A/N: Thanks to all the new readers for your follows and favorites, and especially a huge thanks to the "old" ones who've been around for a while. Thanks for sticking with me, reviewing and messaging me. You guys are great, truly. Sorry to make you wait so long for an update. Work and life have been crazy and this chapter was a difficult one to write, I'm not going to lie. Please check out the playlist at the end of the chapter (great songs) and PLEASE let me know what you think by leaving me a review or a PM. I promise I'll try to update again as soon as possible. And to those of you who are wondering, yes, Daryl will be back soon. Of course. I mean, he is our hero. :)

WARNING: This chapter gets pretty dark. You've been warned.

Chapter 54

Melissa was tired. So tired. It was hard to open her eyes even though she tried. It wasn't like when she normally woke up when she silently protested the idea and tried to push herself back down. It was the opposite, actually. She was seeking it, pushing herself toward it, even though she knew the pain she felt every morning would still be waiting for her on the other side. That was the one constant in her life. She would never be rid of it. She was sure of that by now. But in that moment she didn't care. Something was telling her to wake up.

No, someone was telling her to wake up.

She could hear the words. "Wake Up."

Yes, someone was speaking to her although it seemed as though the words were coming from such a great distance.

"Wake up," she heard again. They were closer this time.

She tried once more and was finally able to open her eyes. Everything was blurry and sideways. The earth seemed off its axis. She turned her head and looked around, blinking, waiting for something to come into focus. Darkness surrounded her in all directions but one… a dim light ahead… a fire… and beside it she was able to make out a dark figure.

Someone was sitting near her.

She felt herself move again, and as she tilted her head straight, the sideways figure by the fire turned upright and the dim light illuminated half of his face. She blinked once more and everything came into focus. She realized she was staring at the face of a man. A man she knew very well.

"Hey," Daryl whispered.

She heard and felt her breath catch in her chest. She stared at him, unable to believe what her eyes were seeing. He was wearing a blue long sleeved shirt, dark pants and that leather vest she'd so grown to love. A strand of his dark hair fell gently over his blue eyes. He looked just as she remembered.

"Is… is it really you?" She whispered, unable to speak in a normal tone. Her throat was dry and sore.

"Yes," he answered gently, offering her one of his signature nods.

She took in a loud breath in reply and her eyes filled with tears. He was there. He was really there… after weeks of searching.

"I've been looking for you," she said even though it hurt her throat to talk. "We all have. Where have you been?"

Daryl smiled gently.

"I'm here," he whispered, moving closer so that he was sitting right beside her.

"I missed you," she whispered hoarsely as a tear from her eye ran down her dry cheek.

Daryl frowned and wiped her tear away gently. He nodded sadly, letting her know in his own way that he had missed her too. He pushed his mouth into a straight line and stroked her face at her hairline. Melissa closed her eyes at the sensation that ran through her at his touch. He'd only touched her in that one spot, and barely at that, but she felt it everywhere. She exhaled and forced her eyes open, not wanting to take her eyes off his. Even the tiniest blink felt like it was too long. His face was closer. His eyes were on her lips.

Yes. Kiss me. Please. I want you to.

As if he could read her mind he gently placed his lips onto hers. He was so soft and tender and in that moment Melissa felt like she could fly.

Nothing else mattered.

Nothing.

She could feel him. She could taste him. She was with him… finally.

She lifted her hand to stroke his face, to touch him, desperate to feel more. But she couldn't move. She tried again and realized her hands were restrained over her head.

Daryl lifted from her, a concerned expression suddenly on his face.

Melissa looked up at her hands. They were crossed at the wrists over her head and a rope was tied around them, securing her to the base of the tree behind her.

Someone had tied her to a tree?

"Why are my hands tied?" She felt a sense of panic beginning to spread through her. She knew he wouldn't have done that to her. So who did?

He didn't answer.

"Daryl?" She sounded so weak, so confused. She tried to move again but couldn't.

He still didn't answer. Something was wrong.

"Melissa," Daryl finally said. "Wake up."

"What?"

She was dreaming?

No.

No!

This was real.

This was supposed to be real!

"Wake up," she heard him whisper once more and she struggled to hold onto the sight of him as he began to blur out of focus.

"No, please," she begged, but he faded quickly. She felt as though she was being pulled backwards, away from him. She was barely even able to see the soft glow of the fire and soon Daryl was no longer in site at all.

. . .

Melissa's eyes shot open suddenly as she woke. Once again she was almost enveloped in darkness, but there was a soft glow coming from nearby. A fire.

Daryl. Where's Daryl?

He was just here.

"You're awake," she heard.

At those words two things immediately resonated with Melissa. One, the voice belonged to a man, and two, it wasn't Daryl.

Melissa felt her eyes blink heavily and forced them open again. Again she was met with the blurry site of a dark figure sitting near the fire. She felt her head roll to the side as she tried to get up but failed. She couldn't move at all, but she wasn't sure if it was because she was tied like in her dream (or whatever that was) or if she just didn't have the strength.

"I wouldn't try to move just yet," the dark figure told her.

Why not? Where the hell am I? How did I get here? Where are my friends? Who are you?

Her mind was so full of questions she found herself unable to focus on just one. It was hard enough just to keep her eyes open. Something kept trying to pull her back down.

"I told you not to get that one," she heard another man say. "She should have come out of it a long time ago. She's weak."

"Maybe the tranquilizer was too much for her," a woman added.

With that, Melissa forced her eyes open for good. She remembered all at once the last moments she had been awake. She'd been hunting. She'd heard a woman screaming. The woman had claimed to be running from walkers. The walkers never came, but the man by the fire did. He'd stuck her in the arm with whatever had kept her pulled under for so long.

Oh, God. How long had she been out? What had they done to her?

"Shut up, both of you!" The man by the fire chastised. "We take what we can get. Besides, she was with others."

Once again Melissa's mind filled with more questions than answers. The only thing she knew for sure was she was in real trouble. Panic. Suddenly panic was all she could feel. Her ears were ringing. She felt sick. She was going to pass out.

No. Stay awake.

Hands, she said to herself. Where are my hands?

She looked up, seeing that like in her dream, her hands were tied above her head. She tried to move her legs, but she couldn't. Not because they were restrained. They weren't. She looked to make sure. She just couldn't move them.

Panic.

Don't panic. Don't panic. You're still here. You're still alive.

As her ability to reason with herself seemed to suddenly return she decided the first thing she needed to know was where she was. Everything else could come later, but if she knew where she was she would know how far away she was from the only people she had left… the only people who could save her… or would it be her who would have to save them?

"Where am I," she heard herself ask. Her throat felt like she'd swallowed a handful of needles.

"You're with us," the man by the fire answered.

"Oh, well I guess that explains everything," Melissa drowsily heard herself say.

She was surprised by her sarcasm. She hadn't realized she had the strength for it, but she figured it just came naturally these days. She felt her eyes open wider, suddenly concerned that her captives might not appreciate her attitude.

She heard the man smile. The air he blew out of his nose gave him away even though she couldn't see his face. He was amused by her. She watched him stand and walk to her and suddenly the light from the fire touched his face, illuminating a friendly grin.

But in an instant his face changed. She saw it in his eyes first. It traveled down until his mouth was pushed into a hard line and suddenly she felt a huge slap across her left cheek. The sound of his palm meeting her skin with such force echoed around her, bouncing off the nearby trees. When her eyes opened she was staring into the dark woods to her right. She was frozen briefly, shocked both by the fact that he'd just struck her and the pain she felt all over the left side of her face. She looked back at him slowly to see that he definitely was not amused.

"Watch your tongue, little girl," he whispered threateningly.

She stared right back at him, but said nothing. She felt her eyes squint as her teeth pushed together. She was stronger than he could ever know. He'd had to tranquilize her to capture her. He had no idea what she was really capable of and she hoped her unshakable gaze would let him know that she wasn't as intimidated as he wanted her to be. It wasn't the first time she'd been hit by a man.

"Fuck you," she whispered back. Why not? If he was going to kill her he would have done it already.

The right side of her face suddenly screamed in pain. She heard herself grunt. It hurt. This time it hurt badly.

When her eyes opened she was staring to her left at the woman she had met in the woods. She was standing next to what looked like a shed, sort of like Hershel's. Were they on a farm?

There was another man next to her, most likely the other voice she'd heard. A baseball bat rested on his shoulder. They were both staring at her with smug grins on their faces, enjoying the scene play out before them.

Fuckers.

As she turned back to Asshole #1 she felt warm goo of some sort run out of her nose and down onto her lip. It tasted like blood. She felt dizzy. Everything went blurry.

It was then that she passed out again.

. . .

It was a new voice that jerked her awake. Her eyes opened, just barely, but they opened.

"They split up for a while, but they're back at the camp now," the voice said. Another man. "Didn't want to be out after dark."

"They should find her tomorrow morning and when they do and they're busy trying to untie her, we'll take them all down," said Asshole #1.

Who was he talking about? Who would find her? Glenn and Maggie? Tyreese? Daryl?

"Are you sure about this," another man asked. Melissa didn't recognize his voice either. It was yet another that she'd never heard before. How many of them were there? "There's seven of them. We've never gone after a group that size."

"They're the first survivors we've seen in days," answered the woman. "What choice do we have?"

Melissa heard herself moan. Her entire head hurt.

"Chris. She's waking up again," the woman said.

"She's secure. Not to worry, Theresa," answered Chris.

"Where am I," Melissa heard herself utter. She was able to lift her head. The fire was still ablaze and this time there were more of them standing around her.

"Ah. Done with your snide comments, I see," grinned the man standing over her. He was the same man who'd injected her and been there when she'd woken up. The same man who'd hit her. He'd tied her to the tree. He was Chris.

Melissa swallowed down the pins and needles in her throat. She needed to get them talking. "What do you want with me?"

She wanted to ask what they wanted with her friends, but she suddenly stopped herself. What if they knew nothing about her group? What if it was someone or something else that they expected would find her? That they would take down? Seven other people. It was unlikely, but not definite. She couldn't put her friends in danger.

Chris sighed and squatted down in front of her.

"Isn't it obvious? We're using you as bait."

"For what? For walkers?" She still didn't want to give them away.

"Walkers? Oh, is that what you call them?" Chris chuckled and turned back to his friends. Melissa followed his gaze. She saw five of them; four men and the woman. Theresa. "Isn't that cute? I've never heard anyone call them that before."

"Why are you using me as bait," Melissa clarified.

Chris looked back at her and turned his head. He seemed somewhat annoyed that she didn't already know the answer. "For your friends, of course."

"I don't have any friends," Melissa lied.

Chris smiled a full smile. She saw his teeth and something inside her didn't like it.

"Liar, liar," he tusked, shaking his head. "We know all about them. The black man. The Asian. The country girl. And you met some new friends too, didn't cha?"

Shit.

"What was it they were going on about last night? A sanctuary near D.C., right? Something about getting the hillbilly to the government so he could save the world?" He laughed to himself. Melissa heard the others behind him chuckle softly. Her gaze darted to them briefly, then back to Chris.

Last night. He'd said last night. She knew instantly that they must have been spying on them the night before. She also knew she'd only been gone less than a day. They wouldn't have gone too far. They would be looking for her. They were looking for her. One of the men had just said that.

Stall.

It was all she could think of to do.

Keep him talking… just like the bad guys in the movies. He'd already told her more than he probably realized.

"What do you want with us," Melissa asked. "Why can't you just let us go?"

"I wish we could," Chris said and something about the expression on his face made Melissa think he was telling the truth. "I promise you, none of this is personal."

"Then let me go," Melissa demanded gently. "Let us go. We'll leave. You won't see us again ever."

Chris shook his head. "That just won't do."

"Why not?"

"Because. At the end of the day… a man's gotta eat."

What? Eat?

What would having Melissa's group have to do with –

Oh my God.

Suddenly their plan was very clear. These people weren't going to rob them. They didn't want their food, weapons or supplies. They'd abducted her to use her as bait so they could catch the others, or at least as many of them as they could. Two or three or four or more was better than one. They were going to eat them. They were going to eat them all.

Melissa felt her eyes tear up. She wanted to appear stronger. She wanted to be stronger. But she just couldn't help it.

"You're cannibals," Melissa whispered as a tear ran down her face.

"I think she's figured us out, Chris," the man with the baseball bat standing next to Theresa grinned.

Chris smiled. "We like to think of ourselves as Hunters. Cannibal is such an ugly word, don't cha think?"

"Why," Melissa heard herself ask. After all, after everything she'd been through she'd managed to make it this far without eating another human.

"It didn't start out that way," Theresa explained.

"True," Chris chimed in. "We ate normal food like everyone else. But our group was larger. We had mouths to feed. Children. Eventually we ran out of food and we couldn't find anymore. We tried hunting animals, but didn't have much luck. We were terrible at it to tell you the truth. Soon we couldn't find any animals to hunt anyway. And before long we were faced with a choice. Starve or adapt. We chose to adapt."

"You said you were with a larger group. You had children. Where are they," Melissa asked. She'd only seen the six of them. What happened to the rest?

"Like I said. A man's gotta eat," Chris shrugged.

Melissa felt sick. She was sure in that moment her heart stopped.

"You… you ate your children." She could feel herself starting to hyperventilate. She was starting to panic, for real this time.

"It's not pretty. And like I said, none of this is personal. We're just… so hungry."

Melissa locked eyes with Chris once more. She was overwhelmed with emotion. With fear. With everything. She opened her mouth to scream, but the sound that came out instead surprised even her.

She laughed.

She was laughing.

"What the hell is so funny," murmured Chris as he stood. Melissa watched his hands ball up into fits. He was going to hit her again, which seemed even funnier.

She laughed harder. She could barely breathe she was laughing so hard.

"You're…. you're going to eat me," she panted between chuckles. "What are you waiting for? Eat me."

Chris looked behind himself at the rest of the group who clearly seemed stunned by her behavior.

"What," he asked.

Couldn't he understand her?

"Eat me," Melissa uttered louder.

Again, Chris looked at the others. No one moved or said a word.

What? You still don't understand?

"Eat me!"

Laughter. Loud laughter. Her stomach muscles hurt she was laughing so hard.

"I said eat me, you fucker," Melissa uttered clearly. She suddenly wasn't laughing anymore. She was angry. In fact, she was really fucking pissed.

"Eat me," she yelled, pulling on the ropes around her wrists.

"Shut up," yelled Chris.

"EAT ME!"

"Quiet!"

"EAT! MEEE!"

She was hysterical. No. She was fucking possessed. She'd always heard there was so much one person could take. She'd been so strong. She'd handled so much. But she'd obviously reached her fucking limit.

In fact, she was so lost within her hysterical breakdown she didn't realize what was happening around her at first. It was the sudden movement of the people before her that grabbed her attention. She stopped laughing and watched as they all seemed to move together. At first she thought… this is it. They were going to kill her. Eat her. So long, Melissa.

But they didn't do either. They were fighting… each other?

No.

Walkers. They were fighting walkers. Her screaming must have attracted them or drawn a nearby group to their location.

Melissa should have been scared. She knew that.

She just wasn't. She wasn't scared at all. It was as if that part of her had turned off.

She just sat there. She just watched.

The walkers weren't scary. They were her friends.

Thanks for intervening, friends.

She watched as one of the men stabbed one of the walkers in the head with a knife. Her knife. He had her knife! Her weapons. Where were her weapons? She immediately started looking for her bow and arrows. They were leaning against a tree on the other side of the fire and she had no idea where her gun was.

Someone screamed. She knew that scream. They'd been bitten. She looked up to see that sure enough the man with the bat who'd been standing next to Theresa was being chewed on. He'd been ambushed by two walkers at once. Good riddance.

Another scream. Another bite.

Melissa smiled. They were going to die one by one. But as the man called out for help she suddenly realized what was really happening around her. Walkers were attacking them and she was tied to a tree. Not a good place to be in this situation. She was also bleeding from the head, something else working against her. She couldn't believe the walkers hadn't noticed her yet. She instantly began tugging on her arms. She struggled hard, desperate to do anything to free herself. She turned her wrists and fought with the rope until it loosened slightly, barely, but it loosened. One lucky break. If the hunters had been able to tie a knot any better she never would have had a chance. But now she might. She needed to move quickly. She twisted her wrist once more and pulled out her right hand. She quickly went to work on her left as a walker finally noticed her. She kicked the walker away from herself long enough to pull out her other hand and get to her feet. She ran for her bow and arrows, the only weapon she could see that wasn't already in someone's hand.

Everything happened so fast. Too fast. When she came back to her senses she was on one knee with an arrow nocked and ready to fire. She looked around in all directions, but no one was on their feet. There was blood everywhere. The scene before her, which had just been so chaotic, was suddenly quiet and still. She took a breath, waiting for more walkers to come but none did. All of the walkers that had attacked were lying on the ground, several of them with arrows in their heads. There were more of them than she could count at a glance, but it wasn't the herd.

She stood and looked around again. Three of the men as well as Theresa lie on the ground and appeared to be dead. She found her knife lying beside one of the men and she bent over to pick it up.

As she stood she saw one of the other men; the one who'd been spying on her friends. He was leaning against a tree and appeared to be in shock. She followed his gaze to see he was staring at Chris.

Chris was sitting on the ground behind Melissa, holding his neck. He'd been bitten. Melissa could tell, not just by the blood that covered his hand and ran down his torso, but by the look on his face. He was losing blood quickly and going white. He wouldn't last long. The walker must have gotten an artery. She looked at his hands. He didn't have a weapon. There were no weapons near his feet. She tucked her knife into her belt.

For a moment she actually felt bad for him. He'd lost everyone. Everything. She could relate.

Then she tasted the blood on her lips. Her blood.

She looked back at the man by the tree. He stood motionless. It was then that she realized he was holding his hand. It was bloody. If she didn't know any better she could have sworn he was crying. He'd been bitten too. His eyes wondered to Melissa and he watched as she raised her bow and pulled back on her arrow.

"No," the man begged. "Please, wait."

But Melissa didn't stop and Chris couldn't do anything but watch as she shot the last of his group between the eyes.

Melissa didn't even bother to watch the man fall. Instead she turned back to Chris to make sure he was still with her. He was. She walked to him and knelt on one knee, meeting him face to face.

"Sorry about your people, Chris," she shrugged. "I hope you know it's not personal. But the walker's… well, they gotta eat. I'm sure you can understand what that's like."

Chris choked, most likely on his own blood. His eyes widened. He was afraid.

"You must be in a lot of pain," Melissa uttered. "I can take that away. I can put you out of your misery. Make sure you don't come back as one of them."

His eyes were hopeful. He nodded. He wanted her to end it.

She wrapped her fingers around her knife and pulled it out of her belt. She gripped it hard, ready to do it. With her left hand she grabbed Chris's shirt above his right shoulder. She looked into his hopeful eyes once more and turned her head. No. He didn't deserve her mercy.

"On second thought, you like eating people so much…," Melissa started. She gritted her teeth together and stabbed him in the throat instead of the brain. His body tensed under her grip. He grunted. She twisted the blade with force to make it more painful. His body jerked. He gurgled. "… why don't you go ahead and join them after all?"

With that she sliced his throat open and stood as a large amount of blood poured out of his neck.

. . .

Maggie was worried sick. After several hours Melissa hadn't returned and she was sure something must have gone wrong. Glenn and Ty tried to calm her, to assure her that Melissa would be back soon, most likely with a few fresh kills for them to eat for supper, but Maggie wasn't convinced. Something inside her heart knew better. She tried to be patient, but as the sun began to hang lower in the sky she could tell the others were getting worried too and they decided to finally go look for her. Abraham and Tyreese searched in one direction while Glenn and Maggie searched in another. Eugene and Rosita stayed behind in case she came back. As agreed upon everyone was back by the time the sun was down, and when nobody had Melissa, Maggie knew she was in trouble… or worse.

She was the first to stay up for watch. There was nothing. She waited as long as she could, but had to wake up Glenn to take over when, after a few hours, she began to nod off. She woke up a few hours later when Glenn climbed back into their sleeping bag.

"Anything?" She whispered.

Glenn sighed and shook his head.

Maggie looked behind her shoulder to see Tyreese, now up for his turn on watch. He noticed her and nodded, letting her know she'd be the first one he'd wake up if Melissa returned.

When Maggie woke again it was early morning. Very early. She wasn't even sure the sun was all the way up. She sighed as she sat up and looked around to see who was awake. Tyreese was back to sleep in his blanket on the ground. Glenn was next to her. Abraham and Rosita were asleep near the now extinguished fire. Eugene sat with his back to a tree and his head hanging toward his chest. He snored loudly. Maggie frowned.

The only one awake was Melissa, who Maggie spotted sitting against her tree.

Melissa.

"Melissa!"

Maggie jumped out of her sleeping bag, waking Glenn. She ran to Melissa's side.

Melissa was in rough shape. She had dried blood connecting her nose to her lips. There was blood covering her hands and her clothes and there were a few splatters around her face.

"Oh my God, are you alright," Maggie cried as she knelt in front of her. Glenn was immediately at her side. She was vaguely aware of others behind her as well, but she didn't pay them any attention. Her only concern was for her friend. Melissa's eyes met Maggie's as she carefully tried to assess her to see where she was hurt, but a lot of the blood didn't appear to be hers. She couldn't find any cuts or bites.

"Melissa?" Maggie asked, suddenly realizing she hadn't answered her. "Can you talk?"

Melissa looked around at the others then back at Maggie.

"Melissa, what happened?" Glenn asked, but Melissa's eyes didn't leave Maggie.

"Please say something," Maggie gently begged.

Melissa took a breath. She was with them. She was okay.

"We can go now," she whispered shakily.

"What?" Maggie asked. "Where?"

"Alexandria," Melissa answered. "The Safe Zone. I'm ready."

Melissa stood, Maggie and Glenn standing with her. Glenn noticed there were three knives poking out of her belt. Her gun was also tucked in tightly and her bow and quiver of arrows lay against her tree beside a baseball bat he'd never seen before. Whatever had happened to her, she'd brought back more weapons. Glenn looked back at Maggie and nodded. They should go. There was nothing left for them there. They all knew that.

Maggie looked at Tyreese. He nodded. He agreed.

"Okay," Maggie whispered. "Let's go."

. . .

Maggie had convinced the others to give her time to help Melissa get cleaned up and changed before they left. Glenn was hesitant, but one look from Maggie and he realized how important it was to her. He asked them to hurry and watched as Maggie grabbed Melissa's bag and held onto her dazed and slow moving friend, leading her to a nearby creek they'd passed the day before during their search. Rosita joined them for added protection, filling water bottles for the trip as the boys packed up the camp.

Putting the cap on the last bottle, Rosita looked downstream and watched as Maggie carefully pulled Melissa out of her bloody clothes and helped her wash her hands and face in the cool water. Rosita felt bad for Melissa, for whatever she'd been through. But she was grateful that they seemed to have found such obviously caring and compassionate people. And she was especially grateful that Melissa seemed to understand the need to get to D.C. They needed to stop this. Now more than ever.

None of the girls spoke a word. And none of them felt the need.

Maybe Melissa would talk about it eventually. Maybe she'd tell them everything she'd been through, but now was not the time. They all knew that.

Melissa's face was sore. It hurt even though she was trying to be careful as she washed herself. She'd kept her eyes closed to avoid catching a glimpse of her reflection in the water. She didn't want to see herself. She'd seen enough in the eyes of the others. And she was sure from the state of her clothes and the red in the water each time she attempted to wash herself that she must have looked somewhat like Carrie after the incident with the pig's blood.

As she watched the last of the blood float away from her she started to feel a little better, more like herself. Yes, she'd temporarily gone insane. Yes, she'd killed two men and left them to turn. Yes, another horrific and horrible thing had happened to her, but she had survived. She'd found her friends. And she could still feel parts of herself lingering, holding on. She wasn't gone. It wasn't a tragedy. It was another success story.

And Maggie… dear, sweet Maggie… who'd seemed so worried and relieved all at the same time. Maybe she'd been right all along. Maybe it was still okay to have faith in things.

She looked into the water, catching her reflection. Her hair was wet. She looked tired and bruised. One of her eyes was swollen, which explained the throbbing she felt, but it was still her. She was still there.

"Let's get your shirt on," Maggie said gently.

Melissa turned her head and nodded, allowing her friend's help.

Dressed and cleaned up, the girls walked back to the camp just as the boys finished loading.

Melissa looked at her tree. Her bags, bow, the bat, everything was gone. The only trace they'd been there at all was the small black hole where their fire had been the night before.

"Ready?" Glenn asked.

Melissa looked up to see that he was speaking to her.

She nodded in reply, but as she began to follow him to the truck something stopped her.

"Maggie, wait," Melissa called suddenly.

In Maggie's arms she held Melissa's wet clothes, which she'd washed in the creek. On her shoulder was Melissa's bag. Melissa tugged on the strap and Maggie let it fall off her shoulder and into Melissa's hands.

"You okay?" She asked.

Melissa nodded. "I just need to get something."

Maggie watched as Melissa dug into her bag, pulling out a piece of her chalk.

Melissa walked back to her tree, wrote on it and turned back to see that Maggie was still standing there waiting for her. She looked down, feeling slightly foolish, maybe even embarrassed, but she didn't have to. Maggie understood. And she showed her that understanding with a small smile.

Melissa bit her lip. "You don't think I'm crazy?" She asked. "Believing that he's still out there?"

Maggie shook her head, knowing all too well she would have done exactly the same thing. "No," she answered truthfully. "I think you're right."

Melissa nodded and walked to the truck and as Maggie followed her she looked back to see what she'd written.

24

S.Z.

. . .

From the back seat Melissa looked ahead at Abraham's military truck as it led them down the highway, or up, depending on how you look at it. They were headed north. In the passenger seat in front of her was Tyreese. Glenn was driving. Sitting next to her, Maggie handed her a bottle of water and a few tablets of Advil from her bag. Melissa was grateful. Her head was pounding and, even though she knew their supplies were limited, she took them without objection and nodded her gratitude toward Maggie.

For the first time in a long time Melissa felt like she could breathe. She felt safe. Coming back to them was like coming home. She knew how lucky she was to have found them. The fact that they could have moved on or left to try to find her was all too real and probable. She had little hope that she'd be able to find her way back to the camp at all, let alone that they would still be there waiting for her. Where would she have been then?

She sighed gently to herself as she looked out her window. She'd been apprehensive about the idea of leaving Georgia before. It made her feel defeated just thinking about it. But now…

Mixed emotions didn't even begin to cover it.

Because no amount of comfort could ever get her to forget that leaving Georgia meant that she was leaving Daryl behind. She could write on trees all she wanted, but the farther away she got from him the more likely it was she would never see him again. On the other end, she couldn't allow her group, her friends, her family, the only people she had left, to live under threat any longer. Not for her. Not for Daryl and certainly not for whatever messed up relationship she had with him.

To see with her own two eyes, to be reminded yet again, just how ugly people were. The things they did to each other. Not to mention the fact that somewhere out there was a herd that could swallow them whole at any moment. She knew that it wouldn't be enough, keeping them fed. She had to keep them safe. And if the Safe Zone was real, if it was out there, if they could get there… well, she couldn't imagine a safer place than that.

But Daryl.

Melissa didn't even know how she felt about him anymore. She wasn't sure what she would do if she ever saw him again. Hug him, slap him, who knows? She didn't know if she'd ever be able give him another chance or if he would even want one. But one thing she did know for sure was that she didn't want to be without him.

And she would be. She would be for the sake of everyone else. For their safety. And something about that seemed okay. She was letting him go, yes, but maybe she was doing something bigger… better.

Maybe… just maybe… she was saving the world.

Melissa's eyes began to tear up and she looked out her window, hoping nobody would notice. And as a tear ran down her sore and bruised cheek a sign on the side of the road caught her attention.

You Are Now Leaving Georgia


Chapter 54 Playlist:

Olafur Arnalds - Sudden Throw (Melissa dreams/hallucinates that Daryl is by her side)

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Nothing But The Water (Melissa washes the blood off of herself in the creek)

Massive Attack - Paradise Circus (Melissa and the gang drive on the highway and leave Georgia)

A/N: I really hope you guys liked that chapter and that it was worth the wait. Let me know what you think. I love reading your comments, thoughts, predictions and more. Let's keep the communication going. And if I've never heard from you don't hesitate to drop me a line. If you like it I want to hear it. If you think it sucks I want to hear it. :)