He couldn’t answer her, the lump in his throat and the fluttering in his chest taking over his ability to do anything but stare up at her and wonder how in the world he ended up here, with her. With her. Didn’t matter that she couldn’t make the past go away, couldn’t just reach inside and turn the voices off, because she wanted to. Saw through his bullshit like he knew she could all along, saw him, and instead of turning away she just pulled him in closer. 

Moved closer, too, using her arm around his shoulders to shrink the space between them to almost nothing, until the warmth of her body seeped into his, driving away the chill he hadn’t known he was wearing until that moment. 

Her little smile widened as she watched his thoughts flicker across his face. “Do we gotta have another fire? ‘Cause we should probably wait ‘til morning this time before we torch the barn.”

It still hurt. That swirling dark still tried to push back against the lightness that was Beth, but the little bark of laughter burst out anyway and he felt the genuineness of it. “Beth.”

“You can’t let it get bad like this, okay?” she said, smiling still despite the seriousness of her words. “And you aren’t gonna drive me away by bein’ moody, so you best stop tryin’ to.”

“I—” Fuck. Woman really did see through his own bullshit better than he did. He sighed and let his head drop back until it made a soft thunk against the wood of the stall door. “I’m a fuckin’ idiot.”

“Daryl, you’re not.” She combed her fingers through his hair, scratching her nails across his scalp in that way she did that always left his whole head tingling and warm. He rumbled at her and her smile shifted from sweet to smirking, and she bit her lip as though she were trying to contain it. “Well, maybe a little...”

This time the laugh came easy, and the smile lingered even after it stopped. A little grin which only made hers get wider. “Quit makin’ me laugh, girl.”

Beth giggled and dragged her fingers across his scalp again. “Ooh, I guess that ain’t good for your reputation as an asshole, laughin’. I won’t tell. It’ll be our little secret.”

He didn’t answer her, just let the little smile stay where it wanted as he looked up at her face. Her big, kind eyes, and the timeless wisdom she carried in them. He was an idiot, thinking he didn’t deserve her. Didn’t matter what he thought or what some long-dead worthless piece of shit thought. All that mattered was what Beth thought.

After a long few minutes of running her fingers through his hair, Beth drew her hand back to trace the margins of the wound on his forehead. “Still hurt?”

It did, some. More a dull ache than anything, nothing he couldn’t handle. “Naw.”

“Other things hurtin’ worse?” she said, speaking like she was only guessing when they both knew she wasn’t.

“Mm.”

Her fingers trailed down his nose, then across his cheek. “You know, after my nightmares, what you do with your thumb?”

It was an easy move, to slide his hand up from her hip and under the edge of her shirt, to drag his thumb along her spine in the way she meant.

Beth’s eyes drifted shut and a shiver rolled across her shoulders and down through her back. “Mmm, yeah, just like that,” she said, in a breathy little voice. “It helps when you do that. Makes it so you’re more real than whatever’s in my head.”

“Yeah?” He knew it helped, without her saying so, but something about her reasons why settled warm in his chest, and he didn’t stop, just kept drawing his thumb up and down, feeling the bumps of her vertebrae, the amazing smoothness of her warm skin.

She shivered again and let out a little groan, and when her eyes popped back open they didn’t open all the way, instead hanging there at a dreamy sort of half-mast that propelled the warmth in his chest much further south.

“There somethin’ like that I can do for you?” she asked, still whispering, moving her own thumb across his brow again. “When what’s in your head’s more real than it should be?”

However she touched him, didn’t matter if it were fingers in his hair, her knuckles across his or her fingers twining theirs together. Her fingers on his face, her nose tucked up into his neck, her arms around his back and her hands on his wings. Or just like this, here in his lap on the floor of the barn. He never knew a touch like hers and never knew he’d want to, but oh, did he want it.

Touch me, he thought, as she shivered beneath the stroke of his thumb and moaned softly. God, just touch me.

“Maybe you can find something,” he said to her, voice gone raspy like he hadn’t spoken in years.

Beth’s thumb brushed through the hair above his lip, then passed over the scruff along his jaw. “It’s okay, me touchin’ you?”

Jesus, Beth. “Y-yeah,” he said, voice breaking with the force of the shiver that shot through him. “It’s okay, Beth.”

She nodded a little, and her breath flitted warm over his face. “I like it when you touch me, too.”

The heat that had been steadily moving downward now coiled in his belly, shooting him through with those delightful little frissons he’d only ever felt with her. He could feel himself getting hard, the warmth and the weight of the blood gradually thickening his cock, and knew it was only a matter of time before Beth felt him, too, sitting like she was. The newness of all this, that complete lack of control over his body in responding to someone the way he responded to Beth, wasn’t quite enough anymore to win out over the desire to keep her there, let her feel it. Let her feel him.

As though she was reading his mind, Beth shifted her hips a touch, just enough to press his growing erection between them. He saw the way her breath hitched, felt it against his belly, but she didn’t say or do anything else, just kept on tracing the contours of his face.

“You can tell me,” she whispered, and it took him a good couple of seconds to drag his thoughts back to what they were talking about before. “You know you can, right? If you ever want to or need to, you can tell me anything.”

Even through two layers of denim, the heat of her was immense. Not fair of her to have such a serious conversation at a moment like this but maybe he needed it, that bodily distraction, to keep the demons at bay long enough to hear her words for what they were. She did mean it, as only Beth could, and if he ever found the strength to let go he’d find it with her.

In the end, it always came back to Beth.

He couldn’t speak. Could only shut his eyes and nod and know she understood.

Beth brushed her fingers down his neck, over the ends of his collarbones, dipped down along his sternum as far as she could reach. When she spoke, Daryl felt the breath of her words more than he heard them, warm on his face and smelling of peaches. “Only thing that made it out of those ashes was you,” she whispered. “You and me.”

He didn’t even try to stop the shudder that rolled through him, almost violent in its intensity. Beth’s fingers moved back up, over his Adam’s apple to his chin, to the loose seam of his mouth. He opened his eyes and found hers waiting for him, pupils wider than the dark of the barn could account for, and when he nipped at her fingers with his lips she giggled so softly, a sound which trickled down through his belly and pulled that coiled heat even tighter.

She leaned down to touch her forehead gently to his. “Daryl.

Beth.” He flattened his hands at the small of her back, not so daring yet as to pull her to him, but it was enough to keep her there, where she was. As if he thought she would go anywhere else.

Beth tucked both hands into his hair and rocked her hips against him, a little tease of friction, and he shuddered hard just as she stilled, though he felt the tremble in her back, in her legs, and wondered at her restraint. But then she dipped her head down and caught his lips with hers, swallowing his thoughts, swallowing his groan and sending out one of her own for him to swallow in return.

Their first kiss started slow and this one did too, but there was nothing hesitant in it this time. They fell right in to hot, wet, slides of her lips on his, his on hers. To Beth tilting her head, deepening the kiss, her fingers curling into his hair as he curled his against her back. The stroke of her tongue seeking entrance, granted, welcomed, his own joining in.

Two kisses in and he was already an addict. Would never have enough. What remained of the shroud across his shoulders tore away, ripped to shreds, burnt up to nothing. Couldn’t stand a chance against Beth fucking Greene. Against the heat of her breath, the huffing sounds as she breathed raggedly through her nose, the little noise she made in the depths of her throat when he tickled the underside of her tongue with the point of his.

The tremble of her body beneath his hands intensified, and as though she couldn’t stand it any longer, Beth whimpered into his mouth and rolled her hips, rocking down against him so hard he sunk his teeth into her bottom lip as the shock of it jolted through him. He scrambled to grab hold of her to keep her from doing it again, even though—oh, fuck—it felt good, but it was too much. Too much, and Beth pulled back just enough at the desperate tug of his hands, angling her hips away as she tore her lip free of his teeth and caught his mouth again.

She trembled and whimpered and the kiss deepened even further than he ever thought a kiss could go, and Daryl held on, himself a shaking, whimpering mess, lost in her like he’d never been lost in another person before. When they broke away to breathe, sometime later, Beth again dropped her forehead onto his, fingers still tangled in his hair as she whispered his name.

“You taste like peaches,” he whispered up at her, surprising both of them with what rasped out of his mouth.

Beth giggled, that same soft little one from before, and he laughed along with her. “Got plenty more over there,” she said, pulling back to look at him, breathing hard, all flushed and smiling and fucking beautiful. “If you think you’d wanna taste like peaches, too.”

“Yeah,” he said, drawing his tongue across his bottom lip, smiling when Beth’s eyes followed its path. “Yeah, okay.”

He wasn’t ready for her to move, wasn’t ready for the heat of her to go away, wasn’t near ready to stop kissing her. But maybe it was time. For now, it was time.

Beth wasn’t going anywhere, not if she had anything to say about it, and neither was he.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 24 – Twistin’ Like a Flame in a Slow Dance, Baby

 *~*

Though she had wanted rabbit, Beth declared their feast of peaches, fresh and ripe from the orchard trees, an acceptable substitute. A small mountain of them lay on the floor between the two of them, alongside a growing number of pits, and they were so damn delicious Daryl decided he’d risk getting the shits just to keep eating them. Weren’t every day they had access to fresh fruit, after all, least of all perfectly ripe peaches right off the tree. 

On their search of the house—looting, as Beth joked—they each filled up a cloth shopping bag full of whatever caught their eyes as being potentially useful. Now they sat facing each other in the centre of her circle of tea lights, eating peaches and sorting through the spoils of scavenging. 

“Rice crackers,” said Beth, pulling the package out and placing it down beside the peaches. “All sealed and everythin’. Might not even be completely stale.”

Sorting this shit provided a bit of a distraction from the lingering heaviness in his head, though Beth drove most of it away before and did a little more each time she smiled at him from across the circle. They had the time, shut up here inside the barn, and figured they might as well make a game of showing off their prizes. Suited Daryl just fine. Too early to sleep, and besides, he liked the way Beth’s eyes widened in anticipation whenever it was his turn to show her what he found.

He reached into his bag and sure enough, Beth’s whole face lit up like this was fucking Christmas morning or something. The prize this time was a ratty Ziploc bag full of double-A batteries, which he set down in the not-food pile.  “Maybe some of ‘em ain’t dead.”

Beth’s eyes got impossibly bigger and she squeaked out a high-pitched oh before plunging her hand into the depths of her bag, searching around a moment and producing a little flashlight. “Ta-da!”

“Think you win that round,” he said, cracking a little smile at her enthusiasm, at the little pulse of joy it stirred up in him, seeing it. 

“It’s your turn.” Beth reached for the batteries like she was gonna start testing them. “What else you got?”

But Daryl shook his head and set the bag aside. “Gotta show me again, first.”

Beth placed the batteries and flashlight on the dirt next to her and rubbed her palms together. “Which one?”

“Show me all-clear.”

Beth slid her palms together again, then carefully arranged her hands the way he showed her. Taking a breath, she brought her clasped hands to her face and blew into them, but the sound was wrong and she paused to breathe a minute before trying again. On her second attempt, the whistle of her breath through her hands and the correct motion of her fingers made the tee-weet sound he taught her. A sound similar to the call of a tanager, a bird common enough to use for these bird call signals.

He nodded at her, rumbling a bit under his breath. “Again.”

Beth repeated the call, this time getting it right on the first try. She picked it up quick, like she did most things he taught her. The half hour they spent working on this earlier stuck with her.

“That was good, right?” Beth asked, her hands now clasped in her lap as she looked at him expectantly, all wide-eyed and toothy-grinned. 

Rather than answering—‘cause he couldn’t very well turn into a simpering idiot every time she did something right, at least not on the outside—Daryl brought his hands to his mouth and echoed the bird call back to her, so she could hear how they were the same.

Beth smiled in that way she did when she was pleased with herself and she caught his eyes when he dropped his hands back into his lap. He couldn’t help but smile back at her, though his stayed little where hers grew wide. Daryl knew, logically, that he wasn’t supposed to worry any more about what happened today. Beth had moved past it, said what needed saying and pulled his head out of the ground while she was at it, too. Making it up to her wasn’t about beating himself to a figurative pulp, it meant not doing it again, but he wouldn’t know if he’d learned his lesson until the next time he was tested. For now, though, he had this. Was her idea, having a way of communicating without words, and it was a damn good one. Least he could do was work on it with her. 

Beth repeated the call once more, getting it right a third time, her smile still pleased when she lowered her hands. She clasped them together in her lap again and tossed her chin toward his bag. “Okay, now show me what you have.”

Daryl reached in blind, closed his fingers around the first thing they touched, one of the many random boxes of shit he picked up. This particular one revealed itself as the tampons found tucked away in a closet in the bedroom downstairs. Figured he best grab them for Beth since he wasn’t sure when she might need them. Didn’t think she had yet—unless she was sneakier than he thought—and he hadn’t seen any at the cabin. “Uh. Here.”

He tossed her the box, which she caught without effort. As she studied the writing on it, an odd expression passed over her face, just a flash of something that was gone too soon for him to even hope to decipher it. Wasn’t sure he should even be looking at her while she was holding tampons, with the way some of the other women used to make a covert mission out of acquiring these, like the fact they bled was some sort of top secret classified information. But Beth didn’t seem to think anything of it when she tipped her head up to meet his eyes a moment later, box still in hand.

“Maybe we shoulda saved the thread and used one of these for your forehead,” she said, making what could only be described as an inserting motion with her fingers.

He thought he was gonna choke on his tongue, but Beth only laughed as she thanked him and set the box down beside her pack, then reached into her shopping bag again.

“Daddy had one of these,” she said, pulling out a thin leather object about the length of her palm. “Shawn, too. I think it’s a pretty good one.”

She passed him the thing, which was actually a little belt-loop sheath, stamped on the outside with LEATHERMAN in gold letters, snapped closed over the multi-tool hidden inside. Daryl had one of these once, an old one he took on trade for some game he caught but didn’t need, and even beat up and missing a couple of parts it was a damn useful little thing. Pliers and blades, wire cutter, screw drivers, all kinds of things that came in handy when he least expected it. This one looked brand new, shiny silver, super sharp little blades, twenty-one tools altogether when he opened it up and counted them. A decent tool, too good to be left behind at the end of the world but a damn lucky find on Beth’s part. 

“Where’d you find this?”

“It was all wrapped up, like a gift,” Beth said, with a small shrug. “Hidden in the back of a drawer in that little sewing room. I almost didn’t open it.”

That explained it being forgotten in the rush to leave. He slipped the tool into its sheath and passed it back to her. “Good thing you did. Here, put it on your belt.”

Her fingers closed around it, but she kept her hand hovering in midair. “You don’t want it?”

Daryl shook his head. “You found it, it’s yours.” 

Beth gave a little nod, then got up on her knees to unbuckle her belt and slip it through the leather sheath, attaching it at her left hip, opposite her knife. When she sat back down she looked across the circle at him, hands clasped in her lap. 

“I wanna show you another one,” she said, wiggling her fingers. “You pick.”

He wasn’t going to ask her, not until later, but her taking the initiative didn’t surprise him one bit. “Come-now-help,” he said. “Show me that one.”

She was just as careful now, in arranging her hands, as she was with the first bird call. Instead of one breath she took several, fingers moving in a scaled down version of how they would do when she blew through them. When she did attempt the call, the urgent pip-pip-pip like the shout of a startled swallow whistled out, loud and insistent and perfect.

He knew he did a terrible job of keeping the look of pride off his face, considering the way Beth’s cheeks flushed and she smiled, not in that proud-of-herself way, something a bit gentler than that. Less put-on and more like something she couldn’t help making. Since he was caught anyway, Daryl did nod at her this time before repeating the call back to her as he had done with the first.

When he lowered his hands, Beth was still looking at him across the circle. Her smile stayed gentle, and though it wasn’t the half-mast look of before, there was something still a bit dreamy, and more than a little warm, in her eyes as they gazed at him. That fluttering in his chest rose up in answer to her as he met that gaze and held it between them. He hoped she would never stop looking at him like that, like nobody ever had before.

After a long time, Beth’s smile shifted just a touch, and she dropped her gaze for a second to reach for another peach from the pile. Wiped it down with one of the hand towels she grabbed from the bathroom, and, catching his eye again, took a big bite of the ripe fruit.

Juice dribbled down her chin, and Daryl’s eyes followed the path of the glistening liquid as it trickled down her neck. She was doing that on purpose, ‘cause she eyed him over the curve of the peach before taking another bite and didn’t bother wiping it clean, just let second stream of juice join the first. A braver man might take care of that for her, and Daryl could see how that would go in his mind. Her head tossed back, eyes shut, a little delighted hum vibrating through her neck as he lapped at the stickiness, the combined taste of peach and Beth like ambrosia on his tongue. Like the sweetest nectar he ever knew, and he’d close his lips over the place where her pulse beat, fast as a bird’s, just beneath her smooth skin…

He didn’t move, but his own heartbeat quickened just thinking about it, and the warmth inside him that was all her doing, the warmth he didn’t suspect would ever really disappear, deepened, pulsed thick and shimmering through his veins.

“Uh—” He cleared his throat, cursing his inability to act and cursing her all-too-knowing smirk. Woman was a fucking tease but he couldn’t say he didn’t like it, no matter that he couldn’t work up the courage to do something about it.

Beth lowered her peach, still only partially eaten, and used it to gesture to his lap. “Whatcha got in there?”

Whatcha got in—Oh. She meant the shopping bag, all but forgotten there in the space between his crossed legs. Face flaming, Daryl grumbled something even he didn’t understand and averted his gaze to search through the bag, fully aware of Beth giggling at him from her side of the circle.

He dug through the crap he collected, most of it likely to get left behind anyway, but then his fingers closed around the little roll of Life Savers at the very bottom. Whoever used the office had a secret sweet tooth—the bottom drawer in the desk was full of empty wrappers and a single roll of these.

“Ooooh.” Beth, still nibbling at her peach, eyed the candy with interest. “You gonna share, or are they yours because you found them?”

Daryl tossed the little roll in his hand and considered how he wanted to answer that. Beth kept her eyes on him as she took dainty little bites of that goddamned peach, like she was some delicate lady at teatime or some shit. Beth Greene was a lotta things, but she weren’t no teatime lady, that’s for damn sure, no matter that she could probably act the part.

“I’ll share,” he said, after a minute of watching her take those tidy little bites, noting the peach juice still staining her face and neck, dribbling down her wrist. “So long as you’re good.”

Beth gave that little giggle again, the soft one, the one that tickled his insides and only deepened that warmth. She lifted the peach up to her mouth again and fucking slurped at the juices beading out of it. While his face did god-knows-what in response to that, Beth just flicked her eyes toward the candy in his hand and then back up to meet his.

“Daryl,” she said, eyebrows raised above those big doe-eyes, expression completely serious. “I’m always good.”

His chest gave a fluttery lurch, and what was already trending toward hard got a little harder. He groaned, and she laughed again, and before he knew it she had crawled across the circle and hovered there in front of him, the hand with the peach in it raised up between them.

“And I can share, too,” she said, before lifting the peach right up to his lips.

He had no choice—or well, he did, but there wasn’t gonna be another one made—and took the bite she offered, sinking his teeth into the juicy yellow flesh while his own skin prickled with heat, eyes locked on hers over the fuzzy curve of the fruit between them. This woman was going to be the absolute death of him.

She left him with the peach, though, sinking back across the circle with a little smile on her face, just when he thought he was going to burst into flames under that stare of hers. Like she knew—and she probably did—that he had no fucking clue how to handle any of this. But it was mercy, not pity, which pulled her back. He sensed that in the look she gave him, kind and warm and yeah, heated the same way he burned inside, but he didn’t feel mocked. Belittled ‘cause she clearly had more experience with this kind of thing than he did. He just felt warm—and turned the hell on, but pleasantly so, with those bursts of energy lighting up in his belly and spreading out along his nerves.

It felt good and that wasn’t something he’d ever had much of before her. She made him feel all sorts of things, Beth did, but above all he felt good, even if it terrified him. Even if he didn’t know how to react sometimes when she did things like this. But she wasn’t teasing to make him uncomfortable, not in that sort of sense. Whatever reaction he managed was something she wanted, and it felt fucking good, knowing that. Knowing it and feeling it and believing that if he ever got up to doing even half the things she made him think about doing, Beth would be right there waiting for him.

He finished his half of the peach, and she passed him the towel to wipe off with. The urge was there to suck his fingers clean, to follow the trickle of juice with his tongue where it ran down his wrist. And maybe he longed to see the look in her eyes if he did it, wanted to know how it might make her breath grow heavier, colour her cheeks an even deeper pink in the candlelight, but he still couldn’t bring himself to do that, either, and relegated the fantasy to the depths of his brain where the rest of them lived, now that he let himself consider them at all.

Beth let her gaze fall from his and reached for her shopping bag again. Out of it she pulled a clear plastic carton thing full of ribbon, little coils of it in different sizes and varying shades of purple and pink and sparkly. Setting the carton on her lap, she slipped out a length of a very sparkly one and twirled it around her finger, the glitter in it picking up the orange glow from the candles around them.

“I thought these might look nice in your hair, you know, when I braid it for you,” she said.

Daryl eyed the sparkling thing in her hand. “Don’t think sparkly’s my colour.”

Beth snorted and grinned very wide. “But, Daryl, you won’t know until you’ve tried.”

He was about to tell her what he thought of that idea when she darted over and got a handful of his hair before he even knew she was gonna move. She evaded his attempts to grab her around the waist by slipping behind him, dropping the ribbon in the process. The thing fluttered down into his lap as he whirled around to try to catch her, but Beth scrambled to her feet.

“Come on, Daryl,” she said, circling around behind him, just outside the ring of candles. He craned his neck to watch her, taking in the growing width of the grin on her face. “You’ll look real pretty, I promise.” 

“You tryin’ to aggravate me, girl?” he asked, knowing she’d see through the gruffness. 

She did, and her smile grew even wider. “Yep. Gonna do something about that, Mr. Dixon?

Any doubts he ever had about whether she knew what she was doing when she called him that were long gone, vanished amidst nibbled thumbs and ripe, juicy peaches, fingers in his hair that still smelled like her and a pair of kisses that went on forever. She knew, all right, and he couldn’t see what his own face was doing but he sure as hell saw hers, those wide eyes, that smirk, the suggestion of colour splashed across her cheeks. As her path brought her around to face him, Daryl set his bag to the side and got to his feet, not taking his eyes off her. In the midst of all that, Beth shifted her balance, loosened her stance.

Getting ready to run.

They hadn’t practiced this in a few days, and they wouldn’t always have an empty barn to work with. He owed it to her, anyway.

“Safe in here,” Beth said, reading his mind yet again. 

“You sure about that?” he asked, and charged. 

She managed to make it almost half way around the floor before he caught her, pulling her back against his chest with his arms tight around her middle, locking hers to her sides. Beth struggled and pulled and stomped her foot down on the toe of his boot, not too lightly either, but he held on this time. They made a game of it before but he was all too aware of how he let her down today, and the resurgence of this game of theirs cemented it further in his head.

Just like he couldn’t lock her in a barn and deal with the fallout later, he knew first hand that even standing just feet away didn’t mean he could get her out of a tight spot. If she hadn’t had that gun, hadn’t fought through the fear with enough clarity to do what she did, who knows what might have happened to her. He couldn’t protect her from the Gormans of the world, not like that. She said it herself, back at the cabin.

I’d have to like, hurt you, hurt you, wouldn’t I, if I wanted to get away for real?

Fun as it might be chasing her around, it wasn’t doing her any favours. Wasn’t helping her know what to do to protect herself

Not too much longer and Beth got the hint and stopped struggling. She sagged back against him, breathing hard, the rise and fall of her chest straining against the bands of his arms. Daryl loosened his hold and as she had the last time they did this, Beth leaned her head back against his shoulder and tipped her face into his neck so her breath poured hot over his throat. And then he wasn’t so much holding onto her anymore as he was just holding her, his big arms around her small middle, hers coming to rest on top.

Despite the spread of warmth in his chest and the erection that he was pretty sure she could feel against her ass, Daryl pressed on to the point of this. “You get in a scrap for real, it ain’t gonna be wiggling or stompin’ on toes gets you out of it. Gotta fight fuckin’ dirty.” 

“Okay,” Beth said, voice still a little breathless. She straightened up and turned to face him, still in the circle of his arms and standing so, so close with her palms to his chest. “Show me?”

His gaze slipped from her wide-open eyes, past the flush of her cheeks, still sticky with peach juice, to her lips, parted a bit with the weight of her breathing. Each breath out swirled right into his brain, fogging up his head until the world felt like it was titling to the side. God, he wanted to just pull her in, slide a hand from her back up into her hair and kiss her ‘til her knees got weak, ‘til they fell together to the dirt and kept on kissing. She wouldn’t push him away, he knew that now, standing here with her in the semi-dark of the barn, the flat of her stomach pushed up against his, hands at her back itching to pull her even closer.

But she asked him to show her, and maybe he wanted to kiss her, maybe he wanted a lot more than that, but wanting and doing something about it were two different things. Stepping away from her was like tearing off a layer of skin, but with a little space between them the fog lifted just enough for him to grab a sliver of focus. Beth took a couple of steadying breaths and bobbed her head, like she were trying to clear hers, too. 

He weren’t no self-defence teacher. Never learned martial arts or nothing like that. Daryl could fight ‘cause he had to, growing up as he did, and later on trailing around after Merle and his ‘associates’ and all the shit that went along with it. What worked for him maybe wouldn’t work for Beth, she’d have to use her own body however it made sense to her to use it, but he could tell her what he knew from living it. Figure it out with her how that looked for her.

As he explained that to her, Beth was nodding. “Shawn showed me how to throw a punch, once. Thought I should know how to hit since I was so little. He said I should throw my weight into it, that no matter how small I was, if I threw my weight into it I could make it hurt.” She giggled a little, eyes tipping up toward the ceiling as she remembered back. “Had me practice on a side of pork until he thought I had it right, then made me hit him. I gave him a black eye and I cried.”

Daryl had to smile at the picture that scenario planted in his head, tiny little Beth Greene walloping her big brother so hard it brought her to tears. That was just so Beth, and even though he didn’t think punching was what they needed to work on, he couldn’t stop his little bark of laughter.

“If you’re far enough away to throw a punch, might as well just run for it,” Daryl said, after a minute, and this, too, had her nodding her head in agreement. “Your brother had a point, though. You’re small but you ain’t weak. You’re gonna hit, hit with all you got.”

“Throw my weight into it.” Beth bobbed her head again. “And fight dirty.”

“That’s right.” Daryl took a half step toward her again, just close enough to set his hands on her shoulders. “Can’t be afraid to hurt ‘em, Beth. Whatever you can do to them, they’re gonna do worse if you don’t.”

“Like walkers,” Beth said, still nodding. “I don’t kill a walker, it’s gonna kill me. Somebody’s got me, if I don’t hurt them enough to get away, they’re gonna hurt me more. That make sense?”

Daryl tightened his grip on her shoulders just a little. “No, that’s good, Beth. Like walkers. Like Gorman.

She swallowed at the mention of that name, but nodded. “And if I don’t have a gun or a knife?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? Daryl wasn’t totally sure how to go about answering it. “Guess it depends on what’s goin’ on. What you can hit. How much movement you got.”

Beth’s gaze drifted off somewhere up and into the distance, thinking. After a moment, her eyes flicked back to catch his. “I think maybe it might be too much, tryin’ to think up every scenario, don’t you? Like, isn’t it better to know that kicking you in the balls is gonna hurt, no matter how I manage it?”

That’s it, Daryl thought. That made sense. Beth had already shown herself to have a clear head under pressure, the wherewithal to act where others might freeze up. She didn’t need everything spelled out for her, not if she already had the tools at her disposal. 

“Right,” he said, hands dropping from her shoulders. “Nose, eyes, neck, solar plexus, groin, knees, ankles.” He gestured to each point in turn. “Hand-to-hand, those are what’s gonna hurt the most. What you’re gonna do the most damage to. And you gotta mean it, Beth. Make your first hit count.”

“So…” Beth slipped her wrist into his hand, and bent her arm up like she was trying to pull away. “Like this, I have a good shot at your knee.” She mimicked a kick, the sort she’d used with success many times on walkers, meant to strike the joint from the side, forcing it to bend in a way it didn’t naturally bend. “And if you’ve got me too close for that—” She stepped in closer, until her captured arm was pinned between them. “I can hit you in the nose.”

Daryl, still holding her trapped wrist, reached out for the other. “Like this,” he said, guiding her until the heel of her hand pushed up beneath his nose. “You hit me like this, all your weight behind it, hurts like a motherfucker. Probably breaks my nose.”

“And you let me go. Hopefully.” Beth practiced that again in slow motion, first leaning back like she was fighting his hold on her before throwing her body around and forward to make her strike. “And say if you catch my arm before I can hit you or you already have both, I’m close enough now to give you a knee to the junk.”

She mimicked this, too, not just bringing up her knee but swinging through her hips to show that she was throwing her weight into it.

Daryl flinched back out of reflex, even though she stopped well before she made contact. “You do that, girl, and you better get me hard enough that it ain’t you I’m reachin’ for.”

Wasn’t until Beth let out a little giggle, grinning and looking down at her feet, did Daryl realize how he said that and just what it implied. His whole face went hot, and he let go of her wrists and tore his gaze from hers. Maybe now might be a good time for the barn floor to open up and swallow him. Of course it didn’t, and yeah, all right, that particular cat was out of the bag as far as her knowing she had that kind of effect on him. If she had got her knee up she’d have found out he was still half-hard from earlier. Even thinking about it now diverted a bit more of his blood that way, knowing she felt him before, and remembering how she rocked against him while they kissed. So she knew, she knew and she didn’t so much mind, but saying it out loud, even by accident, was too much for his nerves. Just too much, period. 

Beth cleared her throat, softly, and before he could stop himself he was already looking up at her, at the flush colouring her neck and her cheeks, visible even in this muted light. Something flashed across her face and vanished just as quickly, but in the wake of it she tilted her head and looked at him. For the first time—because throughout all of this, Beth always seemed so confident—Daryl wondered whether this whole thing between them, him and her and the precipice they were falling over, was just as massive, just as terrifying to her as it was to him.

“Come on,” she said, after a long minute of the two of them just staring. “Let’s keep going.”

Taking a deep breath, willing his blood to flow properly no matter that he was soon going to lose that battle completely, Daryl nodded and took hold of her wrists again, trying and failing to keep his fingers from trembling. 

They spent a long time working through different ways she could hit and get out of various holds, ways he was confident would work for her, using her elbows, her knees, the heel of her hand and even her fists, in some instances. She figured out how to launch herself into a head-butt, even against someone as tall as him when he had her from behind, but that only worked when he was holding her around the hips or by her wrists behind her back. They practiced with choke holds, how to get out of them and how to keep from getting strangled if she couldn’t, ‘cause that’s something he did know.

Sweat now coated both their brows and stained their shirts, and Beth’s face looked about as flushed as his felt. As the time wore on they both brought a little more into it, his holds tighter, more difficult to break, her blows a little stronger, her motions a little faster even though she wasn’t trying to hurt him. It was physical work and they were both feeling it, and he knew they’d both be sore tomorrow.

He had her hands pinned behind her back this time, and when she made to get her knee up he got his into her belly instead.

Beth grunted and tried again to lift her knee, but he leaned into her, over her a bit more, bending her spine enough that she couldn’t without falling over. “Bastard.”

“C’mon,” he said, gritting his teeth as she pushed back, resisting the not-too-gentle pressure he was putting on her. “How you gonna get out of this, Greene?”

Beth tugged, trying to free her hands, but he had them pinned good against her back and if she tugged any harder, she was liable to topple over. “I’m. Trying,” she growled, tugging again.

Daryl tightened his grip on her wrists just a little more, and goaded her again. “You ain’t getting away this time, little girl.”

Beth stopped tugging and went still. She clenched her jaw as she started up at him, narrowing her blazing eyes until the look in them sent a chill across his scalp. “I am not a little girl.”

She surged forward, lunging so hard he barely kept hold of her wrists, and sunk her teeth into his neck. 

Instead of pain, though, what rocketed through him was a jolt of heat, straight from his neck to his cock, and the sound ripping out of him in response burned his throat from the force of it. Beth tugged at the mouthful of flesh and muscle, biting down enough that he felt the sting of it, ‘cause she was going for the jugular, wasn’t she, except he didn’t wanna play that game anymore. His heart pounded and his blood rushed south, and Daryl whirled them around, letting go her wrists to grab her by the hips. Before he knew it he had her backed up against a post between two of the stalls.

When her back hit she let him go, but instead of pulling away she got an arm around his neck and leaned in, swept her tongue over the sting left behind by her teeth and bit him again, scraping instead of biting down hard. He shuddered, the tremor starting in his shoulders and spreading out everywhere, and Beth nibbled down toward his collar bone with that same scraping bite and he thought he might burst into flames.

Jesus, Beth,” he whispered, a familiar refrain except refraining was the last thing he wanted to do—last thing he wanted her to do, as he stood there all but frozen while she drove him crazy.

Daryl,” she breathed, the buzz of her voice vibrating right into his skin, right into his bones. She hooked her fingers through is belt loop and tugged him closer as she nibbled up under his ear, toward the hinge of his jaw.

When he groaned, she pulled back to look at him, her eyes wide in her flushed face, tongue sweeping down over her spit-shined lower lip.  Both of them breathing hard. Daryl watched her throat move as she swallowed, heard the sound it made loud as the hammer of a gun in his ears. This time when she lunged, it was his lips she caught, hauling him down to her with the arm around his neck even as he pressed her back into the post. 

Not for the first time, Daryl thought this woman was built of pure fire. Sunshine. Lava, burning molten in his veins, smouldering with heat unlike anything he’d ever known until he burst into flames. Spontaneous combustion right there on the dirt floor of some old barn. Not a blaze of glory, a blaze of Greene

If he was gonna die by fire, well, might as well be hers. 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 25 – I Will Share Your Road

*~*

Daryl kissed like a man starved. No finesse, just hunger. Passion so raw and desperate the rest didn’t matter. Something inside her reached for it with eager arms. Pulled it in, wrapped up in it until she couldn’t tell where her own need for it ended and where his began. Nobody had ever kissed her like this, as though his life, his every breath depended on it. He was starved, for her, for them and all that lay between them. For the fire just beginning to blaze now that they’d finally ignited those smouldering embers. 

That same fierce longing surged up along her spine, burst out like lightning through every nerve in her body and she shook with the force of it. Daryl shook, too, tremors like waves through his arms, his thighs, every part of him that touched her, and in her mind she pictured a dam across a raging river, its concrete face shot through with cracks, bits of it tumbling loose, just barely holding up under the pressure from within.

Beth never knew a need like this before. Not just the kissing. Not even just for what she felt brushing against her belly whenever he couldn’t stop himself from pressing into her. And he was trying, trying to stop but he couldn’t, not entirely, and oh, she ached for that, too, a delicious wet ache that had her clenching her vaginal walls around nothing, last night’s dream still vivid in her memory. A pulse of heat burst in her belly as images from the dream became something else altogether.

A vision, of following Daryl up the ladder into the hayloft. Of them tearing off each other’s clothes before she pushed him onto his back in a pile of hay and sunk down on his cock. The look he’d have on his face as he stretched her, filled her up. The sound of his moans, the breathless way he’d whisper her name as she rode him, until they collapsed, sweaty and spent in each other’s arms. Or maybe right here, up against the post, her jeans dangling from one leg as he pounded into her, slamming her back against the wood until she saw stars and cried out his name, Daryl muffling his own groans into her neck while he shuddered deep and hard inside her. She’d have splinters in her ass but they’d be worth it, and she clenched again, tight enough to feel a ghost of the pleasure she craved, and whimpered into his mouth just thinking about it. 

There’d been another thought, a moment ago, but she lost the trail of it amidst the images, the fantasies. Whatever it was flitted away like an elusive rabbit, and maybe she’d catch it, but—but there was Daryl. God, so much Daryl. He was everywhere, a giant wall of arms and chest and hot, peach-scented breath, surrounding her like the ramparts of a castle. Nothing could touch her here, nothing and nobody except him. Her belly quivered, melted, under the slide of his lips on hers, the scratch of his beard, that thing he did with his tongue that made her toes curl and pulled sounds out of her she didn’t recognize. Her pulse raced, pounding in her ears, surging hot through her veins, blazing in her chest, burning everywhere—burning for him. Every inch of where her body and his touched tingled with heat, with energy, with the thrum of barely dammed passion he poured out of himself and into her.

Deep groans as only he could make rumbled through his chest and the tremors of them rippled into hers, a vibration in her ribcage like an earthquake. A jackhammer. A stampede of horses. She tasted them on her lips, a buzz of heat and peaches and oh, god, Daryl. She tried to arch against him but he only pressed harder, his hands at her hips holding her back against the post. Holding him back from her but she felt him there anyway, that brush of his erection as he pushed against his own arms, so hard against the softness of her belly. He shook with it, the effort of holding back from what he clearly wanted to do. A needy whine leaked out past her throat, trickled thick and obvious between them, and she clenched empty around that ache, that desire, to know the press of his cock against her stomach, to someday find out how good he’d feel inside.

Daryl broke away, leaving her lips heavy and tingling as he dove for her neck. Beth tossed her head back, hitting the post with a thud that hurt but she didn’t care, because Daryl dragged his tongue up from her collar bone, through the still-sticky path of peach juice and sweat. Scraped his teeth where her pulse pounded and drew a moan out of her so loud it echoed around the empty barn.

He stalled, shuddered, lips still pressed into her skin, chest heaving against hers, fingers digging hard into her hips. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Beth...”

He trembled hard against her but stood frozen, like he didn’t know quite what to do with himself. Beth slid one hand up to cradle the back of his head, pressed into his hip with the fingers of the other.

“It’s okay,” she said, because it was. Because even if she didn’t completely understand what was going on in his head, he needed to know that. “You wanna stop?”

He chuckled, a heated, rumbling thing that shot straight to her clit, and it seemed to unfreeze him. His fingers flexed at her hips and he dragged the point of his nose along the same path his tongue had followed just moments ago. “No. Yes. God, woman...”

“C’mon.” Though her pulse was still racing and the thought of not carrying on with this had her trembling already in withdrawal, Beth nudged at Daryl’s knee with her own and pushed them both away from the post. Whatever the root of his indecision, right now they needed a bit of space.  “Let’s get some water.”

The pail of water they drew from the well sat over by the coals of the fire Daryl built, a faint glow now that they no longer needed it for sterilizing bolts. Beth thought he might drown himself with how deeply he drank, until he passed her the little cup after knocking back his third one. The first sip became a gulp as the cool water soothed her parched throat, and she drank two more before giving it back, excess water dripping down her chin and neck like the peach juice before it. They passed the cup between them a few more times with shaking fingers before finally sating that particular thirst, though Beth’s heart still pounded, her body still hummed, with the other. Daryl tucked the cup back into his pack, and then just stood there, shoulders slumped, chewing on his lip as he stared ahead in an absent sort of way toward the ring of candles in the centre of the barn. 

Lost in thought, again. 

“Hey.” Not wanting to give those darker places a chance to reach him, Beth brushed her knuckles across the back of his. She didn’t think he’d go back to where he went before, but still...

The touch drew a little smile, just a hint of it at the left side of his mouth, and he turned his hand to twine their fingers together. A rush of relief washed over her, lifting a weight from her shoulders, and her heart fluttered as he looked toward her, still smiling.

“Hey, Beth,” he said, in a quiet voice, warm and rich like candlelight.

A delirious giggle, small and tinkling like the song of a little bird, trickled up and out of her before she could hold it in. The matching grin stretched wide and the back of her neck tingled as a swirl of light-headedness washed over her, just potent enough that the walls of the barn wobbled around her. With flaming cheeks, Beth planted her forehead into Daryl’s chest, still giggling and she didn’t know why. Except she did, because this was Daryl—Daryl and Beth and they were kissing now, and it wasn’t so warm in here but heat licked at her skin anyway, wicking up from the arousal still pulsing deep in her belly. 

Why couldn’t she stop giggling? Her shoulders shook with it and she couldn’t keep it in, didn’t understand why. It wasn’t funny, not like that. Daryl’s arms wrapped around her and he pulled her in, his chest rumbling beneath her with his own brand of laughter. And he was warm and sweaty and hard and Daryl, and her lungs swelled up inside with that memory of the ledge, the broken porridge bowl and everything she dreamed that she and Daryl could be. Everything they were gonna be. Lord, everything they already were, and the giggle wasn’t a giggle anymore. She didn’t know what it was except she couldn’t keep it in, either, and it whimpered out past her lips into Daryl’s chest, tugging tight a little knot of terror in her gut at the sheer depth of her feelings for this beautiful man.

She wasn’t crying. She didn’t know what she was doing other than turning into a complete wreck, but Daryl pulled her closer and she burrowed in. Sighed and trembled at the brush of his fingertips across the skin at the small of her back. Murmured his name into his chest in a shaky little voice when his other hand slid into her hair from beneath her ponytail. She felt the press of his lips, his nose, his whole face into the top of her head.

“You okay?” His words rumbled through her skull, down into her chest where the trembling began and settled in like a coat of paint over a cracked wall. Turning the tables to take care of her, now that she was the one in the midst of some sort of emotional spiral beyond her control.

The sound she made in response was something like laughter, something like a sneeze, and she pushed her face even deeper into his chest. “I don’t know,” she said, hating the way it made her sound, whiny and young and stupid. But she didn’t know, because she’d never felt like this before about anyone and for some inexplicable reason, that not-so-little truth picked now to present itself.

This may have been building up for a long time, but it was only last night’s sunset, last night’s twinkle of stars which held vigil to her agonizing over whether or not Daryl felt the same. A day, just a single day. Less than, because only this morning they kissed for the first time and a trio of kisses—no, not just kisses but time spent kissing—littered the hours between then and now. God, no wonder. 

It wasn’t just a crush. This wasn’t just biology. This wasn’t anything short of everything and Beth was giggling again now, bubbly laughter spilling into Daryl’s chest because as strange as this was, as huge as this was, it was also so right.

“I’m a mess,” she whispered, slipping her arms beneath Daryl’s to wrap around his back, pull herself closer with her palms pressed to his wings.

Daryl huffed into her hair. “Makes two of us.”

Two of us.

Something about the way he said the words swept a blanket of relief across her shoulders, calming the still-prickling nerves, at last soothing the tremble that hadn’t quite gone away. She didn’t need to explain because Daryl understood. Daryl was standing right here with her—two of us—and they’d be okay. They would. Beth and Daryl against the world and everything else in it, and that meant this, too, navigating the way after taking that first giant leap off the ledge this morning.

Beth didn’t try to temper her smile when she pulled her face out of his chest, grateful that she didn’t when it only widened his. She moved back, but only far enough to see him clearly in the flickering candlelight, and the hand that had cradled the back of her head skimmed down over her shoulder until it joined the other at her back, fingertips curling into the strip of skin at the top of her jeans.

His eyes blazed, even in the shadows, a look in them that was as familiar as it was thrilling, driving out the remnants of whatever that was before. Beth’s pulse quickened all over again, heart fluttering like a rabbit’s behind her ribs. It wasn’t anything new, the same internal riot stirred up by Daryl looking at her that way, but it was different now. They hadn’t put it into words and Beth didn’t know when they would, but it was out there and they both knew it. She could still taste it—taste him—on her tongue.

As much as she wanted to give in to the urge to lean up and kiss him again and see where it took them this time, the little tremble in his fingers held her back. The quivering at the corners of his mouth despite the genuineness of his smile. On the heels of her own moment of being completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of this, it was enough to give her pause. Maybe they needed a distraction to let the heat fade a bit, clear their heads and get some rest after a long day.

“Anything else interesting in your loot bag?”

Daryl let out a long breath, dragging his gaze from her to glance over toward the middle of the barn, where their two cloth bags and the pile of peaches lay abandoned.

“Nah. Just junk.” He cleared his throat and looked back at her, not smiling now but his eyes still glittered brightly, even in the dim light. “Gettin’ late, though.”

Beth nodded. All she had left in hers were random things they couldn’t spare the room for anyway. “All right.”

Not the distraction she thought of, at first, but it would do, gathering up their stuff, packing the things to take with them and throwing what they wouldn’t into one of the cloth bags. The other Daryl stuffed into his pack for another day’s use, another house waiting to be looted. Though Beth wished she could take all the candles, they were too heavy, too bulky, so she grabbed one of a medium size to take along, blowing it out and pouring the hot wax into the dirt before she tucked it away. Another she picked to carry up into the loft with them, at least until they got settled, and a third she left where it stood after blowing out the others, burning for Daryl in the middle of the dirt floor as she made her way toward the ladder. 

While Daryl checked the barn door, Beth climbed up into the hayloft above. Earlier she brought up the bedding she grabbed from the house while Daryl gathered firewood, knowing they would spend the night up here. Before the turn, many of her neighbours who farmed used modern equipment and baled their hay in those large round bales, all wrapped up in white plastic like giant marshmallows in the fields before being stored away. Haylofts like this got repurposed for storage or just left empty. Beth thanked whoever might be listening for this particular farm and its simple square bales like the kind they’d used at home, stored up in the hayloft away from the moisture of the dirt floor below.

She sniffed a few of them and couldn’t smell any mould, then cut the baling twine with the blade on her new multi-tool and spread three bales’ worth of hay out into a corner of the loft. It was no cabin bed, but with the blankets laid out over the hay it would be so much nicer than sleeping on the ground or atop the plank floor. She was about to crawl into the makeshift bed when she heard the hiss of steam from below, as Daryl doused the remnants of his fire. And it was silly, Beth knew it, but the thought of him climbing up here and sliding into bed beside her kicked her pulse into overdrive yet again.

As though they hadn’t spent weeks already sharing a bed, the latter of them wearing far less clothing than this, but the vision she had earlier still hovered there in her mind. Still burned in her belly no matter how much she tried to suppress it.

By the time Daryl made it up the ladder, Beth had her pack and crossbow arranged beside her as she lay on her back beneath the blanket, fingers locked together across her stomach to keep them from fidgeting. Daryl’s lip twitched as he set eyes on her, a moment or two after his head appeared through the hole in the floor. He pulled up the ladder and then strode over and Beth’s heart pounded harder.

Beth looked at him, eyes travelling up the lean length of his legs to the erection pushing at the front of his jeans, on past the slim hips and narrow waist leading up to shoulders broader than any man had the right to possess. Too-long hair framed his face as he gazed down at her, features in shadow though she felt him looking, as always his gaze sparking like a campfire on her skin.

“Guess I’m takin’ first watch?” he said, voice full of gravel, though they both knew he always did.

Beth heard the smile in his words despite the gruffness, and it brought one to her face in response, but it didn’t settle the squirming in her belly. Before she could think about it, the words fell out of her mouth in a rapid-fire whisper. “Lay with me awhile? Until I fall asleep?”

The tremor began in his toes, or at least it looked that way from down here. Daryl made a little sound in the back of his throat but even then he nodded quickly. As he set down his own belongings, Beth’s heart pounded harder in her chest, enough that she was certain Daryl would see it jumping beneath her skin if he were to look. It happened every time they fell into bed together, but this time there was no question.  No waiting and wondering. Beth turned onto her side and Daryl settled in behind her, his breath shaky and warm on her neck as he tucked his face in and slipped his palm beneath her shirts to splay out, big and warm on her bare belly. Beth wiggled to close the space and Daryl pulled her back against the wall of his chest.

Fingertips resumed their familiar arcing touch across her skin, feather-light and just shy of tickling. With her jeans on he couldn’t lay his palm as low as usual, but still plenty low, considering, still more than enough to draw out those same shivers, same sighing breaths, same burst of heat as he always did when he touched her like this. Except he must know now, without a doubt, what it did to her. What he did to her and what he was doing to her now. She hadn’t been shy when she sat in his lap before and rocked against the erection straining between them, or about wanting to feel him pressed into her belly, though he’d held back. Lying here with her now he had his hips angled away as he always did, just enough that she couldn’t feel what she knew was still there. What she saw with her eyes as he stood above her.

He did want her, in the same millions of ways she wanted him. She didn’t question that, not anymore, especially not with the way he kissed her—practically made love to her with his mouth. So much had happened in such a short amount of time and it was too soon to go any further. Bodies might be aching for it but her heart needed her to wait and she suspected his did, too. Taking a bit of time to settle and figure things out together before that happened was the smart thing to do, the mature thing to do. Stopping down there at the stall wasn’t what she wanted, but she was glad they had. Daryl meant too much to her—and she was pretty sure she meant too much to him—to rush into it.

Something else nagged at her, though, something she felt maybe she could piece together if she thought on it for a while. She was too tired now, too confused by her weird moment earlier, and too hyper-aware of Daryl’s body wrapped around her to be clear-headed enough to sort through it tonight. It wasn’t just the way Daryl held back physically that had her wondering, but something else, something she sensed ran a whole lot deeper than trying to keep a few inches between them.

Beth drew little circles on the back of Daryl’s hand with her fingers, while his stroked her belly with that feather-light touch. He whispered her name into her neck, barely audible enough to hear, and afterward his mouth continued to move against her skin, forming silent words with every motion. Beth couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, could only feel it, the slide of his lips, the scratch of his beard, and the heat of his breath, but it seemed, somehow, that he was trying to give her answers to her questions when didn’t even know them himself.

Answers would come, and Beth tried to breathe deep and forget about the questions for tonight. He was here. They both were. Everything else could wait.

“Goodnight, Daryl,” she whispered, heart pounding away as it always did to the tune of his name.

And she thought she could hear, as he bid her goodnight in turn, the steady pounding of his. Could feel it, the shape of the words beating strong and steady at her back.

Beth – Beth – Beth.

Daryl – Daryl – Daryl.

*~*

Despite the whirling thoughts in her head, it didn’t take long for Beth to fall asleep. Daryl woke her a few hours later, just as her subconscious began to tread toward what likely would have become a nightmare, but well before it could get its hooks in her. The little swirl of darkness dissipated with the first stroke of Daryl’s fingers across her forehead, and Beth lay there with her head in his lap—having migrated, at some point in her sleep, to using him as a pillow instead of the actual one she snagged from the house—and indulged in his touch for a long moment before pushing herself up and out of the blankets to take over watch so Daryl could grab a few hours of sleep, too.

He didn’t bother with the pretence of using the pillow. When she sat up he slipped down under the blanket and laid his head on her thighs, turned half way onto his stomach so he could curl his arm around her waist and snuggle right in. At least, in this, he felt confident to act, and Beth couldn’t stop smiling as she combed her fingers through his hair and he rumbled contentedly. Barn cat turned lap cat, soon snoring softly beneath the glide of her fingers. 

Beth kept combing her fingers through his hair long after he fell asleep, thinking on everything that happened between them today. It really had been a whirlwind of emotions on both their parts, but for Daryl most of all. She might not be privy to his darker thoughts but she could piece it together well enough to at least have an idea of what might have plagued him. But he pulled himself out of it, put it away as best he could, came back to the barn instead of drowning in the past and that was good. And he could do this, relax and sleep, lay his head in her lap and trust her to keep them both safe. No matter what happened today.

That was something, and not something small. Beth held onto that as she replayed the day in her mind, from the kiss at the ledge at sunrise to this moment here, when Daryl burrowed his face into her jeans and mumbled something in his sleep. The man had so many layers to him she’d never figure them all out.

When he woke on his own just before dawn, like the rooster he was, Daryl turned over on his back and Beth touched his face with gentle sweeps of her fingertips like he had done for her. His eyes stayed closed and a sleepy smile pulled at his lips, tugging wider around a groan when she raked her nails across his scalp. Once again he rumbled out something to the effect of don’t stop and pushed his head deeper into her touch

They did need to get moving, though, and while Beth wanted to lean down and kiss him good morning, she decided against it. Gave the scruff on his chin a good long scratch instead before the two of them gathered up their gear and set out for the day. They breakfasted on peaches as they left the farm behind, picking their way through the woods in the grainy grey of pre-dawn. 

Walking today was much the same as the past two, though Daryl spent most of it at her side instead of trailing behind. He hadn’t changed his mind about her leading the way. That job remained hers, and he deferred to her decisions as they went along, but Beth would rather have him doing so from beside her, anyway. He kept quiet this morning, talking very little, mostly his usual soundtrack of low hums and soft grunts. But he wasn’t distant, and showed that with frequent brushes of his knuckles on hers, sometimes a palm at the small of her back or the stroke of his fingers on her neck or wherever he could find a bare strip of skin. Wasn’t shy about looking at her, either, and Beth felt his gaze like the skitter of fireflies on her skin more often than she didn’t. They didn’t have much time to get caught in those long lingering looks, mostly because they didn’t stop walking except to survey the places they came across. But whenever they made eye contact, shared that tiniest of smiles between them, it only deepened the warmth of the ember burning away in her belly for the man at her side. 

This was familiar territory by now, the way things were between them. A crackle of energy that only needed the connection of blue on blue to ignite no matter how great the physical distance. Still unnamed, but acknowledged now for what it was, for what they were to each other. Beth wasn’t sure she could put it all into words just yet, and they would have to try at some point, but she wasn’t ready to do that and neither was Daryl.

Beth didn’t know how she knew this, but that knowledge went beyond merely taking into account Daryl’s tendency toward saying few words. It did tie into the other thing, the shade of something else she didn’t quite have a word for. It wasn’t reluctance. It wasn’t resistance. The closest thing she could come to was hesitation—and even that wasn’t quite right, but it helped, having a word she could use to think about this. Daryl, or some part of Daryl, remained hesitant about them in a way she hadn’t noticed before, since they’d taken that first leap off the ledge, although Beth felt he didn’t want to be.

The day had dawned cool and stayed that way, overcast with low hanging clouds and just enough of a breeze to keep away the heat even into the afternoon. Beth’s right side ached from the bruises she couldn’t see but knew she got from falling into that hole yesterday, but it wasn’t enough to slow her down. The soreness in her muscles from working with Daryl eased as she moved, and what didn’t stretch away served as a reminder of the importance of knowing how to defend herself against somebody stronger.

Yesterday’s farm was the first of many, the outlier in a swatch of farmland nestled between the woods and the road. Eventually the woods on the other side began to give way to fields and structures, too, at least from what they could see. They didn’t stop to search these places, not while they still had a long day’s travel ahead of them, just saw what they could from the edge of the woods or up in a tree, and moved on each time they didn’t find a vehicle.  Beth wished she had brought along her crossbow’s scope after all, even if just for its usefulness in seeing things from a distance.

“Nothin’?” said Daryl, unnecessarily, as she climbed back down the tree, hanging off the lowest branch before dropping down the final few feet to the ground. He caught her, sort of, hands just skirting her waist as she landed.

Also unnecessary, but she didn’t mind, and the little brush of his fingertips even through her layers of clothing set off a little flutter in her belly. “Nah. Not even a tractor this time.”

Daryl hummed, but didn’t say anything. Yet another farm in a long line of them without a single vehicle parked outside. Beth never gave much thought to placing bets, to what it meant to consider the odds of something, but had anyone asked she’d have said the odds of finding at least one vehicle amongst all these abandoned places, even a beat-up old truck, were pretty good. Daryl caught her eye as this thought wriggled into her head and she read his meaning as clearly as if he’d spoken it aloud. He didn’t like how this felt, and neither did she, and a prickly little shiver rolled across her shoulders.

She sighed and glanced around, taking in the grey sky and the wind whipping the tops of the trees. The sun wasn’t visible, but she could mostly make out its position in the sky where the clouds glowed a bit brighter. If the spacing of the farms remained the same they could at least reach the next one before they’d have to stop to make camp and find some food.

“Let’s go,” she said, stepping back into the woods. Daryl gave an almost imperceptible nod and moved to follow, pressing his hand to the small of her back a moment before letting it drop to his side.

That unpleasant prickle didn’t entirely go away even with the pleasant shiver brought on by Daryl’s touch, and for that reason Beth led them deeper into the trees, further from the fields than they’d been for most of the day. If Daryl noticed he didn’t say anything, but she didn’t expect him to.

“I don’t understand,” Beth said, once she felt they’d put enough distance between themselves and the fields. “Not even one car?”

Beside her, Daryl shrugged, not committing to it either way. He didn’t know the answers either, obviously, but he must have already formed his own theories. For the most part the farms just looked abandoned. Like the place they spent the night, none of them showed much in the way of damage, just neglect. Long since vacated and left untouched, or mostly so, thereafter. They hadn’t gone into any of the other houses but Beth remembered the picture frames, sitting empty above the mantle, in the one they had. The kitchen cleaned, dishes put away, shelves cleared of food aside from one or two items forgotten.

The farmyard, empty. Animals gone. Everything left tidy, put back in its place at the end of the world.

Somewhere out there, Beth’s childhood home stood ruins, destroyed by the herd which chased them out. There hadn’t been time to grab photographs, to take anything but the clothes on her back. They left the house as it was—dishes in the sink, clothes on the line, food in the pantry, memories on the mantle. Fled with the horses still in their stalls and the yard in the disarray of everyday use.

“Maybe—maybe all the neighbours got together, got out together,” Beth said, after a moment. “Before it got really bad, maybe they all just got in their cars and left in a group. Safety in numbers, right?”

Daryl gave a quick nod, a soft grunt. Maybe, that grunt said. Whatever else he was thinking, Beth wasn’t quite sure she wanted to know. If it mattered, he would say something. Until then Beth just kept walking and hoped the niggling sense of something not-quite-right would pass.

When she led them back toward the edge of the trees a while later, about the time she thought it would take to reach the next farm, they came out of the woods at the far end of what looked to have been cow pasture, once upon a time. The farmyard stood back the direction they had come from, too far to bother backtracking without good reason, but a leafy copse of trees blocked their view of the yard. Aside the splashes of blue and white of the house’s siding visible between the wind-blown branches and gold-tinged leaves, they couldn’t see a thing.

Beth let out a huff of breath and glanced over at Daryl, standing at her shoulder. “Guess I’m climbin’ again.”

His lip twitched a little, but before she could even think to ask what, he was sliding his crossbow off his shoulder. He handed it to her and dropped his bag at her feet, turned and headed for the nearest tree with big enough branches.

He wasn’t a climber like she was, didn’t scurry up the tree like it was second nature, but he had the strength and the agility to get him up where he needed to be. Even if he looked a bit like a housecat, perched up there waiting for the fireman to come with their ladder truck to rescue him. Beth wasn’t really worried, though, and after a few minutes of looking, Daryl picked his way down, hanging the way she tended to do from the final branch before dropping to land with barely a sound on the leaf-strewn grown below.

“Nah,” he said, tossing his head in the direction of the buildings.

Beth gazed out that way for a moment, not really looking. Daryl took a step closer and hooked a couple of fingers around a couple of hers, not quite holding her hand, but it was enough to remind her he was there. Always there, and waiting on her to make the next move—probably, she thought, in more ways than one.

It hadn’t gotten any warmer, but the idea of traipsing into the yard even just to clear the barn made that prickle across her shoulders push in a little deeper. She didn’t understand why, but she didn’t think she needed to. As much she wanted shelter for the night, her instincts—if that’s what this was—urged her to turn away from the buildings and head deeper into the woods. Beth looked back at Daryl, unsurprised to find him already waiting to catch her eyes, but instead of telling him, she just nodded, a sense of certainty washing over her that he already knew what she was going to say.

He turned his hand to fully catch hers and together they headed back amongst the trees.

*~*

Snares weren’t something they had practiced yet, even though Daryl used them pretty much exclusively for their rabbits at the cabin until the end, when Beth wanted crossbow practice. After leaving that last farmyard behind, they walked until they reached a good camping spot near the bank of that same meandering river, and before Beth could start setting up camp, Daryl claimed it was time to learn. He still owed her a rabbit, after all, so they might as well.

“If I set the snares, doesn’t that mean I’m the one catching the rabbit?” she asked, poking her tongue out the corner of her mouth when he pretended to glare at her.

“You wanna learn it or not?” he asked, grumbling, but Beth knew better.

Maybe at one time he defaulted to that tone of voice, but these days he had to work at it. All it took was her bumping her shoulder into his to knock the put-on scowl off his face and replace it with Daryl’s own brand of smile. Subtle, just that little lift, higher on the left than the right, but no less genuine because of it.

“A’right, you,” he said, bumping her shoulder in return, a sparkle in his eyes even in the flat light of a cloudy evening. “C’mon.”

Tying the snares wasn’t difficult, once she practiced it a couple of times. Finding places to set them up wasn’t either, in a way, because she’d already been learning to hunt, to see the signs and know how to read them. She set hers where she thought she might have some success, two places where some sort of small creature left signs of its passage through the underbrush. Daryl set his own and they left them for the time being to make camp. Daryl went to check them sometime later and came back with two small cottontails—one from one of her snares, he said, and one from one of his—enough to share one for supper and save the other for breakfast.

As darkness fell, the temperature dropped, a colder night than they’d had in some time. They couldn’t risk a fire, not one large enough to throw the kind of heat they needed, so when Daryl took his place beneath his chosen tree to take watch, Beth settled down close beside him. Barely a breath passed before he lifted his arm so she could scoot in closer and tucked it around her once she settled. His fingers curled in at her waist, pressing into the layers of fabric until she felt the weight of his fingertips on her skin.

Beth turned into him a little more and laid her head in that perfect indent at the join between his chest and shoulder. Because she thought she could, she snaked her arm across his stomach, slipping it beneath his vest, and curled her fingertips in like he did with his. Beth’s heart pounded, spreading a heat as only Daryl could inspire through her chilled body, and a little tremor rolled through her.

He noticed the shiver, and pulled his arm tighter. “Cold?”

“A little.” She closed her eyes and smiled as Daryl breathed deep beneath her cheek. “Think summer’s over for good?” 

“Dunno,” he answered, after a bit. “Been wrong before.”

“I wonder what day it is. What month it is, even.” She snorted as she realized how far away the concept of time-keeping really was. “I’m not even sure what year it is.”

That drew a little chuckle out of Daryl, too, and he swept his chin across the top of her head. “Don’t matter no more.”

“Just another thing left behind when the world ended,” Beth said, thinking on that for a bit.

She did know, to be honest, but it wasn’t immediate. She had to actually think about it to bring the right combination of numbers to mind, and they tasted foreign. Wrong. Birthdays and holidays and ringing in the new year couldn’t really factor in when every day was spent making sure you lived to see the next. Survival by the day, sometimes by the minute. Beth didn’t even remember now when she stopped keeping track, but after a time even the early days on the farm had begun to blend together.

Once Mama got bit, and Shawn, well, even then it hadn’t seemed important.

Daryl let out a little ah, drawing her out of her own head as he shifted, searching for something in his pack on the ground beside him with the arm not tucked around her.

Beth lifted her head off his chest to watch. “What’re you—oh!”

Daryl pulled out the roll of Life Savers he found yesterday, holding it so she could reach to peel open the foil at the end. 

“What colour’s your favourite?” she asked, pulling the red candy ring out and holding it between her fingers. 

She wasn’t surprised when Daryl offered a mumbled I dunno and punctuated it with a shrug, but she wasn’t having that. 

“C’mon,” she said, tipping her face up to meet his eyes. “You gotta have one.”

His lip twitched, just a bit. “They ain’t got no peach one, so...” The twitching lip shifted into that subtle smile and he tipped his chin toward the candy. “You pick.”

Beth let the flush of warmth wash over her in the wake of his words, and she curled the red ring into her hand to reach into the roll for the next one in line. Keeping her eyes locked on Daryl’s, she pulled it out and watched as his gaze shifted to her fingers and the Life Saver she held in them.

“Here,” she said, lifting the candy up to touch it to his lips. “I think maybe you’d like the green one.”

Daryl took the green ring between his teeth but before she could pull away, his lips closed down over her fingers, dragging warm and moist on her skin. Beth shivered against him, stamped down on the giggle trying to bubble its way out of her chest by shoving the red Life Saver into her mouth instead. The burst of artificial cherry flavour made her salivary glands ache with effort as she swirled the candy around her mouth. 

It wasn’t peaches, definitely could not compare with fresh peaches from the tree, but this could be the last cherry Life Saver she ever ate and she was gonna enjoy it. “Mmm.”

Daryl’s candy clacked against his teeth. “Mmhm.”

If they were smart they would save these. Ration them, make them last by having just one each after supper every night until they were gone. But sometimes it wasn’t worth withholding something when there was nothing to lose from a bit of indulgence. 

Beth had a pineapple one next and Daryl got orange. He took it from her fingers the same way he took the green, and silence fell around them, aside from the clacking of candies against their teeth, the rustle of foil and paper when Beth pulled the next round out of the roll. Each time when hers was down a skinny, sharp-edged little ring, Daryl crunched the rest of his with his teeth. He waited for her to finish, then they would start all over again, until the last one dissolved into a lemon-flavored memory on her tongue. 

“You should sleep,” he said, after a long while of sitting together in silence. The darkness was absolute, now, here beneath the trees without moon or stars to shed any light.

“I will.” Beth tightened her arm around his middle, pushed her face a little deeper into his chest. “Warmer like this.”

“Mmm.” Daryl brushed his thumb over her cheek, cool where her face felt flushed, then traced a line from her ear to her chin. “You are. Warm.”

She was, even though the timbre of his voice made her shiver. “Yeah?”

Daryl tightened his arm around her waist, drew her even closer. His thumb skirted just beneath her bottom lip without quite touching it, then followed the shape again as the first pass pulled her lips into a smile. “Yeah.”

She couldn’t see him in the dark, but that didn’t matter. When she lifted her head from his chest, she knew just where to find him, where to brush her nose so that it glided along the underside of his. Daryl’s breath washed over her face, hot and shaky, sweet from the candy, and before he could turn his trembling palm to cradle her cheek, Beth leaned up that last little bit to capture his mouth.

They couldn’t get carried away, not out here, even though the familiar stirrings of heat in her belly tried to urge her to reconsider. But she could kiss him. She could have this, and as she pressed her palm to the cool leather over top his pounding heart, she knew it was okay. Already their lips knew one another and they glided in sync, heads tipping at just the right moment to deepen the kiss that little bit further. Daryl moaned into her mouth and a tremble rolled through him, just beneath the surface like the rumbling of an earthquake, a shifting of the earth from where it used to be, and Beth was once again reminded of that fractured dam across a river.

He held back now for the same reason as she—because they had to. Because giving in to the urge to straddle his lap and just go with it was not an option. But that other thing lingered there, too, undefined, even as the kiss wound down instead of up. When they broke apart, the trembling in Daryl’s body hadn’t stopped. Beth snuggled in and he pulled her close, buried his face into her hair and just breathed. She didn’t know if she was helping him or not, with whatever might be on his mind right now, but he didn’t seem inclined to let her go.

His trembling eased, after a time. Beth stayed curled up with him, head once again resting on his chest. Palm over his heart, which gradually slowed down to its usual steady beat. Beneath her head, his chest moved smoothly with deep, even breaths. High above the leaves of the trees rustled in the wind, though it didn’t penetrate down into their camp below. No insects tonight, just the nearby ripple of the slow-moving river and the sounds of their breathing. It was cold, but not unmanageably so, not with Daryl’s body heat and his arm, big and solid, wrapped tightly around her.

Daryl kept watch and Beth tried to sleep, but the questions she put aside last night still played heavily on her mind. A different Beth, a younger Beth, the Beth she used to be instead of the Beth she was, might worry that she was the cause. That Daryl hesitated because his feelings for her were something he didn’t want, something he was ashamed to feel. That he didn’t actually want her at all and held back because of that.

But she wasn’t that Beth and she knew better. More importantly, she knew Daryl. 

No, it was something else. A set of dots she couldn’t quite connect in her head. Beth sighed into Daryl’s chest and buried her face in deeper. She didn’t get it. They both wanted this. Beth knew that Daryl knew where she stood because he stood there with her, and she’d been pretty clear—she thought—that the physical aspect of all this was something she wanted just as much as the rest of it. So he couldn’t be worried about her, concerned he was somehow pressuring her into something she wasn’t ready for because that wasn’t the case at all. So if it wasn’t that, then what?

Use your head, Greene. C’mon, now. 

Oh.

Oh, of course. Of course.

Daryl was older than her, but that wasn’t something she thought of most days. He was Daryl, and Daryl meant a great many things to her but he wasn’t a number. She didn’t know how old he was and didn’t care. The years stretching between them weren’t important, not when they stood side by side. Beth didn’t like to assume and prided herself on her attention to not doing so. Preferred to form opinions based on fact, on what she learned instead of what she was supposed to think, but she had done that here, she saw now. Some part of her subconscious looked at older and assumed a great many things that maybe—more than maybe—weren’t true. 

Two nights ago she mused on the Daryl she remembered from the farm and from the prison versus Daryl as he was now—the Daryl at her side. Thought about what they had together and how that wasn’t something she had seen from him before. She had thought it a million times lying in his arms in bed at the cabin, how special it was that he would hold her close when he held everyone else away. 

Beth knew about the scars, and how they came to be there. Knew where he came from, who he’d been and who he hadn’t. Read between the lines and figured out that the only good people he ever knew were the ones he met at the end of the world.

Whatever he’d known before, it wasn’t good. Wasn’t healthy. At best uncomfortable and at worst, well, scars like that don’t just happen by accident. The voices in his head, the marks cleaved into his skin, the way he was—that was done to him, and he would never be free of that.

He wasn’t worried about her, about how she would handle where they were going. He was worried about himself.

Maybe that was simplifying things. It probably was, but Beth held onto that little glimmer of understanding because it just made so much sense. A great many lines had been crossed between the two of them, in their time alone together. She already knew that. Already saw how this was different. But she missed, somehow, what was staring her in the face all along.

Daryl had never done this before, embarked on a journey of the heart with another living soul like the one he was travelling now, with her.

Oh, Daryl.

A lump thickened in her throat and her next breath caught in her chest and stuck there, pulling back against the need to exhale with a cool, sharp-edged ache. Because she could never truly understand just how bad it was for him, even though she wanted to. Because this beautiful man had gone most of his life without knowing a touch that didn’t hurt. A voice that didn’t wound. Another heart that beat, even for a time, in tune with his own.

Until now.

She wasn’t immune to feeling overwhelmed. Her moment last night, her double-talking doubts of the night before, proved that well enough. And even though she’d had a Jimmy and a Zach and everything that went along with that, neither one of them were Daryl.  She wasn’t comparing ‘cause there was no comparison to be made. That little knot in her belly hadn’t gone away, pulled taught against the impossible depths of her feelings for him that grew stronger by the day. 

If that’s how it was for him, too—and she was sure, now, so sure that it was—then no wonder.

He was trying. He was trying so hard. Some of it came easy now, like this, cuddling with her beneath this tree, lying with her at night. All the little touches, the looks, the trust he placed in her—but it took a long time getting here. He wanted this every bit as much as she did despite the demons of his past whispering god-knows-what into his mind. Every tremor in his body, every hitch in his breath, every moment when he held himself back even though he looked at her like he wanted to fall right into her and never come out, all of it signs of the war he waged within his own head.

Beth didn’t know how to help him or even if she could. All she could do was try, try like Daryl was trying, and hope that would be enough. Two of us, she remembered, navigating the way side by side.

He was worth it. They were worth it.

Beth and Daryl against the world—and everything else in it.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 26 – I Won’t Last Long in this World so Wrong

*~*

Beth hoped the warmth of Daryl’s body and the comfort of resting her head on his chest might lull her to sleep, but the night wore on and so did she. The Daryl part aside, sitting beneath a tree wasn’t the most comfortable way to try to get some sleep, even with the canvas spread beneath them to keep out some of the ground’s chill. Pretending to sleep under those same conditions wasn’t the easiest task she’d ever undertaken, and though she tried to be subtle about shifting her weight to relieve an ache here or a tingling numbness there, she wasn’t for a minute fooled into thinking Daryl didn’t know. Mostly, he let her pretend, with only the occasional press of his fingers into her side giving him away, and she was grateful for his tendency to do that.

She might be able to get there for real if she could lie down without letting in the chill, but the night wasn’t going to allow that, either, so she opted for warmth over comfort, since she couldn’t have both. Her thoughts refused to stop their endless circling, round and round in her head despite her attempts to lead them away from her worries about Daryl. About pushing him too hard, too soon or just plain doing it wrong. 

She kept picturing his face as she slurped at that peach, kept thinking about what that might’ve looked like from his point of view. God, could she have been any more blatant? Here, Daryl, watch me enjoy the juices from this sweet Georgia peach. Want some? Her stomach squirmed now just thinking about it, since he was so obviously dealing with things she didn’t fully understand. What did that make her, teasing him like that? He hadn’t been able to keep his thoughts from showing on his face while she did, though. He wanted to respond, that much was clear, but she was afraid she had made him uncomfortable when that’s not at all what she meant to do. 

Beth wasn’t going to cry, she was not. She was also probably lying because her throat ached in that way it did when the wrong word or the wrong thought could easily tip her over the edge. Now she was both lying and being stupid, because Daryl would tell her to stop if he didn’t like something she tried to do, and he wouldn’t look at her like he wanted to lick away every last drop of juice from her body if her teasing didn’t appeal to him, even a little. Peach Life Savers, he said, and not by accident.

But it was late and she was just a silly tired little farm girl who didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know how to be, if being herself made Daryl uncomfortable. She grunted, pretend sleep be damned. It wasn’t like that. Daryl wasn’t uncomfortable, not in the way she feared, he just needed time. But she couldn’t coax her brain into thinking about something else and endless time passed with the same worries rolling through her head, the same ridiculous back and forth between what if and of course he doesn’t until a headache throbbed behind her eyes. 

She wasn’t gonna be good for anything at all tomorrow if she kept this up. Beth shifted again, turning even further into the warmth of Daryl’s body. Breathed deep until the scent of him filled her head and tried to take comfort in the way his fingers tightened again at her waist. 

The river nearby rippled faintly, just audible above the sound of Daryl’s breathing beneath her. Beth focused on that for a while, one last attempt to trick her worried brain into distraction. She pictured in her head how the water might flow over the stones, all softly blurred like one of those long exposure photographs Mama used to take sometimes, those rare precious times when she would leave her work at home behind and go exploring with Beth. The water would shine like diamonds when the sun got high enough to touch down on its rippled surface. She could see it clearly, the way the colours danced, the speckles of light brought alive by the motion of the water. Daryl’s eyes shone so blue in light like that, even though he would squint as he always did, as though the power in his gaze was just too much to contain.

Beth could picture that, too, his brilliant irises glittering with the colours reflected off the water, once she swept the hair away from his face, that is.  That was nice, the thought of the two of them standing there amidst all that glittering light, tonight’s clouds all but gone. They would kneel down together over the sparkling stream and cup their hands in it to drink of its cool, fresh water, gazes catching as they did. Admiring the view in more ways than one, as blue met blue and struck up that skittering of fireflies dancing over their skin, for all it was morning and the only things moving in it were the rippling river and the songbirds, flitting about in the trees above to grace them with their sweet morning serenade.

It was probably because she was still listening, even as her thoughts finally wandered, that she heard it, a faint rustling of brush in the near distance. It was too big to be a rabbit or a squirrel, and too controlled to be a walker or some other hungry beast. No, whatever it was moved quietly, like something—or someone—trying not to make noise but not quite succeeding at it. Beth waited, listening. The rustling persisted. A little shake followed by silence followed by that same subtle noise, and that definitely wasn’t the wind, either. She pressed her fingertips into Daryl’s side and he hummed at her, a sound that meant yes, he was hearing it, too.

He left her by the tree and crept off into the night to investigate. Beth reached for her crossbow and held it firm in her grip. Told herself she wasn’t worried and ignored the trembling in her fingers. She couldn’t see Daryl. Couldn’t even hear him. Just the faint rustling in the near distance that meant something wasn’t right.

Beth waited. She waited and waited, but nothing happened. Whatever it was out there kept moving amongst the brush without getting any closer, but of Daryl, there were no signs. Worry squirmed in her belly, slimy and cold like a pit of eels. What was he waiting for? Where did he go, where could he be, in darkness like this?

She couldn’t stand it any longer, and pushed up from her spot beneath the tree, still holding her crossbow. This had bad idea written all over it but she couldn’t leave Daryl out there alone, with whatever was waiting for them. Two of us. Together. Beth and Daryl against the world and all the things that went bump in the night.

Through the pitch black of this clouded night, Beth picked her way amongst the trees, navigating by memory. Careful steps in darkness as thick as ink using the trees to guide her. She couldn’t hear the river anymore, or the rustling either, not over the sound of her own heart pounding in her ears. This wasn’t right. Daryl wouldn’t just leave her like this, would he?

Would he?

Static pricked at her skin, rushed over her shoulders the further she walked from camp, and the air around her grew thick, too, thicker than the night. Thick as smoke yet nothing burned, thick like sap without the taste of pine. She touched her hand to the next invisible tree and the contact jolted through her palm, like the shock from a metal doorway only strong enough that she felt the ache of it in her teeth, cold like winter, sharp like metal.

Up above, a blinding flash of lightning cleaved the sky in two, and she tasted it on her tongue, sharpness like ozone and the barest hints of rot. Thunder rumbled overhead, so loud, so forceful it vibrated down into her bones, shaking into her marrow until her whole body quivered. The squirming in her belly grew unbearable, the eels turned electric, her insides gone raw from the force of them, from the jolts of the current stirred up by their wriggling. 

A second bolt of lightning stuck, a blinding flash illuminating the night, the forest, and everything in it with a light brighter than the sun could ever hope to be, and gone as quick as it came. What it revealed burned into her retinas, a ghostly white figure imprinted on the blackness in front of her, flickering in and out but never dimming completely.

Here, birdie, birdie, said the ghost’s voice, a sound which spread through the smoky air like an oil slick, coating her face, her shoulders, her whole world in a thick layer of sickly-sweet filth. 

The thunder rumbled again and the ground beneath her shook. Beth tried to run, to get away from that spectre in the dark. She couldn’t force her legs to move fast enough through the foul, oily air and every step she took shot through her nerves like the lightning overhead, the pain so intense she cried out with it and choked on the sap, the smoke, the static-charged ink closing in. 

Gorman appeared before her, body crackling with electricity, lit up from the inside with a blue-white glow, which hummed coldly in the air and tickled the static still clinging to her shoulders. It shone on the ring of trees surrounding them, deepening the shadows beyond it where thunder still rumbled with every arcing circuit that leapt from his body.

She called for Daryl, but her voice wasn’t right. Muffled. Distant. Distorted, as though she was shouting under the water. Gorman’s face near split in two with the width of his manic smile, the edges cracked and dripping with blood that oozed and shimmered like quicksilver. He laughed, a crackling thing that arced out into the trees, little fingers of lightning striking them black, then setting them ablaze with blue-white flames. 

The world spun and Beth spun with it, around and away from the monster in front of her but then he was there, where he wasn’t before, and there again, when she whirled back the other way. Everywhere she tried to go, there he was, with that sickening smile, that stink of ozone and rot. Beth’s feet sunk into ground, the dirt turned to oily mud, and the eels in her belly gnawed at her with teeth like jumper cables, shocking her with every bite until her whole body ached from the assault.

Please. Please let me go. I need to find Daryl, I need—

The ghost’s oily voice echoed, bouncing in her ears from every direction at once. Keep singin’, sweet birdie…

Beth screamed. Screamed and screamed until her throat burned but the only sound she made was that of water flowing over rocks. The Gorman behind her grabbed her and held on. Sparks shot out of his fingers, blue-white little hotspots sinking into her blackening skin, melting her, surging like fire through her veins. Everything hurt, and her legs buckled beneath her as the fire stole what was left of her strength. The Gorman in front of her laughed, that same impossible thing of silver ooze and lightning, and Beth couldn’t move. Could only dangle in that other Gorman’s grip, unable to break away from the flames licking at her bones. From the monster closing in from all sides.

Another bolt of lightning struck overhead. The thunder rumbled in before the light even faded, and Daryl slipped inside the glowing ring of trees. 

Daryl, she said, but the word refused to coalesce outside of her mind. She couldn’t even lift her head to see him, to tell him without words so she tried again. Clenched her jaw despite the pain to make the words come forth. Daryl, help me. Please help me. Daryl...

But Beth couldn’t make a sound. She could barely see him from the water in her eyes, and he looked away, down to the ground, to her dangling feet coated in black, oily filth. Voices floated in, distorted again, echoing and distant but wriggling down inside her ears like dozens of maggots writhing in her head.

You owe me, Redneck...me, Redneck

Girl like that?...like that? Never really wanted her anyway...wanted her anyway.

Hear that, sweet birdie?...birdie?...birdie? How you gonna get outta this now?...outta this now?

Little girl?...little girl?...little girl?...little girl?

No. No. No, no, no, no, NO!   She was a blur of knees and elbows and heels and teeth, teeth like the eels, snapping and tearing and tugging at the rancid flesh holding her hostage. Everything hurt but the pain was strength, and she shoved the heel of her hand up into Gorman’s stubby little nose and sunk wrist deep into soft, rotten bone, right through to the gore inside. 

Blood flooded down like rain. Hot and red, coppery on her tongue, splat - splat - splat on the leaves, the dirt, the trees. Speckles of red on her grey sweater, bleeding into the wool until no other colour remained. The body fell away to land at her feet, the impact of it rocking the earth with a force greater than lighting, louder than thunder.

It settled there amongst the leaves and stared blankly up at her wearing Daryl’s face. 

The world spun around in a blood red haze and Beth dropped to her knees beside him. Took Daryl by the shoulders and shook him as hard as she could. Called for him, screamed his name through the blood in her lungs and still no sound came out. 

Wake up, Daryl! Daryl! Come on, just wake up. Daryl! DARYL!

The thunder rumbled, muted now behind the coating of blood splashed across the sky. Beth’s pulse beat in her ears as she knelt there in the circle of trees next to Daryl’s body. Nothing moved. No sounds reached her except for the thunder and the thump of her own heart inside her chest. Daryl lay motionless, staring up at her with dull blue eyes, the fist-sized hole in his forehead oozing with blood and smoke and a shimmer of lightning.

The back of her neck prickled with an itch that started small and spread out like a swarm of ants on her skin. This—this wasn’t right. The body, that wasn’t supposed to be Daryl.

Gorman. 

The prickling intensified, no longer ants but long-legged spiders dancing on her spine. Gorman was dead. She killed him, but not with a fist. With a bullet, and not deep in some forest surrounded by trees, either, but on the grassy grounds of what used to be a funeral home. This wasn’t right, but what—what—?

“Daryl,” she said, the word coming clear for the first time since she stood up from the tree and stole off into the night to find him. “Daryl, wake up. Wake me up. Daryl? Daryl?”

Too late. Too late. The tide of blood poured into her open mouth, flooded her throat and stole her words. Stole Daryl’s body, too, and floated it out to sea as she sunk into the red depths below, reaching for something, for anything to keep her afloat. Fingers of panic clawed inside her chest, digging between her ribs, frantic in their need to get out. 

I’m dreaming. This is a dream. I need to—I need to wake up. Daryl. Daryl, wake me up. Oh, God. Please. Please, Daryl. Daryl, wake me up, please! Daryl! Daryl! DARYL!

Pain erupted in her chest. A sharp, twisting pain then a hot pressure then a deeper burning ache like ice scraping at the insides of her lungs and finally—

“Beth!”

Her eyes flew open and air rushed into her chest and she coughed and fell down onto her back in the leaves, head spinning, stomach roiling like a tidal wave. Cold water splashed down onto her face and lightning flashed through the canopy of trees above. The tidal wave broke and Beth wrenched her shaking body over as the contents of her stomach exploded out as violently as the thunder crashing overhead.

Thunder.  Oh, God, she was still dreaming, still deep in the nightmare and it wasn’t going to let her go.  Oh, god, please no. Please, Daryl.

All around her a loomed a wall of dark and wet and thunder like gunfire in her ears. Her stomach rolled again and she coughed and gagged and retched but nothing came up, and she curled into a ball on the muddy ground as the shivering took hold. Any minute now he was gonna come back, going to trick her into killing Daryl all over again, and again, and again until she died in her sleep and turned and killed him for real, tearing out his throat right there beneath their tree and devouring him up until there was nothing left.

No, no, no, no, oh please, no.

“Shit, Beth. Beth!”

Daryl’s voice rose above the thunder, and in the midst of the chill radiating out from the marrow of her bones, his hand pressed hot on her back, branding the shape of his strong fingers into her clammy skin. The warmth of him, the scratch of his work-roughened fingers, was an anchor. A lifeboat, and she clung to it and let him pull her back and she heard, finally, the rush of the water, the whistling of the wind through the trees, the heaviness of Daryl’s breathing as he hovered over her shaking body.

Awake. I’m awake. Daryl, I’m awake, please. Please.

Before she could move he was lifting her from the ground, and she turned in his arms, reaching for him, burrowing in. Her chest and belly burned with that desperate need to crawl inside him, where the warmth of him and the life of him could stop the shaking and drive out the cold—so, so cold. Where the pounding of his heart would beat away the flashes in her head of Gorman, glowing blue-white in the inky black of a starless night, the ache of the words the real Daryl would never say, and the blood, so much bright red blood. She couldn’t keep doing this, wasn’t strong enough to stop the dreams from clamping their rotting teeth into her brain, tearing her apart piece by piece and leaving behind a sickness she couldn’t shake.

“Beth.” Daryl’s voice rumbled in her ear, soft and firm, again pulling her up just enough to hear him, to feel him, solid and warm beneath her, against her, around her, arms wound tight and holding her close. “C’mon, girl, come on back.”

“I—Daryl.”

She barely got the words out before her throat closed shut and the tears burst out, hot enough to sting as they poured over her cheeks. Daryl’s hold on her tightened and Beth pressed her face deep into his neck, pushed into the strong, steady beat of his pulse until she felt it on her lips. He was alive. Alive and warm and not letting her go, and she repeated that mantra in her head. Daryl spoke along with her in a low voice that cut right through the pounding in her ears, past the choked whine of her sobs not quite muffled in his neck. 

“I got you, Beth. I got you. Ain’t lettin’ go.” His big warm hand came up to cradle her cheek, thumb sliding back and forth to the rhythm of his words, while the other tucked beneath her shirt to lay over her belly. “I got you. I got you. Hold on to me, Beth. I got you. Oh, girl, I got you.”

Beth let go of her own silent words to focus on Daryl’s, and the soothing rasp of his voice as he spoke to her, repeating the same things over and over again. I got you. Hold on to me. Ain’t lettin’ you go. The heat of his hands as they touched her skin sunk a bit more of his warmth into her with each gentle pass of his thumbs, each curl of his fingers. The shaking eased a little at a time, though her head and throat and chest throbbed both hot and cold all at once. Sounds shifted, settled, sharpened or dulled and returned to the places they belonged. Her pulse no longer roared in her ears and she could hear the storm now, still raging around them. Rain falling hard—though the tree they huddled beneath kept most of it off them—the creak and groan of the trees and the rustling of their leaves in the wind, and the thunder, rolling in close on the heels of the lightning flashing high overhead.

She didn’t want to move out of Daryl’s hold but she knew she couldn’t stay like this, not out here, not all night. All she wanted was to was curl up with him in their cabin bed, nothing between them but a few thin layers of cloth or maybe even less than that, wrapped up in his arms and safe from what plagued her. But she couldn’t have that, just more of the stupid hard ground on this stupid cold night, and with a heaviness in her chest she started to pull away.

Daryl’s arms pulled tighter, just enough to stall her retreat. “Don’t gotta go, Beth. You’re still shakin’.”

She was, a little, from even the tiny effort of moving, and him saying so was all she needed to fall back against his chest, arms and legs with all the strength of a rag doll. “Can’t stay like this.”

Daryl hummed, just audible over the sound of the rain. “Get in front a me, then.”

The thought of doing that, of resting back against Daryl’s body, his arms around her to hold her close was so tempting, so near to what she really wanted that her belly pulsed warm just imagining it. Sitting up with her like that meant Daryl wasn’t going to lie down, and Beth bit her lip as she thought about what that meant. “You’re not gonna get any sleep, though.”

“Don’t matter,” he mumbled, leaning over to rest his cheek against her forehead. 

Beth sighed. Of course he would say that. “Daryl, it does.

“Ain’t up for debate,” he answered, voice gravelly and low. 

“But—”

Beth.” The volume of his voice hadn’t changed, but there was a firmness in it that made her swallow down her protest.

Beth couldn’t see Daryl’s face in the dark, so she didn’t have proof, but as he shifted his head away from her, she felt his eyes on her and knew what she’d see in them if she could. Not the look of warm honey and butterflies in her belly, but something else, something that, even in theory, lifted all the hairs on the back of her neck with the intensity of it. 

“Okay, Daryl.” It made her shiver to think about it, but Daryl squeezed her just a little tighter before he let her go.

Between the two of them, they got resettled, Daryl pulling his body more upright against the tree and arranging his legs to let her sit between them. He wound his arms around her and tugged until she settled back against his chest. It wasn’t a bed, but almost as warm as one, surrounded by him like this. A cocoon of Daryl, there beneath the tree, and their actual lack of safety didn’t matter. She always felt safe when he held her, no matter where they were, and Beth let her head fall back against his shoulder, turned her face to tuck into his neck. Barely a breath passed before he leaned his head over against hers.

She wasn’t going to sleep, even with the pinching ache of exhaustion pressing behind her eyes. That familiar heaviness gathered at the base of her skull, a cool, prickly reminder of what lurked in her subconscious, lying in wait for her to slip back inside her head where the dreams could take over. So she kept her face tucked into Daryl’s neck and fitted back against his body as though she was made to be there, just the sort of sleepy thought she couldn’t help thinking as she rested there with him. Her breathing gradually fell into sync with his, and she focused on that instead of the storm. He needed sleep, and Beth didn’t much like being the thing that kept him from it, but she was grateful that he understood why she wouldn’t want to be alone with her thoughts right now. Even if she was willing to be, for his sake. 

Sometime later, Daryl slipped his hand under the edge of her shirts to let it lie again on her stomach. His fingers were cool, but he laid down a path of warmth as he glided his thumb back and forth in that little arcing sweep he always used. It seeped inside to stir the butterflies in her belly into a gentle flutter and pulled out of her that sigh he liked. 

“Keep doin’ that,” Beth whispered. “Feels nice.”

Daryl’s chest rumbled with a sound too low to hear, and he turned his face until she felt the brush of his lips against her hair. “Couldn’t wake you,” he said, in a smaller voice than she had ever heard him use. “Wasn’t even sure you were breathin’.”

His words prickled cold down her neck, and that dark weight pressed a little harder at the back of her head. She remembered the pain, the burning in her chest when she finally pulled out of the dream. Did that mean she really wasn’t breathing, if even Daryl couldn’t tell?

Beth pressed her hand to her sternum, pushed in against the ghost of that hypoxic ache. In her panic, she thought that the nightmares were finally going to kill her for real, but that was just panic, wasn’t it? She must have been breathing. No way even the worst sort of nightmares could make her stop.

Right?

It was an idea about as absurd as dead people walking the earth trying to eat the living.

Daryl’s thumb still moved across her skin, but he brought the other one up now to swipe at her cheeks and the tears sliding over them that she hadn’t noticed until now. 

Beth’s next breath came in shaky, laced with a hint of that icy burn she remembered feeling then. “I-I knew I was dreamin’ but I couldn’t get out of it. I kept callin’ for you and—and I think they’re gettin’ worse, Daryl.”

“Mm.” He brushed his fingers down the side of her face, then followed his own path back up toward her forehead. “They’ll get better, Beth. They got to.”

The weight in her head swelled larger, dark and heavy with sharp little fingers. “That what you think?”

Daryl snorted softly, fingertips now following the curve of her ear. “Sweetheart, that’s what I know.”

Sweetheart. The first time he said it, Beth realized right away he hadn’t meant to.  He wasn’t delirious still, but he wasn’t fully recovered, either, from his ordeal with the herd and the storm, and probably didn’t even realize he’d said it. She might have thought otherwise had he not had a history with that word, though until then its only target had been Judith. Judith. Thinking about her, even in passing, deepened the ache already pressing in her chest. Beth’s heart would always mourn for that sweet baby girl, but right now, that warm honey feeling swept in and covered over the sharp edges of her grief. ‘Cause he meant it this time, calling her that, thinking of that word and bringing it to voice for her ears alone. It didn’t matter if he never said it again because he said it now. 

Beth sighed and nudged at his neck with her nose, smiled into his skin when he pressed his palm to her cheek so his fingers could stroke her hair. 

“And you got me, right?” she asked, and maybe she was baiting him, just a little, but he was already on the line anyway.

His answer was immediate, accompanied by the fingertips of both hands pressing into her where they lay. “Yeah, I got you. You know I got you.”

Beth reached up to lay her palm on his cheek, too, thumb moving in a little arc across his face, where his skin lay smooth just above the scruff of his beard. “And you ain’t lettin’ me go.”

Daryl pressed his palm into her belly, pushing in deep and hard in the way that he knew she liked, and he pressed, too, with the other hand at her cheek, cradling her head tight to his shoulder. “Promise.”

“I promise, too,” Beth said. She pressed her lips to his throat and nuzzled in deeper, riding out his little shudder as it rolled right through his body and into hers.

These were words already spoken, once, in a place they made together, a pocket universe that existed only between the two of them. Until now, Beth thought it was the cabin, itself existing a little bit out of time, that let them find it, but that wasn’t true at all. It was never the cabin, never the safety of its four walls and a roof that allowed them to find their little space, because they were in it now, she and Daryl, out in the middle of the woods but hidden inside that same little bubble of existence. A place where all that mattered was Beth and Daryl and all that lay between them. Where even the biggest truths settled in like old friends. Like leather vests and warm blankets. Like moonshine bonfires and soft, lilting lullabies.

All they needed to get here was each other.

Though the night was cold, Daryl was warm, so wonderfully warm, and being here with him, with him, kept that warm honey feeling from fading away. The nightmare still lingered, a weight at the back of her head, a dark little beast with sharp fingers and a thick, scratchy cloak falling down across her shoulders, but it couldn’t quite get to her, not in the way she suspected it wanted to, not in this place. Not when she could rest here in Daryl’s arms, secure in the truth that no matter what, he had her back. He had her, and he had her.

Beth was safe. She was warm. She was right where she wanted to be.

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 27 – Still the Rain Kept Pourin’, Fallin’ on My Ears

*~*

For the rest of the night they sat together in the rain and the wind, listening as the thunder got further and further away, breathing in sync until the sky began to lighten, from thick black to muddy grey to a drab autumnal monochrome that promised no relief.  With no reason to linger in camp, they climbed out from under their tree at the first hints of morning, and without a word resumed their journey through the woods.

The weather matched Beth’s mood, the dreariness in her heart she couldn’t shake outside of that secret space she and Daryl made beneath their tree. Beth tried to put the dream away, let the details go until they were hazy enough that she couldn’t remember exactly how it went. She was good at that usually, had been since the nightmares started. It was bad enough, waking near hysterics without also remembering the specifics of the terrors which left her that way, and there was a reason Daryl never asked her to talk about them. 

But she couldn’t get rid of this one, not fully, and her mind kept flashing through a series of disturbing images. Now and then, she couldn’t quite breathe, as if the air around her had grown too thick to pull into her lungs, and she’d taste something foul on her tongue. Then that twist of panic would hit her, like a jolt of lightning to her chest, sharp and sudden and painful enough to make her stumble. A meat hook in her gut giving a hard, twisting tug that turned her stomach and threatened to eject the bit of rabbit she choked down for breakfast. A shiver down the back of her neck like thousands of insects crawling over her with tiny, pinching feet, causing her to shudder and wince and sweep her hands over her skin to make sure they weren’t really there. These vivid dreams had become her new normal but she never knew she was dreaming in the middle of one. Never knew the terror of not being able to wake up, until now, and maybe that’s what made it linger.

Not that the reasons why mattered when all she cared about was making it go away. 

The rain persisted, shifting through the spectrum from a fine drizzle to giant fat globs to something like a fire hose pouring down on them from above. Beth fashioned makeshift hoods out of black plastic garbage bags to keep the worst of it off their heads. Deep in the trees, it wasn’t so bad, but whenever they edged toward one of the farms, the cover overhead grew thin. 

Each successive property was closer to its neighbours, and the parcels of land grew smaller. Some of them weren’t even farms so much as country homesteads. And still no vehicles. No anything. All those farms, all those homes, just empty.

Beth stared at the latest one, a newish building fashioned after an old plantation house, tall and square with big white columns and a wrap-around veranda. There was a dog house, too, a miniature replica of the big house, columns and all, and nearby a decorative little two-horse barn, painted in a red so bright it stood out harshly against the stormy grey. There was some pasture here and a riding ring beside the barn, and outside the manicured lawn on which the house sat, the property was mostly just land, dotted with trees and wild grass, unused for anything besides living on—when someone had lived here, at least. Like all the rest, the yard was tidy aside from the marks left upon it by nature, and no vehicle sat anywhere in sight.

The shiver started at the back of her neck and rippled down along her spine. If she hadn’t been holding her crossbow, Beth would’ve wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill it left behind.

Daryl slid his hand beneath her garbage bag hood to cup the back of her neck, instantly suffusing her with a bit of his warmth, and he brushed his thumb up toward her ear. “All right?”

Beth shivered again, the chill slinking in even beneath Daryl’s warm palm. “I don’t know,” she answered, rolling her shoulders in effort to shake away the unease skittering across them, that same goddamned swarm of ants. “I mean, I guess so, but…”

She sighed, not sure how to put into voice what exactly she was feeling. The nightmare still hanging over her, clinging there at her back like that scratchy dark cloak she imagined it to be, made it impossible to tell whether something else might be pinging her Spidey Senses. Assuming she had any, that is. She remembered having the impression of something not quite right yesterday with all of this, and thought Daryl had, too. But was that what was bugging her now, or just the remnants of her nightmare?

Beside her, Daryl hummed, a sound just loud enough to be heard above the patter of rain on the plastic covering her head. “Ain’t lettin’ up at all, is it?”

“What, the rain?” Beth turned her head to look at him, only to be met with an expression that said really, Greene? In reminder of what he actually meant, another shiver rolled over her shoulders. “Oh. No. No, it’s not.”

Daryl’s gaze flicked toward the farmhouse quickly, then settled back onto her. “C’mon. Ain’t nothin’ here.”

The rest of the day brought more of the same. Gloomy grey skies, ceaseless rain, abandoned homes, and not much else. By late afternoon, on top of the dream still plaguing her without any signs of letting up, each step she took dragged and her head ached from lack of sleep. Daryl didn’t show it—he never did—but he hadn’t slept at all and he must be feeling the effects of that, too. The rain was so heavy it wasn’t even really worth leaving the cover of the trees for more fruitless searching, and just like yesterday, Beth couldn’t convince herself that she wanted to spend the night in one of the farms.

Maybe she was overreacting, but one of the things Daryl always said was to trust her gut. Well, her gut was telling her to stay the hell away from tidy abandoned places right now and she was going to listen to it, even on the very good chance that this was all still dream aftermath at work. With a glance at Daryl to confirm he was okay to go along with that, Beth led them deeper into the woods in search of something that might serve as shelter for the rest of the day and the night beyond.

As they crossed over what looked to Beth like just a little ditch cutting perpendicular to their path, Daryl reached out to tug at her sweater. “This way.”

Since he clearly knew something she didn’t, Beth nodded and let him take the lead. They’d been navigating mostly flat ground since climbing down from that ridge the day before the barn. What she thought was a little ditch grew wider and deeper as they followed it, and she realized it was actually the start of a small ravine, the bottom of it mostly full of brushy plants, still green this early in autumn and sagging with the weight of the rainwater beading on them. Not very far along, when the furrow was just wider across than the spread of Beth’s arms, and just a bit taller than Daryl, a big evergreen tree was lying across the top. Most of its needles still clung to the branches, and the dirt and plants beneath where the trunk lay looked recently disturbed. Probably a casualty of either Daryl’s storm or the one that followed a couple days later. 

Daryl rigged up their canvas beneath the tree branches, to make another barrier between them and the rain, while Beth used her knife to clear away the brush before gathering the driest bits of debris she could find to try to get a fire lit. It was smoky and small but eventually it caught. She and Daryl huddled close beneath their makeshift shelter, changed out their damp socks for dry ones, warmed their hands over the small blaze, and shared that package of not completely stale rice crackers for supper. 

“I don’t know if I want to keep looking for a vehicle here,” Beth said, when the fire was dying and there wasn’t much else to do besides snuggle into Daryl’s side as she had the night before.

He had already tucked his arm around her, and now brought his other hand up to touch her cheek. “Still feelin’ off about it?”

On cue, the back of her neck prickled. She was going to have to start giving them names, the insects skittering over her skin, if they were gonna stick around like this. “Yeah, maybe. Or just off.”

The rain pelted down above them, a staccato on the canopy overhead, with occasional drops making it down as far as their canvas. Daryl’s thumb moved gently over her cheek and Beth shut her eyes and rested her head on his chest and let his touch drive away some of the prickling.

He made a good distraction most of the time, Daryl did, but it was better when they could talk. When they could touch, and already the weight of unease across her shoulders was lightening, as though Daryl could somehow stand guard, act as a buffer between her and her own brain. “You remember, before the cabin, when you told me a story?”

“The one about the dog? Yeah.” Daryl paused the motions of his thumb, and Beth cracked her eyes open, just barely able to see him looking down at her. “You after another one?”

Beth closed her eyes again and snuggled in. “Only if you want to.”

A rumble of laughter rolled through Daryl’s chest beneath her head. “Still ain’t no storyteller.”

“You don’t have to,” Beth said, slipping her hand beneath his vest so she could better feel the heat of his chest on her palm. “We could play a game instead.”

“Uh huh,” Daryl said, sounding less than thrilled about that idea, though she knew he would be. “‘Cause that worked so well the last time.”

Toying with one of the buttons on his denim jacket, Beth hummed quietly. “I could tell you a story.”

“Could.” Daryl continued moving his thumb over her face, that same light touch he seemed to know she liked. “I get to pick the topic?”

The shiver that came this time wasn’t at all cold, and Beth sneaked her fingers inside Daryl’s jacket. “Yeah, okay. Or…”

His breath hitched a little, and then again as she found the seam in his shirt and slipped her fingers past that, too. “Or?

“Well.” All his layers lined up, and she wiggled her fingers all the way down to his undershirt. He was so warm, this close to his skin, and Beth drew little circles with her fingertips. “You could kiss me.”

He didn’t answer right away, and Beth had a flash of worry that maybe she was pushing him again where he didn’t want to be pushed. She did want to. Kissing Daryl wasn’t just about the distraction it would bring, but she didn’t want him saying yes if that was his only reason for doing it. In her unease, Beth hadn’t thought much about it, but she remembered now, all right, everything she was thinking about last night. Except for maybe the first time, when they almost moved as one, Beth had pushed him into it each time, and here she was, doing it again.

Then Daryl hummed, that low rumbling one that made a little burst of heat fire off in her belly, and dragged his thumb across her bottom lip. Before Beth could move, he curled his fingers beneath her chin, applying just a bit of pressure to urge her to tip her face up. She did, opening her eyes at the same time and finding his there waiting for her. Daryl could do many things, but lying with his eyes wasn’t one of them. Even in the drab light, they blazed, and maybe she was pushing, but maybe that wasn’t always a bad thing.

“Only if you want to,” she whispered, pulling her hand out of his shirt so she could hook it around his neck.

He groaned and dug his fingers in at her waist, mouth dropping open a second before he spoke. “Beth.”

God, that man didn’t even know the power he had when he said her name like that—a word built of breath and gravel and not just a little bit of need. Her heart was already racing with anticipation and it pounded now, because yes, he did want this. He did want her, and feeling that again stirred the boldness back into her veins where the doubt had lingered before.

Beth shifted again, using her arm around his neck to pull herself up onto her knees beside him, never breaking eye contact as she moved until they were face to face. 

“That mean yes?” she asked, reaching up to drag her fingernails across his scalp.

Daryl’s eyes drooped shut and he leaned his head into the touch of her fingers. “Yes.”

He was making those sounds again, that rumbling almost-purr, and Beth scratched a little harder. Belatedly, Daryl remembered he had hands, too, and the nearer one settled at the small of her back while he used the other to hook a finger through her belt loop, where her hip rested up against his thigh. 

Maybe it was unfair of her. Probably it was, but some part of her wanted to hear him say it. “Yes, what?”

Daryl dragged his eyes open, stared at her, mouth slack and his expression one she couldn’t read. A beat passed, then two, and he swallowed hard. “Beth.

A weight dropped in her stomach and she wished she’d never asked. Sliding her hand around to cradle the back of his head, Beth leaned in and pressed her forehead to his, mindful of the wound above his brow. “It’s okay, I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

“Beth,” he said again, this time with a bit more volume, and he slid one hand up along her spine to cradle the back of her head, too. “Been wanting to kiss you all fuckin’ day.”

Oh, his voice. That gravelly rumble zipped through her like last night’s lightning, setting her nerves ablaze with the same sort of spark as his eyes did whenever he looked at her. Already she was warm inside but his words left her awash with heat, and it was all she could do not to smash their faces together right the hell now. All day. He’d been thinking about kissing her all day and she was too distracted to notice, and Beth didn’t want to wait any longer but she needed to tell him just one more thing first.

“You can kiss me anytime you want, Daryl,” Beth said, her own words half lost to the heaviness of her breathing. “Anytime.”

Daryl swept his thumb up the side of her neck. “Yeah? Just come up and kiss you?”

The thought of that, of Daryl tugging on her arm and reeling her in for a kiss sent another burst of heat through her, down low into her belly. “Yeah. Just do that. I want you to.”

“Mmmm.” Daryl’s hand flattened out across her back and he pushed, just a bit, urging her to move a little closer. “How ‘bout now?”

“Now’s good,” she said, and tilted her head to meet him.

Daryl’s lips slid against hers, slow and unhurried, like maybe now that this wasn’t as brand new anymore, he wanted to explore. There was a boldness to him that hadn’t been there before, though he hadn’t lacked in passion. It was subtle, but as Beth glided her tongue along his lower lip, Daryl refused to be budged. The flutters in her belly deepened, became the swooping wings of birds as she fell back into his rhythm. He groaned into her mouth and curled his fingers into her ponytail and kissed her, slow and deep. 

When they broke apart she wasn’t starving for breath, but she was breathing hard anyway. She touched her forehead to his and his own deep breaths puffed over her face. She was gonna kiss him again, but first she pushed up on her knees and swung one leg across his where they stretched out in front, so she could sit in his lap just like before. Daryl didn’t stop her, just followed her with his eyes as she settled in place, leaving enough space between them to keep things from escalating faster than maybe he would like. 

Still, his eyes blazed with heat as they stared up at her, and Beth scratched her nails across his scalp again, felt his rumbled response beneath her palm on his chest. 

“Thought I was supposed to be distracting you.” As he spoke, he slipped his fingers beneath the edge of her shirt, stroked along her skin just above her jeans. 

That made her shiver, and one corner of his mouth twitched. “Mmm. You are. Never said I wasn’t gonna try, too.”

Her response drew a warm chuckle out of him and the twitchy lip shifted into a smirk. He gave her ponytail a little tug and continued that glide of his fingers, his touch tingling up along her spine. Beth dragged hers across his scalp again and Daryl groaned, low and rumbling, as she hoped he would. When their lips met this time neither one of them held back.

They knew better than to get carried away like this, out here in the open with darkness coming on quick, but the moment their lips touched, it was like the barn all over again. Gone were the rain and the wind and in their place, the rumble of thunder from deep in Daryl’s chest. Her little moan into his mouth was answered immediately with one of his, and he pushed past her lips with his tongue and Beth quit thinking about anything but Daryl. He saturated her senses, muting everything else around her and that was dangerous. It was so dangerous out here in the woods but she didn’t care as long as he didn’t stop. As long as he kept tugging like that on her ponytail and sliding his tongue just like that, stroking the underside of hers in a way that made her whimper without meaning to every single time.

God, he was so hot. His mouth, his skin where they touched, his neck beneath her hand and his palm, now splayed out flat against her back beneath her shirts. Heat pulsed deep in her belly, between her legs, bursting out like rivers of lava in her veins until her fingers trembled and she couldn’t take a steady breath if she tried. She slid closer, couldn’t keep from closing a bit of that space she’d tried to give him, but he didn’t stop that, either. Maybe if she didn’t move, if she kept still, maybe he’d let her feel him, just like he did before. 

Just thinking about it had her vaginal muscles fluttering, and she clenched them tight, already so wet for him and it was ridiculous, how quickly he got her there without even trying. She slid closer still, moving slow, giving him time to stop her if she tread too far toward discomfort, but all he did was dig his fingernails into her back. When she felt him at last, when she angled her hips to press herself against the erection already straining at his jeans, a shudder rushed through him and he whined, low and long at the back of his throat. But he didn’t stop kissing her, no matter that his body trembled on with that impossible combination of restraint and barely caged need she felt in him before. That alone doubled the heat already blazing in her belly.

He was so hard, and maybe this was a bad idea because now that she had him there, now that pressing against him like this had the seam of her jeans pushing right where she needed it, she wanted to move. But she promised, she promised herself and even though she hadn’t said, she promised him. He wasn’t stopping her yet and she didn’t wanna mess it up again by pushing too far, no matter how good it would feel. That wasn’t helping at all, thinking about friction when her body was screaming for it.  When that familiar empty ache pulsed deep and urgent inside her. Beth whimpered again and locked her legs as tight as she could around his hips to hold herself still. Her fingers trembled with it where they pressed into his shoulder and raked through his hair.

Daryl tugged hard at her ponytail and rumbled deep in his chest, as only Daryl could. His palm at her back flattened out. Flattened and pushed and pressed her down on him, and his seam and her seam together struck her clit just right. Oh, Lord, just right, and the resulting moan rolled up from her belly and into Daryl’s mouth. She clutched at him, trembling now just as hard as he was, trembling and holding back because he needed her to. But she couldn’t shake the thought that maybe he needed her to help him break through that dam instead and let the flood carry them away together. And it was as maddening as it was thrilling as it was the best thing ever—the reality of him and her and where they were, where they were going, what he made her feel in her heart and her head and her body. The weight of it crashed over her, a sensation so palpable she felt it down to her bones. In her belly. Felt it inside, where she ached for him.  

Lord, she needed to move. They didn’t have to go farther than this, than jeans on jeans. This was enough. Just like this, him and her and it was enough, and oh—oh hell.

Beth tightened her grip around his neck and rocked against his erection, breaking away from his mouth to let out an explosive breath, to clamp her teeth down on her lip before the sound pulling at her chest could escape into the world. Daryl’s lips found her neck, teeth scraping, tongue lapping at her skin as he clutched at her belt and tugged hard. A