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Do You Offer Your Throat to the Wolf with the Red Roses?

Chapter Text

 

The drive was a long one but she was almost there. The roads were quickly growing shadowed as the sun set on the gorgeous spring day, casting different hues into the spring flowers that decorated the landscape. She sighed.

Indeed it had been a long drive.

An even longer week.

She stopped at a stop sign and placed her forehead on the steering wheel, breathing in deeply of the air coming through the windows. It reminded her of home. The farm. She’d been gone too long.

Yet another thing she’d have to thank Zack for. The bastard.

She lifted her head, swiping a curl of stray hair out of her face as she reached for the long-warmed extra-large cup of water in the cup holder in the dash, taking a swig to swallow the tears that threatened to spill once more.

She’d left more than Atlanta behind her, but then, she’d been left behind a long time ago.

Another gulp or two took care of the ache in her chest. She put the car back into gear and leisurely rolled down the empty backroad highway.

Several miles later, just as she was contemplating the merits of another attempt at the failing radio, she saw a wink of light ahead of her. She slowed, eyes adjusting to the indeterminate twilight.

There was a man on the side of the road.

He had faded denim jeans and a jacket which blended into the blue-tinged shadows of the woods behind him. As she drew closer, she noted his long dark hair. Pulling to a stop beside him, she noted his piercing blue eyes.

“You alright?” she asked, cracking the window.

He stepped up to the window and nodded, clearing his throat before croaking, “Yeah,” at her. “Could use a lift though, d’you mind? Just to the next town.” She glances around and doesn’t see a vehicle. Nor does she see any signs of traffic anywhere on the lonely road.

He glanced to the left, gesturing with his chin. “Broke down back that way, just off the main road. Locked it up, it’ll be fine out here til tomorrow.” He looked into her eyes and something about it was soft. Pleading.

“I won’t be any trouble, I promise.” She held his gaze a moment longer then slowly nodded her head at the passenger door.

“Come on, get in.”

He smiled then and got in, gratefully taking long pulls from the warm water she offered him. She couldn’t help it: she eyed the sweat dripping slowly down his throat, the drops of water that escaped the edges of the plastic cup when he lifted off the lid and divested it of the cumbersome straw to place his open mouth against the edge and take long, smoot gulps as he moaned in relieved pleasure.

She blushed and turned her face away, letting the car coast forward before hitting the gas to pull smoothly out into the un-trafficked highway. After several minutes of silence, she glanced at him again.

His eyes were tired but they burned into her side. He closed them and had the decency to blush when he’d realized she’d caught him. “Sorry. Been a while since the breakdown and I thought…”

She arched an eyebrow at him, ‘thought what?”

“Just…didn’t expect to be rescued by someone’s pretty as you.”

It was her turn to blush and she shifted in her seat. Her grief aside, it had been a long drive. Long enough for the dull rattling of the vehicle to seep into her bones, her muscles. The long hours making her tired and the boredom making her think of sex with every shady motel she passed.

Traveling always made her think of sex, for some reason.

“Stop that,” she admonished gently. He was silent for a moment while she focused on driving.

“Why?” Her eyes widened slightly, flicked back to him, his gaze speculative. “S'true. Wouldn’t have pegged you for one of those didn’t know she’s beautiful.” She blushed and opened her mouth to respond but he continued over whatever she was going to say. “Gotta be brave, too, pickin’ up a stranger off the highway. Bet there’s more to you than people see.”

Torn between embarrassment, mild offense and a tingling blush of pride, she said nothing.

And then.

“People don’t see much when they look at me.” He snorted.

“What makes you think that?”

“Couldn’t see all that much if they don’t wanna have me around.” His silence was thicker and she slowed the car, daring another glance.

“Couldn’t imagine someone not wanting you around, darlin.”

“It’s true. My – my ex – couldn’t stand me. Was always leaving, late for anything we planned.”

His brows drew together. “Bullshit.”

“What?”

“Dude’s screwed up in the head, probably too immature to handle a gal like you.”

“You don’t know shit about me.”

“I know you’re risking your potential safety to help a stranger. That makes you brave and kind. Takes that t’ help a stranger these days. Tell me, think he ever did any a’ that just to piss you off?”

She glared at him and scowled. “Why the fuck,” something flared in his eyes and reminded her of a hunting cat, “would he do that?” He was silent for a moment, then leaned forward in the cab, arms braced against the dah and seat, like a slowly stalking…animal.

It caught her breath, made her heart pound faster and she struggled to keep her calm even as anger still edged her muscles into trembling. “That there,” he said in a throaty and intimate voice, inches from her shoulder and making her think again of what people do in roadside hotel rooms, “is exactly why. Did he ever try t’have sex with you when you were pissed?”

Trying her hardest to remain angry at this stranger asking private questions, she couldn’t say that Zack ever had. “Why?” she whispered.

“Because,” he shifted forward again and she drew her eyes away from his advancing whispered response, focusing for a moment on pulling off to one side of the road and placing her foot firmly on the brake. She’d kick him out of her car and –

“If he wasn’t lookin’ to rile you up, he was a fool not to see how damned sexy you look when you’re mad.” She dared turn her head. He was inches from her, eyes wide like a man starving, breath hot on her skin and her body growing heavy with the ever-increasing awareness of his sharp masculine scent, the warmth that radiated from him in the cooling air of a spring night.

His eyes searched hers and his hand came up to stroke a callused palm over her cheek. She blushed and he smiled, thumbing the soft heated flesh with a gentleness that belied the strength she saw in the way he moved. Her heart skipped and she turned to his thumb brushed her lip. Letting out a slow breath, eyes fixed to hers and considering.

“May I?” he asked with a surprising amount of tenderness in his eyes.

With Zack gone – left her – and on the road like this, she well knew why she said it. She wanted to forget. Wanted, for once after months of dodged calls, months of slowly dwindling affection, after a draught of what had once been a flood of loving tenderness, to feel if not love, then at least desired. Like she was attractive. Like someone, even this stranger, cared even a little for her.

It had been so long since she’d last been with a man, even before Zack actually left.

She nodded and no sooner than her head dipped down he closed the space between them and met her lips with his.

It was warm, sweet pressure and wet sliding along her lips and igniting a fire between them. He had the presence of mind to shift the car into park while he drew her closer, enveloping her in his hot embrace. It was strange, being so close, heady with the scent of sweat, the faint tang of metal and leather overshadowing a sharp musky tang that was all arousal.

His tongue swept inside her mouth and stroked along her tongue, swallowing her moans as she frantically tried to keep up. She fisted her hands in his shirt, moving with him as he attempted to pull her into his lap. He fell back as he did so and she was just petite enough to avoid getting the dash in her back. Or her front was just pressed that hard into him.

She didn’t care.

She ground herself down onto his jean-trapped cock and bit his lip, suckling away the sting. His hands moved swiftly, divesting her of the cumbersome shirt, ripping his mouth from hers to trail a line of hot wet kisses down the line of her throat to her breast, stubble raking fire along her flesh like an exclamation point.

She threaded fingers through his hair and held on for dear life as he sucked and bit her nipple and areola, laving it with his tongue nearly every time the pleasure or pain became too much. He opened his mouth wide, taking as much of her breast into the cavern of his mouth as he could. Adrenaline and pleasure shot through her as she considered he might eat her alive.

It was exactly what he intended to do.

He pulled away and kissed her mouth hard, tongue sweeping against hers as they crashed together, all exploring teeth and tongue. He bit her lower lip and dragged it out, nipping at the swollen tissue before releasing her. He flashed her a grin and the world tilted like a mad loop in a rollercoaster.

She let out a breath as the hard leather of the backseat hit her back but she only cared for a moment because he was there, above her and leaning down to kiss her as his hands slid down to cup her ass and lift her into his hips as he ground against her.

His mouth and tongue demanded entrance and she opened beneath him like she was dying of thirst. His hands fumbled roughly with the button and zipper of her jeans, sliding inside as soon as there was room. He arched back and growled through his teeth when he slipped inside, sliding his thick hot fingers over her cunt only to find her soaking. He grinned, feral light in his eyes making his teeth seem sharp as fangs as he slid two fingers as far inside as he could, curling them into her inner walls and beckoning with a hard steady pressure which made her back arch and keen.

“God damn, girl, tell me that’s all for me.”

Her heart was in his teeth as she looked up and locked eyes with his, nodding before whispering, “Yes.” He paused, slowly pulling his fingers out to rest at her soft slick entrance, something like wonder softening his features as he gazed at her with sudden tenderness.

“God…y’aint even lying, are you…” She could only hold his gaze and writhe with pleasure as he slowly slid three fingers inside and began stroking her in long smooth rhythm. Her breathing deepened and she relaxed into his hands, denim-covered thighs splayed before him. She watched as his eyes grew darker, lids hooded and something behind them shifted, as though he were rising out of the depths of those eyes and gathering himself to look out of them at her. Like he was somehow more.

She tightened on his fingers as she watched. He said nothing, only pulled them out to grab her jeans, pulling them with quick sure movements down her legs, not bothering to remove her boots to let it all dangle off her ankles awkwardly. If she’d cared.

He settled, still clad in his jeans and shirt, between her thighs and ground into her. His hands cradled her face and he braced himself on his elbows, stroking her cheeks and throat as he looked into her, leaned down and kissed her with impassioned tenderness. As he gazed he gauged her pleasure as he dragged himself over her slowly, denim trapped between the heat of his cock and her naked wet flesh.

He rose up on one arm and ground into her, fumbling at something with his free hand. She took the opportunity to slide her palms beneath his shirt. No sooner than her contact with his muscled abdomen than he flinched away, just a little and arched a brow at her, lips turning up in a half smile. She paused, eyes questioning before he licked his lips and burned into hers with his own.

“Touch me, girl.” The tone was command tempered with tenderness, making it more of a suggestion. She could refuse, if she chose.

She slid her hands over his denim-clad cock and couldn’t work fast enough to get them open. Her eyes fixed to their work while he…

She’d cupped him in her hands, giving him a firm stroke that had his back arching above her, head falling back. When he looked down at her his smile was strained and it echoed in his eyes.

“Oh, girl, you have no idea how good that feels.”

She smiled up at him, trailed one hand up over his abdomen, feeling him twitch delightfully beneath her touch. “Show me,” she said with a grin. He chuckled and caught her wandering fingers in his own, leaning back down over her as he took it by the wrist and maneuvered it above her head. His eyes burned into hers and he did the same with the other, regret flitting through his eyes as her hand left the heat of his cock.

When he kissed her again she swept into his mouth, exploring his tongue again, his palette and as far into his hot mouth as she could reach. With a soft clinking sound and a throaty chuckle, he pulled away and she reached – against restraint like chilled metal. She looked up at her hands. He’d somehow gotten handcuffs around her wrists, shackling her to the door handle.

“Trust me, I ain’t gonna hurt you girl. Wanna make you feel good.” He shoved his jeans down around his hips and nestled them between her thighs, resting again on his elbows on either side of her, one hand cupping the back of her head and neck while the other brushed over her lips. “Wanna make you feel,” he mumbled into her mouth as it closed over hers again, “so fucking good.”

He dragged his hard cock over her flesh and she wrapped her thighs around his hips, hooking her ankles around his calves as she tried to maneuver him inside. He chuckled into her throat, lifting her neck to nip and suck at the sensitive skin there. “You want me?” He groaned into her throat, sliding his cock through her wet folds so slowly it made her ache. Question punctuated with a sharp little nip.

She whimpered and clenched her thighs, hips rutting up against him, desperate for more friction. Her head rose and lips traced over his throat, teeth scraping what she could reach there. He pulled back slightly, just out of reach and she moaned in protest, tongue reaching to close the distance, desperate to taste him.

“D’you want me, girl?” She pulled away, braced her legs on either side of his hips – she could do little else in her position – and pushed up into him, smearing him with the slick juice of her cunt.

“Fuck me,” she groaned.

The word broke out of her teeth and through him, releasing something she’d only glimpsed before. It was like he’d snapped, all control gone and he became abandon.

His hands gripped her hips, thrusting roughly against the outside of her , sliding through her folds to graze her clit in rapid quick thrusts until she thought it could glow in the dark interior of the vehicle. He thrust against her and she thought he would come, just fucking come all over her just like that but suddenly angled himself and impaled her.

It was hot and sharp, the stretch of her around him and it felt so good.

He didn’t let up, the pace rough and pounding. Eyes gripped hers and he shifted one hand to her thigh, lifting it above her head, splitting her open wide in a movement she’d find awkward any other time but this. His hips practically lunged between hers, thrusting harder. Deeper.

His mouth broke from hers and trailed over the back of her knee, making her writhe and keen beneath him. She felt the scruff of his stubble against the wet of his hot tongue swirling and it rolled the eyes into the back of her head. She felt herself relax into him, into this, the pleasure rolling through her in thicker waves every time his cock pounded into her in time with the tongue against her flesh.

Eyes cut to her face with a calculating glint and his rogue’s grin was fierce as he hooked one arm into her knee, holding it down as he pressed further into her, hips snapping into hers and dragging slowly out. Her breath caught with each thrust, each invasion delving deeper than the last and when he ground himself into the end of her she let out a shaky breath that seemed to emerge from the depths of her being. He cocked his head to one side and smiled at her, gripping her hair in a fist hard enough to sting in her scalp but it didn’t hurt.

Oh, God did it not hurt.

The sting at her scalp blended with the slide and weight between her thighs and built upon itself in an upward spiral which sent sparks along her nerves with every –

Distantly she felt a hand slide between them, pressure wet and rough across her clit in tight slow circles in contrast to his infernal pounding, reaching the rough end of her as he swiped across that most tender spot once, twice –

She shattered. Felt the pleasure burst from her skin in a wave of light rippling through her tight cunt, along her spine to arch her back, clawing hands that gripped and clawed at the handle and hard metal. Her throat felt raw and she was helpless beneath the onslaught of his tongue and lips, rough stubble surely marking her cheeks and chin as he kissed and fucked her through her pleasure.

The waves continued to rise and crash until her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her cries of ecstasy became small helpless moans. A glimpse, of him above her, his head rolled between his shoulders and hands clenched hard enough to bruise where he gripped her.

She didn’t much care. Not when the stars overhead wheeled through her body and made every ache seem a distant dream.

In distant wonder she took in his expression, teeth bared over the sounds he held back with his eyes shut tight.

He slowly withdrew from her, leaving a sense of loss and a trail of sparks in his wake. The solid warmth of him covered her and she felt his trembling, heard the ragged gasps slowly evening as he fought to draw in her air.

They lay like that for a time, she couldn’t have said how long.

Gentle hands caressed her face, echoed by a welcome rumble. “Sweetheart, you with me?” She nodded mutely, eyes focusing on him once more. She smiled at him and squeezed with her thighs. Couldn’t hold him in her arms, so it would do until then.

His lips trailed back up her throat, more affectionate than meant to entice, though it did that too. He slid his mouth over her lips again and as he pulled away she felt him, still hard against her thigh.

“You didn’t…?”

He shook his head once. “No.”

Her head tilted to one side, brow furrowing. “Why not?”

Blue eyes regarded her, sought something in her own while he drew on his jeans. “Weren’t about me. That was for you.” The silence between them stretched as she took that in until she realized she was missing something.

“What’s your name?”

He paused, kind eyes slowly wandering over her face as if to memorize her features. “Daryl.” He said it like an offering. “What’s yours?”

“Beth.” His smile widened.

“Well, Beth,” he leaned down and laid an open-mouthed kiss to her shoulder, hands massaging lightly at her shoulders and arms where they’d started to ache in their confinement, “words can’t express how much a” he blushed, “pleasure it is to meet you.”

She met his smile with hers and he leaned down to kiss her. It was soft, lingering and made her toes curl.

He slowly extricated himself from her, straightening her jeans while she lay back and relaxed beneath his attentions. He even removed his over-shirt and draped it over her torso. With a final stroke of his large palm down her cheek he sighed and pulled away, opening the car door to stand.

It occurred to her quite suddenly she was still handcuffed to the door.

“Um, Daryl?” He glanced at her as he straightened his jeans and his face flushed. She watched with growing concern as he closed the door and opened the driver’s side, sliding into the front seat.

The driver’s side. A feeling like ice ran down her spine and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

“Daryl, what are you doing?”

He sighed. Started the engine and paused, resting his forearm on the wheel while he looked out the windshield at the quiet night, the road stretching before him.

“I’m sorry, Beth.” He looked back at her over his shoulder, hand reaching back to gently stroke her knee where it rested against the back of his seat. Gave it a squeeze as he spoke as though in apology, “I’m hijackin’ your car.”

What?

Panic began to flood her system as he pulled them out onto the silent country highway.

Chapter Text

“You son of a fucking BITCH! What the fuck?” Wrists yanked and pulled, biting the metal around her wrists into them but she didn’t care, continued to struggle against her bonds as if her life might depend on it.

And it might.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? ASSHOLE! Fuck me and – pull the fuck over, this is MY car how the fuck dare you? Goddamn you I swear when I get outta here you’ll regret this shit I swear to God! This is such” – Face screwed up in fury she braced her shoulders and back against the seat and door and began methodically kicking at his head – “BULLSHIT!”

She kept hitting the headrest and bent it forward. Next kick was aimed even better: she felt her boot connect with the side of his face, felt a vicious twist of joy when her boot heel scraped across skin and her ankle momentarily blocked his vision.

He batted her leg away with the back of his wrist in a sharp backhanded strike and turned to glare fire right back at her as he jerked the wheel hard to one side and slammed to a stop. The force of it nearly slid her off the seat and into the cramped confines of the space between seats but she held back her yelp with triumph in spite of the yank to her wrists.

“Cut it the fuck out, I ain’t got time for this shit.”

She glared back up at him, eyes wide and mouth dropping open. “Y’ain’t got the – what the fuck Daryl?” The fury took a backseat in her eyes as fear came to the fore.

He turned away and began driving again, muttering, “Do that again and you’ll ride in the trunk.” She felt the vehicle speed up, watched him with increasing dizziness as he made a couple turns and heard the familiar grind of wheels on a gravel road. Still trying to push herself back onto the seat properly, she realized she could only see the starry sky and an occasional tree-top.

But she took the threat to heart and decided to bide her time. As long as she wasn’t in the trunk she had more options.

“So what now? Gonna murder me?” He sighed heavily but said nothing, eyes intense, the little she could see from the angle. Her throat tightened on another possibility and made her voice small when she asked, “Not gonna rape me, are you?”

He tossed back such a withering look she was surprised she hadn’t died. The utter disgust cut through her fear and in spite of the situation she felt her shoulders relax a little. It occurred to her it was pretty screwed up, if she was more comfortable with the idea of being murdered than with –

“No.”

It was simple, though heavy. Final.

Softer, “I ain’t gonna hurt you.”

She drew her eyes back up to him and watched. Waiting. It was, after all the only thing she could do, except continue talking to him.

“Where are you taking me?” He was silent again for several long minutes.

“North.”

“What’s north?” He remained silent this time, flicking his intense eyes over her on occasion. She imagined she saw a flash of – something – behind his eyes, but couldn’t for the life of her say what.

She watched him until her eyes grew heavy. Fought it, for a while.

Then she slept.

 

 

She had no idea how long she’d been out. Her eyes opened and blinked blearily up at…the ceiling of her car. The bench seat beneath her rocked and vibrated gently. She was moving. Shifting, she noted a languid relaxation accompanied by immobility and numbness in her arms. She looked up at her hands, still cuffed to the door-handle. They tingled when she flexed them experimentally, but they felt heavy, as though it were a struggle. She kept flexing them.

“Hey,” she called, her voice hoarse with overuse.

The man in the driver’s seat glanced back at her, just barely visible over the lip of the front seat.

“Yeah?”

“My hands are going numb.”

He cursed softly, the tone in his voice a sharp contrast to both the word and situation. The momentum of the vehicle shifted as he pulled over. She glanced out the windows. All she could see was sky, that paling shade the night becomes when dawn draws near.

When they were stopped he didn’t cut the engine as she’d hoped, leaving it idle while he climbed out and around to the back seat. The door opened and let in the cool crisp air. He looked her up and down, taking in her jeans and – she flushed and looked anywhere but at him, shame and guilt surely turning her cheeks pink. His over-shirt was still draped over her torso, effectively hiding her breasts from view and affording her some semblance of modesty.

It felt like a lie, given the still-tingling ache between her thighs and the ghost of languid bonelessness beneath limbs stiff with car-quality-sleep. Deep inside something twitched at the memory of orgasm in his arms, sending another ripple through her. She shifted her legs away from him, curling onto her side and pulling herself up a little with the handle of the door. The side of her head leaned against it to look blankly at the back of the seats. At the floor, where her shirt lay long-forgotten. She felt the seat shift as he eased himself onto it gingerly, felt his eyes on her.

She flexed her fingers as he watched. The cuffs were close around her wrists but didn’t bite into the skin as long as she didn’t put pressure on them. As it was she’d been beginning to feel raw. At the junction of the hinge and where it was fastened together her skin was turning a steadily violent shade of pink.

Finally, she looked at him, daring him to meet her eyes as tears slid silently down her cheeks. His eyes took her in, flitted to her wrists and hovered there for a long moment.

Though she kept her face placid, Beth felt a flare of hope in her chest as she realized his problem.

He swallowed. “Need t’ get ya outta those cuffs.” She glowered at him and he sighed heavily. “I know. I’m sorry. Just…don’t want ya t’ get hurt but I can’t have you runnin’ off just anywhere.”

“Why can’t you just let me go?” The pain in his eyes would have made her heart ache if –

“I can’t,” he breathed. “I let you go, you’ll tell someone or…and I can’t have that. I just can’t. I’m so sorry, girl.”

“Don’t,” she snapped, throat suddenly tightening. “How dare you? You don’t get to use me like that, fuck me, steal my car, kidnap me and then go calling me ‘girl’ like I’m yours or something!”

“Didn’t mean it like that.”

“Fuck you.”

He turned his face away, looked out the window at the night with haunted eyes. And he was, she realized.

“So you’re a convict or something, right?” He huffed and shook his head.

“Somethin’.”

“So why the hell do you need me?”

“I don’t need you. Just couldn’t leave you there.”

“Why not? I’ll only be trouble for you.”

“Yeah I’m gettin’ that pretty quick.” The corner of his mouth twitched, eyes flashing in a smile he didn’t allow himself.

“Stop that.” He looked back at her.

“Stop what?”

“Stop laughing at me.” Her heart ached. Zack had used her for over a year, kept her strung along until there was nearly nothing left for him to take and Daryl was no different. She lifted her chin and let him feel the cut of her steely gaze.

He shook his head. “I ain’t laughing at you…” he looked her in the eye, all trace of humor gone. “Beth…I just need your car. And for you to be safe –

“I ain’t safe with you, tyin’ me up and –

“Shut up for a minute!” he snapped. She fell silent, biting back her ire. Waited. “I need you safe,” he continued quietly, “this catches up to me and it all finds you, we’re both screwed. Couldn’t leave you alone on the highway for them to find.”

“Who’re ‘them?’ Cops?”

He shook his head, flashing a glare. She got the point. “No. I just need your car, get where I’m going. I don’t wanna take you with me; you’ll just slow me down. I’ll drop you off somewhere safe, maybe –

“Safe from what, Daryl?”

– get another car and you can go on home or wherever.” He shook his head. “The less you know, the better. Now c’mon, am I gonna have to put you in the trunk or are you gonna give me a break?”

She was silent, considering her options. He caught her glance out the window and down the road they’d been coming from.

“Don’t even think about it.”

The sigh that escaped her was heavy.

“Look, I’ll drop you off at the biggest truck-stop we find, alright?”

“Truck stop? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“Exactly –

He broke off and reached forward and she flinched but he only moved his hands to her wrists, gently tracing the marks she created when she’d struggled. It stung and the sudden pain made a lump well up in her throat and spill out her eyes.

The tears slid down her cheeks and he watched the trail in silence. He reached for her and she flinched again, pulling away. He hesitated and then brushed the backs of his fingers over her cheek anyway, wiping them with surprising tenderness. “I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said, an ache in his voice, eyes pained.

“Why did you use me? Fuck me like that –

“Weren’t my intention at all. Could’ve just stuck you in the trunk, but you…I meant what I said, Beth; you’re a beautiful, courageous woman.”

“Then why did you…?”

“Because you deserve it. You deserve to feel good.” A blush crept over his cheeks as she held his gaze. “Deserve every moment of ecstasy you can feel in this world.”

The thickening silence grew between them and he took a deep breath, looking again at the cuffs with a growing wrinkle between his eyebrows and an ever-increasing frown. He fingered them experimentally, exploring the contraptions upon her wrists as he’d earlier explored her flesh. Swift, sure and thorough.

There was a small place for the key but he wasn’t pulling one out. They were heavy, hard things.

Real handcuffs, she knew without being told.

She waited another few minutes and finally stated what she’d begun to fear.

“You can’t get them off, can you.”

Chapter Text

 

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t have they key?’ They’re your fucking handcuffs you should have a key!”

“Ain’t never had a key,” he grumbled.

“And you – you used them on me? What the hell were you thinking?”

He blushed a violent shade of red but kept her gaze, biting out his next words. “Seemed. Convenient. At. The time.”

She looked at him in silent fury, and then glanced back at her wrists. He sighed heavily and reached out to her again, massaging her limbs with deft fingers and avoiding the places being rubbed raw. Slowly the fire in her gaze died down and she sagged against the seat.

“C’mere,” he said gently, “Let’s get you sittin’ up. S’better than lying there making it worse.”

She sighed this time, ignoring the awareness of him as he reached around and steadied her with a broad palm against her spine and another at her waist, helping her sit up so she could lean against the door.

Reaching for her wrists once more to massage them, she noted with relief that her limbs tingled far less and she was regaining her usual mobility. She leaned her head back against the glass, wriggling her fingers as she watched. In the growing light of dawn she examined his wrists and hands, dark skinned and broad rough palms against her own so pale and soft.

He had nicks and scratches on some of his fingers and his knuckles looked almost as raw as her wrists felt. She turned her wrist in his hand and grabbed his and he hissed, jerking them out of her grasp.

“Sorry,” she said softly as he pulled away, gripping the wrist in his hand. He looked at her guiltily and grabbed her shirt from the floor, covering her with it and sliding his own shirt from beneath, keeping her modesty intact.

Eyes still on his wrist, she realized the dark shadow hidden beneath his jacket sleeve wasn’t a shadow at all but skin rubbed truly raw. Eyes widening slightly, she looked out the windshield at the front, anything to avoid his eyes. The vehicle bounced a little when he exited. Out of the corner of her eye she watched in curiosity when he glanced back in at her and then examined the shirt in his hand.

After a minute he turned away so his side was turned toward her, removed his jacket and undershirt, baring himself for the first time. She held her breath, taking in the hard planes of muscle, the strength of his arms as he moved, quickly putting on the shirt he’d draped her with, buttoning up the front and tugging the sleeves down so they covered his wrists and the raw skin there.

It hadn’t been quick enough to hide the dark streaks of blood that marked his back and shoulders.

“What the hell,” she whispered, “happened to you?”

She remained silent as he glanced in her direction, then bent to examine his undershirt again, producing a multi-tool from his back pocket. He bent out of sight and she heard fabric ripping and tearing for several minutes while she listened in bewildered silence.

Soon enough he stood, holding what looked like his shredded undershirt. He shook it out and got back into the backseat with her, holding it up.

“It ain’t perfect, but it’ll do better than nothing.’” She looked at it curiously, still trying to puzzle its shape and his intent. He shifted a little closer and reached around her waist, winding the black fabric over her. She shifted closer, giving him more room to move. He brought the fabric up around her neck and tied it behind her shoulders. This close, he couldn’t help but look into her eyes and for a moment time slowed.

She blushed and tried to ignore the tightening of her thighs against the zip of feeling as he pulled her shirt out from beneath the makeshift halter, the slide of material pebbling her nipples with the sensation.

“Like I said, better than nothin’.” He muttered, glancing down at his handiwork and quickly away.

He pulled back and left her to her confusion as he went back to the front seat and began driving again.

 

The country roads stretched for miles and Beth found herself a little more comfortable in her new position. Comfortable being relative: it didn’t change the fact that she was still handcuffed into the backseat of her own vehicle on a back-country road with a hot stranger who’d fucked her brains out and then stole the aforementioned vehicle.

She leaned her head against the back of the front seat, a twist of guilt and shame making her feel miserable. She’d never done anything like that in her life; perhaps this was some sort of punishment.

As she mused, leaning over somewhat awkwardly to tighten the tie at the back of her neck, she was pulled from her thoughts with the motion of the vehicle shifting. The road still stretched long ahead of them but the countryside was dotted with houses and barns between acres of farm-scape and landscape. Would have been pretty but – they were pulling off the road and into a gap between fences.

The gravelly sound of tires on the road shifted to a deeper noise; that of tires on uneven ground and thick grass.

“Where are we going?”

But it was obvious there had only been one destination. A run-down barn with a few outlying buildings. Beth recognized a chicken coop and some kind of shelter and yard ensemble. What really caught her attention was the shed a bit closer to the bard, framed by two run-down trucks and decorated with what looked like an assortment of hubcaps.

“Gonna get those cuffs off ’ya.”

Daryl pulled up in front of the building, taking a wide turn to place her close to the entrance and angled so they wouldn’t have to turn around once they were ready to leave. A quick exit, she thought.

“Wait here,” he said, then glanced at her and sighed, clearly annoyed.

‘Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said dryly.

He got out of the car and went into the building. After several minutes of silence, broken ty the occasional clang o metal on metal, he emerged, lips twitching. A rusty hand-saw and a sickle were dangling from his grasp.

With a little trepidation she watched him approach, feeling guilty for some reason when he scoffed at her expression. He said nothing though, only opened the door slowly, allowing her to shift so she didn’t fall over when it was fully opened.

“M’gonna cut the handle off the door,” he said by way of explanation. She didn’t even care. She just wanted – well, a lot of things, she admitted to herself, but she’d take small favors when she could get them. Getting off the door and out of the backseat would be a great start, as far as she was concerned.

“Move ‘em down,” he instructed, placing the sharp edge of the hand-saw against one side of the interior handle. The angle was awkward and he had her shift to the ground outside (the movement felt so good after the back seat’s cramped confines) so he could brace against the body of the vehicle and apply more pressure.

“You sure that’s gonna work?” she asked.

He raised an eyebrow at her, “It matter to ya? Wanna save the door or somethin’?”

She blushed and looked at the ground, freshly furious at the whole thing. “Just get me off, I need to pee.” She ground her teeth at the innuendo and looked at her feet.

Thankfully, after sawing against the handle a few times she was relieved to note it seemed to be made of a hard plastic and not the metal she’d feared.

Sometime later he’d adjusted the placement of the saw and cut a hunk off, enough for her to slip the chain through.

She stood fully with a relieved sigh and stretched like she hadn’t in days and looked around. “Think there’s an outhouse or something around here?”

“Just go ‘round the back, ain’t no one been here in a while.”

“How did you know this place would – I’ll be right back.” She walked away, drowning in the sense of relief suffusing her body at being able to walk away from the man and the car. The car. She wasn’t even thinking of it as hers anymore and that was just one more thing to chalk up to the list of things that were bothering her.

She unzipped her pants and crouched, ignoring the memory of his skin on hers as fresh air hit her skin. The land around them was dry and grassy, peppered with trees, likely where a creek-bed might still flow.

Farms. As abandoned as this one was, she was sure not all of them had been. Maybe…

She took a moment to toe off her boots and worked her underwear off, cleaning herself with the cloth of it and stuffing it in her back pocket after re-dressing. She checked her makeshift halter – not too bad, she noted, pleased it felt sturdy enough around her torso to pass as some form of punk-rock look and not the slap-dash makeshift garment that it was – and tied her laces tight. Took a deep breath, listening for Daryl’s presence by the car. She eyed the terrain.

The grass sloped gently downward, into what looked like a ravine and back up on the other side, low enough she could see to the top of its neighbor, a good distance away. No guarantee that it housed people or that anyone would even be home in the middle of the morning.

Listening again and hearing nothing aside from the chirrup of insects around them, she took another breath, nerves alive like thousands of needles pricking her skin. Aiming straight for the ravine and the building further off than a football field, she ran.

She ran as silently as she could, the only sound her breath heaving and shoes crunching in the grass – still relatively quiet – and she ran on her toes, hoping to lessen even that before Daryl realized she’d taken off from behind the building.

Didn’t dare look back.

She’d gotten maybe halfway to the tree line when a hard impact knocked her over, breath leaving her lungs. The world whirled and another impact emptied her lungs entirely as she collided with the dirt, saw stars for a moment and found herself sandwiched between ground and the solid muscle she’d admired so short a time ago. Defeat swelled up in her and she fought him, fought it, with flailing legs and arms until he caught them and stretched them over her head, pinning her to the ground with his legs against hers, breath heaving as he looked into her eyes. Blue eyes blazed with a mix of emotions she couldn’t begin to untangle and she let the tears flow as she fought to catch her breath.

They lay like that for a moment, both fighting for air. She struggled uselessly against him a moment more, unable to dislodge him. He panted above her, breath tickling her face where her hair had fallen over it. He swallowed and took a deeper breath, forcing out the words, “I can’t let you, Beth,” desperate and pleading with her for understanding, “I can’t let you go like this, I can’t, you don’t know what’s out there, don’t know, you,” he took another shuddering breath and leaned his face into her shoulder, “you don’t know what I’ve seen,” his voice cracked and a damn seemed to break open inside of him, words a continual tumbled whisper.

Pent up emotion continued to tumble out in her tears, silently shaking her form beneath him and she let them go, didn’t care. He whispered into her neck and shoulder while he held her down but she didn’t listen until she let herself go limp and they moved.

He wrapped his arm around her, shifting his weight from her and pulling her close, whispers she finally did hear with his hot breath sending goosebumps down her neck as he whispered, “I’m sorry Beth, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, doin’ this to ya – deserve better, so much better than this I’ll get you somewhere safe and you can go and live and never see me again just let me get you there please, don’t go until its safe I shoulda never dragged you into this, I’m sorry.” He cupped the back of her head in his hand and she could feel him shaking when he stroked her gently. “I’m so sorry.”

With something like shock she realized he was trying to comfort her. She was such a mess. Desperate to get away, torn between her curiosity of this awful, strange, perplexing man and wondering what in the world could have messed him up so bad he could do this to a girl and apologize at the same time.

Briefly she remembered the marks she’d seen on his body and wrists, felt a different kind of shiver run through her at the thought that whatever had happened to him, he might not be mad after all.

Something did this to him.

She pulled away, not struggling, just shifting back to look into his eyes. They were still so full of emotion and dare she think it, tears? She gently pulled her still-cuffed wrists from his grasp, took his wrist in her own and looked down at it.

As she’d observed earlier, they were marred. She examined them silently, compared to her own. Where hers were pink from her struggles, just this side of raw, his truly were: rubbed dark red and scraped in thicker lines than she’d have thought the cuffs were capable of.

“Who did this to you?” she asked, looking back up into his eyes. The madman before her. His eyes deep blue like the summer sky before rainclouds and threatening their own rain now were more open than she’d yet seen, something of a small boy looking out of them at her, as if seeing her for the first time.

“I did,” he whispered.

“Why?”

“Had to escape.” He looked off to the left, as though seeing something fearful. She resisted the urge to glance behind them. “They were…”

She looked to his wrists again and then her own, putting the pieces together. Her brow drew together and she looked back at his eyes. “Oh, God, that’s why –”

“That’s why I don’t have a key,” he croaked, eyes still distant, seeing something in his mind’s eye. His brows drew together as he continued, “I pulled ‘em off,” looked into her eyes and the weight there held her in place and she knew without a doubt that whatever had happened, it had been terrible. She was looking at a man haunted. “I had to, to get away. Dislocated my thumbs. My wrists.” She brushed feathery fingers over his hands, feeling the cuts and scrapes there. “Thought I almost ruined my hands gettin’ em off. Had to. Bled real bad. But it – it helped. Slid right off." His focus shifted again and it was like he’d come back to himself.

It was still Daryl looking into her eyes, had always been, but he was no longer in whatever hell she’d glimpsed trapped behind his eyes.

“Thought I was gonna die. Thought I’d never…” his eyes trailed over her face, her brow, her eyes and the trail of tears down her cheeks, her lips and she felt for a moment as lost in his violent history as he was.

Warm lips pressed to hers, taking, tasting gentle and slow, an exploration which was somehow tender and sweet and desperate, tongue teasing at her lip and then inside, curling into her mouth in that stolen moment that left her breathless.

Lost.

He pulled away as if with great reluctance, pressing his forehead to her own for a moment. Sighing, he shifted and stood, holding out a hand to help her up. For a moment she could only look up at him, an ache in her chest she didn’t want to sort through. Couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” he said solemnly, “I shouldn’a done that.” She took his hand and he helped her up, catching her hip to steady her. Inches from him again and she fought the drive to kiss him again.

“Why did you?”

“Thought I was a dead man,” He turned and led her by the cuffs back up the slope toward the abandoned farmstead and the vehicle waiting for them to return.

He stopped, tugging gently on the cuffs and glancing down at them, nearly raised a hand to brush her shoulder but hesitated, dropping it to his side, looking into her eyes. “Beth, I know ya got no reason to believe me on any a’ this. I can’t apologize enough for what m’ puttin’ ya through,” he sounded miserable, at least. “Just…don’t run off again? I gotta know you’re safe. That means bein’ around people. Not on a farmstead. Not some small diner with two people. Certainly not in the middle a’ nowhere on an abandoned plot a’ land. I promise: Y’can go as soon as there’s a truck-stop busy enough.” He sighed. “An I really, really don’ wanna put ya in the trunk.”

She sighed, too. “Really?”

“Prefer yer company.”

 

They pulled out of the abandoned property, leaving behind the handsaw, the piece of the handle and a jumble of emotions laying in the dirt. She sat in the front passenger seat, staring out the window without seeing anything, pensive while he drove at increasing speeds and occasionally checking the mirrors for signs of following cars that just weren’t there.

Chapter Text

She re-folded the map, putting it back on the floorboard from where she’d retrieved it. “So the nearest truck-stop is along that highway, up there.” she nodded her head at the heavily-trafficked roadway, cars flashing past in rapid succession. “About a hundred miles or so.”

Daryl looked into the rear-view mirror for the thousandth time. There was a moment when she’d suspected he wasn’t really insane when they’d been followed by another vehicle for several miles but it turned into the drive of a farmstead with a nice-ish house waiting in the afternoon sun.

Her stomach growled and she covered her bare midsection with an arm, holding back a groan in answer. From the corner of her eye, she saw Daryl’s eyes flick over at her. He looked uneasily at the highway and then at her again, measuring this time.

“Not gonna make any trouble,” he asked hesitantly, “are you?” He bit the back of his thumb hesitantly, pulled it away from his anxious teeth to rest on his forearm atop the wheel. The sky and bright made his eyes a brighter blue, cutting through the shadow of his dark hair.

She shook her head.

“I’ll get ya sumthin’ t’eat.” She blinked and looked back at him in surprise. They’d ridden together in wearying silence for hours after leaving the farm-site, keeping to back-roads and heading generally northward. It was like it didn’t really matter to him, where they went as long as it was away from – whoever had hurt him.

Soft laughter rose from her chest as he pulled out into the heavier traffic. “I thought you were gonna let me starve.” His eyes flicked to her after he changed lanes.

“Nah.”

“Was starting to think that…well, that you didn’t need to eat or anything.”

He raised an eyebrow and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. “Nah, m’human same as you.” She looked at him for a moment, registering it an odd thing for him to say.

“Didn’t know that was up for debate.”

The following silence had the hair on the back of her neck rising even in the heat of midday. His eyes flicked back to her after several more minutes and she realized she’d been staring. She immediately looked back to the window, leaning her elbow on the car door and absently placing her thumb between her teeth. Looked down at the appendage and blinked at it. Looked at him again.

Didn’t care if she was staring.

The stubble on his chin was getting longer, shadowing his cheeks and curling slightly at his chin. She noticed for the first time that some of the hair on his chin was lighter, blonde or even grey in the light. She took in the bags under his eyes, the flesh tinged pink and puffy from their struggles earlier. From the tears he’d refused to shed.

His dark hair was getting dirty, like the third or fourth day after a shower but she suspected it was due to more. It hung in lank waves down to his shoulders and framed his face, hid his eyes when he tossed it in front of them the right way. Some of it looked darker than the rest, particularly behind his right ear and she wondered how in the world she could have missed the dried blood.

She hadn’t had a chance to touch it, she mused. Overwhelmed with him as she’d been, it was all she could do to hold on and ride out –

Taking a deep breath, she blinked hard to fight the threatening blush at the memory. It felt like so long ago. How long had she been his captive? Was it truly less than twenty-four hours? And what about her family? She’d been expected home last night. Her gut ached. Daddy must be in a state by now.

Guilt and fear were pushed back with the help of another swig of the perma-warm water left in the big-gulp cup. She opened the container and looked inside. “We’ll need to get a refill on water.” She was startled by how hollow her voice sounded.

God, she was getting tired of silence.

As she reached for the radio, his hand interrupted its path and gently gripped hers. She looked at him for the thousandth time and found his glance moving from hers already. “No radio,” he said apologetically. “Don’t wanna trust the cassette player, neither.” She sighed heavily, allowing herself a heavy dose of frustration.

“Sorry.”

“Yeah,” she grumbled, arms threading over her small bosom, “You keep saying that.” His wince was a small victory.

“Just don’t want them to find me. Find us.”

‘What ‘us’ is there?”

“You really don’t think if they find you with me they’ll just let you go?”

“I don’t even know who ‘they’ are.” She tossed her head, flipping her tail out of her face. Absently, she pulled it out and began finger-combing it. “I mean, can’t you throw me a bone here?”

“M’doin you a favor, girl,” he muttered.

Another sigh threatened and she clawed her hands though her hair, the tug in the strands a welcome extension of deep exasperation.

“God – I am sick of this!” She slammed her palms on the leather of the seat on either side of her thighs, perilously close to his. She turned in the seat, back against the door to point her hard expression where it belonged. “You’ve gotta tell me something. I am so. Fucking. Tired. Tired of not knowing where we’re going, tired of not knowing if I’ll see my Daddy again,” she cringed internally at how young she sounded as it slipped out but continued on relentlessly, “or whether you’re actually crazy!” She flung her arms out to the sides, palms wide as if she could fling the whole situation off herself like a cumbersome blanket. She held her breath for a moment, unable to stomach anything even close to a sigh and just focused on her glare, hoping that something in her gaze might move him.

“Wish I were,” he muttered darkly. His answering glare was tired. Exhausted. Brief because he was driving. After a moment he growled, “Y’done?”

“You gonna tell me anything?”

He scoffed. “Toldja girl, better y’ don’t know nothing.’”

“Well if ‘they’” she made finger-quotes in the air like a silly teenager, “are gonna kill me anyways I’d at least like to know who they are.”

“Can’t tell ya that.” She took a breath but he continued before she could respond. “Can’t tell ya that part of it anyway. But I’ll…I’ll tell ya what happened – before them.”

 

“I’ was after we got word that Pa’d died. Merle, m’brother, went to take care a’ things while I kept down the fort at home. Didn’t much care n’ he just’ wanted to take care a things. See what could be sold; make us a bit ‘a money. Put that sumbitch in the ground and piss on 'is grave, likely.

“Well, anyway, he comes back ‘bout a week later with a bunch a' antiques, goin’ on ‘out how rich we’ll get selling ‘em. Real excited.”

“Antiques?”

He grabbed the big-gulp, eyeing the last few drops before tipping it back. “Yeah.” Put the cup down on the seat between them and kept his eyes on the road. “Anyway, he took it all to a dealer a’ some kind, got rid of it all and after that things got weird.”

“Weird?”

Weird. Like paranoid-weird. Called me up, sayin’ he was bein’ followed. Couldn’t sleep. Said he kept hearin' voices.” He glanced at her, “Thought he was cray, too. Bought a camera, set it up on the front door at his place. Said someone was goin’ through his stuff. Looked over the video after he swears someone was standin’ o’er ‘im but th’ camera got nothin.’”

“So…what happened to him?”

He blinked a couple times, swallowed. “Called me up. Said he went back for ‘it’ and needed me t’ pick ‘im up. Told me he’d explain everythin’ once I got ‘im. So I went. Picked ‘im up, had a package under ‘s arm. Got in ‘m car n’ told me…”

‘Told you what?”

He shook his head violently. “No.” The cars ahead of tem crept closer as pressure increased on the throttle as e continued in a pained expression. “No I ain’t gonna do that to ya. We aren’t s’posed t’ know. No one knows. That’s what happened: Merle told me and now they want me dead, too.”

Beth’s hands came up and covered her mouth as her eyes widened in realization. He didn’t need to say it, but he did.

“They killed him.” His voice cracked and the corners of his lips twitched, pulled down in a frown he couldn’t stop as tears filled his eyes. “He knew and they fuckin’ killed him for it.” He gripped the steering wheel til his knuckles turned white and let the tears streak down his face unchecked.

She sat beside him, torn between throwing herself across the seat to wrap her arms around him and grabbing the wheel. He was still driving, hands shaking but didn’t swerve. The cars in front of them were getting a little too close, though.

“Daryl –

He stiffened as though waking up – these episodes were really starting to worry her – and let off the gas, pulling off to the shoulder of the highway. They stopped and he let out a slow breath, eyes staring ahead as though looking at something far, far away. The tears began flowing again and she watched him crumble this time, watched him as he sank into himself, curling almost around the wheel with his head against the top edge and knees biting into the back of the bottom.

Regardless of what he’d done – and didn’t yet do – she pulled herself across that seat and wrapped her arms around him. When she made contact he gasped softly, allowed her to pull him sideways into her shoulder for a moment. He made no sound. Her brow was pinched close, confusion and concern warring in her, but she held him to her shoulder. After a moment he pulled away, lifting her arms from his shoulders with gentle fingers, eyes cast downward.

Almost as though he were positioning a doll, he guided her arms to her sides, created distance between them with a flat palm to her sternum as he pushed her carefully away. Looking up at her eyes finally, he sighed softly, slowly and those piercing blue orbs didn’t pierce this time so much as bleed longing and regret.

“I can’t,” he said into the quiet that followed, “but thank you.”

As though he were trying to remember how to function he fumbled at the keys, the steering wheel and guided them back onto the road. “Can’t afford to stop now.”

She allowed him to regain his composure as they continued toward the truck stop and food, staying silent behind an invisible wall spanning across the car, disbelieving that the answers she’d finally started getting only left her with more questions.

Chapter Text

 

Daryl took some time to calm down but still he drove them several miles. It didn’t take as long as Beth figured it would but by the time they stopped, his head was beginning to nod dangerously.

“Daryl,” she said insistently, repeating his name a few times before he noticed, “We need to stop. You’re falling asleep at the wheel.” He glanced around and ran a hand through his hair, looking at his palm after running it through the patch of dried blood behind his ear.

She completely ignored the way his arm looked when it flexed like that and was a little proud of the feat.

“We’ll stop an’ get some food, like I said. Check the map, where are we?”

She pulled it back up and checked the mile-marker as she passed. “Which highway are we on?”

“Forty. Passed into Tennessee last night.”

For a moment, Beth stared in something like shock. She was far from home, outside even the state. How in the hell was she going to get home? She took a breath against the encroaching resurgence of panic and looked back at the map. There would be time, later. She turned the pages until she found Tennessee.

“Passed Chattanooga a while you were out earlier.”

“Passed?”

“Yeah. Thought a change of direction was in order, so we’re currently headed west.”

“Why west?”

He glanced at her and muttered, “More runnin’ space. Y’know, further to go if I – if we need to.”

“’We’ again…sure you’re dropping me off?”

“Abso-fuckin’-luteley. Made ya a promise, girl, m’ gonna keep it.”

She glanced down at the map again and said absently, “We’re near somewhere called ‘Tuckers Crossroads’,” looked up at the road ahead of them. “Might be somewhere to stop and eat there.”

Daryl nodded – and nodded – and Beth quietly gripped the handle of the door to keep from fidgeting with the desire to reach over and grab the wheel.

But she was ready to, if necessary.

 

Turns out ‘Tuckers Crossroads’ was a small community gathered around a literal crossroad where two highways intersect. It was small-ish: as they drove into its center Beth took note of the largest structure for miles, a brick building which housed the local school. There were a few houses, several empty fields of pale gold grass, and the closer they got to the actual crossing, it grew thicker with the gas station and a few storefronts.

Across from the over-decorated gas station (which was oddly painted blue and held all manner of odds and ends in the front, like someone had taken the contents of their grandfather’s attic and distributed it around and called it decoration) was an old wooden structure with a slanted roof, painted red (also over-decorated with odds and ends) with a neon sign for ‘Miller Light’ still on in the tiny front window.

Daryl got out first, handed Beth his jacket to hold and cover the handcuffs and helped her out of the car.

The gravelly dirt crunched beneath their feet as they walked up to the gas station. Inside were a dirty-white tile floor and a sparsely-shelved shop. It held tons of jerky and snack-bars, a small freezer with frosted-over ice cream bars inside and a counter which held – of all things – an old-fashioned register.

Behind the counter stood an old man with white hair down to his shoulders. He looked so much like her father, in suspenders and a button-up flannel shirt with grease stains she had to look away while Daryl approached. She walked to the back to the restroom, catching Daryl’s glance as she did so.

The inside was the same dirty-white but seemed relatively clean.

Through the door she heard Daryl’s deep rumble, distantly surprised at how it carried. “There someplace to eat here?”

“Yeah,” said the drawling twang that answered him, “got the snacks ‘n shit in here but if you’re lookin’ for a meal we got that there restaurant across the street.”

“Open this hour?”

“Yeah, just finishing the breakfast hour. It’ll be opening again when the lunch hour starts.”

“Still open?”

“yeah, but y’ better hurry.”

A little louder, “Beth, y’ fall in?”

She flushed the toilet with her foot and rushed through the rest, stomach growling with the prospect of food. She took her small revenge in drying her hands on his jacket, draping it back over her wrists as she pulled the door open.

 

They rushed across the street, Daryl dashing ahead to open the door and call, “Still open?”

A curse came from the back and when Beth entered behind him a female voice, closer, said with an air of one tired and grunted, “Yeah, next half-hour. Two?”

Beth’s eyes landed on the woman. She had bottle-bright red hair, curled and moussed on top of her head in mounding curls in a tired face, which seemed to droop with the weight of years and hard times. Her uniform was pink with a pale green apron tied around her waist and a small gold tag that said “Manager” and “Tabitha” pinned over her heart. She smacked the gum she chewed noisily and looked them up and down, flicking dull green eyes over them.

Daryl nodded, “Just us.”

She waved a hand at the room and sighed, “Take yer pick,” and handed them menus as they walked into the room. It was dingy, almost dark with grey-gold light coming through windows so old the glass was taking on a yellowed color. The floor was littered with tables that had chairs around them in a semblance of haphazard organization. “Earl!” the woman shouted into the kitchen, “Keep th’ grill on, we got customers!”

“Jay come in for ‘nother round?” shouted a deep yet whiney voice.

“Nah, couple folks from outta town so make it good!”

“Yeah, yeah…”

Daryl led them to a table in the back corner, where they were lightly padded with black pleather so old it was cracking in some places. He seated himself in the corner and Beth watched him as they sat down. The place was empty but he took in everything in a seemingly-casual sweep of his gaze. He paused at several places, swept his storm-blues over the whole again and settled in to look at the menus, handing one to Beth.

She gave him a dead-pan stare and brought her wrists up to the edge of the table, resting them against the corner with a little force. He blushed and set the menu down in front of her, muttering, “Sorry,” into his own.

“I don’t forget,” she said softly, dragging the metal along the table as she drew them down back beneath. She glanced around the room, guessing with some alacrity that he’d eyed the exits and probably the television – which was off – which sat at one end of the bar.

Tabitha walked back to them and handed them a couple glasses of water. “Ready?” Beth and Daryl looked at one another and he nodded at her. The waitress-manager raised a notepad and pen, offered him a small smile and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long. “I’ll take a cheeseburger, the dirty fries and a coke.” She jotted it all down and looked expectantly at Beth with a quirked eyebrow.

Beth glanced once at Daryl and ordered a Reuben and salad.

“Oh, honey,” Tabitha said with an apologetic look before whispering, “I wouldn’t get the salad,” and winked at her.

“Um…fries?”

With a conspiratorial wink and a friendly smile she jotted down more on her pad and left them alone.

Daryl sighed and leaned back in the seat, raising his arms in a stretch. Slumped into the seat and looked at her. The silence that stretched between them got awkward and he opened his mouth as if to speak but closed it and glanced around the room again, placing an elbow on the table and biting at his thumb.

Beth’s stare grew steely and sharp for a moment before she sighed and looked out the window, features easing into a tired stare.

“Not here,” came the quiet tones. She looked at him. He was staring intently at her, hands clasped together on the table as he leaned closer. “It’s too small. Next big gas-station, you’ll get…that’ll be it.”

“You keep saying that,” she leaned forward, speaking softly, “you trying to convince me or yourself?” He blinked at her, hi stare turning wary, speculative. He licked his lips and leaned on one arm, closer over the table.

“I ain’t convincin’ myself of nothin’,” he growled quietly, “gave m’ word, didn’t I?”

“Then what? What is it that’s –

Tabitha set their drinks on the table and both glanced at her. Beth offered a small smile and when she turned away again they both paused to down a good half of their respective drinks. Beth pulled her glass away and watched as Daryl downed the rest of his own. She glanced after Tabitha and moved her hands back beneath the table, wary of the woman spotting the cuffs.

“What’s got you,” her own tone soft but accusatory, “repeating yourself?” In the back of her mind she could feel the threat of tears as anxiety drove upward, fear of what he was planning, fear that he might not know himself.

He took a breath, seemed on the verge of saying something…after a second he leaned back into the chair, muttering, “Hell, girl,” He looked away from her and though she watched the gears turning rather hard, he lifted his leg and rested it on the seat beside him, leaning his elbow on it and his head in his hand. He gave her another considering look, then back down at the table. “Y’aint gotta worry.” He picked at something on the surface, glanced up at her and back down. “M’ just some crazy guy takin’ ya ‘long for the ride.” His tone was dejected, “That what you wanna hear?”

They paused again, Tabitha setting down the plates with a slight clattering of metal-on-dishware. She glanced between them, brows drawing together. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Daryl said absently.

“Mhmm,” Beth said cheerfully.

Their gazes were captivated by the sight of food.

As soon as the woman left Daryl fell on his food like a man starved. Beth watched for a minute, caught between surprise and fascination as he wolfed down half his burger in a single gratuitous bite and chewed rapturously. She wrinkled her nose at him and said, “Eew, gross,” when he caught her looking, turning back to her own food.

Wasn’t too bad, for a stop-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bar.

She found the dirty-fries worth it, when she stole a few from Daryl’s plate. They were covered with cheese, onions, seasoned beef, tomatoes and some kind of spicy sauce which contrasted wonderfully. Faster than she’d thought he could, Daryl snaked an arm out and slid her plate of fries to his end of the table, picking up a few in his fingers and daring her to protest with mischievous eyes as he swept them through the cheese and sauces left over on his own plate and took a bite.

His grin widened when she looked at him with reproach. With economical motion he took up more fries, swept them through the mess, scooping up some tomatoes and held them out to her across the table. Without thinking about it, she leaned across a little and opened her mouth to take a bite when he pulled them back, eyes glinting. She laughed a little. “Come on,” she chided, almost forgot the cuffs on her wrist, the blood dried in his hair when he brought the fries to her lips. She bit them viciously, grinning triumphantly, pulling stray fry into her mouth with her tongue.

They laughed together while she finished the mouthful, feeling lighter with a full belly and mirth between them.

They could have been any couple, teasing one another over brunch on a road trip.

“So, what’s your plan?” she asked suddenly. He blinked at her, one of her fries halfway to his mouth as he paused, brows drawing together.

“My what?”

“Do you have a plan? To…well,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “to find me a suitable gas-station?” Resuming her normal volume, she continued, “Or get your-self somewhere safe?”

“At the moment? No. First thing’s first: gettin’ away from them an’ I think we might a’ done that. No idea how anyone coulda tracked your car halfway through a state on several highways.”

“So…you think you’re safe?”

He was quiet for a moment. That haunted look filled his eyes as he slowly emptied the water in his glass. “I don’ know.”

Her voice was softer as she asked, “Do you think I’m safe?”

He pulled the straw from his lips and licked them as he regarded her. She could feel the weight of his eyes, see the slow shift of his stare from intent, calculating and into something that left his eyes open like shutters welcoming daylight through.

It might have been hope.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think you might be.”

 

 

It took some convincing but after they’d eaten Daryl’s eyes began drooping in spite of the caffeine he’d just ingested, Beth managed to convince him to look for a place to sleep.

“Even for a few hours,” she said.

After they stretched their legs a little outside the bar, they went back to the gas station and asked about lodging in the area. Daryl didn’t even have to lie when he told the manager he’d been driving all night.

So it was they found themselves several more miles down the road to the outskirts of a town called Lebanon standing outside a cheap Motel. The old wooden sign was chipped-white and sported a single wooden star beneath the words declaring it for what it was.

The building itself sat low on an equally lengthy concrete parking-lot, backed by a stand of pine trees and beyond it was a field of long grass. It was painted rust-brown with white trim, several doors facing outward, bracketed by wide windows between each one. There were four vehicles in the parking lot, a little red four-door, a dark blue van, a jeep and a truck. At the far end of the building was a neon sign declaring “Office,” “Vacancy” and “Open.”

She supposed the last was superfluous given there were vacancies but it didn’t really matter.

Daryl pulled in, parked outside the office and got out after. “Wait here,” he said. With the look in his eyes, worried and somehow vulnerable, it felt more like a request than an order. So she waited.

Several minutes later, he walked out, holding up a pair of jingling keys. He threw her a half-smile as he got back in the car, put the gar back into gear and drove them around to the back. Apparently there was more lot and additional rooms.

It was also conveniently hiding the vehicle from view of the highway.

Looking down at the key, there was a white key-fob with a large black eight. She looked up in time to see the matching door pull closer and immediately got out. She stood outside the car and stretched again, walking around to the trunk as Daryl followed suit.

“Hey,” she called, “gimme the keys or get the trunk.” The look of realization was plain on his face as he came around to the back with her.

“You got luggage?”

She rolled her eyes and smiled, “Well, yeah. Don’t expect me to wear this,” she drew her arms up (cuffs in full view without his jacket) and splayed her fingers in an attempt to gesture at the makeshift halter, “when I’ve got my own stuff, do you?”

He shrugged, flicking eyes down and back up her figure briefly. “You look good,” he said quietly. He blinked and quickly turned to the trunk, jangling the keys as he unlocked it.

She stared for a moment, blushing as she realized why he was suddenly avoiding her gaze. Why the ear she could see through the dark hair was pink. Turning away as a rush of sensory memory and the realization that they were at a motel hit her simultaneously, she drew her arms in against her torso in an effort to fight the shiver threatening to run down her spine and make her head turn hazy with remembered pleasure.

The large window in front of her afforded her a clear view as Daryl lifted the single bag from the trunk.  “Y’ want this too?” She smiled at him in the glass and nodded vigorously. “Good thing I asked to get put up away from everyone.” He moved with an easy grace, shifting the bag over his shoulder and reaching back into the trunk for a curvy case. He shifted this to his opposite shoulder as he walked toward her.

“C’mon,” he murmured as he passed, curling a hand around her elbow to gently urge her forward and through the door.

Inside was about what she expected: white walls, aged green-yellow shag carpet which clashed hideously with the orange flower-print bedding. There was only the one bed, a large queen-sized, bracketed by two small tables, a television atop a stand which looked like it would fall apart if it were touched and a mirror on the wall above a sink opposite the door on the far wall. Beside it was a door, presumably leading into the bathroom.

“You want to shower first or should I?” she asked casually. She watched as he moved first to the television, unplugging it from the wall after careful inspection. She quirked an eyebrow at him but said nothing as he pulled the orange-and-red checkered curtains shut, leaving them in darkness.

As she adjusted to the faint light coming from the edges of the curtain, Daryl moved into the room past her, checking the bathroom and looking behind the door before moving to one of the side-tables and pulling the lamp’s cord. Warm light immediately chased away the shadows and he looked at her again. Looked for a long moment.

He set her luggage at the foot of the bed and said quietly, “you shower first.” His eyes were shadowed by his hair but she felt them on her. Her skin felt warm, aware of him watching her even though she couldn’t see if he was. But she knew: he was.

With as much dignity as she could muster, she walked to him and opened her bag. Blessedly on top of everything was a shower caddy, with small bottles of everything she’d need to wash him from her skin – finally – and hopefully out of her mind.

The bathroom door shut with a soft click.

 

The cuffs softly clanked as she lifted her hands to the shower head, turning the lever there. Water immediately left the spigot and rushed up through the shower head. She smiled brightly at the amount of pressure it exerted, waving a hand through it to test the temperature.

She didn’t care as long as it was warm enough.

Hands now dexterous with the practice, she took off her pants and kicked off everything with her boots. The shirt wasn’t too difficult when she lifted her hands up and over her head to reach the knot at the back of her neck and the waist was easier once she tugged it around to her front.

She let the thing drop to the floor and stepped eagerly into the warm water with a sigh. She closed her eyes and let her face catch the full force of the water, letting it run down her face and neck. Her muscles relaxed when she turned, let the heat sink into them as it ran over her shoulders.

Alone for the first time in what felt like ages, she let the water wash away her stress and strain as best it could, long after the last suds had rinsed her clean.

She was in there for a long time.

 

When she emerged, wrapped in one of the towels because she’d forgotten clothes, she was surprised to find that Daryl had found a blanket and absconded with one of the pillows to make a nest near the door.

“Trying to keep me here?” she asked dryly, bending to grab clothes from her bag.

He sat up and then looked away when he’d gotten a glimpse of the towel.

“No,” she heard him say just before the bathroom door shut behind her again.

 

She re-emerged perhaps twenty minutes later, the halter around her torso one again. She’d fought with a tank top, puzzling to herself and grumbling again at the limits of the handcuffs around her wrist. The puzzle had been too much for her and she wasn’t about to ask Daryl for help getting dressed. The pants she wore weren’t meant for sleeping in, uncomfortable with the implication with Daryl in the room with her, but they were still loose and far more comfortable than the jeans she’d been wearing.

Toweling her hair dry, she smiled softly to herself and re-packed everything back into her overnight bag. Daryl watched her in silence but made no move to get up. Finished, she laid the tank over everything, thinking to herself that she’d perhaps figure something out before they left.

“Thought you were tired of wearin’ m’ shirt?” his rough voice softened in its teasing tone.

She sighed and lifted her arms, jangling the offending contraption, giving him the full weight of her irritation with her eyes. He sighed and slowly stood, holding out his hand and flexing his fingers. “Give it here,” he said gently.

Curious, she handed her shirt to him. Before she could protest, he drew his knife and cut through the straps. “Hey!” she said sharply, taking a breath to say more. Before she could, however, he tugged the material down over her head, slipping it down her torso, trapping her arms down at her front.

“Lift up yer arms,” he instructed as though this were a regular occurrence. She did so, glaring up at him half-heartedly as he held the material in place and tucked it beneath her arms as she lowered them again. Deftly he tied the straps into knots at her shoulders. “Better?” She sighed, admittedly more comfortable in her own things, more securely than the halter and reached up to untie the offending material at her neck, holding her breath when he casually reached up the back of her shirt and tugged the tie at her back free for her. He didn’t linger but she found herself wanting more of the lingering warmth of him despite her best efforts.

“Um. Yeah,” she turned around to face him, realizing it was a bad idea when he was inches from her. “Thanks.” she breathed as he stepped away and took his place by the door once again.

She sat on the bed and then glanced between them. “Wait, why don’t you take the bed? You’re the one driving all night. Or are you that worried about me taking off?”

He shot her a look from his place on the floor, lifting the arm from his forehead as he looked up at her. “This ain’t for you, girl.” He re-settled on the pillow, rested his arm on his forehead as he stared at the ceiling. “Think I lost ‘em but just in case I don’t want ya being the first thing they find in here.”

“That can’t be comfortable.”

Silence.

“It ain’t.”

Beth looked around to find something – anything – she could use and came up with the other pillow. She picked it up and tossed it to him, figuring she could sleep just as well on the mattress without it. More silence for several minutes. Just as her mind had begun wandering, to the road ahead, the now somewhat-awkward memory of his tenderness after they’d fucked in the back of her car.

“Thank you,” he said into the stillness. She looked up at the ceiling, fingers absently stroking her abdomen.

“You’re welcome,” she said softly. She rolled to her side, lifting herself up on her elbows to look at him. He still lay in his nest, hand resting atop his forehead as he stared at the ceiling. “Hey, Daryl?” His eyes slowly met hers in the lamplight. “The door’s locked. You could just sleep up here,” she fought the implications of the unvoiced thought, ‘with me’ while she blushed and looked down at the threads of the mattress sheet. “You’d sleep better.”

He chewed his lower lip and looked at her for a long time. He was considering it, she could tell. He was so exhausted, the weight of what he’d been through. She found her eyes drifting to his lips, unbidden memory riding her as hard as he had – she looked away, turning onto her back once more.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said into the following silence. She waited for him to continue but he didn’t elaborate.

“Why not?”

A sigh, deep and heavy. “I ain’t made a stone, Beth. Bad enough I’d already…” he let his voice trail off as they both avoided the memories she’d been fighting since they got there. “’ve kidnapped ya, stole yer car,” he muttered with a low heat, “put ya in fuckin’ handcuffs for fuck’s sake. I ain’t takin’ advantage a’ you, too.”

“But you did. Fucked me to steal my car,” she said, tone quiet but matter-of-fact.

“Beth," his tone was weighted. Steady. Serious, "look at me.” She did. He’d sat up and was looking at her, met her eyes and held them. Searched them, searched her until she felt like he might be able to see into her. The thought made her want to squirm but she held herself still.

“Y’ think I had to fuck you,” he said quietly, “to steal your car? Girl, I coulda’ dragged you out soon as ya stopped.” He shook his head slowly. “I’d just…thought I was lucky to be alive.” He looked down at his hands and when he continued it was as though the hushed words were drawn from a great depth. “I needed someone, too. ”

“Why?”

“To feel. T' feel alive, feel close t’ someone. Even if it weren’t real. I saw a lonely, beautiful woman who was kind to me. Might as well’ve dropped from th’sky s’ far as I was concerned. She deserved to feel so damn good. T' feel…” he sighed, “It weren’t the same. Weren’t near the same thing yer suggesting.” He fixed his eyes on her again as his words sank in. Sank in and settled somewhere along her spine, between her shoulders, loosening them. A small worry which had tugged at the back of her mind since they arrived loosened and vanished in its wake. She had nothing to fear from him. At least, not like that.

Something soft and pained emanated from his eyes. “What’s more is; you know it.”

“Don’t tell me what I think and feel.”

“Then tell me I’m wrong.”

But she couldn’t. She found herself adrift, unable to say anything. Afraid of what she might say if she could say anything. Of what it might lead to.

There was more silence between them, filling the small room like water filling a bucket until she had to break it, lest she drown. It occurred to her that he hadn’t showered.

“You haven’t showered,” she reminded him gently. He looked down at his hands, pulling up his sleeve to look at his wrist. Sighed and rested it against his stomach, looked back at her.

“I’ll get to it after I wake up.”

“How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Walk around like that: blood in your hair; wrists all torn up – without anyone noticing? When we were…I mean when we…um.” She found herself blushing and wished the light was off so he couldn’t see, bit her lip and looked down at the mattress. “I didn’t even notice you were hurt.”

He was quiet for a beat before laughing softly. “Should I take that as a compliment?”

She blushed harder.

The following silence wasn’t as tense but after several minutes of staring up at the ceiling and listening to his breathing, she got the idea that neither of them were drifting off any time soon. “Daryl,” she whispered softly.

“Yeah,” he said, a little louder than she had.

“Can you sleep?”

More silence. Another sigh.

“Not really.”

“Why are you still…?”

“I keep – I keep thinkin',” he spoke into the quiet, “'Bout you. ‘Bout Merle. ‘Bout how he –

He broke off the sentence and the silence was thicker when he curled into himself, covered his eyes with his hand with his face twisted in grief. Her heart ached for him, despite being her captor. Distantly she wondered if this was what Stockholm syndrome was.

Without waiting for his approval or disapproval, she got up and leaned over the end of the bed, dragging up her case. Zippered inside was a guitar, an acoustic. She glanced at him but he hadn’t noticed, so she gently strummed the strings and awkwardly tuned an off-key string with the guitar in her lap. Taking a deep breath, she began to play.

It was simple finger-plucking high along the fret: the cuffs only allowed so much space for her to form the chords and manage plucking strings at the same time, but the simple act of holding the treasure soothed her in ways the shower hadn’t reached.

Fitting to the mood, she played a gentle, slow melody. Tones deep and meandering like a ghost through bare trees in winter. Haunting.

She felt Daryl’s eyes on her like weight against her skin. The air was thick with questions fought by the melody she played and she ignored it, choosing to immerse herself in what she was doing. “I play music when I can’t sleep. You don’t want any radio or anything, so…”

She began to sing softly, the lyrics coming to her easily, paced like a dirge; far slower than that of the original song. As she sang to Daryl, to herself, she sought to fill it with compassion, with hope and tenderness. She sang as though she were soothing a beast.

All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are

“Come on, baby, don't fear the reaper
Baby take my hand, don't fear the reaper
We'll be able to fly, don't fear the reaper
Baby, I'm your woman…”

She hummed the tune to the interlude, finger-picking more intricate in sounds that seemed to tie knots upon themselves, winding in and out, swaying with the beat she couldn’t hear.

“Valentine is done
Here but now they're gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity
Romeo and Juliet
Redefine happiness
We can be like they are

“Come on, baby, don't fear the reaper
Baby, take my hand, don't fear the reaper
We'll be able to fly, don't fear the reaper
Baby, I'm your woman…”

She heard the rustle of blankets again, glanced over to see Daryl lying down against the pillows, looking at her with an intensity she couldn’t name. She continued, humming the interlude again as she plucked he strings. As she watched, his eyes softened, grew wet with tears. He turned away. Though she couldn’t see him, she kept singing. She gave him the privacy of the grief she felt was real and what comfort her singing might afford him.


“Love of two is one
Here but now they're gone
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear that he couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew and then disappeared
The curtains flew and then she appeared, saying don't be afraid

“Come on, baby and he had no fear
And she ran to him, then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodbye
He had become like they are
She had taken his hand, she had become like they are
Come on, baby, don't fear the reaper
Baby, take my hand, don't fear the reaper
We'll be able to fly, don't fear the reaper
Baby, I'm your woman.”

As the last notes and syllables trembled in the air she inhaled deeply, felt as though she’d been in a kind of trance and was just waking. The last remnants of tension had left her, a feeling of fulfillment, of satisfaction emanated from her core. She sighed with content.

Looking to find him once again facing her, lying on his side, sleeping soundly, she looked at him, how his features softened in sleep. It smoothed the faint stress lines and made him look younger.

She wondered, suddenly, how old he was. But it didn’t matter; hadn’t mattered when she’d so readily given her consent in the back seat of her car. With that last thought and the reminder provided by her wrists, she set her guitar beside her on the bed and turned to her side, facing him, and despite the sleep she’d gotten in her car she found herself drifting off too.

Chapter Text

The warmth enveloped her, washed away the fears she’d been drowning in but she felt safe in the water. The fire couldn’t reach her here. Except, perhaps it could. It was there, in his eyes. His eyes burned into her, left scorch marks upon her skin and where it sizzled and crackled her flesh she felt only desire burn into her. The demons, held for once at bay, looked out of his eyes but didn’t look into her.

It was still Daryl looking into her eyes, had always been, but he was no longer in whatever hell she’d glimpsed trapped behind his, seeming awakened now to the sight of her, though she’d been the only person he’d looked at for hours, for days. She might have been the only woman in the world.

“Why,” she breathed, “do you look at me that way?”

“Like what?”

“Like – like you’ve escaped from hell? Or like I’m some kind of angel?”

“But I did escape from hell, girl. Thought…” his eyes trailed over her face, her brow, her eyes and the trail of tears down her cheeks as they blended with the water. Her lips. For a moment she felt as lost in his violent history as he was.

“I thought,” he whispered, “I’d never taste anythin’ so sweet as you.”

Warm lips pressed to hers, taking, tasting gentle and slow, an exploration which was somehow tender and sweet and desperate, tongue teasing at her lip and then inside, curling into her mouth in that stolen moment that left her breathless.

Lost.

The slide of lips and tongue sent an ache through the core of her, a tension which both fled and rose at his touch she hadn’t known was even there. Her hands threaded through his and he gripped them firm between his own, pulled her closer against his body. He backed her into the wall and she slid against the hard wet tiles, parting her thighs for him as he moved a knee between them.

He released her hands after he pressed them to the wall above her, slid them greedily down her arms, trailing over her underarms and pausing at her neck, where he leaned in with his lips and tongue. She moaned at his touch, his scent filling her, biting into her soft flesh gently as he groaned around the mouthful of her in answer. Those large callused hands splayed wide, curved down over her breasts as though he couldn’t touch enough of her, framed her ribs and traced with surprising delicacy along her sides and hips with exploring fingertips. The backs of his fingers stroked down her hips and thighs, slid back up with his palms to curl around and cup her ass. He pick her up as he ground himself into her, his hard cock sliding against her heated core. She sighed at the contact, heard her voice echo in the small space.

He pulled back and looked at her, into her eyes. The demons were gone, chased away by another kind of darkness. Her breath trembled, the steam making her lightheaded, pressed as she was between him and the harder tile. He leaned in and kissed her tenderly, trailed his lips down her jaw to her throat. “Beth, girl, you’re so fucking sweet.” Hard teeth and tongue scraped her shoulder. “You’re too good to me, you know that?” A hand slid around her front to rest between her thighs, cupping her, rubbing a sweet friction over her in a wide path that sent her arms circling his shoulders for support.

She lifted her hands and threaded them through his wet hair as she pulled him down for a kiss, searing and deep. She was overcome, the gentle fall of the warm water over her heated skin mixing deliciously with the slide of his mouth against hers, his hands working over her in slow firm strokes and it all sent her eyes rolling back as she trembled on a gasp which he swallowed. Her voice broke as he slid those thick fingers deep into her wet folds, his movements echoed by his tongue as both probed deep and curled to sweep tantalizingly upward. “I’ don’ deserve you, girl.” The whisper came as if floating in the steam, into her ear like a tender whisper, “Sweet as a goddamned Georgia peach. You deserve this, deserve to feel this, you’re so fuckin’ good to me. M’ gonna keep you safe girl, gonna get you home, I promise, I got you, you’re gonna feel so good. Come for me, come – oh God, girl! Yes –  

Her hands clenched in his hair, wrapped legs squeezed, pressing herself into him, desperate for an anchor as she broke apart between the twin sensations of him and the shocking realization that he’d never stopped kissing her.

 

A strangled cry cracked in the air and she wrenched her eyes open, heart pounding as she fought for breath, fought the trembling of her limbs, an echo of pleasure spiking through her. When her breathing had steadied, she propped herself up on an elbow to look around. She was still in the motel room, its dirty-white walls and bad color scheme dim in the light of the lamp beside her bed. With a glance at the window, she realized it was the sole source of light in the room; no light filtered in through the curtain. She brought her hand up to cover her mouth and her blush when she realized what had woken her – her heart pounding at the thought of waking Daryl as she had herself.

But she was blessedly alone. Daryl’s nest was now draped over her, his scent wrapping her from both the blanket and the pillow she’d given him before they’d slept. He was nowhere to be seen. She brushed her fingers over it, a little nervous at the thought of him touching her in her sleep, blushed furiously as she wondered if she’d said anything.

She shifted beneath the blankets, grateful for their presence when the warm air wafted her scent back to her – she could smell her own arousal, light and faintly sharp-sweet and looked toward the bathroom door with trepidation. The sound of running water was just loud enough she figured she’d heard it in her sleep. As she listened her face flared with more heat when she heard a quiet, deep, slow groan echo off the walls.

She’d done no less while taking her shower, lingering in the reliving heat.

Swinging her legs over the edge of the mattress, she strode to the sink, glancing at the door. Quickly as she could, fearful he’d exit any minute, she took a fresh hand towel and dampened it, cleaning herself and straightening her clothes and hair afterwards. Silently she cursed the clank of the handcuffs.

Leaving the towel rinsing in the sink, she applied some toiletries and put them away, wondering what to do with herself. She eyed her guitar leaning against the side-table for a moment, picked it up and nearly sat down before it occurred to her.

Daryl was in the shower. She looked everywhere with her eyes, looking for any sign of her car keys and found none. Spotting his jacket on the floor by the door, she went to it and rifled through the pockets, finding nothing.

They must be in his jeans, she thought to herself. Those were clearly in the bathroom with him. She couldn’t drive herself out of here, especially handling a stick-shift with the handcuffs still on.

But it was a simple thing to quietly walk out the motel room’s door.

Outside the sky had darkened and the stars were just beginning to emerge. The highway wasn’t visible from this side of the building but the field and trees beyond were dark giants against the sky, a looming presence at the back of the lot which cast shadows in dark heavy bars against the walkway beneath the eaves of the motel.

She walked quickly, trying not to make a sound. Her heart pounded a rapid staccato in her chest, hair sliding over her eyes as the breeze kicked up. She stopped, listening for sounds of the pursuit she feared. But there was nothing.

Air filled her lungs, soothed her nerves as she continued to breathe deeply. It sounded like Daryl had perhaps only just entered the shower; he wasn’t going to discover she was gone so soon unless he was taking a three minute military-style wash.

Which was possible, she conceded. Her feet moved faster along the concrete walkway.

The rooms at the back of the motel were all dark as she passed them, except for the window of the office, which was her destination. She knocked on the back door and tried the knob, finding it open.

The room was small, a back-entrance with a small sink and cupboard, presumably for washing dirt and grime off shoes. The walls were of blonde wood paneling and off-white stucco. The office space was obviously better-maintained than the rooms themselves. An industrial-sized washing machine was rumbling in the corner next to the door, banging rhythmically against the anterior wall. There was a door opposite the one she’d just entered. Shutting the door behind her and locking it just in case he followed soon, she ran to the next, hope flaring like bright sunshine in her chest.

She opened the door and encountered the rest of the office. The walls were the same, ceiling false squares that somehow still held a slowly spinning ceiling fan. It was crooked, swinging, causing the shadows of the room to constantly shift disorientingly in the movement of the light.

The counter at the far end was clean and neat with its little bell perched next to the welcome sign and a sign-in form on a clipboard with several stacks of paper on the lower counter-space behind it and a computer. But no phone.

“Hello?” she called, “Anybody here?” There was no answer, so she continued, walking around the high barrier of shelves creating a short hallway from the door to the office proper.

She cast her eyes about closer, encountering a desk with a padded chair and more papers. She glanced up in annoyance at the shifting light, which made her have to look again before she spotted the dark-laquered phone cradle. It sat on the edge of the desk, the cord and handset dangling off the other side.

Walking towards it, rounding the desk as she did so, she registered a rhythmic, high-pitched electronic sound as her eyes followed the cord down to the floor. She got down on her knees as she reached for it, felt something liquid and warm soaking into her pants.

She looked down. She knelt in a red liquid. Her heart stopped, breath arrested. Her eyes followed its trail, followed the cord she still held in her fingertips around the other end of the desk and found herself face-first with a large man on his back in an ever-increasing pool of blood.

The phone was held in his grasp, mouth open and eyes glassy as he listened to the high-pitched metallic sound of a phone off the cradle too long. It was that constant, irritating sound which slowly penetrated her shock. Numb, she reached forward and though she knew it was useless, she reached with two fingers for his neck and felt a distinct lack of pulse. Tears pricked her eyes when she realized he was still warm.

She drew back, leaving the phone and slowly moving her head around to look through the windows, at the door, the dark corners which wavered and could hold anything. Her heart resumed its pounding and her eyes burned with tears she refused to shed. Scrambling away on hands and knees before getting up, she raced for the back door and out into the night, holding a hand over her mouth to hold in the sobs tightening her throat.

The shadows felt threatening and sinister as she ran, heart in her throat and lungs burning, feet slapping with light sound but sound nonetheless and she paused, trembling, to force herself to go quietly on her toes lest she be found.

She reached their room’s door and fumbled with the knob, sliding off at first with slick blood, before wrenching it open, stopping just inside with the door still open to the night behind her.

Daryl stood just outside the bathroom door in front of the sink, hair wet and dripping onto the shoulders of his shirt while he ran a white towel over his scalp. “Hey girl,” his voice rumbled with warmth, smoother with rest, “didn’t realize ya’d left.” The towel lifted and he smiled at her.

He seemed looser, like some tension he’d been carrying had lifted. It struck her like a bolt of lightning, the thought seeded by a documentary her brother had made her watch ages ago, that her psychotic kidnapper had – Ohgod, he –

He finished scrubbing at his scalp through the towel with vigor and as he straightened to his full height, wincing slightly as he flexed his shoulders, he took in her reflection. “Beth, where did…” his voice trailed off.  She could see it, too: a streak of blood on her cheek, eyes impossibly wide in her face and her mouth slack. She was visibly trembling and her pants were soaked with dark liquid from her knees and all the way down her shins. The white parts of her sneakers were bright red with more blood.

His brows drew lower and he turned, striding closer to her. She stepped back and he paused, hand reaching toward her halting in midair. “What happened?” There was an air of dread threading the demand in his flat voice, as if he already expected the answer.

“I-I found the – the body,” her throat closed around tears and she brought her hands to her face, covering her mouth as she tried to stifle her reaction. His face grew slack and white, eyes widening slightly. “Was it – did you?” Her eyes spilled tears helplessly as she realized he’d just washed the evidence off in the shower. For a moment, he was still.

Then he exploded into fluid motion. The towel dropped and he surged forward, bending as he passed to grab her bag, tossed it to her. She caught it, cradled to her chest and he grabbed her arm, turning her roughly to push her out the door.

“Ain’t me, s’ Them,” he growled in her ear as they moved.

She stumbled dumbly in his wake, legs moving like a young gazelle as she tried to keep up with him. He paused briefly in the doorway to glance to either direction but other than hers, there were no other cars visible in this side of the lot.

They moved swiftly and silently to the car just outside their door. He pulled the keys out of his jean pocket, unlocking the driver’s side door and pushing her inside with the bag, barely giving her time to scoot to the far side before he crowded in after her, shut the door with a firm quiet click and cranked the engine.

Beth let the bag fall to the floor in front of her when she realized her guitar was still in the room. “My guitar!” she squeaked frantically, unlocking and lurching out of the passenger door while Daryl protested.

She felt the air move behind her and guessed he’d tried to stop her. She glanced back and saw his wide scared eyes and furrowed brow as she ran to the door. Sparing a glance for the building, it was still dark on this side. Still no signs of anyone. She darted into the room, grabbed her case and ran back to the car, shoving it through the still-open door into the back over the front seat and throwing herself in after it, landing nearly in his lap on the bench seat.

Daryl had the vehicle moving before she’d even gotten the door shut, which she reached up to do just before an arm snapped out and grabbed her elbow to pull her down into his lap. “Stay down,” he hissed as he guided the car around to turn, eyes searching the darkness for a back exit from the lot and cursing when he found none. “Y’ shouldn’a gone back,” he muttered. She said nothing but cautiously lifted her head and watched the building as they rounded the corner. The cars she’d noted were all there. In fact, there were a couple more cars than she remembered when they’d pulled in this morning, their dark forms resembling a four-door and an SUV.

There were lights on in all of the rooms a car was still parked in front of, excepting the two strange ones. The light fell on the hoods of the strange cars making them gleam bright. She could almost make out a pattern, some sort of design on the side of the four-door before movement caught her full attention.

A figure came out of the doorway the van had parked in front of. Silhouetted in the back-lighting, the figure looked tall and broad, male and muscular. No hair she could see, he appeared bald or close-shaven. Pale skin gleamed beneath the light, contrasted aganst the dark clothes she could make out in shadow. He stopped and while she couldn’t know, she felt him watching them as they accelerated toward the highway. The back of her neck prickled at the sensation like cold water slowly dripping down her spine.

“Stay down!” he exclaimed frantically, roughly placing a hand atop her head to push her back down.

Daryl gasped and moaned high in his throat. Alarmed, Beth shifted to look at him. He’d lifted his hand to his face, covering one eye in a clawed grip, wheel shifting. Before they could crash, Beth reached out and quickly steadied the wheel, pressing herself into his side as she leaned upward to look out the windshield.

His moan gave way to shallow breaths, easing as they pulled onto the highway. He took a steadying breath and opened his eyes, taking control of the wheel again. “’Leggo, got it,” he croaked, pushing the pedal all the way down.

They were speeding down the blacktop as if the very fires of hell were behind them.

“You alright?” she asked. He glanced at her.

“Headache. Been gettin’ em ever since They got me. Hadn’t for a while, thought maybe they’d gone.” Her brows drew together.

“That – that was them?”

He nodded gravely, sharp eyes on the road, on the rear-view. He drove with the headlights off and the road was blessedly empty. She glanced back and didn’t see anyone. It all looked a little familiar.

“Where are we going?”

“Back south a ways, just til I find someplace t’ turn ‘round. Bein’ followed?”

She looked back through the rear window and saw the slowly shrinking light of the motel sign.

“Just the motel.”

“Y’ lemme know when y’ can’ see it no more.”

She did and he took a turn down the first side-road he could find. They drove it in silence and she clutched her guitar to her chest like it was a lifeline. Her eyes were wide as they stared blankly out the window, lost in memories of blood on the floor and a man’s glassy dead eyes pleading to her for help that never came.

She distantly felt the vehicle shift and turn in a loop and the dizziness left her head aching for a moment. Her eyes closed, fingers pressed to her temples with arms still around the neck of her instrument.

“Need ya t’ stay down, girl. Don’ want ‘em seein’ ya if I can help it.”

Dumbly she nodded and placed the guitar on the floor of the front seat and laid down, resting her head against his thigh and extending her arms til she could brush her fingers against the strings.

After they’d apparently picked a direction and stuck with it for a while, her vertigo eased. “See anything?”

He looked into the rear-view mirror, adjusting it a few times before he seemed satisfied. “Nah, y’ can come on up.”

She sat up and curled once more around her guitar, staring at the dull gleam of the handcuffs in the light from the dash. It cast an eerie green glow against the interior surfaces of the vehicle, making it seem nearly an alien transport from some science fiction film.

She shifted her gaze to Daryl, taking in his swiftly drying hair, the clean lines of his jaw and nose. Whether it was the light from the dash rendering him pale or the sleep he’d gotten, the tension in his shoulders and around his eyes belied the rested cast of his features.

She turned and looked into the darkness before them. The road was rough and gravelly, hidden several feet before them under the star-light-stealing fog that suddenly surrounded them. Daryl tensed beside her and they both watched the roiling mist with suspicion until she relaxed.

At her sigh he glanced at her. “What?”

“It’s just fog Daryl. Probably some creek ahead, a dip in the road, somewhere the mist can settle at night.” As if on cue the road did indeed slope downward and he let out a sigh of relief. He slowed, cautious of their limited vision in the face of their flight.

As the seconds ticked by along with the miles, Beth felt herself crumple inward, shape held up by the instrument held in her arms like a child’s soft toy. Visions of blood and sightless eyes drilled into her brain and she lifted a hand to again stifle her sobs.

Gentle fingers tentatively touched her shoulder and she didn’t register them, so overwhelmed by grief. For the stranger she couldn’t save, for the horror she’d felt like the blood beneath her fingers, staining something inside of her with its dead heartbeat.

Fingers reached her – reached her – as they slid around her shoulder and drew her close to his side. His arm curled around her shoulders and cradled the back of her head, easing her into his chest. She clung tighter to the instrument, pressed the side of her face into his shoulder, tears tightening the knots inside her instead of loosening, caught in the back of her throat.

She wept in halting choked sobs, quiet as whispers. She wept, for the  vision of her father waiting and wondering and worrying for her. For the sister who’d scold her while she held her as this strange man tried. The home she’d been so close to before –

Hands shaking she shifted the guitar in her arms, drawing them up over its neck and grasping it in her hands. Something dark coiled inside her as she remembered her family, trembled as she fought to keep her breath steady. Slowly she pulled away from Daryl’s arm and lifted the guitar, turning to stow it safely in the back seat.

She looked down at the leather seat, memories of blinding passion fisting the coil in its grip and set fire to her veins. Still slowly and carefully, she looked at Daryl and shifted, bracing herself with a knee beneath her, the other firmly planted on the floor. He was staring ahead at the road with both hands again on the wheel. As she watched he took in a slow, deep breath, chest rising slowly.

The tension in the car had steadily ratcheted up until she realized: he knew.

It didn’t matter. It mattered more.

With the force of her anger she struck.

The lunge was inexpert but her twin fists slammed down on his arm with the hard edge of the handcuffs. It landed, crumpling his elbow and jerking the wheel as his fist was forced off it. She struck again and again at his arm, head and shoulder as he blocked her with an upraised arm, deflecting the blows and trying to grab her. She twisted her arms free before he could fully grasp her, moving with a speed she hadn’t known she was capable of.

She’d never fought someone like this.

The vehicle lurched to a stop and slid, fishtailing as he slammed the brakes and tried to pin her to the seat. Her foot braced on the floor slid on something and it was his arm catching her which kept her head from smacking the dash.

She twisted free of him, sliding further away to the passenger door. He took advantage of her retreat to jerk the parking brake into lock; she only eyed the door for a moment before opening the door and flinging herself headlong onto the ground outside.

It was jarring and she kicked at reaching hands, sliding painfully against the gravel  before she pushed up onto hands and knees and scrambled to her feet. She’d gotten barely two steps and the heavy bulk of him slammed into her from above.

A sharp cry let out as she dropped like a stone beneath his weight, all elbows and knees and clawed fingers as she struggled. His hands closed on her arms like a vice and she screamed, roared like a wildcat as she struggled against him.

His weight was too great and pinned beneath him as she was she could only scream at him, into his face as tears fell from her eyes. She never stopped struggling and he held her down, held her with bitter tears threatening to fall on her while he glanced around and looked nervously down the road they’d come. She struggled like caught prey in the relentless grip of a predator.

She didn’t know how long she roared wordlessly in defiance and helpless rage against her captor until words bubbled up and spilled out. He flinched first and then it was as though he’d pulled away into himself and watched her patiently as she spilled her bile at him. “It’s your fault, your fault – all your fault, fuck you you sonuvabitch this is your fault you took me away you killed him,” his gaze sharpened on her as she continued without pause, “why’d you kill him he’d done nothing to you I could’ve gone home I just needed the phone you didn’t have to kill him, God you sick sonuva –

“That’s enough, I ain’t –

“ – bitch is this some kind of game to you –

“M’ tryin’ t keep ya alive  –

“Am I a game to you, do you enjoy it? Gonna kill me too?” he gripped her arms tighter and shook her once, face stricken. “How long’ve I got,” she continued mockingly, talking over him, “till you kill me like him?”

“Kill you – you think I could –

“Did you enjoy it?” She kicked again, tried to throw him off and only succeeded in slamming her head into the dirt beneath her and saw stars. “Did you?” she whispered as they swirled.

His weight lifted off her and she was pulled roughly to her feet, spun around and held tight in his arms with her back against him and arms trapped against her chest as she struggled again. He lifted her from her feet and in three quick strides she was pressed into the trunk of a tree, his hot breath in her ear and hands at the back of her neck and shoulders.

That’s enough,” he whispered vehemently, “I am tired, Beth. Tired a’ drivin’. Tired a runnin’ for m’ life, tired a’ being terrified and right now I am sick an’ tired a’ being accused a’ murder when I’m tryin’ t’ keep ya alive.” He leaned his head against the back of hers, took a deep breath. “That’s what you think of me? Think I’m a stone-cold killer?” He lifted his head and looked her in the eye. “Hmm?”

She looked at him, still trembling from adrenaline and something like shock, resting beneath his arms. “I’m so scared, Daryl,” she whispered, voice sounding every bit as lost as she felt. His thumb brushed the back of her neck and the pressure he exerted eased a little. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. I don’t know if you’re helping me, like you say you are. I don’t know if you’re crazy.”

“Have I hurt you?”

“You kidnapped me –

“We’ll argue that later – Have. I. Hurt. You?” She blinked and her eyes went distant as she replayed their altercations in her mind’s eye. Even just now, he’d only ever restrained her.

“No,” she whispered slowly, “No you haven’t.”

“D’you remember what I said t’ you?”

She refocused on him, whispered, “You said you’d get me somewhere safe. Then you’d let me go.”

He nodded slowly at her, “Yeah, I did. I meant it.” Hands now gentle, he eased her off the rough bark and laid light hands on her shoulders as she turned to face him. “I ain’t no killer.”

Her eyes stung with tears as she looked up into his face, eyes open and earnest, pleading silently for her belief, for her trust. He lifted his hand, swept a thumb through the trail of tears on her cheek. She felt the grainy texture when he gently brushed at the streak of drying blood near her mouth. The reminder was her undoing: she leaned forward and buried her face in his chest, hands clenched in his shirt.

After a moment’s hesitation he wrapped her in his arms, whispering into her hair like he was soothing a spooked horse, “It’s alright girl, I got you, I got you, you’re alright. M’ gonna keep you safe. Gonna get you home. I promise.” He repeated it like a litany and held her while she wept for several moments, though it could have been any length of time.

 His thumb behind her ear in little rapid swirls, catching her attention and helping her wake from the fog of emotion. “We gotta to, Beth.”

They walked quickly back to the still-running car together and got in. Beth leaned against his side, slowly calming further the longer she leaned into him. He pulled away from the roadside and drove them into the shrouded dark.

Chapter Text

They were on the road, turning every half hour or so in a new direction and heading generally west and northward. The winding snake of the trail they followed wound though pale fields, upward into dark and shadowy hills and out into vast empty plains and oddly placed farmland. They’d stayed off of main roads and highways, keeping to gravel and dirt roads. Sometimes they paralleled a highway but only long enough for Daryl to regain his bearings and turn them in whatever direction he’d chosen.

They hadn’t said anything for a while and as exhausted as she was, Beth wasn’t certain she’d need to. Guilt closed her throat, sinking into her stomach through her chest as she occasionally glanced at the bruises blossoming on Daryl’s arm and cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

He glanced at her. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” she said a little louder. “For –

“Had worse,” he muttered.

“Still, you didn’t deserve that.”

More silence.

“You alright,” he asked suddenly.

He didn’t need to explain what he was asking. She shuddered and flexed her fingers against the memory of slick blood and a still-warm body beneath them. She wanted to shower again, get the blood off her and out of her. Wished desperately she could go back and play her guitar instead of leaving the room.

“I’m fine.”

“No, Y’aint.” He reached over and gently grasped her hand, gave it a small squeeze before releasing her. “You’re still shakin'.”

She reached back and grabbed her guitar, leaning half against his side to make room for it. As she plucked the strings and turned the keys to tune it needlessly, she said, “Yeah. I’m still shaking. I just saw –

She couldn’t finish the sentence. So she finished tuning the strings.

“Why d’ you think I did it?”

She stiffened, eyes shifted over to him again but he was resolutely staring into the darkness ahead of them. “I don’t think –

“Don’t bullshit. You don’t trust me. So, c’mon let’s hear it.”

Strings reverberated dully as she drummed a set of fingers against them. “I found him. Thought maybe you’d killed him while I was sleeping. Took a shower to hide the evidence.”

“You were asleep when I got in there.”

She nodded. “Yeah. A – a dream,” images of water flowing over their skin, his hands tracing lower on her body as he held her flashed through her head and she didn’t blush this time, “woke me. Decided to go for a walk.”

“To run off.”

She blushed, annoyed at being ashamed. “You blame me?”

“Nah. S’what I’d do in your place.” Voice lowered a little, tone grave, “So…how’d you find ‘im?”

She recounted the event in halting sentences, reaching for his hand which gripped hers gently when she described the blood and the body.

“I checked his pulse, just to be sure. He was still warm, but...” She shivered.

Daryl’s eyes narrowed and cut to her, gaze intent. “You touched the body?”

She brushed a tear away and nodded. “Yeah, I did, why?” He cursed and let go of her hand to twist his fists, white knuckled, around the steering wheel. His eyes clenched shut for a moment as he growled and cursed again, his agitation exasperating. “What?” she asked sharply.

He slammed his head back into the seat, wincing with the angle. “Gonna make it harder, girl.”

“What? Why?”

“Cause if the cops get there, they’ll be lookin’ for ya, get your fingerprints. If – if the body’s still there. Hell, they’re probably lookin’ for ya anyway.”

“Guess so.”

In the following silence, Beth played a simple tune which somehow made it better this time, draining the tension away with plucked strings. The melody she played wound through the small space and Daryl relaxed next to her and finally glanced over.

“Wouldn’t have had time, you know.”

She looked up from the strings. “For what?”

“To kill ‘im.”

She blinked, guilt rising again like illness in her throat.

“Do you really think,” he continued gently, “I’d have time to wake up, kill the guy and come back to shower, just before you found ‘im? Still warm like that?”

She shook her head, doubting him. Doubting herself and so many things she did and didn’t know. “I don’t know,” she breathed uncertainly. In the awkward silence that followed, she began strumming the strings again, trying to soothe her nerves.

“Why’d you do it?”

She looked up let the melody die in her fingertips and fingered the small band of beaded cord dangling from the neck of the instrument, ran loving fingers along the wood. Though well-kept and still varnished there was something about it that suggested age, if one didn’t know its history. But they’d be right; it was an older guitar.

“Do what?”

“Go back for the guitar. Could’ve gotten us caught, killed. Like to know what you risked our lives for.”

“It was my Mothers.”

There was silence again and this time no music played to ease the settling sadness in the air.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured into the stillness, “When did it happen?” She tilted her head, questions spoken by her eyes before voiced.

“How do you –

“Lost mine, too.”

“Oh.” Beth sighed and slowly ran her fingers along the strings, gripped the neck and pressed her forehead to it, inhaling as though she’d find someone else’s scent there. Someone who could comfort her.

Someone gone.

“Two years ago. She was in the hospital with pneumonia and got a secondary infection. They didn’t catch it in time and she just…slipped away.”

“‘Secondary infection?’”

“Something on a needle they’d used,” her voice was distant, automatic and detached, “An issue with packaging that didn’t get recalled in time. They almost fired the person on staff but it wasn’t really their fault and it wouldn’t have brought her back or anything. Tried suing the company but I bet you could guess how that went.”

The strings vibrated again as she strummed them. “Mom gave this to me, used to play and sing for me when we were little. So when I turned eighteen she gave it to me for my birthday. Didn’t want a car or nothing. But I got this,” she patted the dash, “and the guitar and some money for furniture.”

Daryl raised an eyebrow at her, thumbed the scruff on his chin as he watched her out of the corner of his eye.

“I was going to college in Atlanta that fall. They’d helped me get an apartment with some friends.” She fell silent.

“What happened?”

“After that?” she shrugged, “It was silly. Met Zack and thought my life was perfect. He was there, when she got sick, helped me though everything, even came with me to the funeral.” Her eyes grew distant as she watched the scenes he could only imagine in his mind’s eye behind her own. “Maggie was the stoic one while Daddy broke down and nearly drowned himself in liquor again. Shaun picked him up from the ‘drunk-tank’ while I was away at college. Tried to come home and see them, but Maggie wouldn’t let me. Said ‘Bethy, you don’t want to see Daddy like this’ and told me to keep studying.”

“Bet that was hard.”

Her head nodded and she kept staring at the light on the dash though she didn’t see it. “It was. After the funeral, Zack and I kept going out. I moved in with him, wanted to find that family-feeling. I couldn’t focus on my studies and blew it during finals. He didn’t get it, thought I should’ve been okay, that I had plenty of time for studying but he couldn’t know I wasted a bunch of time playing Mamma’s guitar. I should have studied more, I know it. But all I can remember feeling is like I was going through the motions. Like I wasn’t living. Like it didn’t matter. And – after – he never looked at me the same. Said he missed the bright happy girl he fell in love with and didn’t understand why I couldn’t just be happy, be happy with him, like it was my fault I couldn’t stop feeling that way.”

“This the same idiot that left you?”

She nodded, taking a deep breath and finally, finally looking at him. His gaze was measuring, considering and she felt the car slow before he glanced at the road. There was nothing to see out there beyond the considerable bright of the headlights he’d finally turned on when they reached a paved road heading back north.

“And you stayed with him. For two years?”

“Yeah. We fell apart, the more I tried to hold it together. I tried; I really did, to be happy for him. He got angry and started avoiding me whenever I got emotional.

“That when he started avoiding you all the time?”

She nodded. “He kicked me out. Just told me to go, like I wanted when Momma died. Said he’d have my stuff shipped to me and handed me my bag and guitar and told me ‘to get the fuck out.’ That I’d left him over a year ago and he was tired of going through the motions. That he was,” she sniffed and brushed a hand under her eyes, “Late for a date with ‘someone who actually wanted to live with him.’”

She laughed and it was a bitter sound that strangled her next words, “You must think I’m a real idiot, don’t you?”

Like it mattered, what he thought of her. It struck her as strange but it was a drop in the bucket and she couldn’t bring herself to care anymore. Her ‘strange’ bucket was just as full as the memories and emotions that filled her throat and eyes with tears. She jumped when warmth slid over her hand unexpectedly and she looked down.

Daryl’s hand had slid over hers, resting light on her skin though his warmth radiated and seeped into her. She looked up at him and found his face turned to the road. He flicked his eyes to her briefly and her heart ached both more and less when she saw the tears there. She kept looking, heart in her throat when he re-focused on the road. As his tears spilled and flowed silently down his cheeks he brushed his thumb over the back of her hand.

“No, Beth,” he said quietly, “you’re not. You’re a beautiful soul.”

She only watched him for a while and as intended, his touch and strange compassion eased the sadness that clung to her until she felt drained in that way one does after a nap, like waiting to be filled.

Daryl’s hand moved up to finger her wrist and ran over the warmed metal. Eyes once again peaceful though the evidence was still on his cheeks, he turned them to her and said words that sounded like music from her guitar, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Let’s get these cuffs off.”

 

 

“You see anyone?’

“Nah. Let’s do this.”

They opened the door a little wider. It was around six a.m. and they’d found a hardware store in a small town in Missouri after driving most of the night. Daryl hadn’t been plagued by any more headaches and seemed to take that as a good sign, though he was wary of following vehicles once the highways filled with commuting traffic.

In the wee hours of the morning, Beth had played her guitar as best she was able, which was considerable given her limited mobility. She did it to celebrate the prospect of getting the handcuffs off and to try to keep the mood in the car light. Sometimes she sang, noting how quiet and still Daryl seemed to get when she did and wondered why. He only shook his head when she asked, nodded to her and urged her to go on. “Keep singin’” he’d said.

The building was surrounded by gravel which crunched beneath the tires, so they’d left the car parked behind a sign advertising Coca-Cola which would have been a blank white if it faded any further and cur through a field of grass to reach the back of the store.

With the arrival of an employee, they’d hung back near the dumpster and watched while he pulled out a set of keys, opened the door and went inside to begin the business of opening the establishment. Daryl had waved her onward as he walked casually forward, silently signaling for her to stop when they reached the door. He paused, listening before he cautiously pushed it open.

Inside were piles of boxes and palettes and what looked like piping. The exposed ceiling displayed air ducts and wires galore as well as hanging fluorescent lights, all copper and silvery aluminum.

Silently she followed several steps behind while Daryl walked confidently down the back walkways of the department store. There was an office and he heard the skriiitch of a chair being scraped across the floor and hesitated.

He turned and mouthed, ‘Go back’ at her and she nodded, falling back to the back door and hovering near the entrance.

Almost ten minutes later, Daryl emerged from the back door and quickly walked toward the field, Beth joining him from behind the garbage containers. At his side hung the largest set of bolt-cutters she’d ever seen. The handles alone were as long as his arm and easily as thick as her wrist. They could have been garden shears.

They might be garden shears.

They broke into a trot once they reached the field and into a run once the car was in sight again. Daryl tossed it through the open window into the back floorboard and once they quickly got in, they drove out of there as quickly as they could.

Several miles later they found an open field and got out once more. With the dry waving grass surrounding them, the little hill topped with a lone tree and silence – they’d long abandoned the main highway in order to find relative privacy to complete their task – Beth eagerly found a large stone to brace the cuffs against.

She knelt on the ground and looked up, trepidation filling her at the sight of him. In the early morning light with his hair and shadows hiding his eyes and days-old scruff on his chin, jacket removed and sleeveless white shirt clinging to his torso, jeans loose and held in place with a belt, knife on display at his hip and large shears in his hands, he looked like he could be a serial killer.

But then, he gave her a half-smile and knelt before her, laying the shears beside him to examine the handcuffs. They showed no signs of wear or tear, though Beth’s wrists still sported light marks from her initial struggles against them. The chain holding them together was one of two narrowest points, the second being directly around her wrist. They weren’t so tight that they rubbed constantly; fitting like loose bracelets she couldn’t fit over her hand. But it was time to get these suckers off.

“How d’ ya want me to do this?” Daryl asked, “Through the side or ya want me to cut the chain first?”

“I don’t see why, we’re gonna get these off anyway, right?”

He nodded. “A’right. Try t’ hold still.”

She pressed her wrists into the stone beneath them and watched as he carefully laid the bolt-cutters first against the skin of her wrists and then slid them, turning them with both hands on either lever, opening the clamp to slide the metal of the cuff between them. It rested, cold and hard, smooth outside edge against the back of her wrist.

She glanced up at his face. “Got it?”

“Think so,” he said breathlessly, “shift to the right a little, I don’t want the pressure on ya.”

She did as directed, having to turn her elbow out to one side. He turned so his side was to her, bracing one handle beneath his foot on the ground and slowly leaning his weight against the upper handle.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, the handles began to shift infinitesimally together while she watched, rapt with hopeful anticipation. She held her breath, wide eyes shining as she took him in.

Daryl grit his teeth and for all the world looked ready to snarl as his arms bulged and sweat began to bead with his efforts. He grunted and then did growl when the whole thing slipped from his grip and clattered to the ground. He slipped with it, nearly kicking her as he fell back with a curse.

He landed hard on his side, catching himself on his elbow. Grunting, he levered himself up and looked at her, startled eyes searching. “Y’alright?”

She was panting, startled as he appeared but quickly nodded. “Yeah. Are you?”

“’ll be fine,” he muttered as he rolled to his feet and stood. He knelt beside her and checked her wrists, then the cuffs. They were bent where the shears had pinched them. “Made a dent,” he said with cautious hope.

“Let’s go.” She placed her arms against the stone again, looking up at him with determination like a fire in her eyes. “Come on.”

They set it up again, though this time Beth tried to help brace the handle on the ground with her foot strategically placed on the other side of his. Growling at the end of his effort, frustration growing, Daryl finally lifted his arms and pulled the shears away from her and let them drop while he panted in the growing heat of the day.

“Lemme see ‘em.”

She lifted her wrists, examining his handiwork as he did. The metal was beginning to warp, creating an arc that hadn’t been there before. Sharp shavings were curling at the edges of the bend and Beth gasped softly when one of them grazed her wrist and drew a scratch in her skin.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“It’s all right,” she said breathlessly, “keep going.”

He heaved a sigh and so it went again.

“Ow, ow-ow-ow.” She gritted her teeth and he immediately pulled the metal away from her. She looked up at him with wide eyes. “Why’d you stop?”

He shot her a look that could only be incredulity. “Hurtin’ ya, girl!” He examined her again, finding more scrapes and a few small cuts against her skin.

She thought they looked superficial, couldn’t care less when she was so close to getting those off she could taste it. The cuffs themselves were bending further out of shape, creating a space that was beginning to rub uncomfortably. But –

“There’s gotta be maybe one more round in these things,” she said emphatically, “You ready?” He looked at her dubiously, then down to her wrists, stroking his index finger next to a scratch. She shrugged him off and sighed, exasperated. “I’m not porcelain, Daryl, come on!”

With her encouragement and near-constant assurance that she was fine, a loud pop and the shears released suddenly. Beth whooped with joy and fidgeted impatiently while Daryl set the pliers crossways against the cuffs and manually twisted them wide enough to slip her right hand free.

With a grin and a sigh of relief Beth rubbed her wrist and stretched her arms out for the first time in days. Her shoulder popped a little and she grunted softly, circling her arm and checking the joint. Her grin widened a moment later and she laughed, got up and twirled around with arms outstretched.

Daryl remained crouched beside the rock and shears, watching her celebration with a small smile.

Breathlessly she threw herself to her knees in front of him, casually mirroring his posture and setting the last shackled wrist against the stone, joyful determination setting her ablaze. “Last one.”

With her arm free, she was better able to assist Daryl while they worked on the last cuff. It took perhaps twenty minutes to work through; the sun had risen to a comfortable glare when they used the shears to pry the last pieces apart.

While twisting the offending bits of metal, the shears slipped and knocked into her wrist hard enough she gave a small cry and cradled it against her chest.

“Lemme see.”

Daryl slowly reached for her wrist and she loosened her shoulders, letting him take it. His fingers were gentle, guiding her wrist as he examined it more than holding on. His large hand wrapped gently around her delicate wrist and the other stroked little circles over the back of her hand. Steadily the throb of pain faded beneath his palm, the tension in her face fading with it.

“Thank you,” she said softly, sincerely. It came out of her lips and seemed to hover in the air between them, riding on the warmth of his breath, the small space their bodies created. She looked up at him and immediately regretted the mistake: his gaze was softer and the same deep blue as the sky she saw at the edges of her vision. The sight made her pause while her pulse sped ahead, whether in fear or anticipation she couldn’t say.

Perhaps both.

With a flash of regret in his eyes, Daryl squeezed her hand and released it, trying to cover the regret with a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“You’re free.”

She stepped back and twirled. In the back of her mind, the whirling, blurring landscape mirrored the chaos of her feelings perfectly. The following vertigo served to chase them from her for a time.

 

They’d driven all day after she’d finished running around the empty wilderness like a small child, enjoying her freedom of movement to its fullest. She’d twirled, jumped, and caught herself against the dirt when she intentionally fell for the joy of it. Danced around and waved her arms in windmills and sinuous waves.

The whole time, Daryl had looked on, a look of bemusement on his face and playing with his lips when she looked and outright smiling when he didn’t think she was. Finally he urged her back to the vehicle, the ghost of fear in his eyes and she went with him.

Back in the car she’d played her heart out, lifting her voice in joy for an hour before her voice grew tired but she kept playing until her fingers ached. When she was finished, he asked her if she had a map of the United States in the car; it was in the glove compartment when she pulled it out and perused it.

“Picked a direction?”

“Yeah, got somethin’ in mind.”

“So where are we going?”

“Iowa.”

She paused, a sinking feeling in her gut at the prospect of getting further away from home. “What’s in Iowa?”

“Distance. And a truck stop.” Hope flared once more, threatening to turn the rock into a glow she couldn’t suppress. He glanced at her, quick but his gaze was gentle and apologetic all at once. “Y’ get t’ go home, girl.”

 

The large eight and zero spelled out in red lights dominated the landscape, the flat plain on either side emphasizing the structure lit from within and without. It was surrounded on all sides with vehicles and sported a large parking lot separated from the highway by a chain-link fence. One side of the lot was taken up by surprisingly organized semi-trucks.

Against the backdrop of the setting sun, it nearly glittered like a small city in itself.

Standing outside the car, Daryl leaned against the driver’s door and Beth stood facing him, not quite sure what to say. Her guitar and duffle were also against the car.

She sighed and waved her hand at the vehicle, “Guess it’s yours, now.”

He glanced at it. “S’pose so,” his face shifted to reticence, “can’t give it back to ya, not after the motel. I s’pose an apology at this point is moot?”

Beth nodded, pursing her lips a little. “Yeah,” the irony thick in her voice, “Several hundred miles and a kidnappng-car-jacking ago.” He nodded and looked at the ground beneath their feet. “So, this is it, then.” His eyes hit her feet and she nearly felt it when they traveled up her calves, legs and over her torso until they met her own. They didn’t burn, or didn’t much. But he looked as though memorizing her, taking his fill. The silence between them stretched while she let him look, taking the time to memorize him in turn.

“Would it be too weird,” he murmured, “if I said ‘Thank you?’”

Her head tilted to one side, brows drawing together in confusion. “Why?”

“I’m an asshole. You’ve been,” he glanced down and toed the asphalt with his boot but looked at her again before he continued, “been sweet t’ me when I didn’t deserve it. Won’t forget it. So, ‘Thank you.’”

She just looked at him, baffled and not entirely sure how to continue as she replayed those moments in her head. He’d been sweet to her, too, in his own way. But he’d gotten her in this mess and now that he was perched on the edge of letting her go she could barely believe it was happening.

“You’re welcome,” she fought the words out and they came strangled.

His eyes grew heavy on her, a weight settling over him. Slowly, he nodded at the building and lights. “Go on,” murmured, “git goin’ girl.”

She stepped closer to her belongings, lifting the guitar and settling it over her shoulder and he grabbed her bag before she could bend again, handing it to her.

“What are you gonna do now?” she asked. He paused and sighed, eyes like blue fire on hers.

“Try t’ survive.”

“What should I tell…everyone?”

“You tell ‘em whatever you want, girl. Just go and live your life.” He chuckled, a gallows laugh, “Stay away from hitchhikers.”

She offered a crooked smile and he reached up, hesitated a moment before brushing his fingers gently over a lock of loosely curling hair. Sighing heavily, he stepped back and gave her a lopsided smile.

“Go, Beth,” winked at her, “before I change m’mind.”

She nodded, turned and felt his eyes on her as she walked away. She walked forward, toward the building and its lights beckoning her onward and could still barely believe it. She felt like she was walking through a layer of thick air, of water and it was getting harder to breathe. She paused for a moment, resting her hand on the side of a car to keep her balance and breathe before continuing. She rose to her full height, steeled her spine and walked the distance to the doors, picking up speed.

With children and their families still coming out, laughing and smiling, she met their eyes and ignored the stares of their parents, smiling and laughing at the children as they played a precarious game of tag in the doors, felt a little lighter as she did so.

Her family was waiting, just a few more feet and a phone call away.

“Beth?” The voice was strange, stranger still for being so unexpected. It was a deep voice, clear and per-functionary. She turned to meet the source.

Before her, an officer stood beside his vehicle, a familiarly sleek sedan with white lettering on dark blue that said, “Police” along the side with “Kings County” in smaller lettering beneath that. His dark blue uniform served to hide him in the gathering shadows, blending in with the cruiser like a chameleon. Those eyes were fathomless but focused upon her beneath his dark hair with cool detachment. His face was chiseled and somehow forbidding, but she assumed that was the uniform coloring her perceptions.

He paused in front of her, the shadow cast by the light of the building behind her casting him in her shadow though he was taller than her by over a foot.

“Beth Anne Greene?”

She nodded mutely, relief overriding the apprehension which warred within her momentarily.

“I’m Officer Walsh,” he extended his hand, “we’ve been looking for you.” She shook his hand and glanced behind him to the official-looking vehicle with the officer’s shield on the door. Another man’s silhouette was in the passenger seat.

I’m safe, she thought to herself.

“You’re wanted for questioning in the murder of Mr. Trig and the whereabouts of one Daryl Dixon.”

Relief fled with adrenaline snapping at its heels like a hungry wolf when she felt a now-familiar sensation against her wrist. Breath escaping her and a rock plummeting to her feet from its place in her stomach, she looked down at her hand in Officer Walsh’s as though time had slowed. Her eyes traveled down his face, sporting a scratch she hadn’t seen a moment ago. Down his thickly muscled neck and shoulders, the badge pinned to his shirt which said “Police, State of, Kings county Georgia” down his torso to her hand in his own, the metal cuff gleaming bright against her skin while he clicked it in place.

I’m safe, she heard her mind protesting.

“Anything you say can and will be held against…

She didn’t hear the rest of what he said while he turned her around and cuffed her hands behind her back. All she could hear was the thrumming in her ears, the wind howling inside them. But she heard the clasp close around her with a ratcheting click like iron gates slamming shut.

Chapter Text

Please listen to this while reading! Sets the mood, particularly the first couple tracks. I listened to it while writing the chapter. Enjoy. Looking at these pics and gifs helps too. Or...well, you know.

 

Cops meant safety. That’s what everyone is taught in school as a child. You sit there with your friends and the nice teacher with a friendly smile in the brightly-decorated room where you learn about bugs and letters and sugared history and eventually there is a usually-handsome man in a dark uniform with an easy smile and they tell you: they were there to protect you, keep you safe from bad people. They were the Good Guys.

What they don’t teach children is that when cops get involved, it’s usually because something has gone horribly wrong.

Officer Walsh looked like something had gone horribly wrong.

When he’d stuffed her into the back of the cruiser, trapped behind a grate and featureless back seat excepting a couple seatbelts and places for shackles to be attached, she took in the sickly-sweet scent of something that had gone sour. It was faint, as though someone had tried to clean it up but missed something in the cracks.

Despite the shadow in the shape of a person she’d made out in the passenger seat before getting in, there wasn’t anyone in the front except Officer Walsh. She was alone with him. Telling herself once again it was unnecessary, she made sure she kept an eye on the man.

The cut she’d registered across his nose was nothing compared to the scrape he’d gotten from his right jaw and into his hairline by his ear. His eyes, when he took a cursory glance into the back at her, were sunken into his head, surrounded by shadowy grey skin that made him look as though he’d lost a fight with someone who hadn’t let up, except there was no swelling.

“Where are we going?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Station.”

She ignored the queasy unease gripping her gut and tried to tell herself one more time that she was safe. This is where she’d wanted to be. Officer Walsh would eventually let her make a call at the station, where there were other officers’ on-duty and Daddy could help get her out of this mess. Surely he’d come to get her, Shawn and Maggie might fly out with him or meet her at an airport, it’d be easier to fly her back home, right? She’d see them soon, this was all a misunderstanding. Officer Walsh would take her to the station and everything would be fine.

She was safe.

The queasy feeling in her gut increased as they sped down the dark highway, past the turnoff for the city of Davenport and continued onward south. Sick to her stomach she realized she hadn’t even noticed when they had turned off of highway six onto eighty. Had she dozed off?

“Which station?”

Officer Walsh said nothing and continued to drive.

Alarm ratcheted up when she saw the oncoming signs hanging in bright display, announcing their entry into the state of Illinois.

“Officer Walsh?”

Still nothing.

She rapped against the separating grate sharply. “Hey!”

He turned and looked at her. “What?”

Limbs trembling, she took a breath to steady her voice at least and carefully enunciated her next words. “Where are you taking me?”

He looked at her blankly, something behind his eyes shifting as though he were deciding his answer. Beth flicked her eyes away from him at the road and ever-oncoming highway that seemed to stretch on forever. Would she ever get off these damned roads?

“To the Station.”

“In Illinois?” She tried to give him a deadpan stare.

He shook his head.

“Somewhere safe.”

“Safe where?”

More silence. It was thick, pregnant like a taut cable about to give birth to something it shouldn’t, something that couldn’t possibly exist in the natural order of things.

Safe. He tried to keep me safe.

With a stab of regret, the sense of wrong hit her. Her heart stuttered, her chest felt like it was filled with a hot ache that spread outward through her limbs to encompass her entirely. It spread, bringing a distant numb to her mind, a clarity of vision which rendered details sharper, scent and sight picking up on details as her mind whirled frantically for an explanation; coffee in the front seat; that sickly-sweet smell her mind distantly told her was familiar; the scrapes on Officer Walsh’s face.

In the road ahead of them was a flash of light. Pale, pale blue like the signal of an officer’s cherries except there was no red. Timed nearly like it was in sync with everything happening to her in these past several days she found herself focusing on it, the flash, the rhythm and beat of it.

It was ahead; far enough ahead that she could see the falling shadows from the clouds signaling heavy rain but it hadn’t reached them yet. They hadn’t driven that far.

And so she felt herself as if from a great distance turn with the motion of the vehicle and followed it with her face as they left the highway and drove into the darkening trees.

Winding through the paths took time but she just wasn’t sure what the passage of time was anymore. Her limbs felt heavy and though she didn’t want to move them she felt she should. It was a distant, peculiar thought as though she were trying to make sense of the flash, see what it was though it was gone in an instant.

They drove through trees like rising rib-cages into the heart of this odd wood in the middle of nowhere like they were swallowed by some great beast.

Perhaps they were.

The cage to her left cleared suddenly and her eyes were drawn to the difference. Something along the ground, flattened though it weaved up and down, around like the subtle movements of a snake risen on a cairn through the wilderness, caught the light of the distant flash and she realized what it was in all of its unnatural smooth perfection.

A railroad.

They paralleled this ancient pathway cut into the world like a violation of mother-nature long scarred over for several minutes.

She was still staring at it when they stopped.

A knock broke the silence beside her head and she started, jerking her eyes to find Officer Walsh looking through the glass at her. He’d gotten out and she hadn’t even noticed. How hadn’t she noticed? The door opened and a clawed hand snatched at her bicep and dragged her out. She felt herself go limp, screaming at herself inside her mind to run, run! Why couldn’t she run? Like she had with Daryl.

She thought of him, the way she’d felt helpless beneath him and still fought his strength with her own and the memory of fighting cleared her mind, a little. Distantly she ached deep in her chest like a just-forming bruise and shoved it away, heart pounding at the near-brush with the thoughts and feelings threatening like the coming storm. Walsh looked down at her slowly then, like a cat sizing up the mouse in its claws, wrinkling his nose at her like he were scenting rotten garbage.

“Come on,” he hauled her behind him and that was when she saw it.

The derelict building crouched low like a beast ready to pounce, its black carapace punctured by blacker eyes that didn’t shine out of its many-eyed face. She looked at it and understood then, what he had meant.

The Station. A train station.

The door opened as if on its own before they reached it and she was dragged inside, scrambling to maintain her footing whenever her feet managed to get beneath her legs. The inside of the building was thick with dust which swirled in eddies and whirlpools in the breeze which picked up from the storm outside, seeping in like an infection from the shattered windows and rendering the place cold as a tomb.

He dragged her down a narrow corridor past the olg ticket booth, glass cracked where it wasn’t shattered and into a small room in the back. A bathroom. In the center of the roughly-square room was a chair. She was immediately dragged toward it, shoved down into the hard surface and though she twisted and yanked, momentarily freeing her arms, they were caught by more hands than Officer Walsh alone possessed.

She looked up, twisted her head, saw a rough looking man with buzzed hair and an acid smile which twisted into a grimace when he locked eyes with the officer. Neither expression reached his eyes, a dull grey like unpolished stone. “She stinks,” he said nonchalant, an observation.

Officer Walsh nodded.

“Didn’t find him?”

Him? Daryl?

Buzz-cut wrinkled his face in disgust, glared at her with searching eyes while Walsh – she couldn’t think of him as ‘Officer’ anymore – wound rope around her torso, pinning her arms to her side. The rope pulled taut when he tugged it tight through the back of the seat; she felt it tug a little more and assumed he’d fastened it somehow.

A blow to the head whipped her head forward when she tried to look at the bonds, wrenching her neck and she saw stars for a moment, pale greens and reds and yellows spreading like drops of shiny paint across the black of her vision.

“Go get the Big Guy,” she heard a voice say in the swallowing darkness and dimly, wondered where Daryl was and if he’d gotten away.

“God, she stinks.”

“Yeah. It was her the whole time.”

“He’ll be easy enough to find now.”

 

When she came to, she was still bound in the chair, Walsh standing before her, Mr. Calm-and-Placid once more. The rope bit into her skin and was tight enough she found it harder to take a full breath.

“Good. You’re awake.”

She stayed silent, tugging experimentally against the rope around her torso, twisting her shoulders ad lifting her arms to do so. She was still handcuffed. He clicked his tongue at her and shook his head.

“Tut-tut, girl. Needn’t be bothering with that now,” he said with a voice reasonable and honey-sweet, “You’re not going anywhere.” As if by design, thunder rumbled outside and a flash of lighting whitewashed the interior, rendering him in harsh lines, black-and-white with harsh shadows.

“What do you want with me?” He shrugged.

“It’s not what I want with you,” he said, still all reasonable southern sweetness while her heart pounded like a blackbird against the bars of her rib cage, “It’s what they want with you.”  

“They?” He nodded, lifting himself off the wall he’d been leaning against to move closer.

“Yeah. He’s almost here, too.” He lifted his face to the ceiling as though to turn his face into the sun. “I can feel ‘im coming closer.”

“Who? Daryl?”

His smile widened and he regarded her like an insect with a black smile. “Him? Maybe. Hope so. But no, I’m talking about the Big Guy. Runs everything. Runs me anyway.” His face fell into a mask and he glanced away as though glimpsing something far off before focusing his black stare on her once more. “Does now.” He stepped forward and she tensed against her bonds when he crouched in front of her.

“What are you doing?”

His smile didn’t reach his eyes, as disarming as he’d intended it to be she felt nothing but cold fear prickle along her legs like spiders crawling up them. He reached into a back pocket, producing a small syringe. “Gotta open you up.” An icicle lanced through her chest, through the bird and her heart stopped for a moment.

Her breath came faster, deeper as she watched. “What is that for?” though she knew even as he pulled the cap off and exposed the tip. It shone in the flickering light of the storm, all the sharper with lightning breaking the sky. Slowly, he rolled up the sleeve on the arm which held the sharp instrument and her brow furrowed in confusion. “What are you doing?” His eyes flicked up at her and back down as he slapped at the crook of his elbow, moving the needle to his other hand as he fisted the first. He smiled at the exposed veins in his arm and plunged the needle in carefully, face rapt like an adoring lover, drawing the plunger back as she watched in horrified fascination and all at once he began talking in low distracted tones while the vial filled with a strange liquid which looked black in the flashing lightning.

“The Big Guy, he wants to talk to you. So I gotta open you up for him, so we can learn what’s inside.” He pulled out the needle and lifted it, flicking a finger against it, letting the fluid inside fall back. It swirled inside though the apparatus was still and he pressed the plunger until a few drops escaped and slithered down to his wrist where they seemed to dissolve into his skin, absorbed without a trace. He turned his black eyes on her and she struggled anew, heart racing breath. “Gotta start small. Had too many accidents lately.”

Tears fell down her face and she couldn’t help the tremble in her voice as she begged, “Don’t. Please. I don’t know anything, I swear,” she began shaking her head frantically, heart alive and pounding a drumbeat in her ears as he lowered the sharp needle to her arm, clamped down on her shoulder like a vice and held her still while she struggled, “he never said anything, just wanted to keep me safe,” her voice broke on the sob that escaped and heralded a torrent of terrorized adrenaline and words, “he never told me anything, wouldn’t say, I don’t know anything” tensed up her whole body and shook violently in denial as the needle lowered slowly, her eyes focused solely on the point seeping black droplets which writhed at the sharp tip, its point stabbing at existence in defilement of every good and safe thing she’d ever known. “No. No, no, no-no-nonono!”

She moaned as it pierced her flesh, scream caught in her throat a wordless, hopeless sound ripped from her. She bit her lip and closed her eyes, felt tears streaming down her cheeks. The stabbing invasion was as nothing when he pressed the plunger and the foreign fluid pushed into her, pressure building as it filled her skin and brought a hot burning sensation which emanated with the force of her pounding heartbeat and pulsed in time with it. She could feel it seeping outward, into the rest of her body like acid.

The needle slipped from her arm and left its contents inside, a single strand clinging like the stretch of something thick and viscous between the needle’s point and her arm and she looked at it with a feeling of dread and revulsion she felt sick with. What the fuck is that? Her eyes met Walsh’s black ones and that’s when she saw it.

Her whole world throbbed like a heartbeat and she stared with saucer eyes as his face slipped like the world couldn’t hold its shape and what she saw beneath made tears sting her eyes, breath inhale like someone else was breathing for her and she pressed as far into the chair as she could.

The high-pitched scream drowned out everything. His – his facetwisted and dark eyes grew darker as though they sucked all the light from the room. She practically felt his irritation like her own self-loathing at the sound but she couldn’t stop, eyes glued to the freakish creature before her wearing a man’s flesh like a carapace, like a mask, like something reality had to converge upon to hold at bay.

As she screamed the lightning flashed and thunder drowned them out from overhead and she was gone, disparate from herself, an un-tethered soul from her body. Her mind swirled up to the growl of the sky, the growl of a distant train and the sounds reminded her painfully of the rough cadence of Daryl’s voice. She heard it as though he were with her in her terror, his fear echoing hers and mingling as she remembered the way his voice tensed when he spoke of them, when he told her about Merle and the overdose, his exquisite kindness in the face of this terror, the way his hands touched her with tenderness, her mouth opening for his as water rained down upon them in the shower, gripping her still-bloody hand in the soft light of the dash. Experience he’d tried to spare her.

She floated through the clouds and darkness and pounding rain, oncoming train, Daryl’s voice in her mind’s ear –  safe I shoulda never dragged you into this, I’m sorry. He cupped the back of her head in his hand and she could feel him shaking when he stroked her gently. I’m so sorry.

Distantly she felt a hand stroking her cheek, cupping her jaw to lift her face upward.

She remembered warm lips pressed to hers, taking, tasting gentle and slow, an exploration which was somehow tender and sweet and desperate, tongue teasing at her lip and then inside, curling into her mouth in that stolen moment that left her breathless.

A voice from far away, unwelcome and intruding, “God, you still stink, even with me inside you.”

She heard it again, his voice on an echo of the warmth of his lips, Dude’s screwed up in the head, probably too immature to handle a gal like you.

She saw black horrible eyes over hers even as she looked up into the blue lightning flash of Daryl’s. Did he ever try t’have sex with you when you were pissed?  Felt his foul breath ghosting over her lips as he said something she failed to hear though she read it in the movements of his mouth.

Stinking bitch might not make it anyway.

Something clicked into place while she looked up blankly with echoes of Daryl in her skull. Something she said to him. Without breath, she whispered, “You don’t know shit about me.”

Walsh cocked his head to one side. “What?” She heard him that time.

With viciousness she turned her face in his hand and dug her teeth as far into the flesh of his palm as she could, digging in with the force of her helpless rage. Walsh groaned in surprise as he ripped his hand away. It came away black-bloody, a low cry of anger escaping as he gripped his wrist in his fee hand and scrambled back from the bound woman. He looked down at it and growled, lunged forward to deliver a backhanded blow which rocked her, sent the world spinning on an axis and parts of her floated up again to the dark skies high above.

She felt the storm of Walsh exit the room and she felt Daryl echo through her head amidst the burning haze that was her body. His presence built like a pressure inside her mind until she could practically feel the rumble of his voice in answer to the thunder emanating from her core. She tasted bitter salt and something like oil and defiantly spat out the piece of flesh she’d claimed, a strange satisfied smile on her lips.

He was a fool not to see how damned sexy you look when you’re mad.

Chapter Text

The cool concrete felt rough and good against her abused cheek. It seeped into her bones, cooling like the rest of her. Cooling, cold, as if she’d been warm before. And she had been. Fire had run through her veins, burning her like acid, like lava molten and erupting inside her head, through her heart. She felt it rumble slowly through the cavity that was her chest, felt the answering expansion of her lungs, the microcosm of blood and cells and molecules that made up the fabric of her existence.

Fabric that could ripple in the winds that touched it. Fabric that could wrinkle and fray and tear and bleed.

The thunder boomed like cannon fire overhead, an echo of her hearts beat and she felt it, too. As though it were a part of her. Pieces flapping in the wind overhead called to her, whispered of the escape of clouds, of the wind to blow her away like the leaves swirling along the floor of her concrete prison, the grit catching in her eyelashes and stinging distantly in the cut on her cheek. She went with them away from the burning and aching, saw the blue of kind eyes in the flash of lighting that cracked the sky and knew she would be safe there.

She thought of Daryl, of the way he’d tried to spare her the helpless terror running through her like an undercurrent. She felt Walsh, too, outside the building like a mist rising off the ground and clouding her vision. He felt like a thousand buzzing locusts pressing their buzzing wings and tiny prickly crawling legs against her brain. He echoed the storm in his rage; she was lucky to have escaped the violence swirling within him. She knew he was something other, knew it like she knew her heart still beat her ribs for escape, how she knew her eyes were blue bleeding black and how she knew if she didn’t find an anchor point soon she’d be lost inside the maze that was the universe pouring though her veins and exploding behind her eyes with every flicker of kind blue eyes that cut across the skies.

She looked into them past the grit, glad to be anywhere but the sideways angle of the floor with the wind blowing dust over its surface. She sank down, into those eyes as they looked into hers. She saw the tracks of tears over the sharp cheekbones and smiled at him.

“Daryl,” she whispered. She felt the word, the essence of him all leather and rough gentle hands, teeth sharp in their feral smile down at her. She clasped that face in her hands, drew him down in a sweeping kiss that felt right, so right. Felt the water like rain pour down over them, between them and she was with him in the shower again. It was warm and wet and steaming, rinsing her clean and drawing the burning heat to the surface of her skin. She felt the water slick between them, his knee pressed between her thighs, hands on her back and hip. Her body molded to his, the sweet slide of his skin upon hers and she felt his indrawn breath like surprise against her lips, the firm weight of his chest pressing to her own, sending a sizzle of pleasure like a jolt of electricity through her.

“What is this?” His voice in her ear and his lips pressed to her shoulder as he inhaled deeply, arms circling her to clutch her tight, sandwich her between his hard warmth and the cold tile. “Oh, girl,” he sighed in her ear. Her throat constricted, a sudden lump created by the traces of the one in his voice.

He pulled back, cupping her face in his hand and looking into her eyes as though searching for something. It didn’t hurt: the sting and throb of her cheek was gone. “You alright, girl?”

Tears threatened to spill but she blinked them away, let the water moving over them rinse her face clean with a toss of her head. “I’m good, now.”

He forced a smile for her and it nearly broke her but she held on tight, resolute. “Let me have this. Please.” His eyes sharpened, filled with grim desire. Slowly he nodded, something in his eyes closed off to her and it hurt, echoed like a reverberation in tight quarters within her chest.

“M’sorry, Beth.” He slid his other arm free and cupped her cheek, thumb slowly drifting over her cheekbone, sending warmth through the cool flesh.

“It’s okay now,” she whispered to him, feeling the weight of his tenderness like sunlight upon her face. She shifted beneath him, sliding her knee up along his leg until she could hitch it around his and press herself into him in a gentle grind. “I’m with you.”

“Yeah,” he said with soft wonder, “You are.” A shadow of something flitted through his eyes and she tried to chase it but it was gone. He leaned down to capture her lips with his again and they both kept their eyes open, watched one another before he pulled away again with a sigh. “This ain’t right. Not now.”

“Please, Daryl. Don’t make me go back there,” she kissed the corner of his mouth, “I want to stay here, with you.” She shifted her hips, undulating beneath him and smiled when his eyelids fluttered for a moment. He nodded, leaned his head against her shoulder and inhaled deeply. The breath was held for a moment before he exhaled slowly, breath warm upon her neck and ear.

“Alright.” He slid his hands slowly down her arms in a gentle caress that made her throat ache and wish he were touching other places. Callused fingers stroked lightly at her wrists then gripped tight, the wrap of his strong fingers sending her heart and breath faster.

Those eyes bore into her with a steely resolve, a force of dark passion which brought tears to her eyes. She relaxed into him, body pliant beneath his, relieved to be here once more. If she was going to die on that floor the at least she could do it wrapped in this man’s arms.

She thrust the thought away as she tipped her head up to his and skimmed the stubble lining his jaw with her lips and tongue, licking at his scent and salty sweat like dessert. Her hips began slowly undulating into him again. She shivered, seeking more of that slide against tender flesh. He pushed his hips into hers, grinding as his eyes burned her. Slowly that pressure increased until she couldn’t move, pinned, helpless but she wouldn’t have moved for the world.

“Please, Daryl,” she whispered, “let me finish the dream this time.”

“You stay with me, girl,” his voice was implacable, dark and commanding. He shifted her wrists over her head and gripped both in one hand, cupping her jaw firmly to read her eyes. “Stay with me, Beth.” She could nearly see the shadows gripped in his teeth. “This might hurt, a little. But don’t let go.” She nodded, bewildered, but she tightened her leg around his though pinned still. His thumb slid along her lower lip and her tongue darted out to tease the tip, making him sigh wistfully. He took her wrists in both hands again, fingers flexing to adjust his grip, tight enough she thought she might have his hands marked on her skin later and wished it were so.

His head lowered again brushed along her mouth. “I’ve got you,” he whispered into her lips just as she opened to let him inside. He feasted at her, slid his tongue along hers demandingly. Drew in her breath, tasted her mouth, his tongue drawing her out, drawing hers in and it was like he drank her down.

She felt his fingers shift, an undulating curl that tightened his grip on both wrists, the fingers digging into her small wrists like hard bars beneath his fingers but she didn’t feel any pain. He couldn’t hurt her, not like that, not here. He wouldn’t hurt her.

He slowly shifted his body back and she could feel the force of him gathering like an oncoming freight train. Eyes fierce upon hers, teeth flashing and sharp as he commanded, “Stay with me.” He crashed upon her like a wave, lips and chest and melding into her. A feeling like thunder overhead synchronized with a jarring force like pressure building in her head, in her body like water overflowing a cup until she spilled outward, anchored by the feel of his hands gripping her wrists so thin and sturdy, the whiskers of his upper lip tickling her tongue as it darted out to taste the moisture clinging there from the water raining down his face.

He gripped the handles of the bike tighter and she felt the flex of his arms, how easily he guided its movements to keep himself upright, the easy balance and mass of him. He gritted his teeth and felt the flex of his jaw at the thought of her helpless in the hands of that cop. The rain pelted him as he flew along the wet road, through the dark woods flanking it like an endless ribcage on one side and by an enormous beast which roared with a high-pitched and almost beautiful tone as it careened ahead of him, cutting a path in the dark with its enormous headlight.

The sounds of the train and the roar of the thunder dwarfed, swallowed the edges of the motorcycle’s rasp, beneath him like a lover. The light from the train shone, distracted from the gleam of the metal and couldn’t have been more gratefully timed. There were no passengers upon the cars filled with coal and the operator’s mind couldn’t have been more dulled with boredom had Daryl wished it so.

The dark spot ahead on the road grew between glimpses in the trees. A structure. Hard, sharp angles not seen in nature. A barn maybe, a building of some kind, it had to be. He slowed, allowed the trains roar to precede him by several seconds and he took in everything when the trees broke but didn’t stop his approach.

The dark carapace of the structure had many broken windows like black pits. In the largest, the mouth-like opening that was the door, he could see the dark shadow of a man as he walked away down a hallway, pale for a moment in the lightning. He willed the operator to sound the horn again as he passed the structure and bless him, he did.

Beth knew he was soft underneath that rough leather-clad exterior, torn open and stitching himself together over her plight. But he wasn’t soft, she knew. She’d seen his tenderness, the gentle way he moved and breathed in moments he’d felt safe, she realized. And now…now she was seeing the iron. The claw and tooth of him. He was capable of being soft, yes.

But Daryl Dixon was not soft.

No, this man who had held her in his arms with such tenderness was not soft. He was hard planes and strong muscle, sharp eyes that saw through deceit and illusion. He was the strength of mountains whose roots run deep into the trenches cut through his skin. He was fire and ice and deep rage and now that fury would be unleashed.

Daryl flew. He reared the bike up as it hit and flew up the short steps and he let himself fall free of it as it crashed through the door, hitting the thing dressed as an officer as it careened down the hall with a large crash. He rolled when he landed, up in an instant, pulling the sickle free from his belt as he ran inside.

The officer was pinned beneath the bike, groaning with pain. He was crushed between it and the wall at an awkward angle. He spotted Daryl over the rim of the front tire and groaned, growled and grunted with effort. Daryl rushed him just as the officer – Walsh – lifted the bike upward with his one good arm like a lever. As Daryl cocked back his arm Walsh bared his teeth and hissed like an angry cockroach, silenced with the single stroke which sent the blade deep into his skull.

With a deep satisfaction he watched as the body fell, limp and lifeless, as did the bike when the arm’s tension released a second later.

Daryl crouched beside him for a moment, quickly retrieving the set of keys off the other man’s belt and stood once more. He paused, listening. Nothing came to him in the silence between the thunder, the train already past the limited borders of the interior of the train station.

He followed the dark hallway to its natural conclusion, pushing open the bathroom door. In the small square room with only a single window, leaves shifted in the wind, swirling around the head of the young woman whose hair spilled around her where she’d fallen to the floor, tied to a chair.

“Beth,” he breathed.

With a sensation like elastic snapping back from being stretched too far she realized she was hearing with her own ears and blinking slowly under the warmth still tingling through her body with foreign heat. Distant surprise warred with and lost to acceptance.

Of course he would come for her.

He fell to his knees with controlled grace before her, hands exploring her neck and face. With hurried tenderness, he lifted her face and looked into her eyes and she stared up at nothing but her lips, already twisted with a wry smile twitched further into a grin. “Didn’t let go,” she mumbled.

He cursed at her expression and looked around, wincing slightly.

Accompanying his wince, Beth could feel a roiling headache begin to build at the top of her skull and somewhere behind and between her eyes.

He shook his head as he went to work cutting her free of the rope, finding the small handcuff key and twisting it in the lock. They fell to the floor with a clatter and he immediately pulled her into his arms, lifting her with an arm under her neck and shoulders and the other beneath her knees while he stood. “I’ve got you, girl,” he whispered.

Not quite limp, she slowly lifted her arms around his shoulders and tucked her head into his shoulder, nuzzling into his jacket. As though she were half asleep, she mouthed at his collar beneath the leather, licking rain from the material and chuckling deep in her throat, a sound wholly inappropriate to the situation.

“My Knight in Shining Leather,” she mumbled. He glanced down at her, eyes unfocused still, pupils nearly eating up the blue of her eyes as he moved them past the bike, past Walsh. That feeling, like mad insects scrabbling frantically at her brain returned and she heaved, leaning away from Daryl’s chest and he struggled not to drop her as she twisted in his arms. Nothing came up but she felt wretched until they were again in the rain, which seemed to wash the feeling away.

“Got’im good, didn’t we?” she mumbled as her head lolled backward onto his arm.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly.

“I’ve been having the weirdest sex dreams,” she giggled, blinking at the cherries on the car before them. He let her legs go and swung her to the ground, pulling her tight against him so she couldn’t fall while he opened the car door. Gently but swiftly placing her in the front seat, he got in after her and eyeballed the mess of keys until he spotted the car-logo.

The engine turned when the key did and Daryl backed it up, tires crunching on the gravel as he sped away back down the road by which he’d come. Beth clung to his side, arms encircling his waist and her face buried in his stomach as he drove. He kept his eyes on the road and she could feel the tension in the clench of his abs but his hand was tangled in her hair, working through her scalp like he couldn’t believe he’d be allowed to touch her once he stopped.

But he could. She would let him, wanted him to touch her all over, inside and out. She wanted to melt into him and never resurface. His grip tightened in her hair as he clutched her to him. Her eyes welled slowly and she let them, uncaring for anything but the feel of his arm around her and his scent, mixed with bitter blood on his clothes. She nuzzled her face deeper into his shirt and inhaled slowly, pressing to take in as much of his skin beneath the material as her lungs could hold. She wept slowly, with relief, with gratitude, with the still-pervasive fear underlying everything.

Out of that fog she realized she still hadn’t gotten to finish her dreams of him, feeling slightly cheated and said so as she nuzzled the bottom of his rib cage.

“It weren’t no dream, girl.”

Chapter Text

Enjoy this picset.

 

After what felt like ages later, Daryl pulled the car over. They’d stopped for as short a time as possible at the Iowa Eighty Truck Stop to dump the overly conspicuous police vehicle and grab her old clunker once again.

As they drove down every back-road he could find to take them away from prying eyes and following figures, he tried to keep her awake, trying to keep her talking as long as he could. He asked her questions and she answered, wrapped in his concern until she answered it with a torrent of information. She described the dream she’d had in the motel, to which he blushed with shame and kept his eyes on the road, lest she see the weight of guilt resting heavy in his eyes. She didn’t need to know about that.

Not yet.

Her face pressed into his belly, something no woman had done before. It was awkward and natural, her nose a deeper press than her cheeks and she brushed her cheek into him like a large lap-cat, but it was warm where her breath heated his shirt and sent sparks like fireflies up his spine. When her lips and teeth and tongue had started to follow he asked her more questions about her friends, her family, anything to make her stop before he had to ask her to.

She talked a long time about her home, described a farmstead surrounded by deep woods, relatively isolated from their small town called Peachtree. As she described it he could see in his mind’s eye - the stretch of waving wheat so green before the fall, could smell the air so sweet, rife with the smells of grass warm in the sunlight that touched the skin like the brush of butterflies wings, a gentle weight he found he could feel like light fingers against his cheek, warming him with its phantom heat and luminance. He could taste the lemonade her mother used to make, that Maggie now made and added raspberries from the garden she’d grown herself, felt the dense wet of rich soil beneath his fingernails and nearly smiled. When she told him about the time she freaked out about finding Maggie’s birth-control pills – wouldn’t big sister be shocked if she knew how they’d fucked in the backseat? – and they’d all gotten soaked in the pond, he could smell the wet-green scent of the reeds, feel the water against his skin as she described getting pushed in by her sister. He could almost hear the laughter of her brother ringing in his ears and it all sounded like a slice of heaven. A heaven he’d return her to or be damned trying.

The light on the dash began fading as his eyes drooped closed and his head bobbed snapping back up barely a second later. He cursed, roughly rubbed at the scruff on his chin, and moved to roll the window down then glanced down at Beth, curled into him for warmth while she shivered.

He sighed and absently began running his fingers through her hair again, trying to keep himself awake with the motion.

The whole car jerked to the left, jarring Daryl out of his stupor and sending another flare of adrenaline through his system. He slammed on the brakes and the car jerked again to a stop. Looking out the front window and around the outsides of the car, he saw that half of the car was off the road and about to slide into the ditches that seemed to bracket more of the roadsides than not.

In the predawn light, he looked out at the landscape. Still countryside. Iowa was rife with cornfields, enough to get lost in forever if you took a wrong turn and couldn’t find your way out again. It was like a goddamned maze meant to suck you in and keep your for its own, forever.

But the wilderness, there were fields and long stretches of it too, where mankind had let nature erode itself and build up something fresh. The crickets chirped and the cicadas were letting out their rasping siren call like waves receding and coming back in to crash on the shore, the closest to ocean this landlocked state ever got.

He continued driving, pulling away from the brink of disaster. He’d no idea how long they’d been driving but if the slant of the pale sliver of moon was any indication it had been hours. Hours since the nausea had faded from Beth, hours since she’d begun to shiver, hours since he’d been able to feel the barest hints of what was surely to come for them.

If he didn’t get her inside, warmed up and if possible, fed.

They’d taken country roads all the way from the truck stop, not wanting to risk running into people or even a town. He’d driven around numberless towns, looking first for as many back-roads as he could get lost in. He wasn’t worried about food; he could hunt and catch them some food if necessary. He’d not spotted any deer but seen enough evidence of other wildlife, their eyes shining in the trees and bushes as the headlights he’d been forced to use in the black night, to know they’d not go hungry.

Taking a slow turn around a bend in the road, he spotted a sign: Pleasant Hill Cemetery and Church. His eyes flowed upward and found the path up a slope toward the church just out of view. Considering those particular implications and the concepts of holy ground warding off evil – for what else could it be that haunted and dogged them? – he guided the car up the turn. It was, sharp, just coming off of the turn in the wide road they’d been on and led to the entrance of a cemetery.

It was an old one, not even a proper fence so much as a couple sturdy wooden posts with a chain dangling between them in a wide stretch he found easily removed. There was a wide clear space before the headstones took over and he wondered, looking at the crumbling and moss-covered edifices of those long gone, where this church was supposed to be? He spotted a trailer beyond a hedge at the far side, a single light on to cast long shadows like reaching fingers across the expanse of haunted earth.

He backed the car down a gradual incline and closer to the entrance, beyond a bend that rendered them invisible to the trailer’s eyes. Checking behind them, he was satisfied that the elevation from the main road and generous wild foliage kept them hidden from all but those who might traipse through the graves and perhaps a ghost.

At the thought a cold finger snaked down his back and he glanced up, seeing a young woman staring at him curiously. She was wearing an old gown and apron, her hair hidden beneath a cap and looked like one of those girls on a television show his mother used to watch about a family of pioneers. Her eyes were dark and indistinct but she could be looking at none other than himself. Her coloring was non-existent, pale mist and quite like glass through which to see. He watched for a moment and waited but the specter did nothing more than look.

Beth beside him whimpered in her sleep and curled in on herself, further into his side. Instantly he pulled her closer, lifting her with careful hands into his arms to cradle her against his chest. He touched her face with his free hand, thumb brushing gently over her cheek, just under the bruised cut. It was dark, darker than he’d like; black like pitch spread out under her skin. He tilted her head to look at her eyes, half-mast and unseeing. If he hadn’t felt the rise and fall of her contracting lungs he’d have thought she was dead. In the pale green light of the dashboard, she looked like all of the color had seeped from her as it had the ghost-girl now standing outside the driver’s side door. He glanced up at the gauzy figure and found her a suggestion of face with kind sad eyes, looking down upon them through the glass.

With a tight voice which matched that of his chest he looked up at her and asked, “The Church?”

She turned, faded and nearly vanished before her arm coalesced into a distinct finger which pointed to the left corner of the end of the graveyard, opposite the trailer. The ghost faded from sight, vanished like a plume of smoke as he eased the door open through the air from which she’d appeared.

Cradling Beth carefully in his arms, Daryl carried her in the direction indicated. The grass was wet and springy beneath his feet. Careful not to alert the residents in the trailer, likely caretakers of some sort, he went the long way around, skirting the edge of the graves along the opposite side. Through the thick trees and hedges lining the outskirts of the graveyard was an opening which startled Daryl as he emerged, surprised and a little uneasy to find himself without cover. He hefted the young woman in his arms, walking through the bright green lawn to the back of the church, painted white and so clean it nearly glowed in the pre-dawn light.

The back door was locked but the basement window wasn’t, tilting inward when he pushed it experimentally with his foot. He laid Beth down on the ground next to the window and climbed in, holding his breath as he looked around the dusty interior. There were stacks of boxes and a pull-chain with a light in the center. He reached back out and carefully hauled Beth inside, whispering apologies and encouragement when she stirred enough to help him gather her in his arms. She tucked her face into the crook of his shoulder once again as he bypassed the light and walked around the stacks until he found an interior wall.

 A short flight of stairs led to a door, which was locked. He forced the knob, breaking apart a section of the doorjamb, and paused, listening. There was nothing in the church, no presence to be felt, not even the thin glimmer like gauze against his brain to warn of ghosts. Whatever spirits there were, they seemed to be confined to the graveyard behind the old building.

The basement opened up to a hallway, with a couple doors to his left and a short hallway leading around a curve, he followed it, finding himself just left of the altar, a simple crucifix hanging on the back wall and an array of pews lined up to the back – front, really – of the building.

He left the light off as he searched, loathe to alert anyone to their presence, and set Beth down on a padded pew and looked around. The double doors leading out were locked from the inside and he let them be, checking the windows – also locked– and the rest of the floor. The two doors in the back hallway led to an office, which blessedly held a couch he looked forward to showing Beth, the other to a bathroom. It didn’t have a shower but there was a sink, a stack of paper towels, soap and when he checked it, running water. He turned it on to ‘hot’ and left it on, hoping it might warm by the time he returned.

He retrieved Beth from the pew, who wrapped her arms around his shoulders when he lifted her, reminding him of a soft, sweet kitten. And she did it again, nuzzling into his shoulder with a sigh. He ignored the way it twisted at his heart, guilt running through him hard enough to slam a brutal blow to any traces of lust he’d felt for her. Now wasn’t the time.

He wondered briefly if he would ever deserve the time, practically delivering her into their hands in his foolishness.

She lifted her head as he gently set her feet down, letting her keep her arms around him for support. She looked down at the running water and he could see a flicker of life, of feeling in her reflected in the mirror. Her eyes met his in the reflection and to his astonishment, she smiled.

“Thank you,” she said softly. He nodded, slowly withdrawing his arms as she found her balance. “I’m alright,” she said in spite of the dark circles, darker bruised cut and yellowing skin. He eyed her and bit his thumb worriedly, wondered if he could find some food for her. “I think I can handle a sponge-bath, Mr. Dixon.” She opened her mouth, eyes wide, a sentence or word hesitating on the tip of her tongue.

He could still feel her. She’d invaded his heart, infected the blood pouring through his veins though he tried not to tell her, tried not to think about it. He could feel her weariness like an echo of the weight carried on his shoulders, the grime on her – in her – like an extra layer of dirt beneath his fingernails, stuck to the back of his throat like he’d eaten too much sugar and had to deal with veritable fuzz in his mouth sticking to his teeth.

Come to think of it, he should look for a toothbrush while he was in here.

Given everything he knew she’d been through with bitter regret and tears trapped in the back of his throat, he knew what she would say. Could almost feel how torn she was.

“Y’ go ahead and get cleaned up,” he said before she found her voice, “while there’s still hot water left. I’ll see if I can’t find ya somethin’ to eat.”

She offered him a faltering smile and nodded.

He turned to go out the door but when he reached for the handle it had barely turned when he heard it, felt the word like a knife in the back.

“Wait.” Heart heavy, he turned to look at her. “Would you stay with me?”

His eye flickered between her and her reflection in the mirror. He knew. Felt it, the fear threading through her still and could have kicked the door in self-frustration if he wasn’t afraid it would have scared her more.

He nodded slowly and lifted his hand from the doorknob, letting it fall to his side. Stepping from the door and sitting in an out-of-the way corner of the small bathroom; he averted his face and closed his eyes for good measure, giving her some privacy while keeping her company.

Listened to the rustle of clothes as she removed them, the small sighs and shifting rush of water down the sink as she washed.

The dull susurrus of the water flowing down the drain and the minute amount of gathering steam lulled him for a moment into a kind of trance. His head began bobbing so he opened his eyes and fought to stay awake.

“Y’alright?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the corner adjacent from his perch.

Her soft “Mhmm,” floated to him through the sparse mist. He risked a glance at her.

From the angle, he caught the suggestion of her curve of her hip and ass still encased in denim, the high-rising slope of her back and ridge of her shoulder blade bared to the air, her head tilted toward him to watch out of the corner of her eye. They met and he blushed, looking back down at the floor.

He hadn’t seen any other bruises, which eased the tension in his shoulders. They hadn’t tortured her. Hadn’t questioned her by the time he’d arrived.

“What did you mean, Daryl?”

He glanced up to her eyes, now affixed to the mirror. “Hmm?”

“When – when you got me out. What did you mean, ‘It weren’t no dream?’”

He blushed hot, looking back down at the ground and shifting to hook his arms around his legs, guilt and lust curling around the base of his cock and throat like a twisted rope he’d rather hang himself on. But she deserved to know. “When we’d been –

“D-Daryl, h –

Weak, airy like she was about to –

He surged to his feet and caught her just as she made a weak moan and fell into him. Her slight weight in his arms and bad balance sent him backward into the wall behind him. He took the impact heedlessly, attention riveted to her cooling skin and shivering body.

Beth!

She trembled harder in his arms and his grip tightened, regret and fear for her thrusting sharp and deep into his heart. He should have known, the dark patch standing out like a beacon against her skin, spreading in thin trails through her veins and her wide, frightened eyes filling with tears and darkness.

He’d done this. He’d put her here, put her in danger. He should have just stayed on the roadside and waved her on when she pulled up in her car, should have let them find him and died rather than drag her into his mess.

He wrapped his body around hers, tucked the blanket around them both and sat on the floor and pulled her into his lap to keep her off the tile. She gasped and mewled in pain and fear, eyes wide upon his and he held her close against his body in an effort to warm her. She tucked her burning forehead against his neck and he held her tightly until he was sweltering under the combined heat of the blanket and her rising and falling temperature.

He knew what she was going through. He hoped she’d survive: she had to. He’d gotten her water, shelter and safety of sorts and now all he could think of were the parallels, how cold he’d felt, how alone while his body was wracked with liquid flame pouring through his veins. He’d not seen a mirror but he was certain his eyes had been as bleeding-black as hers, skin just as yellowed-pale while his body fought against the evil substance inside them both. But he’d been alone and he remembered with a flash of dreaded prescience the moments between his heart beating frantically on a dirty warehouse floorwhile struggling to breathe and waking up choking in the dark where his memory was blank.

Remembered with anguish how Merle had looked so yellow-pale, eyes bleeding black like hers, had fought for his last breath and hadn’t taken another, black slowly seeping from the corners of his eyes and mouth. His blood ran cold at the fresh memory of watching his brother breathe his last, leaving him alone in the world.

He rocked her slowly, murmuring into her ear, “’m here, ’m here Beth, I got you, ain’t alone an I ain’t going nowhere, ’m staying with you, you’re strong girl, so strong, you can make it, I’ve got you, I ain’t lettin’ ‘em get you again,” something in his chest clenched and his words came faster, “’m so sorry Beth, so sorry, ’s my fault, all my fault, I did this to ya but you’re strong, you’re gonna make it through this, you’ll be okay. You gotta be okay. Got too much here waitin’ on you, too much, your daddy’s gonna kill me but good when he sees you again, he’ll see you again, he will and Shaun and Maggie and Glenn, Patricia and Otis they’re all gonna miss you, I’m gonna miss you, miss you so bad but you’ll get back to them, you have to. You have to…”

He murmured into her hair and held her close for a long, long time, touched his forehead to hers and looked into her lost, confused eyes as they contracted into sharp points. His heart lurched up into his throat and tears stung his eyes, clenched shut against them, flew open again as even her mind receded from his; only her heart beneath his flat hand, inappropriate but nothing sexual about it as he continued to feel her heart wildly beating into his palm and her bright spark like a warm fire which flared when she was angry and shone when she felt joy and layered with bitter acid whenever she’d been afraid.

It grew dull, like a cloud shifting over the sun and he held his breath, desperately pressing his hand to feel her heartbeat as it slowed, watched her dilated eyes staring at nothing and felt the bright star of her soul flicker once, twice –

Beseeching God, the Devil himself, he bargained, he threatened, he prayed. Prayed as he’d never done for himself. It was like watching a replay of Merle and he was distantly aware of warm wet on his cheeks and his breath coming in slow hesitant gasps as he watched and waited in agony, terror gripping him that each breath might be her last.

He prayed for what felt like forever. He lost count of her heartbeats and thought she’d pull through, but when it stuttered, a fresh dart of fear forked through him like lightning and he began praying again. Watching her eyes like his life depended upon it – perhaps his soul – he gently held her cheek in his hand and rocked her gently, beseeching God to let her live.

“Ain’t done here yet, girl. You ain’t finished. Yer Pa and brother an’ sister are here waitin’ for ya t’ get on home. I’ll take you home, girl, I promised you, don’t leave now, don’t leave me – ”

His voice broke as he continued with a whisper of demand, “Don’t make me take you back by myself. Please. You gotta make it through this, please God, let her live, you gotta make it, you’ll make it,” he watched her pulse and the bright clouded center of her and prayed until his voice no longer worked, until the edges of sky outside began to lighten with the first hints of dawn.

Her heart stopped.

His mind ceased comprehension, desperately trying to stop everything. Refused that reality. No, with every fiber of him, no. For that terrible moment, his world felt on the brink of disaster.

The light of her soul blinked out.

Then FLARED.

It shone with the force of the sun in his mind’s eye, brighter than the dawn and he watched with awed tears of relief as her pupils dilated and that defined spark of she filled them like water flowing back into a pool.

She took in a breath of air, gasping as though she’d been underwater and desperate for the stuff of life. She shuddered, back arching against his grip into a bow, fingers scrabbling for purchase on the floor, his leg, anything they could reach. The sweet sound of her shuddering breath and wordless cry of desperation were sweeter to him than the song she’d sung to him what felt like ages ago.

He hauled her upright, hauled because she was still struggling, moving as though she needed to, had to move to prove to herself that she was alive. She shook, fingers trembling as she clutched at his arms. Heaved in great gulps of air and he sobbed with relief as he held her close. Her grip tightened in his shirt, arms shaking as she pulled him as close as she could, pressed into him as though to merge her body with his, to escape that dark place she’d just passed through.

He was blind. In his mind’s eye he saw nothing, but he could feel her, the bright press of her all fresh poppies and sunshine and he let her in, felt the sick burn of fear chasing her like streaks of bad paint flaking off something that shouldn’t have had paint on it in the first place.

Her mind and body melted into him like a bird seeking shelter from a storm, and in a way, she was. He shifted, further enfolding her in his arms, re-wrapping the blanket around her shoulders and holding her living form for a long time.

Just to reassure himself, he stroked a gentle hand down the side of her face to her throat, pressing until he felt her life thundering beneath his fingertips.

Her skin was still sallow. Her eyes, though dark and red with tears, were quickly turning blue again. Her heart beat. She was alive.

He sensed, with that indefinite source blown open inside of him, that it was over. She’d recover like he had.

She’d live.

As long as he could keep her safe.

Chapter Text

For musical ambience, I played this on loop while writing about halfway through this chapter. Enjoy. I also created this picset for the chapter!

 

Wolf with Red Roses Chapter 11

Beth trembled as she dry-heaved into the sink, the nauseatingly sharp scent of what could only be described as sewage chewed on by an animal that died and rotted in the sun – she dry-heaved again as she banished the mental image and leaned away from the source of the stench. She felt Daryl behind her like a sun-warmed Rock of Gibraltar, his hands hot against her clammy skin. He’d helped her up when it started like he’d known and he probably had – she knew he had – even held her hair while she retched the foul substance. She leaned back, taking a small step away from the sink, back into Daryl’s arms and warmth.

She lay curled into his lap, leaning against him for a long time, resting her head against the heat of him, tucked beneath his chin. Her fingers absently brushed the hairs of his chest where the collar of his shirt ended and his skin began. His arms felt hot against the naked skin of her back, his thumb a gentle weight against the pulse of her throat while his fingers brushed through her cloudy disarray of curls.

It felt strange and familiar all at once, laying naked from the waist up in his arms while he was fully clothed. He’d been whispering to her, words she hadn’t bothered to comprehend for a long time except in the tone of comfort he offered, content and focused on breath. Feeling his pulse beneath her own fingertips where they rested over his collarbone, traced his pulse. The rise and fall as his lungs expanded, mimicking her own. Everything about him thrived with life.

The warmth had seeped back into her limbs, the sense of vertigo and un-reality receding just in time for her stomach to clench viciously.

She jerked up and away, lurching to the sink. Daryl helped her up and steadied her with hands on her hips. He threw the blanket around her shoulders, ever careful of her modesty and held her hair back as she heaved foul-smelling liquid like a painter’s black brush-water.

As she looked into the sink the substance began to congeal.

Daryl flicked on the hot water. The stench wafted up with the steam and she heaved again until her stomach came up empty, throat raw and tears – clear, normal tears – slowly leaving trails down her cheeks.

At least the crap was coming out of her system.

Daryl handed her the shirt she’d doffed to wash earlier and she looked at the sink with a sense of revulsion that curled around her spine like a great worm; she didn’t want to touch the sink ever again.

Though she kept the blanket around her shoulders to dress, she was both surprised and confused to find Daryl’s back to her. He was still giving her privacy to dress, even after. . . everything.

It made something in her chest ache uncomfortably, slowly making its way to the base of her throat. It hurt and felt good at the same time, the edges of distance and caring blurring together.

She was no longer surprised to find she wanted him close, wanted him to look. To see her. The sight of his back hurt.

Why is he so distant now ?

The regret left her feeling more than a little confused so she brushed it aside.

They went into the office where Daryl showed her the couch. Given her recent unconsciousness she wasn’t certain she could sleep, but found herself still bone-tired. She sat gratefully while Daryl stayed by the door.

“I’ll be right back.”

He left and after several minutes she heard him coming up the short flight of stairs, to the back door, which he’d left unlocked. He was carrying her bag and with a surprised start she caught sight of her guitar case held easily in his grip.

“You went back for it?”

“It was there at the gas station when we switched vehicles.” He set the bags down and handed her the case, she took it from him as the precious cargo it was. The familiar case was a welcome reminder of home and family, brighter, saner times. She looked up,  offering him a smile. He returned her look, though his was weary. He still managed to smile back, although it seemed  like it hurt somewhere inside.

How could he not? They were alive.

She was alive.

 

“You deserve the truth,” he’d said after they’d settled on the couch together, eating cans of fruit and beans stolen from a farmhouse across the road.

She looked at him from her seat across the couch. He kept his distance, carefully avoided touching her bare skin. She swirled her spoon in the can of diced peaches and gingerly took another bite.

The sweetness of it exploded on her tongue, the added sugars nearly overwhelming the flavor of overly ripe fruit. It was an odd sensation, tasting the hint of peach-skin and fuzz like a half-memory against her lips and tongue, memories of hundreds of peaches before this one.

The warmth of sunlight like a spice upon her tongue and the breeze wafting through the flickering leaves of the ancient trees swaying so, each one lovingly tended by the laughing children who rushed through the numerous rows. As the children grew and grumbled, they still lovingly picked the succulent fruits in warm summers for countless generations since they’d settled in the South to escape the persecution their ancestors fled in the old country.

Eyes wide and hands trembling, she firmly set down the spoon and can, taking a deep shuddering breath as she stared at the can. What was that?

The can was still warm, folded into its shape and dropped into a container with thousands more like it, the metal cooling slowly as the foreman looked up from his ––

“Hey.” She heard the voice as his warm hand closed on her shoulder and she started, looking at his blurry form with tears pricking her eyes.

“What’s happening to me?”

His eyes flicked over her face and –

Cold concrete, the edge of a curb on a dark night inches from his face. The gravelly surface scraped against his stubble as she lifted his pounding head and felt the world shift with it like a tilt-a-whirl

“Breathe – breathe, Beth.” He was on his knees before her, a hand hovering near her unmarked cheek as though he were afraid to touch her –

Compassion and sharp concern flowed through her like warm water over ice, slowly and steadily melting the fear away until it trickled down into gentle trails like rainwater dripping from her fingertips. The waves of fear began to ebb into the receding low tide. . .

Feeling steady, she found herself wondering: if he was alright, if and how she could comfort him; beneath his concern was an ache in his chest that echoed in her own. Her head tilted to one side and his mirrored the gesture as they gazed at each other. He swallowed.

What is it?

She reached for his cheek with one hand just as he raised both of his, cupped in the air in front of her face. They both hesitated, looked away for a moment.

“May I?” She nodded, a small thread of relief that she could do something – even so small a thing as acquiesce – to let him help. To help him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’unno,” he murmured, “Tryin’ somethin’.” His hands cupped her head like he was holding a downy bird, thumbs gently stroking her temples in slow rhythm. “Breathe,” he murmured, taking a deep breath.

She echoed the expansion of his lungs with her own. The ghost of twin sensations like dancer’s arms or wings flapping nearly in tandem in her chest  felt disconcerting, but she continued.

His hands, solid against her head, pressed gently as they breathed in slowly, held the breath and let it out. They repeated the pattern, closing her eyes and gradually the inward focus of their tandem breath echoing in her head and chest slowed her heart rate, eased the edge of the tension coiled around her spine. The vestiges of her headache slowly vanished like shadows melting in the golden rays of the pale dawn.

She felt herself. The grime still on her body, the sweat still clinging to her skin even after the sponge bath she’d given herself, the ache in her shoulder where the needle had –

Beth!

Her eyes flew open, meeting his sharp blue and holding. She focused on his face to keep her mind from being dragged back into darkness. Back into the nether of memories and sensations both her own and other. The dim light of the room, sun spilling through the yellowed windows made the dust-motes golden in the ethereal rays.

They back-lit him so he glowed like an angel, made his dark hair appear black. His thick mane had fallen in front of his eyes, yet it didn’t obscure her view of the endless sky in his irises. There were bags beneath his eyes – he looked tired, he always looked so tired – but she suspected that with sleep and time they’d diminish. His cheeks were rough with sparse, coarse hair, thicker around his lips and chin like he’d once kept a trim goatee.

His lips were a narrow heart shape which reminded her of the ‘cupid’s-bow’ she kept hearing about in the Cosmo magazines her sister had given her once she was finished.

She suddenly wanted to see what those eyes of his would look like if he smiled, really smiled. If he saw fit to laugh at something – anything –that gave him pleasure, without the fear and shadows like rabid dogs waiting to bite at his heels.

Another breath was drawn in and released and his shoulders relaxed seconds after hers.

“You’re alright,” he stated. Her lips quirked into the smallest of half-smiles for a second.

“Yeah,” she nodded slowly, “I’m alright.”

They ate in silence, she cautiously and he with half an eye on her. She felt his eyes like a brush of feather against the canvas tent-wall which marked her personal space. It, like so much else, was an odd sensation, but it wasn’t intrusive and beat the alternative of encroaching madness.

Which, in itself, could be a kind of madness.

“Am I going insane?” she asked the silence of her empty peach can.

Daryl paused, solemn as he looked into the bottom of his own near-empty can of stolen food. “No,” he said quietly, “but it’ll feel like it for a while. Y’gotta kinda…

“Hold my head together?”

He nodded. “Yeah.” He looked at her, the shadows of his hair seeming darker suddenly as he turned to her, half his face in shadow, the other illuminated by the spare light from the low window, “M’sorry Beth. I never wanted this for you, tried to keep Them from –

He couldn’t finish the sentence and the pain in his voice made her chest ache in echo.

The ache turned sharp and pointed, moving up to her throat, angry and bitter and guilty like a splash of copper on the tongue and she let the words slowly pull themselves from her mouth like barbs strung on a wire. “I was doomed the moment I stopped for you.” He winced and clenched his eyes, turned his face into the shadows. His shame, his guilt, was palpable.

“Might've been better,” he muttered bitterly, “if y’hadn’t stopped.”

She let him hide for a moment, watching him, the spark of truth and anger fizzling into ash in her chest as she considered what would have happened if she hadn’t stopped. If – when – They found him on that long stretch of lonely highway.

In her mind’s eye, she saw him walking down that road into the sunset and from within the growing dark stretch of his own shadow came an equally dark hand with too many fingers, too many joints to be human with claws sharp and fine as needles, reaching for him –

No !”

She reached up and cupped his face in her palm, pulling him back into the light as she gently turned him to look at her. “No,” her voice a tight whisper, “They’d have killed you if I hadn’t stopped.” The doubt in his gaze warred with something darker as he met her relentless eyes.

“It don’ matter, girl.”

“It does matter.” Through her confused emotions, the whirl of aching chest and short breath curling amidst the twin knots of her stomach and throat, she willed him to see it all, the truth and the lack of regret in her heart, see it there in her eyes. “I couldn’t bear it.”

He stared at her, his blue eyes a deepening shade even in the light, a quiet settling between them that belied the storm she sensed roiling inside him like the thunderheads from the night before. He licked his lips and opened his mouth to speak but his voice was trapped in his throat. Those eyes flicked down to her lips and her heart stopped for a moment. The air thickened and time suspended. She waited, anticipation simmering in her veins like a kettle on low heat.

“You deserve to know the truth,” he said. The words hung on the air between screaming-nerve emotions and the volumes of silence stacked between them.

Spell broken, she withdrew her hand and vulnerability. A small sigh and banked emotions sank her into the couch. She waited while he looked at her and wondered where to begin.

 

“Like I said before, Merle got ‘hold a something and started acting paranoid days later. Thought someone – some thing – was after him. Thought he’d gotten ‘hold a some bad scratch . Started with unplugging the electronics, screeching at me for havin' the radio on in th’ truck.

“Then he vanished for a few days. Never knew where he went, just thought he was on a bender like usual. S’what I told myself, anyway. Figured he’d turn up when he was done sellin’ shit and gettin’ high. Then. . . he came back…

As he continued Beth found herself getting flashes. Images popped up in her mind, unbidden.

“Merle called me, said it was urgent.”

Dark hallway, phone to his ear, Merle’s voice on the other end. “I found it,” he said, voice shaking, “I found it and They want it. Want it bad...y’gotta come get me, bro, I can’t leave here or they’ll find me.”

“Went to go get ‘im.”

Driving his crappy two-door, an uncommonly hard summer storm washing away the heat until the night was cold. The air fogging with his breath and chilling his bones the closer he got to the train station.

“Had no idea why he was there, but he rushed outta there as fast as he could.”

Merle, hair close-cropped so she thought him bald at first, came rushing out of the old derelict building, clutching something to his chest as he ducked his head in the rain.

“We were off and still he wouldn’t tell me anything.”

He shook his head frantically, eyes wide in his face and mouth all hard lines. “No,” he said fiercely, “I ain’t gonna get you into this any further. You drop me off where I said and get the fuck away, you do it, understand? No trying to be the fucking hero this time…”

“But they found us anyway. They always do .” His hand grasped hers for a moment, squeezing, I’m sorry, into her fingers.

She squeezed back and his head ducked, hiding his face once more, but she recognized the grief which was still and might forever be sunk deep in his chest like a knife. She swirled her fingers over his knuckles as he gathered himself, letting him know with her touch that she was there, with her silence that she understood.

He continued and she barely heard the words, this time focusing more on the mental images and soon they began to unfold like an old film, black and white and sepia and blood-drenched crimson across her mind’s eye.

“Something like a man was in the road ...

Rain like daggers through the headlights, the man-shape indistinct, a heavy black-brown and slick like he -it- whatever it was, might’ve been wearing a coat. Merle screamed. Car swerved. Then the ditch came into sharp focus and everything went black.

Light. Faint. Red, like it was coming out of the memory of flame.

Exit.

The sign was recessed deep in shadow, like an great black screen had formed over the world, a darkness had seeped into the place and the exit sign was the last bastion of light’s remnant rebellion. Red: the color of dying suns.

“I suppose,” said a drawling voice, “You’re wondering why you’re here.” A face came into view. It wasn’t hard to picture Walsh’s drawl and mug. Movement. Coughing.

They were both tied into chairs, facing one another. Flexing his hands into fists and pulling up sharply made the rope bite into his skin and something harder - metal -  into his wrists.

“Leave ‘im alone,” Merle said in a rasping voice, “He don’ know anythin’.”

Walsh beat Merle and made Daryl watch. Asked him questions which were answered with sneering comparison to their childhood fallen between the cracks.

When that failed to get a rise out of Merle, failed to break him, Walsh pulled out the wet-works: sharp utensils cobbled together from bits of broken glass, a selection of dirty car parts and small tools, some of which Daryl didn’t recognize at all. Merle didn’t flinch. But Walsh...he had an idea. A terrible, clever idea.

As Walsh walked slowly around his chair he had a sinking feeling in his gut. He knew what was coming and the unexpected shame made him look away from Merle’s face at the ground. Walsh roughly tore open the back of his shirt, exposing the scars beat into him years before. Scars that Merle hadn’t been there to witness. Scars he was careful to hide from prying eyes and inevitably painful questions.

He heard Walsh’s surprised intake of breath and scoffed.

Why? Why did it matter when he knew what was coming next?

It didn’t matter, not while Walsh taunted Merle, not as the bastard took a piece of glass and began the work of making new scars. It took him some time before he realized that their captor was avoiding the scars and again he had to wonder, why?

As the glass-edge sank deeper, as the pain grew and sweat seeped through his skin with the blood, Daryl began to tremble. To clench his eyes shut and grunt in pain as the path of the blade met a scar, cut through the thicker tissue with greater force.

Merle’s jaw was clenched, fists white, muscles straining against their bonds. He kept his eyes locked to Daryl’s and watched in helpless fury.

Though Daryl tried not to scream, he could feel his resolve cracking and if he broke entirely, there was no telling what Merle might do. He poured the leak into a torrent of words, pleaded with Merle to hold on, not to give in no matter what was done to him in a string of words that might have been nonsensical.

They argued while Walsh cut into him in Merle’s stead and when the brothers refused to break, held each other together with voices slurred and heavy with pain both old and new, he cursed and spat on them.

“I didn’t want to do this,” Walsh whispered roughly. He set the glass down and picked up a large-handled tool with a wheeled head and something curved and sharp at the tip. Slowly he fingered them with revulsive tenderness, each one singled out so he’d know which were next, what memories might be opened anew as the tough tissues parted under his cruel ministrations.

This time Daryl’s eyes stayed on Merle, glared defiance at his brother, daring him to keep silent.

“Don’t you do it,” he thought. “Don’t you give in now .”

But Daryl did scream.

When the last mark had been opened and then some without the answers he wanted, Walsh was furious.

He drew out a syringe.

Called out to Them .

They came out of the darkness, indistinct figures taller than men but holding men’s shapes. He couldn’t clearly see them through the shadows that seemed to follow and flow around them but they were solid enough; one of them slid a hand down his back, almost a loving caress after the brutality screaming through his nerves.

It pulled its clammy hand from his flesh and there was a suckling sound, a deep-throated grunt of pleasure.

Walsh used the needle to pierce the wrist of the creatures as one of them offered the limb silently, following directions he couldn’t hear...or maybe Walsh just knew what to do. The stuff was black in the darkness, a cylinder filled with solid obsidian for all he could tell.

Merle looked at them with grim defiance as they injected him, laughed in Walsh’s face when he depressed the plunger. He kept his eyes on his brother and by silent agreement they said nothing.

“Let Them get to work on you,” Walsh had said.

They all left. Walsh nodded his head wordlessly and they all walked back toward the darkness and the exit sign, the rebellious light a traitor in the end and allowing their passage.

“They gone?” Daryl breathed. Merle nodded. “We need to get outta here.” He was already working on the rope he could reach. He’d been slowly fingering the knots and thought he could work himself free. Had to, whether he could or not. Dixons were fighters. He wasn’t going to give up.

Merle started talking about Them. How he’d found a statue hidden inside a box with a false bottom amongst the belongings their Dad had hidden away in storage.

It was simple yet skillfully crafted, reminiscent of an ancient Kachina doll or a caveman’s artifact perhaps. It was scary in its simplicity, a wooden figurine of a hooded man-like shape, distorted and disguised by the gently flowing robes which kept it hidden, covered in an old dark cloth that somehow hadn’t been touched by decay. Something in a fancy-ass language scratched into the bottom and through where someone had tried to remove it.

He brought it with him, to his apartment with the rest of the most expensive goods and planned to hock it all. Found two buyers, people who would offer him thousands between them for what he had. He might even go somewhere to have the statue appraised.

But before he could sell the shit They had started invading. It was simple at first, items around and inside the boxes had been moved, shifted in his apartment. The camera picked up nothing, didn’t even work with periods of static after which things had been moved.

One night, in a drunken and high haze he woke to find someone leaning over him, cold breath in his face. He couldn't make out the eyes, only a dark figure. He called the cops - a first - and reported the break-in but they didn’t do anything. Then his apartment had been ransacked. He figured it was a good time to go to the buyer's early, offer a discount if someone wanted what he had so badly. But with a sick feeling in his stomach he figured it was that creepy-ass statue he’d found.

He could take the most expensive of the pieces and offer the buyers discount deals on them, get rid of them and have the money before whoever was searching his stuff could find it, find him. Lucky he was a paranoid fucker: he’d kept the most expensive items with him, in his car.

That night he drove all the way to Winnetka and sold the first box, sliding the statue inside. Good riddance.

The hooded figure was back. It demanded the statue, said it smelled it on him. Played dumb. When it reached for him, he batted the hand away, a cold clammy thing like the hand that had so lovingly touched the bleeding mess of Daryl’s back.

Merle’s voice broke as he apologized. For dragging Daryl into this mess, for having to watch while they tortured him.

He said that the sky was in his veins, that he could see what they’d done, though they were facing each other and couldn’t possibly, not unless there’d been a mirror behind him. Daryl tried to shrug it off, told Merle they’d get out of there, that he almost had the ropes undone.

As he worked, Merle began to moan with the pain. He ground out through clenched teeth that it felt like fire, psychedelic shit, his voice reflecing horror that they’d drawn it out of the arm of what looked like a dead man walking, if a man could be so tall and thin, skin a mottled and wet-looking blue-white beneath the black clothes they wore, like they were dressed for their own funerals.

Or theirs.

Daryl worked at the ties with fumbling fingers, tugging harder, working them loose too slowly as his brothers pain visibly increased, sweat breaking out on his brow.

Merle started babbling about how he was fucked, he was damned for his life and for dragging Daryl along with him. That his little brother always had been the good one. The Good One. How he tried to protect that little light inside of him since they were boys and how he hated him for it too, tried to drag him down and make Daryl like himself but only did it so he could keep him close, so he could keep from sliding too far over the edge, and getting himself killed on a highway in the middle of nowhere.

He told Daryl that he’d be okay. That he’d get out, find a way to break free and get away from Them..

Daryl pleaded, begged him to shut the fuck up and go to work on the ties, but Merle spat blood which looked black in the dim light and laughed, said it was a good thing he couldn’t reach him or he’d be dead too.

It hurt, vague threat, but Merle was delirious, he couldn’t mean it so he barked at him, tried to catch his attention when he began babbling again about angels and demons and monsters worse than their Daddy could ever dream, how it was all true.

Everything was true.

Merle leaned his head back, looked up and smiled, black tears escaping his eyes. In a soft, strained, awed voice he said the stars went on forever and it was beautiful. That if these things existed than surely so did Heaven and that’s where he’d send his baby brother if he got the chance. No Hell for him. No fire. No pain and despair and damnation.

Daryl pulled at the rope; he was almost free, save the cuffs now surely cutting into his skin, sending trickles of warm blood down his fingers as he worked the knots a little more at a time. The work was slow; too slow. They were running out of time, he could feel it and Merle said so before he could voice it.

It chilled him to the core, the thought that Merle might not be insane with fear and deliriously high after all.

Merle’s tears were flowing freely now. He smiled through a mask of twisted pain, forced the words out between his teeth and gasping breath. “Get out of here, baby brother. Get out of here and run, far away. You’ll get away. Some angel will help you, I just know it. Don’t stop running. Never look back. They’re nowhere and everywhere and I’m not wasting my last minutes here telling you to run so you can fight them to death. I’m sorry, for dragging you into my last mess like this. Didn’t deserve it. Never did. Never deserved you, don’t know why you followed me all the damn time.”

“You’re my brother,” he said plaintively, love and grief already thick in his voice.

Merle looked at him, nearly smiled around a wad of black spittle coughed up from a deep rattle in his chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. He began crying, the black flowing down his face like an exploded ballpoint pen. “I hope you can forgive me. Maybe if you do, I can...please forgive me, I don’t wanna-

He coughed one more time, choked. Daryl watched, helpless tears streaming down his own cheeks as he struggled, tipped his chair over and screamed his helpless rage. His eyes were locked on his brother, cheek dug into the hard surface as he struggled to free himself and reach his brothers side.

He finally managed to press his head against Merle’s ankle, begged him to open his eyes. He smeared his face through a patch of black blood on the ground as he wept, alternating between screams of rage and grief. His whole body shook with it.

Daryl’s body was wracked with sobs and Beth pulled him into her. He went without resistance, leaning on her, his hot breath and tears made her shoulder damp and of course she didn’t care. She held on to him and felt the weight of grief like his body resting against hers and cried silent tears for him in the face of it.

He didn’t know it, but he was nearly free. Distantly he noted it in the back of his mind while he cried for his brother, now hopelessly lost, an ugly travesty in the face of his favorite joke; that with all of the stupid shit he’d done it was an overdose that would kill him. These words, cruelly echoed by the beings standing over him like grim mountains of stone and mist.

“You gave it too much.”

“Give the other one less.”

“It’s been a long time since we’ve shared.”

“It’s mind was too small for the world.”

“It doesn’t take much. This one is new; it’ll learn.”

Sick with dread he felt a sharp pain as a needle sank into him and liquid fire was pushed into his veins.