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It’s all so real that none of it feels real.

The sickness and the charred bodies; his knuckles split and hand creaking with pain under every movement; the cold sick in his gut when the Governor pushed Michonne and Hershel to their knees; the feel of his heart separating into functionless chunks- one for each thick splotch of blood on Judith’s empty car seat.

Beaten, wracked with grief and pain, face swelled and bloody around his eyes so he could barely see - a few times he forgot that it wasn’t Carl. It wasn’t Carl who came and propped him up and dragged him staggering past the fence line and through the shallowest stretch of woods to a paved road. It’s not until they’re walking in the open, though, his Python weighing one hand down like a hundred pounds at his side and his other slung around slim shoulders, his wrist held by a small hand with a tight grip, long tangles of hair spread over his arm, that it really sinks in.

Beth is all but carrying Rick on her back, her legs starting to shake more and more with each step.

Carl isn’t with them. The street is silent.

Everything is real, and they are alone.

___

 

She doesn’t know how many are dead. How many of the kids. Maggie, Glenn. Michonne had been in the field. Carl had been right in their little group with Daryl behind the fences. All of them scattered in different directions as the fight spread through the broken-down gates in a flood of gunfire and blood.

The admin building was empty when she ran in and stopped short, shaking with adrenaline, panting and hot-cold and completely lost. She stumbled back out into the sunlight and into Rick’s path and she couldn’t believe he was upright at all, much less moving under his own power. She shoved her body under his and fought his downward momentum to get them moving.

She didn’t think about where to move toward other than away, safe.

She ended up dragging Rick to the houses she knew were only a mile away if they went through that one patch of woods across from the widest stretch of the yard. That was where they would find more people. There were places to be however briefly, and people would go there. Somebody would be there.

At the first house they came to the front door hung open and a few windows were already boarded up. She worked her gun out of her back pocket one-handed while she dragged Rick up the stairs of the porch. She leaned him against the doorway, hoping that he’d stay standing but not counting on it, and crept through the house. No walkers came.

No one came.

___

 

He doesn’t know how long he sleeps. If it can be called sleep when he can’t wake up. There’s a weight on his chest and a constant stabbing fire when he breathes, his cuts and bruises sting sometimes more than others, he drifts and hears screaming once but it’s muffled and far-away.

He’s laying on something soft and his whole body hurts in throbbing choking aches.

He forgets.

___

 

The only thing that pulls her out of a looped repeat of that moment - the slice; the impact of it; the wrong tilt of his head with his neck opened and the slow bloom of blood through his shirt; Maggie’s screams and the gunfire that followed - the only thing keeping it from covering her entire mind like a sky-wide movie screen, is Rick’s wet crackly breathing.

He must have a broken rib. His face is a swollen bloody mess. His body is limp, sleeping, and that painful rasping sound repeats over and over. It means he’s alive. For now.

The darker it gets as the sun goes down, the fainter Rick’s breaths get. The more tired she gets. It’s not a natural exhaustion, not something where her body wants to sleep. Her mind is just shutting down piece by piece. Closing its eyes against the replay, against the count of those labored breaths.

When the first gray wash of dawn comes over the room, the sounds mutter off to a stop. Beth stares through the mostly-still dark. It’s been hours, hours since and what if he’s waking, what if in that field she left behind what if-

The gurgle has stopped and now there’s a whispering, almost a groan. A stirring.

She rocks, arms around her knees, on the floor, rocking, rocking until she’s a burst of movement across the floor just close enough to slip the gun out of his holster and back up a step, out of his arm’s reach. She can’t see anything, all she can hear is the rasp, the groan, the whisper of stirring bodies in that field of blood-soaked grass, and in the black she sees her father’s dead eyes opening.

Beth raises the gun and points it at the noise Rick - the body - is making, and she clenches her fists around the grip and screams. She barely hears the sound coming from her own throat, knows it will bring more, more, more than the one in the field that can’t walk anymore anyway.

“Carl.”

Everything stops and her skin and lungs burn and she hears it again - “Carl?” - and she slides down the wall, gun clattering at her side.

Her father is dead.

Rick is alive.

Rick is alive and was nearly dead and now he needs her help because she is the only one here.

It would be better to go blank but she can’t so she looks through the replay of her dad’s neck opening playing in blotches around her field of vision.

She staggers up from the floor. She secures the back door of the house and finds the bathroom upstairs, looks through the medicine cabinet and finds a few things she can use.

She approaches him slowly, cautiously, but he never stirs as she carefully cleans the worst of the dirt out of some of his deeper cuts and smoothes bandaids over them. He’s unnervingly still through it all. She keeps seeing her dad, but his blood isn’t slowing into scabs like Rick’s.

She piles the remaining first aid supplies on a narrow table against the wall and moves through the house slowly, one foot in front of the other through each room to see what she can find. What they can use.

To see anything other than what she sees in bright detailed technicolor when she closes her eyes.

___

 

He’s just swung himself upright, head pounding and spinning, and is about to try opening his eyes when he hears foot falls. He recognizes the boot-steps, ones he heard every morning echoing through the cell block as he waited with Judith in his arms. He recognizes the little mew of surprise and the slow exhale through nostrils that follows, this maddeningly slow thing that drops her shoulders by degrees while her eyes search silently.

He doesn’t want it to be her. If it’s her then it was all real, and not a nightmare.

“Rick?”

He doesn’t answer. He leans forward as far as he dares, hangs his head and grips the edge of the sofa cushions.

“Anyone else show up?” he asks finally.

“No,” she says softly.

He looks up then at her standing in a doorway, the sunrise-soaked kitchen casting her in silhouette. She steps further into the room, and when the light evens out and he can make out her features her face is puffy and blotchy from crying. Closer, and her nose is raw-red, framed by crystallized tear tracks. When she sits down very slowly next to him, not looking at him, but matching his posture with her hands gripping the edge of the cushions, he sees the webby flecks of broken blood vessels on her cheeks. He remembers the foggy distant sound of screaming.

“How long?”

“Overnight.” She shifts and stares blankly ahead, her head tipped back a little. “I tried to fix you up a little,” she says gesturing vaguely at him, and he nods.

He’d felt the dressings and bandages already dotting his face and torso unevenly.

“You started waking up but you weren’t talkin’. It was dark and I was over there,”- he follows her gaze to a spot across the room. Nothing’s there, nothing distinguishes it, but he can see her like a memory cowering - “I only knew you were still alive when you called for Carl,” she adds.

She holds his gun out to him, the Python huge and heavy in her hand.

“Go ahead and sleep now,” he says, his voice not much more than a rasping gurgle in his throat.

He pushes himself up slowly, painfully, and staggers on his feet but stays upright. He’ll do a sweep of the house, maybe poke his head outside and -

Beth sits still, upright and rigid, still clinging to the cushions and staring ahead.

“Beth.”

She shakes her head slightly. “I thought you were dead. I thought you were a walker,” she grits out.

He shifts, turns and shuffles a step over so he’s in front of her. Her eyes flick up quickly and he can see all of it sitting on her, gripping her, the terror and the grief and the panic and again the screams come to him, rolling through his memory like thunder.

“Beth,” he says again, gentler, but she shakes her head and screws her eyes shut.

“I can’t, I can’t-” she whispers, voice broken.

“Beth. I’m alive. You’re alive. I’ll keep watch, I’ll keep you safe.”

She looks up at him, her eyes red and cutting, fresh tears slick on her cheeks and snot glistening under her nose.

“You can barely lift that,” she says, glancing at the Python dangling in his hand. Then she adds, “And we were never safe.”

Rick hisses under his breath, fury simmering in his gut. Suddenly he’s irritated, overflowing with the heat of it, annoyed that she’s sitting there crying when she has the chance to rest after who knows how long, that she’s cocooning herself in the same endless despair that slit her wrist two years ago, that struck him to the ground six months ago, and who the fuck is she to cry when she never had a child to lose?

He backs off that thought, just barely, reins himself in enough that he’s back to irritated before he reaches down and grips her shoulder with his free hand. He leans in closer and doesn’t try to regulate his tone when he speaks, doesn’t make it gentle or reassuring for Beth, slim pale Beth who he has killed for and has nearly died for.

“Go. To. Sleep.”

He holds her there a second longer before releasing her roughly and straightens, expecting a glare or offense or fear. When she turns to face him, turns her bloodshot eyes up to his, he’s caught off guard. She doesn’t say it but he feels it in the small breath that falls from her parted lips - thank you - as she pivots on the sofa and slides down onto her side.

She’s grateful, relieved.

She falls under his words like they could pin her to the cushions. Rick stares in disbelief as her breath evens and her body goes slack, sinking and gentling under her clothes. He backs up slowly, a step, then another, and then he waits again, watching, glancing around the living room filtered gold with sunrise.

Everything hurts. It’s morning.

None of it was a dream.

___

 

Her head is too loud. The force of too many voices of anxiety and loss and pain and fear meld into a crushing weight, sinking into her skull continually.

What cuts through it, what stills the din and halts panic for a few seconds, is Rick’s tight grip on her shoulder, his fingers digging in, and his harsh voice. There’s nothing frightened or soft in it, nothing even weary or tired. Nothing like she feels.

Like a tidal wave, rest knocks her down, and it’s not that she feels calm or even close to okay, but. For a few moments, quiet. Direction. Her body complies almost before her mind can catch up and her relief at that is so strong that it keeps her sinking down into the sofa cushions until she’s pushed under into sleep all at once.

___

 

When she wakes, he sleeps. He wakes in dusky purple dimness. Remembers again.

Even broken his body remembers this rhythm; four hours sleep, four hours watch, and then whatever has to be done

Rick pauses to tick through his injuries and their various states of ragged, breathtaking pain.

He doesn’t see or hear Beth. He whistles, one note held for a beat then up for another half beat at the end, and waits. Nothing. She knows this call, has heard it and its reply hundreds of times. The house is silent.

He gets up and sweeps the house, knife in hand. Empty. When he comes back downstairs the front door is hanging open and someone is stooped over with one foot on either side of the threshold. It’s already gotten darker and his eyes are still swollen.

He doesn’t pause before crossing the dark room as quickly as he’s able, keeping his advantage silently until he’s got them pinned facing away against the sidelight of the door, one arm bent at the elbow and drawn up with his hand around the wrist and one foot blocked with one of his.

One familiar boot, long blonde hair, a head shorter than Rick.

She yelps and struggles and she’s strong, more wiry than she looks and flexible but he remembers showing her how to duck punches and escape holds after the farm and this one always tripped her up. He pushes the door closed slowly with his free hand, knocking one of the bags out over the porch when it closes. Her breathing is harsh and fast, ruffling the window’s lacy privacy curtain.

He’s caught in that rage again, frantic and unthinking and his voice is shaking, he is shaking both with effort and with the panic of suddenly being entirely alone.

“What the fuck are you doing.”

“I checked out the house next door. We needed more water and food.”

“There was nothing here?”

“No.”

“So you went out in the dark by yourself?”

“I didn’t know when you would wake up.”

“You could have woken me up.”

Her eyes flick back like she’s trying to see him, trying to meet his eyes but she can’t see far enough without turning her head. Slowly she deflates under his hands. “I couldn’t before,” she says quietly.

Rick exhales and lets her go slowly. When he steps back it floods into him what he’s just done. Beth turns slowly, watching him while she runs a hand over her shirt to smooth it. She takes a step toward him but he slides back, hands up and head down, shaking it back and forth until she stops. He hears the door open and then her fumbling to get everything back in the bag before she brings it inside and closes the door again.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He gestures toward the door behind her. “D’I hurt you?”

“No,” she murmurs, shaking her head a little.

When she goes to shove the sofa back in front of the door it’s stuck on the transition from tile to wood and after a moment Rick goes over and leans his weight into it too and they get it back in place. They stand at either end, the last of the sunlight gone since Rick had woken up. Slivers of harsh blue moonlight are the only illumination across their faces. Even like this, in faint silvery slashes, he can see her watching him. Waiting.

She starts to say something else but catches herself and bites her lip. She takes a step forward around the sofa towards him and he twitches back a little and scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. She stops at his hesitance.

“Should sleep,” he mutters.

She stays still. Waiting.

“Go to sleep,” he repeats. Not a suggestion.

She walks slowly past him and lays down on the sofa again.

___

 

She doesn’t sleep. Not immediately. Not for a while. It feels oddly like defiance. She lays very still and keeps her breathing slow and even and relaxes every muscle but her mind stays awake. Not alert, because at his words that same quiet enters her again. The noises of their surroundings - wind in the trees outside, bird calls, rustlings of animals now and then and the creaks and sighs of an old house - are all stopped. Like they’re paused for her, like he’s sent the world to sleep around them both and will watch over all of it himself.

She lets her mind slowly unspool into a loose mess of awareness of how she felt when he’d told her to sleep the first time. Before she can pick out a thought to hold onto she’s falling even now, sinking under, and she lets it happen.

She can - he’s keeping watch.

___

 

He watches her sleep and for the first time takes mental stock of what they have - his Python, her revolver - Lori’s, once, but now Beth’s - the knives they each carry as a matter of habit, the kitchen knives from the house, and the food Beth had found in the cupboards which was only a jar of marinara sauce, a bag of fried onion strings, and a couple of bottles of water from way back in a hidden corner.

The house will maybe do for a few days but beyond that - surrounded by other houses and woods beyond, not even a fence in place to fortify, half a dozen broken windows shoddily boarded up - the best thing it has going for it is that it’s empty. Any of their people who ended up nearby would have checked this place out by now, especially if Beth was out wandering the fucking neighborhood.

Rick rubs his eyes and presses with his fingertips. It hurts, pulls at scabbing cuts, and he gets up finally, picks up the remaining bottle of water and a bottle of painkillers and downs a few.

Beth wakes suddenly, alert and upright and staring at him with confused blinking eyes. He sees her glance around the room, her hands stutter against the sofa cushions and her lips twitch a few times before she sinks back down into herself with a ragged breath.

“Sleep okay?”

A rough little sound comes from her throat, barely an answer. She grips harder at the cushions and rocks a little, eyes trained unseeing as tears start to build.

“Beth.”

She shakes her head and doesn’t look up. “Nightmare,” she mumbles.

“You need some of this,” he says, taking the half-full bottle of water over to her.

She stares at the bottle in his hand and takes it after a moment. She starts to lift it toward her lips then stops.

Something in the set of her shoulders changes and then she’s perfectly still, bottle held a little precariously in her hand, back straight, her breathing slow and focused. He recognizes it after years with her, can tell she’s taking in something that should be too much for her to bear. She’s always done it; absorbed and breathed and gotten going. Doing, moving, dealing.

She looks up at him finally, and there’s a beat, a shift, waiting.

He feels pinned there by her big tired eyes, dull with exhaustion and still, still bloodshot. She deflates slightly, pleading.

He leans down, with effort, hands braced on his knees, and gets eye level with her.

“Listen to me. I know what you lost. You know what I lost. If we’re gonna-”

She drops the bottle.

Staring straight at him, uncurls her fingers and lets it bounce to the floor and splash water all over her boots and his.

He could slap her. Pull his hand back and let it swing and catch her soft cheek with a crack that would leave a mark, jar her out of this stupid, useless, terrifying blankness.

He grabs her by the arms instead and his own balance quickly fails him, sends him tipping forward and pinning her under him on the sofa. She tenses and lets out a startled little yell when he pushes her down.

“Don’t do this Beth, we’re not gonna make it if you’re fighting me every step of the way.”

She turns her face away. A tear pools at the inside corner of her eye. He starts to tug at her arms to pull them both back up but she yanks him back and hooks one of her boots over his calf.

“Make me,” she says, her voice clogged with tears.

“We don’t have time,” he says, shaking her by her arms, “to play games.”

She kicks him, brings the heel of her boot down hard onto his calf. He grunts in surprise and knocks her leg aside, shifting so he can pin her thigh down with his knee. She’ll bruise. He closes his eyes and shakes his head, breath unsteady.

“We have to stay here for at least another day til you don’t have to carry me. And this,” he adds, opening his eyes and staring down at her, ready to tell her the whole thing is stupid, is bullshit and she better knock it off, but she’s the desolation, the grief in her eyes, is overwhelming.

“Please,” she says quietly, thick and low.

“I don’t know what you-”

“Yes you do.”

He does push away this time, powers through her whimper when he shoves himself up with his knee digging into her thigh, and when he’s standing again he leaves without a word, to the screened porch off the back of the house.

She doesn’t follow.

___

 

It’s not the anger, she realizes. She doesn’t want to make him angry. Doesn’t want to have to make him angry to get him to . . . whatever it is he does that puts her in that quiet. It’s that thing in his voice, something she’s never noticed, something that travels through his hands too.

It’s not the anger, it’s his control of it. It’s that he holds her tightly, roughly, but not enough to injure. It’s not gentle, not even considerate beyond simply not being too harmful. It’s utilitarian. Authoritarian. It’s sure.

But Rick is not a man who barks orders, who is gruff or cool in leadership. He’s fire. He’s warm with people he loves, he touches and looks deeply and comforts.

She needs something else. She needs him to lead, not an army, or a family. Just the two of them, just until she can . . . until it’s quiet again. Until she can function and trust her mind not to spiral into that panicked sucking void.

Something - something, when he’d told her to sleep the first time. Something that bypassed everything in her head that wasn’t following, and action, and instinct. She doesn’t want him angry. She doesn’t want punishment.

She needs something else.

___

 

When he comes back inside he finds a bathroom tucked under the stairs and gingerly shrugs off his tattered shirt, a tear so wide through one side that it just hangs in strips from his shoulder anyway.

He’s been kind of pretending he doesn’t have a cracked rib but the bruising over a disturbing misshapen patch on his side is plain as day even before he pushes the door open to let in more light. His face is a mess but somehow nothing’s broken. Maybe a cracked nose but it’s not out of place and he can breathe.

He can feel his body starting to knit itself back together with purpose already, no longer quite so shaky and nauseated as he had been at first. He lifts his chin and runs his fingers over the hand-shaped bruises around his throat. It’s an odd sensation, looking at an actual handprint on his skin, like the hands are still there reaching into him, taking everything away.

That loss of control, that near-loss of his life- there had been something like peace in it. He knows the biology of it is oxygen deprivation and fight or flight response, all that. But part of him would have let those hands put him down, just let it all end right then. If it hadn’t been for Carl and Judith he would have. For a few moments there had been nothing else that kept him fighting, not even a sense of revenge. He looks into his own swollen bloodshot eyes in the mirror and the question presents itself plainly: why is he staying alive now?

Make me.

Beth’s eyes pleading and the kick to his leg had somehow made Daryl flash through Rick’s mind. Daryl from two years ago who paced and sobbed at finding his brother’s hand on that rooftop. Daryl had less control then, was something almost feral. Maybe that freed him to keep moving through his grief, clawing and chewing his way out of it like the animals he hunts.

Everything’s a mess in his head but something, something. There’s something.

Daryl had already been more functional by the time they made it to the farm.

It’s been year, longer, since it had flickered through the group that Beth slit her wrist.

There’d been talk, things about making choices and the importance of it and at the time it had all faded into the din around Rick. There’d been a split second under a tank surrounded by walkers when blowing his brains out seemed preferable to letting the horde rip him apart. He felt that beckoning peace under the Governor’s hands in the field.

Both times he’d left it behind, had seen another option, had chosen not to lay down.

But this was a girl surrounded by people who could protect her, not seconds away from violent death. Rick has never seen what Beth looked like without anyone standing around her. Without Hershel’s hand at her shoulder, without Maggie’s twined around hers, she’s untethered.

He hadn’t thought much about it then, wrapped up in Lori and Shane. Shane who ripped open the barn. Everybody worried about Sophia, about Shane, about Lori.

Hershel left.

Beth slit her wrist.

It wasn’t guns or knives she’d needed then. She had them; Rick taught her to shoot himself when she’d lied to his face with her wide blue eyes that Hershel had consented to the lessons.

Maybe it would help to truly fall apart but she unlearned that a long time ago. It isn’t the knowledge or the tools of survival that Beth needs now. It’s teeth and claws.

Make me.

There’s a creak of the floorboards and when he looks up Beth is watching him from the hallway, looking caught and guarded. Her eyes flick over him. Suddenly she’s not looking through him as she had been before. They watch each other, waiting and breathing, before he looks away, down into the dry sink where his shirt is dropped in a little heap.

When he looks up again she’s turning away, backing up toward the living room. Rick braces his hands on the edge of the sink and leans heavily, lets his head bow low and sighs.

Eventually he gathers himself back together, puts his shirt back on and pointlessly buttons it before going back to the living room.

“Should eat,” Rick says quietly, and Beth is just turning to answer when there’s a scuffle and a bang outside.

Beth reaches for her gun but Rick is faster, Python already in hand as he ducks toward the door to peek out through the sidelight. She’s present enough to crouch and crawl carefully across the floor until she’s near enough to the door to lay down fire if he needs it, if something’s coming in.

Rick eases the sofa away from the door as quietly as he can, motions Beth to get ready to cover him when he opens the door.

Nothing happens, just the door swinging open to the afternoon beyond, the empty yard, quiet trees, cloudless sky.

“I’m gonna go check it out,” Rick whispers.

Beth stands away from the wall, making to follow him, but he shakes his head and points at her.

“Stay.”

_

 

He might as well have nailed her boots to the floor.

She has her gun in hand and she keeps it there, finger on the trigger. Rick doesn’t look back as he moves quietly out to the front porch, down the steps, and out of sight around the side of the house.

She wavers, her throat closing up around a shout of fear. She wants to follow, wants to run after him so she can see him and be sure he’s still alive, be sure he still exists.

Stay.

Something is happening, a thread appearing in her vision connecting point to point.

Rick’s voice keeps pushing everything else away, settles her body and lets her mind slow to sleep. The force, the strength of his hold on her, how she’d been completely caught off guard when he shoved her into the wall and pinned her there. Seeing him take stock of his own injuries in that bathroom mirror where she saw for the first time that he’s more than just-barely-not-dead.

Stay.

Her feet never move, never step, never even shift. She trembles, swallows down a rough crop of tears. Her hands clenched around her gun ache from holding it so tightly, her vision blurs, staring out the open doorway. She hears a faint noise from outside and she knows down to her bones that it’s Rick safely moving around the side of the house. Something like hope flares and it hurts deeply and is gone quickly but it was there.

They can live. Rick will heal and it won’t be her body shielding his from death but both of them escaping it for a while longer, together.

Stay.

___

 

It must be thirty minutes before he gets back. After checking around the whole house and down in a cleaned out root cellar he does a wider perimeter while he’s still hopped up on adrenaline. He doesn’t find anything notable but he feels a little better having at least laid clear eyes on their surroundings.

Finally he trudges up the front porch steps and halts at the top.

The door is still hanging open. Beth is still standing inside, framed in the opening. She’s still, so still she might be holding her breath, gun in hand with her finger off the trigger like he and Shane had drilled into all of them back at the farm.

Even when she sees him she doesn’t move. She barely reacts, just blinks at him, maybe loses a fraction of tension from her shoulders, but her grip on the gun never changes and her gaze just barely flicks over his shoulder to the yard behind him. Keeping watch.

Rick steps through the doorway, still watching her. He closes the door behind him, ties off the knob, and turns to face her. She still hasn’t moved.

If he didn’t know better he’d think she was fucking with him, but Beth just doesn’t do that, especially not now. She’s always been earnest, open, blunt. This isn’t some flare of adolescent precociousness. She’s not standing still to mock him. Dropping the water wasn’t about testing him.

It’s begging, showing him exactly how far down into her this thing goes.

It keeps coming back to him, keeps punctuating sentences he can’t finish.

Make me.

He walks over to stand directly in front of her. She looks at him, shifts her focus just enough without moving at all. Her gun is trained at his knees now but he’s not concerned about that; her finger never so much as twitches near the trigger.

Rick swallows roughly.

“What you said before. What- what you want . . .”

She watches him warily. He squints in thought before looking at her, taking in the caution on her face, the layer of shame under it. The need.

His heart is still in pieces, he’s reeling and drained and in near-constant pain. His children-

He bows his head.

“I can try.”

“Okay,” she says quickly, seeming a little caught off guard.

He nods, and with a jerk of his chin motions her to help him move the sofa back. She pockets her gun and steps aside, quick as anything.

_

 

They each sleep again, eat again, and eventually it’s some kind of morning again. She’s lost track of the cycle of light and dark. She just sleeps when he says it’s time, wakes up when he nudges her shoulder.

“We have to go out, sweep some of the other houses, together. We’ll see what we find, give it another day here. I can’t be out on the road like this yet. Not with just you and me.”

She watches him silently as he picks up his gun belt and fastens it around his hips, and she picks up her pistol and sets it in her back pocket, knife in its sheath at her hip. He goes over to the door and unties the cord.

He nods to the sofa and they shove it back together, then he’s standing at the open door with his back to her.

He glances over his shoulder, more to the side, not really looking at her.

“Come.”

It’s quiet in her head. So, so quiet. He found the thread she’d been following before. Found it, picked it up, looped around her throat and tugged. Beth dragged him into this house leaving a trail of blood and now he’s leading her out of it and back again, able-bodied, clear-headed, capable.

She’ll follow him anywhere.

___

 

It works.

Her silence isn’t quite cold but it isn’t anything like peaceful either. He feels her on his back as she stands watch, wavering but holding on with a kind of miserable determination. He gets her to follow him out of the yard with a jerk of his head and then they’re heading past the place next door since she’d already been through it and to the house next to that one.

Rick finds himself slipping into it easily; on runs there’s no such thing as polite or even complete sentences. Beth follows his hand motions, returns his whistle calls, responds wordlessly to his one-word instructions. She moves like air, silent and light at his side, and by the second house they enter he sends her through the upstairs on her own while he sweeps downstairs.

He’s tossing a box of PopTarts into his bag when he hears a thud upstairs, and a muffled voice. He freezes and listens. A softer thud, and Rick drops his back and tears up the wooden stairs and into the bedroom above the kitchen where he’d heard her.

There’s no walker, no one. She’s knelt on the floor near a bookcase, a few volumes scattered on the floor around her. She’s crying. Her hands are limp in her lap and she’s sobbing and one of the books on the floor is a bible.

Rick teeters on his feet for a moment, inclined to sink to the floor next to her, just fall down and fall apart. They should gather everything up and go back to the other house, tie up the doors, double check all the windows. It was too soon.

He walks over slowly, and he does kneel beside her.

He takes her by the back of the neck, and she flinches a little when he does even though his movements aren’t sudden or rough, just firm and steady, fingers digging through her hair to her skin and pressing. Her sobs slow and turn to deep heaving gulps of air, her nails scrabble at the carpet, and after a moment Rick tugs, gets her to stand up with him, but she’s still reeling, stuck in the collapse of grief and drowning in it. Rick tugs at her neck again, not quite jerking but rocking her side to side just slightly, reminding her she’s not in control.

“We gotta go,” he murmurs.

The sobs come back, her hands up covering her face and she starts to crumple into his side and the feel of it, the slight weight of her jostling him hurts a little but it’s real, that weight, real and warm and solid even though it’s light and she’s a person and she’s there, not dead, broken but alive and one of his.

But here - here in this house that isn’t secure, isn’t remotely nearly as secure as the fucking prison that just got overtaken like nothing. Months there, months and lives and work and people alive, all knocked down like twigs-

He grips at her harder, hard enough that she tenses and cranes her neck, her shoulders coming up to try and angle out of his grasp but he keeps her there and does jerk a little now. Her sobs stop abruptly with only a few scattered leftover whimpers.

He casts around silently for the words, for what to say to put her back in that place she went to when she followed him like a shadow from the first house to the next. What comes to him makes him grimace.

He wonders if when her mind latched onto the desire for it - and he tries to stay away from that, tries to categorize it as a necessity, a coping mechanism, and not anything close to pleasure - if she rebelled against it before coming to the point he did: that if it works maybe it just has to happen right now. Maybe you can’t just keep going sometimes. Maybe you need something, something dark and odd and uncomfortably intimate to keep everything else from killing you in dark and odd and uncomfortably intimate ways.

This thing she seems to need, what gets her focused and out of the mental loops of horror and shock and bone-rattling fear, it seems at first like it might just be simple. Like it might not mean anything besides getting one foot in front of the other. That should feel at least a little bit relieving, but he still doesn’t want to say what he suddenly knows will work.

He swallows thickly, and leans in close to her ear, and she stills, waiting. Waiting for him.

“Heel.”

There’s a stutter, a tumbling fall of sickness in his gut, before she reacts.

But then she does.

She slackens and settles slightly into his hand still gripped around the back of her neck. He can see it on her face when he dares to look, that she’s unsure too, but she’s calming, she’s reacting, and it’s . . . they can’t keep going, can’t get going if she keeps breaking like this. Not in the middle of things, not with only the two of them. Rick has taken what she asked of him and twisted it, let it become something in his own mind that is maybe more than what she meant, more than what she knew.

Once he’s said it, once it’s out and the turn has been taken and they’re somehow in this together in a different way than they were before, the dark and the sick and the panic melt away. The room is quiet, mostly orderly, and they can leave the books behind on the floor, door hanging open, one foot in front of the other quiet and steady.

Beth follows him, wavering but present at his shoulder, and their way back to the other house is easy and quick. The haul is light but it’s something; a little more food, some batteries and a few books of matches.

When Rick catches a glance of her over his shoulder her face is slack and heavy, her eyes shifting.

They get back to the house alive and in two mostly-whole pieces. Lock up behind themselves, and then they’re there in the quiet, alone.

_

 

It’s quiet in her head. So, so quiet. Her eyes are clear again and she can see enough to stick to the path he leads her.

Out of her own panic, past however many dead bodies pile up on the grass at their feet, beyond hunger and thirst and exhaustion.

Heel.

Heal.

_

 

The next day she smiles.

It’s brief, not full or shining like it had been what feels like years ago already at the prison. They’re out checking the snare and a bird swoops overhead, alighting on a branch and chirping a long chattering song. She looks up, and smiles. He’s keeping watch - she’s retrieving his kill, it occurs to him, and the notion of that sends a shiver up his spine - as she crouches over the snare, and the bird flies and sings and she tips her face up to the sun for a moment and smiles.

When she returns to him with the rabbit dangling from one hand and a little light glinting in her eyes he smiles. Words itch at his tongue, words that aren’t a command or her name - those are the only kind of words he’s said aloud since the previous morning, and for all it’s been difficult holding his tongue there’s an ease in it too, a peacefulness - but he keeps them for now.

That night, reasonably full on rabbit and some of their scavenged food and water from the two houses they’d swept, Rick collapses on the sofa, watching Beth through slitted eyes with his head lolled back against the cushions.

She’s almost as tired as he is, and that’s saying something since she’s not injured. She looks antsy, touchy and unsure being back in the house and as she starts unloading their haul he can see her hands shaking and the deep breaths that are supposed to calm her but keep jerking into near-hiccups.

He tilts his head a little, something forming in his mind, a picture.

It has very little to do with how this thing started out, except that he would be telling her what to do in simple terms, in a tone with no question in it. He thinks about telling her to “come” earlier, how she had flowed into motion, easy and in-sync just behind him to cover his six. Thinks about “heel,” wherever the fuck in his brain that came from. This is coming from the same place. But now instead of that upheaval in his stomach at the thought he’s caught reminding himself how it worked. It helped.

“Beth.”

She looks up and her hands still.

“Come sit.”

She sets down the batteries in her hands and walks over, about to pivot and sit next to him when he adds to the command:

“Down.”

He feels the pause in her, the little breath of recognition, and slowly she folds herself down, arms linked around her bent knees and her shoulder just nudging against his knee. He hums under his breath, not meaning to, but the sound is there anyway, acknowledging.

He waits a moment, watching the tension melt from her shoulders. Her head lists just slightly after several seconds but she catches herself. He slouches down a little, the movement just jostling her shoulder, and she turns to glance at him. He catches her eye, holds her gaze as he reaches out slowly and runs his fingertips through her hair at her temple, the haze of curls that always seem to frame her face. He does it again, a soft repeated trail, and she closes her eyes and leans into it, lifting her chin just a little to increase his pressure.

There’s something - there’s a lot - that starts here and ends with sex. That’s entwined from the beginning with sex. He knows that. Technically. But she’d been under him, pinned under his hands and nearly his hips on the sofa that first night, and there wasn’t a moment of it that felt like she was seducing him. Like she was asking him to seduce her.

It’s not like it feels pure or simple or safe. Sex would be less scary if that’s all it was about. This is, it means to be, something different. He’d like to hold onto that thought.

He scratches against her scalp and strokes his thumb firmly behind her ear. Her lips part, mouth dropped open just a bit, and he stares, transfixed, as she melts against his knee.

 

_

 

He never tells her to stop seeing the moment her dad died over and over in her mind’s eye, never tells her when he says “sleep,” that she’s not to twitch with fear and horror, but she’s starting to obey anyway. He’s training it out of her.

_

 

Rick sits on the sofa again, his gun belt in easy reach on the seat next to him. Beth comes in a few minutes later - he’d left her tying the kitchen door for the night - and she pauses in the doorway for just a moment.

He meets her eyes and flicks them to the floor at his feet, nothing else, and she crosses the room and sets her gun and knife down next to his before curling up next to his feet. He’s already reaching for her when she rests her cheek on his knee, hair parting over her shoulder and presenting the back of her neck to him.

It comes out with his breath as he strokes along the knob of her spine - “good girl,” - pressing upwards along the muscle at the back of her neck, and she leans into it and groans quietly.

His hand stutters and falls away and Beth lifts her head and turns to look up at him through the dim of the room.

She pulls her hair back over her neck slowly, like covering the skin he’d touched could undo it, could reel this thing back to somewhere slightly less unacceptable and entirely fucked up. Rick closes his eyes and presses his fingertips over them, blocking out the view of her at his feet. He feels her move and then she’s kneeling between his knees, her arms rested somehow comfortably on his thighs.

“Rick.”

He shakes his head, and closing his eyes had felt safe but then it wasn’t, it wasn’t at all, and if debating the morality of playing some messed up psychological dominance game with Beth were the biggest thing happening to him he would be grateful.

“I can’t do this, I can’t do this, what are we doing?” he mumbles, taking his hands away from his eyes eventually to look at her.

“We’re surviving,” she says quietly.

“How is this-”

“Because we have to have something that doesn’t hurt. Or we’re not gonna make it.”

It stops him like a blow to the chest, how this could go bad. For her, for him. He sighs, deep and almost grounding, except that Beth is still on her knees between his legs.

Beth.

Fear comes in, gentle and curling, whispering that while they think they’re prying the world’s claws out of each other they’re just going to sink in their own teeth instead. Continuing with what they’d been doing past this point feels even more transgressive. Even when her groan sounded so sweet, so filled with relief and gratitude. Even when the idea that his broken and grieving body could make her make that sound is enough to make it seem worth it. What could be lurking behind the immediate sensation of warmth, the sense of direction and peace it gave him to give her what she needed?

But if she’s right, if the rules are now emptied out of the empty world that contains this empty house - empty but for the two of them - then how many more burdens are they required to pile on each other’s shoulders?

He leans forward and takes her face in his hands gently. He murmurs her name, and she leans into him, her hands spreading flat and open on his thighs before her fingertips dig just a little and he can’t control the shiver that runs through him at that.

“It’s good for you too,” she whispers. “I can tell, it’s not just me, we both need this. Just for right now.”

It’s more words than he’s heard her say for days now.

He closes his eyes again, but doesn’t let her go, and she leans in further, pressing against his hands until they slip down to her neck and she nuzzles her brow against his jaw, his cheek. He can’t help when a laugh trips from his mouth - it’s weird, this thing, and he took her request and made it what it is now with some buried desire from his own head, he knows - but then her mouth brushes high along his cheek, across the bridge of his nose, and she kisses one eyelid lightly, then the other.

He can feel her pulse fluttering fast and light against his fingers, her soft hum as she shifts slowly and then she’s crawling up, his hands slipping further down over her shoulders and arms as she climbs and turns to curl on his lap and nudge her head up under his chin. He’s relieved, suddenly, had been sure she’d been about to straddle his thighs, but she settles against his chest and sinks in further with a weight beyond her body, strong but loose, almost boneless.

He lets his arms fall around her, one looped over her hip and thigh and the other reaching up so he can stroke into her hair, around behind her ear like he had before. She turns into it, presses into his hand and lets out a whispery pleased sound, then:

“Good boy.”

__________________________________________