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What Signs Remain

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Just before the flood comes
Just before the night falls
Just before the blood runs
Into the valley
Just before my eyes go
Just before we can't go no further
Love throws a line to you and me

- Patty Griffin, “Love Throw a Line”

 

***

In the middle of the empty, unlit highway, crouching with his hands resting on his knees and his hair dripping sweat into his eyes, Daryl stops.

The tail lights of the car are long gone.

Beth’s gone. They’re all gone, now. He’s alone.

He inhales, and tries to slow his breathing. The pain in his chest is like a knife. And he wishes it were, really, wishes he were dead, that the walkers had got him in that basement that stank of bleach and formaldehyde. That he’d gone down fighting instead of whatever horrible, fucked-up thing this is, this next nightmare, this next ordeal. The next thing to be survived.

And Beth. Beth. Gone like a clap of dry thunder in the night.

Last man standing, she’d called him. Fuck the last man standing. He didn’t want to be that man. Not if it meant this, over and over -- feel safe for five minutes in a row and then watch it all go to shit. Watch the next person die.

He’s failed again. He had failed to protect them all at the prison and he’s failed to protect her now, let her get snatched right up from under his nose.

For weeks, now, his occupation had narrowed to her alone. Her safety. Her empty stomach. Her shivers at night. Her sweet smile. Her laughing eyes. Her hands building fires and setting snares. Her swift feet running. Her aim. Her sharpness. Her survival. He’d needed to know she’d have a chance without him, and now he wonders if he even managed that.

As for who took her, and why, he can’t stand to think about it, dark images of the worst possibilities running through his brain like a movie montage of gore. He’d shown her how best to kill walkers, seen her get a good handle on it, but what about people?

He bows his head, listening to his own ragged breathing, the pop-hiss of each painful breath. Fuckin’ smokes -- his lungs are wrecked.

Daryl feels old. He feels so fucking old. Older than he’d ever wanted to be.

He stands up straight and looks around him at the dark, pressing walls of forest on either side of the highway. Everything is quiet but for the songs of crickets and frogs, and, high above, the papery whisper of wings as bats swoop out of their daytime hideaways, catching mosquitoes and moths out of the air.

No walkers. No people. Just him and the woods, and a trail to follow.

Ain’t nothin’ for it, he thinks.

Daryl takes a deep breath, hoists his crossbow onto his shoulders, and carries on down the road.

 

***

Beth’s head is spinning.

The last thing she remembers clearly is burying her knife in a walker’s brain as she ran, half-limping, across the yard in front of the funeral home. Then, foggy blackness like a deep sleep, and now the smooth, rumbling motion of a car. For a hazy moment, she thinks that Daryl must have found a car, that he’s driving them someplace safe.

The body beneath her shifts, and instantly Beth knows that Daryl is not with her. A heavy arm is slung around her chest; she’s being held tightly, roughly, a sweaty palm loosely covering her mouth. She’s being held down by someone, so no, there’s no possible way Daryl’s there with her. Fear pulses under her skin, a wave of nausea rolling through her.

Her face throbs. Someone punched her; she remembers it now, the sound of a fist hitting her cheekbone, bright lights exploding like fireworks behind her eyelids. She swallows the rising nausea churning inside her. The car swerves, tossing her against the man holding her. He laughs, loud and harsh, right in her ear, hot breath and spittle on her cheek.

Beth opens her eyes a slit and sees the lights on the dashboard. A man in the passenger seat is laughing too, his teeth bared, a bottle of booze lifted to his lips.

This is totally screwed, she thinks. I’m screwed.

Beth struggles to stay limp in the man’s arms, to play possum. Curling up and crying would once have been her first and only response, but now she feels the hot rush of blood roaring in her ears as her heart pumps, her muscles quiver, her senses sharpen.

She wants to fight them.

Distantly, she knows she is afraid -- terrified -- and yet all she wants to do is kick and thrash and land as many blows as possible; crash the car if she has to, she doesn’t care.

Every part of her cries out to fight them and to run, run fast, run all the way back to Daryl, miles behind her now, a herd of walkers closing in on him somewhere inside that damn house. The thought makes her want to scream in frustration.

These are three grown men, big men, and she has to assume they’re the worst kind of violent, cruel men -- the kind that seem to thrive in this world. And Beth knows what that means for her.

She forces herself to remain calm, allowing her head to loll onto her shoulder even as she cringes at the feeling of the man’s arm around her torso, locking her arms to her sides. His unoccupied hand moves, palming her breast just because he can, because her sweater disappeared in the struggle and she’s here and he’s stronger than she is and he can. Beth’s stomach turns.

“Yeah, that’s right, honey,” one of them says, the one up in the passenger seat. “You relax, take a little nap. You wanna save your energy.”

They all laugh, because of course they do. Of course these men think nothing of laughing at her like this, of laughing at her helplessness. They like that they can hurt her, that she won’t fight them.

Of course, that’s what they would think.

The arms of the man holding her loosen the slightest bit as he shifts in his seat, distracted, trusting her small size, the appearance of weakness and compliance. Trusting that she won’t fight; that even if she did, she’d be no threat.

Knowing she may not get another chance, Beth opens her mouth and bites down hard on the fleshy palm still covering her mouth, and pulls, the skin tearing between her teeth.

“Fuck!” he shouts, instantly letting her go to cradle his injured hand.

Beth slams her head back into the man’s nose, ignoring the sharp pain that shoots through her head as her skull connects with his teeth. She hurls herself forward and grabs the driver’s face from behind, scratching at him until she meets some give; she jams her fingers into his eyes and digs, feeling the sickening squish of viscera bursting under her ragged nails, hot blood gushing into her hands.

The driver bellows in pain and the car swerves, brakes squealing, lurching across the empty highway and stopping sharply. Beth jolts, her chin hitting the back of the driver’s seat hard, cracking into her teeth and reverberating sharply into her skull and her neck.

The man behind her grabs her by the hair, yanking her back hard. Beth yelps and sees stars, tumbling across him, halfway to the floor of the car. She hears the man in the passenger seat scrambling out of the car and she knows that the next few moments will decide if she survives this or not.

Beth kicks out across the back seat at the one who was holding her, the sharp heel of her boot repeatedly catching his knee, his shin, his forearm as he tries to shield himself.

He’s shocked, she sees, shocked that this is happening, that the waif they found at the side of the road is fighting back like this. He didn’t expect this. None of them did.

The thought makes her proud and makes her angry. It makes her fierce.

“Fuck you,” she snarls in a voice she has never heard from herself before. She’s shocked, too.

Beth’s heel connects with his jaw with a bony crunch and he curses. He stops trying to grab her flailing leg as he brings his bleeding hand up to shield himself. Her injured ankle shoots pain up her leg.

She lunges forward, the muscles in her neck and her shoulders straining painfully. She grabs at the handgun in his holster, feels her fingers brush the handle. With a pained shout of her own she stretches and grabs it.

Beth doesn’t even bother to threaten, barely bothers to aim -- she cocks the gun and squeezes the trigger. The snap of the gun firing is loud in the closeness of the car, and glass breaks as the bullet shatters the window behind the man. Beth cocks the gun and pulls again, gasping at the hot blood that spatters her face when the bullet explodes his cheekbone and temple.

Scrambling backwards, Beth tumbles out of the passenger side door and struggles to her feet, clutching the gun like a life preserver. The driver is somewhere on the ground on the other side of the car, howling in pain. She sees the man from the passenger seat standing by him, shouting something.

Beth runs around the back of the car and makes for the driver’s seat where the door hangs open, but the man turns from the driver and lunges at her, a handgun gripped in his fist. Beth cocks the gun again and squeezes the trigger. He lets out an outraged shriek as the bullet grazes his arm. Squaring her shoulders, Beth fires again, landing a chest shot.

The man crumples with a curse, clutching his middle. Beth is on him in a moment, wrenching his weapon from his hands. He’s bleeding heavily already, dark blood soaking the front of his shirt. Over his groans, Beth is dimly aware of the car’s engine still running. Beyond that, the faint sound of branches breaking, of awkward feet lumbering through the brush, of snarls and wet snapping jaws.

Walkers, attracted by the noise.

She doesn’t stop to make sure her kidnappers are dead or dying. She doesn’t stop to search their bodies, nor to give any of them the reprieve of a head shot.

Let the walkers have them, she thinks.

Instead, she walks over and takes the driver’s handgun, shoving it into the waistband of her jeans. That’s when she sees that he’s wearing a police uniform. Atlanta Police Department. Beth stares. It doesn’t seem possible that people entrusted to protect others could do the things these men did to her. The things she can only assume they planned to do to her. It’s not right. It’s not how things are supposed to be.

Of course, nothing is as it's supposed to be.

The low, moaning growls of the approaching walkers shake her into action, and Beth wrenches the car’s rear door open. The last man’s body tumbles halfway out onto the pavement. He’s covered in blood, but Beth doesn’t pause to see if he’s still alive; she barely glances at the gore of his shattered skull. She hauls him out by his armpits, groaning at the dead, solid weight of him, and dumps his body in the road. Panting, she shuts the door, the last clinging shards of glass knocking loose and scattering onto the pavement.

Beth leaps into the driver’s seat and slams the door shut behind her. She slaps a hand down on the locks, securing herself inside the vehicle, and drops the three handguns onto the passenger seat. She thinks of the night she and Daryl spent in the trunk of that abandoned car, sweltering and listening to dozens of walkers scrabble at the metal with their broken nails. She swallows the sob that erupts at the thought of that horrible night, the powerful adrenaline rush of her escape draining away, leaving behind only gut-clenching terror.

Daryl, she thinks, her mind racing. I have to find Daryl.

Swiping a hand across her sweaty, blood-streaked face, Beth places both shaking hands on the steering wheel. She breathes deeply, willing her frantic heart to slow down.

He could be anywhere by now, she knows. He probably disappeared into the woods as soon as he got out of the funeral home. If he did. She knows what he’d say – no chance. Bound to be walker chow.

Beth chews her lip for a moment, trying to ride out the panic that grips her. She has to find Daryl. Has to.

Taking another deep breath, she puts the car in gear and turns it around.

 

***

Daryl’s fucked, and he knows it.

Pulling a bolt out of a walker’s eye socket, he swings around and plunges it into the skull of the next one.

He’s outnumbered and exhausted. He can barely keep ahead of the herd on his tail, and there’s been nowhere to hide for miles. Just more road, more forest, more space. More walkers, too.

So, he’s fucked. This is how it ends. He’s gonna get bit, and get dragged along into this herd, and that’ll be that. There’s not even anyone left to mercy kill him.

A walker near the front of the herd reaches for him with its one arm, the other missing. It gropes at him, teeth snapping, and Daryl plunges the bolt through its temple and into its rotting brain with ease. He kicks out at another walker, hitting it square in the stomach and sending it stumbling back.

Faint light appears from behind him, illuminating the herd. There are at least a dozen, too many to handle alone, exhausted and strung out on prolonged panic as he is, but they pause, staring dumbly out of their yellowed eyes as the light grows in intensity, capturing their attention.

Daryl hears the low hum of a car speeding towards him.

A walker, undeterred by the distraction, grabs at him, managing to take hold of his vest. Daryl yanks himself away, stabbing at the walker. He misses, connecting with the walker’s bony shoulder, and the bolt snaps. Daryl gropes at his belt for his hunting knife and barely manages to hold the walker off long enough to stab it in the temple.

He hears the squeal of tires and looks up, seeing a dark car screech to a stop about twenty feet from him, walkers thumping messily across the hood.

Its door is thrown open, but Daryl can’t see clearly, occupied trying to fight off the walkers that haven’t been drawn to the car.

He hears the sound of a handgun discharging, and hears bodies hit the ground.

“Daryl!”

He freezes, and turns. Beth. She’s there in the middle of the remaining walkers, gun in hand, fighting them off.

“Daryl, look out!”

A surge of adrenaline slams into him, and he stabs the walker beside him. He moves forward into the crowd of them and stabs again, feeling walker blood and brains splatter his face and his clothes. Gunshots ring out, and Daryl stumbles as another walker grabs at him from behind.

Daryl falls to his knees. Beth surges forward and shoots the walker. It crumples, landing half across Daryl’s legs.

“Daryl -- are you bit?”

He can’t believe it. There is no goddamn way in this gone-to-shit world that Beth is standing in front of him, holding her hand out to help him up. Her eyes are wide and bright in the glare of the headlights. She’s soaked in sweat, spattered with blood, her face cut and bruised. Her sweater is gone; she’s standing there in just her torn yellow golf shirt and ragged jeans. She’s breathing hard, and he can practically feel the adrenaline pumping through her, radiating out of her pores.

She looks fierce and terrible and amazing.

Around them, every damn one of the walkers is dead.

“Daryl,” she says again, her voice strained and insistent. “Come on. We gotta go. Now.

Something in her voice stirs him, some steely quality he’d never heard from her until the day she’d flipped him off, wrenched her arm from his grip with unexpected strength, and told him she wasn’t going to stay in his suck-ass camp.

Suck-ass camp. Daryl feels the absurd urge to laugh.

Then she’s crouching down in front of him, the frayed knees of her jeans right in front of his face. He feels her touch his arm ever so gently, like she doesn’t want to startle him.

“Daryl,” she says, her voice low and urgent and kind, the hardness gone. “Daryl, please. We gotta go.”

He swallows hard and lifts his head to look at her properly. She’s watching him with such concern, like he’s the one who got kidnapped, who needed rescuing. He feels like a complete idiot.

“Ain’t bit,” he manages, his voice hoarse.

“Good,” Beth murmurs, something almost like a smile passing through her expression.

With a groan, Daryl shifts his weight, moving his screaming muscles and climbing awkwardly to his feet. She tries to help him but he bats her hand away. There’s a long moment when they stand there, just looking at each other, and Daryl feels the urge to pull her to him and hug her, hard, tuck her inside his vest and his shirt, wrap his arms around her.

Instead, he leans in and examines her face in the moonlight. Scratches, bruises. What’s shaping up to be a hell of a shiner on one eye where someone clearly punched her. A raw scrape on her chin. Drying blood crusted in her hair, spattered in drops all over her. Bits of walker gore stuck to her clothes, her skin. Daryl’s stomach feels like it’s dropped somewhere around his knees. The walkers weren’t enough; he wants to destroy something, wants to scream, wants to rage.

He wants to feel her solid weight against him, convince himself that she’s really here.

Daryl knows how it happened, this girl becoming everything he has in the world, but he doesn’t know why it matters. It didn’t used to. He didn’t used to need her. He didn’t used to need anybody.

He’s tried so hard for none of it to matter.

“Come on,” Beth says, turning away from him then, her long ponytail whipping behind her. She runs back to the car, sliding into the driver’s seat and slamming the door. Daryl moves as quickly as he can to the passenger side and slumps into the seat.

“Which way?” she asks, turning to look at him.

Daryl has no idea. No fucking clue. He feels overwhelmed, stunned into inaction.

“Just drive,” he croaks, sinking deeper into the seat. The car stinks of stale body odour and cheap whiskey, of blood and spent gunpowder.

He wants to know what happened, except he also really doesn’t.

Beth nods, saying nothing. She puts the car in gear and steps on the gas, propelling them back down the highway in the direction of the funeral home.

Daryl feels like he's left his body, like he’s watching himself from the backseat of the car. He squeezes his stinging eyes shut tightly, and tries to hold himself together.

He glances over at her, seeing the way her hands clench the steering wheel. Her arms are bruised and red, like someone’s rough hands twisted her slender forearm to restrain her. Daryl’s familiar; he’s had the same marks on his own skin enough times in his life to know.

Daryl’s stomach turns over and he forces himself to look away, out the windshield at the tunnel of light the headlights forge ahead of them.

He doesn’t know what happened to her, who took her, never mind why, but he knows she oughta be dead. Way this world works, she damn sure oughta be dead. Or worse. Him too, the way he was struggling to fight off that herd that had him.

Daryl takes a shaky breath and glances at her again. Her eyes are fixed ahead, her jaw stiff, her whole body tense. He looks at her and doesn’t see the same girl who ran beside him from the prison as it burned. He doesn’t see frailty anymore, doesn’t see someone doomed, someone in need of his protection. He doesn’t see just another dead girl. He sees only that she’s survived, and she made sure he did, too.

Damn girl saved his ass and then some.

 

***

Beth drives until they reach the funeral home, their pack still abandoned in the road, untouched. In silence, they gather it up and keep driving.

The gas gauge slides from half a tank to a quarter, then to an eighth. Not long after, the gas light begins to glow. Beth drives until the car has guzzled it all, exhausted it into the air, until the sun starts to spread faint light across the horizon and the engine sputters.

Beth eases the slowing car off the highway and down into the shallow ditch. She doesn’t know why she bothers; what’s another abandoned car on another abandoned highway? But she does anyway. Just in case there are others who might come looking for this car.

The engine dies with a shuddering hiss. Beth turns the key in the ignition and the headlights extinguish, leaving them sitting in the cool blue light before dawn.

Daryl grabs his crossbow and gets out of the car. Beth follows him, slinging the backpack over her shoulders. They search the back seat and pop the trunk, looking for supplies. Beth finds the holster she took off the walker the day before when she injured her ankle. They must have taken it off her while she was unconscious. She buckles it back on so she has her gun on one hip, her knife on the other. Daryl puts the handguns in Beth’s pack, along with a few boxes of ammo from the trunk.

They stand in the road a moment. Daryl stares at the car, a scowl on his face.

“Wish we kept some of that moonshine,” he says. “Oughta burn this fucker, too.”

Beth says nothing. The fight she had in her has run dry, and she’s left feeling hollowed out. She realises she’s trembling.

“Y’alright?” Daryl asks, taking a step closer to her. He’s examining her face in the half-light, his expression inscrutable.

“Yeah,” Beth replies shakily. “I’m fine.”

“Y’sure? They didn’t --” he gestures vaguely at her.

“No, I’m okay. Really. Just kinda banged up,” she says, trying to force a smile. It doesn’t work.

Daryl nods tightly and looks away. After a moment, he hands the crossbow to her. Beth takes it, watching as he shrugs off his leather vest and removes the long-sleeved denim shirt beneath. He hands it to her, then puts his vest back on over his sleeveless shirt.

“‘Just ‘til we find you somethin’,” he says, “That ain’t no gift.”

A real smile tugs at the corner of her mouth and she nods, setting the backpack down to pull the shirt around her. It’s large on her, to say the least, and it’s damp and dirty like everything else of theirs, but it’s warm from his skin. She buttons it up and shivers with pleasure; she hadn’t realised how cold she was.

Apparently satisfied, Daryl takes his crossbow back and turns to survey their surroundings. He’s still for a moment, looking down the highway and back up the other way, then into the dark, dense forest on either side. He seems to decide something, for he nods towards the woods.

“C’mon,” he says.

Nodding her agreement, Beth pulls the backpack on, and follows him into the tall grass that grows in the ditch.

Daryl reaches down and grabs her hand, tugging her after him into the woods. He laces his fingers with hers, holding her tightly.

He doesn’t let go for a long time.