Part 17: An Empty Land

Several days of torrential downpour prevented movement and the need to cement immediate plans. In the old days, the burned out Motel 6 would have been an eyesore, but Dawn and the others were too grateful for the shelter to knock points based on outward appearances. The amount of lingering walkers had been few, so clearing was quick and easy. In the end, there were a total of ten usable rooms, providing just enough privacy for all. Lorenzo and Eugene fixed the plumbing so that the showers worked, but the toilets remained out of service. Running water with adjustable dials was a welcome relief. Few complained until the rain started to trickle.

Dawn heard the motor just as Nik finished tying his boots. She rested her arm on his shoulder to look out the window. The muddy RV pulled into the parking lot as if hellhounds were on its bumper. "He's back," she murmured.

"Who?"

"Abraham, I'm sure. An RV just pulled in the lot."

"Great," Nik said. "His own set of wheels." He secured his weapons to his belt and handed her the ax and a gun. When she hesitated, he frowned. "You coming?"

"Maybe it would be better if I stay here."

He took her hand and pulled. "Come on."

From the balcony, they noticed that a crowd was starting to gather around the RV. Abraham and Rosita were exiting when Dawn and Nik joined the others. Dominik left Carl to stand with his parents. Carl headed toward his family. Judith gurgled at the sight of her brother.

"You did it," Glenn said. "Is it running okay?"

"Fine and dandy like a motherfu—"

"Hey," Lorenzo cut in. "We get it. Notice anything else out there?"

"The road east," Abraham said distinctly. "It's clear and long. Take us right to Washington D.C. and the cure to stop this bullshit rampage of guts and swamp shit stank in the air. Ain't that right, Eugene? The ride's big enough to fit many. Who's coming with us?"

The pitch came with less bravado than usual and that's what intrigued Dawn the most. A quick glance at the others assured her that she wasn't alone in really considering the possibilities of joining them. Before, the idea seemed far fetched. A cure? Really? But after watching Eugene reconstruct, rebuild, and renew multiple items that kept them going, the last bits of doubt started to fade. Maybe the Man with the Mullet had access to what they were all hoping for.

"Well?" Nik asked after his family had assembled together. The others had huddled into groups, too. The murmurings all vibed with the same possibility.

"Could be too good to be true," Lorenzo warned. "Eugene knows his stuff, true enough, but a cure? After all this time? Wouldn't some kind of notice have gone out or something?"

"Maybe they don't want to share," Dominik said. "What if they won't let us in?"

"Eugene has knowledge about the cure," Nik said. "They'll have to let us in. If the government created this, the means to fix it is somewhere. It has to be."

Dawn shared their concerns. They were nearing the two-year mark if they hadn't already passed it. Politics had a way of bringing out the worst, but would they really withhold the cure just to wipe out the nation. The possibility of genocide wasn't too farfetched if a person was or had been a student of history. But unleashing a virus that turned people into the walking dead… She stopped short of considering the full ramifications and instead focused on the one thing that truly mattered.

"Noelle and our parents," she said quietly. "They could still be on the East coast."

Nik nodded. "I can't think of a better reason to go."

Dean, who had lingered nearby, stepped toward them. His green eyes were unreadable as he watched her closely. "You're in?"

Dawn nodded. "Yeah. You?"

Dean nodded. Their gazes held for a moment and Dawn wondered about his past. They knew that he had been with his younger brother, Sam, when the world turned, but not much else. When the questions started, he closed up and that usually meant a harsh loss. Dawn guessed that Dean's experiences were no less harrowing than everyone else's but she had a feeling that he had gone through some life-changing ordeals. Whatever had happened, his skills at killing walkers were top level as was his ability to jump start vehicles, especially older models.

Nik stepped forward, so did Rick, Glenn, Tyrese, Tara, Bob, and Dean. Soon, the murmuring of agreement was loud and brought a gleam to Abraham's eyes. The talk then changed to preparing for the journey and Dawn returned to the motel room she shared with her husband to watch iPhone videos of their daughter.

##

The following day was another washout and Rick welcomed the rainfall. The idea of a cure in Washington smelled of bullshit, but he recognized the need for movement and stability whenever he looked at Michonne, Carl, and Judith. They were ready for something stable and as permanent as possible in this new world. He was in agreement, but he wasn't keen on heading east. Not at all.

Finding the Motel 6 had been a major stroke of luck. The ten occupied rooms made a U-shape with the group taking residence on the second and third floors. A makeshift tent sheltered the guards on the roof. If the motel had a stronger foundation, it could've been an option instead of heading east, but Rick knew better. This area felt wide open and they needed something with closure and protection.

Rick pushed his damp curls from his forehead and peered at Lorenzo as he left his post to join Rick in walking the perimeter of the roof.

"What's up?" Rick asked.

Lorenzo tested the air for rain before digging under his rainproof parka to pull out a stash of maps. "Might be a good idea to start planning a route. Nik marked a couple of options, but I've traveled through here before…you know before. A lot of places for groups to hide. Best to be prepared in advance."

Rick unfolded the map and noticed that some places were crossed out with a large X. "All these?"

"Not saying anyone is there, but they were before…backwoods type. You know? The kind who were always preparing for the day the gov't collapsed and they'd take over."

Rick nodded. "I know the type. Think we can handle them."

"I know we can," Lorenzo agreed, "but I'd rather not have to if we can avoid it."

"Sometimes we can't," Rick said. "Sometimes, you gotta face shit head on."

"I know," Lorenzo said. "But knowing what's ahead…gives you options."

Later, as Rick studied the map with Michonne and Carl, he thought about the conversation with Lorenzo. Options were a luxury they didn't always have, but Rick understood the other man's point. At the prison, the option of turning it into a haven for themselves and others were destroyed by the Governor. The option of Terminus being a true sanctuary was nothing more than a joke. Now, Abraham presented this option of going to Washington, D.C. for the cure that would end all this hell. Rick couldn't shake the feeling that this option would end just as the others had.

"Dad…" Carl nudged him then greeted Noah and Beth who stood at the entrance to the room Rick shared with Michonne and Judith. "Hey."

"Hi," Beth said and immediately opened her arms for Judith who went to her without hesitation. "Hi, beautiful. I missed you."

"Hey," Noah said to everyone as he followed Beth inside the room. "Beth and I were talking and she said… Well, I was wondering… Home is not too far, a day if the cars hold up."

"You want us to take you?" Michonne asked.

Noah glanced at Beth before he answered. "Stop and see if anyone is interested in going or if anyone wants to stay there. It was fortified. There's plenty of room."

"What was it like?" Carl asked. He sat at the foot of the bed beside Beth. His sister bounced and drooled, and Carl smiled at her.

"Gated housing," Noah said. "We have guards. Not like Terminus, but we have people who watch. I know if anyone wants to stay, it would be okay."

"It sounds like what we were doing at the prison, except they have houses," Beth said. "It sounds like what we lost."

"It's a day from here?" Rick asked.

"About that," Noah said. "We lost our car on the way to Atlanta so we were on foot for awhile, but before, it would take about 8 hours to drive from Richmond, 6 if my mom wasn't getting on my dad about speed."

Rick smiled. "Sounds good, Noah."

About an hour later, Rick had a well-marked map and an alternative. The group assembled in the former lobby with Carol and Bob listening in via walkie-talkie while they continued their guard shifts on the roof.

"Noah's place gives us an option," Rick said, "and a good place to stock up on supplies before we continue east-"

"What's this about an option?" Abraham cut in. "The plan is D.C."

"The plan isn't exactly set in stone," Rick said. "We didn't know about Noah's settlement and Lorenzo provided some information we need to consider."

"What fucking information?" Abraham asked.

"Anti-government factions," Lorenzo said.

"The fucking government has gone to shit like everything else." Abraham grunted.

"But what about this so-called cure?" Dawn asked.

"It's not so-called," Rosita said.

"It's not a fact," Dean said. "We're going based on some guy who's looks like a roadie for the Allman Brothers—"

"Dean," Dawn said quietly.

Rick watched Eugene's face redden and mouth twitch, but the man didn't utter a word in his defense. His silence seemed loud, but no one else appeared to notice.

Abraham scoffed at the map. "We have a bona fide fucking caravan that'll get us there in a couple of days."

"If we can find gas along the way," Daryl said. "RV's big, needs a lot of gas. The trucks eat gas, too—"

"We'll siphon what we need along the way," Rosita said. "We always do."

"Easier said than done," Sasha stated.

"Helluva lot easier," Michonne said.

"In a blink, you change?" Rosita asked. "Fine, you don't have to come with us—"

"No one said that," Michonne said. "Stopping at Noah's to load up on supplies is—"

"—a load of horseshit," Abraham cut in.

"A what?" Rick asked, his voice deep.

"Delaying like a—"

"Enough," Glenn said, interrupting Abraham. "Noah's place is on the way. We'll stop and check it out. If you're in a hurry and can't wait, keep going."

"I wasn't saying the kid can't go home," Abraham muttered.

"We know," Maggie said.

Rick rubbed his face. "We'll start loading supplies now," he said. "Gather as we go. Move forward."

"There are few places we should check out first," Glenn said. "This town looks like it was forgotten. We shouldn't pass it up."

"Go. Stay. Stay. Go." Abraham shook his head. "Yeah, I guess another couple of days won't matter."

"No, it won't," Michonne said. "Your RV will need supplies. Better to try to find gas now than later."

"I saw an old daycare the first day," Beth said. "We need food for Judith. Diapers. Clothes."

Rick thanked Beth with a nod. Soon the rumbling about movement became a strategy meeting. The focus on organization and having supplies ahead of time felt right. Maybe an empty land stretched before them, but they could never anticipate whom they would encounter. Rick's main goal was a home and he planned to find one quickly and as safely as possible.

##

Sasha wasn't trying to overhear their conversation. She had moved faster than the others in preparing for the run. Her empty bag rested on the ground and she leaned against the brick wall, waiting for Maggie, Glenn, Bob, and Dean. That's when she first noticed Daryl's familiar husky tone and her pulse immediately quickened until the words of him and his companion became clear.

"Yeah," he said. "I know about David and Karen—"

"Daryl," Carol interrupted.

"Look, I get why you did it, but killing them like that…" Daryl said, "That shit wasn't right."

"What is right?" Carol asked. "What is wrong anymore?"

"That's how you justify it? What if Sasha and Glenn had gotten sick first? You know they caught that shit after you called yourself taking care of the contagion. Would you have killed Sasha and Glenn the way you done David and Karen?"

"That's not fair—"

"You got Mika now," he continued. "What're you gonna teach her about right and wrong? Second chances ain't always a given. Don't fuck it up."

Their voices moved away just as Maggie approached. Sasha saw her friend, but her thoughts remained with Daryl's words and the strength of his questioning. Tyrese hadn't said much about his time with Carol, but Sasha knew her brother well enough to know that something burdened him deeply. Did he know that Carol had executed his beloved or had something else occurred between them? And now that Sasha knew, she wondered what Carol would have done if it had been her and Glenn sick in their cells instead of Karen and David?

"Hey." Maggie touched Sasha's shoulder. "You still coming?"

Sasha stared at her friend for a moment. Then she exhaled a deep breath. "Yeah."

The two moved briskly to join the men. With the upcoming trip east, they decided that gas would not be wasted for runs. The group walked to a nearby strip mall. They expected to find minimal supplies, but whatever was salvageable would not be overlooked.

A few walkers came and the group killed them quietly and quickly. The first store was clean, including the missing sign. Next door was a former yarn store.

"Who knits?" Dean asked. He began foraging through bins, tossing pieces of fabric and spools of thread into his bag. "Could be useful."

Several skeins of yarn lay untouched on the display counter. Maggie shrugged and stuffed them in her bag. Bob found needles and gave them to her. Sasha headed to the back office. A desk, sofa, and overturned office chair occupied the room. The desk drawers contained candy bars, canned tuna, and untouched water bottles. She bagged everything. A box was pushed into the far corner. Sasha pulled it out and discovered the shipping tape still intact. A quick swipe of her blade solved the dilemma.

"Wow," she murmured under her breath.

Under layers of pink tissue paper rested Victoria's Secrets—a lacy pink bra and panty set and a satin lavender slip and matching kimono. Without pause, Sasha folded the items inside the tissue and stashed them inside the bottom of her bag.

"You okay?" Bob asked from the doorway.

She blinked at his sudden appearance and secured the closure on her bag. Dusting her hands on her pants, she nodded. "Yeah, I'm almost done."

"No, I mean…" Bob released a deep sigh. "You seemed upset. You and Daryl okay—?"

"Bob," she said quietly. "Don't."

He held up his hands and shrugged. "I didn't mean… Look, we haven't talked since we all reunited. This thing with you and Daryl surprised me. I guess I thought we—you and me." He swallowed hard, his gaze fixed on her. "I guess I was wrong."

"I don't know if I owe you an explanation," Sasha said, folding her arms across her chest. "At least, I don't feel like I do. Right now, the prison was a lifetime ago except in some ways it isn't."

"What does that mean?" he asked.

"Did I ever thank you for going on the run to get the medicine? You saved my life and Glenn's. Thanks, Bob."

"You're welcome, Sasha." He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and looked at the floor before speaking again. "So that's it now?"

"We're friends…family."

"Friends," he stated quietly. "Okay."

The rest of the run came with hits and misses. Most of the stores had been wiped clean, but the few that held supplies had water and canned food and peanut butter. Dean found three boxes of ammunition and a flare gun. Glenn secured several boxes of matches and a container of box cutters. Bob's medical experience proved beneficial yet again when another unopened box yielded expired antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, and other outdated medicine. Maggie retrieved baby items for Judith. By the end of the run, they were pleased. The findings weren't enough to get them to D.C., but anything was a start. They wouldn't go to bed hungry that night.

The aroma of grilling meat greeted them as they reached the motel. As they got closer, Daryl stepped from the shadows as if he had been waiting. The others separated, leaving Sasha and Daryl alone.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

"Good run?" he asked.

"Not bad. We should probably hit the houses next." She inhaled a deep breath. The food smelled good. "Went hunting?"

"Yeah, Nik and me took the boys out. Came back with a deer."

Her eyes widened. "No!"

Daryl laughed. "Yeah. Belly's gonna be full tonight. C'mon."

As he took her hand and led her toward their room, Sasha noticed another in the shadows, watching. There was a flash of gray hair but it was the pair of pale eyes that Sasha would remember the most. She could only guess what lurked in Carol's mind when they made eye contact for that brief moment.

##

The screams for help startled Michonne. A glance at Carl, Tyrese, and Lorenzo confirmed that the cries surprised them, too. The decision to scavenge the larger, older houses had been a sound plan with them scoring plenty of homemade canned fruits and vegetables in the cellar. Next stop was the attic, but the yelling pulled them up short.

Of course, Carl headed out first. Gun in hand and the deputy's hat on his head, the young teenage raced without fear into the unknown and that worried Michonne more than anything. So of course, Michonne raced after him, more concerned about returning him safely to their current digs than some stranger, crying out.

"Help!"

"Carl!" she hissed, running fast with her filled sack bumping against her legs. "Carl!"

"Hey!" Tyrese and Lorenzo followed close behind. Their agitation made clear by their labored breathing and heavy footfalls.

"We have to help," Carl said, not stopping until they reached an alley teeming with six walkers intent on the terrified figure sprawled on the dumpster.

"Help!" The man struggled to stand, but his movement only encouraged the walkers to scramble closer to reach him. "Please!" he cried.

What the hell? Michonne surveyed the scene and surmised the person was perhaps a true idiot. Didn't he know that his noise only made the walkers more insistent and it called on more to come?

"Stop it!" Lorenzo said, wielding his tire iron to fell a walker. "Shut up already!"

Michonne took out two with a swipe of the katana. Carl knifed one, and Tyrese bludgeoned another with his hammer. With the threat down, Michonne took a better assessment of the situation. The man wore all black except for the band of white around his neck. Beads of sweat dotted his bald, honey brown scalp and his hands still shook although the altercation was now a thing of the past. His dark brown eyes darted at each of them, but he didn't hold any gaze for long.

"It's okay," Carl said. "You can come down."

He nodded and carefully lowered himself to the ground. Lorenzo released a loud sigh upon his descent, but Tyrese remained quiet.

"Yelling only calls more," Michonne said. "You're lucky we were nearby."

"No, not lucky. Blessed. I'm Father Gabriel. Thank you all. You're proof that God is still listening to our prayers."

They all frowned but no one contradicted him.

"What are you doing out here?" Lorenzo asked.

"Were you separated from your group?" Tyrese joined in.

Gabriel shook his head. "No, just me. I ran out of food, so… They were on me before I knew what was happening."

"So you've never killed a Walker?" Carl asked.

"Walker? Is that what you call them?" Gabriel shook his head. "Never had to."

"In all this time?" Michonne asked. "Have many people have you killed?"

"None!" he answered quickly. "Never."

"We have a group. Our camp is—"

"Carl!" Michonne scolded. "Wait."

"We can't just leave him," Carl said.

"We don't know him," Lorenzo said. "He could be a liability."

"I'm standing right here," Gabriel said with a chuckle. "I'm here. I can hear you."

"We're not cruel," Tyrese added. "Leaving him is cruel."

"That's your stance?" Michonne asked.

Tyrese nodded. "We know what it's like out here. What you have to do to survive. He's not there, yet. Why would we leave him?"

"We're making assumptions," she said with sigh. "Fine. We have a small group. We're housed nearby, but we're leaving soon. We have shelter and food."

Gabriel stared. His mouth opened and closed, but words seemed lodged deep in his chest. He took measured steps around the fallen walkers and picked up his discarded sack of pecans.

"Well?" Michonne asked. "The offer has a time limit."

"Yes," he said quickly. "I accept. Thank you!"

With the newcomer in attendance, they decided to end the run and return to base. A small crowd stood silent and still in the courtyard. Maggie and Sasha had revolvers aimed at Abraham who knelt in the center. His stoic expression appeared oblivious to the group who watched him and looked ready to assist the women if needed. A few feet away lay Eugene, unconscious and unmoving. Beth returned with pillows for his head and Bob checked his pulse.

"It's faint, but it's there," Bob said.

"What happened?" Michonne asked.

"Lies coming to light," Dawn said. She held her gun down at her side, but Dominik stood ready beside her.

"There's no cure," Maggie said.

"Eugene lied," Rosita said bitterly. "Made it up for protection. We lost so many to bring him this far and this fucker was lying the entire time."

She glared at Eugene and then at Abraham before she stormed from the courtyard.

"So, he lied…and?" Michonne checked Eugene's forehead. It was cold and clammy. "What happened?"

"Abraham," Sasha said.

"Clocked him cold," Noah added. "Did it so fast, none of us could stop it. Not sure we could've if we wanted to."

"How long has he been out?" Michonne asked.

"Over an hour," Tara said. "Maybe two."

"Can we move him?" Michonne asked. "Bob, what do you think?"

"I wanted him to regain consciousness first, but it's better to get him inside. We need to make a stretcher."

"Glenn?" Lorenzo asked. After the other man nodded, the two headed inside for materials.

"What else?" Michonne asked. The tension was thicker than steak. There had to be more. Abraham remained stiff, and both Sasha and Maggie hadn't taken their guns or attention from him. "Did he threaten the group?"

"Came at Rosita," Maggie said in clipped tones. "Didn't hit her, but he ain't exactly himself. Can't risk the rest of us."

The nods affirmed Maggie's stance and Michonne understood their caution. An out of control member was a danger to the entire group. She noted that Gabriel clutched his bag and remained in the shadow, but he watched everything intently. His continued presence was telling. Despite the present chaos, this group was better than whatever he was experiencing alone.

Rick and Nik returned as Bob, Glenn, and Lorenzo were moving Eugene into the room Lorenzo shared with Dean. Rick and Nik carried several containers of fuel and pleased expressions until they noticed the tension. Nik quickly joined his wife and son while Rick moved toward Michonne and Carl.

"The cure…D.C. was a lie. Eugene created it for survival," Michonne said quietly.

"Is he dead?" Rick asked.

"We don't know, yet," she said. "Abraham hit him. He's still out. Bob is tending to him. Beth is helping."

"Plan B?" Rick asked her.

She nodded.

Rick said, "Change of plans. We're headed to Noah's."

"There's room for everyone," Noah said. "Thanks, Rick"

Rick shook his head as he took Michonne's hand. "Thank Michonne."

##

Daryl heard the commotion from his post on the roof where he and Dean were on duty. His grilling coincided with his guard shift and the roof provided plenty of space to do both. Eugene's lie hadn't come as surprise. Daryl was relieved that the man admitted the truth before they wasted time and gas. Abraham's response was expected, too. No one liked being made a fool.

Tara and Lorenzo soon arrived to take over, but Daryl and Dean lagged to hear the latest before they joined the larger group.

"Eugene hasn't budged," Tara said with a worried frown.

Lorenzo squeezed her shoulder. "Bob said it could take a while. He's still breathing. There's hope."

"A liar stays?" Dean asked.

"He's a survivor," Tara said. "That's his skill. We have running water for showers because of him and Lorenzo. Not everyone is good at killing."

"Rosita said people died because of him," Dean said.

Tara frowned. "I don't know anything about that. I lost my sister, my niece, my girlfriend. Bad things have happened to most of us. But he's alive and I'm alive because of him. Glenn, too. I can't write him off because he didn't want to die."

"You're making some roundabout excuses for his shit," Daryl said.

"Are you perfect?" she asked.

"No," he mumbled.

"None of us are," Lorenzo said. "If he wakes up, I'm okay with him staying. My family heading east wasn't contingent on some far out cure. I have family that could be there…somewhere."

"Reason enough to go," Daryl said quietly. "What's the plan now?"

"Noah's," Tara said. "Same plan, I guess. Just modified."

"Think we'll all fit?" Daryl asked.

"He thinks so," said Lorenzo. "Said there are houses and room for more. It's worth a shot."

Daryl nodded.

"But you and your brother aren't staying, right?" Dean asked. "You're taking Dawn and Dominik to look for your family."

Lorenzo's jaw tightened. "Maybe. Nothing's set in stone, yet. But the first part is we'll head to Richmond first."

Later, Daryl washed up and returned to finish manning the grill. He found Sasha and Carol there, and Tyrese with Mika. They were setting up a serving station for the evening meal. With the sun promising to set soon, time could not be wasted. Everyone would eat in their rooms where they could enjoy grilled deer and stale crackers under the glow of candlelight.

"Can't believe this," Sasha said, squeezing his arm. "Thanks, Dar—"

"What did I tell you about that?" he asked. "What if I thanked ya every time we're on the Harley? You'd pop me with that stick."

Even though he was teasing, she spoke in a serious tone. "No, I wouldn't. Not with the stick."

When he smiled at her, he noticed Carol had paused with plates in hand to look at them. A few lines crinkled her brow but when their gazes connected, she gave him a smile that failed to reach her eyes.

His attention returned to Sasha. "Show me what pieces you want. You can take ours to the room."

"We get first dibs?" she asked with humor and delight.

"Damn straight, but don't take all night, woman. A line'll form before you choose."

"Hush," she murmured. "That one for me and that piece for you."

She handed him a plate and he loaded it with enough meat to fill their hunger, leaving plenty for the other group.

"Go," he said.

"I'm not eating without you."

"Better not."

After she left, Daryl felt the stares, boring into his back. He was never one for extra attention. Under radar was his preferred method of going about his life. He and Sasha had become united unexpectedly, but it felt better than anything he had ever encountered. He supposed curiosity was to be expected, but it was no one's fucking business.

"She's happy," Tyrese said, handing Daryl a plate to fill.

They had decided to have the plates ready to go so everyone could pick up and leave. No lingering on the roof and no unnecessary noise to alert Walkers to their first good meal in weeks.

Daryl shrugged, but Tyrese's acknowledgment made him feel good inside. Sasha's joy gave him peace.

"So…um…how did…" Carol began. "When did it happen?"

"I went huntin' for squirrels and found a deer instead," Daryl said.

"That's not what I meant."

"I know."

Before more could be said, the group filed in. The guards were served first and everyone else after. Some stayed to help. Others were too starved, but their appreciation was evident. After a while, Tyrese told Daryl to leave and that Tyrese would finish. Daryl offered no argument. He was eager to enjoy his bounty and the company of his woman.

The gratitude of everyone with a full plate and hungry stomach contrasted with the silent disapproval of one. With Carol's return, Daryl had hoped to renew their friendship. He thought she, more than anyone, would be proud of him for what he and Sasha had found in the other. If anything, he thought Tyrese would have been the one to cause the most grief. But nah, not Ty.

A candlelit room and the distinct aroma of freshly grilled meat were not the first things Daryl noticed upon entering the room. Nor was it the softly playing music from the iPod Touch. What captured his full attention was Sasha. A halo of soft, brown curls framed her face. Tiny light purple straps revealed the hollows at her collarbone and firmness of her shoulders. Although she sat in the bed with the sheet pulled to her chest, he had a good idea about her state of undress.

"Hey," he mumbled as he closed and locked the door. "You eat?"

"Waited for you."

He lowered the crossbow to the floor. His feet felt rooted to the carpet. Heat flooded his body and it almost hurt to look at her. She was so beautiful. This was worse than the bath when he washed her hair. Then, they had the company of Dawn and Nik. This time it was just them. And he was rooted.

"Daryl?"

"You ain't naked, are you?"

She shook her head. "No."

"Get that from Dawn?"

"No." She clutched the sheet. "Want to…see?"

He shook his head and stepped back. "Um, I dunno, Sasha."

She held out her hand. "Come here."

Her arm was toned and lean. He imagined the rest of her would be, as well. Tone. Lean. Supple. With curves. And that pretty mouth of hers. Still, he hesitated.

"What is it?" she asked. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No," he said quietly. "It's me. I ain't good at this."

"At what? You've come to me before. Sometimes when I didn't even ask. You're safe with me, Daryl. I promise."

The sincerity of her words was a catalyst for movement. He knew them to be true. His instinct screamed for him to run, but his heart knew better. He shrugged free of his leather wings and went to her.

[Author's Note: Thank you for the wonderful responses to the return of Declarations and ASZ Chronicles. I truly appreciate every reply, favorite, and follow. This chapter was way longer than I expected and the ending wasn't quite how I thought it would be, so don't blame me for that. Blame Daryl. Lol The next chapter will begin here so ideas for Sasha's playlist are needed. I'm thinking 90s R&B, minus R Kelly. Music will help set the tone for whatever happens next between this couple, so please feel free to share songs, artists, etc. As always, thank you for reading and your patience!]