Author Note: Kind of a long one this time, folks. I just want to let you all know that even though I don't have the time to respond to everyone individually, I really appreciate the reviews, alerts and favourites. You inspire me to shirk my job for fanfic...can't say fairer than that! Continuing in the super erratic update timing vein, chapter six should be up within the next 24 hours, barring any hilarious mishaps.


Chapter Five

She'd been afraid before. The herd attack on her family's farm had been one of the most terrifying experiences of her young life. The few deeply-buried moments when her mother's walker body had grabbed hold of her outside the barn and tried to take a chunk out of her face. Meeting the Governor the night before ranked pretty highly too. Every time her sister - or really any one of her new family - left the relative safety of their stronghold to forage, Beth found herself teetering on the edge of anxiety. She wondered if she'd ever become immune to the stress they lived with every day, or whether the rest of her life, however short it might be, would be spent vacillating between black despair and all too brief respites of joy.

With the admittance of her fear came acknowledgement of her helplessness. From their vantage point in the woods outside the prison, she could hear the explosions and gunfire as people she loved faced down the Governor's army whilst Beth, safe and warm in the car, held a bottle of water to Milton's swollen lips. At first, she'd been a bit ambivalent about the scientist since she had other things to think about, but on the way Carl had asked what he'd done to the Governor to invite his punishment - and Andrea had filled them in. Beth was surprised. Most of the prison assumed she was trusting to a fault, but after all they'd been through, giving people the benefit of the doubt seemed like more of a death wish than the mark of a good person.

Later, Beth would question if that line of thinking was the catalyst for Carl's split-second transformation from the young boy she'd befriended - in spite of his obvious and burgeoning crush on her - to the unrepentant killer he'd unwittingly become. She'd taken care of their patient, meditating on the sheer nerve he must possess to have set alight the pits of walkers destined for the prison, and swung herself out of the car to stretch her legs. Judith was sleeping deeply, having been kept awake by Carol for most of the night as part of the ploy to minimise her risk to the group.

Crouching down among the the foliage, Beth clutched tightly at her father and fought down the urge to throw up.

"I should be there," Carl muttered, and she wondered if that was how they all felt. Her father had been casting frustrated glances at his crutches since they left the prison. Andrea was gripping onto her rifle with an attitude that suggested she'd love nothing more than a walker to stumble into their encampment, just to give her an outlet.

Beth didn't think it was so far-fetched. The commotion below, the Governor's men taking out their guard towers with rocket launchers first, and now the triggered alarm and automatic fire, the screams, it was sure to draw walkers in from miles around. Who knew how far sound could travel in their newly silent world? They could have a herd on their doorstep within a few days, and there was nothing they could do about it.

In the end though, it wasn't a walker that found them, but a teenaged boy. He was grubby and scared, and looked to be a little younger than her, if she was any judge. Beth's father shunted her behind him, both of them sheltering in the shadow of the car whilst Carl met him head on with his funny little silenced pistol, and Andrea kept him in her sights from across the clearing.

It was as if she could see the wheels turning in Carl's head. His father had all of his working life to hone the kind of skills needed to make swift decisions with the potential for death, and he still made mistakes. He still cared to make it a decision and not a foregone conclusion. Beth didn't need to look at the cold, blanked off expression in his eyes to know that Carl had already sentenced the boy to die. There was the sudden, sharp exhale of the silencer, and a thud as the nameless soldier dropped to the forest floor.

No one seemed to know what to say. Andrea opened her mouth once, shut it again, twice, and again. Finally, she looked at Hershel for some clue as to how to proceed, and Beth could see the conflict in her father's eyes. Beth wasn't sure how to feel when she attempted to approach Carl, only to have her father hold her back. "Be careful, sweetheart," he murmured, too quietly for the others to hear. "The boy's not right in his own head at the moment. It ain't his fault, but he's a danger to everyone until it passes."

"He's not dangerous to us -" Beth hissed back, though she wasn't rock solidly set on that opinion. Carl might've been getting progressively more confident about defending the group, but she didn't think shooting a boy not much older than himself whilst he was surrendering necessarily fell under the definition of defence. "No more than I am." For that was it at the core; Beth worried that what she'd done and what Carl had done weren't worlds apart, and if he felt anything, anything close to what she did…he needed someone, the way he had done the day Lori died. Daryl had been the one to ask her to play that part back then, but she didn't need a cue now.

Skirting around the car, Beth approached Carl where he was raiding the corpse for ammunition. "Hey -" she announced softly, reaching out to touch his shoulder and halt those disturbingly brusque movements. "Are you okay?"

Carl sat back on his heels and squinted up at her from beneath the hat he wore. She wasn't even really sure when he'd adopted that look, just that it should've seemed ridiculous, but not being able to see his eyes made him menacing instead. "Of course," he said flatly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world not to know an ounce of remorse. "One less soldier for the Governor can only be a good thing, right?"

"He didn't look much like a soldier," Beth muttered, glancing at the boy, his face slack and peaceful and covered in his own blood. "Looks like the Governor just rounded up every able-bodied person in town, armed them, and got them to fight for their lives. No wonder he was running away."

She was forced to back up a step as Carl rose to his feet and regarded her coldly. "At least I'm pulling my weight around here. You go on one run and think that gives you the right to judge? It doesn't." Beth was stunned at the venom spilling from his mouth. He'd always been a little intense, but this was something else. "You were inside Woodbury, and you did nothing. You could've put it to the torch and ended things then and there, but you didn't - so you don't get to judge me for handling things my way."

Shouldering the boy's weapon, he brushed past her without a second glance, an echoing silence in his wake.

It was a relief to get back to the prison, and not just because she got to see the others were all safe. The plan, developed by Rick and Daryl with the help of Merle's experience being incarcerated - not something that came as a surprise to anyone - had gone off perfectly. Sure, their guard towers were severely damaged - something which would bother Maggie and Glenn far more than the rest of them - and there were breaches all over the place that would take days to secure, but no one had died. Beth didn't think she could take another moment of being cooped up in the same space as a fuming Carl; his whole attitude had made her sick to her very core.

"What happens now?" she asked her sister, helping Maggie out of her riot gear as Glenn passed around bottles of water to the sweating defenders.

"Rick and some of the others are going after the Governor to finish things off. The rest of us are staying here and putting the house in order." Maggie didn't sound impressed by the turn of events, but at least she wasn't among those slated to carry the fight to Woodbury. Beth would take what she could get.

"Who's going with Rick?" Beth tried to ask nonchalantly - moreso than she felt.

If she came across nervous, Maggie didn't seem to notice, pushing her damp hair out of her face and sharing a smile with her fiance over her sister's head. "Daryl, Michonne and Merle." The last was said with a slight growl, and the younger Greene tried not to wince.

"At least he's on our side now," she offered lamely, gaze travelling unbidden to the man in question. He looked completely at ease, lounging against the wall with his thick, muscular arms crossed over his chest, apparently listening to Rick's game plan. "We need all the help we can get." Beth swallowed as Merle seemed to sense the weight of her stare and suddenly looked right at her. Instead of doing something normal like smiling, or even giving him a little wave - no matter that Maggie would throw a fit - she thought about their odd encounter that morning, and blushed, looking quickly down at the floor. It didn't take much to recall the odd, focused expression he'd worn as he tucked her hair behind her ear.

"He's a prick," snarled her oblivious sister, taking a few gulps of water and wiping her mouth. Beth flinched; she hoped Merle hadn't heard her. It was one thing to know that you were disliked, and quite another to hear it from the source. Maggie, evidently choosing that moment to pay attention, softened her expression with contrition. Beth could see she still felt bad for how her little sister had ended up playing double agent. "But he - well, he's one of the best fighters we've got, so I guess we've all got to suck it up."

"Enough chit-chat," Daryl's gruff tone rose above the melee. "Listen up."

The sound of voices dropped off immediately, and Rick stepped forward, hands at his belt. "We're going to finish this," he said firmly, looking around at each face in the group as if to give them a chance to dissent. When no one did, he nodded to himself. "Whilst we're gone, Maggie and Glenn, you're in charge of clearing the yard of walkers and patching the gate. Take Tyreese and Sasha with you. If you see anyone - anyone who shouldn't be out there -"

Glenn nodded quickly, saving Rick the burden of spelling out his intentions in front of his son who'd just shot a kid for the exact same reason, and the former Sheriff turned his attention to the weaker members of the group, Beth included. "The rest of you, stay out of sight. Don't leave the cellblock. There's gonna be walkers all over the damn place after what just happened, and it's gonna take time to fix the breach." Personally, she had no desire to enter the tombs; they'd already claimed the lives of Lori and T-Dog, several convicts, and who knew how many of the Governor's men.

"Let's get goin' then," Daryl pronounced in his businesslike way. "We're losin' daylight." The four chosen fighters filed out, and Beth thought they made an intimidating sight - she just hoped it would be enough when they were hopelessly outnumbered. Merle brought up the rear and, just before he slipped out, he looked back over his shoulder and tossed her a wink.

Beth nearly melted through the floor.

This was ridiculous, she thought, a stack of linens in her arms as she went from cell to cell making up beds. There was no way she was developing feelings for Merle. Not a snowflake's chance in hell. They barely knew one another - and what she did know of him was singularly awful. Not only that, he was old enough to be her father, and the baggage he carried would sink an ocean liner. And he'd kidnapped her sister and tortured her impending brother-in-law. She shook out a freshly-laundered blanket with perhaps more vigour than it required. Was that the kind of girl she was, Beth wondered; an intense exchange over some oatmeal and she was anybody's?

But it hadn't just been that, she acknowledged silently. She'd gone from barely noticing Merle Dixon to not being able to avoid him - in less than twenty-four hours. With the way things worked around here, she'd have to get herself together and stop her eyes drifting towards him at every opportunity. There was no space for anyone to have a secret in the prison, not with everyone living on top of each other the way they did. Maggie and Glenn's rampant libidos, Rick's episodic insanity, Carl's mumbling nightmares, the fact that Carol was completely in love with Daryl…things that should have been private were painfully out in the open for all to see. Beth had no desire to add to that unfortunate stewpot, particularly with her overprotective father in the mix. There were a lot of ways to die in the new world, and she didn't want shame to be hers.

Spreading the blanket out over the hard, joyless prison bunk, she tucked in the corners and plumped the pillow as best she could. She, Carol and Andrea had been hard at work since the others left, trying to make the place as welcoming as possible, make them at least feel like it had been worth fighting for. With the cellblock swept and dusted, and all their personal items returned to their rightful places, it did look somewhat homely. Once everything had settled down, Beth resolved to ask Rick if she could go on a scavenger mission for non-essential furnishings that would give the spartan prison a better outlook. If they were going to stay, they needed to try and bring a sense of normality back into their lives. Being nomads had taken its toll on them; they hadn't allowed themselves to hope for a long time.

"Need some help?" Andrea asked, leaning in through the doorway and interrupting her contemplations.

"I've only got Merle's cell to set up," Beth told her with a smile. "He looks like a two-pillow kind of guy to me. What do you think?"

The older woman snorted and shook her head. "I try not to think about him, if I can help it." Following her into the cell furthest from all the others, Andrea helped her clear it out and get started on the bed. "Beth…I never thanked you for rescuing us. If you hadn't…" she pursed her lips and smoothed a crease from the sheet. "What you did was incredible. I owe you my life."

Beth smiled down at blanket that was turned down with military precision. "I'm glad you're safe," she said sincerely.

"Mm, well, you're one of the only ones."

"They'll come around," she assured Andrea. "It's understandable that you wanted to stay in Woodbury - it was close enough to the life we all used to have before. After what you went through on the road…and the Governor - he's -" Beth shifted awkwardly, thinking of how he'd effortlessly parted the crowd by the sheer force of his presence. "He's the sort of person makes you feel like he can protect you from anything."

Andrea gave her a sharp look. "You spoke to him?"

"A little. Michonne and I cooked up a cover story to get me in - honestly, I'm kinda shocked it worked."

"Don't be that shocked," she answered dryly. "Phillip clearly has a type."

Beth hoped she wasn't suggesting what it sounded like. Her face screwed up in a grimace, and she unconsciously hugged the second pillow she'd found to her chest. "Oh, gross," she muttered. "But he's so -" Old, her mind supplied. And Merle was older still, yet that hadn't seemed to bother her before. She bit her lip. It wasn't like Beth to speak out of turn like that, and she could see Andrea's slight flinch as she did. "Sorry - I'm sorry, I know you and he…"

"Yeah, well, a lot of good it did me." She looked so defeated just then that Beth couldn't help but reach out and squeeze her hand lightly.

"You really loved him, huh?"

Andrea didn't look at her, but her head moved just a fraction to the affirmative. She didn't need to say that she still felt the same way, that it was too raw to be past tense, and even though he'd done so many awful things, there was probably a small part of her that hoped he could come back from it. Beth tried very hard not to think about another member of their group that theory could apply to as she released the pillow from her death grip and pronounced Merle's cell finished. It was disappointingly bare, but she suspected he wouldn't really care; he didn't strike her as the sort of man that worried overly much about decor.

What was taking so long? Beth had done everything she could conceivably think of to pass the time whilst Rick's group was looking for the Governor. Their dinner choices were down to ramen or nothing since Daryl hadn't had the chance to go hunting, and there'd been a silent unanimous agreement among them not to eat until everyone else got back. In the meantime, the defences had been fixed up as best they could be, and the four remaining fighters served as a careful watch against the possibility that there might be attack from behind.

Beth was methodically repairing her way through a pile of clothes belonging to various members of their group when Maggie threw open the door. "They're back! Carol, Beth - Daddy! They're back -"

Everyone dropped what they'd been occupied with and dashed after her into the yard. She was surprised to find the sun just beginning to set; the day had felt like the longest one in living memory. She was even more surprised to see the veritable procession that made its way up the long road to the main gate. "You think they're bringing in hostages?" she whispered to her father who'd joined her in the doorway with a speed that belied his disability as well as his age.

"I don't know, sugarplum," Hershel murmured, squinting worriedly at the modified school bus trundling awkwardly behind two pick ups and Daryl's motorcycle. "But I doubt Rick would play it that way." He didn't sound too certain of that, and even Beth had to admit that it didn't exactly make sense. The Governor had categorically proved that he didn't care about his people by pitting them against other survivors. He was hardly going to negotiate a truce for their safe return.

Everyone looked grim, Beth noticed as they disembarked. Really grim. Her heart clenched in her chest. Daryl was plainly fine from the way he casually climbed off his bike and gave Carol a brief nod of acknowledgement the way normal people gathered their loved ones up in a hug. She fidgeted. Michonne and Rick slipped out of the two trucks which, Beth suddenly realised, were crammed full of supplies.

A woman she'd never seen before stepped down from the bus, and Beth pressed her lips together so hard that a ring of white began to show. Tentatively she prodded the idea that he…that Merle might not have come back…and felt it seriously start to endanger her breathing. Unable to stand still a moment longer, Beth sidled up to Daryl as he inspected the wear and tear to what she now knew to be Merle's motorcycle. "Is -" she cleared her throat of the squeak and tried again. "Is your brother…?"

The best thing about Daryl, she thought, was how completely oblivious he was to just about everything. "Huh?" he grunted distractedly, shouldering his crossbow and glancing at her like - well, like she'd just asked him half a nonsensical question. "He's on tha bus," Daryl told her finally, evidently assuming that geographical location would have to suffice if she wasn't willing to say what she meant.

"Right," she said softly, swivelling around to watch the achingly slow process of a dozen elderly folks and small children disembarking from the reclaimed school transport. "Of course he is." Merle Dixon cut his own hand off. He went up against the Governor by himself. He was the closest thing to immortal there could be. Of course he wasn't dead. No, there he was, bounding down the steps like she hadn't spent the last few minutes in a suffocating panic over a man she'd only had one real conversation with.

"They're gonna join us," Beth heard Rick say in response to his son's demand for an answer as to just why they'd brought back the weakest portion of Woodbury's population. Was the Governor gone? What about the rest of his soldiers? The only person she could see that even carried a weapon was the dark-haired woman who'd been driving the bus. Had Rick and the others got them?

Beth's mind was a maelstrom of questions as she helped her father welcome the newcomers to the prison and tried not to see their desperate despair when they realised what was awaiting them inside. Woodbury might've been built up in hearsay as a place of horrors where people were spirited away for torture and walkers were rounded up to be set upon them, but the living quarters were far superior to what the prison had to offer.

Merle and the mystery woman were the last to enter. Trying not to appear too desperate, Beth reached out to lightly brush his arm before he passed. "What's going on?" she asked worriedly, gazing up at him from beneath her lashes, acutely aware of her father standing not more than a few feet away.

The redneck's lips twisted in a manner that wasn't quite a smile. "Tha Governor turned on his own people," he said brusquely. "Killed 'em all, 'cept Karen." Karen, she gathered, was the woman next to him. The one that shot him a sharp glare.

"Don't tell the kid that," she hissed. "You'll give her nightmares."

That was the moment Beth Greene decided that she did not like Karen. Her daddy might preach forgiveness and acceptance and all manner of kindnesses, but she was a teenaged girl at the end of the day, as susceptible to uncharitable thoughts as any, and she'd just been written off a some kind of wilting flower. Not to mention the fact that Karen had called her kid. There was a distinct sweetness to her particular revenge, however. Merle's response was a low chuckle and a shake of his head. "Not this one," he smirked, and Beth was absurdly pleased he was apparently standing up for her. "Lil' girl walked right inta Woodbury jes last night. Lied ter tha Governor's face 'n got us out."

"Oh, so that was you," Karen said slowly, turning back to give her a once over. "I never would've guessed." Beth bristled at what the double meaning might be in the words, and the look that accompanied them - but most of all at the close, familiar stance she maintained with Merle.

He'd called Karen by her name.