Hey all! Ok, so this fic has been unread by anyone but me... but I went through it like three times, so I hope it's worthy! I had many requests that I do another fic, so rest assured that I haven't just been scratching my butt and twiddling my thumbs between today and when I posted Don't Walk Away lol. I have been hard at work! Ahem. Anywho, here it is. This time in Daryl's point of view (which is no mean feat, by the way. It's haaaaard to inhabit his character, m'kay) So pull up a chair, put on your favourite tunes, and don't forget to drop me a line when you're done, because if reviews were tolls, and tolls were rolls... I need reviews! Please?! I might be able to wrack my brain for another storyline if I can gather sufficient encouragement!

P.S. This fic is dedicated to everyone who reviewed my last story... You guys are responsible for this one, too, because your awesome reviews were like moisture to the desert of my crooked little heart! Thank you all again, and I hope you enjoy the story :D

P.P.S This picks up after Beth's abduction, but during Daryl's time with the Marauders, and there's no Terminus. All stretches of storyline are deliberate and for my own purposes. Tee hee. Still, I kept the beginning close to the show... sort of. :) Begins at the episode "Us". Also, any discrepancies in Daryl's character are my fault. I'm not a dude, I did my best, but... you know. :| I tried.

Come Back To Me

"You may not be her first, her last, or her only. She loved before she may love again. But if she loves you now, what else matters? She's not perfect—you aren't either, and the two of you may never be perfect together but if she can make you laugh, cause you to think twice, and admit to being human and making mistakes, hold onto her and give her the most you can. She may not be thinking about you every second of the day, but she will give you a part of her that she knows you can break—her heart. So don't hurt her, don't change her, don't analyze and don't expect more than she can give. Smile when she makes you happy, let her know when she makes you mad, and miss her when she's not there."
― Bob Marley

I'm conflicted
I inhale now I'm addicted
To this place
To you babe
I can't stay away
Can't stay away
We get up, we go down
Then we go one more round
It's wrong, they say
I can't stay a- I can't stay away
No I can't stay a- I can't stay away

- I Can't Stay Away, The Veronicas

The feeling of soft earth beneath my feet as I hunted the rabbit kept at bay the thoughts of guilt that ate at my mind. A breeze rustled the dead leaves, the rabbit's ears flicked back and forth, turning my way. I knelt to steady my aim, my finger twitching on the crossbows' trigger.

I sighted and pulled, jumping slightly as another arrow flew past me so close my hair moved. I stood up, knowing exactly who the asshole was who'd shot it, because he was the only one I had a problem with in my new group.

"That's mine." I strode over to the rabbit. It looked like a pathetic pin cushion.

Len smirked at me. I glowered back.

"My arrow's the one that hit first. Cottontail belongs to me."

"I been out here since before the sun came up." I pulled his arrow out of the carcass and deliberately tossed it away. Len continued to blather about his Claim, or whatever, on the rabbit. Tellin' me that the rules didn't mean shit, and that the bunny was his whether I liked it or not. The dickwad was really starting to get under my skin.

I got close to his face. "It ain't yours."

He looked back at me, his eyes getting narrow.

"Ya know, I'll bet this bitch got ya all messed up, hmm? Am I right?"

I'd heard enough. I didn't like where this was going. Yet he continued to run his mouth off even after I walked away.

"Got ya walkin' 'round here like a dead man who just lost hisself a piece of tail."

I slowed.

"Must'a been a good'un... Tell me somethin'. Was it one of the little ones?" His voice got higher, like this excited him. My gut twisted. I unbuttoned my knife sheath. "They don't last too long out here..."

I remembered then why I felt so guilty. Losing her had been a huge mistake. I never should've... Nevermind. I pulled out my knife.

Before I could do anything satisfying, like stab this asshole in his ugly face, Joe, coming up from behind me, grabbed my fist and held it down. I resented the intrusion but I didn't react. After Joe's lecture in which I didn't pay much attention to anything but my thoughts of wiping that sadistic smirk off Len's face, I left them to take a piss.

Beth... I sighed, and looked at the sun. Just thinking of her made me feel sick with anxiety. Whatta I tell Maggie? If I ever saw her again, that is. Wasn't likely, but stranger things had happened. Hell, the Dead were walking. Ain't nothing stranger than that shit.

Reluctantly I returned to the others.

A few days later, I was hunting alone, and my thoughts went immediately to her like a dog worrying at a flea bite. I remembered her face in the candlelight at the kitchen table, her brow furrowed as she industriously wrote a Thank-You note to no one. I frowned. What burned me most was that Len was right. I was messed up about her, but not for the reasons he thought. She was my goddamn responsibility! And I'd fucked everything up.

My crossbow seemed to weigh like lead, or maybe that was just my conscience.

I never should've left 'er alone. Beth was a strong girl, a smart girl, but she'd been injured in an animal trap. I wished I knew who'd taken her so I could give them a bolt to the eye to reflect on.

Strangely, Beth had become very important to me. She was like a light at the end of a very dark, long, lonely tunnel. Her ability to get under my skin and rattle me to my very core still irked me, but I was beginning to understand her. She was, in some ways, more sure of her place in this world than I was, despite her youth. Wise beyond her years, you might say. I'd said things to her that I'd never told another living soul, and I missed that closeness, now.

I'd never really known what a family was until the world went to hell. Merle was a poor excuse for a loving brother, but then again I 'spose I was no better to him. In the end he had finally done right by me, and I was proud of him for that.

No, my real family was not by blood but by bond; Rick, Carl, Carol, Maggie, Glenn, Michonne, Hershel... His name made me cringe. He'd not deserved to die that way. Still, his death aside, the group at the Prison had been my real family. With them was where I belonged. Not here.

I wasn't having any luck spying any game, but didn't feel like returning to the others just yet. I needed to straighten myself out, much as I'd rather avoid it. Rip off the scabs, ya know?

Slowly I meandered west, spying a boulder. I could think things through up there, out of reach of anything that might want to take a bite.

Climbing up, I settled myself and took in the scenery as my mind wandered.

The big white Lincoln. Beth's bag. The one-eyed dog. The headstone that read 'Beloved Father'. Her hand in mine, seeking comfort now that she was alone in the world. Her warm weight on my back. In my arms.

I shook my head. Was this desire to protect the women in my life a sign of weakness? I remembered my chat with Randall, back at the farm, and his story about the man and his two daughters... I clenched my fists. Any man who would treat women like that was no better than a fucking animal. Hell, animals were better than that. Men who would do that deserved to turn. Men like Len. My fingers still itched for the smooth hilt of my knife at the thought of that asshole.

I dragged my thoughts back to the topic at hand: my guilt. Beth was only a young woman, in no shape to take on this world on her own. At her age I was more than expert at the lone-wolf thing, but that had happened by necessity. My father was not what anyone would call loving - not by a long shot. He was a dick, plain and simple. But he'd taught Merle and me the only useful thing he'd known: survival skills. I'd managed so far on that alright, without the mushy stuff to get in the way. And that was fine, when I was alone, or with a group like Joe's. But with women around... didn't work out so well.

Oddly enough I missed the women. I missed them a lot. I missed the concern and acceptance in Carol's eyes; the loyalty and innocence in Beth's; the trust and confidence in Maggie's. Before them, I'd been a whole different man. I was startled to realise that I had been well on my way to being just like my Old Man. And it hurt.

It had started with Carol. Sophia's loss hit her hard, but she'd borne up like a champ. For a while there, when she'd withdrawn from the group, she'd worried me. But she'd rallied. I still wasn't sure why I'd put so much effort into finding Sophia - Shane's pessimism at the time was making more and more sense in hindsight - but I didn't regret it. I guess when it came right down to it, I'd not wanted to see the sadness and desperation that lived in Carol's eyes. I had hoped to lift her spirits with the Cherokee Rose and the legend of the Trail of Tears, but in the end it was for nothing. Shane had been right all along.

I sighed and flicked away a curious yellowjacket.

I didn't want to go back to camp. I didn't want to be with those douchebags, and I didn't care about their stupid rule. I didn't care about them. They were not my family, and I wouldn't stay with them any longer than I had to. I knew for a fact that if I did, Len and I would come to blows, sooner or later.

Hunger knawed at my gut. It was sharp; the pain was real. I deserved this pain, for losing her. I deserved all the pain. What sort of man lets his charge get abducted? Obviously I was a poorer guardian than I liked to admit. I was all she had in the world, and I let her get nabbed. That was on me. So was her father's loss. If I hadn't stopped lookin' for the Governor, if I'd just helped Michonne recover the trail...

There were so many ifs. None of it did a damn bit of good. Hoping and praying had proved useless long ago. Guts only got you so far. Instinct was indistinct; nothing was for sure. Not even death. Not anymore.

A branch snapping caught my attention. A walker limped by below me, but never looked up. I watched it pass.

I thought of Judith. Could she possibly be the key to this disease? I knew the others at the Prison had all thought I was just a redneck at first, ignorant of higher intelligence, but I liked to shock people every now and then. I paid attention. I understood a lot more than I let on. I also knew when to keep my mouth shut... Usually. But I wasn't the dumbass they all thought I was. Even this group didn't really think I was too bright, I could tell. Which was just fine. You learned a lot more by watching and listening than by flappin' your lips, anyway.

If we were all infected, like Jenner said, was she? Maybe. I was no doc but I believed it was possible that she could be a non-carrier. I hoped that wherever she was, she was alive. I could take death; hell, I'd been living in it's shadow for the last two years. But if there was one death that had the power to break me, it was hers.

A tear rolled out of my eye and I wiped it away savagely. Tried to think of something else. Anything else.

With effort I forced my mind to go blank. I rubbed my forehead.


I blinked. I knew that voice.

I turned around, and there she was. Her clothes were bloody and torn, her hands stained red. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Beth smiled tiredly and dropped her hand from her knife. She walked toward me. I reached down to pull her up.

I didn't say anything, just pulled her into my arms and held her. She started to cry, held me back tight. I rubbed her back slowly.

Words fled. I wanted to ask where she'd been, if she was okay, how she'd escaped. All that came out of me when she pulled back to look up into my face was, "How-?"

She laughed. "Pure luck. He didn't frisk me for hidden weapons." She pulled a little switchblade out of her back pocket.

I smiled and held her close again before separating myself from her. I couldn't stop looking at her, for fear she wasn't real and I was hallucinating.

She smiled back. I felt more relief flood my chest. I'd never been so happy to see her dirty, knotty blond mop. The weight of the world had lifted from my shoulders. She was safe.

"I missed ya." The words were out before I could stop them. Her eyes got wide, but she continued to smile.

"I missed you, too."

I swallowed. "Are ya... okay?" I held my breath waiting for her response.

She nodded. "I am now that I've found you." She closed the distance between us and kissed my cheek. I felt the heat flood my face and hoped she couldn't tell.

I cleared my throat. The awkwardness was overwhelming.

"Have you been alone all this time?" She asked. I shook my head. She raised her brows, curious.

"I looked for ya, Beth. I ran all night." I swallowed, hoping she wouldn't hate me for giving up on her. "Another group picked me up." After a pause I continued, "I'm sorry I didn't look after ya better."

She shook her head, shrugging, a sad smile pulling at her chapped lips. "It's done. We're together again, that's what matters. It wasn't your fault. I shouldn't have been so careless as to let my guard down around an unfamiliar man." She shrugged again. "So... Now what? Are we going to keep looking for Rick and the others? Where's this new group?"

I looked back at her and thought of Len, and knew there was no way in hell I would be able to tolerate him anywhere near her. Ever.


She frowned, and I could see the argument in her eyes. "No, what?"

I rubbed my chin. "No, I ain't takin' ya back to the new group."

She blinked. "Why?"

"'Cause I ain't puttin' ya in any more danger, that's why." I glared at her a little to get my point across.

"Why would I be in danger? Who are you running with, Daryl?" Her voice cracked a bit. "Don't you want me with you anymore?"

I hated the glimmer of extra moisture that gathered in her eyes. I didn't want to scare her but I was putting my foot down on the matter. She would not be joining Joe's group. That would lead to nothing but trouble for us both.

I sighed. "Ya know that ain't what I want."

She sniffed. "But?"

I crossed my arms. "This group is no place for a girl. Woman," I corrected myself. She tilted her head at me, a faint smile on her face. "It's all men. Ya wouldn't be safe with 'em."

"How do you know?"

I thought back to what Len had said about the little ones, and tail. I glared past her shoulder.

"I just do, alright?!"

She stared at me, then shrugged a third time. "Fine. It's not safe if you say it isn't. What is safe, then?"

"Who's the little woman, Angelwings?"

I froze. Beth's smile dropped like the strings had been cut and fear filled her eyes at the sight of the newcomer.

I turned slowly. Len stared up at us expectantly. "Well? What's your name, honey?" He dragged his eyes over Beth in a way that made me see red. I felt Beth take my hand. I jerked her to stand behind me and fingered my knife with my other hand.

Len started to climb the rock. I looked around to make sure he was alone.

He stood when he reached us. "Ya weren't plannin' on runnin' off on us without sharin' were ya, Angelwings?" He sneered at me. To Beth he said, "Ya been Claimed, darlin'?"

"Fuck off, Len." My voice shook with my anger. He smiled wider.

"Is-is this her? The one ya lost?" He looked at Beth again, longer this time. I could practically hear his disgusting thoughts. Violating her would be fun to him. And not because he wanted to hurt her. 'Cause he knew it would hurt me.

I pushed his chest back hard when he came too close. "Keep your distance. She ain't for the likes of you."

He stared at me, then addressed her. "Did this pussy Claim ya, honey? Hmm?"

I squeezed Beth's hand, hoping she understood my silent plea.

Without any hesitation she replied, "I don't want anything to do with you you. Piss off."

He laughed. "I'll take that as a No." Pulling his eyes back to mine, he said, "Claimed."

I palmed my knife, gritting out, "No."

"Yes. Ya know the rule, Prettyboy. She's mine, now. Hand 'er over before I'm forced to teach ya." He moved closer.

"Joe never covered this." I said, blocking his way. "How do I know this Claim is legit?" Just a bit closer... My fingers ached from squeezing the hilt.

Len scoffed. "Don't matter. She's Claimed. Mine." He reached for Beth; she moved beyond his hand. "Come 'ere, honey. Be a good girl. I'll beat ya if I hafta." His tone was kind; the look on her face was not.

What I planned to do next could backfire badly; it could bring the whole group down on my head and I knew what would happen if it did. They would beat me to death, most likely. Beth, too. After they'd used her plenty, and in front of me, that is. If she was lucky they'd kill her within the week.

I would not allow Len to have her. I had a responsibility to Beth, to keep her safe and defend her from all threats, dead or alive. She was my family.

I decided to take the risk. We would have to run for a while, but if we could get a good head start, we might just make it. They were still looking for Lou's killer... Would Joe give up that close a lead to pursue me instead?

I hadn't known him long but I knew the answer. He'd pursue. We could try to find Rick and the others and put some numbers behind us, but if Joe caught us before then, there would be nothing I could do to save her.

Beth snarled, "Touch me and I'll poke you in the eye with my knife, asshole."

Len laughed. "Perhaps I ain't made myself clear, hon. Ya don't have a choice."

I could feel Beth's anger, the heat of it, on the skin of her palm.

"Says you. I don't have to do anything, pal. There's two of us and one of you." She pulled her big bowie knife out and held it at the ready.

I turned to look at her with new eyes. Who was this woman behind me? Where had she gotten the balls? I was impressed. I smiled.

"Yeah?" Len started to narrow his eyes in anger, hesitating at the threat of another huge knife. "There can be a lot more of me real quick, bitch." To me he growled, "Hand her over, now."

I smirked. "Ya ain't too bright, are ya? The lady said No. Back the hell off, Len. Don't force us to hurt ya."

"I'll damn well do more'n hurt 'im," she grumbled under her breath.

I snorted and smirked.

We watched Len carefully. He didn't seem to be showing any signs of backing down, and I was starting to debate with myself whether or not we should maim him or just finish him and run when Joe's voice interrupted my train of thought.

"What's goin' on here, gents?"

Beth and I turned as one to face the new threat. Len turned, too.

"He ain't followin' the rule, Joe. I Claimed 'er, and he won't give 'er up. I gotta teach 'im, Joe. Tell 'im."

Joe looked at me. "That true, Daryl?"

I looked Joe in the eye, hard. "I just got 'er back, Joe. He ain't gettin' her."

Joe looked at Beth, then back at me. "Is this the girl you lost?"

I nodded once.

He grinned. "Well, shit! That's great! You gotta have a horseshoe up your ass, boy, to be that lucky. She find you?"

I nodded again. "Just a few minutes ago."

Joe nodded too. "I see. Well, this is a bit of a conundrum, ain't it?"

My gut sank.

Len smirked at me. I glared. Joe looked at Len and said, "Why did you Claim her? Clearly she knows Daryl. And why were you followin' him?"

Len sniffed. "I didn't follow 'im. Just happened to stumble on him, is all. He weren't even huntin' like he said he was gonna. Was just mopin' on this big rock like a damn crybaby."

Joe kept staring at him til he answered both questions.

"He didn't Claim 'er, so's I did. Tell 'im to hand 'er over!"

I growled, "She told you, No. Ya can't have her."

Beth nodded behind me. "Damn right."

Joe laughed. "She's feisty! I like that." He smiled at Beth. She stared back, and I felt my stomach roll, suddenly unsure of how the chips were going to fall, here. The air was tense.

"Now Len, you know Daryl was lookin' for someone he lost. You ain't got no call to be Claimin' a member of his family."

Len hissed through his teeth, and glared at me. Joe continued.

"Furthermore, we don't Claim family members of the group. You know that. Daryl didn't, and I know you knew that, too. Were you tryin' to get yourself killed over a woman, now? Are you that hard up?"

Len growled, "Ain't you?"

Joe shook his head. "Not so hard up that I don't know when to take a hint and back off."

Len jumped down off the boulder and strode to Joe, getting right in his face. "Ya know this ain't right. Claimed is Claimed, Joe. That was yer rule. Bendin' it now for the likes of that asshole will only cause anarchy. Ya know it will."

"I ain't bendin' nothin'. Would you react any differently if she were, say, your sister, Len? Remember what happened to her?"

Len refused to answer.

"That's what I thought. Get that anarchy idea outta your head, or get the fuck outta my group. I'll teach you if I hafta."

With a last glare at Beth and I, Len stomped off in the direction to camp. I knew I'd just narrowly avoided a life-threatening disaster with Joe's intervening help; I also knew that the tension between Len and I from now on would be just that much worse. This wasn't over. Not to him. Not by a long shot.

And that was why I wanted to get Beth as far from him as I could, as soon as I could.

After Len was gone, I helped Beth down off the boulder and said to Joe, "Thanks."

He shrugged. "Weren't nothin'. Although I don't believe I've improved matters any, unfortunately." He smiled wistfully. He held out his hand to Beth. "Name's Joe, Missy."

She put her hand in his. "Beth. Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise. Listen, Daryl," he began, but I held up my hand, stopping him.

"We're goin'."

He nodded. "That would probably be best. I sure do hate to lose ya. You're a damn sight easier to get along with, I'll tell ya." He winked at Beth. She smiled.

I re-sheathed my knife. "Even so, he won't let this go."

Joe sighed. "No, he won't. Damn fool. You'd best make tracks, and cover 'em. If he slips away... " The unfinished thought hung in the air.

I nodded once. "I know it."

"Well. Good luck then."

I shook his hand. Beth leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Joe. We sure appreciate what you've done for us. I just got Daryl back." She lifted my hand, her fingers firmly threaded through mine. "I'm not letting anyone separate me from him again."

Joe smiled at her, squeezed the free hand she'd offered him. "Watch your backs, you two."

"We will." She replied. I tugged her hand, and she waved to Joe as I led her away through the forest, looking for a waterway to follow.

I handed her the crossbow. "Here. Keep an eye behind ya."

She nodded and took it, hefting it tightly to her shoulder like I'd taught her. A few minutes later I found what I was looking for, and trading her my bag for the bow, we took to the water.

"Why are we walkin' in this stream? My feet are freezin'."

I pulled her back when she went to head for the shore. "Not yet. We have to set a false trail."

She looked up at me with those big eyes. "He's already hunting us, isn't he?"

I nodded. "Dumbass is more bullheaded than anyone I've ever known. He won't let go til of this one of us is dead."

She frowned a bit. "Do we really have time to be doing this? Shouldn't we just make a run for it?"

I reached out to touch her chin. "I gotta end this, Beth. I know his kind. I can't have him threatening ya. I won't."

She looked at me thoughtfully. "You're gonna kill him, aren't you."

I nodded once. I had no taste for doing this, but we had to make a stand, and we both knew it.

"Then what do you need me to do?"

I blinked. I'd expected at least some sort of argument from her about the sanctity of human life, or some similar twaddle. I kept having to remind myself that Beth wasn't a girl, not anymore, with girlish notions and daydreams. She didn't have to tell me that she'd killed her first man, and made her peace with it. She was no longer innocent to the seedier ways of the world; her blood-stained hands confirmed that much. It was just hard for me to stop seeing her as a child, I guess.

"What? Did you expect me to try to stop you? I don't want you to do this, I'll admit that," she looked at my chest, "But I understand why you're doing it."

There was a pause, so I waited. She could usually be depended upon to fill a silence.

She didn't disappoint.

"You do what you gotta do, Daryl. You just make damn sure it's him who loses, you hear?" She wrapped her arms around me before I could move away, but since we were alone and there was no one to see, I allowed her, her moment.

When she let go she said, "Forget the false trail. Let's just get it over with. I want this done."

I searched her eyes for any sign of hesitation, but there was none. She'd made up her mind.

She tugged my ear playfully, and repeated her question. "What do you need me to do?"

I leered at her, waggled my brows, and smirked. She rolled her eyes.

"I don't know why I put up with you."

I chuckled. "'Cause my charmin' personality is fuckin' irrisistable, darlin'."

She started to undress. "You keep telling yourself that!"

I snickered, and turned my back to scout the area we'd ended up in after our stroll upstream. It had ended at a waterfall, and this was actually a perfect place to bait a trap. I could see only one way for that dickhead to approach, and that was from downstream, near the right bank, where we'd just entered. The vegetation was literally too thick for him to pop out anywhere else.

Behind us, a huge oak grew over the waterfall, it's trunk anchored firmly into the cliffside. It's branches were low enough and full enough to provide me sufficient cover should I decide to take the high position and cut him down when he appeared.

I chewed my lip. I wasn't much for unfair advantages, but this was family I was defending. The only thing I cared about was that the advantages were more mine than his.

I turned to Beth, who was down to her skivvies. She shivered.

"Listen. He can only enter from there." I pointed at the way we'd come in, by the bank. "I'm gonna climb that oak and take the high position. You, sit on that rock."

I pointed to a flat rock in the middle of the pool at the falls' base.

"Try to look helpless." I grinned.

She snorted. "I'll do my best."

I felt bad for using her as bait; fortunately she didn't seem to mind overly much. She knew I'd never let her come to harm.

Beth started to wade out into the water, but I grabbed her arm and handed her knife to her.

"Just in case."

She nodded, and took it. While she got comfortable on the rock, the knife tucked under her and out of sight, a beam of sunlight warming her damp skin through the dense foliage, I climbed the oak and settled myself in to wait.

Three hours went by, and the sun was setting fast. He'd either lost our trail when we took to water or he was reluctant to enter this place in the light, exposed.

I climbed down out of the tree and shook Beth awake. She was chilly to the touch, so I picked her up and carried her ashore, wrapped her in her dry clothes and my jacket.

"Didn't come, huh." Her voice was crusty from sleep.

"Nope. I ain't lettin' my guard down, though, case he decides to try somethin' through the night."

She shook her head. "You can't stay awake that long. You'll get sloppy."

I chuckled. "Don't ya worry 'bout me. You just get warm. I'll wake ya if I can't keep my eyes open."

She nodded and curled up in a ball. Within seconds she was snoring gently.

I wouldn't be waking her through the night to take over watch. Fear had the amazing ability to keep me vigilant. I was in no danger of falling asleep on the job.

When dusk finally fell, and I had secured the area, sure Len hadn't yet discovered our little hollow, I moved Beth underneath a dense, thorny bush. She didn't wake when I hid her.

Len should have found us by now. I didn't want to, but I had no choice but to hunt him down. We had waited here too long. Something was wrong, I could feel it in my gut.

I heard a rustling, and I trained my crossbow at the source of the sound. I waited, patiently.

A walker stumbled into view, getting tangled in the brush. I dispatched it, and silently got up to retrieve my bolt, when I felt a cool blade pinch my neck.


"No sudden moves, Hoss. Or I'll make Sleeping Beauty stab you herself."

I dropped my bow and put my hands up, my gut sinking. Damn! How the fuck did he slip past me?! I spotted oak leaves in his hair. Shimmied down through the tree, didja? Reluctantly, I had to admit that that was a really good move, goddamn me if it wasn't. Knowing that just made me angrier.

"This is a little lame, ain't it?" I goaded him as he prodded me back toward Beth. "Ya had to sneak up on me like a coward? Couldn't chance comin' at me head on, eh? Fuckin' pussy."

He clipped the back of my head sharply. "Shut the fuck up, bitch. I'm in charge here. Ya do what I say, now."

I snorted. "Domination to get yer dick up?"

He shoved me down to my knees, hard. I winced.

"She won't complain on that score, Hoss. She gon' take ever' inch I give 'er."

I looked up, and felt my blood boil as I saw Beth, her hands bound behind her back, one ankle tied to a sapling. Just one; the bastard wanted her accessable.

"Fuck you!" She spat around her gag.

Suddenly murder didn't seem so abhorrent to me. Suddenly it seemed... Necessary.

"Oh we'll get to that, don't ya worry, honey." He sneered at her lasciviously.

"Fight me for 'er."

Len guffawed. "... What?"

"Ya heard me. No weapons. Just you..." I glared up at him from under my dirty bangs, "And me. If ya got the balls, that is."

He looked at me with deep thought, but I could tell he was going to refuse, not wanting to give up his present advantage. So I decided to sweeten the deal. Tip him to my way of thinking.

"Tie one of my arms 'hind my back. Hell, I'll even let ya keep your blade."

I saw the excitement in his eyes. This was just too easy, and he took the bait like the dummy he was.

"Ya think you're that skilled, Prettyboy? We'll see. I'm'ma gut ya like a fish, and then I'll do as I like with 'er."

He grabbed my right wrist and trussed it up behind me, wrapping the rope around my torso so tightly it was painful. I allowed it. There was definately something to be said for reverse psychology. Was working like a charm.

I caught Beth's worried gaze, the question in her eyes, and the panic. I winked. She frowned.

Len shoved me away, and pulled his blade. Beth's blade, in fact. I must have left it on the rock when I moved her. But to my surprise, he hurled it at the nearest tree.

"Change your mind?"

"Don't need no knife to take ya on, trussed or not, Prettyboy. I'm gonna enjoy beatin' the shit outta your worthless hide with my bare hands."

I backed away, smiling, drawing him away from her. I'd fought and won too many fights to be worried about losing this one. Merle had taught me how to throw one-armed haymakers like this when we were younger for fun. Besides, I had too much to live for to even think about losing.

"Whatta ya waitin' for then, ya limpdick? Let's do this."

He smiled, and rushed me. Beth cried out, but I didn't hear any more out of her after that.

His first punch missed. The following punches did not. I managed to land a few here and there, good ones, too; at one point he spat out a tooth, but I was taking more damage than I was inflicting. Which was fine, but damn I was starting to get sore.

We rolled around on the bank for a moment or two, each of us grappling for the upper hand, when I finally managed to pin him by the throat with my free arm, and, bearing all my weight down, began to crush him.

He struggled beneath me, slowly getting weaker, when he brought up his knee and pulled the lowest of low moves and nailed my sack.

I grunted and saw stars for a second and rolled off onto my free hand and knees, but he hopped on my back, on top of my now numb arm, latched onto my chin, yanking it back viciously and exposing my throat skyward.

"Ya gon' die, son," he rasped into my ear, and held on tighter as I tried to throw him, tip him off balance, but both his feet were bracing the ground at my sides, and I was boxed in.

He landed a hard blow to my ear and the ringing was deafening in my head. Desperate now to get him off, my left arm the only thing keeping him from crushing my chest into the ground with his weight, I did the only thing I could.

I felt him lean in to speak in my ear again, even though I couldn't hear shit, and I whipped my head back into his face, as hard as I could. I saw stars again briefly, but felt him fall off my back, and I scrambled to my feet, watching as he held his hands to his face to stem the flow of blood.

Slowly I began to hear what he was saying.

"-You sumbith! Fuck!" He moved his hand and I saw a split, swollen lip. He spit again; three more teeth hit the ground.

I started to laugh.

He glared at me, enraged. "Thut up! God damn ith! Ya fuckin' bith!"

I braced myself as he came up off his knees with a roar, murder in his slitted eyes.

As soon as he was close enough, I round-house kicked him in the cheek, and when he hit the ground, I was on him before he could get his knee up. I bore down on his chest from the side this time, with my knees, and with my left thumb, began to apply hard pressure to his windpipe.

I watched with pleasure, deep, satisfying pleasure, as his eyes began to pop and his gasps became laboured and weak. After a whole minute, I felt his trachea give, heard the snap as I crushed his airway.

After that I knew he was done, so I got up and backed away. He thrashed like a fish, trying to breathe, til soon he lay still, eyes watching me, and then it all stopped, those wide eyes glazed over.

Limping to the tree, I pried Beth's knife out of the bark and returned to his corpse, stabbing it once through the eye. Then, exhausted, I cut my arm free and laid down on my back, breathing hard.

After a few minutes I rolled over to locate Beth.

She sat in a shaft of moonlight, her cheeks wet with tears. My gut flipped. Damn women's tears. Tore me up every time.

Her sobs got louder as I crawled closer and she could finally take in all the damage I'd sustained. I knew both my eyes were black, or would be soon. A few of my fingers were broken, and I was pretty sure some ribs were, too. As I cut her loose her hands immediately came up to my face to gently touch the wide gash in my cheek. I winced, and new tears rolled down her pale face.

"Oh, Daryl," she sniffed as soon as I'd removed her gag, "Why the hell did you do that? Huh? Look at you!"

I smiled, even though it felt like rubbing my face on hot asphalt.

"I'd do it again, if'n it meant you'd be safe."

She threw her arms around me and I grunted, but when she tried to pull away I wouldn't let her. The pain was worth the knowledge that she was safe. I'd already failed her once; fate had offered me a second chance. I'd die before I'd fail her again. Before I'd fail anyone in my little family again.

She pulled my arm over her shoulder and helped me limp back to the pile of clothes she'd been sleeping under, setting me down as gently as she could on my backside. She yanked the red rag from my back pocket, dampened it in the stream, then settled in beside me to clean me up as best she could.

I closed my eyes as she dabbed the blood from my cheek. We didn't say a single word as she worked, returning frequently to the water to rinse the rag. She began to hum quietly, a tune I vaguely recognised from the night we first took the Prison. The Parting Glass, I finally recalled.

I felt her brush my bangs off my forehead; I opened my eyes, and as I looked into her huge ones, the moon casting a pall over her already pale face, I felt a rush of heat flood mine. She was still in nothing but her underwear. Her shoulders were dimpled with gooseflesh, and my thoughts were suddenly not at all familial toward her.

Her eyes moved from mine to my lips, and back. Her tongue darted out to wet her own lips; her chest heaved silently. I saw my rope-burned wrist rise and my still-tingling fingers brush her soft cheek. Her hand reached up, her fingers twining between my own.

My pain was suddenly gone, all I could think about was how warm her skin would feel against mine, and I wanted her. All of her.

She began to lean in to me, still humming under her breath. She petered off when our lips met; I felt her arms snake around my neck.

Gently, she pulled me down with her, her hands exploring my face and neck. My own hands were locked on her ribs, thumbs stroking her soft flesh just out of reach of the forbidden.

I reared, and she allowed it. "What is it?" She whispered.

I looked into her eyes, eyes that suddenly seemed so old. I remembered that she was a woman now, not a girl. A very young woman, a very tempting young woman, prone and warm in my arms. A woman I could take, and damn me, I wanted to. I knew this, yet I hesitated.

I didn't say anything, just kept looking at her face. She stroked my brow, and managed to surprise me again with her next words.

"Having second thoughts?"

I shrugged.

She smiled. "Daryl. I want this. I wanted you to be my first..."

I frowned. "Ya told me you were okay."

It was her turn to shrug. "I came to terms with it. It certainly proved to be a handy distraction." She drew her finger across her throat and smiled at me.

I nodded. So she had omitted that detail about her abduction... I wasn't sure how to feel about that, given the present situation.

She bracketed my cheeks with her palms. "I'm not afraid. I'm not messed up. I've accepted it, made peace with my guilt. You should do the same."

I snorted. "What guilt?"

She tilted her head, and looked at me in a way that I knew I hadn't fooled her at all, not for one second.

"Why are you hesitating, then, if not out of guilt? I can feel you against my thigh, Daryl. Certainly, getting it up isn't the problem."

I looked at her with new eyes. Jesus, when had she grown up on me?

She continued to shred me with logic.

"What happened to me wasn't your fault, if that's what you're thinking. There wasn't any way you could have prevented it." She paused, playing with the collar of my shirt. "I wanted to get back to you so badly, in fact, that I allowed that man to attempt to rape me in order to distract him from my true intent. I slit his throat while he was, occupied, to save myself. Because I had to get back to you."

My gut started to feel funny, like it did when something intense was about to go down.

"You've come to mean quite a bit to me, Mr. Dixon." She kept smiling. "Whether or not you feel the same doesn't matter. As long as you make love to me now, I'll be whole again. I'm not a little girl anymore. I know what I want. This world doesn't give out many opportunities. If you don't mind, I'd like to take full advantage of this one."

What did she mean, whether I felt the same or not? The feelings I was experiencing were confusing, but I cared for her... Much more than I should, I was discovering. But most of what she said made sense, so I went along with it.

She leaned up to catch my lips, the supplicant pressure of her kiss sweet with longing. Asking. Begging prettily. I gave in without any more fuss, drunk on lust.

For a while, kissing was all we did, our hands roaming each other's backs. She shivered when I hooked a finger under the catch at the back of her bra and unsnapped it. It fell away and she molded my palms over her warm flesh.

I'm not going to lie, it'd been quite a while since I'd last been with a woman. I could count on one hand how many I'd had in my life, which I supposed at my age was a pretty small number. I was not what you would call a sex addict; I enjoyed it, sure, but I was not the type of man to take advantage of every single offer that came my way. Sometimes the smartest thing to do was to say thanks, but no thanks. There were just some pies that had too many pieces missing, ya know?

Merle had been the type to stick his fingers in all pies, which was why he'd gotten the Clap every now and then; he would sleep with any woman that was willing. Or needed to pay the rent.

I had no desire to repeat my brother's mistakes. That, and he was more flirtatious, I guess. He always did all the talking. I was the shy one, always had been. He never hesitated where women were concerned. Merle never seemed to hesitate about anything. I did nothing but hesitate.

Besides, spending most of my time honing my tracking skills didn't make for much time to socialise. Even now, when I knew my family so well, I was still a bit awkward in group situations that didn't involve danger. They just made me uncomfortable. One on one, though, that was different. That I could handle. Even two or three was managable. It was the big groups that made me nervous.

Hell. Women, themselves, made me nervous. I'd always liked to look at them, but getting close meant exposing myself to ridicule, and if they were anything like Rick's wife, Lori, I wanted nothing to do with them. But the ones like Beth, and Carol, they were alright. The ones that weren't out to shrink me, I guess. The real ones. They were worth swallowing my nerves and getting to know. Michonne and Maggie fit into that category, too.

Beth hummed softly, kissing my neck gently, running her hands through my hair, her fingernails teasing my scalp. I followed the line of her neck from her mouth to her chest, and the scent of her skin was enough to drive me wild.

Her fingers slipped from my hair to the buttons on my shirt, popping some in her haste to get it off me. I smiled as she tossed it away and she went after my belt with an eagerness that I envied. She was not afraid, even after what she'd been through. Why was I?

We'd led two very different lives, she and I. That was the only reason I could think of. She had grown up in a loving family with loving siblings who helped and supported each other. I'd grown up depending on my own wits to get me by. My father wasn't around much, and when he was, he was usually an asshole. A drunk asshole. The same went for Merle. My ma had burnt up in a fire she'd started. Smoking in bed had not been her smartest habit.

Beth had had people to depend on her whole life. I'd had none. I guess that was why I envied her ability to give others the benefit of the doubt; she believed there was good in almost everyone. I needed to see proof before I gave anyone even a modicum of trust.

Her lips brushed my ear and she whispered, "Stop thinking, Daryl. Just feel."

I sighed, and stopped thinking about anything except her warm body beneath mine.

We were down to our birthday suits now. She trailed her fingers over every part of my skin she could reach, teasing, before she pulled me down and sucked my bottom lip into her mouth, one hand holding my jaw while the other grasped my backside, encouraging me on. Her thighs gently gripped my waist as I started to move, and I buried my face in her neck as I slid inside her for the first time. She was so warm.

I wrapped my arms under her back and gripped her shoulders as I got a good rhythm going, and soon we were both slick with sweat, despite the cool night. She whimpered beneath me; I soothed her with wet kisses to her whole face.

Her back arched. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. I increased my pace, and moments later I bit down on my own fist to keep quiet.

Leaning up on my elbow, I looked into her face. She smiled.

"Thank you."

I nodded, still breathing hard. I couldn't bring myself to open my mouth.

She rolled onto her side, and pulled my jacket over her damp skin. I pulled on my jeans, settled in against her back, my arm over her waist.

I fell asleep without saying a word. I didn't want her to know I was panicking inside.

What the fuck had I let her talk me into?!

I awoke not too many hours later at dawn. When I tried to get up, my stiff muscles screamed in protest. Oh yeah. I was beat up again.

I looked at Beth's sleeping body and memories of last night came rushing back, with a heaping dose of guilt right on top. I ran my hand through my dirty hair. What have I done?

I picked up the crossbow and tugged on my shirt. She still had my jacket so I left without it. It was chilly this morning; I wished I had my poncho, but it had disappeared when the Prison was attacked.

I sighed as I hunted our breakfast. That was just something else to feel guilty about, losing everyone. We were splintered off, and who knew if we'd all ever meet up again. I was beginning to wish I'd ended up with Rick instead. At least that would have been simple. He didn't have the need to share his feelings. Ugh.

I spotted a squirrel and shot it. I tucked it into my belt, re-loaded the bolt, and kept hunting. I didn't want to face Beth just yet.

My guilt about caving in to her last night was ten times worse than the guilt I'd had after losing her. I felt like a bag of shit for screwing her. What sort of idiot was I to have let her convince me to do that? The more I thought about it the angrier I got. Not at her, but at myself. I had always had a strong moral code that I lived by. It had kept me on the straight and narrow back when Merle was trying so damn hard to make me sink as low as him. Nothing pissed him off more than when I refused to go along with his hare-brained schemes, which were always just his roundabout way of getting more drugs. At the end of the day he never could hide his true motives from me. Hell, sacrificing himself to the Governor was the first decent thing my brother had ever done; it was also the last thing. He may have been an asshole his whole life, but I liked to think that reuniting with me and the others had gotten to him. Changed him for the better.

Regardless, what I had done was irresponsible, and unchangeable. What was done, was done. Unfortunately, that didn't make me feel any better.

When I returned to camp she was still asleep, so I dumped Len's and the stray walker's bodies out of sight. Started a fire. Cooked the squirrels I'd caught.

She woke up as the meat was almost done, stretched, smiled at me. I wanted to die. I wouldn't look at her.


I stared at the fire.

She got dressed and washed her face, then sat down near me. I forced myself not to cringe at her proximity.

She was quiet as she watched me. I just ate my meat and didn't look up. I knew that was probably only going to aggravate her, but I was afraid that if I started talking, I'd say more than I should and then the fight would be on. We'd already done that once before, and I really didn't feel like blubbering like a baby in front of her twice.

She silently helped herself to the meat and sat back to eat it. The fact that she didn't start needling me about what I was feeling was a relief - a suspicious relief. I was expecting it to happen, sooner or later. With dames, it always came down to feelings. I damn well knew what I felt, and I did not like it.

We packed up and she kicked out the fire. She asked, "Where to?" That was all. She said nothing else as I led her out of the glen, around an outcrop, and back to the tracks. I wondered how long this could possibly last.

Stupidly, the longer she was quiet the more I began to wish she'd breach the subject.

I was fucking messed up.

So when she tripped, and I hissed, "Quiet! Ya wanna bring ever' fuckin' walker down on our asses?! Jesus!", I was disappointed that yet again she did not engage. She just looked at me until I felt like an even bigger idiot. She really hadn't made very much noise, and I had overreacted. But I couldn't help it. I was wound up so tight I'd have made a pocketwatch cringe.

We continued down the tracks, and she hung back, giving me space, I assumed. She was being so considerate it made me that much angrier.

Finally, I spun on her, stuck my finger in her face.

"That can never happen again, ya hear me?"

She stared at my finger a second before lifting her eyes to mine. I could see mirth there and I wanted to choke her, but just barely controlled the urge.

"Why're ya laughin'?! Huh?"

Beth raised her brow. "You seem to be experiencing some regret, I take it."

I started to pace back and forth in front of her. Damn, I wanted this set down, and I was going to give it to her come hell or high water.

"Damn right! I'm 'sposed to be protectin' ya, not screwin' ya! Jesus Christ, Beth! What were ya thinkin' last night? Goddamn it." I ran my hands through my hair for what felt like the millionth time that day.

She frowned a little. "You are protecting me, Daryl. You never stopped." She eyed me speculatively. After a moment her lips made a moue and a knowing look filled her eyes.

I glared. "What?!" I snarled, louder than I meant to.

She smiled. "I think I know what's going on here."

I snorted. "Well, well, give this girl a prize." I clapped mockingly. I was being a total asshole but I couldn't seem to stop, now that I was on a roll.

Now, her eyes narrowed. "Don't. Don't pull that shit on me, Daryl. You wouldn't be acting like a bratty two-year old if something wasn't wrong. And we both know you're feeling guilty again, no? Tell me I'm wrong." She folded her arms across her chest.

I continued to pace and glare in turns, but kept my mouth shut. For now.

"I don't understand you. Why feel guilty about last night? We both wanted it, or it wouldn't have happened. It's not like I expect you to fall in love with me, or anything. I just needed you last night, and I thought maybe you could use some release, too. Jeez, Daryl. Have a cow."

She started to rub her arms. It was chilly when we weren't moving. She tried to walk past me, but I moved to block her. She raised her brows impatiently.

"Ain't you a peach. Ya don't seem to realise the implications here, Beth. What we did was irresponsible and ya shoulda just left me alone!"

She guffawed. "Seriously? Obviously I'm going to have to spell this out for you." She put her hands on her hips, one leg cocked. I killed the thought that she looked cute all flushed like that, viciously.

"You can't see yourself, but you look a sorry mess, Dixon. You fought and killed a man to protect me! Maybe I wanted to give you something back. To say, "Thanks, Daryl, for saving my skin for the hundredth time." Because he almost killed you, and I was feeling grateful that he didn't, and sleeping with you was a way to make you feel better. Myself, as well. You're not the only one who feels guilt, you know! God! You can be such an asshole!" She started to cry.

"But most of all, I did it because-" She trailed off, wiping her nose, pressing her lips together tightly, like she'd said too much.

I took a step closer to her. "Because...?"

She shook her head, resolved. "Nevermind. You wouldn't understand." She tried to pass me again, but this time I grabbed her arm and got right in her face.

"Tell me, Beth." Even to me my voice sounded deadly calm.

She shook her head. "No."

"Yes." I increased the pressure on her arm til she winced, but she held her ground and simply glared back at me.

For a long moment we stood there glaring at each other. Suddenly I remembered she'd mentioned something about her own guilt...

"What are you so guilty about?"

She wrenched her arm out of my hand and her face crumpled. My gut twisted, but I staunchly ignored it.

Sobbing, she gritted out, "Because I saved myself for you, and all you can think about is your goddamn conscience! God forbid you admit to yourself that you're afraid because you liked it! I didn't have to twist your arm too damn hard, Daryl. You know you wanted it, wanted me, even if you thought it was wrong. It wasn't! It was right, and I'll never regret it! Stop saying it was wrong, it wasn't! You didn't take advantage of me, you didn't rape me, you didn't do anything I didn't want you to. I'm not too young, I'm a woman, goddamn it! You need to start treating me like one!"

I stared at her. Wow.

She kept going. "I feel guilty now because you're acting like I'm a fucking Jezebel! I only wanted to help you!" She pushed my chest, then covered her face and turned away. "You've done so much for me... I just... I just don't want to be a burden to you anymore."

I wanted to kick myself. She was right. I was being an asshole. I was overracting, and I was afraid. I was afraid because I had liked making love to her, and I was afraid that I'd liked it so much I'd do it again and... And she would know that I cared for her. That... that I was falling in love with her. That scared the hell out of me.

I'd never let a woman get that far under my skin. Ever. Dames only ended up hurting you in the end. But...

And there it was. That tiny seed of doubt. But. It held so many possibilities. So many opportunities for disaster. There weren't very many women around anymore... Did I want to risk my heart to her?

As I wrestled with my thoughts, Beth wiped her eyes and picked up the garbage bag. Pointing to a nearby house, she said low, "I'm tired. I'm going to lie down in there for a while." She paused, her thumb rubbing her brow. Then she left.

I watched her go, then slowly followed, my thoughts all messed up again.

The house she went into was empty. For once I was disappointed; killing some walkers would have helped me blow off some steam.

She tossed the bag down in the livingroom and laid down on the couch, curling into a ball toward the wall. I glanced her way but kept going. I found a bedroom upstairs that I could sort out my thoughts in, far from her melancholy presence.

After a while I was tired of thinking, because I knew I had to apologise. It all came down to that. I was the asshole here, and I had to own up to it. And I would... After a nap.

Leaning my bow against the side of a bed covered in wrinkled, musty-smelling sheets, I flopped down and rested my wrist over my face. My eyes started to drop shut when I heard movement downstairs, and after a moment soft notes from a piano began to drift up here.

The song she sang was slow and sad. I sighed. I knew I had to do it, but saying "I'm sorry" had never been something I could do graciously. I really should go down and get it over with...

When she stopped playing I was still laying there, trying to muster up some courage. Merle would be laughing at me if he were still here. Laughing and telling me what a pussy I was turning into, falling for a woman I'd only slept with once. In my imagination I kicked in his teeth. It felt good; cathartic.

I heard a soft scrape and turned my head toward the doorway.

"Daryl?" Her voice was small.


She looked at the floor. "Look, I... I'm sorry I yelled at you. I didn't mean it." When she looked up her eyes were brimming with tears.

Something inside my chest cracked. She'd never cease to surprise me, this one.

We stared at each other for a moment. A moment rife with tension. When I finally lifted my arm, beckoning her to join me in the musty bed, I knew I was going to eat my own words. Story of my life, these days.

She eagerly slipped in next to me, her smile barely concealed as she snuggled tightly into my side. She was warm and soft and I stroked the blond mass of hair under my hand slowly. She wrapped an arm around my chest and burrowed the other deep under my back. Her thighs rested snug to my hip.

"Ya ain't got nothin' to be sorry for."

I felt her raise her head to look at my face. I looked down at her, hating the moisture in her wide eyes because I'd put it there.

With my right hand I reached down to wipe away one of those god-awful tears, but ended up stroking her cheek gently, rubbing the moisture into her skin until it disappeared. The longer I laid there staring into her eyes, the stronger the urge to kiss her became. It flooded my gut like a hot wave, rising higher and higher until I could resist it no more. But before I did anything else, I had to get my thoughts off my chest, which was, namely, that damn apology.

"I..." Clearing my throat, I tried again. "I'm sorry, Beth. For makin' ya feel like that... And for actin' like an asshole 'bout it."

To me, my apology sounded hopelessly inadequate; pathetic. But she smiled. Despite my cruddy start, I kept going.

"I did... Like it, that is. It's just..."

She waited patiently for me to get my thoughts in order. It took longer than I would have liked.

"... You were right. I am... Afraid."

She squeezed my chest. "That's okay," she whispered. The relief I felt was tremendous.

Leaning up on an elbow to see me better, she said, "You're still the bravest man I know." She played with the curly hair peeking over the open collar under my chin.

My hands came up to tangle themselves in her hair, and I pulled her down to rest on my chest, my lips seeking hers. I didn't feel very brave; I felt like an awkward teenager. But it was time to let go of this guilt I carried like a lead weight. Here, with her, in this bed, seemed like a good place to start.

A few hours later I stared out the window, a quarter moon casting dim shadows across us. Beth's warm weight rested peacefully on my chest, and I rubbed my calloused palm over her arm absently.

Her breathing was even and shallow with sleep. We'd taken our time, made love slowly. I still felt a little guilty, but I was learning to push it down, and put it away. She'd said something about that once, about putting something away...

I struggled to remember, but it wouldn't come. We'd said so much to each other, yet in a way, we'd said barely anything at all. At times like this, we didn't have to talk. Our actions said more than enough.

Her fingers twitched on my neck. I moved my chin so I could press my lips gently to the top of her head. She stilled.

If I was honest with myself, it was getting easier to handle the guilt. Her touch seemed to make it shrink a little more all the time. I hoped it would soon be gone altogether, but I never really had been a true optimist.

Outside, I heard a crash. If I hadn't already been awake, I would have jumped. Beth did that for us both; fortunately, it wasn't enough to bring her to the surface, and she started to snore softly.

The noise was probably raccoons beating on a garbage can. Sure sounded like it. I wished they'd stop. They'd only attract unwanted attention. If they were smart they'd get lost. Soon.

After a few minutes the noise stopped, and I went back to stroking Beth's arm, then her back through the sheet. I let my thoughts wander back to our argument earlier in the day.

Sometimes I was my own greatest enemy. Something my brother and I had in common. I liked to tell people I wasn't afraid; deep down I knew better. A select few other people also knew better. Like Carol.

She'd stood up to me once. Let me bitch and rail at her, and she hardly even flinched when I feinted like I was going to hit her. She had taken everything I'd had to give and never backed down, even when I'd started to get mean. It was then that I knew she was tougher than everyone thought. She'd earned my respect that day.

Beth had earned it, too. She stood up to me on a regular basis, it seemed. Lately I'd been wondering exactly who was leading whom, here. Heh. Imagine that. Me, confused by a woman. Holy fucking shit.

Hmph. Who am I kidding? She led me around by my nose. And oddly enough, it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. We'd spent enough time together that I was starting to get comfortable around her. And that was what worried me. When you got used to having someone around these days, they usually got yanked on you. Permanently.

My fist balled up. Just thinking about losing her again made my guts churn, and I knew I was in trouble, here. Deep trouble. There wasn't a goddamn thing I could do about it either, except pray to the Almighty to see fit to leave us alone for as long as possible.

I hated this existence now. Life hung by a thread - at any given moment it could be severed forever. Death lived around us like a poisonous gas. You couldn't avoid it. All you could do was cover your face with your hand and hope everything panned out.

I'd secured the house after we'd cleared it, and I knew it was safe to sleep, but somehow, even though I was so tired I could have slept for a week, my eyes refused to close. One of us should keep watch. I guess it's going to be me.

My thoughts wandered back to Carol again. I hoped she was alright, wherever she was. A lot had happened in the couple days before we were forced to leave the Prison. I didn't know if she was still alive out there or not. I hoped she was. I thought I'd lost her once before; that had been hard. I didn't want to lose her again, or anyone else. I was so tired of losing people. But she had admitted to killing Karen and David, and forced Rick's hand. He'd done what he thought was right by cutting her loose. I still felt unsettled about that. Angry. Not just that Rick hadn't waited to consult me, but that Carol had actually done it in the first place.

Carol and I... Hmm. Our relationship was simple, and it wasn't. We were close; I knew she wanted to be closer. The Glen and Maggie kind of closer. She'd never come right out and said it, but I knew. And I had been considering it for quite a while. I mean, she was the only woman who'd showed any real interest. I knew she genuinely cared about me. We had both helped each other come through our losses. I had a big soft spot for her, at any rate. Still, I hesitated to really let her in. I wondered what she'd think of me now. I had a feeling she'd be extremely disappointed. Pissed. Because I hadn't picked her. Or, maybe she wouldn't. For all I knew, I'd never see Carol again.

Sighing heavily, I looked down at Beth's sleeping face, and breathed in the scent of her warm scalp. I had a soft spot for this little peach, too. She turned me inside out and upside down with her needle-sharp logic. She and Carol were so similar, yet so different. Would this have happened if I had wound up with Carol instead? I had a feeling not. And not just because Carol wasn't there when the Gov blew his shit into our fan. But why... I wasn't sure.

Maybe it was because Carol knew my boundaries and didn't overstep them. She'd met me at a time in my life when I was standoffish and distrustful, distant. Beth... She'd not really gotten to know me until I was mellower, which, ironically enough, was partly due to Carol's influence. But she kicked down my walls beyond repair, like a three-year-old. There was no keeping her out once she decided she was coming in. I kind of respected that about her. That, and she had asked for what she wanted. My comfort. And was selfless enough to give me her own in return.

I frowned a little. Nature was calling. I was comfortable, goddamn it.

Getting up without disturbing Beth, I crept downstairs to look for a bathroom with a tub. There was one at the bottom of the stairs.

As I did my business, I leaned on a window ledge, cracked it a bit. The cool breeze that came in felt good after the warm stuffiness of the bedroom. My stomach growled. I finished and went into the kitchen, in case there was a slim chance that there might be something there worth eating.

I dug around in the cupboards for a while. There wasn't much that wasn't stale, moldy, or spoiled, except a small bag of chocolate chips crammed into the back corner of a pantry. I hadn't had chocolate in forever.

I debated eating the whole bag myself. No one would have to know... But I decided against that. So I ripped it open, popping them in my mouth as I climbed the stairs. When I got to our room, I stopped and leaned on the doorjamb.

Our room. I'd never had that thought in relation to a woman before. It felt... Good. New. Fresh.

I sucked on a chipit, watching her sleep. She rolled, and the sheet slid down, baring her naked backside to the moonlight coming in through the window. It gave her skin a soft glow. Her arm dangled over the edge until her fingertips just brushed the floor.

I don't know how long I stood there just looking at her, but when I went to put the next chipit in my mouth, it had melted all over my palm. I lowered the bag to put it in my pocket until I remembered I didn't have any pockets.

"Daryl?" Her voice was crusty with sleep.

I looked up. "Hmm?"

She smiled, her eyes not wanting to stay open, but she blinked slowly several times. "Are those chocolate chips?"

I smiled a little. "Yeah."

"Hmm." She rolled onto her back. I felt myself get warm all over. She was beautiful in the moonlight.

Beth crooked a lazy finger at me. "Come 'ere."

I came, stood next to her, looking down into her face. She leaned up on her elbow, and I held my breath as her mouth got close to my hip, her tongue snaking out to lick at a smear of chocolate left there from my hand.

"Damn. That's good," she murmured, seeking out my hand and licking the chocolate off my palm, slowly. My heart was pounding, and it quickly became obvious where all my blood was going.

She smiled up at me.

I met her gaze square, then reached out, took her hand, and put it on me. She flexed her fingers gently. I began to breath a little faster. Louder.

Beth shifted her eyes from her hand to my eyes and back. Mine were getting heavy with arousal.

"You know, " she whispered, "You are one fine specimen of male beauty, Dixon. Damn fine. So fine... I think I'd like a taste of you."

My head fell back and my eyes slid shut as she took me in her mouth, took an experimental pull, and my last coherent thought was, Hell, I'll only live once... May as well make the most of it.

Beth ran her tongue around me, and sucked, hard. Within minutes I was panting like a dog.

When she pulled at my hips with her hands and let go of me to kiss her way to my navel, I reached out, pushed her onto her back by her shoulders, climbed onto the mattress, and settled between her open thighs. My hands roamed over her neck and collar bones, cupping her jaws like they were the giant stem of a glass and I was the thirstiest man on Earth. I kissed her hard as I slid inside her, revelling in her welcoming warmth, her tightness that remained even after two previous rounds of my amorous punishment.

She sucked in a breath between our lips. I pushed my way in as far as I could go, and then just savoured the sensation of being deep inside another human being. There's nothing else just like it.

I felt her legs slide around my backside, hooked over my hips. Her cool foot glided over the back of my calf.

She stroked my sweaty cheek with her fingers. "I'm sensing a difference in you."

I nodded, drugged again with lust. "Opportunities are rare these days, right?"

She nodded. "Mm-hmm."

I gripped her torso tightly to my chest and started to thrust, slowly.

"You're brand of lovin' is gettin' addictive. I feel like I'm gettin' a fresh hit of the best shit I ever had, ever' time."

She chuckled, rubbing her cheek against my prickly neck.

"So's yours. What's it all mean, d'you think?"

I started to work harder over her and she clung to me for the ride, meeting every thrust with equal fervor. As I started to peak, I held off, reaching between us, stroking her clit, til she was right there with me. We went over the edge together, muffling our moans in each other's necks.

I'd forgotten to answer her question. She didn't seem to notice. But I knew she had. She was too sharp to let something like that slide. I hoped she'd let it go til tomorrow anyway, because my eyes just wouldn't stay open anymore.

I slept.

And woke up alone.

At first, when I reached out and she wasn't there, I panicked. Sat bolt upright, naked as a jaybird, my eyes searching. Her clothes and boots were still on the floor. I sighed.

Rolling onto my side, I saw chipits on the carpet. I smiled to myself. Chocolate chips would forever lead to good memories in my mind.

No bag, though. Guess she picked it up.

There was a soft creak on the stairs, and I waited expectantly for her to round the corner. This was very new to me. This feeling of anticipation, just to see her face... I was a man in deep, alright. Damn it.

She paused in the doorway, swinging the chipit bag. She was even more gorgeous in the morning sun. Was I going to have this reaction every time I saw her now?

She smiled. "Mornin'."

I rolled to my stomach and rested my chin on my arms. "Mornin' to you, Sunshine."

Her smile grew. Inside my chest, my heart swelled. Merle would turn over in his grave... If he'd had one.

She tilted her head and looked at me introspectively. "I always thought you were the strong silent type. Turns out you're a damn chatterbox." She slowly entered the room. "I like it. I also like this." She gestured to my naked body.

"That so?" I murmured.

"Uh huh." She leaned over me, setting the chipit bag down on the sheet in front of my arms, hovered there. I felt her lips graze my shoulder.

After a moment she climbed on top of me, and pressed her naked skin to mine, from shoulders to toes. She reached her arms beneath me to stroke my chest, or what she could reach anyway. Then she sat up and made herself comfy on my ass. The warmest part of her was nestled tight to my left cheek, and my blood abruptly went south; I was hard in an instant.

Her hands began to roam my back, knead the muscles. It felt fucking awesome. My eyes fell shut and I popped a chipit in my mouth. All this moment needed was some cheesy mood music to be complete.

She massaged me until I could stand the attention no more. The girl had magic hands, but if I didn't let loose some of this pent-up arousal, I was going to explode.

I had just made up my mind to roll her under me when she said, "Do you remember those first few days, after...?"

The tone of her voice was sad. Lonely. I waited.


She sniffed quietly. "I never thanked you for looking out for me. I was such a pain. I'm sorry."

I shrugged, shifting us both. "Forget it."

I felt her shake her head. "No, I won't forget it. I'll never forget it. Or you. Even after I'm really gone." She grew quiet. "Do you... Believe in heaven, Daryl?"

I sighed silently. I knew where this was going to end up. But I let it go.

I shrugged again. "Dunno. Never put much stock in it." I turned my head. "Faith ain't never done much of anythin' for me. I depend on me. All I ever needed."

She was drawing on my skin with her fingernails. It tickled.

"You can depend on me."

I chuckled. "Yeah, I reckon I can."

"You're... very important to me, Daryl. And not just because you may be the only person I've got left. You've earned my trust. I hope that I can earn yours."

I started to turn over, and she lifted her body enough to allow it, then settled back down in my crotch when I was comfy again. It was a pretty distracting position, but I did my best to stay focused.

"I trust ya."

There was doubt in her eyes.

"I do. I know your type. You Irish are loyal to the end, Beth. Even if'n that loyalty is... misplaced." I rubbed her arms.

She smiled through her messy hair, and leaned forward to kiss me, thoroughly.

"Never. I love you, Daryl."

I had been expecting this, but hearing it was still a shock. She put her fingers to my lips.

"You don't have to say anything. I just wanted you to know." She laid her head on my chest for a moment, then buried her face in my neck, kissing me like she was never going to see me again. I could feel the urgency in her, the need to be close, connected. I flipped us and wasted no more time on words.

We finally got dressed late that afternoon. I didn't want to leave this bedroom; I could tell she didn't want to either, but we had to keep moving, looking for the others. That was the priority. Still... this short break had been pretty kick-ass. I'd never felt so mellow and satisfied in my life, even way back when things had been "normal".

We were also out of food. No more chocolate chips. That was oddly disappointing to me.

We checked the remaining houses in the vicinity, and turned up a few cans of Spam and one of Spaghetti-O's. They would do until we could find some fresh game. I kept my eyes peeled for squirrels.

Eventually, a few hours before sundown, we set off down the road. We walked til it was dark, but since neither of us were really tired, and the road was quiet, we kept going. We barely spoke; it wasn't awkward. I supposed we knew each other well enough now that that would no longer be an issue.

I spotted movement on the road ahead and brought up the crossbow, sighted, and fired. My bolt had speared a raccoon. Big one, too.

When we reached it I picked it up by the tail and held it up.

"Big sumbitch. How hungry're ya?"

She shrugged. "I could eat."

I nodded. "Me too. There." I pointed at a fire hydrant just barely visible in the dark. She looked confused.

"Means there's houses nearby."

"Ah." She smiled.

"C'mon." I lifted the raccoon again. "Hoss here'll feed us and then some. Let's go."

We turned into the first driveway we came to. It was gated, locked, and long. We were in the sticks, so I was hoping it was a big house at the end. Maybe a farm. We'd passed several overgrown fields in the last few hours. We'd even seen some deer, or their eyes, anyway, glowing out there. Venison would have been good. But I was in no mood to risk going after deer at night.

The good news was that this property was walled in, from what we could see. I'd do a more extensive exploration of it in the daylight, to make sure there were no breaches.

We climbed the gate and followed the driveway for a long time. Finally, after what seemed like twenty curves, we reached a building. It was a garage. For four cars.

Beth and I exchanged a look. The driveway continued off into the dark, past the fancy garage. Even in the dark I could tell it was probably worth the same as a house in a small town.

"Maybe we hit the jackpot." I peeked in one of the side windows. It was difficult to see, but I could make out four cars inside. Beth asked, "Well? What's in there?"

I turned from the window and winked. "There's cars in there, alright. We'll check 'em out in the mornin'."

Beth nodded. Her hand never left her knife.

I led her past the garage and further down the verdant tunnel that was the driveway. Crickets sang loud, and a breeze rustled the high grass. I'd say this place had been empty for quite a while. Nature had taken over.

Suddenly she giggled. I stopped to look at her. "What?"

She laughed, and grinned. "Think they'll have any moonshine?"

I lowered the bow a bit, and shifted my feet.

"Nah," she continued, "If there's anything it'll be wine. Rich people only drink wine. Too bad." She kicked the gravel. "Shall we?"

I nodded. Her remark made me feel strangely out of sorts. It was a good memory and a bad memory - for both of us. I tried not to think about it.

A few minutes later we finally saw it. Even in the blackness, the different textures were distinguishable. It would be a beautiful house by day.

Huge glass windows dominated. There were three stories, the lowest ones concrete, the rest wood. It was sided here and there with stone, and the front steps leading to a great big front door were huge, stacked granite slabs. This place was a palace to someone like me. I'd thought the country club was nice. Even overgrown and wild, this place put it to shame.

A large pond took up one side of the front yard. Parking space, the other. There were two cars here, too. But still no other signs of life.

The thought crossed my mind that this place could be permanent. If we were lucky, we could stay here, indefinately. Safe. Protected.

One step at a time, Dixon.

We crept past the cars, a Ferrari and a Hummer. Oh yeah, blue bloods alright.

At the front door, we peeked in the windows, spotting no movement inside. I whispered, "Let's make a round. Stay close."

Beth stayed stuck to me as we swept the outside of the house. It took ten minutes to walk the whole perimeter. We passed a pool, poolhouse, gazebo, deck, and tennis court. There was a large shed, and another smaller one, sealed tight with a heavy lock, made of concrete. I wondered what the hell was in there.

Winding up back at the front, I pointed at the door; she nodded.

We banged on the door and windows, and waited. And waited. When I was satisfied it was safe, we broke a slim door-side window, slipped inside.

It was a foyer, dark, musty-smelling. But silent. There was a massive staircase of wood going up. The whole decor was wood. Exposed beams, hardwood floors, support posts. It was dusty as hell.

It was better than anything we'd ever had.

The first room to the right was a den; it was clear. The next room was a state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with island and bar. My stomach rumbled at the thought of the possible food we might find.

But we'd get to that later. We checked through a dining room, game room, and three bathrooms. There was a huge room with a window wall and a baby grand piano in it, but nothing else we could make out in the dark. Beth thought it was a ballroom. All of them were clear.

Heading up the stairs, we checked out two more bathrooms, three bedrooms, and four closets. Another set of steps led to a loft, but it was clear, too. I turned around to look at her.

"Where are they?" Her eyes were wide, worried.

I chewed my lip. "Ya see a basement door?"

She shook her head.

"Hmm." I went down to the the main floor and checked again. No luck. We ended up in the kitchen, and I set the raccoon down on the range-top. There was a fuse panel in the pantry, and I started flipping switches. Nothing happened. Then I flipped one at the bottom, larger than the others, labelled SPMain.

There was a hum, and then everything came on.

"There's power?"

I nodded. "Yeah. See this switch?" I pointed. "It's the magic wand. All the juice flows from that one."

Beth looked at it for a moment, then walked to the window, peering out into the backyard, illuminated now by several motion lights.

"Where's the switch?" I said, looking. "All that light'll attract any walkers that might be wanderin' the property."

She replied, "Um, try those ones, by the sliding door."

I did, and the gazebo lit up. I sighed in exasperation. Flipped more switches. Finally, all was dark again.

I breathed a little easier. Bright lights made me uncomfortable.

She pointed out the window. "I think I saw something out there."

"Like what?"

"I think it's what supplies the power. A solar panel."

I nodded to myself. That made sense.

Beth looked at me in the dark. "Daryl?"


She pointed. "Is that... Blood on the floor, over there?"

I turned to look behind me, at the island. In the dark, a black stain marred the wood floor. It was between the back wall and the island, which is why we'd missed it the first time through.

I went over there and toed at it with my shoe. It was dry.

"Ain't fresh."

"Oh." She came over to stand next to me. Leaning down, she rapped on the side of the island facing us, under the counter top.

It echoed.

We shot each other a look. "What the hell?" I breathed.

"I've heard of these," she whispered, peering in the dark at the panel, presumably for a handle. It looked perfectly uniform to me.

"... Try pushing it."

She did. Nothing happened. I noticed a shiny mark near the top corner, right where the lip of the granite met the wood.

I pointed. "There."

She tried again. There was a quiet click, and it swung open silently. It was blacker than black inside.

Beth smiled up at me. "You wanna go first?"

I made a face, and she laughed, reaching out to wrap her arm around my legs and give them a squeeze. "My brave knight!"

I snorted and rolled my eyes. I couldn't hear anything down there, so I swept the walls inside with my hand, found a switch. A steep staircase came into view, but it turned, so we couldn't see the bottom.

"Here we go."

Bow up and ready, I went down. Beth's hand gripped a handful of my leather vest. Inwardly I smiled at that.

I could tell this house wasn't old. The stairs never creaked or snapped, even with our combined weight.

We made the turn, but could still see nothing. How far down did this go?

After three more turns I was starting to get anxious, but Beth's hand on my back kept it at bay. I wanted to reach back for her hand, but refrained.

Soon I started to hear faint movement. We turned one more time and came to a door. It opened into a large space, fully furnished like any other basement, except there was shit all over the carpet, and the smell was almost unbearable.

I put my hand over my face and muttered, "That smell is loud. Goddamn."

Beth started to cough, and I pulled my red rag out of my back pocket and handed it to her. She covered up everything but her eyes.

Stepping to avoid all the bombs, which I could tell were a dogs', I wondered what else we'd find. So far the only sign of habitation had been that dry blood stain upstairs, which I had counted as a pretty good sign. If there was no one here, we wouldn't have to share this house, or anything that was in it. But, should we find survivors... We'd make it work. I would make it work, by force if I had to.

I hoped we'd at least find the dog who'd dropped all the deuces, alive.

I turned into another room, a storage room, walls lined with shelves lined with food, and my jaw dropped open in shock.

"Oh my God," Beth breathed, "Who would leave all this?"

A dog came out of a side room then, and, wagging its' tail, bounded over to us, jumping up at Beth and nearly knocking her over. She sat down, laughing, letting the dog lick her face. I leaned over to pat it's hindquarters. It's tail wagged so hard it's whole back side shook, it was so happy to see us.

"Hello, sweetheart," Beth cooed to it, trying to read it's tag. "Hold still! ... Ellie." She looked up at me. "How long do you think she's been down here?!"

I shrugged, thinking of all the shit on the carpet. "Long enough. She's still alive, ain't ya girl," I rubbed her head. She panted happily and licked my fingers. "Good dog."

I leaned into the room the dog had come from. It was cold storage; cement walls, some plumbing, a water heater. Sump pump.

There was an automatic feeder in the corner, and a water recycler. There was a water connection hose with a timer on it.

"She's doin' alright."

"Who would leave her down here like this?"

I turned to look at her. Beth's eyes were wet with moisture. I brushed a tear away.

"Someone who wanted to keep 'er safe. Probably meant to come back, but... Well."

She nodded. "I guess. Still... The poor thing."

I knelt down to scratch the dog's ears. "She's alright, ain't ya, girl?" She licked my face. I wasn't sure what breed she was; if she was purebred she wasn't a breed I recognised. I would've bet that she was a cross, black lab and german shepherd, maybe. Or Border collie.

"She's pretty. Look at this coat." Beth rubbed Ellie's side.

"It is." I agreed. "Where's your family, Ellie? Hmm?"

Ellie barked once, then bounded toward the doorway. We followed. She led us back up to the kitchen, and ran through the whole house, sniffing. We followed her slowly. I noted a slide-bolt on the inside of the hidden panel on the way out of the basement, and tucked that little tidbit away in my mind. Could be useful someday, if we ever needed to hide.

"I think we could stay here." Beth glanced at me as we climbed the foyer stairs. I stopped, and she did, too.

"Yeah." We stood there staring at each other, and when she reached out to cup my cheek, I caught myself leaning into it. It had been a long day. I'd shared her bed four times in the two days before this one. I was starting to experience withdrawal.

But, I couldn't assume anything. I might be a redneck, but I had manners. I would wait for her to bring it up. After all, I had made no commitment to her. Not like she had. I didn't know if I could open my heart that wide. I hoped I could, eventually.

She sighed. "This felt so much like the funeral home at first... Only everything was dusty. I mean, when we first came in here and I saw that, do you know how relieved I was? I could've cried." Her eyes dropped to the floor.

A tense moment passed between us when she looked up again, and I realised how close she was standing; her hip brushed mine. She wet her lips, her eyes glued to mine, when Ellie chose that moment to sit on my foot and whine. Then fart.

Beth burst out laughing, and the dog tilted her head and her tongue lolled out, like she was smiling. I raised a brow, but couldn't hold in a snort of laughter.

"Oh, Ellie! That is nasty! Come on, help us find a room, girl."

That "Us" did not go unnoticed by me, but I didn't follow. Beth's mention of our entrance had reminded me that I needed to secure the window we'd broken, and all the other doors and windows. I had much to do before I could come to bed, which was deeply disappointing. I would have much preferred to follow her up those stairs.

Damn. The girl was starting to make me a horndog. Merle would be slapping my back with pride if he could.

"Daryl? You coming?" She'd stopped to look back from the landing.

I cleared my throat. "I got some thins' to do. I'll be up later." I saw her face fall, but she hid her disappointment quickly.

"Okay." She turned to go, but came back almost immediately. "Daryl?"

"Yeah, Beth?"

"You will come to bed, won't you?" Her cheeks were tinged pink, but her voice was earnestly curious.

My stomach did a slow flip, my blood heating fast. I shifted the bow on my back and flicked hair out of my eyes. "That an invitation?"

She smiled slowly. "It is." She sobered. "For as long as you want it."

She walked away after that, humming to the dog as she went. I had no choice now. Sharing her bed was becoming as much a necessity to me as a pleasure. Apparently that door swung the same way for her, but of course, I already knew that. It was my own insecurities I was trying to sort out.

I hurried through my chores as quickly as I dared; patching the hole had to be done right, no corner-cutting there. That took a good hour, after I'd finally located some nails, boards, and a hammer. The rest of the house was pretty secure, all the windows still locked. Sliding doors were locked and barred. I closed all drapes and blinds, in case we needed to turn on the lights, now that we figured out we had power. I smiled to myself. That meant a hot shower...

Better check the pilot, I thought, going down into the bowels of the house again. It was still burning, luckily. I ran back upstairs.

When I got to the foyer again, I climbed those stairs slowly, dragging out my anticipation. My bones felt like they would try to jump out of my skin. Would Carol have ever made me feel this way? I had cared about her a lot in a way. Maybe someday I'd run into her again. I wasn't going to hold my breath, but it was a pleasant thought, anyway. Wherever she was, I hoped she was thriving.

I could hear Beth singing from the loft, but I wanted a shower first. I'd make it a quickie; didn't want her falling asleep on me. Fuck-to-the-No.

The water sputtered at first from disuse, but soon flowed smoothly from the moldy showerhead. We'd have to clean in here. It didn't really bother me, but I figured Beth would never tolerate mold when she found out about it. Women were funny that way.

Stepping out, I shook my hair like a dog. Damn, it felt good to be clean. I didn't mind being dirty, it helped when you were hunting not to smell like a big old rose, but there'd been so much filth this time, and in places I didn't even know I had, that a time or two I'd almost gagged.

Anyway, it felt good.

I decided that since I'd been invited, and I had one thing on my mind anyway, I wouldn't bother getting dressed to go up there. I wasn't ashamed of my body; never had been. Besides, she liked it, I knew she did, so I thought I'd treat her to it tonight.

I got to the loft steps as she finished her song. I liked her singing. It made me long for the home I'd never had. A home I could make for myself... With her, maybe. I glanced around me. This place would do just fine, in a pinch.

The dog growled as I ascended, but when she saw it was just me she bounded off the bed and started licking my face. I rolled around on the floor with her for a few minutes, rubbing her belly, scratching her ears. She lapped it up. I looked up at Beth and she was smiling fondly on us, like she was the mother and we the children.

"Good girl. Go on now," I shoved her toward the steps, and she went down, but came right back up again. Sat down, tongue lolling. I shrugged.

"Fine. Watch, if ya wanna."

Beth grinned as I stalked her on the bed, climbing over her to attack her mouth with mine. Her hands stroked my damp arms and back, and I peeled her covers off her and rolled her on top of me.

Breaking the kiss I said, "How 'bout you be the rider tonight?"

She laughed. "Whatever you want, cowboy." She rubbed my chest with her palms. "Bareback sounds like fun."

I winked. "It is. I'll take ya for a nice long ride, honey. Just ya watch."

For the next hour we kept busy, and that dog never moved.

"Ohhhhhh my God," Beth moaned, "You were sooo right... Sonofabitch!"

I laughed, shaky. "Best ride of your life, farm girl?"

She leaned over to lay on me, spent. "Fuck, yeah." She was panting hard. Her head moved so that her face was nestled in the bend of my neck.

I kissed her forehead and stroked her hair. "Think I'm rubbin' off on ya. You're gettin' a bit of a mouth." I chuckled.

She breathed in deep and kissed my Adam's apple. "Hmm. Sorry. You just make me feel so wonderful."

"Are ya sayin' I'm a great screw?"

She snorted. "You know you are! Don't need me to tell you." She sighed happily. "But I will. You're an excellent lover, Daryl."

I smiled with pride. "And don't ya forget it." I squeezed her to me briefly, and she squeezed me back. Then Ellie jumped on the bed.

"Ellie! No! Get down!" Beth laughed, her face covered in dog kisses. I laughed.

"Aw, let 'er stay. She misses people."

Ellie snuggled up against me on one side, and Beth settled on the other. Felt good to be wanted like this.

"Alright, she can stay." Beth yawned as she reached over me to scratch Ellie's ears. My own eyes were drooping. Ellie licked my inner elbow industriously.

I fell asleep like that, sandwiched between my two ladies, happy as a bug in a rug.

Dog slobber isn't the coolest thing to wake up to. But the smell of coffee nearly made me doubt my existence.

Ellie's big pink tongue laved my face. I finally managed to haul her back a foot by her collar and smile at her excitement. Poor dog was beside herself, happy not to be alone anymore.

I sniffed again, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Yep, the scent of coffee was definately real.

I rolled out of bed and rubbed my scraggy face. Maybe I should shave, today. Hmm. If there was time. I'd see.

I plodded down the stairs, into the bathroom to grab up my pants, slipped them on, then went downstairs again. I found a huge mug of coffee and a note on the counter.


I found coffee! I hope you like it. Only sugar to put in it, but that's better than nothing. I'm on the deck.

P.S. Last night was AMAZING. We'll have to do it again sometime :P

P.P.S. Please do something with the dead raccoon. Anything. Please?

I chuckled. I'd forgotten all about Hoss! I turned the carcass over on the range, where I'd left it. It was stiff, but not overly so. I could butcher it for jerky... Or use it as bait. I still had to sweep the area inside the wall. It would make for a handy distraction, should there be too many walkers to handle.

I dumped out the garbage bag I'd been lugging around for about a week and a half now and threw the raccoon inside, picked up my coffee, and headed out to the deck.

Beth was laying in the sun, her own cup of coffee in hand, reading a romance novel. She was buck naked.


She looked up at me and smiled. "Mornin'. Sleep well?"

I nodded. "Mmhmm."

"Good. How's your coffee?"

I took a long sip. "Strong. Good."

Beth laughed. "Glad to hear it. I found it in the pantry. Found some tanning oil, too. Not in the pantry, of course." She stuck her tongue out at me playfully. I sipped again. And thought of a few naughty things to do to that smart-assed tongue of hers.

"No tan lines."

She winked and smiled. "I can't remember the last time I just sat out and sunbathed. This is so awesome." She put the book down and lay back against the lounger. "Can we stay here forever?" Her tone was hopeful.

I shrugged. "We'll see. I'm gonna scout the wall today, check for breaches. See if there's any dead in here." I glanced at her. "Ya got your weapon?" I hoped I didn't have to give her shit for being forgetful. I had drilled that into everyone at the Prison who did runs with me. Never let your guard down. Always have a weapon handy. Watch your back. Finding a nice house with all the amenities was no excuse to get sloppy.

She reached past her thigh on the lounger and held up her knife. "Always, mon Capitan." She waggled her brows.

I snorted, then turned to go back in the house. Ellie was right there waiting to get out, but I shut the door in her face. She could go out on a leash, but until I'd cleared things, that was as far as she was going.

I opened the window over the sink and said through the screen, "Ya wanna put a leash on the animal, here? She's gotta piss."

Beth put her book down again and hopped up, knife in hand. "Yeah, I'm coming."

Damn her ass was cute.

I shook my head and handed her the leash when she came in; she hooked it to Ellie's collar. When she looked up again she caught me rubbing my face.

"Got fleas, Dixon?" She teased.

I made a face at her. "Thinkin' of shavin'."

She dropped the leash and strode over to me, all business. I backed up a step, right into the counter. She stopped an inch from me, her sun-warmed skin radiating heat I could feel on my own skin. She reached out and grabbed my cheeks.

"Trim it if you must. Don't shave it."

I frowned. "Why?"

She shrugged. "'Cause I like it this way."

I slipped my hands around her waist and pressed her hips to mine. "Ya always get what ya want?"

Grinning, Beth twirled her fingers in my chest hair. "Usually. I have a knack for persuasiveness." She rubbed my crotch with hers. I leaned in to suck her neck.

"You're a goddamn vixen, s'what ya are."

She laughed, then kissed my cheek. "That's right. I am. And you're perfect just as you are. Don't shave!" She picked up the leash and went to the door. "Maybe later tonight I'll give you a haircut. I miss seeing your eyes."

I watched her go, check to see if it was safe, then undo the deck gate and go down to the grass. Ellie did her business and Beth came right back, locking the gate behind her. Only then did I go upstairs to get dressed.


I ripped nettles out of my hair for the fourth time. The damn things were everywhere, like that damn Spanish Moss down in Florida. Covered everything like green fog.

So far, there had been no mishaps, aside from the nettles. The wall was in good condition thus far, and I had yet to find any walkers. It was turning out to be an interesting trip. The property was massive, even moreso than I'd thought. I'd been out here an hour and had yet to come to a corner.

The scenery was nice. Overgrown, but nice. There was a small lake, and when I peered over the edge of the dock, I could see several big cats swimming beneath the surface. So it was stocked, if we ever felt like fishing.

As far as I'd seen, things here had been landscaped at one time. It was eerie how still everything was; birdbaths covered in moss, copper statuettes green with age, chipped old gnomes. And trees. There were enough trees to fuel a fire for years. I'd also noticed that that big house had a wood fireplace and a gas one. We'd be set for heat come winter. Booyah.

After another thirty minutes I finally reached a corner and turned, following the wall. It was solid; not even so much as an access gate yet. I hoped it stayed that way. The less ways in, the better. Although maybe one was alright; if we ever needed an escape route, a hidden gate could prove handy.

Squirrels chittered at me, and for once I never thought of taking aim at one. I likely wouldn't need to eat another squirrel for a long while. Or so I hoped.

I heard a commotion, so I immediately ducked down. This section of wall was shady, and the grass, as it was everywhere, waist-high. I'd probably pick up a damn tick out here.

I waited. The area had fallen silent. Then I heard it again.

Creeping along under some squatty pines, I made my way toward the sounds, bow up and bolt ready. The rigor mortised raccoon bounced in the bag attached to my belt.

In a clearing ahead, under an old, weather-beaten pergola, five walkers crowded around one of the corner posts, growling and gurgling, reaching for a stuck cat. It hissed and growled. I wondered how long it had been up there. Was skinny as a skeleton, not even worth one good meal for the dead-heads clawing away for it.

Pulling the raccoon corpse out, I whistled, tossing it away from the cat. They followed it, and that cat was down the post and gone through the grass so fast I had to laugh. Poor pussy, hehe.

While the walkers, who were, now that I was really looking, an older man and woman, two younger men, and one young woman, feasted on the raccoon, I crept up behind them and picked them off, one by one. I dragged them into a pile, searched them, got blood all over my arms and shirt in the process, then lit them on fire.

I watched them burn for a while, my hands in my pockets. I felt something in my left vest pocket, pulled out a cigarette. Well, well. What a treat.

I lit it, and took a long, sweet drag. Mmm, nicotine. My only mistress. As I smoked, the cat came back, wound itself around my leg, meowing loudly. Pressing my cigarette between my lips, I bent over and picked it up. It was a mangy thing, but friendly. It's fur was matted here and there, and it's ear was missing a chunk, but other than being skinny as a steel rod it seemed to be in good shape. It's green eyes stood out starkly against black fur.

I stroked its' forehead gently. "What's your name, puss? Hmm?" I felt for a collar, found one under all the knots. It had a tarnished tag that I couldn't read until I rubbed off the patina. It read Petey.

"Petey, eh? Ya look like a Petey, Petey."

Petey purred. I shook my head, and hoped there was some cat food back at the house, or Petey might be condemned to the outdoor life permanently.

The fire was burning down, the corpses charred and smoking. I stamped out any ashes I could still see smoldering, and continued on my rounds, bow in one hand, cat in the other.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and the wall was intact all the way around. There was one gate, locked up tight and covered in growth. I carved an X on the tree nearest to it so I'd remember where it was, should we ever need to use it. I was ready to get back to the house; I was so hungry I could have chewed my own leg off.

I followed the driveway back and took a closer look inside the garage this time. The cars inside were classics, muscle cars. A Mustang, a Barracuda, and a Camaro, if I wasn't mistaken. The last one wasn't classic. It was top of the line; showroom new. It shone like a jewel despite the layer of dust that covered it. It was an Astin Martin Vanquish.

I whistled. That was a nice car. I'd never even seen one outside a magazine photo, until now. I jiggled the knob on the man-door by the window I was looking through. Locked.

Hn. Well, I could break a window if I had to. Later.

I jogged the rest of the way back, Petey following leisurely behind, went around behind the house, let myself in through the deck gate, waited for Petey, locked it behind me. When I got to the patio door, my mouth started to water. Beth was making lunch.

Before I went inside, I scooped Petey up, in case he and Ellie didn't get along, and slid open the door.

Beth was standing over the range, boiling some spaghetti noodles. In a separate pot, she stirred some tomato sauce. She was dressed now. Damn.

She turned when I came in.

"Hey! How'd it g- awww, a kitty!" She smiled, put down her spoon, and held out her arms. I handed the cat over, admiring the way she gently handled him.

God, I was getting soft in my old age. Suddenly, unbidden, an image of Beth bouncing our baby in her arms came into my mind, and it wouldn't go away. It took me a moment to realise that I wouldn't mind seeing such a thing. That, in fact, I wanted it. Badly.

I shook my head. She was asking me a question.

"Where did you find him?" She read his tag. "Petey. That's cute." She chuckled as Petey found a drop of sauce on her finger and licked it clean.

I leaned on the counter, trying to shove the unbidden image of Beth and our baby away, for now. I'd mull over that later, when I could be alone with my thoughts, to pick apart the dramatic turn they'd taken.

"This place is big 'nough to fit a few fields inside the walls. If'n we ever need to plant food, we've got more'n 'nough room. Petey here was stuck up a trellis-thingamajig, fendin' off some walkers."

Her eyes met mine in silent question.

I handed her the garbage bag. She handed me Petey, dumping the bag out on the floor. Three wallets fell out. I figured she might want to know who the people were, so I brought the ID's back with me. I regretted it when I saw the moisture gather in her eyes.

She put down the driver's licences and shook her head, hand to her mouth, backing away from me when I reached out to her. I frowned a bit.

"I'm fine," she said, sniffing.

I waited.

After a few moments, she looked up at me, and the tears were gone. Her eyes were still red, but they were dry.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to get all emo there."

I shrugged. It was no big deal. She got emotional about these things, sometimes. I'd grown used to it.

I put Petey down. Ellie came over, and they sniffed each other, then went their separate ways. Alright then. Guess Petey was an indoor cat after all.

Indoor cat. Who had mentioned that to me recently? I scratched my neck, thinking. Joe had said something to me about indoor cats. I thought it was, "There's nothin' sadder than an outdoor cat thinks it's an indoor cat."

I snorted. Something about that statement, even though his voice had been kind when he'd said it, seemed insulting. I didn't knew whether I should be offended or not; not that it mattered, now. Maybe I'd run it by Beth later, get a second opinion... If I remembered. And we were hard-up for conversation.

Beth put on a bright face then and said, "Spaghetti's for lunch. Real spaghetti, not that canned crap. Hey," she said, her smile coming back, "What day is it?"

"Uhh, I dunno." I rubbed my chin. I had no idea. Things like that didn't seem important, anymore.

"Well, no matter what day it really is, we can say it's Spaghetti Tuesday."

I vaguely recalled hearing about that, while everyone had been sick at the Prison. Some joke of Hershel's. I watched Beth carefully.

She just kept smiling.

"Sounds legit." I wiggled my brows. She laughed.

"Come on, let's eat. Then I'm cutting that gross hair. Ugh."

I followed her to the table, my hunger making me momentarily pliable. "Yes ma'am."

Beth's fingers ran through my hair slowly, and I couldn't, for the life of me, remember why I had loathed getting my hair cut in the past. Then I did.

Merle had been cutting my hair for almost as long as I could recall. He was no damn barber, neither. His idea of a successful haircut were some dull clippers and a joint. If it took less than half a roll of toilet paper to sop up the blood when he was finished with me, he considered it a job well done. I shivered just thinking about it. He'd always laugh when I got knicked, slap my head, and tell me to "Man the fuck up, it ain't that bad, Darylina!"

So I thought it was understandable that when she came at me with a pair of scissors, I hunched up my shoulders and clammed up. I had to keep reminding myself that Beth wasn't Merle, that she wouldn't hurt me. Not on purpose, anyway.

She sighed for the fourth time, exasperated with me. I cringed. I couldn't help it.

Beth's hands had felt good in my hair, in the beginning. She'd led me to one of the bathrooms, sat me down on the toilet seat, and stood behind me, her fingers working magic as she massaged my scalp, briefly melting my reluctance away. It returned full force when she brought out those scissors.

"Daryl, relax! I promise I won't cut you."

"Hmph," I grunted. I wanted to give her a chance, it was just hard to break old habits, I guess. This had been the standard position for me to assume, in the past. If I'd had to fend Merle's rough clipper strokes off, I'd been ready.

Sighing again, she put the scissors down. "You wanna tell me about it?"

I frowned at her. "No."

"Then please, lower your shoulders and let me work. I promise, you won't regret it. Just close your eyes and think of something else."

I had a wicked idea then.

"I might relax more... If ya were naked." I leered up at her rudely, thinking she'd get offended and give up this silly venture.

She regarded me thoughtfully. I was sure she'd refuse. But, to my shock, she shrugged. "Fine."

I swallowed. Well, that had backfired in record time. But hey, she was going to get naked. I was becoming more and more of an optimist all the time.

She pulled her t-shirt over her head, unsnapped her bra, dropping both in my lap. Then she picked up the scissors again.


I pretended to ponder her question for a moment, but I ruined it by chuckling. "Yep."

"Good. Now hold still." She used a comb to part my damp hair, and sectioned off a chunk, running it through her fingers, making her first cut. I hardly noticed. Her breasts were right in my face. I wanted to touch her, but figured if I wanted a decent cut, I'd better keep my hands to myself. For now. Later, I'd make her pay for inflicting all this torture on me.

It seemed like she'd just started when she announced that she was done. She towelled my hair dry, then stepped back so I could inspect her work in the mirror.

I dropped her clothes on the toilet seat and peered in the mirror. I looked... Good. Really good. My hair hadn't been cut this nice in years. Not since my ma had done it when I was just a little kid. And Merle would never spare the expense of paying to get it done by a barber, more's the pity. I coulda saved a pint or two of blood if'n he had. Douchebag.

I ran a hand through it, parted it where it liked to lay, then turned to her. She'd put her shirt back on. I frowned.

Beth stuck her tongue out at me for the second time that day. I narrowed my eyes.

"I'm gonna teach that smart tongue of yours to wag at me, girl, just ya wait."

She laughed. "Is that a threat, Dixon? And to think I was going to treat you with a quickie, later. Ah well. C'est la vie." She shrugged.

I was no idiot, but French was a mystery to me. She could be calling me a dickhead for all I knew.

"What the hell is Saylavee?" I started to close the distance between us.

She played with a button on my lapel. "It means, 'That's life'."

"Is it?" I pulled her into my arms, breathing lightly into her ear through my nose. My tongue snaked out to lick the shell.

She squealed, and tried to wriggle away, but I held her tight. Make fun of me, would she? I'd show her.

"Stop! That tickles! Daryl!"

I was laughing now too, enjoying her discomfort immensely. "Payback's a bitch, Bethy," I huffed, trying to hold her to me. She struggled in vain, until I had her pressed up against the wall, and we were nose to nose, breathing hard, smiling into each other's eyes. I loved her laugh. Her compassion, her optimism.

I loved her.

I blinked, loosened my grip a touch, dropping my eyes to her mouth. I backed off slowly, giving her - and myself - some space.

Clearing my throat, I shoved my hands in my pockets. Edged toward the door. Her smile started to fade, and I hated to see it. But I needed to think. Alone.

"I'm, uh... Gonna take the dog for a walk." It was a lame excuse, but it was the best I could do at the moment. Beth's face sobered then, and the hurt I saw briefly in her eyes was shuttered away.

"Okay. I'll do the dishes."

I beat it out of there, feeling bad that I was leaving her to clean up not just one mess, but two (my hair), but I felt so awkward, I had to get out of there.

As I left I muttered, "Thanks for the haircut."

I don't know whether she answered or not, I didn't hear. I was already down the hall and whistling for the dog, who had been right behind me the whole time.

I picked up the leash, snapped it on, and got the hell out of there.

I sighed for the twentieth time.

Is this what love is? Sighin' your life away? Even the dog looked at me whenever I did it. We'd been walking inside the wall for two hours, and I was still no closer to an answer as to what the hell I should do about this little revelation that had made me run from her like a pussy than I had been when I'd realised it in the first place. That part pissed me off. That I had chickened out just because I finally really knew something with certainty. Something that, frankly, scared the shit out of me.

Despite that fear, though, I wanted to be near her. I wanted everything that came with this package. I mean, we could be the only two people left, eventually. We could end up having to...

I shook my head. I didn't see that being a problem; as long as neither one of us died. We would have a better chance of assuring that if we stayed here.

But, then again... How had the previous family ended up as walkers? That was a damn mystery to me. They'd looked pretty rough, like they'd been that way for at least a year. They hadn't even made a dent in that supply stash in the basement. So that meant they'd turned early.

I shook my head slowly. Obviously, one of them had died first and turned the others. I couldn't recall if I'd seen any bites... I really hadn't been looking for them at the time. I sighed. Again. Because I was avoiding the subject. Again. For like, the tenth time since I'd left the house.

Damn it! I mentally slapped myself. Get ahold of yourself, Dixon! This ain't Advanced Astrophysics. It's... love.

My chest felt funny whenever I allowed my mind to turn the idea of love over, and carefully examine all its' facets. It took me a while to realise that I had loved her since the Shack; when I did, the shock was overwhelming. I thought I'd known my own mind. My own heart. Turned out I was just really good at denying everything that scared me.

Which was one of the reasons I envied Beth. She had come right out and said it, like it was no trouble at all. Because she wasn't afraid of it.

I had to shake my head. She wasn't afraid to let people into her heart, yet walkers scared the crap out of her. She was learning to control that fear, sure, but it still got the better of her occasionally. I, on the other hand, took the dead in stride; nothing about them scared me. I was raised a hunter. I hunted. It was what came naturally to me. But love... Now that was a concept that could have me pissing my pants, man. I had learned young that leaving myself vulnerable was a big mistake, and I'd applied that lesson to every aspect of my life.

Which was probably why I was forty and had had barely any significant relationships in my life besides my brother's. That was a sobering thought. It was sad. I knew it. And I knew now why I hadn't wanted to know it. It was Beth, herself.

That girl never failed to get me all twisted up in knots. Hell, she didn't even have to say anything at all to mess with my head. And I felt messed with, alright. Because I had been so blind. She'd seen something in me worth loving, and had had the balls to tell me. I, unfortunately, lacked those same balls. Yep. Merle would be laughing his ass off right now, if he could see the predicament I was in. I knew exactly what he would advise me to do about it, too:

"Shake your dick off, boy, and cut 'er loose. They's plenty of other fish out there. Ya just gotta know when to move on, is all. None of them bitches ain't never gonna care about ya like ol' Merle does, little brother. Don't go gettin' all soft and lovey now, boy. I didn't spend all these years makin' a man outta ya so's you could start carryin' some bitches' purse! 'Sides, we both know they's only good for one thin', anyway."

I stared at my feet. Now that I had lived with a real family, and I had a better understanding of how that dynamic was supposed to work, I felt sorry for my brother. He'd missed out on so much. It had made him a hard man. 'Course, his own damn nature hadn't helped him none, either. Stubbornest goddamn fool I ever knew, my brother. Merle was a lot of things; sensitive was not one of them. I had always been more intuitive, and he'd always heckled me for it. It had made for quite a few arguments, back in the day, sometimes even outright fistfights, only one of which I ever won, but I didn't like to think about that. You can only break your brother's jaw once, before you learn to reign in your own strength. Merle had underestimated me that day. It was a mistake he'd never repeated, miraculously enough, since he was prone to doing just that. Dumbass.

I wiped away a tear that had escaped. Goddamn asshole. Fuck.

None of this was helping me make a decision. I had to knuckle down here, get back on track. I would never have any warm, fuzzy memories of my brother, so I put him away.

I smiled a little. Beth had told me that. To put it away. Before it killed me. In my heart.

She was a wise one, my Beth. Wiser than anyone really knew. I would bet that that was the reason she had survived this long, and it wasn't just because I had a vested interest in her well-being. She had been right; she wasn't tough like Maggie, hard like Michonne, or strong like Carol. Sure, she'd had a tough time making up her mind at first about how she wanted to cope with this whole apocalypse, but when she did make her decision, she stuck to it.

We'd all kinda sheltered her, because she was young, and because Hershel and Maggie were determined to keep her pure, I think. They didn't want this new world to taint her in any way, because she was precious to them. Because they loved her so much.

Every now and then I had allowed myself to wonder what it felt like for her, to have so many people care about her and love her, hold her dear. A part of me, the part Merle tried to nurture, thought it was dumb, stupid, to depend on others. To let them know your vulnerabilities. But another part of me, the part that had longed for that kind of treatment my whole life, yearned to know.

In the days since Beth and I had been lost together, I had come to know for myself how it felt. I got a little bit of it at the Prison, because everyone looked up to and depended on me (which felt real good, I ain't going to lie), but it didn't compare to what I felt when I was alone with her. Even Carol had never brought out these feelings in me. Beth was just... something else. Something wonderful, and I wanted it. Her dependence on me never felt like a burden; in fact, it was a necessity. If I was to lose it... I'd never be the same man again.

Hell, I wasn't the same man as I'd always been, I knew that much. This whole thing had really changed me, and my outlook, for the better.

I thought of Joe and his group, the things he'd said to me. I would have never been able to stay with them, not for long, not after my stay at the Prison and those first few days before Beth was nabbed. I would have tried, but I knew in my heart that I would have left them sooner or later. Being alone was better than being with them. I'd had a taste of family; I needed it now, whether I liked it or not.


It all came down to that. Beth and I... We could be a family. The way we were carrying on, we'd have a new addition before very long. Would she be alright with that? With me? With us?

Well, she'd said she loved me, so I had to assume she would. It seemed that the only roadblock to my happiness, was me. How fuckin' ironic.

I hadn't realised I'd stopped walking until the dog bumped my leg. I reached down to pat her head. Her tongue lolled, tail wagging. I decided to try something, since I was reasonably sure I'd just about made up my mind, anyway. I just had to come to terms with it, and I felt I was pretty close. I was starting to feel better about things already.

I knelt down, unslung my bow, and watched her. Immediately she sat still and stared at me, all business. She was a hunting dog, alright.

"Good girl." I started to walk again, bow up, and she bounded ahead, nose to the air, sniffing out game. I smiled. Our luck just kept getting better and better. Which made me frown, because that usually meant something was going to go wrong, sooner or later.

The sun had almost set by the time I returned to the house, so I let myself in through the patio door and set my kills on the table. We had a working fridge now, and after I kicked off my shoes and set down my bow, I stuffed them in there, hoping it would be a nice surprise for her tomorrow. We hadn't had poultry in ages.

I could hear music. I blinked. Then I remembered the ballroom, and the baby grand. I followed the sound.

I found her there, playing a sad song to herself. Her keystrokes were good; she didn't trip up once. I stood in front of one of the big windows and just listened to her for a while.

She finished her song, started another. This one even made me tear up a time or two... Not that I'd ever tell her that.

Ellie sat next to me on the polished floor, which still shone dully through the coating of dust. We were definately going to have to invest a day or two just cleaning. I had no qualms in helping her; unlike my brother, I believed in sharing the load. He probably would have insisted she do all the womanly duties. I knew better than to ever suggest such a thing. At one time I would have considered it, but time had taught me to keep my redneck mouth shut.

Things were so mixed up now. For the longest time, I had been used to doing for myself - my own food, laundry, everything really - and then it had all gone to hell and before I knew it, the women in camp had been bugging me for my dirty clothes. The men had been depending on me for my hunting and tracking skills. Rick had come to depend purely on my opinion alone. It had been surreal.

It still was, in a way. Beth was doing my laundry now, but I had no doubt that while I was out sorting through my messed up thoughts, she was in here, keeping herself busy, trying to hold onto her happy face. She did so much for me; I couldn't begrudge defending and feeding her. It was... my job. I wanted to do it. I was happy to do it. For her.

The song ended on a long, melancholy note, and she dropped her hands from the keys, shoulders drooping. I watched her, but she didn't get up. Her shoulders started to shake. I knew what that meant.

I sighed. It was time to man up. Time to put away all my misgivings and bad experiences, jump into this thing feet first, and just let the chips fall where they may.

I crept up behind her, and Ellie nuzzled her hand. She patted the dogs' smooth head, and leaned into me when I pressed my front against her back. I rested my palms on her shoulders and began to massage her gently. She sighed, closed her eyes.

After a few moments, in which neither of us had spoken, Petey jumped up onto the bench and climbed into Beth's lap. She laughed.

I smiled at her smiling again.

She reached up with her hand to grab mine. I let her pull me down onto the bench beside her.

"Daryl, I'm sorry about this afternoon. I-"

My fingers on her lips cut her off.

"Ya didn't do nothin' wrong. Ya hear? This were all me."

She stared at me in the darkening room, her eyes searching mine. I continued to hold her lips shut, so I could finally get all this off my chest.

"I'm the one who's sorry... I haven't 'preciated ya like I shoulda. I've been pretty selfish, Beth. Ya took a risk, and I didn't meet ya halfway. I'm an asshole for lettin' ya think I didn't care. I been an asshole for a long time." I looked at her hands, in her lap, resting limply on her thighs. Thighs I knew intimately, thanks to her selflessness. "I'm not... good at this, this... feelins' thing, and... I think I love ya, Beth." There. I'd said it.

Her lips crushed mine. Her hands were all over me. I forgot what I had been admitting to in an instant. Before I knew it, we were naked on the floor and goin' at it like we'd never see each other again.

When we were done, I lay panting on top of her, clutching her to me. I must be in love. I'd never be able to get enough of her. Ever. I never wanted to leave her side again.

Beth sighed happily, and I helped her up, taking her hand and leading her up to bed. It was cold here on the hard ballroom floor.

On the way up she murmured, "Does this mean we're a couple, now?"

I smiled. I liked the sound of that.

"I guess it does. As long as ya want me."

She looked me in the eye as we reached the loft and fell into bed together. Her fingers stroked my cheek.

"I'll always want you, Daryl Dixon."

I grinned. "Ditto, darlin'. Ditto."

We spent the winter in a warm cocoon of bliss. I didn't think it was possible to be this happy.

The snow built up and got bad for about two weeks in mid-February, but it got milder after that and the frozen walkers slowly became active again. They became stationary, we discovered, when the temperature dropped below zero.

I took a short hunting trip outside our walled haven for venison after spring thaw, and they were still sluggish from the cold. It was one more thing for me to be grateful for, now that my Beth was in a family way.

She'd begun to show signs of a baby bump about four months after we discovered the estate. She'd laughed at me when I'd knelt in front of her and kissed her bulging belly button.

I'd never thought I'd look forward to being a father. It had changed my whole outlook on life - again. Beth teased me, saying that she feared I was in danger of becoming a "Devoted family man, white picket fence and all, God forbid!"

She'd gotten her backside pinched for that one. Smartass woman. And God, I loved her for it. It seemed that the longer we were together, the deeper in love with her I became. At this point, I would give up everything, gladly, as long as I got to keep my woman. She and our unborn child were more important to me than my own life. I would gladly die for them.

At one point during the winter, I almost did.

Okay, I didn't, but I felt like I was going to. That cold had kicked my ass, goddamn it. But I would, if it came to that. No harm would ever come to my Beth, or there'd be hell to pay.

She was almost ready to pop soon; she didn't wander farther than the back garden these days, and climbing the stairs to the bedroom every night was a production, which usually led to me carrying her up the last flight and settling her in. Which didn't bother me, but I wasn't exactly a young man anymore, and carrying her was harder on my knees than I liked to admit. So I didn't. What she didn't know about my pain didn't hurt her none.

I could tell she was nervous; she spent a lot of her spare time reading. The far side of the ballroom was lined floor to ceiling with books, and she'd found some encyclopedias to brush up on her knowledge of pregnancy and labour. Frankly, since I would be delivering our child, I was pretty sure I was more nervous than she was, but still, she kept up a happy attitude, and that, more than anything else, I depended on to keep me grounded.

It was early summer now, and we figured she was due within the next two weeks sometime. I wanted to make a run to the nearest shopping center, see if I couldn't find some more supplies. We could always use some powdered formula. She was paranoid that since this was her first baby, her milk would dry up. Hell, I didn't even know that could happen.

Anyway, anything at all that I could find and bring back, I would. I decided to take the Hummer, because it had the most cargo space, in case I got lucky and found the "motherload". She'd laughed at that little pun. Then frowned like an angry cat when my heckling quickly sunk in.

She saw me off later that morning with a sigh. "You come back to me now, you hear?"

I nodded, and leaned out the window to kiss her goodbye. I had never thought of myself as the affectionate type, but now it seemed I couldn't get enough. Merle wouldn't have recognised me, had he been around to see all the changes Beth had wrought in me. Changes that were for the better, I knew.

I winked when we parted. "Cross my heart. Y'all set?"

She nodded, "Yeah, I'll be fine. You just hurry back. I'll be waitin'." She rubbed her belly absently and blew me another kiss.

I waved and drove away. It was harder than anything I'd ever done to leave her behind. I almost stopped and went back twice, but once I was outside the gate and on the road, it was better. I had things to do; the faster I got 'em done, the faster I could come home.

I drove for two hours before I found a Big Spot! with relatively few walkers roaming the parking lot. I pulled up as close to the doors as I could and picked off any that came to investigate my noise, then I slipped inside, grabbed a bunch of carts, and shoved them all down into the old produce section. It made a god-awful racket, and predictably, every walker in the store came stumbling.

While they were busy attacking the cart pile, I ran a cart down to the Baby section, got what I needed, and beat it outta there. One almost got me just as I was loading my loot, but a swift stab to the head fixed his wagon. I kicked his corpse out of the way of my back tire and threw myself into the driver's seat, shutting the door in time to avoid three of the dead bastards scrabbling at my window to get to me.

I'd managed to find enough formula, the number one item on my list, to last us three babies, along with a shitload of other necessities, so when I pulled out of the Big Spot! I figured I was safe to go right home, but just before I could leave I spotted something that made my mouth fall open.

Across the road, a woman stumbled out of the bush, and I was close enough that I recognised her immediately. It was Carol.

She was alone, and there was a small herd of walkers on her tail. I honked the horn, and drove through the field that separated us, shouting out the window, "Carol! This way! Run to me!"

She looked up, and started running toward me. I braked hard when she was close, and threw open the passenger door for her, yelling, "Come on! Hurry the hell up, woman! I ain't got all day!"

Panting, she threw herself in, and I grabbed a handful of her pack, stomping on the gas and throwing up chunks of waist-high grass and mud as we took off, back to the road.

A mile or so later, I pulled over so she could get in right, and we sat there, just staring at each other a moment. She was grinning and threw her arms around me.

"Oh, Daryl! I thought I'd never see you again!" She started to cry.

I hugged her back, then gently disentangled her arms. It felt weird to have another woman touch me, but I didn't say anything about it. I just smiled back and replied, "Good to see you too, Carol. Where ya been?"

I didn't yet mention that I knew about Rick's kicking her out of the Prison just before the Governor's last attack. Even now I still couldn't believe she'd done what she did, but I knew Rick wouldn't lie about something like that. I decided to see if she would be honest with me. Killing two people like that just wasn't like her, but if Rick said she'd admitted to it, I believed him. Rick's word was law, as far as I was concerned. He was the best friend I'd ever had. I missed him a lot, and I still hoped he was alive, wherever he was.

I started driving again. She sat back and wiped her tears away.

"Oh, I've been around. Scavenging and scrounging, since Rick ousted me."

I looked at her like I was surprised, but didn't comment. Beth had taught me that if I was silent long enough, a woman would feel compelled to fill the void. It worked like a charm now.

"Didn't you know? We went on a run together, and that was when he sent me packing. Oh, he didn't send me off without supplies, but he didn't need to make me leave, either. And the silliest thing is, I don't even know why he kicked me out." She played with the end of her belt. "I didn't do anything wrong, Daryl. I swear I didn't."

I chewed my lip, unsure of how to play this. She wasn't going to be honest, it seemed. Should I call her on it? This was Carol, for Christ's sake. I'd been through hell and back with this woman. But I trusted Rick implicitly. He wouldn't have done what he did without a good reason. It was just the way Rick was. His sense of right and wrong was practically legendary. And it seemed that what he'd said to me was spot-on: she really didn't seem to believe that what she'd done had been wrong.

She kept talking.

"What happened at the Prison? I went back to see if I could plead my case and be reinstated, but it was burned out. Where did everybody go? Do you know?"

I wondered if she'd come back to plead her case to me, but again, kept that thought to myself. If Rick wanted her out, I would have sided with him, whether I liked it or not. He was the leader, not me.

Running a hand through my short hair that Beth had just trimmed again last week, I told her.

"The Governor came back."

She gasped. "What?! I thought that trail went cold!"

I shrugged. I hated thinking about that day. "It did. But he raised a new army. Had a tank and ever'thin'. He was holdin' Michonne and Hershel hostage, in exchange for the Prison. Rick tried to reason with 'im, but... He killed Hershel anyway."

Carol put her hand to her mouth in shock. If she had already heard this, she was doing a good job of acting like she hadn't. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her glance in the backseat, then look back at me.

"That's terrible! Poor Maggie! And Beth too," she said, staring out the windshield. "Did everyone else get out okay?"

I shrugged. "Dunno. Ain't seen anyone since it happened."

She looked me over. "Well, you certainly look like you've been making out alright. Then again, you always did." She sniffed.

"Whatta ya mean?"

She laughed. "Well, really, Daryl, you can't tell me you've been cutting your own hair. In fact, I've never seen you looking so clean and neat."

I kept staring at the road, not answering. She hadn't exactly asked me a question, so I didn't reply.

Carol continued to watch me. It made me edgy. For some reason I dreaded when she would ask about the load of baby shit in the backseat.

I didn't wait long.

"So... Someone having a baby?" She asked nonchalantly.

Sigh. I decided right then that I wasn't going to care what Carol thought of me and Beth. Was none of her damn business, anyway.

I nodded, chewing the inside of my upper lip. "Mmhmm."

She smiled. "Who? Anyone I know?"

"Yeah, ya know her. It's Beth."

I saw her blink quickly and hide her surprise. What she said next, I never expected, though.

"Beth? Beth Green?"


She seemed to mull this over a moment. "Oh. Was she raped? Poor girl."

I frowned at her. "No, she weren't raped! Jesus, Carol!"

Carol looked at me innocently. "Then who's the father? Surely it isn't you."

I stared at her a moment before looking back at the road, my face still set in a frown. "It is me. Ya really think I'd let someone rape her?"

The shock on her face was priceless. I wanted to laugh so badly, but kept my face blank with effort. I was still pissed she thought I'd be irresponsible enough to allow the rape of my only remaining family member, no matter the circumstance.

Now she frowned at me. "If that's a joke, Daryl, it's in very bad taste."

"Ain't no fuckin' joke, Carol." My tone was hard.

She crossed her arms. That was a dead giveaway that she was getting angry at me, just like I figured she would. My gut flipped a little. This whole situation made me nervous. I was beginning to wonder if bringing her back with me was such a great idea, but I knew I couldn't leave her out here. I was really kinda stuck with her, now.

I wanted to kick myself. All I could do was hope she didn't offend Beth. My heavily pregnant little peach was none too tolerant of anything lately. She wouldn't mince words if she was pissed.

Carol watched me for any tell-tale traces of humour, and when I simply stared back at her like, What?, she whispered, "You're serious."

"Yeah. Usually am. That a problem?" My tone dared her to take further issue with my situation.

She stuttered a moment before she got out, "Well, she's a little young, don't you think?"

I shrugged. "World's over, Carol. Who's around anymore to give a shit?"

She opened her mouth but shut it again. Then she asked, "Do you love her?"

I smiled at the road. "More'n anythin'."

She sighed. "I see." She didn't say any more after that.

Somehow, that worried me.

I unlocked the estate gate, drove through, then got out to lock it again. When I got back behind the wheel Carol asked, "What is this place? Is this where you've been staying?"

"It's an estate. We been here gettin' on almost a year now."

I watched her out of the corner of my eye carefully. The change was subtle, but she wasn't the same woman I remembered. The old Carol would have been happy for me, whether I'd chosen her or not. This Carol was different, though. Harder, colder. I wanted to say malevolent, maybe. But I bided my time, and promised myself I'd cut her loose if she did anything suspicious. Because she clearly disapproved of Beth and me, and that got my back up, damn it. I loved Beth. And she loved me. There was nothing more to talk about.

We passed the garage and kept going, until I pulled up to the house and opened my door to hop out, and start unloading. Carol slowly got out on her side, staring at the place.

"Oh my God, this is beautiful."

I shrugged. "Keeps the rain off our heads."

"How did you find it?" She asked.


I forgot about her question. Beth's excited voice was music to my ears, and I set down the boxed bascinet I'd picked up to meet her with open arms, a smile on my face. Since I knew Carol was watching, I kissed my Bethy long and deep, and she wrapped her arms around my neck in return. I wanted Carol to see where my loyalties lay.

When Beth let me go she breathed, "I missed you."

I laughed. "I only been gone four hours!"

She shook her head. "Doesn't matter. Any amount of time away from you is too long." Beth had leaned in to kiss me again when she spied my passenger, and I covered the rest of the distance to her mouth when she stopped cold.

She kissed me in return, but then backed up a step. "Carol? Is that really you?"

Carol smiled, came around the bumper, her arms out, and hugged Beth warmly. "It's so good to see you, Beth!"

Beth made a what the hell? face at me over Carol's shoulder, and I shrugged, rolling my eyes. Beth raised a brow but replaced her smile when Carol pulled away to look at her face again.

"Congratulations, by the way, on the baby." Carol gushed a little too brightly. I could tell Beth was uncomfortable with this obviously false expression of felicitation, but she hid it well. Graciously she replied, "Thank you, Carol. Daryl and I are very happy about it."

I saw Carol's eyes flash briefly with what looked like jealousy, and I knew Beth had seen it too, but neither of us remarked on it then. Later, in bed, we would analyse it plenty.

After I got all the supplies unloaded, and Carol had helped me carry everything inside, Beth offered Carol a bedroom for however long she liked. Carol thanked her profusely, but promised she wouldn't burden us long with her presence, unless we wanted her to stay...?

Well, at that point, what could we say without being rude? So we told her of course we wanted her to stay, despite our true feelings on the matter.

For supper I roasted the last of the leftover venison I had in the fridge, along with some fresh tomatoes from the garden Beth had been cultivating beside the pool, and some leafy greens I'd found out there, too. Beth threw together a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and I cracked a bottle of wine I'd found in the back of the pantry. I'd found some chocolate chips back there too, and made a mental note to take them upstairs later. That thought made me grin.

Over dinner Carol told us about her time alone, her hardships. Beth and I listened quietly on one side of the table, while she talked from the other. Carol took in every little detail about us, I was betting. To me, the atmosphere was getting more and more tense as the night wore on and Carol showed no signs of tiring. I knew Beth was exhausted, but didn't want to be rude and leave the table until our guest did.

As Carol talked, I took in her appearance. Her hair had grown out to her shoulders in an uneven bob. Her skin was sunburned and dirty, and her clothes had definately seen better days. She looked more unkempt than she had that time when I'd found her bloody and dehydrated in Solitary.

I felt Beth's hand on my thigh under the table, her silent plea to go to bed. I squeezed her hand and yawned, loudly.

Carol smiled. "I should let you get to bed."

I nodded. "We're used to going to sleep pretty early. Beth needs all the rest she can get now."

Carol looked at Beth and smiled the fakest smile I'd ever seen. "I'll bet! How have you been feeling, dear?"

Beth shrugged. "Dumpy. But I'll be fine." She got up slowly, her hands cradling the baby protectively.

Carol got up too, and collected our plates. I thanked her, and took them to the sink, where I'd soak them overnight. Usually Beth and I did them together, but I knew she was done in, and besides, they could wait til tomorrow.

I held Beth's hand as we climbed the stairs, Carol following closely behind. Beth pointed to the three bedrooms down the hall when we'd gotten to the top.

"You can use any one of those rooms, Carol. Good night."

Carol thanked her, and when Beth's back was turned she raised her brows at me. I just stared back, then frowned. She shrugged, and put up her palms a little in placation. I wondered what the hell that was all about.

"Goodnight, Daryl." She called after us.

I was following Beth by this point and replied without looking back, "Night."

I helped Beth climb the loft steps and suggested for the tenth time that we could move downstairs til after the birth, but she shook her head.

"No. I want to be in our bed when it's time." She smiled up at me and nuzzled my neck. I smiled, and pulled the Chipit bag from my pocket.

"Looky what I found."

Beth burst out laughing, and I saw the interested glint in her eye. Despite her advanced pregnancy, she was hornier lately than I was. Not that I was complaining, of course. I was always down for sex. Like, fuck yeah.

She nodded. "You know just what to say to get me hot." Winked.

I shrugged. "Chocolate will always make me think of sex, thanks to you."

Beth smiled. "Yeah, well forget the chocolate. I just want you."

I yanked my pants down and balanced on one foot trying to get them off. I grinned widely. "Ya got me, honey."

We seemed to have an unspoken agreement that night to have sex extra loudly. I mean, we weren't usually quiet, but we both did a lot more moaning this time, and when we were finally finished, my little peach tucked tightly into my side, I said, "Ya don't like her here, do ya."

Beth raised her eyes to me. "No, I don't. She gives me an odd feeling, but I'm probably just hormonal from the baby." She flicked her hair off her face. "What about you? I mean... I know you two used to be close..." Her voice trailed off, and I detected a note of melancholia in it. Lonliness.

I rubbed her arm reassuringly. "She's diff'rent now. Can't say exactly how, but it's there. It's like, I dunno... a malevolence, I guess."

Beth blinked. "You felt that too?"

I nodded. "I felt it right after I picked her up and she asked who the baby stuff was for. When I said it was for you, she asked if ya'd been raped, and I told her I'd never let that happen to ya."

"What did she say when you told her this baby was yours?"

I swallowed. "She got mad and told me, "If that was a joke, it was in very poor taste."" I imitated Carol's voice in a whiny, high-pitched tone.

I felt Beth tense beneath me. "Huh. So she doesn't approve, then."

"''Parently not."

She sighed. "I figured as much. She did a piss-poor job of hiding it at dinner. Which was awesome, by the way." I felt her lips on my neck. "Thanks for taking such good care of me, Daryl."

I squeezed her. "My pleasure, darlin'."

Beth laid her head over my heart and sighed in contentment. "I love you."

I kissed her forehead. "I love ya, too."

She sniffed. "I'm sorry things worked out this way."

I frowned. "Whatta ya mean, honey?"

She shrugged. "You know, getting stuck with me when you two were so close, then ending up tied down by this baby. I know you're too honourable a man to abandon us, but you didn't have to love me, you know. I didn't expect it. I had hoped you would, eventually-"

"Beth. I love ya. Alright? I do. Don't worry about Carol. What I felt for her... it's diff'rent for you. More intense." I held her to me tightly. "Ya have nothin' to worry about on that score, hon. I'm with you. To the very end."

She sighed. "Thank you, Daryl."

I smiled. "You and the baby are the best things I've ever done, Bethy. I ain't goin' anywhere. Not without ya's."

I felt her smile against my chest, and after a moment, her soft snores filled the room. I played with a lock of her hair and smiled to myself.

Merle... You were so wrong about women. Rest in peace, you old asshole.

It crossed my mind that perhaps my brother hadn't been wrong about all women, but Beth was definately the exception. I was lucky to have had this opportunity to be with her, get to know her, and fall in love with her. I'd never been happier.

Whoever tried to destroy that happiness would rue the day they'd ever met me.

The next morning Beth got me up and we made pancakes for breakfast. Carol was still in bed by the time we were ready to do our daily chores, so we figured we'd just go about our business as usual. I made my rounds of the perimeter wall and Beth weeded her garden. Ellie followed me, but after a half hour I sent her back to Beth. I felt uneasy leaving her alone now that Carol was staying with us, and that bothered me. Carol was our friend, yet both of us didn't want her here. Something was wrong, I could feel it in my bones, practically.

I was just passing the front gate when I saw something move. I stopped dead and watched, to see if it would move again.

A rabbit outside sprinted across the road, disturbed by a walker. I was all set to walk away, since it hadn't seen me and therefore was none of my concern - safe behind this wall - when an eight-point buck wandered out from the bush and stood in the ditch, cropping grass.

The walker hadn't seen it, was still chasing the rabbit. We were just now out of venison; we could use the meat. I silently crept to the gate, and, taking aim through the iron bars, shot the buck in the neck. It took off down the road, and I hastily unlocked the gate, ready to follow it. I hoped it didn't die too far away, 'cause a good sized buck was heavy dragging.

My popping the lock and opening the creaky gate caught the walker's attention, and she ambled back toward me. I had time to re-lock the gate, and when she was close enough I kicked her in the chest, knocking her down, and stabbed her under the chin. Then I took off after my buck.

I got lucky; I found the deer dying on its' side only a hundred yards down the road, in a creek. It had tried to jump and broken it's leg on the guard rail next to the ditch.

I quickly dispatched it, and with great effort hauled it up to the road, checking to make sure I wasn't drawing any undue attention as the dead animal bled out a trail behind me.

At twenty yards from the gate I had three followers. I knew I wouldn't make it, so I dropped the carcass and made a stand over it, taking out two with bolts and the last one with my knife. Satisfied that I was alone again, I got my deer and pulled it to safety behind the gate, where I could leave it to finish bleeding out while I went for the wheelbarrow in the garage.

When I had the carcass at the house, I went around back to see if Beth would help me, but she wasn't where I'd left her in the garden.

My gut dropped.

"Morning, Pookie."

I jumped, spinning around to see Carol leaning on the deck rail, sipping coffee out of my mug.

Despite the scare she'd given me, I maintained my cool. "Mornin'. Ya seen Beth?"

Carol shook her head. "No. I just got up, actually. This is good coffee, by the way." She smiled and took another sip.

I jogged up the steps and strode past her to go into the house, but she caught my arm. I stopped, but I didn't want to. I was anxious to know where Beth was.

"Daryl, wait a minute."

I waited. "What?" Impatiently.

She came closer, looking up at me from under her lashes. Her shoulder brushed mine, and her breast, my chest. It was awkward as hell.

I backed up a step, ostensibly.

She laughed. "You're not afraid of me, are you? I mean, we used to be pretty close. Remember?" She reached out to pick a fleck of debris off my collar. I tried not to flinch and was only partially successful. I said nothing to her question, hoping she'd get to the point soon so I could leave.

She stood there looking me over, tilted her head when I didn't answer after a few seconds. "Hmm. Clean clothes, fresh haircut, trimmed beard... She certainly takes care of you, doesn't she." She looked down, then up at me again. "That used to be my job."

I frowned. "Ya stopped me for that?" I made to leave. "I've got shit to do, Carol-"

She grabbed my hand to pull me back. "Daryl, please. I... I've missed you." She'd latched her arms around my neck before I could stop her, and she mashed her lips to mine.

I heard the patio door slide open then and I turned in Carol's grasp. Beth was standing there, her gardening gloves in one hand, her trowel in the other. Her face was surprised, then abruptly went blank.

I pushed out of Carol's grip and went to my woman. "Beth, I was lookin' for ya. Y'alright?" My eyes searched hers. I wanted so badly to be alone with her so I could explain what she'd just seen.

She managed a shaky smile that only lasted a few seconds. "I'm fine, I just had to pee again."

I sighed with relief, and took her hand. "C'mon. I just killed a buck." She knew the drill here; we'd butchered the last one together.

I was leading her to the steps, but Carol moved to block us. "Daryl, Beth's really in no condition to do much of anything, especially in this heat. I'll help you, if you like. I want to earn my keep." She smiled innocently.

I squeezed Beth's hand and pushed past Carol somewhat rudely, but at this point I was beyond caring if I offended her or not.

"Not necessary. We've done it before." I knew I was dragging Beth behind me but I just wanted out of there. I called behind me, "Dishes need doin', if you're lookin' to help out." I dragged Beth around the corner of the house and out of Carol's sight.

Beth pulled back on my hand then and said, "Slow down, Daryl, I can't keep up-"

I pulled her into my arms and held her tight. She gripped me back.

After a moment I whispered, "God, Beth, for a few minutes there I..."

She sniffed. "I was fine. What was that, back on the deck?" Her eyes never left mine while she waited for my answer.

I snorted. "That were not me. I was lookin' for ya, and she just latched on." I tucked a lock of blond hair behind her ear. "I didn't kiss 'er back, Beth."

She smiled. "I know. I was watching from the window. I just pretended to be surprised when I came out. I trust you, Daryl." Beth sighed and laid her face over my heart. "It's her, I don't trust."

I shook my head. "Me neither. I'm beginnin' to wish I'd left her out there."

Beth tsk'ed at me. "No, you don't. I know you. You couldn't not have rescued her. That's not the kind of man you are."

I pulled her with me so we were walking again. "I am if'n the decisions I'm makin' affect your safety."

She squeezed my hand. "You're so sweet, Daryl." She crinkled her nose and smiled up at me.

I slung my arm around her shoulder. We were quiet until we reached the wheelbarrow and the buck. She sighed then, looking at me tensely. "We have to get rid of her."

I nodded. Yes, we did. And soon. Or I feared something real bad was going to happen.

"I know."

She pulled out her knife and handed it to me. "Let's just be cautious, okay? We'll wait and see if she does anything else. If she does, we'll deal with it then." With the back of her hand, Beth wiped the sweat off her forehead.

I made the first cut down the deer's belly, then stopped to look at her, my hands covered in blood. "I just can't see 'er doin' somethin' like that."

Beth raised her brows. "You mean killing those two people?"

I nodded. "It's just so unlike her, ya know? The Carol I knew would never do that. She was more the nurse-them-to-health-no-matter-how-sick-they-are type."

Beth shrugged. "We've all changed, Daryl."

I shook my head. "But what made her change so much that she'd do somethin' like that? It just don't make any damn sense."

She opened her mouth to reply, but I saw Carol come around the corner then and I coughed. Beth shut up.

When she was close enough Carol asked, "Beth, honey, where do you keep the dish soap?"

Beth stood up straight and braced her back. "Under the sink." They stared at each other for a moment. I watched, tense.

Carol shrugged. "I'll check again." Then she turned to smile at me. "I've made lunch." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "How long will you be?"

Beth and I exchanged a glance. "We'll be a while."

Carol said, "Oh. Alright then, I'll put it in the fridge for you." She turned to go back into the house, then stopped and said, "I just want to thank you both again, for taking me in. I really appreciate it." Then she was gone.

I looked at Beth. Beth looked at me.

I sighed.

"I'll talk to her after we're done here."

Beth asked, "Do you want me with you?"

"No. I don't want you anywhere near her if she decides to fly off the handle on me."

She nodded, but I could tell she wanted to be there. I compromised.

"Ya can be with me as long as you've got Ellie."

Beth smiled at me. I smiled back. Ellie had become rather protective of Beth, and she was never far from her side these days, unless she was patrolling with me. Ellie would defend Beth if anything happened.

I frowned. "Where is Ellie?"

Beth shook her head. "I don't know. She was out here when I went in to go to the bathroom."

I said, "Huh. Musta got into somethin'." I whistled shrilly, and called her name. Normally when we butchered she'd be here, waiting for me to throw her a thigh bone to knaw on. But she didn't come.

Beth looked around. "I'll go look for her."

I stopped her. "Beth."


I tossed up her knife and caught it by the bloody blade, and handed it to her. "Just in case."

She kissed me. "Thanks, hon."

I watched her go into the grass past the Hummer, and start calling for Ellie. I got back to work, and soon I couldn't hear her calling anymore. I was almost done; I would dump the remnants of the carcass in the bush and then take what we were keeping and put it in the fridge til I could move it to cold storage. I didn't want Carol knowing about the secret entrance to the cellar just yet... Because I'd rather be safe than sorry.

After dinner, which was still awkward but better than I'd thought it would be, I went back outside to dispose of the carcass. I loaded it back into the wheelbarrow and pushed it into the bush.

I had a pile of bones out here; it was kind of my crap pile, if you will. Close by was Ellie's shit pile, and right next to that was Petey's litter pile. Needless to say, the stench was rather fuckin' loud here.

Dumping the carcass, I scared off a pair of raccoons and a badger. I considered killing the badger; not just for it's meat but it's fur would make great mittens. I pulled my bow over my shoulder, then hesitated.

I thought I heard something.

Abandoning the wheelbarrow and the badger, I jogged back toward the house. There it was again. Sounded like something was screaming-

I broke into a run.

Beth had said she was going to lie down after supper, because her back was really sore. That had illicited an 'I-told-you-so' look from Carol, but I ignored her and helped Beth to the bedroom where she could rest in private.


"Hmm?" Sleepy.

"If anythin' happens... try to hide in the cellar. She doesn't know where it is yet."

She nodded. "M'kay, hon. Oh, Daryl?"


She frowned. "You'll never guess where I found Ellie."

I shrugged. She shook her head tiredly.

"Stuck in the gardening shed."

I frowned. What the fuck?!

"Please, be careful." Her eyes pleaded with mine, and I nodded.

She thanked me and proceeded to promptly fall asleep. I brushed her hair off her forehead and stroked her cheek a moment before returning to the kitchen.

Carol was at the sink, and she said, "I'll look after her."

I nodded. "Thanks. I'm gonna finish with the the deer, be right back."

It had all felt more normal than any behaviour Carol had displayed thus far, and I thought that perhaps she was settling down. Still, I'd made sure Beth still had my knife, and that I'd locked the door to the loft behind me, just to be safe. But the thought of the dog shut up in the shed worried me. That just didn't sit right with me. Someone had to have put her there, and I could only think of one possible suspect.

Now, as I pounded toward the house, I caught sight of Ellie, laying in the grass. What the hell?!

Ellie whimpered as I approached, and I saw right away that there was something wrong. Her leg was bleeding, almost severed, and she was trying to drag herself around, but was in too much pain. She'd been hamstringed. Brutally.


I tried to pick her up, but she only cried louder. Her whining was pitiful. I frowned deeply. I couldn't believe that she would do something this cruel to a dog.

Getting up, I yelled, "Carol! Carol!"

She didn't answer. So I went stalking after her, hoping Beth was safe and if Carol were smart, she'd have high-tailed it outta here already, before I could catch up with her.

I stomped up the back steps and through the sliding door, fury making my steps loud. If she was around she'd definately hear me coming.

I burst inside, searching. I spotted her under the bar, blood all over the floor, unaware of how close she was to the very place I didn't want her to find out about.

Her arm was oozing and she was cradling it to her chest. Her tears shone on her cheeks. When she saw me she climbed out from under there, collapsed crying into my arms.

I patted her back, and all I could get out of her muffled tirade was that Ellie had attacked her. I held her back from me so I could see her face. "Why would she attack ya? What'd ya do to 'er?"

Carol wiped her nose. "I just went up to my room, that's all. Daryl, she came out of nowhere and... and chomped me! I'm sorry but I had n-no choice but to defend myself."

She held up her bloody knife. I sighed angrily, took it from her roughly.

"Don't move."

I went back outside because I had to put that poor dog down before she suffered any more simply for doing her job. I didn't have conclusive proof, but I knew what Carol was capable of. If Ellie had attacked her, it was because Carol was near Beth, where she shouldn't have been. Ellie watched Beth like a hawk, like she knew she was in a delicate condition, and I knew she would defend her viciously if necessary. Apparently it had been necessary. Ellie had provided Beth and I with nothing but loyal companionship and security. She deserved to be put down humanely, as soon as possible. The thought of her suffering while I tended to Carol's wounds was unthinkable.

Carol could fucking wait.

I knelt by Ellie and pulled her head into my lap, stroking her fur. I would sorely miss her. She had been invaluable as a friend and a pet. I felt a tear roll down my cheek and I wiped it away harshly.

"Good girl," I murmured, slitting her throat quickly. Then I held her and petted her til she was gone.

My eyes sore, I carried her to the deck and laid her body gently on the floor outside the door. Beth was going to be devastated when I told her.

Carol was sitting on one of the barstools, her arm wrapped in a towel. Glowering, I said roughly, "C'mon."

She followed me to the bathroom, and I bound her wound with a tenser bandage. We were silent until she whispered, "I'm truly sorry, Daryl."

I glanced at her but didn't reply. I knew I was frowning but I didn't care. That dog had died for no reason at all.

She sighed.

I'd have to get rid of her. Now. She was becoming too big a threat. As I'd cleaned her wound, I could tell it weren't no dog bite. She'd cut herself with her own knife, I'd bet my life on it. No dog bite was that precise and neat. They were punctured, ragged affairs. This was just too clean.

As I went to leave, she grabbed my hand and pulled me back. I stared at her stoically.

"Daryl. What happened to you?"

I narrowed my eyes. "Whatta ya talkin' 'bout?"

She searched my face. "I'm talking about this... this... New you, I'm seeing before me. You're... well, you've always kind of been an open book to me. You never used to be so trusting and affectionate. I'd thought that, you know, maybe someday I'd be the one to get inside your heart and heal your wounds..." Her fingers stroked my cheek.

I remained stone still.

"I love you, Daryl. I've always loved you, ever since Sophia." Her eyes got shiny with tears again. "I had hoped that we could be together." She leaned in and tried to kiss me again.

I blinked, then stood back, holding her away from me at arm's length. "I know about the two people you killed, Carol."

She looked surprised. "What?"

"Rick told me, and Rick doesn't lie. Not to me." She made to interrupt, but I cut her off. "I didn't wanna believe it at first. I didn't. But if you'd come back, if the Governor... Well, if you'd come back to plead with me to let ya back in, it wouldna done ya any good. Whether I liked it or not, he'd sniffed ya out and found ya guilty. And now, you've just hamstringed my dog, and forced me to put 'er outta 'er misery."

Carol's face took on a hard slant.

"I want ya gone." My tone was adamant.

"This is all her doing, isn't it? She's jealous and she wants me out because she knows you and I have a history, is that it?"

I just stared at her.

Her tears started rolling again. "What's she got that's so goddamn special, anyway? Huh? You got a thing now for little girls? Pedophilia make you hot, Daryl?"

I narrowed my eyes again and grabbed her by the arms, giving her a hard shake that rattled her teeth.

"She ain't a little girl. She's a woman, and I love her because she saw somethin' in me worth a second look. She never expected anythin' of me that I didn't wanna give. She gave of herself when she didn't hafta." I felt my anger start to boil over. "She sure as hell didn't murder two people in quarantine, in their sleep, in cold blood, on the chance they would infect the rest of us, without even consulting anyone! I can tell ya that fuckin' much!"

I started to drag her out into the hallway toward the foyer and the stairs, shaking my head in rage. "Nor do I fuckin' hafta explain myself and Beth to the likes of you, Carol. Get your shit. Ya ain't welcome in my house nomore. I don't trust ya 'round my family. Not after ya killed my fuckin' dog."

I pulled her bodily up the stairs.

She struggled against me. "I told you! That dog attacked me!"

I snarled in her face, "No dog bite is a clean cut like that. Ya fuckin' cut yourself. Ellie's maw was clean. Ya mutilated an innocent animal. You're sick, and I want you gone."

Shoving her into her room, I growled, "Get your shit. Ya leave now."

She stumbled, and glared over her shoulder. Stuffed all her clothes into her pack as the tears continued to roll. My eyes were dry.

She elbowed by me and went down the stairs to put her shoes on. Her glare was gone when I opened the door and gestured for her to go out first.

"Daryl, please! Please don't make me go out there alone," she pleaded. I pushed her over the threshold onto the first step, slammed the door behind me. My face was blank and I said nothing, just stared back at her. She sagged, then walked ahead of me. I followed a few feet behind her, all the way to the front gate.

It took much longer than I would have liked to get there, but she put in time, trying to change my mind. No matter what tack she tried I remained firm. She was out. That was that.

At last we reached the gate. I watched her warily as I opened it, held it, then locked it behind her. She turned and gripped the bars as I stared back from this side, unsympathetic.

"Daryl, for the love of God, please reconsider! If you leave me out here you may as well kill me yourself!"

I glared at her. "I will kill ya if I see ya again, Carol. Ya went too far. I can't trust ya." I threw her knife down in the dirt, the tip thunking into the ground, then turned around and pointed my finger at her face through the bars. "I used to look up to ya, Carol. Respect ya. Hell, I thought ya were the toughest bitch I ever met. We've all changed, I know that. This livin' dead shit'll do that to ya. But you changed the wrong way!" I walked away, then came back, working up a froth of fury. I was pissed and damned if I wasn't gonna let her have it.

"You're 'sposed to protect your own, not murder 'em! What the fuck were ya thinkin'?! So they were sick! They was in fuckin' quarantine! If anythin', you fucked up by goin' near 'em and exposin' yourself, then walkin' 'round like ya were perfectly fit to care for the rest! I wouldn't be surprised if, had we known what you'd done, we coulda saved a lot more people if we'd gotten rid of ya soon as ya did it. Hmm? Am I right, Carol? Did ya act in the interest of the 'greater good' and end up exposing ever'one anyway? Even your girls? Even Little Asskicker?!"

Carol's tears had dried, but her red eyes hated me. Her silence was answer enough for me. I never thought I would, but I hated her right back. Only a monster could do what she'd done.

"You're so fuckin' sick. Take your chances, Carol, 'cause I'm done spendin' mine." I turned and walked away. She sniffed, and I heard her mutter, "You'll be sorry, Daryl, I promise you."

I turned back to snap, "Piss off, Carol! I'm already sorry! I see ya again, I won't be so kind as to send ya off with your knife and your shit. I'll send ya out there with nothin' and your knife buried in your goddamn back! So stuff your threats up your ass and get lost!" I stomped off, my anger making my voice uncontrollably loud. Good. Maybe I'd attracted some walkers for her to kill, since she was so fond of doing so.

I shook my head and wanted to kick myself. How could I have ever trusted her? I'd put my Beth in danger when I'd brought Carol home. I'd not be so careless ever again.

I hurried back to the house, and went up to our room. The door was still locked. I breathed a sigh of relief, went up the stairs, and climbed onto the bed next to my sleeping Beth. She stirred at the movement, and smiled up at me.

"Hey darlin'," I whispered.

She kissed me. "Hey. Did I miss "the talk"?"

I nodded. "Yeah, ya did. I'm glad ya did. I'm glad ya were safe up here. I kicked her off the estate, Beth. She's gone for good."

Beth mulled that over, her smile of relief short. "I see. I'm sorry you had to do that. But I do feel a lot better now that she's gone."

I was quiet when I looked down at the sheet and mumbled, "Me too."

She frowned sadly at me. "You don't sound like it..."

I looked up and met her eyes. What I had to say was going to crush her.

"I am glad she's gone. Because in a while I gotta go out back and dig a hole."


I sighed, and started to stroke her knuckles. "She said Ellie attacked her, and she hamstrung 'er. Damn near severed the limb."

Beth's hand flew to her mouth, and her eyes brimmed over. Then she threw off the sheet and heaved her legs off the bed, leaned over, and screamed.

I reached out to calm her down, but she abruptly sat back up and fell bawling into my arms.

After a while she cried, "I hate that bitch! I hate her! How could she do that?! Ellie was just a dog! She was our dog, we rescued her! She didn't deserve that..." her wails got weaker as the tears got rolling once more. I felt a tear or two eek down my own cheek.

"She told me Ellie attacked 'er when she came back from 'er room, but I wrapped the wound, and it weren't no dog bite. I think she stabbed the dog outside where I found 'er, then went back into the kitchen and cut herself with 'er knife. That, and Ellie had no blood on 'er mouth. She'd never attacked Carol at all." I sniffed. "Was hard to put 'er down."

Beth sniffled, and stroked my bangs back. "That woman is a waste of good fucking air. Jeez! I'm so sorry you had to do that, Daryl. God!"

I held her tight. "Agreed. I told 'er if'n I ever set eyes on 'er again, I'd kill 'er."

Wiping her nose, Beth said in a small voice, "I wish it were already done."

I did too, but I didn't say that. I just rubbed her back and rocked her.



"... Can ya forgive me?"

She looked up at my face, a brow raised in question. "What for?"

My shoulders sagged. "For puttin' ya in so much danger. I shoulda known better'n to ever bring her back here, knowin' what I did about Karen and David. I shoulda just drove away."

She touched my chin when I dropped my eyes, not letting me avoid her gaze. Her eyes were so clear and blue I could've gotten lost in them.

"You have nothing to be sorry about, Daryl. You did what anyone else would've done for a friend. More even, than what a lot of people would've done." She tilted her head. "Personally, I had hoped that she wasn't nuts, so she could help deliver the baby, since Daddy taught her the basics for Lori," she shrugged, "but I'm not sorry she's gone now. Nor am I sorry that she's out there alone. She had that coming."

I squeezed her and she smiled a little, then got up again, her face somber. "Come on. Let's put poor Ellie to rest."

I followed her down the stairs.

I dug the hole in the setting sun, and set Beth to work tying two thick branches together to mark the spot. She was bent over it, using her pocketknife to carve Ellie's name into the cross-piece. Her tears fell freely but she never uttered a sound.

I brought the dog's body down from the deck, wrapped in a blanket from our room, laid her gently in the hole, then stood back and held Beth tightly when she came into my arms. Looking down at the pathetic loss of life, I felt my own tears start to roll.

"Ya were a good girl, Ellie, and ya didn't deserve to be cut down in cold blood. Hope you're chasin' lots of wild game up there in heaven, and you're with your family again."

I paused, not sure what else to say, but Beth murmured, "Amen," and saved me the embarrassment of admitting it.

I nodded. "Amen."

We stood there for a moment longer. I was lost in thought, wondering what the hell I'd do if Carol made good on her threat, when I felt Beth's lips on my sweaty neck. I turned to look at her, and she smiled sadly into my eyes.

"What's the matter, hon?"

She sighed. "I hate to ruin this sentimental moment, because I'm really going to miss that dog. But if we don't get up to the bed soon, I just might have your baby out here in the grass."

Holy shit.

Holy fuckin' shit!

I panted as I ran up the loft steps, Beth bouncing in my arms, holding onto my neck for her life, groaning loudly in pain. I tried not to jostle her too much, but when I felt that the thighs of my pants were damp I figured it was too late to worry about that anymore.

I set her down on the bed, and she hissed, gesturing at my pants, "Sorry! Jesus!" Her face screwed up with pain.

I dismissed her apology and said, "What the fuck do I do, Beth? What do I fuckin' do?!"

She laughed a little. "Calm down, Daryl. Help me get these off." She unsnapped her belt buckle and unzipped her jeans. I could do that.

I hauled her jeans and panties off, then waited for further instructions. Tried not to pass out from panic.

"Now what?"

She panted, "Get the blankets and sterile stuff, over there." She nodded with her head to the pile on the dresser. I got it and brought it to the bed.

Beth screamed for a second then cut it off with a grunt. I stared like I was going to be sick.

I touched her, and she groaned, "Gimme a minute!"

Thirty seconds later she fell back against the headboard, breathing hard. "Okay, put that blanket down under me. Now, look to see how dilated I am."

I looked.

"Few inches, I guess." I really had no idea what the hell I was looking for, but I hoped that answer helped.

Beth nodded. "Then just hold my hand, because I've just got to work my way through it. Oh, and keep track of the time between contractions. That will tell us how close we are to the end."

I nodded, and did as she told me.

Four hours later I was praying to God to let this be over soon. My hand was killing me!

Beth squeezed it through every contraction, and I never would've thought she possessed so much strength. Her own hand had to have been sore, but she never ceased to put on more pressure as her contractions got more painful. I could only imagine how bad it was for her. I wiped the sweat off her forehead between spasms, and she smiled at me.

"How're ya doin?" I asked after a while.

She sighed. "I feel like I'm being ripped in half."

I looked at the floor. "Sorry."

She chortled. "Takes two."

I smiled a little. "That's true. Still."

Beth shrugged. "It'll be worth it when he's here."

I stroked her head, smiling a little. "He?"

She shrugged again. "High hopes."

I nodded. "If it's not, I won't be disappointed. A little girl who'll grow up to be pretty as 'er mama..." I really smiled at her, then leaned over to check her progress. Shit was starting to happen now.

Another push later, I could see a head. I moved so that I was kneeling in front of her, ready with a blanket and a sterile pair of scissors.

Three mighty (loud) pushes later, I pulled my son into the world, screaming his little lungs out and covered in blood and slop. I felt my lips stretch into a grin that just wouldn't go away as I wiped him off, cut him free, then handed him to Beth. Her eyes got wet as she looked at his perfect little face, and she grinned up at me, her joy infectious. I stroked her head.

A moment later she spasmed again, and she hissed, "Put him in the bascinet... we're not done yet."

I laid him down, quickly returning to her side. "Afterbirth?"

She nodded and screwed up her face, pushing again.

I let my gaze wander over to the little man, thrashing inside his blanket, but my eyes were drawn back when she gasped, "Daryl!"

I looked, and holy fuck, there was another head! And shoulders, and then it was out without any help from me, but I reached for another blanket to clean it's face off, grinning as I cut the cord again.

Beth had fallen back, exhausted; when I shook her knee she lifted her head, brows raised.

"Say hello to this little lady." I held up our daughter so she could see her, and Beth burst out crying, laughing at the same time. I chuckled at her, then lay our little girl next to her brother in the bascinet.

When I went back to Beth, I noticed quite a bit of blood on the sheet, but she waved her hand. "It's normal, the afterbirth still has to come."

"Alright, if ya say so." I sat down next to her to wait. "Ya did some kick-ass work today."

She smiled, barely keeping her eyes open. "Feel like I've had my ass kicked, more like it." She reached for my hand. "What a damn day it's been, hmm?"

I glanced at the dormer above our heads. It was black outside. "Wonder what time it is."

She yawned. "Time to sleep for the next month."

I reached out with my free hand to gently pinch her chin. "You've earned it."

She rolled her eyes, but smiled. "The real work begins now." She glanced over at them, gurgling at each other. "I was not prepared for two."

I shrugged. "At this point, the more the merrier, I 'spose."

She stared at me like I'd suggested we get up and go to a Hollywood Premiere.


She shook her head. "I just never thought you could turn into a man who'd say such things... and mean them."

I winked, then said playfully, "Aw, go fuck yourself!"

She scoffed, grinning. "That's your job!"

I sat up righteously. "And I did the fuck outta it, didn't I?!"

"Yeah, you sure as hell did." Beth sighed, her smile remaining. "Remind me to curb your lust next time. Goddamn, I'm sore! And we're still not done, ugh."

I watched her. Despite her sweaty face, messed up hair, and surliness, she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. She made Carol look like a pile of shit in comparison.

She caught me staring and asked, "What?"

I just shook my head. "You."

Beth raised a brow so high it nearly disappeared into her damp bangs. "What about me?"

I reached out to flick her nose. "I love ya."

Beth grinned, then crooked her finger at me. "C'mere." She stretched her neck up, and I kissed her mouth, slipping my hand behind her head, her hand gripping my wrist.

After she passed the afterbirth, she asked for a mirror. I went downstairs to get one from the bathroom, and when I returned she was asleep. I debated waking her, but figured she'd asked for the mirror for a good reason, so I squeezed her knee again gently.

She snorted awake. "Umm. Thanks." She took it and surveyed the damage. "Daryl..."

I dragged my eyes away from our sleeping twins. "Hmm?"

She closed her eyes for a few seconds, then said, "Can you do me a huge favour?"

I nodded, still smiling as I reached out to stroke my son's drying, dark hair.

Beth reached behind her and pulled the pillowcase off her pillow, wound it up, and held it taught.

"I need you to take the needle and sew me up."

I blinked. "What?!"

"The twins tore me, see?" She used the mirror to show me. "I could slowly bleed out if you don't stitch it."

I swallowed. This was a tad more than I had been prepared to swallow. "Won't that hurt?"

She stared at me like I was an idiot. "At this point, pain is moot. Besides, I've got this to bite down on." She held up the pillowcase.

I sniffed, then took the needle and thread from her, dipping them and my hands in some rubbing alcohol she'd had on hand, for this very emergency. I was impressed; the girl knew her shit, and had prepared for it.

"Alright, still got your scissors?"

I nodded.

"Sterilise them, too. Now, work your way up from here," she pointed, using the mirror to see, "To here, using individual stitches. I think three small ones should do it."

I took a breath, and she put the pillowcase between her teeth, and nodded that she was ready.

It took twenty minutes, but I got it done. I dabbed up the excess blood and started to gather up the soiled blankets. She held a wad of folded clean fabric to herself and gingerly moved to a chair by the twins while I stripped and remade the bed.

"I'm sorry I can't help you, Daryl." She said, holding her head up with her hand. She looked so tired I wanted to go to sleep.

"S'fine. I got it." I threw it all in the laundry basket and paused by her on my way downstairs. "Ya did good, girl. Get back in bed. I'll watch 'em."

Beth sighed, and I put down the basket, picked her up, and carried her to the bed, settling her in. Then I kissed her forehead and left the room to take the bedsheets to the laundry room, throw them in, and start a cycle. The blanket containing the afterbirth, I took outside and burned by the pool. The sun was about an hour from rising. It'd been a damn long night, but my smile came back again and like a bad penny, wouldn't go away.

When I went back in I put the sheets in the dryer and went back upstairs, stopping by the bathroom to brush my teeth, then thought maybe she'd need to use the washroom, too. I went up, glanced in the bascinet, started grinning all over again, then kissed their mother's cheek softly. She opened her eyes.

"Ya gotta powder your nose, Bethy?"

She frowned, then snorted. "Yeah. Damn it." She went to get up, but I stopped her. Sliding my arms under her back and legs, I carried her downstairs and set her near the toilet. She smiled weakly.

"Thanks, I got it from here."

When she was done, I carried her back up, and she winced when I set her back down.

"Does it hurt real bad? I'll get ya some painkillers."

Beth shrugged. "Just hurts to pee. Or move. But I'm fine. Don't worry about me, Daryl." She stroked my cheek. "Climb in here with me."

I did. She sighed in contentment and her eyes slid shut.

"Ya did good, girl." I told her again.

Sighing, she smiled. "Thanks. You handled that pretty good, yourself. Now you'll know what to do for the next time."

I squeezed her fingers, and nuzzled her neck with my nose. "Thought ya was gonna curb me."

She laughed. "A woman never means anything she says during labour, Dixon."

"That so?"


"Hmm. Well then, ya just give me a call when you're up for servicin' again, and your stud'll come runnin'."

She pinched me as she laughed. "Ow! Don't make me laugh! Servicing! Jesus!" Her palms framed my jaws. "You are so much more to me than a stud, Daryl. So much. You are everything to me. Our twins, our perfect little babies, are a gift of my appreciation to you. I'd have never made it this far, or ever been this happy, without you. We owe you our lives. Stay with us as long as you can."

I covered her hands with mine. "I'll never leave ya's. Not for anythin'."

She sighed. "Yes, you will. Sooner or later. You have to. And each time I'll worry myself sick until you come back. But I'll keep faith that you will come back, no matter the odds against you. I said it once before, Daryl; you'll be the last man standing. And I stand by what I said. Just... let's use our time together for the little things. Love. Passion. Joy."

One of my hands drifted down to rest possessively on her hip. "Sounds like a plan." I started to stroke her. "Ya know, I never thought I'd live to see the day where I'd have a good woman I loved to come home to, or even a real home, again. Forget a family. I just never thought I'd be lucky 'nough to have those thin's. Twice. I'm glad this one's with you, Beth."

She kissed me. And then the babies started to cry.

After three days of barely any sleep and dirty everything, we were finally getting the hang of this parenting thing. The twins were in a routine now, which meant we could get some fucking sleep.

Beth was up and pulling her weight again, and, as she'd feared, her milk dried up shortly after the twins were born, but even though we had enough formula to raise a baby elephant she still didn't like to talk about it. I didn't push her. I 'sposed losing your milk was kinda like erectile dysfunction... a topic better left alone. Forever.

The fourth morning dawned sunny and hot. I sat on the deck out of the wind, coffee in hand, my son sleeping on my chest, enjoying the warmth and fresh air, when I heard the gate click. My eyes flew open.

"Oh my."

Carol took in the scene as she climbed the steps and stood over me, causing me to squint up at her. My mouth was sore from frowning already. The pit of my stomach felt like it was going to flip inside out.

"Thought I told ya to beat it, Carol. What the fuck ya doin' here?" I kept my voice controlled. Best not to let her know how perturbed I was that she'd managed to sneak up on me in such a vulnerable position like this. Fuck! I knew better!

She shrugged, her smile growing as her gaze lingered on my dick. I wasn't going to make any excuses to her. Since she'd been gone again, I could lounge around however I wanted, goddamn it. I cleared my throat meaningfully.

"Just thought I'd drop in and see if you'd changed your mind." When she brought her hand up, her knife was in it, catching the sun. "I see Beth had the baby. She lived, I assume?"

I sat up straighter, holding my son tightly to my chest, choosing to answer only two of her three roundabout inquiries. "Yes, she did. And no, I haven't. How did you get in, Carol?"

Quick as lightening, she lashed out with the knife and knicked my thigh. I jumped, blood spraying momentarily, clutching the baby protectively, who started to bawl at the sudden movement. Carol laughed, then jogged down the steps.

"Wouldn't you like to know?! If you want them to see the end of the day, meet me in an hour. Alone." She was around the corner before I could tell her to go fuck herself.

I knew what she meant by them. She might not know about our daughter yet, but she was in just as much in danger, regardless. Carol wanted something, I'd bet it was revenge against me, and she was trying to call me out, make me leave my little family unprotected. If she hurts Beth or the babies to get to me...

I limped into the house, grabbing a dishtowel and holding it to my oozing wound as I called, "Beth! Beth, come 'ere now-"

"What? Daryl, I'm here," she said, coming up out of the basement, our daughter wrapped in a blanket sling on her chest. I held up my finger to my lips, so she'd keep it down.

"What happened to your leg?!" She hissed. She put down the box of cereal in her hand, on the step.

I waved my free hand, then handed her our son. "Nevermind that. Carol's back."

She opened her mouth but I kissed it, then closed the cellar door in her face. "Stay down there, and lock yourself in. Don't come out til I come back. If it's safe, I'll knock three times. I love ya, Beth."

I heard her call, "Daryl!"

I'd turned away, but looked back and limped closer to the hidden panel. "Yeah?"

There was a pause, but then I heard, "Kill her. Please. Kill her and come back to us."

I smiled to myself. "I will."

"I love you, Daryl. More than my life."

I tapped the panel lightly. "Have faith, Bethy. Daryl won't never let ya down."

"Better fucking not. I'm going to hold you to that promise."

I grinned, limping to the bathroom. I pulled a handtowel off the rack and wound it around my thigh, throwing down the sopping dishtowel. Holding it tight, I limped back to the kitchen and dug around in the junk drawer, coming up with a big roll of duct tape.

After I was dressed, I strapped on my own knife and slung my crossbow over my shoulder. Chances were good that if Carol had found a way in, so had a few other unwelcome guests. I needed to be prepared.

Stepping outside, I checked the sun. About twenty minutes had passed. That gave me forty to find her trail, track her down, and try to get back alive. She'd already wounded me. Evening the odds in her favour, I'd reckon. Or using the scent of my blood on the deck as bait.

Only one way to find out.

I tracked her to the gate at the back of the wall. The adrenaline from the hunt was wearing off, and my thigh was aching something fierce. I tried to walk normally, in case she spotted me before I saw her.

Tighten it the fuck up, Dixon! Quit bein' such a fuckin' pussy, I told myself. I looked down; a big red stain was seeping through my pants. Just fuckin' great.

I heard a branch snap and froze, scanning my surroundings. The trees were dense here, the grass high. I couldn't tell from which direction the sound had come, but from this position, I could see that the gate was open.

I narrowed my eyes. Clever bitch. Found my escape door.

The snapping came again. I held my spot, waiting to see what would stumble out of the grass. It had been a while, but I'd never forget the sound of a walker for as long as I lived. I pulled my knife.

It nearly tripped over me before we saw each other, but a quick thrust through the soft flesh under it's jaw and it was over. I lowered the corpse to the ground, surveyed the scene, and silently moved toward the gate. I peered out, noting that the vines on the outer side of the wall were just as thick and full of bugs, and pulled it shut. The locked handle was busted off, useless. I frowned. It opened toward me...

I scoured the grass, and came up with a rock big enough to jam the door shut. I felt uneasy doing so, should I need to get out in a hurry, but the risk of something else getting in, if it hadn't already, was much greater. I grunted quietly as I stomped the rock into the ground, flush to the wood, with my good leg. My bad leg did not take well to the unbalanced weight, and I hissed in pain.

Turning, I picked up Carol's trail again, hoping I hadn't lost too much time and that this wasn't just some wild goose chase to get me away from the house, but deep down I knew that that was exactly what she wanted me to do. I prayed to the Almighty that Carol hadn't somehow discovered the hidden panel, my Ace in the hole, despite only being in the house for only a day or so. It hadn't taken Beth and I long to find it. The only consolation I had was that Beth had locked it from within, so even if Carol did discover it, it'd take her quite a while to break in. Long enough for me to finish up what I had in mind, hopefully, should it come to that.

My search ended at the garage. I crept around it, and the signs were there. She'd been here for some time, at least two days, I guessed. There was a guest apartment on the second floor, above the cars. I unslung the bow and prepared to sweep it, but a sudden pain and blinding light before my eyes shot that plan all to hell.

The first thing I felt was the gag in my mouth, because it was so fucking tight my lips were numb. I wiggled my fingers, and they tingled. Tied. I was on my knees. Everything hurt, but nothing more than the back of my skull where she'd cracked me. My nape felt wet. The bloodstain on my thigh was bigger now, too. I wondered how long I'd been out.

"Awake yet, Pookie?"

Her voice had come from across the room. I looked up from under my greasy, sweaty hair, and glared at her.

Carol sat on the edge of the bed, legs crossed, foot bouncing. Her face was serene, confident. The first thing I looked for was whether or not she had her knife. I saw the handle on the edge of the nightstand, not a foot from her. Mine rested next to it. My bow, I couldn't see.

I grunted. She tilted her head, then stood, and approached me. As she reached out to untie my gag she murmured, "You make a pretty sexy picture like this Daryl, tied up and helpless. Makes me feel all tingly inside."

When the gag was removed I shook my hair out of my eyes, but said nothing. Just glared.

She went back to the bed, her smile slipping. "Nothing to say?"

My eyes narrowed a fraction more. They were going to be black come tomorrow. My head pounded.

She shrugged. "Fine then, you can just listen. I'm disappointed with you, Daryl." Carol crossed her legs once more and leaned back on her hands, eyeing me carefully. I waited for her to continue.

"We were close once, you and I. I've always liked you, Dixon. Even when Ed was still around and you were as ignorant and belligerent as that damn brother of yours. Who, to his credit, finally did something right before he met his end." She stood up and started to pace the room.

"But I digress. I was touched by the way you hunted for Sophia; your edges were becoming softer, and I like to hope that was because of me."

She knelt in front of me, stroked my cheek. As I had before at the house, I did not react.

"You liked me too, Daryl. You'd never admit it, but I knew. I know you're touchy about things like that, because you've been hurt before."

I pulled back an inch or two, but she followed.

"No, don't pull away. You know I'm right. I lived with an abuser for thirteen years. I know the signs. That was part of the reason I liked you so much. You were just like me. You knew what it was like to be someone else's doormat. Someone's else's punching bag."

My gaze fell to the floor.

"We're both damaged goods, you see? In some ways, I believe that this entire mess was a blessing in disguise. I never would have met you, otherwise. I... I wanted us to heal each other. To discover what love really meant, together. I was trying to be patient, and give you time. But then... well, you know what happened. You were there, and I was... not."

I let my head lean a little to the left. My headache was slowing down, but my whole body ached from being folded up on the floor for so long. My thigh throbbed, my hands stung. I licked my sore lips.

"Daryl." She peered up at me, tipping up my chin so she could see my eyes. I allowed it. "Daryl, please. Say something."

I breathed through my nose, and swallowed once. Rubbing my sore lips together, I whispered, "Ya lied to me, Carol. Ya killed my fuckin' dog. Ya threatened Beth, and our child. I'm fuckin' hog-tied in your room, stabbed in the thigh. Ya 'spect me to just forget all that?"

She pursed her lips. "You had to be restrained, Daryl. You came here to kill me, did you not?"

I was silent.

"That's what I thought. I could choose to be angry about that, but I'm not. I could be angry as hell that you kicked me out of your life like garbage, and I was, for a while - I still am. I also know you think you have your reasons, and that Beth is one of them." She stood up and walked across the room, absently touching the footboard.

I lifted my chin defiantly. "I love Beth."

She turned sharply and for a second I saw the pain she'd always tried so hard to hide. "Do you? Why? Why do you love her, Daryl? Because she sees inside your heart and doesn't cringe at what's lurking there? Because she was the only person you had? Or because the sex is good?"

I shook my head, smiling to myself. She just didn't get it.

She stalked back toward me, crouched, and got in my face. "What then? Do tell. I'm dying to know what that little twat's secret is."

I smiled at her anger. "She asked for what she wanted."

Carol blinked, then hissed, "What?"

I shrugged. "Beth don't pussy around. She wants somethin', she asks. She don't play no fuckin' mind games. What ya see is what ya get."

Her frown deepening, Carol reached up to hold my chin firmly between her fingers. I worked my hands behind me, trying to loosen her knots while she was distracted. If I could just get my knife...

"That's it? That's the secret? Why Daryl, how predictably simple. Here I thought letting you make your own decisions, like a man should, would bring you around. Well, what a disappointment this is turning out to be." She sighed.

Standing once more, she looked down at me and remarked, "At least I can still say I liked you before it was cool, not that that matters, now. Obviously you've made your choice." She eyed me speculatively. "Though, now that I've got you where I want you, it would be a shame to waste this opportunity to have a little fun with you."

I didn't like the sound of that.

Opening the drawer in the nightstand, she pulled out a roll of string. At first this didn't alarm me; I would know better than to underestimate a scorned woman's capabilities forever afterward, though.

As she sat before me again, she measured out a length of the string, quickly severed it with her knife, replacing the weapon out of my reach, then reached down and lifted my shirttail, exposing my belt. As she popped the button and lowered my zipper, my gut started to sink.

Reaching inside my pants she palmed my dick and pulled it out. I held my breath, wondering just what the hell she was going to do with that string.

She sighed, running her thumb over the tip of me. "This is nice," she whispered, "It's really a shame you're wasting it on her. You know, I read somewhere that if you tie a string tightly enough around a man's penis, the pain becomes so unbearable, he'd do anything to relieve it." She proceeded to loop the string, then tie it, but did not tighten it. Yet.

I gritted, "You're ugly when you're jealous, Carol."

Carol smiled up at me. "Not as ugly as you're going to be, in a few hours. I'm going to go find Beth and settle a score. When I get back, I expect you'll be begging for relief." She patted my cheek. "You see, it's not that I'm jealous you chose her. At least, that's not the main reason. You betrayed me when you threw me out, just like Rick did. And I cannot allow you to get away with that. It's your love for her that will be your downfall, Daryl. She is what makes you weak, and we both know it. Were I to take that away... Perhaps then you'd understand."

She tightened the string. Hard.

I sucked in my breath. The pain was excruciating.

Through it, I hissed, "You're fuckin' nuts, woman! My kickin' ya out and ya killin' her ain't even remotely the same! Fuck! Ain't no fixin' what's broke in your head, is there?" I started to tear up from the pain. "Touch 'er, and ya can kiss your ass goodbye."

She laughed and stood. "I don't think so. You're pretty stuck. I predict that your tune will be different once you've suffered a while. Believe me, this pain is nothing compared to what I went through, out there, on my own. Running all winter, starving. Thrown out of the group - for providing a public fucking service, no less - to fend for myself... You have no idea what pain is, Daryl. But you will."

Tears of my own pain brimmed over as she stomped out of the room. I yelled, "Killing her won't solve anythin', Carol!"

She yelled back, "It'll hurt you! That's good enough for me!"

I listened to her slam the door downstairs, then all was quiet. Despite the horrible pain, I started to test my bonds. She was right; I was secure. But... she'd neglected to tether me. I started to gingerly inch my way to the nightstand, where I'd seen my knife. I couldn't see it now, but if I bumped the table hard enough I could knock it off.

I squeezed my eyes shut; every tiny movement was agony. But I'd survived worse. Rifle graze to the head; arrow through my side; a lifetime of shit-kickin's. Carol may have been abused for thirteen years, but I'd been in bed with pain my whole life. It didn't give me the excuse to kill in cold blood, and for revenge, no less.

Revenge. This was all about Carol taking her revenge on me. I wished I had known how black her heart could be, and that I had taken care of her threat when I'd had the chance. Until I could free myself, all I could do was pray she'd not find Beth, and come back here to deal with me again. Beth was only a target because Carol knew killing her would break me. Like she was broken. But I had no fucking intention of letting things get any further than this. I would escape the knots, find my bow, and cut her down. No one threatened my family. Not even someone who used to be my family. She'd woken the sleeping fucking dragon this time, and she would pay. With her life.

I heard the knife hit the floor. I palmed it, and got to work.

By the time I'd freed myself and cut that fucking string off my dick, which was almost dark purple and sore as a bitch, goddammit, I stumbled into her bathroom to replace my bandage. She didn't have any tape, but, I thought ruefully, there's plenty of fuckin' string! It did the job.

I found my bow by the door. I shook my head, amazed at the stupidity of the woman. Did she really think that I wouldn't free myself with all the shit she left lying around?! Was she so confident she'd trapped me that she didn't consider any other possibilities? If so, it would be her downfall, I'd make damn sure of it.

Being much more aware, I went back to the house. I'd guess it wasn't quite noon yet, from the position of the sun. But I paid little attention to the time. I was hunting, now.

Coming in view of the house, I stuck to the brush. The last thing I needed was Carol seeing me coming and scramming before I could deal with her, proper. Despite my bruised pride that demanded I hunt her down openly, brutally, and take my vengeance slowly, I slunk around out of sight. My fucking pride didn't dictate to me. At one time, maybe, but when I had someone to protect... Pride could go fuck itself.

I took out another walker behind the house, stumbling along past my burned blanket pile. I nabbed it from behind the shed, poked it in the eye rather more forcefully than necessary, 'cause I got shit all over my face and arms, then tossed the body. I'd dispose of it later. So far that was only two; perhaps Carol had been unable to round up very many, since we were out in the middle of nowhere. Good.

I heard a banging in the house, through the open patio door. I stared hard. That dumb bitch had left the door wide open, with walkers outside. Didn't she realise that she was putting herself at risk, not to mention Beth and the babies, by pulling such a stunt? Though I supposed that was likely her intent, in case Beth escaped her. The thought made me all the angrier.

I heard the banging again. Sounded like pots and pans; she must be searching the kitchen. Guess she hadn't found Beth yet, and by the amount of noise she was making, she must be getting suspicious. Or desperate.

As I slowly approached the gate, which was locked with the latch, I saw three walkers clawing against it, drooling black gunk, inscensed either by the racket Carol was making, or the scent of my drying blood just up the steps on the deck. I made a face. She'd planned this little interlude haphazardly, but where it failed, like on me, it worked elsewhere, successfully blocking my way into the house again, however temporarily. Goddamn her.

Blowing air through my nose, I thought, Now what?!

"Come out, Beth! I know he's hidden you here somewhere!" Carol shouted. I listened intently for more, but the snarls of the walkers drowned out anything else I might have heard. Time to draw them off.

I mentally slapped my forehead. The front door! Jesus, what the fuck was wrong with me?

Melting back into the brush, I backtracked til I could see the front door. The lawn was clear between it and myself. I fished in my pockets for my keys, didn't find them. Shit. Carol must have them.

There was a mat in front of the door. I figured it was worth a try to see if there was a spare under it. I didn't want to, but I could break a window if I had to.

It took me several minutes, but I crept up to the door with no visible or audible reaction from inside. I wondered if Carol was still in the kitchen or if she had moved on, but at this point that didn't matter. I needed to get in there and I needed to do it now.

I flipped the mat over. There was dust, dirt, dead leaves, and moss under there. Several bugs. No key.

Clenching my jaw, I threw the mat down. Anxiety for Beth's safety threatened to overcome me, but I tamped it down harshly. I was no good to her if I fell apart. I shifted my crossbow to my other hand and wiped sweat off my forehead, crouched in the shade, my knees aching, my dick throbbing, and my wrists oozing blood from rope-burn. Yet despite all this, all I could think about was getting Carol away from my family. Permanently.

Something came over me then. A resolute sensation slipped into place, and I stood. There was no time for hesitation anymore. Now, it was time for Carol to become afraid of me. I raised the bow, stalking back to the deck. I took out the first walker with a bolt, threw down my bow, and viciously stabbed the last two through the decaying flesh under their chins, straight up into the grey.

Unlatching the gate quietly, I staggered up the deck steps, feeling woozy from loss of blood, but there was no time for that. I had something I had to do before I could lick my wounds. It couldn't wait any longer.

She wasn't in the kitchen, and the cellar panel was closed tight. I started to look through the rest of the house, listening intently for any noise she made. I heard rustling upstairs, and even though I knew I'd be dizzy as fuck, I started up anyway.

When I reached the top, I heard her come thumping down the loft steps and put my back to the wall seconds before she burst past me, her knife in hand, yelling, "Beth! Get the fuck out here, you little cunt! Where the fuck are you? The longer you make me wait, the longer I'll drag his pain out!"

She hadn't seen me. My vision faded for a few seconds, but slowly came back. She paused at the top of the steps, and I saw my chance. I took three quick steps, and pushed her. I went down myself, catching the railing before I toppled over, but Carol screeched, flailed her arms, and went down hard, busting several ballisters as she went before landing in a heap at the bottom.

Breathing hard, I dragged myself down the steps, picking up the knife she'd lost on the way. Several moments later, I crawled down next to her. She was alive, but her spine was broken. She lay at such an odd angle, I knew it was so. She opened her eyes as I brought my face close to hers.


I looked back at her, but didn't reply. Her eyes screwed shut.

"My back's broken, isn't it? I can't feel a damn thing."

I nodded, my face grim and my lips thin.

She tried to lift her head, panted with the effort, then gave up. Tears began to roll down her cheeks to splatter on the shiny floor.

"Daryl." Her eyes pleaded with mine. "Please. Don't let me become one of them." Her voice was raspy.

I stared back at her defiantly. "Gimme one good fuckin' reason."

She sniffed, and her eyes grew watery and bright. Her lips trembled in pain or fear, I didn't know which. She smiled, pathetically.

"Because you're a good man."

I stared at her for a long time. Her wheezy breath was the only noise in the room. Finally I'd decided that she'd suffered long enough, because I wasn't a sadistic asshole, and I had other people who needed me now, more than I needed to extract vengeance for the wrongs she'd done me. I nodded again.

Carol closed her eyes and rested her cheek on the floor. She breathed, "I'm sorry, Daryl."

I put my hand over her eyes when she opened them again, and she kept them shut. Her breaths increased, anticipating the killing blow. I gripped her knife, lifted it over my head, and whispered, "Goodbye, Carol."

She sniffled. "Goodbye, Daryl. I'm sorry."

I lay on my back, my arm over my eyes. Carol's body cooled next to me, her blood staining the polished floor, creeping outward like warm molasses. My eyes were streaming and my chest was wracked with sobs. I had no idea why Carol's death had hit me so hard, but now that I was on a roll all I could do was ride it out.

It occured to me that Carol was the first woman I'd ever killed. Even though she had asked me to, she'd forced my hand to begin with. That didn't stop me from feeling like an asshole, though. I hadn't thought I would, but now that I'd done it and could never take it back, a big part of me regretted it terribly. Probably because, even though she'd gone rogue, everything she'd said about us was true. I had been warming up to the idea of making her my woman, before the Governor fucked everything all to hell. I had always had a soft spot for Carol; she'd been right when she'd said we both knew what it was like to be someone else's doormat. I suppose you could say we were kindred spirits in that sense.

I had never been a man who could display affection easily; perhaps that was why I was so open with Beth, because we'd been alone so long. Regardless, the lack of privacy at the Prison had been partly responsible for my hesitation where Carol and I were concerned. The rest had lain within my own lack of trust; despite living with those people for a couple years, I still wasn't comfortable enough to let my guard down completely. I had grown softer since they'd met me, I'd give Carol her due credit for that one, but I had fought that softness tooth and nail. It was not in my nature to be so, and in turn, when it came to matters of the heart, I was my own worst enemy. Until Beth, anyway.

I hadn't been lying to Carol when I'd told her the reason I'd fallen for Beth, I just hadn't told her the whole story. Who had been around to judge me for my feelings for Beth? No one. Who would make fun of me for letting my guard down to her? Only my brother's voice in my head, but I hadn't heard Merle's voice in my thoughts for some time. As much as I missed my dickface of a brother, and still thought of him often, that was a relief. I had learned to let him go, moved on.

No matter what I'd felt for Carol before, Beth had used her own brand of elbow grease to knock down the walls around my heart, and she'd gently repaired all my open wounds with her love, compassion, and selflessness. After an assault like that, how could I not fall in love with her?

I wasn't at all sure Carol could have done the same as Beth. And even though I had expected to get with Carol eventually, circumstances had intervened and sent me down a different path, with Beth. A path that was totally unexpected and at first, unwelcome in the extreme. I resented her complete dependency on me harshly, then; her 'bright-side' attitude and carelessness had rubbed me on the raw. And her insistence that I feel something about what had happened at the Prison made me nervous. So what if I felt something? It was none of her fucking business! Then she'd made it her mission to crack open my tough shell and see for herself the vulnerable flesh I was hiding inside. What had irked me most at the time was how easy it had been for her to do just that. A few drinks, a silly game, and I was telling her shit I hadn't told another living soul. Shit that embarrassed me to admit, but I was spewing it at her like puke and before I knew what I was doing I was bawling like a baby and she was hugging my back, despite my stubborn resistance. Her supporting me there, like that, had tipped the scales for me. She'd proven that not only could she take whatever shit I dished out, but that she wouldn't tolerate it, either. She'd fought and killed her abductor to come back to me, and proved that she'd be there with me when all was said and done to remind me I was still a good man, no matter what obstacles stood in our way. And in a world like the one ours had deteriorated into, that was something worth holding onto. She was worth giving my life to save.

Slowly my tears dried, and my self-pity dissipated. Beth was probably wondering what was taking me so long. I felt like a senior-fucking-citizen as I hobbled to my feet and shuffled into the kitchen. My pants were sopping blood. I really needed to get this wound looked after, or I really would be no good to her.

I collapsed in front of the counter, pounding three times on the panel before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Baby cries.

Blinding light. Pain. A soothing voice. Blackness.

I opened my eyes. Things were blurry, but I could make out a face hovering before me. Blinking a few more times, my heart sank.

Merle smiled down at me. I glared back. Merle was dead. And this was not funny.

I sat up like I'd been burned.

"Take it easy, Little Brother. It takes some gettin' used to."

I noted that his formerly missing hand was resting on my shoulder. I shook it off and got to my feet, dizzy. "Where the fuck am I? You're dead."

Merle chuckled, standing as well.

Fuck. I'm dead.

He shook his head. "Ya ain't dead. Not yet, anyway. She's doin' her damndest to call ya back, though. Pretty little piece, if'n I do say so." He grinned suggestively.

I glared and stuck my finger in his face. "Don't even fuckin' think it, Merle. ...Whatta ya mean, "not yet"?"

He smiled again, held up both hands in submission. All this smiling was starting to freak me out. Merle only smiled a lot when you were about to get a shit-kicking. And he was going to give it to you.

"I ain't gon' hurt nobody, Baby Brother. They frown on that here, and they make the rules. Fuck 'em, I say, but self-sacrifice automatically guarantees ya admission. Who'da thunk it, eh? Otherwise, I'd a punched ya hello."

I raised a brow. What the fuck he was going on about, I had no clue. All I knew was that I had somewhere I needed to be and this wasn't fucking it, despite the pleasure of seeing my brother in the flesh again. That was cool, but it wasn't what mattered now.

"Just where the hell we at, Merle?"

He slapped my back. "Walk with me, brother. Ya see, you is at the Pearly Gates. Ten thousand Virgins, angels, all that bullshit. Betcha never thought ya'd run into me here, didja? Heh. Anyhow, you is on the brink. That wound ya had was worse than ya thought, and she can only do so much. The rest is up to you. Ya can stay with me-" he waggled his brows and nodded at me, "-or ya can go back to her and all that zombie bullshit." We stopped.

I snorted. "Pfft. As if there's any fuckin' question."

Merle made a face, dropped his hand. "Pussy."

I shrugged. "I got a family now."

"I'm your family. Didn't I always look out for my Little Brother?"

I raised my brow again, and Merle was unable to keep eye contact with me.

"Oh, fuck ya! I did my fuckin' best! I know it weren't near good 'nough-"

"It was something." I interrupted. He grinned.

"Go back, then. Take care of yer babes. And do me a favour."

I blinked. "How so?"

He looked away and then back again, as if he was embarrassed, and pointed his finger at me. "Don't fuckin' show your ugly face here again til you're an old fucker, ya hear? I don't want my damn sacrifice to go to fuckin' waste."

I smiled. "I'll do my best."

He punched me lightly. "Fuckin' right. Don't make me kick ya in the teeth, now. Get the fuck outta here."

I started to walk away, turned back. "'Bye, Merle."

"'Bye bye, Darylina." He chuckled, waving his fingers at me like a fag.

I shook my head, grinning. "Fuck you, Merle."

He just kept smiling.

My world started to fade away into blackness again.

"Daryl? Daryl? Daryl!"

My eyes flew open and I sucked in a huge breath, flying upright. Strong hands caught me, pushed me back down.

"Thank God!" Beth breathed.

Yeah. Thanks, God, I thought fuzzily. Then the pain hit me.

"Jesus Christ!" I hissed, screwing shut my eyes.

Beth leaned on my chest, her face in my neck, lips to my skin, soothing, "Shhhhh, Daryl. Don't tear your stitches."

I clenched my jaw tightly. After a moment, the pain started to fade to a dull, managable throb.

I let out my breath and relaxed, opening my eyes again. I saw the ceiling of our bedroom.

I frowned at her. "How the hell didja get me up here?"

She shifted her eyes, shady. "Never you mind."

I raised my brow, but let it go. She was resourceful, my Beth. I'd let her have her secret.


My eyes had drifted shut for a second. "Hmm?"

She was quiet, twirling her finger in the wiry hairs on my chest that were decidedly more grey than black these days. Just thinking of that made me feel a thousand years old.

"Don't ever do that again."

I opened my eyes. "What?"

She looked up at me, her eyes full of steel. I think she was threatening me.

"Die. Don't ever fucking do it again."

I sighed. That was a promise I just couldn't keep, and we both knew it. But if it would make her feel better, I'd promise. I shouldn't, because we couldn't afford to believe fantasies anymore. But it wasn't about that. It was about soothing her fears, and I would do whatever she asked of me if it gave her peace of mind.

"Yes, dear."

She snorted into my chest, and we both started laughing. After a few moments, she sighed. I brought a hand up to rest on the nape of her neck, pulling her lips to mine. When the kiss was over, I asked innocently, "Did I die? That don't sound like somethin' I'd do..."

She punched me weakly on the shoulder. The action was so reminiscent of my fever-dream of Merle that a sharp stab of nostalgia speared my chest.

"You scared me to death."

I pushed her bangs off her forehead, debating whether or not to tell her about my odd conversation with my brother. I still wasn't sure I believed it myself. I had never been a big believer in Heaven, but after everything that had happened, I was finding it hard not to believe.

I decided not to tell her. No point in worrying her any more than I already had.

Beth touched my face, bringing my attention outward again.

"I'm sorry about Carol. And... I'm sorry I asked you to... to..." her sobs became loud in the quiet sanctuary of our bedroom. I pulled her to my chest and buried my face in her hair.

"Shh, Bethy. She asked for forgiveness, in the end."

Beth's sobs carried on, and I pulled her to me so she lay with me on the bed, cradled in my arms, warm against me. It was the best feeling I'd ever known. God, or the Universe, whatever - it'd been good to me. I felt like shit but I'd never been happier.

We fell asleep like that, and for the first time since they'd been born, our children deemed it appropriate not to interrupt us.

Carol had made sure I'd never forget her. The wound she'd inflicted on me had permanently impaired the tendons in my leg. Forever afterward I walked with a slight limp.

I felt the twinge from the scar now as I walked onto the deck behind the house and took in the scene below me. I smiled. Middle-age was surely something I never thought I'd live to see.

Beth and the children sat around the pool, swimming and sunbathing, screaming and shouting, having a big time. Beth occasionally yelled at them to quit trying to drown each other, but when kids were having fun there was no point to curbing them.

The eldest, our fraternal twins, each helped their younger siblings into the water. Maggie and Merle, we'd named them, and they were angels. All of our children were; they got that from their mother. The streak of devil each possessed when angry or cornered, Beth swore, came from me.

After the twins we'd had five more children, all girls. And God help me, I loved them to distraction. My daughters doted on their old Daddy, and I rested easy knowing that Beth and I would be well looked-after in our golden years. The youngest, only four, would often crawl onto my lap, elbowing her sisters aside, until she was tucked comfortably under my chin, her chubby little fingers twining lazily in my now all-grey chest hair. Now, four girls in your lap and two teenagers hanging on the periphery might seem like a crowd, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

My son, Merle, dived off the old diving board, showing off for his sisters, who all clapped dutifully. He was a handsome buck, just like his old man, heh. He was becoming quite the young man. I was very proud of him. His skill with the crossbow surpassed mine, but it was Maggie who, surprisingly, had turned out to be the most adept at hunting. My beautiful Maggie was the spitting image of her namesake, Beth's older sister. I lowered my gaze to the ground.

Fifteen years. I wondered where they all were, now. Rick, Carl. Maggie, Glenn. Michonne. Bob, Sasha, Tyreese, Lizzie, Mika.


Thinking of Judith made my heart lurch. I hoped she'd made it, that they all had. Rick had worked so hard, sacrificed so much, to keep us all alive and together. It would be just too damn tragic if it had all been for naught.

I had held a secret hope for years that we would stumble upon each other, but so far, it hadn't happened. It still could, I supposed, but after fifteen years, I knew the chances were pathetically mute. The thought saddened me. Rick had been the best friend I'd ever had. And Carl and Judith... They'd been so young.

Something tugged at my pantleg. Still leaning on the rail, I looked down. "What's up, puddin'?"

It was my youngest, Andrea. The fiestiest, spunkiest, bossiest four-year-old I'd ever known. Very much, alarmingly, like her namesake.

"Daddy, Lori called me a bumhole! Daddy, make 'er say sorry! Now, Daddy!" The tears began to roll in righteous rivulets down her reddening cheeks.

Chuckling, I scooped her up. "Let's go down and see what's what, Honeydew."

She bounced in my arms happily, her tantrum thankfully averted. Of all my daughters, this one's temper was a force to be reckoned with. Beth blamed me, but I'd never been so bossy in my lifetime. Honest Abe.

Beth reached out for Andrea when I got close, and she set her down, smacked her bum lightly and told her to go play. She pouted, eyed me, but I only shrugged and said, "Mind your mama, Munchkin."

Rolling her blue little eyes, she stomped off. I smiled at Beth.

Beth reached for my hand. "Happy Birthday, Daryl."

I smiled back. "Happiest one yet." I leaned over and kissed her mouth, rubbing her round tummy as I did. I felt Daughter Number Seven kick out ferociously. Of course, it could be a boy, but... I wasn't holding my breath. Besides, I was old hat at handling girls, now.

Beth giggled, twisting out of my reach. "Quit tickling my fat, Darling. Or I'll sic the Army on you."

I scoffed. I'd already had my hair, beard, and arm-pit hairs braided. Tied off with pink bows. My makeup done in my sleep. My brows waxed in my sleep (that had been an awkward month, til they'd grown back in). She didn't scare me.

Flopping onto a lounger, I replied in a world-weary tone, "Do your damndest, Sweetcheeks. I've seen it all."

She smiled. "I know you have. You've turned out to be a wonderful father, Daryl. You remind me of my own Daddy."

I'd closed my eyes, soaking up the sunshine, but I raised a brow her way and cracked one annoyed eye. "Bite yer tongue. My hair ain't that white yet."

She ran her fingers through my hair, freshly trimmed just last night. "It's not white at all. Barely grey, in fact. You hardly look a day over thirty five, you stud."

I snorted, and warned, "Keep that shit up, and I'll be forced to punish ya with Daughter Number Eight."

Even though I didn't look to see it, I could feel her scowling at me. I had to laugh at her, though. She loved being pregnant, or she'd have chopped off my dick ages ago.

That thought made me remember Carol, again. I had wondered if her little stunt with the string would damage me permanently. Obviously, her efforts had failed. I puffed my chest out with pride. Even at fifty-five, I was still in my prime, virile and studly. Yep. I was the Man.

A shadow fell over me. I squinted up at the person who cast it.

"Daddy? Are you ready?"

Maggie stood over me, her long hair swinging over her shoulder, spritzing me with droplets from the pool. I shaded my eyes to see her better, and nodded. "As I'll ever be, Mag-Pie."

She grinned. "Good. Merle, get Daddy's presents!"

My son loped into the house. I looked at Beth. She waggled her brows at me and kissed Andrea's head as she climbed into her lap.

My whole brood gathered round me, ready to watch their old Dad open his birthday presents, and as I looked at all of their faces, each different and beautiful in her own way, I knew what it was to be completely happy, and I had my Bethy to thank for it.

Turning to her, I reached for her hand and squeezed it. She made an inquiring face. I just shook my head and smiled.

I was the richest man on Earth, and I had not a cent to my name. I was rich in love, family, and happiness. I had a beautiful wife, a handsome son, six beautiful daughters, and another baby on the way. I had a safe place to protect them, and plenty of food to put in their bellies. I couldn't have asked for more.

And in this new world, just as in the old, ain't nothin' else mattered more'n that.

Please review, munchkins! (I need them to maintain my youth... hehe :P) And thanks for reading! 3