A/N: With the hiatus from season 4 looming, I feel the urge to get this story moving again. Many thanks to incog_ninja who supports me 100% in my endeavor and never gave up on me or this story.
I lost them.
Fuck me running, I lost them – they lost me…we're lost. The trees whip past as I run deeper into the woods, and the heat of the fire has made the skin of my face tight; the smoke has made my eyes sting, and I blink rapidly, trying to make out a path in the shadows of trees. I can hear the snarling dead things behind me, hear them moan as my feet pound along leaves and deadfall. The way is rocky, and it is slippery, and it all looks the same. I try to remember the things Daryl has murmured to me as we trekked through the woods, in search of Sophia, in search of a deer, in search of each other, but I can't think of anything beyond 'I lost them.' The thought of Daryl makes me hold my breath, and the harsh panting pauses. Beyond the growl and groan of walkers, I strain to hear the roar of his bike. I don't hear it – did he make it? Did he get away? Or did he…
No. I shake my head and continue to run, throat swollen with the air I'm sucking, lungs cut with the smoke and ash of the Greene farm, legs aching with the urgency of my steps. I've never run so fast in my life, not even from the CDC just before it blew up. I've never been this scared, and I've been mugged before. But muggers for the most part want your purse, and then run scared. Walkers want your flesh. And once they have it, they just take you down with them.
Did Rick make it? And Carl, and Lori – oh god, Lori, I know we have our differences, but I would never wish anything horrible on that woman. Hershel, and his girls – Maggie, who just found a place with Glenn, and Beth, who had only days before made the hard decision to live…Where were they all? Please, help them, let them be safe, all of them.
Let them be safe.
Let Daryl be safe.
Let me be safe.
I didn't know how long I'd been asleep. I woke, rattled and cold, and clutching at the rifle that had fallen lax in my grip. In the cold, dawn light, I shifted in the damp leaves where I'd crouched to merely catch my breath. The scent of smoke clung to my clothes and hair, but also to the faint breeze. I couldn't have gotten far, then. And sure enough, as the darkness faded, the sounds of walkers became more apparent, jaws snapping as they began to fumble through the woods once more. Scrambling to my feet, I took quick stock of where I was, and tried to orient myself. The sky overhead, however, was overcast. The North Star, and Venus, were no where to be seen, and my heart fell as I realized that Daryl had never gotten a chance to teach me how to find my way without those beacons in the sky.
I took off in a steady jog, and the joints in my hips and knees protested, as my lungs screamed with fire, raw from their exertion the night before. I wasn't going to last long if I didn't find some sort of shelter. A quick glance behind me showed at least five walkers, but that didn't mean there weren't more nearby, on my trail, in the trees, flanking. They moved in a herd; who was to say they didn't hunt as one? The thought flitted through my brain, and I ignored it: something like that would require planning. Planning required a brain. I hoped my assumptions were correct, and I ran again, pulling the gun from my waistband once more. By the weight of it, I guessed it was half loaded. A guttural sound tore through my thoughts and I turned quickly, lifting the pistol and putting a bullet between the eyes of a walker less than a foot from me. One by one, I took out the closest of the walkers as I staggered back into the woods.
My foot snagged on something, sending me reeling back, my heart racing. A sharp pain flared in my elbow as I landed, and I swore, my vision blurring at the edges as both pain and sudden exhaustion threatened to overwhelm me. Tears welled in my eyes as I tore backwards up the rise in the ground, my good hand on the gun, and the other steadying myself despite the searing agony in my elbow. I couldn't go down like this – not now, not after everything I'd been through. Gritting my teeth, I fired again, catching a walker in the face. Another shot, sending a bullet through a rotting eye socket. My breath was ragged in my ears, and the snarling of walkers only seemed to get louder. Pulling the trigger again, my heart dropped as I heard the terrifying click of an empty chamber.
"No," I gasped, turning the gun in my hands and pulling the slide back. "No, no, no!" It was desperate, and pointless, but I raised the gun again, pulling the trigger, hoping that somehow there was another bullet to stop the walker that dragged its decaying corpse closer. The thing snarled, and clawed the air with fingers that were nothing more than bone as it tried to reach me. I grunted, pulling my leg back and kicking out with everything I had, driving into the knee, making the thing collapse, and only bringing its jaws closer to me. I pushed backwards again, digging my fingers into the turf beneath me to find purchase. Flipping to my hands and knees, I prepared to launch forward, but found myself face to face with another walker. They were surrounding me, and I was out of ammo, and out of time.
I blinked, swimming up from darkness, and tried to make out my surroundings in the dim forest light. Was it dawn still? Or dusk? My head ached, and my tongue was thick. Breathing was like glass in my throat and fire in my chest. I coughed, and found my body ached, too.
I turned to the voice and started, at the hooded figure crouched before me. The cowl obscured their features, but I guessed it was a woman, judging from the lean, feminine curve of the dark-skinned arm that extended a small bottle of water. A rustling in the nearby trees, followed by the clang of chains, made me pull up short, and I twisted around, searching the shadows.
Then I remembered – she'd come out of no where, shrouded, brandishing a sword of all things, and a pair of walkers chained and missing their arms and lower jaws. She'd finished the walkers surrounding me with minimal effort, the blade in her hands cutting through skull and brain like a razor through silk. Her eyes had been visible for only a moment, flashing with steely determination. When the last corpse had fallen, she'd stood over me, flicking the gore from her blade. I'd blacked out then, and now I was somewhere deep in the woods with her – whoever she was. But I was alive.
"Where are we?"
The woman sighed, and reached for my hand, pushing the proffered bottle into it. "Georgia."
"Thanks," I answered wryly. I glanced around and tried a sip of water, finding it more than palatable. After the first small sip, I gulped more, and then more, and didn't stop until the bottle was empty. Swallowing, I wiped the back of my hand over my mouth and sagged back against the tree behind me. "You had those things on chains. On leashes."
The woman grunted, inspecting the empty bottle I handed back to her. She tucked it into her pack and turned back to me. "How's your elbow?" She nodded to my left arm.
"Huh?" My injury forgotten, I lifted my arm and extended, immediately regretting the movement. "Jesus Christ," I hissed, gritting my teeth against the hot flash of pain that flared in my elbow, and then extended all the way down to my fingers.
"You can move it," the woman observed. "I don't think it's broken. Probably bruised it pretty badly. You're not left handed, are you?"
With a grimace, I shook my head. The woman grunted and stood, and wandered around what I guessed was the perimeter she'd secured.
"What's your name?" I called, watching her sure, soft steps through the underbrush. Immediately, I was reminded of Daryl, and I felt a slight pang in my heart as my mind conjured his blue eyes and his version of a smile.
The dark woman didn't answer at first, and she merely continued to creep among the shadows, pausing every now and then. She stepped further into the inky blackness, disappearing completely for a spell, leaving me in the dying light – dusk, then – with nothing but the rattle of chains nearby. I shivered at the thought of those things held captive and so close by.
She stepped back into the hovel we'd created among the trees, and sank back down, reaching for her pack. "Michonne," she said.
"Michonne?" I repeated.
She glanced up at me with a grunt, and then turned back to her pack.
She nodded, but continued searching through her belongings. Suddenly, she grinned, a flash of white in the shadows, and she even made a sound of triumph. From her pack she pulled a small, flat tin, which I guessed contained sardines, and another tin, this one round, probably canned fruit, or vegetables. Either way, my stomach growled. I hadn't eaten since that afternoon, and I'd picked at what had been on the plate.
Placing both tins on the ground between us, Michonne dug around for another moment, and produced a small can opener. She set to work on the rounded tin, tossing me the tin of sardines. I tore the key from the lid and worked it into the slot, turning the lid back and salivating at the salty waft of the brine and oil the little fish were packed in. I chuckled a little bit.
"What," Michonne asked flatly, finishing her own tin and revealing the glistening rounds of halved peaches, packed in syrup.
"I used to eat these on toast all through college. Couldn't afford much else," I replied, digging my fingers in and plucking two pungent, flaky fish from their bed and popping them into my mouth.
Michonne shook her head. "Never thought I'd consider sardines a luxury," she replied drily. She exchanged tins with me.
We ate in silence, stopping every now and then to take small sips of water. "Gonna have to find more," Michonne said, capping the bottle when it was half empty and shoving it back into her pack. She eyed me closely. "What are you doing out here with no supplies?"
I swallowed the last mouthful of our meager feast and sat back. "I got separated from my group."
"How many were there?"
"By the end?" I paused, taking stock of the faces I'd known in the last several weeks, and who had been lost. "A dozen?" I shook my head. "I don't know anymore. I don't know who's left. We found shelter on a farm."
"Yes," I sighed, "but we were overrun by a herd. That's how you found me."
Michonne nodded. "They move in herds. Strangest thing. Can't figure out why."
"Safety in numbers," I surmised.
"Think they know that?"
She had a point, and I lapsed into silence again. "What about you? Don't you have a group? People that you're out here with? Or…"
"No," Michonne answered quickly. "It's just me." She looked at me again. "Or it was just me."
I didn't know how to feel about her statement. She seemed hesitant, and yet reluctantly accepting of my sudden appearance. Daryl had been right – all people had was each other. Finding someone in the world before all this went down was hard enough, but when you did, you held on tight. Now, in the wake of the dead rising, finding someone was almost impossible, and you put a stranglehold on them if you were lucky to cross paths with a worthy companion.
"Thank you," I blurted out. "For…for this. For helping me back there."
Michonne tilted her head and gave me a small smile. "You're a good shot, I'll give you that. Could use someone watching my back. Helping to scout and scavenge."
"Are you asking me to tag along?"
Michonne's face firmed, her eyes unyielding, and deadly serious. "I'm offering a better chance of survival. And hoping to find one myself."
I nodded. "All right." I glanced around, finally noticing that for however long we'd been sitting in the forest, no walkers had wandered among us. The chains on Michonne's pair rattled again, and that's when it dawned on me. "You use them like guard dogs," I said.
"Yeah," Michonne nodded. "Works pretty well, too." The wind cut through the trees then, damp, and with autumn's chill curling around it. "But we're gonna need shelter eventually. We'll set out at first light, get out of the woods, and onto the road. You think your people are looking for you?"
I looked up into the sky, noting the stars peeking through where the clouds dissipated, and the tree branches afforded a view. "I don't know," I answered, but it was only half true. I knew that Daryl would be looking for me, but what about the others? Would Rick see value in letting their scout search the woods and the roads for me? I had to hope so. I would need that hope to get me through the coming winter.