AN: I have nothing but immense apologies for taking so long on this update. I have no excuse other than writing other fics. Please for give me!
It was cliché, she knew it the second the thought entered her head, but it was the sound of a dripping tap close by that roused Patricia from the cloaking darkness that surrounded her. Pain throbbed from her skull and she moaned pitifully, nausea rushing up to ambush her stomach and a quaking weakness claiming her limbs. She struggled to open her eyes, but when she did, she wished she could clamp them closed again and ignore the horror she'd seen right in front of her. Fear held her rigid, her brain struggling to make out the reality of what she'd seen until noises other than the terrifying gargle and moan of the restrained creature not more than a few feet from her began to register. She shuffled back in boundless terror, skittering along on her behind in horror, whimpering pathetically as agony splintered around her head, trying to get as far from the snarling, starving walker across from her as possible, and found herself tangled up suddenly with another body. A scream ripped from her throat as a voice rushed out, placating her, soft hands soothing rather than digging violently into her flesh and Patricia tried to slow her thundering heartbeat, fixated on her irregular, shallow breaths and tried not to explode uselessly into panic.
"It's okay. It's tied up, can't reach us. You're fine, just breathe. Slow it down, one, two, three, four…that's it. See? Nothing to it." The voice was soft, kind, lilting and female and Patricia ignored all her other fears to turn and scan the features of the woman trying to help her through the shock of her new captivity.
Her companion was blonde, younger than her and it looked like she was once pretty. She was filthy, her hair matted and greasy, her face covered in dirty tear streaks and now that Patricia had gotten closer, the woman reeked. Her leg was fastened to the wall with a heavy metal cuff and chain that had left her skin raw and chafed, her clothes were torn and left parts of her exposed that Patricia felt embarrassed to witness. She was covered in patches of blood, with an obvious festering wound just over her left breast. The wound looked enflamed and itchy, with tiny tears in the skin from scratching. Even with all that, Patricia was relieved to see her—relieved to see someone alive who might be able to help her work out this mess and escape.
"Where am I?" It hurt to use her voice, her throat dry as tinder and raw, the muscles clenched from being half-choked into submission to prevent her screams from reaching the kindly ears of her group. Her heart was pounding in her chest and as her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she discerned the shape of a child hiding behind the woman and she started to shake, feeling horribly confronted about who would capture a child and subject them to this kind of sadistic hell.
"I'm not really sure," the other woman admitted, reaching out and taking Patricia's hand in hers and squeezing it as tight as she could, but weakness from being half-starved compromised her grip and too soon her hand just fell limp to the floor. Her voice was raspy, exhausted, and nothing about her filled Patricia with hope.
"How long have you been held here?"
She didn't want to know the answer, her hand sweeping spastically at the dirt floor to try and discern something, anything, about where she was and how she could get out. The air was stale and it caught in her lungs, the dust fluffing up so subtly that she didn't even notice until she was choking on the taste of earth in her mouth. Everything felt bone dry, her mouth parched and the ache started and grew exponentially as an onslaught of tears clogged her throat.
"I've been here forever," the voice replied with a crack of bone-deep weariness and the sheer horror of helplessness crept in and blindsided Patricia, leaving her desperate for air and blinking back tears. She doubled over, her nose rubbing against the dirt as she grappled with fear so pervasive that it kicked her into a self-pitying spiral that left her gasping and moaning pathetically around terrified sobs.
It felt like hours before she clawed her way out of her breakdown. When reality seemed to pinch its way back into her consciousness, Patricia became aware of the other woman gently, weakly offering her comfort by stroking her hair, the child having ventured closer, holding out a cup of water that Patricia suddenly wanted so desperately she'd have knocked the child over to get it. The small hand placed the cup on the ground before shuffling away so fast Patricia almost second-guessed she'd even seen the child in the first place. Her hand shook as she picked up the cup, but she tipped the edge of it to her lips and drank greedily. The water filled her mouth in a rush and the sudden wetness soothed her scratchy, dry throat and tongue, leaving a coolness behind that the interior of her prison had leeched away.
The ravenous growls from the walker chained to the wall seemed to up its game, echoing painfully in her head. The thing repetitively pitched itself forward, straining hard against the chains, arms reaching out till taut, desperate to snag hold of her and drag her toward its rotting maw. She shuddered with revulsion and terror, slowly trying to inch further back away from it. She'd already looked around her for a weapon, the rocking fixture that held the chain bolted to the floor worrying her with how loose it seemed. All she saw was the cup and a bowl and two spoons.
"We need to kill it." Patricia stared into the petrified eyes of her companion and felt the beat of her own heart pick up so violently that she felt the reverberation of it in her chest. She didn't know how they'd do it, but she had a sixth sense that if they didn't, that thing would end up pulling loose and destroying them all. She sniffled and swiped a dusty hand across her wet face, feeling the grit as it rubbed raw against her skin. "We're going to have to hold it down," she whispered, in awe at her own daring plan. "Then, we can try and bash its head in."
The woman shuddered in revulsion, eyeing the creature snapping its jaws at them as it strained ever closer, desperate to break free and claim its prize. Patricia tried not to look too closely, but she could tell at least it had been a man, and when she saw tears of yearning and grief on her fellow-prisoner's face, she wondered if he'd been someone loved—maybe someone beloved of this woman and child that had been killed and left tethered in this same space to torment the forced guest for however long the chains stayed solid.
"Did you know him?"
Slowly, her co-prisoner nodded, her lip trembling as she reached to her child behind her and held her close. "He tried to save us, to warn me about Clayton. His own son," she sniffled, losing the battle with tears that her memories evoked. "His own son told me that that man killed my husband so that he could have me and my daughter, so he killed Billy and chained him down here with us. Most times he puts a bag over his head and it quiets him down some, then he's not haulin' at the chains so bad."
She contemplated the dark, dingy little space they were held captive in and Patricia started to feel a new anxiety. She'd never been claustrophobic before, but then she'd never been held prisoner somewhere so dark and dirty and half filled with the greatest threat to her life right now. "If we're going to get out of there, we have to work together." She had no idea where this bout of courage had come from but she wasn't surrendering it. She had life left in her and she wasn't going to let go of it until there was no other option left open to her. She was going to fight and fight until fighting was the only thing she had left, but to do it she needed this stranger to be her ally.
"Okay," the blonde conceded, rubbing away her tears as her child curled up in her arms. "I'll help."
Patricia let her head fall forward, breathing deeply, trying to stem the choking fear just the thought of being close to that slobbering monster raised up in her. "My name is Patricia," she said, knowing that sharing her name was the first step in building up trust.
The woman's eyes widened, hope blossoming where before they'd been completely dead. Patricia watched as that hope grew, as she straightened her spine against her earlier crushing acceptance of her death, and Patricia felt nervous about having so much responsibility.
"I'm Annie, and this is my little girl, Sarah."
Annie reached out a hand to her, the bones barely covered with flesh, tiny and weak and littered with small cuts and scars. She knew instantly this plan was only going to work through sheer determination and a whole lot of luck. Sarah was just a little thing, barely a handful of years old if Patricia's guess was accurate, and it hurt her heart to see such a small child abused in such a way. Her mind raced with what horror story these two had already faced, and as her hesitant gaze slipped back across the room to look at the walker, its gruesome face, slobbering jaws desperate for a taste of their flesh, she wondered how much more of the story was left to tell.
Patricia's disappearance brought reality to bear with a shattering crash. Carol sat on the bed she'd been occupying in the old farmhouse and stared hard at the wall, barely registering as Lori walked in and calmly sat beside her. Her hand was shaking as Lori picked it up and held it tight between both of hers and quietly, without even realising it herself, tears began to streak down her cheeks.
"Merle said to start packing everything up while he goes out and tries to track her."
Carol shook her head, listening to the pounding rain on the roof and feeling her nose start to run. She swiped at her face with her free hand until Lori passed her some Kleenex, and then Carol used that instead to stem the leaks at her eyes and nose.
"He's going to get wet." She didn't know what else to say. There was no way Merle could track Patricia in the rain. He'd already pretty much told them that. Going out in such bad weather now was nothing but pure stubbornness and it just gave her another thing to worry about.
"He'll find her," Lori said, and when Carol finally found the courage to observe her friend's reassuring smile and warm eyes she felt the hopelessness clog her throat and the tears turned from gentle to furious by the tick of the clock.
Lori stayed silent, but both of them thought back to the exhaustive search for Sophia, and even though it had been Merle that had found her, had been Merle that had saved her, Carol didn't think luck was so far on their side that it would happen for him twice.
"No," Lori admitted, her own voice becoming rough with dejected hope. "But we still need to pack up and prepare to leave."
Carol felt the sobs rise in her chest, the pressure almost unbearable and while she was desperate to get back to Daryl, to get Sophia behind that promised wall that would keep the walkers out, she felt such desolation at this strike at their defences that she worried she couldn't actually stand. Her stomach twisted and twirled, and the reality of their life slapped her harshly into focus.
"I can't have this baby, Lori. How can I? Patricia was doing nothing but feeding the chickens and she gets taken? How is that even possible? Who is out there doing something like that? She's probably not even alive, or if she is, wishing she weren't. And I'm bringing a baby into this kind of world?"
"Stop it," Lori commanded, and then both of them sat nervously wondering what to say when both of them knew that everything Carol had spewed out as word vomit induced by panic was absolutely true.
"Everything we do is a risk," Lori said at last, words measured, thoughtful and her green eyes burning with sincerity and love. "From here on out, every single thing we do, whether it's walking out that door to go feed chickens, or to go on watch, it comes with a price. We have to go on livin', no matter what. If we lose hope, we're better off dead."
Carol nodded, gulped against the gag of tears and let her head fall to Lori's shoulder, calming gradually as her friend cupped the back of her head and held onto her, conveying solace the best way Lori knew how.
"I know this baby is a blessing," Carol shared, and she was suddenly hit with a longing to see Daryl so sharp she almost keeled over from the bed. "I'm just so scared."
"I know. We just have to trust that Merle can find Patricia while the rest of us get to the compound. Once we get behind that wall we can work things out. Try to build our spirits back up."
With an effort that Carol hadn't realised she'd be capable of in her emotional turmoil, she hugged Lori back, feeling a shift in her world. There was no point giving in to fear. This world was against them at every turn, but Lori was right. If they gave up, if they let that fear beat them, there was no point trying to go on. There would have been no point fighting Jenner at the CDC for the opportunity to go on living. There had to be something more, and if there wasn't, she had the knowledge that she'd been given the chance to at least find love—and to give love. She'd found Daryl, and while he might not have been the kind of man the old world would have valued, in this one he was gold. He was hers, and everything he did now was to ensure their little family would be as safe as it could be.
Andrea's head popped around the door frame, her eyes red from her own bout of dealing with Patricia's disappearance. "Hey, can you two find room for one more?"
"Come on in," Lori invited, waving her spare hand and encompassing Andrea within their little group hug. On their own they were weak, giving in to the demons whispering in their heads, loosing useless tears when they all had a job to do. Together they were strong; Carol could feel it as the embrace lengthened. The tears dried up, confidence flowed through them from one to the other and a bond was forged so strong Carol knew it would take something more evil than this world had left to throw at them to break it.
The activity in the rest of the house spurred them to finally pull away, smile nervously at their sustained silence before Andrea gave in to a humourless laugh, shaking her head as if trying to deny what was happening was really the truth. "I can't believe we're leaving this house without knowing what happened to Patricia," she mumbled, her voice hoarse from the emotion of defeat.
"Merle said we should leave a note, just in case. Rick and Daryl will worry if we don't show up tonight." There was yearning in Lori's words, her own underlying fear about her family being separated again filtering through so that they were forced to acknowledge that all of them had their own situations that were causing pain. As much as it hurt to think they might be abandoning Patricia, Carol knew they really had no choice. They'd been lucky so far, trying not to take for granted this peaceful house with its bountiful offerings with the garden and chicken coop, but their luck didn't often last. It was time for them to leave, to relocate to somewhere that offered a more permanent form of protection than this farmhouse could provide.
"I'm all packed," Carol admitted, darting a look to her bags and Daryl's remaining things. She'd instructed Sophia to organise her own things and whatever Merle had left behind, so as far as she knew, she had her own family under control, and she'd always known Lori to be highly efficient with packing.
"Hershel is outside with Beth and Maggie trying to catch the chickens and load up supplies. We can come back and try to harvest the garden if we can. If this new place isn't as well equipped." Lori stood up, holding a hand out to both women to drag them up onto their feet. "We best be movin' before the boys come back and wonder what happened to us."
Carol took a final look around the room where she'd explored her relationship with Daryl, where she'd made a commitment that made her gasp with the gravity of it all, but which made her so foolishly happy that she couldn't help but leave it with a smile on her face. It might be where it all began, but it wasn't where it was all going to end. There was more to all of their stories and with a surge of unexpected confidence, Carol turned her back and strode out of the room so as to begin hers.
After two hours of trudging through a soggy wood, Merle was frozen solid. The tracks left behind from Patricia were so minimal that he couldn't be sure he'd actually seen them or if it had been wishful thinking. He was soaked to the skin, feeling pretty miserable from the sleeting rain that kept slamming him in the face, and getting pretty damned angry at the fucked up world that had him trawling the woods for a woman he'd only spoken to a handful of times.
His path had led him to encounter more walkers than he felt comfortable seeing, and he knew in his gut that if she'd been brought this far out she was more than likely dead. From what he'd been able to tell, she'd never even killed a walker before, and he couldn't see how some psycho might have made it through this quagmire of death and cling to his own life, let alone hers as well. He felt stupid, defeated, and wasn't looking forward to getting back to the compound with no news to share.
Merle stood in the middle of a small clearing, trying to peer up through the thick canopy of treetops and frowned at how grey the sky remained. There wasn't going to be any sun that day, and if he didn't want to get caught out in the dark, he'd best start heading back. He heard their voices before they saw him, and he swore under his breath at finding no real place to hide. He backed up into the cover of trees and found enough density to crouch behind so that he was relatively out of sight until they continued on and ran across his hiding spot.
When they stumbled into view, he could tell they were done with being careful. Their plight was too urgent, took too much of their attention to waste energy trying to be stealthy. The man was barely on his feet, his body slumping heavily until the woman tripped and he landed on his face in Merle's quickly vacated clearing.
"Dammit," the woman swore and Merle felt his eyes hurt with how wide his lids stretched open at the intimidating sight of her. "We can't just stop here. You need to get up. What if there were more of them?" She quickly scanned the woods behind her, eyes bright and alert even if her companion wasn't. She seemed to accept they were alone for now and Merle shook his head at their naivety. If there were too many men like him hiding around these parts, they'd have no chance holding onto their lives.
The man's reply was incoherent but the fear bristling in the air around the woman was not. She didn't look the sort to panic, but as a rustling in the brush surrounding them revealed a walker, she sprung immediately to attention, whipping out a scary as fuck sword and lopped the biter's head right off. Merle caught himself about to whistle appreciatively, eyeing her carefully. He had a pretty big knife, too, but he wasn't quite game to take on a sword without even knowing her name.
Her exhausted companion pushed himself up off the forest floor and swayed on his feet. Merle could see the blood, then, soaking into his pants leg despite the makeshift bandage wrapped around his thigh.
"You should just leave me here to die."
Merle rolled his eyes at the overly dramatic self-sacrificing bullshit, then prepared to leave his hiding spot and wave the proverbial white flag when he heard his name mentioned and he came to an immediate, irritated stop. "I know what an infection feels like, and while Merle Dixon's clap might have saved my life once, I doubt it can again."
"Did my little piss ant of a brother share out the good stuff to the asshole responsible for my losin' my damn hand?" He was in front of them before he could stop himself, furious at Daryl for having so little loyalty to him, and annoyed with himself for not keeping his ass hidden like he'd planned. The second he'd put the voice together with the face, he was back on that Atlanta rooftop, staring into the terrified eyes of Theodore Douglas a split second after he'd dropped the key to the cuffs down a drain.
T-Dog's face was covered with glistening beads of sweat, but he looked past the sword that had appeared out of nowhere an inch from Merle's neck and laughed so hard that Merle was concerned the idiot might be high.
"Oh shit," T-Dog erupted again, falling back to the ground and changing the hard-luck chuckles up with groans of agony. "I don't know whether to consider myself lucky or cursed."
Merle growled, lifting his bladed stump and casually—almost like he'd barely even taken account of the danger—swiped the woman's sword to the side so he could get in and try to drag T-Dog back to his feet.
"Right now you're a lucky sonovabitch because I can get you somewhere we can patch you up an' maybe save your life. Once we done that, though, you can bet your ass I'm gonna fuckin' slice you up an' feed ya to the damn dogs."
T-Dog stopped all forward momentum, aimed a tired-eyed, stern examining look over Merle, and erupted into an embarrassing fit of the giggles, his body burning up despite the cold rain that had soaked him through. "Did you get 'em from Satan at a yard sale?"
Merle stared at him, incredulous and decided he was too delirious now to even make sense. "Yeah, Satan," he agreed, infusing his tone with as much disgust as he could muster in the relentless downpour. "Now shut your pie hole before I sick 'em onto you."
"Michonne?" T yelled her name, under the misguided impression she'd either left him or moved a couple of miles away, judging by the volume.
"Hey! Didn't I tell you to shut it?" Merle hissed, yanking on his arm to try and get the message across that they liked to be quiet outside, so as not to attract the wildlife. Things the idiot should have known, even with a fever.
"Michonne?" T-Dog stage whispered and Merle rolled his eyes. "This is Merle Dixon. I dropped a key once and we left him behind in Atlanta, handcuffed to the roof." The conversational lilt to his voice ended abruptly when she nodded, risking taking a close look at Merle. T-Dog was blinking at him, his mouth rippling as if he was trying to hold something in, and Merle found out quick enough that it was another round of the chuckles, only this time the asshole was really getting on his nerves. "Cut off his own hand instead of waitin' for us to come set him free." And he was off again.
Merle might have learned to be all kinds of patient lately but jokes about having to mutilate himself just didn't tickle his funny bone like you'd expect. A sneer on his lips, he got down into the fucker's face what caused him to never be able to run two hands over a woman's body again, the metal of his hand cuff chucking the idiot under the chin.
"I'm doin' you a favour, asshole. Shut you're trap or you're gonna feel my handy upgrade in that fleshy gut of yours."
Comprehension seemed to bleed into T-Dog's awareness and the laughter dropped from his face. He nodded, attempting to blink away the haze of a burning fever. Merle glanced across at the Samurai, his lips in a tight line. "We good?"
She contemplated him for a few minutes, the rain continuing to pelt down on the three of them and Merle braced himself against the shiver of the cold water dripping down his spine, trickling into his underwear, dragging around his boots. He was drenched through to the skin—like them—and his animosity was at an all-time high finding this yahoo in his travels. He'd been searching for Patricia even though he'd known he didn't have a chance in Hell of trying to find out what happened to her unless whoever took her planned it out that way. Instead he'd found the one responsible for him getting left behind, forcing his life to change forever. He should be enraged, should have put the tip of his knife between T-Dog's eyes and pushed until any light that was there blinked out. Damned Sophia and the rest of that group was turning him into a good Samaritan and it pissed him off—but it made him feel good, too. Made him feel like he was worth something.
Finally she tilted her head to the side, finished contemplating how trustworthy he was and making the decision to either struggle through in the wet or help him get her companion to safety and a dry bed. The calm, quiet way she went about things released a tick in Merle's jaw. He wasn't patient and he just wanted to get this show on the road. Just when he'd decided he didn't give a shit what she decided, he was heading back to the compound with or without them, she nodded, taking up T's other arm.