Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead or any of its characters, wishful thinking aside.
Warnings: See original chapter for all warnings and related information. *Rated for adult language, adult situations, kidnapping, violence, blood, serious injury, gore, allusions to torture, hurt and comfort, PTSD, trauma, and some serious whump. (Please see previous chapters for a complete list.)
Sanctuary for All
You know that feeling you get when you think you've figured everything out? …That smug sort of relief that floods through your veins like a mouthful of water on a blisteringly hot day? Well, he was all but sweating it.
After all the suspense, all the confusion and utter shit that had dogged his steps as he'd crept through the tree line. Following Manning's trail through the woods until he'd finally arrived at the metaphorical gingerbread house. He finally figured he had a good handle on things. That he knew, just as surely as he took his next breath, what was coming and why.
It's funny how just when you think you've figured everything out, you can still be completely and utterly wrong.
Saliva pooled across his tongue. Turning sour and disgustingly thick until he nearly choked on his own tongue as his brain somehow forgot how to swallow. - It was only when the need to breathe became desperate that panic rippled through him, jump-starting his lungs into compliance as he coughed up a mouthful of stale spit and phlegm and forced himself to breathe.
He spat viciously. Tasting the acidic backwash of blood, sweat, and a hint of Carol's weak, rose hip tea as the contents of his stomach threatened to rise up and exit on the proverbial stage left. Gut churning like he was five seconds away from losing it completely as he struggled to pull himself together. All but main-lining the last vestiges of shock and adrenaline like an addict searching out his next fix, desperate to remain afloat as disbelief and a growing wave of panic tried it's best to bury him. - Christ, he was going to be sick…
What terrible will could make something like this possible?
His grip on reality down shifted, devolving into a tailspin as he stumbled backwards. It was almost as if his body and his brain had sudden found themselves at war with one another and was unsure of who was the superior force. With previous harmony and mutual cooperation turning into chaos as he scrambled to simply stay afloat between them. Losing control for a long moment as he backed himself right into a rock wall, the sharp edges cutting into his skin until his filthy shirt ran mud-red and angry.
Shit. Get a grip Dixon!
It wasn't until his shoes dug deep into the dry, Georgian soil that he felt centered again. Pushing off from the sharp rocks and crumbling piles of shale in order to advance on Manning, mindless of the noise as he hunched down into a protective crouch and kept his arrow aimed at the bastard's heart.
It was a trap! It had to be! It was the only thing that made sense. The only problem was that even that explanation didn't quite make any sense either. Because he hadn't seen any other tracks, no signs of disturbed undergrowth or recent foot traffic anywhere else save for Manning's half hazard trail. What was Manning playing at? Tramping around in the forest like this? What was the end game?
This whole stunt was one hell of a risk for something as simple as payback. After all, how could Manning have been sure that he'd come after him? How had he known that he wouldn't just shoot him on sight and be done with it? What did Manning stand to gain from this risky little charade? Him? The farm? Revenge? The numbers just didn't add up.
But then again, Manning had never been an easy one to figure out. Even now, after everything he'd been through, he didn't pretend to know how the man's mind worked. He was slicker than a used car salesman and twice as dirty. He was cunning, smart, and more dangerous than any walker or two-bit con man either living or dead. Manning was someone whose secrets had secrets and whose plans had layers that went beyond the flesh. He was more than a predator, he was a fucking sadist.
Manning was a breed apart from other men and not in a particularly good way either. He was one of the most dangerous kinds of men in the world today. One without limits or boundaries, he could not be bribed, convinced, or swayed. He had no loyalty save to himself and cared for no one and nothing because in the end, he was a man that knew the true power of things like morality and love. How they crippled you and made you weak. Making you less than you were when the phantom crutches of love and loyalty were kicked out from underneath you. Men like Manning knew this. They fed off it. Merle had been cut from the very same cloth. He knew the value others placed on such emotions and used them accordingly.
He didn't understand the way men like Manning and Merle looked at the world, and god help him, but he hoped he never did. Because what they didn't realize was that there were two sides to every coin. The good and the bad, and you needed to have one of each to understand the difference. To know that the things that made you weak were also the things that made you strong. And the things that could cripple you if taken away were the same things that you'd fight to the death in order to keep.
A man needed something more too live for than himself, even he knew that. – Yet that small, seemingly insignificant fact was something that a person like Manning could never hope to understand. It was beyond him. In spite of all Manning's strengths, all his advantages, that simple piece of humanity remained completely out of his reach.
He bit down on the inside of his cheek on pure reflex as Manning shifted. Recoiling instinctively as those rumpled, salt and pepper curls turned away from him. Angling his head in such a way that the low afternoon sun glinted through the veil of the man's mussed up ringlets - turning back towards the horizon with a sort of carelessness that made even him do a double take. As if his presence here was no more worrisome or dangerous than the buzzing of some particularly amorous horsefly. In fact, if the man noticed him at all, he certainly gave no sign.
But the entire moment turned surreal and almost phantasmagorical only a few moments later when one of Manning's gore-streaked hands suddenly curled up into an awkward fist. His grip lax and almost disinterested as the man brought his hand up to his mouth for a long moment - as if the man were simply scratching his nose or wiping the sweat off his forehead. Either way, it was a moment that had him tensing up and counting the seconds until it dropped back down to his side once again. Breaking the suffocating silence with the soft hush of fabric rasping against fabric as the fingers of his right hand tangled in his belt loops. Apparently content to remain where he was for the time being, silent, unmoving, and completely uncompromising.
But worst of all, when he looked down at the man's hand, he realized that those blood-caked fingers had been licked clean.
What the fuck?!
He watched the man closely now. Circling around behind him as carefully as the terrain allowed. Frustrated for reasons beyond him when the man remained where he was. The profile of his face shadowed by the rocky overhang as the man looked off into the distance.
The bastard's name got caught in the back of his throat as Manning suddenly wavered in place. Acting almost if he'd changed his mind about moving forward halfway through the motion itself, jerking awkwardly as gravity and inertia fought to upset the man's tenuous looking balance. – In fact, Manning looked like he was seconds away from collapse. His spine curling inward as visible tremors coursed through his blood splattered limbs. Quivering like a man struck with some sort of infirmity as the man hunched his back and shuffled a few steps deeper into the shadows.
He wasn't sure where the courage came from, but somewhere along the line he managed to reclaim his balls and get his fucking act together. After all, he hadn't lived his life only to become some sort of limp-wristed pussy when push came to shove. He was more than that, better, and he knew it.
"…Manning." He rasped. Tongue catching on the syllables before he threw them out into the open air. Calling the man by his name under his own power for the first time since they'd met - this time man to man, but with him holding the home court advantage.
And it was about fucking time too.
"Hands where I can see them you sick fuck." He growled, nearly spitting out the words now as his tone turned viperous and harsh. Circling back around to Manning's side and cursing under his breath when the man's profile remained half-wreathed by the shadowy incline of rock. - If he could just see Manning's face, then maybe he could get a handle on things. He needed something to judge the man's mood, something…anything to tell him what the asshole's next move might be.
But instead of responding, the man remained silent - too silent. And the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach only intensified. Because one thing, if anything was clear. Something wasn't right. He was still missing something. The final piece of the puzzle he'd been chewing on since day fucking one. Since the moment he'd heard the noise that had drawn him into the forest in the first place. Since the day that Manning's men had surrounded him, overpowering him with sheer numbers as he'd tried to punch and claw his way to freedom. - Hell, since the day Rick had looked him in the eye and told him that the mean sonofabitch was dead.
Because somehow, deep down, he realized that he really should have known better.
Confusion whirled, spreading through his veins like poison from a gangrenous wound. Bone deep and heady as a sudden burst of realization screamed from its place on the chopping block. A hairs breath from being lost to him forever as a quiver of doubt wriggled its way into his subconscious. Lancing through him, brutal and quick, like one of his own god damned arrows on track for his very heart.
Christ, what if-
They say that in situations like these, in near death experiences, epiphanies, and moments of vindication, that time slows down. But any jackass who's ever held up a 7-11 knows that's a crock of shit. Time doesn't slow down, it speeds up. Way up. There aren't any classic Hollywood scenes were the camera pans over to the dashing male lead at the very moment of the film's climax. The main dame's hair doesn't flow back from her face in a sudden and completely unexplainable breeze. Her perfect, rouge-red lips don't mouth soundlessly as the film slows to a crawl, turning her passionate cry into something downright obscene and sensual. Forming a perfect 'o' of surprise as the male lead smirks and takes down the bad guy in one perfectly choreographed punch.
No, the truth is that reality is a cold, heartless bitch that would just as soon as eat you alive than cut you a break.
Because his brain was trying to play tricks on him, taunting him with a realization that was so close to the surface that it felt like he could just reach out and grab it. It distracted him to the point where his crossbow actually wavered. His shocked fingers lax around the trigger as a cold sweat broke out across his forehead. …Damnit.
Why hadn't Manning turned around? If this was a trap, how did the man intend to spring it? So far it seemed as though he had the advantage, but if Manning was here that didn't make any sense. Where were his men? Why wasn't his gun drawn? Something wasn't right. He'd overlooked something. Shit! What had he missed?
"Didn't you hear me? It's over Manning. Take that gun outta 'yer holster and drop it now or I promise that you'll be dead long before you have time to fire." He hissed, doing a complete circuit around the hollow before he advanced another cautious step forward. Gaining a short lived sliver of confidence when the man's fingers twitched at his sides, dirt-encrusted nails brushing against his holster like the man was actually considering his words before his hands drifted back down to hang at his sides once again.
But other than that, the man didn't even react.
Hell, Manning still wasn't even looking at him. He bit his lip. Trying to fight off a sudden chill as something cold trickled down his spine and into his belly as he took it in. Watching as a light gust of wind rippled through the man's messy, salt and pepper curls. Upsetting the lay of the man's frayed pant legs as a thin tangle of unraveled threads ghosted across the dry Georgian dust at their feet. And yet, the man remained where he was. Both feet planted solidly on the ground, head up and facing off into the horizon like he hadn't even fucking heard him.
He sucked in a low, unsteady breath. Pulse thrumming in his ears as the lilting echoes of birdsong piped through the strained silence unexpectedly. Singing into the dusk with a sparse melody and a questioning tone until the sound faded out of his hearing entirely. - He held back a flinch, but only just.
The slowly healing scars that encircled both his wrists tugged uncomfortably against the strap of his crossbow as he firmed the stock into his shoulder. Catching awkwardly against the scabs and half healed pits where the metal had bit deep into his skin. Reminding him of everything that he'd lost and won in that room. Reminding him of everything Manning had tried to do, of everything he'd tried to take… Reminding him how close he'd come to nearly giving-
No. Not again. He wouldn't let him. Not this time.
And to be honest, he just fucking lost it. He forgot to be silent. He forgot to be unmovable and uncaring. He forgot to keep his voice down and continue scanning the perimeter of the clearing behind them. He forgot that he wasn't supposed to care, that he shouldn't and that at the end of the day, the man really wasn't worth it. – But perhaps more importantly, he forgot what happens when you open the door to emotions like rage and retribution.
Because like most of the crippling things that'd come out of Pandora's Box. The truth was, that in trying to free something that could potentially be used for good, you always end up letting loose far more than you originally intended. Things like hurt and sorrow, fear, loss, and every other little nuance of feeling that existed in between. Because without his consent, everything he'd ever held back, repressed, and shoved deep into the back of his subconscious rose up as one - sounding out in a single, disjointed chorus that only demanded one deceivingly simple thing. …Justice. Not just for himself, but for everyone. For everyone who'd suffered by Manning's hand and for everyone who could have. For all the wrongs Manning could have committed if he hadn't screwed up and come after him.
Something snapped inside his brain as his eyes raked over him. Wounds throbbing, pounding in the back of his skull, the scars around his wrists thickening and stretching as the rocky hollow grew shadowed and grey. A gleeful sort of horror rose up in the back of his throat like bile as thoughts of revenge and restitution danced through his head like a kid envisioning Christmas. Manic and dark as the memory of the man's cruel smile seared through his minds eye like freshly ignited napalm.
He had a score to settle with Manning. He'd just never expected that he'd be able to cash it in. He had no idea how the man had managed to get out. How he'd escaped from the groups initial assault on the building and the walker herd that had closed in behind them. But somehow he wasn't surprised. Men like Manning didn't die easily. It was probably the only thing the two of them actually had in common.
His fingers tightened around the trigger as he aimed down the sight. Centering his shot square across the back of the man's head as he judged the direction and speed of the growing breeze coming in from the east. Squinting into the dying afternoon sun as he wiped away a stinging trickle of sweat, tasting the acrid burn of his own fluids, mixed together with the lingering sweetness of freshly crushed honey-suckle as the wind rippled through the clearing behind them.
It was such a reverse of the moment where they'd first met that he nearly laughed. Only this time he was the man holding the gun. And Manning didn't have a chance in hell of not getting what was coming to him. Call it karma, justice, a stroke of divine intervention, or just pure dumb luck, in the end it didn't matter.
This moment was his, and he intended to have it.
The tension suddenly broke not a minute later, shattering into sharp splinters of reflecting colors and percussive sounds as he moved forward. Because before his brain could even process it, he found himself suddenly lurching forward, cross bow angled upwards and away as he closed the distance between them in just a few quick strides.
"Look at me you sick fuck!" He snarled, fingers curling around the back of Manning's pack-sack as he grabbed him by the straps and yanked him backwards, spinning him around to face him at long last.
And suddenly, just like that, everything started to make a hell of a lot more sense.
He staggered backwards in horror. Crossbow clattering to the ground as his side howled in agony. Nearly tripping and falling flat on his ass in an effort to scramble backwards. Forearm stinging as the tip of his own arrow scored across his skin, kicking up a cloud of dirt and pebbles as he looked up at the man's face for the first time since he'd entered the clearing. Since that last night at Manning's place where he'd watched the man haunt the shadows of the room as he'd swung from that god damned meat hook, tipping back and forth like a freshly butchered steer from the slaughter. Half dead but still undeniably victorious as he'd stood his ground and refused to give the man even so much as a god damned inch.
He nearly swallowed his own tongue as the man's wrecked face and unfocused eyes slowly panned around to face him. Bloodshot and hazy under a film of cloudy, opaque color that looked more like an oil slick than anything else. So close that he could actually smell the man's rank stench and fetid breath. So close that he could actually see the sudden focus that blossomed in the back of the man's eyes as the jarring movement finally woke him up from whatever trance he'd been caught up in the first place
Because it was Manning - right down to that glinting FEMA badge, unnaturally high cheekbones, and uncompromisingly stiff posture. It was him, every inch of him. Every pound of flesh they hadn't been able to strip away before he'd gotten back up and joined them.
Before he'd become one of them…
A/N #1: Sorry about the horrendously long period of time between updates. - Please let me know what you think? Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! I hope this twist managed to surprise some of you! The contents of this chapter were planned long in advance, so the last few chapters of suspense and hints were actually there for a reason, as I hope was made apparent in this chapter.
"Sometimes life has a cruel sense of humor, giving you the thing you always wanted at the worst time possible." - Lisa Kleypas.