It was still dark even though Mara could tell that dawn was not far away. Standing here, ready to fight, she actually felt better than she had at the prison. Waiting was worse than the heat of the moment by far.
Birds were starting to chirp. Not many but a few early risers and that heralded that the new day was on its way.
She was standing shoulder to shoulder with her team. Nathan was looking into binoculars even though he couldn't possibly make out the guards the Governor had stationed through the town. It was the only indication that her dear sergeant was nervous.
Mara wished she could be with Daryl but they had decided that when fighting they should stick to the team they were familiar with as long as possible, but if she couldn't be with him then she couldn't imagine four people she'd rather have at her side.
"You want to run through everything once more?" Elias asked Nathan.
"God no!" Christine mumbled. They had gone through 'the plan' more times than Mara could count. She had practically memorised the plan. But it gave Nathan something to focus on that wasn't the potential death of his unit.
"There isn't much finesse," Nathan said dryly. He realised he was being indulged by Elias. "Just kill everyone you don't recognise."
"Sarge, did you just make a joke?" Yussuf asked, pretending to be shocked.
"Since we might all be dead in a few hours, it seemed about time to get one in," Nathan retorted.
"Speak for yourself," Mara said crossing her arms. She didn't have any intention of dying.
Cheiny's team was going in first and they were waiting their signal. They still had their weapons in pristine condition. Additionally their protective suits weren't nearly as worn down as Mara's had become.
"I can't believe they got Kevlar," Christine griped. Cheiny's uniforms were the new and improved edition, designed to withstand bites and bullets. Mara would have been gratified with a complete uniform.
"Don't get shot," Elias suggested without a hint of sarcasm.
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Is it too much to ask for that now, of all days, you all behave?"
Yussuf snorted. "Getting optimistic in your old age?"
Nathan pinched his nose. "If we survive this Yussuf, I'm gonna have you up for insubordination."
Yussuf's face was blank. "What does that word mean?"
Mara had unsheathed her sword, unable to be truly distracted by the banter. Any minute Cheiny, Paul, David, Frank and Richard were going to attack and it was going to get loud. Eric was nearby somewhere with an excessive amount of first aid supplies and Carol by his side. Hershel had wanted to come but it was impractical so he had remained behind with Beth, Carl and Judith. They had been worried about leaving the prison undefended but Carl's determined face had reassured Mara at the very least.
Mara and her comrades had one job. Fend off the walkers. The big groups they had spotted roaming around had everyone concerned. The gun shots that inevitably were going to sound were going to have walkers crawling all over this little town.
"I have to tell you all something," Yussuf said abruptly. Mara turned her face to her friend, expecting a suitably emotional spiel.
"I slept with Beth."
Mara's jaw dropped open, Nathan spun to face his corporal and Christine started to giggle. Elias just shrugged like he already knew.
"You did what?" Nathan demanded.
"She's over eighteen," Mara pointed out, coming to Yussuf's defence. He wasn't leering or making inappropriate innuendos so Mara suspected there was something sincere between the pair.
Christine drew her sword with a flourish. "Shit, I'm gonna live just so I can see Hershel beat Yussuf up when he finds out."
"That would be pretty funny," Mara said, considering.
Yussuf's dark skin actually looked pale for once.
"Nothing less than you'll deserve," Nathan added, looking pained. He glanced around the group. "Any more secret love affairs that need to be confessed?"
There was silence and Nathan looked relieved. Mara managed an affectionate smile for her tolerant sergeant.
There was the sound of an echoing gunshot and Mara's skin went cold. It had started.
Merle was adjusting the prosthetic knife again. He'd taken it or and restrapped it maybe twenty times.
"You scared?" Daryl asked just to be belligerent.
Merle flashed a toothy grin. "Don't have that word in my vocabulary, Darylina."
Rick was crouched down and contemplative. Apart from the fraternal bickering the group was silent. Maggie and Glenn were quietly holding hands. Michonne was a little way off and she looked the most eager of the group. At least Daryl assumed it was eager, because honestly her expression didn't vary all that much.
Andrea was staring straight ahead, seeing without really seeing. Her fist was clenched so tight her knuckles were white.
As far as grand master plans went, this one was pretty simple. Cheiny would engage the men, Nathan's team would cover them for walkers but the Governor was theirs. He owed them a blood debt and it was time to settle.
Daryl had his crossbow slung across his back. It felt comforting to have that familiar weight there. He also had a gun, his hunting knife and an axe hanging from his belt. He had packed as many weapons on to his body as he felt physically able to carry. They didn't feel cumbersome, they felt necessary.
Daryl's skin prickled when he heard the first gun shot. The adrenaline pounded through his veins.
"Stay together," Rick said quietly and that was it. They had gone over this; they all knew what to do. Their point of entry was the most secure and covert.
Cheiny's team seemed to be making more noise than was strictly necessary. Daryl understood they were trying to draw as many of the men in a certain direction so that the prison group could circle up from behind. It made Daryl's stomach tight because it also meant more walkers and it was Mara's job to deal with walkers. He was happy to die today as long as two things happened. The Governor died and Mara survived. If Daryl's life was the price he'd happily pay it.
"Let's get this done," Andrea said, sounding numb. Daryl hoped that once this issue was put to bed with the Governor, she'd be able to move on.
They had no way of knowing where the Governor would go when the fighting began. Based on what they knew about his character, they figured he'd want to be involved but wouldn't risk himself on the front line. They'd use misdirection and take advantage of his distraction. There would be no trial, no judge or jury. They were there to execute him.
Mara knew enough about fights to know that they very rarely went according to plan. This day was no different. Dawn painted the town a pretty combination of purple and orange. It would have been nice if it wasn't for the blood everywhere as well.
Cheiny's team had been efficient but there were more men than they anticipated. They had known this was always a risk but they hadn't understood just how many reinforcements the Governor had stashed away in the buildings.
When the first walkers had shown up, Mara had dived into the fight with Christine close by. Her sword moved without thought now as she calculated weakness and cut down the corpses. She got caught up into a rush of battle lust and all she could do was kill. She all but forgot about the present until she took a step back and her heel caught on something on the ground behind her. Mara stumbled to her knees, one palm preventing her from falling on her face while she made an effort to keep her sword clutched tightly in her other hand. She hissed at the impact and stinging sensation that immediately spread through her hand.
She looked behind her to see what had tripped her. Her stomach lurched when she saw Frank's face. His face was upturned, his eyes open and glassy. His midsection had been clawed out. Mara remembered his genuine attempts to be helpful and she felt sick.
Mara didn't have time to stand there and grieve for the young man she'd just met. She put the point of her sword between Frank's eyes, trying to be gentle for some inexplicable reason. With a grunt she jabbed the sword down and out. The wound leaked a bit of sluggish blood but that was all.
Mara turned her back on Frank's corpse and walked back to the fight. She felt a renewed fury trembling in her limbs. There was no end of her hate for those creatures. They just took and took. She managed to cast a glance around the fight, taking stock of the situation. She couldn't see Christine anymore and she could only pray that her friend was still alive. Things hadn't gone according to plan. With the walkers penetrating the town limits, the Governor's men had divided their attention between killing the intruders and fending off the walkers.
There was no plan now, maybe there never was. Mara just hoped that someone was finding the Governor and killing that bastard.
Christine saw the man trying to sneak up on her. Her face showed the scorn she felt at his heavy handed attempt to kill her. She pulled her gun out with her left hand and shot the man. It wasn't as precise as it would have been from her right hand but it felled the man. Gut shots would do that. Walkers smelt the fresh blood and descended on him in a feeding frenzy. Christine wrinkled her delicate nose in distaste.
"Damn, Tree monkey. Remind me not t'piss you off."
Only Yussuf called her Tree Monkey but that drawlin' southern accent unmistakably belonged to someone else.
Christine turned and inclined her head in greeting. "Merle."
He was the only person that seemed to become more energetic, more enthused as the fight went on. Merle gutted a walker unceremoniously and when the creature hunched forward, missing an abdomen, Merle stabbed it in the back of the head.
"Nothin' like a bit'a exercise in the morning."
Christine had started to sweat. It was already hot despite the early hour and her hair was sticking to the back of her neck. "I'd prefer to go for a run," Christine said wryly, before pivoting and decapitating a shambling walker. She grabbed the separated head, its jaws still opening and closing and she lobbed it at another one of the Governor's men. It was all just a little bit exhilarating.
Merle had a knowing gleam in his eyes. "Don't lie. You're havin' fun, just like me."
Christine arched an eyebrow. "I'm nothing like you, Merle."
Merle shrugged. "You say so." He pointed past her. "Incoming."
Christine whirled to face a group of walkers heading in their direction. She sighed casually. "Guess you may be useful after all."
Daryl somehow ended up pinned down by gunfire next to Dick and Cheiny. Cheiny's eyes had darkened to the point they were black and Daryl was happy that he seemed to be directing his temper tantrums at their foes. He saw Elias and Nathan narrowly usher Rick into a side street, before a herd of walkers passed. Glenn and Maggie were a few feet away, pinned just like they were. He couldn't even see Michonne or Andrea, though of all the people, he was least worried about those two.
"These assholes just keep coming," Daryl grumbled.
Cheiny and Dick exchanged a look. "What?" Daryl asked.
Dick pulled something out of his pocket. "I only have the one and I was saving it."
It was a smoke bomb. Daryl had to grin. "I think the occasion calls for it."
Dick didn't hesitate to pull the pin and send it flying. The area was covering in an acidic smoke that made Daryl's eyes water and filled his mouth. Cheiny and Dick were moving as soon as they had cover, adjusting faster than he was able. They killed at least four men in quick succession, throwing themselves out into the open. Daryl had to admit that Australian's could be ballsy to the point of insane.
He heard Dick's voice float back. "Keep up, redneck. We got shit to do!"
Yussuf had his shoulder under David's arm pit. He knew the man must be in pain but he wasn't showing it. He had taken a bullet in the shoulder and another one in his upper thigh. Yussuf had seen the man fall and rushed to his side. If he hadn't acted so quickly, David would have been a meal by now.
David was keeping up the stoic facade and Yussuf had to respect that. Both of them knew he needed to be taken out of the fight. David had tried to wave him off, implying he could make it to their first aid station by himself but Yussuf had rolled his eyes and helped the man to his feet.
They were hurrying though. Yussuf wanted to get back into the fight as soon as possible.
Eric and Carol both had guns levelled at their chest when they first crested the hill. They lowered the barrels as soon as they recognised them and Yussuf was impressed by their grit. Paul was already there, arm bound in a sling.
"Broke it," Paul said by way of explanation, sounding sheepish. Yussuf wanted to ask why he wasn't out there fighting with his other arm but then he saw bone poking through the skin and kept his mouth shut.
Eric didn't waver. He got David onto one of the beds and began working on the bullet holes. David's eyelids had started to droop.
"I've got this," Eric said without looking up. It was good enough for Yussuf and he ran back towards the melee.
There was a break in the walkers. There were still plenty milling around but there didn't seem to be any more threatening to overwhelm the town. Once they killed the one's in here now, they'd be done. At least with the walking dead.
Christine took a deep breath, centring herself. She wasn't as aggressive a fighter as Merle but she wouldn't tire as quickly as him. In fact, right now Merle had one hand against a wall, trying to catch his breath.
Christine opened her mouth to deliver a cutting insult when she saw the flash of sunshine off a gun barrel. Without thinking, she tackled Merle to the ground, propelling both of them behind a small, crumbling wall, attached to a house. This happened at the same time the gun discharged.
"Jesus, you wanted a piece of ole Merle, all you had t'do was ask!" Merle grumbled. He rubbed the back of his head with his hand, wincing from the impact.
"There was a gunman," Christine said sitting back. She was straddling Merle, looking down at the abrasive man.
"You saved my life," Merle said warily, his eyes not leaving her face.
"That was an accident I won't repeat," Christine retorted.
Merle grinned, eyes still locked on hers. "I'm growin' on ya, admit it!"
Christine opened her mouth to deny the accusation with every fibre of her being when blood poured down her chin.
She looked down in shock. There was a blossoming red spot on the front of her shirt. Merle's eyes widened as he saw what had happened.
Christine pressed an absent hand against the wound. She still couldn't feel anything, not really. "Well shit!"
Merle scrambled out from underneath her, easing her back against the ground gently.
"You're gonna be fine, this ain't nothing but a scratch," Merle insisted.
Christine laughed but it turned into a cough and more blood bubbled around her lips. "You always were an idiot."
It was starting to hurt now. An ache deep in her stomach that was sharpening with each breath.
Christine reached an unsteady hand up to grab Merle's shoulder. "Don't let me come back as one of them!"
Merle smiled, "not a chance, sweetheart." He was hovering over her.
"You know, you're a pain in the ass, but you're one hell of a woman," Merle said.
"You're fucking right," Christine answered. It was weak even to her own ears.
"So you'll have t'forgive me for takin' advantage," Merle said with a wicked grin.
Puzzlement passed across Christine's face. Merle grabbed the front of her shirt and he hauled her up, ignoring her cry of pain. He brought her lips to his hard. Christine's fingers curled in the front of his shirt. He kissed her with tongue and teeth, winding his hand in the hair at back of her head. And while he kissed her, he put the base of his knife at the nape of her neck. She didn't feel it amidst the bruising kiss. With one last, harsh press of his mouth against hers, Merle slid the blade home.
Mara couldn't see anyone she recognised. She knew the walkers were thinning but there were still too many of them and she was getting tired. She stumbled after slicing a walker practically in half. Another walker seized her and her heart thundered in her chest but she didn't think she could swing her sword fast enough to prevent the walker sampling the exposed skin at her neck.
There was a bullet and the walker spun away from her, struck by a stunning head shot. Mara caught sight of Andrea not that far away, Michonne at her back. Andrea had shot the walker while Michonne covered their back. Mara hadn't known what an excellent shot Andrea was.
The two women made their way towards them. Michonne had a cut in her forehead and Andrea was limping a little bit.
"You alright?" Mara addressed the question to both of them.
"She got shot," Andrea said, sounding exasperated.
"I got grazed," Michonne corrected, not taking her eyes off the advancing walkers.
Mara shook her head. Trust Michonne to stay in a battle after getting a head wound.
Having company while she fought made all the difference. Mara got faster and stronger, spurred on by Andrea and Michonne.
"Only a few more," Andrea murmured and Mara realised she was giving her a pep talk. She must have looked like shit. But Andrea was right. If they just kept this up, eventually there would be no more walkers.
She thrust her sword into the gut of an incoming walker, impaling it on the length of the blade. She worked her knife free and stabbed it in the head. An arrow whistled past her ear and struck another walker trying to get close to them. Mara chanced a look over her shoulder and saw Elias with his bow at the ready. He saluted her with a wave.
She turned back to take on the next walker when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. There men running and she recognised one of them as the Governor.
"Hell no!" Mara snapped and took off after them. It only took Michonne and Andrea a second to realise what had happened. They followed hot on her heels.
Two living men loomed large ahead of her, both of them grabbing Mara and driving her to the ground. Michonne slowed down but Mara screamed, "Get him!"
Michonne didn't need to be told twice.
Mara struggled against the men holding her down, knowing she had done the right thing. The Governor couldn't survive this day.
"You're a pretty thing aren't you," one of them mumbled, his hot breath on her cheek. He pawed at the front of her uniform, trying to find an opening. He wrangled the zipper down to her navel. Mara kicked out but the pair of them had a tight grip on her.
Suddenly the man hovering above her ended at the shoulders and his head came tumbling forward to land on her stomach. Mara couldn't breathe enough to scream. The second man managed to shout but then he got a blade through the mouth for his trouble.
A hand extended down to her. Martinez. "Too late to enlist?"
"You have excellent timing," Mara said, taking his hand and letting him pull her to his feet.
His face was solemn.
"Thanks for saving my life," Mara said quickly.
Martinez smiled sadly. "I'm just sorry it took me so long to do the right thing."
Daryl tore a walker away from Maggie just before it closed its jaws on her shoulder. She had saved his life earlier, forcing him to duck with a hard hand on the middle of his back. He'd narrowly missed having his head ventilated. Glenn quickly killed the man who had tried to take the shot.
Cheiny had abandoned his gun and was punching one man in the face repeatedly. Daryl knew he should intervene but he didn't particularly want to. Cheiny was missing a finger because of that man and he deserved a little revenge.
Dick had vanished into a building and Daryl didn't know what he was playing at until one of the Governor's men endured a painful death by falling out of a window head first. Dick had stayed up there and played sniper. It was useful having a bird's eye perspective.
Merle slid to his side suddenly, blood on his face and just about everywhere else.
Daryl narrowed his eyes at his brother suspiciously. "You been cryin'?"
"It's a day for tears, lil' brother."
Daryl didn't want to push it but he knew for certain that someone was dead. "Mara?"
Merle shook his head. "Haven't seen her."
Daryl focused on the fact that no news was good news. The brothers stood back to back and carved a bloody path through the bodies until eventually there were none more to fight.
No humans and no walkers were trying to kill them. Maggie slumped to her knees. Glenn went to her side trying to help. She waved him off before falling on to her hands and throwing up, the adrenaline and exhaustion playing havoc with her system.
Daryl shielded his eyes, the midday sun was making it hard to see. They were gathering in the empty square, counting their numbers. It was the longest minute of his life before he saw Mara. She could barely stand and she was covered in cuts and bruises. Her jacket was open and he could see a nasty looking gash near her collarbone.
Daryl ran to her, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her against him tight. She clutched at him, whispering the same thing over and over again. "I love you."
Daryl caught sight of Martinez over her shoulder and stiffened. "He saved me," Mara explained quickly. Daryl locked eyes with the man and inclined his head. He would thank him properly later.
Daryl released Mara when he saw who Rick and Nathan had between them. The Governor was struggling and pleading, his voice oily as he tried to persuade them to spare him.
Maggie pushed herself to her feet and walked up to the man. Before anyone could stop her, she slapped him hard across the face. Then without a word, she turned around and walked away. Glenn hovered for a minute, looking like he seriously wanted to do the same thing but then he turned and followed her.
The Governor turned to Andrea who was looking at the ground.
"You won't let them do this will you, Andrea?"
Daryl curled his fingers into fists and forced himself to stay silent. Andrea could speak for herself. Andrea glanced behind her and saw Michonne. She also kept her opinions to herself.
When Andrea spoke, she sounded sad. "You hurt my family, Phillip. You hurt me. You are not a good person and you have to answer for that." Then she turned her back on him and followed the same path Maggie had taken.
Maggie had left the man in shock but Andrea's exit panicked him. The Governor realised he had no allies standing there. He shouted Andrea's name after her and when she didn't respond he called her a whore.
"Enough," Rick grunted and between him and Nathan, they wrestled him on to his knees.
Rick crouched so he was low enough to make eye contact with the man. "Any last words?"
The Governor spat at Rick's feet. Rick's face showed his contempt. He shook his head and got to his feet.
"Michonne?" Rick asked. "You want to do the honours?"
Her smile was feral and the Governor was afraid even though he tried to hide it. Mara turned in his arms, hiding her face in his chest. After all she had seen she still didn't want to witness this. But Daryl didn't look away. He watched up until the very end when Michonne removed the Governor's head from his body. Nathan shot the decapitated head through the eye patch. It was justice.
Mara found him in the guard tower.
"How are you feeling?" she asked as she took a seat. Daryl lifted his arm and wound it around her shoulder, tucking her into his body.
"Bit stiff but otherwise-," Daryl trailed off. If you were alive you were fine.
Mara's eyes were red from crying. Merle had told her about Christine and it had taken a while for her to stop sobbing over the loss of her best friend.
It was a victory but nobody felt like celebrating. David and Frank were dead as well and it felt wrong to be having a party when they were putting people in the ground.
"What is everyone doing?" Daryl asked.
A ghost of a smile passed across Mara's face. "Taking bets on how long it will take Beth and Yussuf to come clean to Hershel."
Daryl started. "That happened?"
"I know right," Mara said, shaking her head and leaning into Daryl. "Can't take him anywhere."
There was a stretch of silence between them.
"Have you given much thought to what Eric said?" Daryl tried to sound casual and failed.
Mara shrugged. "It wasn't that important."
"A cure's not important?" Daryl repeated sounding incredulous. "You could go home."
"It's not a cure yet," Mara pointed out. She looked at him seriously. "Besides, you're my home now. You're stuck with me."
"I could learn t'live with that," Daryl responded with a smirk.
"Best start," Mara suggested.
They laced fingers and watched the sun sink below the horizon. For the first time, the promise of tomorrow had become a tangible thing.
AN: I cried a little during this chapter, probably you can all guess when. Thanks to everyone who reviewed, fave'd and followed. What a journey!