"I hope I'm not bothering you."
Beth gave him an appraising look. His eyes were bloodshot and dull. He was hunched over, shifting erratically from foot to foot. "When's the last time you slept, Rick?"
He furrowed his brow, thinking, before deciding he didn't like the question. He sighed and said, "I hope you're okay. It was a mistake to let them in."
"What happened?" she asked gently.
"I wasn't ready. I just—I wasn't ready for it," Rick said. Beth waited as he gathered his thoughts. "I keep trying to think it through—to come up with an explanation."
She stood up from the bed. "An explanation for what?"
"He knew things. Things he couldn't possibly have known," Rick said, eyes unfocused. He wasn't aware of her moving toward him. "It was like he was inside my brain sifting through its wounds."
Beth stood beside him, lightly grasping his hand. She led him toward the bed with the gentlest tug. He obeyed without comment, seeming not even to notice. She put her other hand on his shoulder and pressed gently until he sat down.
"What did he know?" she asked.
"He knew about Sophia. And he knew about—about the guns."
Beth frowned. "How could he?"
"Only two explanations," Rick said, as her fingertips ran up and down his arm. "Either this Prophet talks to God, or…" The muscles tensed beneath her touch. "Or he talks to one of us."
As she considered this, Beth's fingers drifted higher up his arm to his shoulder. She made lazy circles. "Ben?" she posited.
"No, not Ben. There's only a handful of people who know how we got the guns back."
Beth's frown deepened. "You don't think…"
"I don't want to. It's the last thing I could imagine," Rick said with a weary sigh. Every part of his body seemed to contract, squeezing inward, and he grunted through a neck spasm. "But I guess I've learned people are capable of anything."
She watched him in profile. He looked like a cat sour at being woken, eyes dark little slits staring disturbed at a distant point. But as he sunk deeper into whatever held him, something important occurred to Beth. Her hand stopped moving.
"You don't think it could be me?" she asked softly.
Rick's eyes cleared. He didn't look at her, but she perceived some dark amusement.
"You?" He ghosted a smile. "It ain't in you to do wrong against kin."
Beth dipped her head, hiding an exalted look. She didn't know what to say, but it mattered not, for Rick had already receded back into his harrowed thoughts. It so pained her to see him in this state.
Beth slid back behind him, and at her hand's gentle urging, he angled his body. Rick was oblivious to this. All the stealth and subtlety she'd learned from the sheriff was applied now against him.
Her hands slid up his back to his shoulders. And after giving him a moment to get used to their placement, she gently pressed her fingers into the muscles of his neck.
Rick grunted, dropping his head forward, and Beth quickly increased the pressure, kneading the flesh deeply. It was like manipulating rock, but she had no shortage of determination. She dug into a gruesome knot where the neck met the shoulder.
"Beth…" he groaned under his breath. Neither was sure if it was gratitude or reproach. He hissed and spoke her name again as she pressed in harder.
Whatever coherence his mind had retained was dissected by her touch. He shut his eyes and fell into that place between sleep and awake. When she pulled his shirt over his head, he offered no resistance.
Neither was conscious of it, but this was something like seduction. It wasn't but minutes ago he'd been standing at a distance. And now Beth's hands were kneading along his spine, carving a path from the lower back up to his shoulder blades. Her knuckles dug into the connecting tendons, drawing a satisfied grunt.
Beth couldn't square her nature with this presumptuousness. Perhaps the feelings evoked by Rick's distress were simply so powerful that they overwhelmed her shyness and self-doubt.
The muscles loosened beneath her hands, until finally his head lolled back, his body slack and leaning. She guided him down gently, picking his legs up so he was lying on the mattress.
The movement stirred him and Rick's head twisted on the pillow. His eyes were heavy and barely open, but he whispered Beth's name with a note of confusion.
Beth ran her fingers through his hair. She dipped her head to his ear, and whispered, "It's okay. You're so tired. Just go to sleep." Her nose skimmed his ear in a kind of caress. "It's all right."
Rick's head settled against the pillow. His eyes slipped closed. He let out out a childlike sigh, and then he was silent.
Beth sat beside him on the narrow bed and watched him settle into slumber. It was only after he was asleep that she fully appreciated his exhaustion. He had to be helpless to have given in to her ministrations.
But a little voice in her head said it had to be more than that. The little voice said no one but Beth could so coerce him. No matter how tired, no matter how put-upon Rick was, she couldn't see her dad or Carol or anyone else talking him to sleep. Could he carry for her a notion like the one she imagined?
After a few minutes, his face relaxed and took on a boyish quality that would have been even starker if not for his beard. He looked so different from that stranger on the farm—the clean-shaven lawman who kept his hair short and whose demons, though numerous, spoke too softly to consume him.
But now those demons howled. They clawed at his heart and at left brain and right brain. They tracked his waking moments and invaded his dreams so that he had no respite, no locked doors, and she knew that one day his determination, however profound, would be obliterated.
Beth pressed a kiss into his back, stroking his hair again.
From now on, her voice would be louder than the demons. She'd carve through them with the same concentration, the same fearlessness, as Rick slaughtered walkers.
Beth leaned against the wall, resting her head, and with one hand on Rick's warm shoulder, she drifted off to sleep.
Walkers aren't nocturnal exactly, but they're laziest in the morning.
It had drizzled in the night, causing some of the dead to lose traction; a couple slipped like drunkards. There seemed to be fewer of them and the ones who were left weren't so interested in the prison. They just wandered the fields slowly.
Rick stood in the courtyard, a little chilled by the birth of Fall, and looked out through his binoculars. Nothing moved in the treeline, and the only sounds were the walkers' low groans and the high cries of mockingbirds.
He hadn't slept long, but he'd slept soundly.
He'd woken to the feeling of Beth's cool cheek pressed against his back. It took a moment for his memory to return, and when it did it came in pieces, but he recalled going to see her and he remembered her massaging him and speaking in angelic tones. He remembered feeling completely helpless to oppose anything she did.
That scared him. He'd never been so susceptible to suggestion. No one, not even Lori, had the effect on him. Beth was soft in all the right places—hands, voice, eyes, face. Everything in her makeup was gentle and earnest.
He tried to tell himself that she felt sorry for him, and that for his part he just missed a woman's company. He didn't need Beth; he needed someone.
But deep down, he knew it was a lie. Sometimes Rick looked at Beth and he wanted to hold her and enjoy a spring day; sometimes he looked at her and he wanted to be inside her; but he never looked and felt nothing.
Rick reached into his pocket and took out the slip of paper provided by Matthew. He unfolded it and read it. And then he read it again, and again. And the awful truth was, it really sounded like Lori.
He heard the door open and slipped the message in his pocket, looking over his shoulder to find Mason approaching.
With the day so new, the sun barely in place, Rick had hoped from some solitude. But he received Mason with a polite nod. Silence followed, of the awkward kind, so that each was aware of the other's small movements.
Mason said finally, "I should thank you."
"For keeping that bastard away from Gracie."
Rick didn't clarify that he was keeping him away from Beth. He nodded.
Mason said, "They must've followed us from Mableton."
"How they found us ain't the mystery."
"What do you mean?"
Rick gave him a long look. "I mean, he knew things he shouldn't know. Things he couldn't know," he said heavily.
"About your group?"
Mason noted the red and black rims around his eyes. There seemed to be dreams behind his eyes, buried like a time capsule and dug up at the moment when their memory would most hurt him. It was clear that the things Matthew knew couldn't be guessed at.
"Your group—you trust them?"
Rick scowled and said, "Of course I do. They're good people—all of 'em. All we've had is each other since this whole thing started."
It seemed like he was trying to convince himself. Rick's grief and obligation and anger and paranoia were a barbell and weights laying across his shoulders.
Mason said gently, "Sometimes you think you know someone, and it turns out you don't."
"Are you saying one of my people's a traitor?" Rick demanded.
"Not exactly," Mason said after a moment, the line between his eyes deepening to a groove. "I'm saying there's doors we don't open because we don't want to know what's behind them. But in this world, not knowing will get you killed."
One of the wandering walkers made its way to the fence. Its eyes shone with sudden clarity and it looked directly at Rick.
He watched passively as more and more gathered.
It hadn't been easy becoming part of a whole. He was a loner by nature, and he'd been trained well on how to be an asshole.
But as days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, he changed with the seasons. He tried to find a little girl, and he had his friends' backs, and he finally memorized Glenn's country of origin. He was happier for it. For most, the plague stripped away the good and left them an echo of their real selves. But it was the best thing that ever happened to Daryl Dixon.
He thought of his friends, all they'd been through, and shook his head firmly.
"That's bullshit," he growled. "None of us would do anything to hurt the group."
"I'm just tellin' you how it is," Rick replied in a measured voice. "It'd be hard to believe. And just so we're clear, I don't believe it. But I'd be stupid not to consider everything."
"Then why you talkin' to me? Ain't I a suspect too?"
Rick pinched the bridge of his nose. "No one's a 'suspect,' Daryl. I just —" He sighed. "I gotta find out what's goin' on. And I need you on this. Whatever's happening, you got my trust, all right?"
Daryl gave him a long, appealing look before finally relenting. "All right," he muttered. At Rick's appreciative grin, he added: "But I'd say you got bigger fish to fry."
Rick narrowed his eyes inquiringly, and the hunter continued: "You didn't see how people were last night. That Simon guy gave 'em an earth-sized mindfuck. They're ready to walk outta here if you won't deal with the Prophet."
Rick frowned. "All of 'em?"
"Enough of 'em. Enough to fuck all this up."
It gave Daryl no hope that his friend seemed surprised. He was still their best chance, but each day Rick's leadership seemed progressively diminished.
Rick's mind flickered behind his eyes. His face was wrinkled and disorganized. But when his chaotic thoughts had been put through their paces, narrowed now to one prevailing notion, his face smoothed out and he looked deeply focused.
"Get the word out," he said. "Tonight, we're gonna have a family meeting."
Beth's eyes fluttered open. She reached on instinct for a solid form, only to find the space empty. It was cool to the touch and that somehow made it worse.
She wasn't used to sharing a bed, never slept in one with Jimmy, but after one night she couldn't imagine sleeping alone again. This must be what Rick felt like waking up without Lori.
She'd never slept so soundly before. It was like taking everything in the world that could make you feel safe—swaddling and dogs and bright lights, a mother's love, a father's touch, and a loaded gun—and fashioning a quilt from it. That's what it felt like to sleep beside Rick.
She wondered when he'd woken, and what he'd thought. Was he embarrassed to have shared her bed? Embarrassed at having let her take care of him? Was he regretful, or did it feel right to him? If she could soothe him to sleep for the rest of her life, it would be enough purpose.
Beth stretched her arms and sat up. She gave a languid yawn, rubbing her eyes, and got to her feet. She tied her hair back in a messy ponytail and put a collared shirt on over her tanktop.
She entered the next cell block on her way to the showers, visions of Rick and how his body felt spinning around her head. These thoughts so ensconced her that she barely noticed her sister walking past.
"Hmm?" She eased out of her thoughts to find Maggie there wearing a strange expression. "Oh, hi."
"Where you off to?"
"Was gonna go shower. You need somethin'?"
After a deliberate pause, Maggie said, "I'll walk with you."
Beth continued on, her sister falling into stride. She could tell she was being watched. It was the same look she'd gotten during her near-brush with suicide. It made her feel helpless.
"I heard Rick went a little crazy on that guy," Maggie said.
"He was protecting me," Beth explained.
"Yeah, he's good like that, huh?" When her sister said nothing, just wrinkled her nose, Maggie continued: "He come see you later?"
"To make sure I was okay."
"That's nice of him. Must be nice to get special attention."
"We're friends. Friends are there for each other."
"I'm glad that's what it is," Maggie said insincerely. "Because he's a little old and a little lonely, so I was worried it might be more. But it's good you're just friends."
"Is that all?" Beth inquired dismissively.
"Things are about to get rough around here. With everything goin' on, I just hope you think before you do something."
"Thanks for your concern."
Maggie grabbed her arm. "Beth, I'm not sayin' this to be hard on you. But what you do with him—that affects all of us. We got some mad man out there thinkin' he talks to God, and half the people here want to invite him in. Rick ain't right in his head, and you'll only make it worse. Now's not the time to be selfish."
Beth stepped up, breathless with anger. "It ain't none of your business what Rick and I do. He's a good man and he treats me right, and I ain't gonna stop bein' there for him." She felt belittled like a child, so she took on their pettiness. "You got quite a glass house to be lobbin' stones from. You think you're perfect—Glenn's perfect? Rick does the best he can, and anything after that is none of your business."
"It'll be my business when he's used you up and you come to me cryin'," Maggie sneered.
Beth stared at her coldly. The anger gave way to hurt. She tried to keep her mouth from quivering, and to blink back the tears pricking at her eyes. Maggie knew her words were permanent, but made no effort to unspeak them.
When the first tear fell, Beth turned on her heel and hurried away.
By the time she reached the shower, the sobs were bubbling in her chest. When the water came on, she let it beat down on her face and drain with all the tears.
Carl cut up the vegetables with an old knife. It was dull, requiring violent chops that seemed to reflect his mood. Hershel had sliced up some chicken and was dropping it in a pot with some water. Broth was one of the easier meals to make (and went the farthest) for a group this size.
Neither of them spoke, Carl because he resented the work and Hershel because he knew it. The silence was uncompanionable.
Rick strode in, rolling up his cuffs despite the cool air, and addressed them with false cheer. "Smells pretty good. Chicken broth?"
"Mm-hm. The parsley's fresh. I think it'll turn out nicely," Hershel said.
Rick nodded, but looked at Carl. "Thanks for helping out," he told his son. "I know this isn't your favorite job."
Carl scowled. "Well, it's the one you gave me."
"We all do our part," Rick replied, thinking he must've said it a million times. "But I got another job for tonight. How'd you like to take watch on tower two?"
"I'm not stupid, you know."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
Carl set the knife down. "The only reason you're asking is 'cause of that meeting tonight. You don't want me there to give my opinion."
"It ain't like that," Rick said patiently. "Meeting or not, we need eyes on that gate. And I gotta have a good shot out there with the rest of us tied up." He paused to let Carl speak, but the boy only stared like he were so much garbage. "I would've thought you'd be happy."
Carl glowered. "Happy? You know what would make me —" The boy stopped himself like it were pointless, shaking his head. He gave his father an insolent smirk. "Whatever. You do what you want—I don't even care."
Rick regarded his son sadly. Whereas Carl's outbursts used to arouse anger, they only reminded him now of his failings as a father. Lori would be horrified at what Rick's weakness had hastened.
"Your shift starts at seven," he said quietly. After a long moment, he smiled hollowly at Hershel and walked out.
They returned to their work silently. The old man set the parsley and thyme on some wax paper and prepared to boil the pot. When he noticed Carl watching, he asked, "Something on your mind, son?"
"Why do you follow him?"
"Because he leads," Hershel said mildly. "There aren't many who can, and fewer who will."
"Yeah, he's doing a great job. My mom's dead; Shane's dead; T-Dog's dead. He's leadin' us to the promised land, huh?"
"I understand your pain. And the need to place blame. But he didn't cause all that."
The boy let out a bark of scornful laughter. "Right. Who should I blame—God?" Months of frustration came burbling from his mind; his eyes smoldered; he punctuated everything with wide, sweeping gestures. "You're pathetic, Hershel. You read your book and you say your prayers—and it didn't get you anywhere! Your wife's dead, your son's dead—you lost your leg! You hobble around all crippled. Tell me, Hershel, what the fuck has Jesus ever done for you? Nothing." He snorted derisively. "So, hell, if that's what you call a leader—your little absentee Jesus—then yeah, I guess my dad's his spitting image."
Carl braced himself for the old man's anger, relished its coming even, but Hershel provided a more hurtful rejoinder: a look of pity. He looked so calm and tender, and it only made Carl madder. It was the one thing Carl had—the power to arouse passions, and Hershel's were in a lockbox that no one could get at.
After a time, Hershel peered through kind eyes and said, "Son, you don't have to like your father. And you don't have to respect me. But you better let go of that hate in your heart. Because it will eat you alive."
Carl looked down at the vegetables; there were a lot left to cut. He gave Hershel a defiant smirk and began to walk out.
When he reached the door, he paused and looked back, a vicious gleam in his eyes. He smiled darkly and said, "He's fucking Beth. You know that, right?"
Hershel's mouth turned down just slightly. It was enough for Carl. He walked out with a feeling of satisfaction.
There were rumors about the meeting all throughout the day. One version had Rick recruiting for an army. Another had him announcing a pact with the Prophet to bring electricity to the prison. But the truth was, no one knew what he planned to say—not even Daryl or Beth.
After her run-in with Maggie, Beth had avoided company in the morning and afternoon. She spent some time with Judith, then found a corner to do some sewing.
Now, she sat with the rest of the community waiting for Rick's arrival. She'd taken a spot next to Gracie and Mason and avoided Maggie's eyes. She didn't notice her father watching her.
A low murmur worked through the Woodbury group, while Daryl and his kin were silent.
When Rick finally arrived, rifle strapped over his shoulder as a reminder of his burden, a hush came over the room. He walked to the front and set down the rifle on a counter.
Rick took a breath, skimming his thumb over the stubble beneath his chin, then turned to face his fragile alliance.
"We got some things to talk about."