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Title: Fall Right In
Author: Abelina/Abby/Abelinajt
Fandom/Pairing: The Walking Dead - Beth Greene/Daryl Dixon (Bethyl)
Setting: Season 4, Alone-divergence.
Rating: M
Summary: 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 and Daryl escape the funeral home together. An Alone-divergence Bethyl story.
Notes: Chapter title taken from lyrics to Breathe by Moist.

All Chapters Here
Fall Right In
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 mizing 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 found something like that in Beth, tootrust. 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.

Shit.

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.

*~*
to be continued in chapter 14>>

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