Author's Note: Just when you think you're getting your life underneath yourself something comes up and bites you in the ass. I've been having a weird go of things and I wasn't planning on posting this until I got myself all straightened out. It's been written for a while, and I've been working on part three already. I wanted to have a plan when I did this but I don't. I'm going to write part three, I just want to have it all written before I start posting so I don't end up in this mess again. Weirdly enough, I feel like I need to post this right now because my Grandpa just passed away on Friday morning. I'm heading to the wake in an hour and all I can think is, "If something happened to me, my story is unfinished." The weird stuff you think of at a time like this.
So this is it. The final chapter of Part 2. More information to come on Part Three when I have it for you. Thank you all for everything :)
"That is the stupidest fuckin' thing ya'll have said tonight." Merle looked into the concrete walls that made up the public rest room and snorted, shaking his head again. "Nope, there's jus' no way tha's gonna happen. I ain't gotta piss anyway." He crossed his arms sullenly as the little blonde girl tipped her wide eyes up at him.
"But Mr. Merle, you said that everyone needed to pee before we go back to the truck. Aren't you 'everyone'?" Sophia was brave to challenge Merle. Not that the man would do anything, but Sophia didn't have the strongest history with men. Especially not with heavily muscled, aggressive rednecks who tended to let their tempers get the better of them.
Behind her, Claire was egging Sophia on, prompting her with little jabs and reassuring nods. The teenager had been getting sneakier since starting to hang around with Beth. Maybe sneakier wasn't the right word. It was more confident and comfortable in their surroundings despite the horrible situation. Just as Sophia had bit her lip and held her chin up when she had been alone with Grace, Claire was also coming out of her shell. Of all things, the end of the world was allowing them to fit into society's standards of normal teenage behaviour. Neither would have done it one their own but between the two of them, they were a force to be reckoned with. "Come on Merle. We can stand guard." The teenager flipped her braid around and gave the weathered man a smug look.
"I watched for Grace when we got separated. I did good, too. Right, Grace?" She peered up at Grace with innocent wide eyes.
"I promise I won't let nothin' eat ya!" "Me too! Nothin' can get past us." The girls continued to pepper Merle with promises of safety.
"I ain't havin' three little girls an' a woman watch my back while I piss." Merle looked trapped, scared almost, by the prospect of being very, very outnumbered by girls.
"Would you rather us watch your front?" Beth piped up and Grace knew it was about time to step in.
"That's enough, girls." Grace fought back her smirk at the terrified expression on the big man. "Back to the truck. I'll keep an eye on Merle."
"OOOH!" The three chorused, giggling as they retreated over to the shelter of the vehicle.
"Christ on a cross," Merle spat, shaking his head with alarm. "How'd I get stuck with a load uh hens?"
Grace shrugged, running her fingers along her handgun, "The way I remember it, we came along and saved your ass." She sighed and wrinkled her nose at the smell coming off Merle. She'd definitely seen worse, but the prospect of spending the night in the truck cab with him suddenly hit her. "Now get in there."
"Wait, yer serious?" He chuffed. "I don't need nobody to stand guard while I take a piss. Ya should know that by now."
"Well, it'll make those girls more comfortable if they knew we were watching each other's backs. They might seem as if they're functioning pretty well right now, but just wait for it. If we don't get back tomorrow like you said, they're yours to deal with. Now hurry up and go so I can get back to the truck." It was cool outside, cold enough that she wanted more than the light jacket she was wearing. A couple of decent sweatshirts wouldn't hurt - she could just layer them on top of each other until she looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Wrapping her arms around herself, Grace squeezed hard, hoping to keep some of her body heat from escaping.
Merle squinted at her through the darkness, trying to read her expression but not answering. Finally with a final huff, he stepped into the small concrete room, leaving the door open behind him. He stood with his back to her, the rasping sound of his fly grating on her last nerve. Lord, she was cold, her muscles ached, her head throbbed, her stomach was twisted in knots; she was a fucking mess.
"Huh?" Merle's voice startled her. It was soft and low. She thought she might have been hearing things as the hollow sound of Merle pissing into the pit of the outhouse toilet took over. It was loud in the stillness of the night. Maybe it had been a auditory hallucination.
"Ya keep talkin' 'bout the girls," his shoulders shook as he readjusted and zipped up again. Turning towards her with concern written clearly all over his face, Merle stared at her hard. "Ya ain't said nothin' 'bout how yer holdin' up."
"I'm fine." Grace sucked in a shaky breath. She was after all. Maybe because she had to be, three young girls were counting on her to keep it together. Merle could survive on his own but those girls needed someone there to hold on to normalcy. They needed a role model. They needed a family.
The corner of his mouth turned up and he shook his head. "Yer a shit liar. Ya keep lookin' at tha' truck like one uh those girls is gonna turn. We got 'em out. We're all good here."
"Yeah," She forced out a laugh, shaking her head with frustration. "Because you can see the future. Someone's going to have to look after them."
"An' someone will. It ain't just on ya."
She felt her arms uncurling from around herself instinctively. Throwing her hands up in the air with frustration, her whole body shook all over. "Well, what if there isn't "someone"? What then, Merle? Have you seen anyone else since we left the farm? What if this is it? You, me and three teenagers who barely know anything about the old world - let alone this new one. Who's going to step in then? I can't let them go. I can't see anyone else I love..." Angrily, Grace dragged her hand across her cheek. "I'm the only thing standing between them and everything out there that wants to kill them."
Merle exhaled and slunk backwards. His shoulders hunched over in a sign of rejection. "Ya ain't the only thing." He sniffed, blue eyes showing hurt. "I wouldn't leave ya. I'd stick around. We can hold things together until Daryl meets up with us. See," he coughed to cover up the crack in his voice. "Claire's sorta like you are; an honorary Dixon."
Grace lowered her arms back down to her sides, now more confused than angry. It was easy to see that Merle was having trouble getting the words out that he wanted to say. Calm yourself. Let him talk. She tried to level her breathing. It wasn't Merle's fault that they'd gotten over run. He'd tried to fight after all. He'd nearly died trying to get into the watch tower because he'd stayed behind and picked off walkers to make a clear path for everyone else.
"Dixons look after their own an' I know I'm the wrong brother an' all but we've been workin' pretty well together an' Daryl ain't here. It's muh job ta step up 'till he gets back. Way I see it, if it was jus' us two lookin' after those girls for a while," Merle coughed again, peeking up from between his lashes at her. "I think we'd do alright."
Her heart melted at how hopeful he looked. Eyes wide with wanting her to reaffirm what he was saying. Merle Dixon, looking to partner up with her. "We do work pretty well as a team." She swallowed, half smiling at him in reassurance.
"I ain't hittin' on ya or nothin', jus' tryin' ta... aw shit, Gracie, Claire-girl's pretty much ours already. 'Tween me, you an' Daryl we kept her outta trouble well enough. Don't see why we wouldn't be able ta keep 'em all safe. We could do it if we had ta."
Grace stepped into the bathroom as he was still talking, managing to catch him off guard when she leaned up and kissed his cheek. "Thanks. I needed that."
"Whut? Oh, well, uh, glad ta help." He rested his fingers against the spot she'd kissed.
"Come on. Let's get back to the truck."
Merle followed her with a stiff nod and the two began crossing the distance between the concrete outhouse and the truck. They'd chosen a fairly open spot in the middle of the rest stop so they were far enough away from the vehicle that Grace had a good amount of time to consider their situation. Maybe the Halversons had been right about Merle. If he got it in his mind that he could be a good person if he needed to, then it was only a matter of time before it started to leak out everywhere else. Daryl was going to have a riot when he heard about his brother's change of attitude...
Grace froze, body locking at the realization that if everyone else was gone then Daryl might be gone as well. Really gone. Not hypothetically. Dead and cold somewhere. Shredded into a mess of guts and chewed all to bits or worse, turned and stumbling around the forest. What if everyone else survived but Daryl hadn't made it. What if once the dust all settled, he was one of the casualties? If when she brought Sophia and Beth back to their families, Daryl didn't come out fit to tear her apart in his attempts to get his hands all over her. She hadn't even considered that yet. So far the only thoughts that had crossed her mind were all or nothing.
"Hey, easy girl." Merle caught sight of her stricken face.
"What if Daryl doesn't make it?"
"I've got to think about it, Merle."
"Well, I don't."
The night suddenly stretched out in a seemingly endless span of time until first light when they could leave and meet up with anyone who had waited. Chances are there were other survivors. Chances are it wouldn't just be her and Merle to look after the girls. The question was who? Who made it?
Grace checked on Claire, Beth and Sophia quickly before letting herself into the truck cab. While looking in on the girls she'd grabbed her hoodie and a couple of extra blankets. Merle accepted one of the blankets when she settled into the front of the truck. It was easy to curl into the passenger seat, leaning against the window.
"I'm takin' first watch; wake ya when it's yer turn." Merle offered. The blanket she'd given him was awkwardly wrapped around his shoulders as if he didn't know what to do with it. "Ya get some rest."
"Don't cheat and let me sleep. All I need is an hour or so and I'll switch off with you."
"Cross my heart and lick my elbow." Merle nudged where her feet were resting on the seat, giving her a half grin.
"Grace? Grace, are you awake?"
Grace found herself cracking one eye open. The light was still blue-grey, not quite proper morning yet. The soft snoring from Merle and the chilled glass her cheek was pressed against cleared up everything else after that. She was in Daryl's truck. Claire was whispering at the window between the bed and the cab.
Shit, she'd fallen asleep.
"CRAP!" She blurted, eyes popping open the rest of the way. "God damn it!"
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare ya." Claire chewed on her bottom lip. "Look, Sophia's gotta pee but I can take her if ya want."
"No-no, I'll go. I'm up. Must have just dozed off for a second." Sleepily she tried to shake the rest of her exhaustion off as she push the blanket off her. She looked over at Merle again, it was his blanket. He must have woken-up and found her asleep. He'd put his own blanket over her and let her sleep, only to pass out himself. Weren't they just the best team ever.
"Okay, come on Soph', Grace is gonna take you out. Put yer boots on." Claire turned to Beth and gave the still sleeping blonde girl a little jostle. "Beth, wanna get up? Grace is doing a toilet run." The teenager dropped her voice to a whisper. "If you stay in here it's just going to be you and Merle."
Beth's eyes popped open with terror. "What?"
"Soph's gotta pee so Grace is taking us. You wanna stay or..."
"I'll come with!" Frantically, Beth reached around fumbling to pull her running shoes out of the tangle of blankets and on to her feet. Grace caught sight of Claire's smirk and raised an eyebrow. The dark haired teenager just shrugged.
The thick gravelly voice caught Grace off guard as she adjusted her blanket around her shoulders in a sort of cape to ward off the cold. "Ya jus' goin' out 'thout tellin' me?"
Merle nodded and swallowed. "Yeah. You was takin' off on yer own. That ain't safe."
"It's almost full light." Grace countered. "I can take the girls by myself. I've got weapons."
Groggy, the man blinked the sleep from his eyes. "An' when one uh ya gets bit? I'd rather ya didn't go off on yer own without tellin' me." Merle sat up fully, stretched and cracked his stiff back. "Come on then. Le's go."
"I'm fine really. You're awake now so if anything happens we can just shout."
"Gotta piss anyway." Merle mumbled, reaching for his door. "Ya comin' or not."
Once they were all out of the truck, no one could go back to sleep. Merle lit a fire in the dim light and threw on a pot of water to boil from the creek. Grace had a case of water in the back of the truck but it was decided that they would be better off saving it for a time when water wasn't nearby. There was even enough left over for the girls to have a chilled sponge bath. With a hard bar of half frozen soap and a couple of damp towels, Grace set up a bathing area for the girls inside one of the bathrooms. It was easier being naked and cold while surrounded by the safety of concrete walls and the dirty water just ran into the floor drain.
While the girls were washing up, Merle heated more water and stood guard a safe distance away. By the time Grace her turn, everyone was sitting down to canned peaches and overly salted, gas station beef jerky.
"Guess i's muh turn, huh?" Merle stood, shoving the last of his stick into his mouth.
"You're going to wash up?" Grace questioned, running her fingers through her wet hair, and the man scowled.
"Only so ya'll don't nag me 'bout it." He huffed. "Found a map in the information thingy over there. It's on the tail gate. How's 'bout ya figure how ta get us the fuck outta here instead uh pickin' on me?" The request was sharp but Grace could see the tension he was carrying.
"I'll pick on you whenever I damn well please," She retorted back, giving him as warm a smile as she could manage. Merle wouldn't want her sympathy or her comfort. He just needed everything to sort itself out so he could stop stressing.
Finding their way turned out to be easier than Grace had thought it was. It had been a simple missed turn that had gotten them to the rest stop. Beth had pointed out where the other farm was quickly and showed Grace on the map how easily they could get there. By the time Merle stuck his damp head out of the bathroom, she had the girl's loading up the truck.
"Mind tossin' me somethin' clean ta pull on." Was his muffled response when Grace told him they were nearly ready to hit the road. He seemed almost sheepish as she offered him a worn pair of Daryl's jeans, a clean shirt and some socks. When he exited the little structure again though, he was shirtless and his typical cocky attitude was back. "Now, what were ya sayin'?" He shrugged the wife beater over his head. Grace found herself staring for a moment as the off white fabric pulled over the marks marring his skin. Daryl had just as many scars from their father and years of rough living but she had gotten used to those. It wasn't a stretch to assume that Merle got a lot of his the same way and that made Grace's stomach twist.
"Just have to go back to the main road and take a turn we missed. It'll take awhile to circle around but we aren't too far."
Merle grunted in response, pulling on the button up and rubbing where it covered the mess of scar tissue at his wrist. It was easily to tell something had happened just from looking at the old injury but he'd lucked out and not had any infection or mobility problems. Still, he'd developed a nervous habit of scratching or rubbing at the skin when he was thinking. "Shoulda looked fer a map las' night. You girls coulda slept in the house."
"I don't mind." Claire smiled, helping Sophia up into the bed of the truck.
Sophia nodded, "It's like camping."
Beth was quiet but her worried looks toward the truck gave her away. She wanted to find her family. Her sister, her father, her boyfriend. She needed to know what had happened to them. Claire and Sophia were both more confident being out and alone. They'd done it before. "What about you, Beth: ready to get back or do you want another night of camping?"
The blonde teenager scrunched up her nose. "I hate camping." She emphasized prissily. It wasn't meant to be funny but Merle gave a snort of genuine laughter. Beth looked so affronted that Grace had to fight back a chuckle and Sophia caught one sight of the older girl's offended face and burst into peals of laughter. It wasn't until Claire joined in that Beth didn't look so furious over being laughed at. "It's not that funny." She protested but the laughing was so contagious that she had to fight back her smile.
"Let's get on the road then, huh?" Grace grinned back at the girls. The sooner that everyone was back together the better off they would be. They could all stop being in such bitter moods. "I would rather not have spend another night with all of us crammed in that truck."
The two teenagers were much more cheerful after a good look at the map. As Merle and Grace flattened the map completely out on the tailgate to carefully mark their route, the girls sat and made plans for what they would do when everyone was reunited. Both seemed determined that there would be some type of party or celebration though Grace doubted very much they had the resources to hold one. Still it was good to listen to them chatter like regular teens for once. That was until she saw Sophia sitting beside them. The younger blonde girl was hanging back from the others, quiet and curled in on herself. Merle was finishing up scanning over the map; looking for any places they might be able to grab supplies: other rest stops, gas stations that were too out of the way for people to reach, hidden houses. With him occupied, Grace settled down beside the girl at the worn picnic table.
"What's going on, Sophia?" She asked. "Aren't you excited to get back to everyone?"
"I guess," the girl mumbled, wringing her hands tightly in her lap. She didn't sound excited at all. Exactly the opposite.
Grace sighed, there was no way that she was alright. The older ones were better at processing and understanding. They could distract themselves a bit. Sophia was young enough to still not understand fully and it had to be difficult for her to process everything that had happened. "You're worried?" She offered, trying to convince the preteen to open up a little.
Sophia nodded in response, her head quivering. "I... it's... what if something happened?"
"To your mom?"
Sophia nodded again. "And everyone else. What if it's just us?"
"Then we make things work out." It wasn't the best answer but at least it was honest. No use promising her that things would be better than they were. She was old enough to understand when she was being lied to and Sophia was already worrying enough about things. It was a matter of reassuring her, not lying.
The little girl was sniffling now, her pale skin turning red around her eyes. "I just, I miss my mom."
"Aw, hon." Grace reached out, pulling Sophia into her as warm a bear hug as Grace could manage. Sophia had come so much further out of her shell and was growing up just as quickly as Carl. It was hard to forget that even though these were no longer sheltered children, they were still children and all the insanity going on around them was hard to cope with.
Just a short distance away from them, Merle caught sight of the hug. He was sucking on the end of a stale cigarette he'd found in Daryl's glove box but blew the smoke away from the girls as he came closer.
"Was'sa matter with Lil'Bit?" He mumbled around the end of the cylinder.
"She's worried about the others." Grace rested her chin on the top of Sophia's head. "She asked what was going to happen if we were the only ones."
"Aw fuck," He growled taking a long pull off his cigarette. He twisted his head at an awkward angle to send smoke shooting away from them and then down down over Sophia so the girl could see him better. "Look, at me." Merle growled and Sophia stiffened. Seeming to realize that he'd gone about things wrong, Merle lowered his voice again, sweetening it. "Come on Soph', look ah' me. There's a girl. Ya worrin' 'bout yer mum? The others?"
Sophia's head was facing him now. Grace pulled back a little to allow the girl room to see Merle clearly. She was trembling with emotions but she had yet to pull back from the big man. "Ah, ah, a little," she finally squeaked out.
Merle nodded as if he understood perfectly. "Come on girl. Don't be fussin' when we ain't sure uh nothin' yet. I ain't gonna let nothin' bad happen ta ya. Ya got me an' Grace and them other girls an' we're gonna look out fer each other."
The little blond girl swallowed down her fear, stuck her bottom lip out in a pitiful pout and looked up at Merle with big swollen eyes. "Promise?" The large man growled in response and Sophia seemed to take it as a sign she could speak more. "Pinky promise?" She held up her hand, small finger extended.
"Aw fer fuck's sake. The hell's a 'pinky promise'?" He squinted down at her.
"You shake it. It's like putting yer pinkies together and shaking on it."
"Fuck that." Merle rolled his eyes. Dropping his butt on the ground in a full squat next to them, Merle reached out and grabbed Sophia's hand, rearranging it into a proper handshake. "I ain't makin' ya no kiddie promise that I don't plan to keep. You hear me?" He tipped her face up with a finger from his free hand under her chin, forcing the girl to look at him as he slowly moved their hands up and down. "I mean it. Really grown-up promise."
Sophia's eyes shot down for a second, took in her fragile hand encased in his weather worn one and gulped. "Okay."
Their hands pumped up and down for a few seconds before Merle let go and sort of shrugged off the feeling of intimacy. "Good, now get yer ass inta that truck." He tipped his head at them, standing up to brush the leaves and dirt off his knees. "I wanna get there 'fore noon!"
The only car parked next to the house was Shane's car but even that was a relief. As Merle drove them steadily down the bumpy driveway, Grace scanned the yard for some other sign of someone. There was nothing though, the closer they got the more her heart sank. Maggie's car was nowhere to be seen or Otis's truck or even the RV. Grace didn't know what Daryl had been planning on taking, probably Merle's bike, but there was no sign of that either.
Joey, Matt and Eli were sitting on the front porch with a filthy trio of men and one very dejected looking boy. Shane and Rick stood at opposite ends of the porch from each other, clearly having just been in the middle of a fight. Hershel was as unkempt as Grace had ever seen him, his white hair sticking in opposite directions and gore flecking his clothes. Carl was stone faced, eyes hollow and staring blankly. That was until he saw the truck approaching and raised his arm. Frantically he flailed his arms, hopping from one foot to the other. As Merle put the truck in park, Grace could already hear the boy's excited shrieks. JJ was grinning beside him, clearly happy to have someone his own age to play with again.
"Grace! GRACE!" Carl jumped left and right, clawing at the handle on the door and pulling it open before Grace had even unbuckled her seat belt. "Did you see my mom? Huh? Is she with you?"
Grace could only shake her head in response. "She was with T-Dog the last I saw her. What were you thinking running off like that? Into a whole herd of walkers!"
The boy gulped and hung his head. "Shane got me."
"Little sneak was halfway to Rick 'fore I caught up to him." Shane's voice was light, almost proud that the boy had managed to make it so far before being caught. "Don't think I could have done it if I was on foot. Fast little sneak." The jab was affectionate but Carl scrunched his face with annoyance anyway.
"Just you and Merle?" Rick called down from the porch. He seemed shaken, standoffish from his usual take charge manner. He must have been worried about Lori, maybe more so about the fact Lori was pregnant out there and she hadn't had a good morning in a while. Morning sickness seemed to have hit her like a truck though sometimes Grace got the feeling that she wasn't necessarily throwing up because of the pregnancy symptoms but instead was throwing up because of the thought of a the pregnancy itself. It was a fine line, the difference between the physical symptoms or psychological ones, but it mattered a lot in the long run. Lori just wasn't coping well.
"Nah, full truck uh women." Merle rolled his eyes, heaving himself out of the driver's side and walking around back. "Got the farmer's blonde one..." he paused and cleared his throat. "Uh... Beth. We got Beth, an' Soph' an' our girl."
Hershel's face lit up at the mention of his daughter's name. "Beth's in there?"
"S'what I said, ol' man." The tailgate dropped and Beth shot forward, clambering out past the other girls and pushing them out of the way.
"DADDY!" she shrieked, grabbing the farmer tightly. In return he squeezed his daughter back just as hard. Beth started crying hard then, sobbing right into her father's shirt and even Hershel's eyes seemed misty. Quieted by the display Claire and Sophia both looked at Grace who just shook her head. Sophia's chin jutted out with determination, she was fighting very hard not to cry. Claire looked at the girl and leaned over, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
"Hey Sophia!" Joey called suddenly and everyone turned to him. "They're just getting breakfast ready in the house. I'm sure Alisha would love if you went inside and said hi. Maybe you could grab something to eat and bring it out here?" He shrugged but Eli nodded.
"My niece won't stop talking 'bout you. Keeps asking when Grace is bringing you back for a visit."
"Can I take her in?" Claire looked up at Grace, the teenager solemn. They both knew it wouldn't do to stand out on the porch and wait, better to keep her occupied than waiting for her mother that wouldn't return.
"We can both go in; I'll come with and say hello too." Grace smiled as warmly as she could. "Maybe they need some help with things or I could go see Ash and Mandy. If we had the gas, I would have come back and checked on them daily. Now that we're here I can stop slacking on my job."
"Do I get to meet them?" Claire's face was a mixture of excitement and worry. Grace wonder how many stories had been passed around the farm about the girls while she was taking care of them. Just what stories had been concocted and what did Claire know about it.
"Eventually. I need to make sure they're on track for healing. They were still very isolated when I left. Someone their own age can't hurt though; you'll just have to be gentle with them. They've been through a lot in the last little while." It would be good for Ash and Mandy to meet Beth and Claire though, it would give them someone younger to talk to. They probably wouldn't be able to relate to the girls right away but they would find common ground and eventually there would be a pack of teenagers running around together, stirring up trouble. It couldn't hurt for the young people to have each other to rely on the same way the children got to play with each other and relieve stress, it was good that they could meet when the girls were ready. It wouldn't do to overwhelm them but maybe even the boys would be good once they felt more comfortable. They couldn't be scared forever, none of them could.
Inside the house, Meghan, Joss and Sara were busily working over simmering pots of oatmeal. "Grace!" Meghan grinned hugely. "And Sophia and Claire, too! I'm so glad, we've been praying since Rick found out."
"You're cooking though," Carl voiced his opinion from behind the girls. He'd decided to follow them after a short standoff with his father about if he would be allowed to keep a gun on him or not. None of the children here carried guns and even when Gabe and JJ helped out with watch they didn't keep their weapons after. The Grimes boy however was under the impression that since they'd already been caught off guard once, he should carry for the betterment of the group. There had been quite the blow-up when he was told no and now he was sullenly dragging his feet and pouting.
"Lots of ways to talk to God, bud." The other woman smiled, clearly used to dealing with her own son.
The boy snorted in disbelief, scoffing at the idea of prayer. Lori had mentioned that they had sort of let religion slip by them in the past couple of years but Carl was more than just a boy who didn't go to church often. Since settling down on the farm with Hershel's family he'd grown more and more disgruntled by the idea of God. "Well, God isn't listening." Carl tossed out, almost casually.
"Carl." Grace warned quietly, not quite scolding the boy but reminding him of his place in this. They were guests after all and the boy did have a decent-sized attitude problem that wasn't going to make them any friends if he said the wrong thing.
"Let him," Meghan smiled. "Boy's got a right to his opinion." Carl puffed up under the validation, smirking in a way that reminded Grace of Shane in his worst moments of arrogance. "Maybe you don't need it, hon, but I like to think there's something bigger watching us. Maybe not God, maybe it's just the Universe doing it's own thing but I think when you put good out there, then you'll get good things back eventually."
"So we all did something horrible? We're so bad that God sent all these walkers to eat us."
"Do you think that?" Carl shook his head reluctantly, chewing on his bottom lip as if anticipating some terrible truth to come from this. Meghan stepped out from behind the counter, approaching Carl carefully. "I think it's like poison. So many bad things happened that it was too hard to keep it all back. Like shaking a soda bottle. There just wasn't enough balance between the good things and the bad things so the bottle exploded. All that bad spilled over and infected everyone. It'll wash away though. Just takes time until everything sorts itself out."
Slowly Carl swallowed but kept quiet. He didn't seem to have an answer to the story, couldn't seem to understand how it could be told with such confidence when everything that they'd been through said that there was no good left in this world. Grace could understand that. The children were growing up, losing the ability to believe in not just childhood stories like Santa and fairies but to believe that good things could happen altogether. The world was a hopeless place to Carl. Sophia too worried that nothing good could come of separation. People got bitten. They died. Everyone died.
"My mom's out there." Sophia struggled, "Do you think that God's looking out for her?"
"We get what we can handle, Sophia." Meghan smiled. "I don't think that the God I believe in would keep us around if it was only to make us suffer. Yous mom is a tough woman. If God think she can handle herself still then he's going to bring her back to you. If he thinks that she needs a rest though..."
"That's when she goes to Heaven?"
"I don't know." The woman shrugged, smiling softly. "I haven't needed my rest yet."
"You're safe here." Joss added. "No matter what happens you've got lots of people looking out for you. We take care of each other here."
Grace nodded when Sophia looked for confirmation. Meghan and Sara were doing the same. "Same as Merle and I told you."
"Meghan? Joss?" Gabe's voice echoed through the house, louder than it should have been when so many people were still sleeping in the house. "There's more people coming up the road. Mr. Grimes says he recognizes them."
"Mom!" Carl spun around, dashing from the kitchen before anyone could stop him. He was too impulsive. It was going to get him seriously injured, or worse, if he wasn't careful. Sophia hung back, waiting for a sign that it was okay to go. She was still reluctant to act without someone giving her the okay. Grace didn't try to persuade her either way though, simply walking from the room and hoping that anyone who wanted to come would take that as a sign they could follow. Everyone else seemed to want to see who it was as well because Grace could feel them behind her as her heart took up permanent residence in her throat, choking her with it's uncontrollable pounding.
Someone else had made it, but who?
Were those arriving unharmed or would there be another tragic loss as they had to put a bullet between the eyes of their friends. Would they watch them slowly decline into fever, hallucination, and uncontrollable pain. What sort of fresh hell were they walking into?
Most of the group had moved down from the porch to the yard. Rick was scanning the horizon with one hand over his eyes trying to make out who was in the vehicles approaching. At the end was Otis's blue truck, the middle was the grey car Maggie had taken as her own after Lori crashed her car and in front, leading the pack, was Merle's bike carrying two figures.
Grace exhaled. Even at a distance, as the vehicles kicked up dust on the road, she knew who those two were. No one else would have gotten the bike running but Daryl and there were few people that he would have clinging on the back with him. Seeing as there was no blonde hair blowing behind them, it had to be Carol.
The beating of her heart was full up strangling her now that Grace could actually see Daryl getting closer. She started down the steps just as the convoy started turning on to the driveway. When her feet his the gravel, she found herself jogging toward them. The crowd that had gathered was just as excited, moving closer and waiting with anticipation to see who would step out of the vehicle.
The last she'd seen Otis's truck, T-Dog had been shoving Lori into it and it was most likely Maggie and Glenn in the car. That left Andrea and Jimmy unaccounted for. Someone had taken the RV, that was nowhere to be seen. Maybe that was Andrea. She was close with Dale after all and, with Glenn, she had been the one to try to keep up maintenance on the old camper. She could still be coming.
Carol slid off of the bike easily, rushing to gather up her daughter in her arms. The two fell into the dirt on the driveway, quietly crying and checking each other for injuries. Maggie was out of the car soon after, sprinting toward her sister and father, Glenn following behind. Carl screamed behind her and she knew that the boy had seen his mother. When Daryl cut the engine on the bike, Grace found herself launching herself at him, his arms wrapping firmly around her, face burying in her hair. Neither of them said anything as Daryl ran his arms over her skin, soaking her up and making sure there wasn't so much as a scrape on her. Grace imitated him, fingers running over the hard blue material of his shirt. He was caked with dirt and gore; smelled like a garbage dump in the middle of July; and seemed exhausted but as far as Grace could tell he was alright.
"Ar'yuh...?" he breathed the question out onto her skin, barely pulling back at all. They were both clinging desperately to each other, bike still between Daryl's legs and Grace squishing herself against the heated metal trying to get closer to him.
"M'Okay," she reassured him in response, not needing to hear the rest of the question.
"'Kay," Daryl gasped back, sliding his hands up her arms, rough palms rubbing against her neck before settling on her cheeks and pulling her into him forcefully for a deep kiss. Her hands clawed into his shirt, as Grace tried to crawl right under his skin. She realized almost suddenly that she was crying even as she smiled into the kiss. He was here. He was safe. He had made it. They had made it.
When they slowly pulled apart so Daryl could slid himself off the bike, they found Merle standing not too far away. The older Dixon grinned as Daryl tossed the keys to him, sliding an arm back around Grace and tucking her next to his body again.
"Thanks fer loanin' me yer bike."
"No prob, lil'brother. Yer girl got me off uh the watch tower when I was surrounded by geeks." Merle smirked, "Then she kept me warm in the truck last night. I'd say we're even."
Grace laughed, wiping her tears away. "It wasn't like that and you know it."
"Still saved my damn life, Gracie-girl." Merle shrugged almost solemnly. There was a pause where Grace almost thought they were going to have a real sentimental moment and then Merle punched his brother in the shoulder, causing Daryl to flinch. "Was nice havin' a warm body all snuggly up next ta me las' night. Always did wonder why ya kept her around but now I'm thinkin' I should get one. Gonna be winter soon after all. Could do with somethin' ta get the blood pumpin'."
Daryl sent his brother a savage look but then his lip quirked up. He smiled down at Grace looked over at the rest of the group and shrugged. "I's nice," he admitted, "having someone."
"Sorry, Jessie." Grace tried to step around the other woman who was carrying an armload of blankets but came up short for room bumping into her. The living room was slowly converting into a bedroom.
Jessie smiled and set the blankets down on the table brushing the hair out of her eyes. "Gonna be tight quarters for the next while. Are you and Daryl back up in the office?"
Grace shook her head, "Drew's in there. He's still... well I'm worried about how he'll react with all the people around." Mandy and Ashley's father might have woken-up but he really was just barely the shell of a man. He sat for hours, staring off into space and often turned angry from simple tasks. Sometimes he forgot little things, like how to tie his shoes or where he'd put the book he was reading. The injured man was physically healing but the emotional scars ran deep. Grace didn't know who he'd been before but it was clear he'd never be that man again. He'd always be a little slower at doing things and a little quicker to switch moods.
It was a tight squeeze in the house. After a final headcount there were thirty nine people staying there. With only four bedrooms upstairs and the office, quite a few people were already sleeping in the den and sunroom. Daryl had found them a space of their own in the formal living room which was being used as storage along with the laundry room because of their proximity to the kitchen. Grace didn't mind sleeping among the boxes and totes if it meant that she and Daryl got to have a small bit of privacy away from everyone else. Most of the supplies in there was extra furniture anyway, desks and end tables that were not longer practical.
Anything that didn't fit in that room had been moved out to the garage. It was better to keep all the cars in the yard, even if most of them were going to be stripped for fuel and parts. Anything to make them look like a more formidable force. No one felt safe right not. Not from walkers. Not from other people.
"Probably for the best. Where are you then?"
"About three feet to the left of where you're standing." Grace laughed, pointing to the empty place on the floor where a small backpack held all of the possessions for herself and Daryl. A second smaller bag next to it held Merle's things. Everyone seemed to have a grab and go bag now. There had been a long and serious discussion about how Jimmy, Andrea and Patricia had been lost. How long it had take for them to get organized after Merle sounded the alarm and just what people had been able to take with them. Despite coming very close to losing quite a few more members of the group, they hadn't really managed to bring that many supplies with them. Really they were relying almost completely on the Halversons to help keep them alive.
Jessie grinned, almost a genuine smile, "Guess we're a little bit tight. Maybe we can set some people up in the garage. It's insulated after all..."
"Don't tempt Daryl." Grace returned the warm tone. "He's already managed to get us far enough away for my taste."
"Those two don't like to be around people too much do they?"
"Dixon's tend to need their own space." Grace confirmed. "It'll take them a lot to warm up to you. I think, honestly, they feel a little caged. They just aren't conditioned to work well in group situations. Just not who they are. When the walls start closing in, they're looking for the exits."
"Helpful trait to have in a time like this. I can't believe you got overrun like that." Jessie sighed, looking out towards the windows where the sun was shining. It was a beautiful fall day, not a single sign of a walker anywhere. The air was crisp and the leaves were changing beautifully. It would have been a perfect day if the colder weather wasn't so ominous. The threat of winter lurked around almost every corner and any thoughts that weren't about walkers were about either running out of food or becoming food for a hoard of the undead.
Grace had been thinking a lot about the future since she'd first seen the herd of walkers. Quite simply: they were outnumbered, even with combining the two groups. Without some sort of fortification around them there would be no escaping the threat of being forced out of the place they were trying to make into a home. None of these people was conditioned for a nomadic lifestyle. "It could just have easily have been you guys ending up on our doorstep."
The other woman frowned but nodded her head sadly, "What are we going to do?"
"Wait and see, I guess." The weight of not knowing was resting heavily on everyone but they had no way of knowing even how long they could stay on this farm before the herd caught up with them.
"I said no." Rick's voice turned both women's heads toward the sound as it snapped sharply from somewhere deep in the house.
"We need supplies." Shane called back as he stormed into sight, shoving his feet roughly into his boots. "Walkers show up and we won't have enough cars to get everyone out. Need gas. Need food. Need stuff to keep everyone warm. We're sitting ducks here!"
"Why we're is gathering our bearings. We've barely just managed to all get here. Now isn't the time to start running off without knowing what we're getting into. That herd is still out there." Rick followed his friend, trying to reason with the other man. Their leader had yet to even wash up since coming to the house. He looked exhausted, covered in gore from the attack the night before.
In between all the organizing of people and supplies that was going on, Shane had taken the time to tidy himself up and change his clothes. Next to Rick, he looked far more capable of handling things but Grace wondered when he had slipped out on the chores everyone else was helping with. Rick would work himself into the ground for the group but Shane always seemed to remember to squeeze in some time to look after number one. Grace wasn't sure which was a better quality but neither seemed to be able to balance the two. They both had their own agenda.
"We can't just sit here with our asses hanging out!"
"So you'd rather we take off before making sure this place will be here when we get back? How much ammo do you have, huh? Not enough I'm guessing. We stay here, get ourselves together, set a perimeter. In the morning we'll go get gas, gather some supplies."
"We could make a run now. There's plenty of us." Shane wasn't having any of Rick's cautious approach.
By now heads were peeking around corners and a crowd was gathering to listen to the men argue. As Shane and Rick stood in the middle of the entrance way, the rest of the group slowly gathered at the doorways that lead to the living room and dining room to watch.
"Glenn and I can go." Maggie offered quietly. "Try and scrounge up some gas." Behind the farmer's daughter, her boyfriend was nodding solemnly.
"No, we stay together." Rick shook his hand at them, brushing off their idea. "God forbid something happens and people get stranded without a car."
"We're stranded now," the young Korean pointed out.
Shane ground his teeth, "It's the Titanic, man. Boat's goin' down and there ain't enough lifeboats to get everyone out. You wanna be the one makin' the call who gets to leave?"
"I know it looks bad, we've all been through hell and worse, but at least we found each other. I wasn't sure, I really wasn't but we did. We keep it that way. At least for the night. Now we've got food and water, a roof over our heads and a soft place to sleep. These people have opened their homes to us. Just," he sighed, "let's just appreciate that for tonight."
"Did you not look around last night?" Shane snorted. "This is the exact same mess we were in twenty-four hours ago. People get too comfortable and they forget what's really going on out there."
"The walkers, they're everywhere." Glenn's voice was strained, "They're migrating or something."
"We all seen 'em."
"Hush now, listen to Rick." Hershel scolded. "He knows what he's doing and if you'd just listen we could stop all this petty bickering."
"There's gotta be a place." It was Rick's turn now to pace between the door and the stairs. "Not just where we hold up but where we fortify, hunker down, pull ourselves together, build a life for each other. I know it's out there, we just have to find it."
Shane snorted. "Look around you, man. This ain't the world it used to be. How long can we all stay here?"
"I'm not talking about here. This is just a temporary place until we get where we're going. What about the housing development? We had talked about coming together and clearing it out."
"It's swarming with walkers." Christian shook his head. "Eli and I were up there a few days ago trying to get supplies but it was too much so we turned around."
Rick stood his ground, "There's more of us. We can work in shifts. It'll be slow work but we can do it."
"Even if that is the place and we manage to make it safe, we can never be sure. How long will it stay that way? Look what happened to the farm. Shane is right, we can get overrun here before we even have that place cleared out. What happens to us then?"
"We fooled ourselves into thinking the farm was safe!" Shane pointed out. "Are we really gonna do that again?"
"We won't make that mistake again." Hershel shook his head, the old farmer was still carrying around the gun that he'd been using on the farm, he had it slung over one shoulder but it was there. He'd changed overnight. No longer was he so carefree and hopeful. His body slumped with age and exhaustion, there was no more pride in his stance.
"I think we've all grown a lot from the farm. This time will be different. We're learning, we know what to expect." Rick scowled at Shane, the two best friends shooting glares at each other as they faced off.
"We are learning." Shane admitted, "And I think it's time for a new way of doing things."
"So this is the plan? At least have the balls to call this what it is," Rick snorted, "murder. You send anyone out there right now and you might as well start signing death certificates."
"You think you're so fuckin' smart, don't you, Rick." The scoff of laughter from Shane was harsh, scathing. "I've been doing this a lot longer than you did. I've been makin' the tough calls since day one. You lay there in that fuckin' bed an' slept through the world burnin' around you. You've been back for a month, no way of figurin' out how long you were in a coma 'fore some stranger saved you and helped you heal up the rest of the way. The rest of us, we've been out here on the road for closer to three months. We fought our way out; killed friends and families and neighbours and strangers; we survived the fire and you waltz in when the place has burned down to ash, thinkin' you're some big damn hero that's gonna save us all."
"Watch yourself, Shane." Lori hissed, finally speaking up from where she was watching. She'd been quite so far as the two men she loved fought each other for dominance but apparently this was enough to get her to speak up.
"Now you'll talk to me, huh? You've been giving me the cold shoulder since Atlanta." Shane smirked, at the dark-haired woman who unconsciously raised a hand to cover her stomach.
Lori's eyes were dangerous when she spoke again, "And you know why that was."
"I was drunk. It was a lapse in judgement. Excuse me for being a little worked up that I was losing my family."
"They were never your family, Shane." Rick's eyes narrowed darkly.
"Oh no?" Shane began to laugh. "Where were you when the first waves hit and Lori woke-up to Mrs. Andrews clawing at your back door? Who cleaned up that mess and got her and Carl out safely? Who went to the hospital and risked their own neck trying to get you to safety? Who made sure they had food and water? Who tried to get them to the camps? Who had to figure out what to do when there was no camp? We woulda been just fine without you. It ain't easy but Lori and Carl, they got over you. They could do it again."
"Why?" Rick's face crumbled, betrayal etched in the lines around his eyes. "Why now? I thought we worked this all out."
"We tried to kill each other, man. What'cha think, we just gonna forget about it all? We gonna ride off into the sunset together?"
"So what? You're gonna take this group? Take my family? Is that what you want? That life won't be worth a damn. I know you."
"They're my family too!" Shane hollered, voice cracking at the last moment. "I love them."
"Son," Etta's gentle voice, soothed. "I think it's time you stepped out for some air."
"Wha'choo know about it?"
"I know if you really loved them, that you'd want to help protect them. Breaking this group to pieces isn't gonna help them any." The old woman leaned against her broom handle and frowned wisely.
Rick had turned to shoot the matriarch a grateful look but now he turned back to his friend. "You wouldn't be able to live with this."
Shane snarled, but his resolve seemed to be breaking, "Wha'choo know about what I can live with? You got no idea what I can live with, what I live with! How about what you can do, man? You wanna lead this group? Fine! Don't listen to nobody unless they're hangin off your every word? Fine! Y'all think you got a say here but yer wrong. Ol'Ricky, he ain't the good guy no more."
"I'm keeping this group together, alive." Rick growled, low and threatening. "I've been doing that all along, no matter what. I didn't ask for this. My hands are clean. You think you're better off without me then go ahead." He pointed to the door. "I say there's a place for us but maybe it's another pipe dream. Maybe I'm fooling myself again. Why don't you find out for yourself? Send me a postcard."
"I told ya." Shane raised his hands, addressing everyone now. "I told ya. He don't care about anyone's opinion but his own. If we stay, this isn't a democracy anymore."