abelina: made by xtanitx (fool-on-the-hill)
[personal profile] abelina
Title: Fall Right In
Author: Abelina/Abby/Abelinajt
Fandom/Pairing: The Walking Dead - Beth Greene/Daryl Dixon (Bethyl)
Setting: Season 4, Alone-divergence.
Rating: E/NC17
Summary: If Beth hadn’t interrupted him when she did, calling him back with the melody of her voice, he might’ve done something dumb like opening the door for a doomed dog and maybe dooming them both while he was at it. Beth and Daryl escape the funeral home together. An Alone-divergence Bethyl story.
Notes: Chapter title taken from lyrics to White Flags by Our Lady Peace.


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Fall Right In
Chapter 42 - We’re Raising Our White Flags and Holding Our Breath


*~*

The hallway outside room thirteen was wider and brighter than Daryl remembered from last night, when everything had blurry edges and the high, looming walls wanted to swallow him whole. When all he could do was just keep following Beth, focus on matching her footsteps so he didn’t stumble in that tricky light. With his vision blurred and his head spinning, it was the only thing he had to keep his mind off the pain, the tremor threatening to shake him apart at the seams until Beth could stitch him back together again.

But it was bright this morning. His vision had cleared and he could almost fully open his left eye with barely a pinch of pain. Light streamed into the big room at the far end, from the wrong direction to stretch down the hall but the way it glowed there, beckoning, was enough to take this high, narrow hallway and make it feel a bit like a trail through the woods. Like some little woodsy path, old growth trees rising up tall on either side of it, leading to a sunlit meadow there in the distance.

Welcoming or not, though, they were still amongst strangers, and that wasn’t something that could be undone by a bit of sunlight. Voices floated in from the nearer end of that long hall, past the final two rooms and through a similar wooden door. Seeing it, he remembered shuffling through something that could’ve been a kitchen, from the glimpses he caught of it at the edges of the lantern light. Which meant breakfast, and their hosts, waited just beyond that heavy wooden barrier.


Daryl stopped a couple of paces away, and turned back to Beth. “You good, Greene?”

Beth let her shoulder fall against the wall, arms once again wrapped around her middle, and eyed the door with something of an unreadable storm churning in her eyes. She nodded without taking her eyes off it. “Yeah. Gotta be, right?”

It was about the best answer he could hope for, as much as he hated seeing that grimness in her and hated it even more that he couldn’t fix it. There was nothing to be done about it, not now, not until she could fight through it herself, so he returned her nod and tipped his chin toward the door. “Right. C’mon.”

They stepped inside and stopped there, just far enough in to let the door swing shut behind them. Daryl hadn’t known what to expect, heading out of the relative safety of the room to join these strangers. Certainly not a scene like something straight outta Mayberry, or one of them country women’s magazine’s Ma used to torture herself dreaming over between bottles of Blue Nun.

Ivory coloured walls plastered like cake icing, exposed beam ceiling just low enough to be cozy but high enough not to close in. Endless cupboards and mismatched cabinets, counter space, a mixture of dark stained wood and that scuffed paint, pale green and off-white, the same two colours old things were always done in. Knickknacks and hanging plants, cross-stitch circles, children’s art, and old photographs in mismatched frames. Pots and pans suspended from the ceiling on a giant metal frame and layers of patterned aprons dangling from a bare wood coat rack. A rocking chair, sat over in the corner with a pair of Siamese cats curled up in it, next to a fireplace of whitewashed brick hosting a clutter of keepsakes atop the wood beam mantle.

And light. So much of it streaming in from the wall of windows in front of him, barely dampened by the gauzy curtains hanging over them, and for a few dizzying seconds after stepping into this kitchen, Daryl Dixon was a scrawny little kid again in clothes that were two sizes too small, wearing shoes that pinched, standing all lit up in a tiny patch of memories kept safe from the fire and ash raining down all around him.

He’d never had a grandmother, or at least, not one he could remember. Never much considered what it’d be like to have one, either, except for those few months after Merle was gone but before the fire, and all them other boys talked about theirs like grandmothers were something special and amazing; one more valuable thing they had and he didn’t. And that got him thinking about his, whoever she was. If she even existed in the first place. What she’d be like—sometimes little and fat, sometimes tall and bony, but always smiling, and she’d smell of brown sugar and black tea and cookies fresh out of the oven. Oatmeal with chocolate chips, there on the table with a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade whenever he came to visit, hot and sweaty from running since he didn’t have no bike to get there.

He hadn’t thought about her in years, this imaginary grandmother. That kind old woman who burnt up in that fire, right down to ashes beneath Mama’s bed, but he remembered her now. Remembered, because in his mind she always had a kitchen like this one.

A wave of nausea swept through him, but one breath, then two, and it faded away, taking with it the extra bit of tension he was unaware of until right then. Until it eased from across his shoulders, and Daryl didn’t know whether he should trust it or not, if that lingering unease was Beth’s nerves rubbing off on him, or was this sense of relief just a parlour trick brought on by some well-placed decor. Another trick of light and shadows, like the hallway before but on a much bigger scale. But grandmother or not, nerves or not, there was something inviting about this kitchen, in a way he never thought a kitchen could be even in the depths of his childhood imaginings.

Like stepping out of time, almost. Back before the turn. Back before kitchens had things like ranges or refrigerators in them, of which this one had neither. Just an ancient-looking iron cook stove, wood-burning from the smell of it, older even than the rest of the kitchen around it.

An old woman stood there, hunched over a steaming pot, humming as she stirred its contents with a whisk. Wisps of grey hair peeked out from her flowered kerchief and trailed down her back in a thick braid long enough to reach the ties of the bumblebee-patterned apron she wore.  She was all mismatched layers of fabric bulk in a thick patchwork sweater and knit shawl, long green skirt with tiny pink flowers all over it that nearly skimmed the floor. Enough to make her look about as round as she was tall, even with the inch of heel on those sturdy brown boots, except Daryl suspected she was actually quite tiny under it all. He couldn’t drag his eyes away from those hands, the pale, spotted skin, almost translucent where it stretched over thick, twisted knuckles. If he hadn’t seen her with his own eyes, Daryl would have bet just about anything that there was nobody that old left alive in this world.

He watched her work, only vaguely aware of Beth coming to stand beside him, but when she clutched at his fingers and let out a little gasp, he glanced over to find her staring, not at the old woman, but at the space beside her.

Curly—Orion—stood there, his right eye every bit as black as Daryl’s left and both of Beth’s, tending to something sizzling in a skillet and looking more childlike despite the shiner than he had at all yesterday, in a White Sox t-shirt and plaid pajamas, chatting happily to his elder cooking partner. Beth’s nervous little smile shifted into a genuine one, small but warm. Shit. He hadn’t even noticed, he was so out of it, that Orion wasn’t there last night when they arrived, but he bet Beth had. Of course she had. Of course the boy’s absence weighed on her as much as all the rest.

Beth’s gasp, although quiet, alerted the others to their arrival. The din of conversation from the long wood slab table in the centre of the room died down as Greg Hunter got to his feet and crossed the room to greet them. Beth’s smile fell, not completely away but enough, and though she didn’t shrink back, her spine stiffened and she shifted to face Greg straight-on as he approached, her free hand tightening against her shirt where the strap of her crossbow would be, if she’d brought it.

She had her knife, and had lent Daryl her gun. These days nobody went unarmed even to breakfast. Greg wore his weapons this morning, both handgun and knife secured to his belt, and Daryl was willing to bet the other bodies gathered back there at the table were packing theirs, too. Beth wanted to bring her crossbow and she could’ve done it without anyone batting an eye about it. But if she didn’t bring it, she couldn’t use it, couldn’t repeat what happened at the farm even if things got bad, and in the end, she decided to leave it on the counter where she placed it last night.

Being without it now that she’d gotten used to carrying it didn’t help her nerves, though—and didn’t he understand that feeling. Daryl let go of her hand and slipped his fingers under the back of her shirt, let them graze across her skin before laying his palm flat, like maybe that could soothe the constant tremor underneath. Beth sighed and drew up just that much taller when Greg arrived, stopping in front of them a hair before what Daryl would’ve considered too close.

His gaze took them both in, sliding from Beth to Daryl and back again, and though he didn’t let it show, Daryl was certain he hadn’t missed Beth’s unease. “Daryl. Beth. You’re lookin’ rested this morning.”

Daryl wasn’t so sure about rested, with the two of them as battered as they were, as tired and as sore as he was now that the amnesia of sex had worn off, but Greg seemed the type to know when not to fuss over shit like that. He stuck out his hand, fighting through the clench in his belly to grasp Greg’s in greeting. “Somethin’ like that. Uh. Thanks.”

“Thank you,” Beth echoed a second later, with a nervous little smile and a quick nod of her head as she accepted Greg’s handshake, too.

Greg inclined his head to her, then released her hand to gesture toward the table and the faces waiting there. “C’mon and join us. You’re just in ti—”

An Orion-shaped blur of black and white streaked in behind Greg and ran full speed into Beth, rocking her backward as he wrapped her up in a fierce bear-hug. “Beth! You’re really here!”

Beth got her feet under her and even managed a little huffed laugh as she returned the boy’s hug for a few seconds before gently urging him back, hands on his shoulders so she could look at him. “Thanks to you. You found a way to help after all.”

Orion’s grin widened and so did Beth’s, and she looked so much like herself when her focus narrowed down to just Orion that Daryl’s chest ached the tiniest bit, for the loss of this easy brightness in her. But if she could find it at all, the Beth she wanted to be, she could find it for good. She just had to get there.

Orion bobbed his head, grinning, those thick spiral curls bouncing everywhere. “Uncle Greg promised, but I didn’t know. They made me go to bed.”

“Such hardship,” Greg said, dryly, breaking into Beth’s moment enough to throw a few cracks in the surface.

Beth stood back, her smile fading away as Orion twisted around to wrinkle his nose up at his uncle, a gesture which Greg returned for a few brief seconds before his expression sobered. “C’mon now, Orion, let them sit. You don’t want ‘em to starve after workin’ so hard to get them here, do you?”

Orion turned back to Beth, clasping his hands together in front of him. “Grannie makes the best biscuits and gravy. I hope you’re hungry!”

Beth managed a slightly tighter smile, and flicked her gaze up to catch his. “We are. Right, Daryl?”

Orion’s eyebrows lifted high on his forehand and he let out a little oh, like he had forgotten Daryl existed when in the presence of Beth Greene.  He shifted to face Daryl, and the boyishness melted away until he stood there like a darker, smaller Greg Hunter, holding out his hand. “Orion David.”

The boy’s grip was solid, firm. Everything Daryl’d expect from someone as familiar with a bow as Orion was, regardless of his age. “Daryl Dixon.”

“I’m sorry I drew on you.” Orion let go of Daryl’s hand and scuffed his boots, one at a time, on the stone floor. “I thought you were one of Dane’s men, but I should’ve known.”

In hindsight, the whole thing was ridiculous. The two of them bagging the same goose at the same time and if those assholes hadn’t interrupted them, it might’ve been downright funny, once they sorted out who they were and who they weren’t. But what happened wasn’t on Curly and the he didn’t need to go around thinking it was, either.

Daryl waved the apology away. “Nah, we’re good, kid.”

Orion’s grin stretched wide, and with it came the return of that cheerful boy, a complete contrast to the fierce child from yesterday or even the formal little man from a minute ago.

“Come on, then. Let’s eat.”

Orion skipped back across the room to join the old woman. Drawn by the scents wafting over from the stove, mouth-watering in a way food rarely was these days, and the allure of something so fucking normal as biscuits and gravy for breakfast, Daryl followed. Beth, too, bravely moving toward the faces staring up at her from the far side of the table. When they settled on the bench, she reached for his leg, fingers digging in until he gave her his hand to hold. Looking at her, he could see it—eyes opened just a little too wide as she stared at the empty plate in front of her, jaw tense, short, shallow breaths coming quicker than they ought to—but only ‘cause he knew what to look for.

Ignoring the eyes on him, Daryl turned to her, leaned in until he could whisper in her ear. “All right?”

The shudder in her breath was subtle, but he heard it. Felt it through her shoulder where it rested against his, even as she nodded her head and hummed.

Gotta be.

Gotta be, but she wasn’t, and Daryl was sure he could almost hear her guts tying themselves into knots with all these people looking at her. He squeezed her hand tighter, stroked his thumb over the back of it. If ever there was a time for her to put her mind reading skills to work it was now, as he willed her to trust herself. She wasn’t going to fuck up. She could do it—talk to these people, be okay around them. The hard part was over. She got them out, got them here, all on her own without any help from his useless ass. Now they just needed to get through breakfast and figure out what came next.

Next, or the most immediate form of it, were the people themselves, the majority of them looking at him and Beth without trying to make it obvious that was what they were doing. Most, because the old woman, now seated at the head of the table, was staring. As Daryl turned to look at her straight on, she met his gaze with eyes far too bright for a person that old—almost violently blue, clear as glass and every bit as sharp as the brown eyes of the little boy who called her Grannie, despite the deep lines etched into her weather-worn face. Daryl knew when he was being studied and this woman’s scrutiny wriggled in the back of his skull. Not exactly unpleasant but not completely comfortable, either, like she was trying to look right inside his head to see what made him tick, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

From down the other end of the bench, Greg spoke. “My grandmother, Irene Hunter.”

The words broke through that chain holding him there, and Daryl finally turned from her, to look toward Greg beside him, but it was Orion, standing over at the stove, who spoke next.

“Grannie doesn’t say much.” Orion cast the woman—Mrs. Hunter, ‘cause he sure as hell wasn’t gonna call her Irene—a fond look as he placed a plate of steaming biscuits in the centre of the table next to a small crystal dish full of butter. “Well, not with words, anyway.”

From the head of the table came a wheezy laugh, just a short chuckle combined with a wide, toothless grin. Mrs. Hunter touched her fingertips to her lips and tossed the kiss toward Orion, who caught it and slapped it to his forehead with a little laugh of his own. When she turned her gaze to Daryl this time, the appraising glare had vanished, though not the sharpness, as she gave him a single, slow nod.

He liked her, this old woman. On principle he liked anyone who didn’t clog things up with unnecessary words but there was something else about her, this grandmother, not at all like the one he made up, but something he wanted to think of as good.

“Ma’am.” He returned her nod and imagined tipping his hat to her, if he had one. Like Rick mighta done with that sheriff’s hat of his.

The thought of Rick made his belly clench, and it kept on clenching even as the old woman turned her sights on Beth with something of the same appraisal, albeit gentler somehow.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Hunter,” Beth said, and though he could hear that she meant the words, her voice was thin, like watered-down soda.

While Orion fussed at the stove with the rest of the food, Greg announced him and Beth to the people at the table in that formal way he had, as though everyone there didn’t already know who they were, and almost in unison they all dropped the act to directly face the newcomers in their midst.

Daryl recognized the two men seated across from him from the meeting last night, and he didn’t need to be told that Alec and Thaniel Hodges were father and son, going by the look of them. A likeness so absolute he could’ve been looking at photographs of the same man taken decades apart, right down to the tidy beards and close-cropped hair. The elder of them looked about Greg’s age, with curls of silver in his beard and a generous helping of it in his hair as well, while the younger was somewhere closer to Beth, both beard and hair solid black.

“Alec is my brother,” Greg added, sharing a look with the other man. “He and his children, Thaniel and Bex, are my family.”

Not by blood, or not likely so, but Daryl understood that more than he wanted to. Knew well how men who weren’t born brothers could still end up that way just as well as men who were could drift apart. That damn clench returned to his belly, digging deeper this time, sharp little claws poking weeping little holes into his guts. Reminding him why they were even there in the first place, why their journey had led them to cross paths with these people. Beneath the table, Beth tightened her grip on his hand. Maybe she was dealing with her own shit, but maybe she was listening to the words and thinking about them, too, the family they lost, blood and otherwise.

Of course she was. He squeezed back and leaned into her, pressed their shoulders together the littlest bit harder. Anchored himself to her touch as much as she was doing with him, and dragged his mind back to the words being spoken by their host, here and now.

Next to the men sat a girl with golden brown hair, curled into a long ponytail draped over her shoulder the same as Beth wore hers this morning. Not Alec’s daughter, as Daryl had assumed before he really looked at her, but Orion’s sister.

Greg inclined his head toward the girl. “My niece, Diana David.”

Daryl couldn’t see all of her face, as she was the only one paying them zero attention, focusing instead on something in her lap even when Greg mentioned her name, but the shape of her nose and lips and the slope of her forehead reminded him strongly of Orion. Somewhat older than him, though, and while she gave him and Beth a cursory wave, she seemed altogether uninterested in entertaining guests.

Didn’t bother him none, if she didn’t want to speak or even look up, but Orion hissed her name from down the other end of the table. She ignored it, just kept on reading, and so did Greg, choosing instead to turn toward the last person seated there at the far end of the table—the dark-haired woman from last night.

Daryl hadn’t seen her up close, hadn’t gotten a good look at her face, but the hair was right, and the slightness of her, short and slim even though the bathrobe she was wearing. No bathrobe this morning but there was a baby. Just a little thing, maybe a couple months old from what Daryl could see of it, the little hand curled against its mother’s chest, a hint of a teeny ear and a tuft of black hair past the blanket it was wrapped up in.

Something different crept into Greg’s otherwise neutral smile, a look similar to the one he wore when he spoke to Orion before, only more tender, somehow, like something Daryl wasn’t even meant to see. “My wife, Sandrine Hunter, and our son, Sébastien.”

Sandrine pulled the baby away from her tit, propped him up on her shoulder to pat his back. “My apologies for not properly greeting you both last night, but Monsieur Sébastien had other ideas, didn’t you, mon petit coeur?”

The baby grunted and burped, and Beth’s grip on Daryl’s hand tightened. He turned to find her staring wide-eyed at the curve of that small back and the gentle hand patting it, lingering there for a few hard seconds before wrenching her gaze away to focus on her plate. Then Orion arrived with the rest of the food—slices of apple, strips of fried meat, and then a pot of gravy—and he let the thought slip away as he took in the spread.

Gravy. Actual gravy, thick and creamy and rich with little chunks of meat in it, and his whole mouth ached just looking at it, never mind what the smell of it promised. Orion served Mrs. Hunter and then slid into his seat between Thaniel and Diana, and that seemed to be the cue to dig in.  There was just enough food, not too much or too little. Might be fancier than most breakfasts he’d faced since the world ended—or ever, if he wanted to be that honest—but nothing here was wasted. By the time Greg dished up, the biscuit tray held only crumbs and his spoon scraped the bottom of the gravy pot.

Conversation erupted again once the eating started, an easy circuit between everyone aside from Mrs. Hunter and Diana, the former nodding and following along with the conversation despite not speaking, and the latter mostly pushing her food around her plate without really eating much of it, and ignoring, or appearing to ignore, what was happening around her. Daryl listened in while he ate, taking small bites and chewing slow ‘cause his jaw hurt, lost in some of the everyday details of managing this place.  The concept of it wasn’t unfamiliar, though. How many mornings had he sat with the council, or just with Rick and Hershel or whoever, little bowl of breakfast in hand, going over what needed doing that day? The specifics were different but the rest of it was the same, right down to last night’s meeting. He knew a council when he saw one, knew how it looked to gather everyone together in the middle of the night when something came up worth meeting on.

There was comfort in that, and it didn’t need no deep thinking to wonder why. At the same time, it worried him that maybe he was too eager to cling to something he recognized when everything else around him had become just so different. Beth’s unease tugged hard at his spine, refusing to let him forget as she seemed to shrink there beside him. Disengaging a little more each second, eyes downcast as she ate her meal with little outward signs of enjoyment, though Orion hadn’t lied about his great-grandmother’s cooking.

Seeing her like this made his gut squirm. So torn up inside, unsure if she could even trust herself, let alone these people she barely knew. She wanted to believe in the goodness of them, he was sure of it, but she didn’t know if she should, or even could. Orion’s presence eased some of it, and he caught her glancing at the old woman with something tender gleaming behind her wary eyes. She wouldn’t even look at the baby, though, and he could guess at why. Another thing she buried and wasn’t ready to dig up, but it niggled at his insides, too.

“...Dane?”

Daryl’s attention snapped back to the conversation which had carried on around him, and Beth, too, straightened up to look down the table at Orion, whose question hung, for the moment, unanswered.

Greg and Alec shared a look, and it was Greg who spoke, setting down his fork and knife with a soft clink. “No. We haven’t seen or heard anything more from them, last night or so far this morning, as of last report.”

Orion nodded slowly, glanced down and licked the remnants of gravy off his fork. “So they didn’t follow.”

The three men and Sandrine all shook their heads, and while Orion didn’t exactly look relieved, he did look back up to face Thaniel as he spoke. “If they did, nobody made it as far as the watch line.”

“Seems your fire kept them close to home, at least for the night,” added Greg, leaning forward so he could see past Daryl to where Beth was sitting.

She cringed when all eyes turned to look at her, but didn’t crumple, and Daryl slipped his hand beneath the table to squeeze her thigh. I got you. It took her a second to respond, giving Greg that wide-eyed look with her fork and knife frozen in the middle of cutting off a chunk of biscuit. But she took a deep breath and looked with purpose at each of the faces looking at her, and when she finally spoke her voice was quiet, but didn’t waver.

“But they are comin’.”

It wasn’t a question, and Greg didn’t treat it like one. “Dane wants what Dane wants, and there isn’t much he won’t do to get it.”

In some sort of eerie unison, all sets of eyes seemed to meet in the middle, and even Diana glanced up from her book to join whatever mind-meld was happening here. Sandrine murmured something Daryl couldn’t quite hear, to which Greg responded with a quick nod, before he shifted on the bench to face him and Beth almost straight on.

“Might as well get into this now, since we’re on the subject.”

Daryl turned as much as his wounded flank would allow, a beat or two of warning thumping behind his ribs. Beside him, Beth did the same, fingers twitching against his thigh like she couldn’t tell whether she wanted to hold on or reach for her knife.

“The two of you’ve tumbled into the middle of somethin’ here, somethin’ you never asked to be a part of.” Greg glanced over at Orion, who was once again looking down at his plate instead of at his uncle. “Maybe things wouldn’t’ve gone down like they did, but you need to understand that they’d’ve gone down, whether you came along or not.”

Daryl chewed on that for a minute, Greg’s words seeming to absolve him and Beth of any part in what happened, even though they had played no small role in shaking things up. Beth’s breathing changed behind him and only then did he realize how rapid it had gotten, not panicked exactly but agitated, and his thigh stung where she released it from her tight grip. She had, after all, set fire to Dane’s camp and let a herd of walkers in, after badly injuring a member of Dane’s family. Before he could say anything in response to Greg’s statement, before Beth could, Greg started speaking again.

“That’s not on you.” Greg held Daryl’s eyes for a hard couple of seconds before they slid to catch Beth’s. “Either one of you. Dane’s actions are his own, but this conflict is my burden to bear.”

Across the table, Alec cleared his throat pointedly. “Ours.”

The rest of them repeated that, murmuring the word in an odd hive-mind sort of way Daryl wasn’t sure whether to be wary of or not.

“They want the lodge, don’t they?” Beth asked, her voice far less watery this time. “That’s what this is about.”

Greg inclined his head, as though to acknowledge her insight. “Yes and no. It’s more complicated than that, but this isn’t breakfast talk.”

Sandrine straightened up at the end of the table, clinking her fork against the edge of her plate with deliberate force. “Yes, let’s finish this lovely meal Grannie has made for us.”

The clatter of cutlery followed as the eating resumed, and shortly thereafter the voices picked up again. Casual chatter interspersed with the occasional tangent into topics of a more practical nature. Beth ate with a little more enthusiasm now after winning that small battle, speaking to Greg, successfully controlling whatever gut responses she was fighting in the presence of all these people. He could see the wheels turning there, behind her now smooth brow. Didn’t take a degree in rocket science to follow her thoughts, to the prison, to the Governor, and wonder just how prepared these people were, here, for when Dane came, once and for all, to take what he wanted.

“...Daryl?”

At the sound of his name, Daryl snapped out of his thoughts to a table full of people waiting for him to answer a question he didn’t hear. “Uh...”

Orion tipped his head over toward Sandrine. “Auntie San asked what brought you and Beth out this way.”

Sandrine, the baby now asleep in a well-padded wooden cradle beside her, inclined her head in the same sort of way Greg liked to. “From what I understand, Beth’s cabin is not terribly close to here.”

A jolt of unease lanced through his belly and settled in like a meal gone sour, before he remembered about Idiot One and Idiot Two and what they would’ve told these people about The Girl in the Cabin. Still, he wasn’t altogether certain why she would ask him and not Beth about it, unless maybe she noticed Beth’s discomfort with the baby and misread it as something else.

He gave his head a shake to clear away the rubble, then another in answer to the question. “It ain’t. We, uh, ran into some trouble on our way north, had to detour. Ended up following them tracks east of here.”

“Oh!” Orion, in his enthusiasm, dropped his fork and splattered gravy everywhere. “You waited out the storm at that old train depot, right? That’s how you found the lake.”

“Mmhm.”

But that answer wasn’t good enough, apparently, as the assembled sets of eyes all looked to him for more. When he turned his head to look over at Beth, she was waiting for him. If her face wasn’t so bruised he imagined the way her brow might arch at him in question. They hadn’t actually discussed how much to tell these people, if anything, about their own story. Too caught up in each other this morning, too completely out of it last night, but after a moment’s thought, Beth tipped her head to the side and gave a little nod. The truth, or a simplified version of it, at least. Greg had answered some of their questions, and more than that, he’d done nothing substantial enough to set off any real warning bells. Only fair they return the gesture.

Daryl finished chewing the piece of meat he had in his mouth—goose, like last night’s stew. “We’re lookin’ for our group, or what’s left of it.”

“My sister,” Beth added, “and anyone else who might’ve made it, after...”

She didn’t want to talk about that, and Daryl didn’t need to see her face to know it. Neither did he, really, but the jar was open, and something needed saying, so he pushed on, gave them the bare minimum of details, with Beth adding in here or there to round things out. Their place attacked, the group torn apart. Dead or scattered in all directions and him and Beth on their own for weeks without sight of another soul before the shit happened that sent them south. On that he didn’t elaborate at all, and he felt Beth’s gratitude in the press of her leg to his. The cabin and the hunt that saw him gone and Beth alone when Pam and Jake happened by, and the decision to go north again in search of familiar faces.

When the story was finished, Greg glanced briefly at Daryl before locking his eyes on Beth. “So you’ve been together awhile, then.”

Something about the way he said it prickled across the back of Daryl’s neck, but before he could tease out why, Beth’s knife scraped against her plate, sharp and sudden like nails on a chalkboard. She pulled her shoulder away from his and slid up straight, somehow looking twice as tall as she had just seconds ago as she looked from Greg to the Hodges men seated across from her, then back again.

“Almost from the start of all this. We’re family.

After she finished speaking, Beth kept looking at Greg, her jaw still clenched, eyes narrowed and hard but not entirely unkind. Intense, though, in a way nobody ever expected Beth to be, and it raised the hairs on the back of his neck no matter that he wasn’t on the receiving end of it. Even the others at the table who weren’t leveled by her stare all dropped their gazes and looked away.

Good. Whatever Greg was trying to hint at with that fucking comment, he could take it and shove it up his ass. They were family, him and Beth, and whatever else they happened to be was none of these people’s damn business.

The tension ticked on a couple seconds more, before Greg blinked, forfeiting the staring contest he probably hadn’t realized he’d be entering into. Beth let some of the steel out of her spine, sinking back slowly into her seat, and Greg cleared his throat and glanced quickly around the table.

“Family’s the most important thing, in this world.”

The silence after was thicker, edging on awkward but Daryl tried his best to ignore it, leaning into the press of Beth’s shoulder to his again while he finished up his meal.

It was Sandrine who broke the tension, a few moments later, as she finished eating and reached into the cradle to lift the sleeping baby back into her arms. “Perhaps you would like a tour, once breakfast has finished?”

They were holding back on some things, Daryl knew that well enough. The press of Beth’s fingertips into his thigh told him she knew it, too. Neither one of them had lived this long by being stupid, by trusting things at face value without all the evidence to back it up. But whatever it was they weren’t saying, Daryl still felt his initial impression was true. Neither Greg Hunter nor his people intended to do them harm, no matter what other ideas they might have for them.

This tour might mean any number of things, most of which Daryl wasn’t willing to count on. The truth was, he didn’t feel up to travelling, not today, not as fast as they’d need to go to be far enough away from the area by nightfall, starting this long after sunrise. Wasn’t so sure he wanted to stay, either, when it came down to it, and Beth was even less certain, but the allure of that bed and that thick, heavy door, that warm little glow still burning in his belly, was more tempting than any night spent huddled under a tree.  Enough that he almost let himself hope the offer of a tour meant they’d be allowed to stay on, if they chose to do so.

He looked at Beth at the same time as she looked up at him. That glint of steel still lingered in her eyes, and she nodded once.

Daryl turned back to Sandrine. “Yeah, all right.”

Might as well see what they were up against—if they were against anything at all.

*~*

Well this whole word is gone crazy
God’s gone a little lazy
We’re raising our white flags and holding our breath
Oh we’re trading our black hearts for angels instead
But no retreat and no surrendering
        - Our Lady Peace

Irene Hunter is partially based on a woman I knew, who passed away several years ago—the great-grandmother of one of my daughter’s friends. Partly, because much of her is also of my own creation, but those piercing blue eyes came directly from my memory of dear departed Hope.

Also - feel free to ask me any questions about Hunter’s Lodge or any of the OCs. I have a ton of back story that’ll probably never actually make it into the fic and so if there’s something you want to know, please ask!


to be continued in chapter 43 >>
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