10 years before the end of the world, Rick and Shane answer a request for assistance a few counties over to look for a missing girl in the Georgia backwoods. Realising they are out of their depth, they enlist the help of a local hunter, an awkward and angry young man with trouble for a brother. But nothing is ever easy and even before the turn there were monsters in the woods.

Quick disclaimer: As always, I'm doing this for a bit of fun, they're not mine and I'm not getting paid. It's been a long time since I wrote any fanfic and even longer since I wrote for TWD, but the lockdown has given me plenty of time to binge and the plot bunnies, like walkers, just won't stay dead. This is mostly finished, so expect regular updates. I guess I should say this is rated for some violence and a lot of bad language, peppered with a generous helping of Dixon-angst.

Chapter 1

"Look at these towns, shit! You could pick a guy at random and he's bound to have done some fucked up shit, let's just bring 'em all in."

Rick glanced over at his partner and rolled his eyes loudly before turning his concentration back onto the road, "It's not that bad."

"Not that bad?" Shane gasped with the exaggerated enthusiasm that folk might have once used at a carnival sideshow, "Jesus Christ, look at that place." He pointed at a crumbling farmhouse. "It's like one of them horror movies where the fucked up family hunts and eats people."

Rick looked at the property as they drove past it. The paint was peeling off the gables and one of the bannisters had rotted through on the porch steps, but there was fresh washing on the line and a couple of horses in the paddock out back that looked well fed. "You always have to make a big drama out of everythin' don'tcha?" Rick shook his head, "Just people a little down on their luck is all."

"I live a vibrant and interesting existence." Shane grinned, "Lighten up and use your imagination a little."

"I'm tired that's all." Rick said. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, I'm tired too man, but what was I supposed to say?"

He was right of course and he felt guilty for being annoyed about it. Rick and Shane had had one hell of a shift. For a start it was sweltering, even at night the sweat had soaked through their shirts, made all the worse by the body armour they wore beneath their uniform which now stuck uncomfortably in some places but move a certain way and it felt so greased with sweat that it would slide right off. They' started the night with a nasty domestic assault and finished it with an early morning drunk driver ploughing into a bank on Main Street and killing his teenage passenger. In their small sleepy county it didn't get much worse than that. It had been awful, but it was about to be over, when a request for assistance came in from another county. A little girl had gone missing in the National Park and the local sheriffs had asked for assistance from every county north of Atlanta to help.

They'd spent the last few hours fuelled on coffee and Red Vines. They were wired, they were tired and they wanted to go home and get to their days off and try to forget the night had ever happened, but as soon as Shane had heard that a girl's life was at risk he volunteered to be the one to go, leaving Rick no choice but to look like an asshole or agree to go with him. A year or so ago and he wouldn't have thought anything of it. Little girl in trouble? Of course they would drop whatever they were doing and rush to the rescue, taking pride in their job and no amount of blood, sweat or tears would have been too much of a price to pay. But things were different now, he was a father, and he felt like he was spending far too much time at work and not enough with his family.

He knew that made him selfish. He'd kept his reservations to himself though, what else was he to do? They'd driven home just long enough to pack a bag each and for Rick to say goodbye to Lori and little Carl and then loaded up on coffee and left to start the two-hour drive to Jameston.

Lori had been upset too, and had wanted to know why none of the others could go in his stead. It was almost Carl's first birthday, she reminded him and she had invited the neighbours for a barbecue. Telling her they'd volunteered had not gone down well, not that it mattered all that much, at aged 26, he and Shane were the youngest in their small town department and as a result would have been the ones sent anyway. Rick had tried to explain that as he gulped down coffee in the kitchen while she made Carl his oatmeal with a stony face and an unnecessary slam of the microwave door.

Shane had summoned him to the car with a blow of the horn and Lori had let him go with a frosty peck on the cheek and making him promise to try to come home in time for the party in three days time. Rick had promised he'd try, while thinking to himself that if he was still searching for this girl by then it would be too late for everyone involved.

He got into the car with a heavy heart and telling himself that it was just his lack of sleep that made him feel torn at the seams. Damn Shane and his perpetual enthusiasm though.

Rick forced a smile on his face, "No, you're right, I just need another coffee and I'll snap right out of it."

"We'll find the girl, be back in a few hours, but in the meantime let's enjoy our romantic vacation up in Hicksville." Shane teased.

Rick nodded and turned up the volume on the local radio, thankful they'd been given the one squad car that hadn't had it taken out. It had been left on a local country station, and that suited Rick just fine but Shane was on it immediately, scrolling and scrolling through dead airspace in a vain attempt at finding some classic rock. They were in the middle of Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest though and the dense tree cover and the Blue Ridge Mountains just to their north blocked most of the signals. Eventually, Shane has to settle back on the country station.

"Damn hillbillies," Shane muttered, his own good mood clearly more frayed than he was trying to let on.

Despite his efforts, Rick was feeling far from social and after a few attempts by Shane to drag him into conversation, they slipped into a comfortable quiet and got lost in the scenery. He was jarred back reality when they drove past a diner in Ellijay with the parking lot full of cop cars. The last town before the turn off for the meeting point, every cop for miles around seemed to be fuelling up for a day of traipsing through the wilderness. Shane pulled in and they joined them.

Walking in, it was loud and jarring and Rick could tell Shane loved it, feeding off the energy of others, new people to meet, new faces to talk at. Talk at? Rick conceded he might be being a little unfair to his partner, but once the guy got going it was hard to get him to allow anyone else a word in edgeways. He picked a table with two empty spaces and striking up a conversation with the men already sat there like they were old buddies. It was a cop thing, strangers were never really strangers, because the job they had chosen to do gave them a better understanding of each other than some had with their own families. Shane loved that camaraderie; Rick wasn't quite prepared to buy into it. Moreover, he felt a little too sleep-deprived and wished for the chance to eat his bacon and eggs in peace, but even he was drawn in as the conversation turned to their task.

"Rumour has it, this girl was abducted from her tent in the dead of night, right from under her parent's noses."

"Shit, really? I thought she'd just wandered off."

"Nah, there was blood on her tent, they're sure she's been taken. Only eight years old. Parents let her sleep in her own tent for the first time and this is what happens."

"If it were my kid I'd never let them outta my sight."

"Apparently some asshole who lives out on the Old Federal Road jus' got outta prison. Now wouldn't that be a coincidence?"

They debated the rumours along with the merits (or lack of) of parental freedoms, engaging the next two tables into their heated debate while they drank coffee faster than the waitress could refill it. Time was getting on and Rick realised they'd sit there all day unless someone said something.

"'S about time we get moving don'tcha think?" he stood up, "Briefing is at 1000hrs and those old park trails ain't smooth." There were some grumbles from the others including a muttered comment to Shane about the stick up his partner's ass but they all settled up and headed back out to the cars.

They drove in convoy, up the winding mountain roads until they got to the meeting point. The six cars that had been at the diner all parked up in a row, alongside the local Jameston Sheriffs, who had a map laid out on the hood of their car and were engrossed in the last few details. They were the first ones there, that elicited a few more grumbles about Rick's decision to drag them from the diner, but he didn't much care.

Beyond them, the campsite had been cleared of campers, except for the three tents that belonged to the little girl's family that were surrounded by crime scene tape. Nice tents, well used but good quality. One of the poles had snapped in what looked to be the girl's one, but who knew if that had been as a result of a struggle or if it had been an accident caused by frantic parents. Items strewn across the front of the parent's tent; a sleeping bag pooled at the open entrance, a cook-set kicked to the side, all abandoned in the horror of discovering their child gone. It made Rick feel a little sick, he couldn't imagine how he would cope if anything like that ever happened to Carl.

Getting organised seemed to take forever, increasing everyone's restlessness, over the following thirty minutes more officers drifted in, but not many, not enough. Once there were twenty of them stood around impatiently, the Jameston deputies started handing out search packs; maps of their search grid, plastic strips to use as tree markers and a printed photo of a cute little black girl with a grin from ear to ear. Rick figured they were waiting on the search dogs coming up from Atlanta, maybe a helicopter too, but then the Sheriff stepped up to address the group.

He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with talking to so many people, "Good morning Gentlemen," he started. Shane gave Rick a nudge, drawing attention to a pair of female officers stood in front of them who had visibly bristled at the greeting. "Thank you all for giving up your time, I know a lot of you have given up days off with your wives and families to help us out. The little girl in the picture is Ciara Just. Her family came up from the city to go camping like they do every summer. According to them, she knew the campground and knew better than to wander off, but last night, a week inta their trip, she went to bed around eight. The rest of the family was up until about eleven-thirty and she was still asleep in her tent, but when her daddy got up at six this morning the tent was open and she was gone. Now my deputies have already been out searching but I know these woods better than most and when she weren't found immediately it became clear to me we would need help and I'm happy to say you fine people answered."

The briefing went on a little, reminding them all that in most missing cases the first twenty-four hours were crucial and that the late August heatwave, dehydration and heatstroke made it all the worse. He detailed the search grid, and assigned everyone areas, went over how to mark off the places they'd already searched with their plastic tape. It was past eleven by the time they were dismissed and both Kings County officers were impatient to get going. It was already another sweltering day so Rick and Shane dumped their body armour, doused their already sweaty shirts in liberal amounts of Shane's Axe deodorant, loaded up on water and set off.