The mangy, ravenous knotted-up mess of dogs tore at the heating flesh as the fever tore through the body of the young man who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The blood caked on the dirty tan shirt he wore, and the sweat was seeping through the worn, thin material. Images of his new life flashed in his decaying mind, the blood rushing upward to jump start his body, and his fingers twitched as the reanimation began. The dogs scattered, a growl erupted from his throat, though his face was half hanging off by the man who had killed him, who was still watching him.

As the young man sat up, his killer approached, and using the heel of his boot, he repeatedly bashed the heel into the young man's skull The wet squish made his fingers tingle and twitch, the blood splattering on his jeans and boots made him breath even harder, and the thought of his young man dying replayed in his head, making his blood rush faster. He savored the moment and stepped back to observe his work. He chuckled, satisfied, and he headed off toward the camp, the sun in his eye.

––

Meredith Dixon made her way across camp, smiling at the two women she'd grown close to during her stay, picking up the food they offered and eating only a bit before giving the rest to the little girl Megan she had grown close to. Her mother, Lilly—the one on breakfast detail—thanked her, but Meredith said it was no big deal.

She continued toward her tent. Meredith Dixon was a middle-aged woman with no children, no husband, and no ties to the previous world. She was petite, but sturdy. She usually stuck to dark cargo pants and three layers—a tank top, a shirt and a button-down tee—her salt and pepper hair braided over her shoulder. She wore a knife at her hip and her gun at her side. She was never without them. They were her left and right hand, and considering she was a woman in a world where the men believe they were better suited to be in charge, she had to work hard for respect. She pulled her weight better than most of their men. She was respected by their leader, and she had earned her place. She had a group of two bowmen and two teenagers who didn't wanna deal out rations. They were too busy talking about which of the young men they would be with. It was almost like before, if they weren't too depressed over how all the hot guys are undead. It wasn't about what they look like; it's about how they can protect you and themselves. Feelings are so important too. She's tried to tell them, but they still pout.

She stopped once inside her tent and gazed down at the homemade Cherokee rose bracelet on her left wrist. Bobby had made it for her when she stopped and admired them a couple of months ago. He made it out of wood and leather. He was...twenty-two. He was so impressionable, and he was very kind. He was a good ol' country boy with cowboy boots, tracking skills, a hell of a good shot, able to use knives, guns, a bow and arrow, and he was resourceful. She'd grown attached to him these past few months, almost enough to tell him her name.

"Carol Peletier," she whispered to herself as to not forget the struggles and loved ones who came along with that name. "Carol Peletier." She whispered it for those she'd lost, for those who hopefully made it, and for herself. She wouldn't let go of who she was. Bobby had taught her that.

"Hey, Mery." That husky Southern accent sent a shudder up her spine as another voice pinged in her head.

Daryl Dixon. She pushed it away. She'd promised herself to never think of him or the girls ever again. She couldn't let her mind wander to them, ever, and it had nothing to do with her persona. It was her emotions. She cared deeply for Daryl Dixon and Lizzie and Mika Samuels, but they were in her past. She couldn't let what happen hold her back. She needed to be there for her people, and she couldn't let any of the kids get caught in the crossfire. And no matter what: she couldn't let anyone know about the group at the prison. They would try to go there or kill them. She couldn't let that happen.

She turned and smiled. "Hey."

He dropped his hands to his knees, panting. His curly red hair was damped from sweat in the Georgia heat, his skin wasn't sensitive the sun so much, so he had a nice tan, and his shirt with the sleeves rolled up revealed the muscles on his arms. She was starting to believe he was trying to impress someone. Someone, but she wasn't sure who.

His misty green eyes met hers, and he straightened up. "You're up mighty early."

"Just making the rounds." She raised her left hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun. "On duty?"

"Just got off." He shifted his feet. "Feel like takin' a walk?"

"Sure. I could use some air," she teased, and he smiled.

They walked through camp; they got their usual good mornings from the young ones who woke up and the other women who were off duty. They walked the perimeter, the barb wire was untouched, but they walked it once more to make sure no walkers were caught up inside. Bobby filled her in on what happened during his patrol, and she laughed. It sounded like a regular college prank. It was reassuring.

"Walker." He pointed to the struggling dead man.

"I got it." Carol unsheathed her knife and thrusted it through the softening bone. She ripped it out and bent down, getting its hands off the fence. "Give me a hand."

He swung his leg over and dragged the body off, tossing it to the side, and hopping back over. "Need a new string?" He gestured to the bracelet as she adjusted it once more.

"It's fine," she assured him, "but thank you."

"It ain't nothin'." He blushed at the attention and fell into step beside her. "You're pretty...tough."

Who isn't? "Gotta be." She ducked under a branch. "You've handled yourself well."

"Thanks." He started to speak when their leader came over to them.

"Good morning." Martinez caught Carol by the arm. "We need you, Meredith."

She nodded. She set a hand on Bobby's arm then left with Martinez. She was as close as it gets to his third in command. With her skills, she was as vital as Shumpert, and they needed her now. A group was threatening them, and Martinez had tried to talk to them, but they were too hostile. They were too close. They were going to try talking once more—they didn't need an outside threat right now. They already had a snake in the nest.

Carol knew the Governor was here, that he had a new woman, a new child. It drove her mad to know the man who had taken Axel's, Merle's, and Andrea's lives was only a few tents away, but she couldn't do anything. He was an asset, and as no one knew who he really was, just Martinez and Shumpert. She could handle working close with them—well, just Martinez. She'd grown close to him, and the way...he talked about him made her see why he was the way he was, not unlike herself. She liked him, but she didn't like or trust Shumpert. He was the reason she slept with one eye open.

"I want you and Phillip to stay behind in that broken house," Martinez spoke to the four of them— "Meredith", Phillip, Shumpert, and Walsh. "Walsh and Shumpert, you're with me. If they start firing, I want you two to use our rifles to even the odds. Understood it?"

They nodded.

"Let's go."

They grabbed their weapons bag, Shumpert drove, Carol and Phillip were dropped off at location B, and they went upstairs where the roof caved in, and they got a clear view of the terrain. Carol kept her distance and adjusted the scope of her rifle, and she kept him watching her with his one good eye. She turned her head, and he eyed her.

"Can I help you?" She lowered the rifle and faced him.

"It's nothing." He didn't look away. "Are you a good shot?"

"I wouldn't be here if I weren't," was her reply. She turned from him and took aim on one of the muscle.

"Just trying to pass the time. Looks like a long conversation," he observed.

"Focusing is more important than knowing who's at your side."

"I'd rather know."

She lowered the gun and closed the space between them, meeting his eye. "I know who you are, and I know what you're capable of, and if you put any of us at risk, I won't hesitate to kill you."

His pupil dilated. "You know me?"

"Yes, I do, "Governor"." She scoffed and returned to taking aim. "I know what you did to Andrea too. I doubt Lilly would like to hear how you fed your ex to your best friend after you stabbed him."

His angry flared, but he clenched his jaw. It wasn't his place. He wouldn't do anything, not here. Not yet. "So...you were with Rick's group?"

She didn't reply.

"You sure as hell weren't one of mine," he continued. "You had to have been with Rick's group. What happened? You get overrun? They all died? Rick? His daughter? That bitch Michonne?" He wasn't getting kind of response out of her. What would push her buttons? He remembered watching them before, and he remembered seeing her with that redneck. What was his name? It was just a horrid as Merle. Ah. Daryl. Daryl Dixon. "What about the Dixon boy? Daryl? Is he dead too? Walkers rip him from you?" His lip twitched as he noticed a shudder pass through her. Oh, how he missed this—the mind games he could play. He wanted nothing more than to make her shudder until all of her attitude was stripped away and she was begging for an end.

"Concentrate on the mission," she hissed.

"Yes, ma'am."

They watched Martinez come to an accord, it seemed to be going quite well too, and they were even smiling. She didn't base how well the conversation was going off smiles. She'd seen him smiling from ear to ear when he blew off the head of an ireful off man who was holding them back. She could tell by the way he was standing he didn't intend to fire, and soon enough, Martinez and the others were walking away. Carol and Phillip pulled their guns back in, Phillip felt...like it was insufficient, and Carol glanced at him as she turned and started for the door.

The floor creaked under their weight once more as they walked, Phillip paused momentarily, and he thought the wood would give, but it didn't. They left the house, Carol noticed a house in the distance, and she saw someone moving. She shouldered the gun and told him to tell Martinez before she approached it.

She crept along the porch, trying not to make the rotting boards creak. She grasped the doorknob and opened the door, it let out a nice, loud creak, and she mentally sighed. She pulled out her gun from the holster and entered the house. Listening, she heard two people upstairs, and she could tell by the way they stepped, one was man and the other was a woman. She heard a floorboard whine softly, and she approached a blue door that.

––

Rick and the others went out on a run for a few supplies to take back the prison, and with the tension with Daryl, he decided to take Maggie, Glenn, and Daryl. Hopefully Glenn would keep Daryl's angry off Rick. He was still so angry about Carol; angry at Rick for being such a "hypocritical bastard" to quote him during their many fights, but it'd been four and a half months—Carol was long gone. Daryl resented Rick for that too, Rick knew. With the walls crashing down, Rick didn't allow anyone to leave the prison, let alone their best. Daryl's plan to go find her kept getting pushed back until too much time had passed, and there would be no trail. Daryl was livid, cussing Rick out, lunging, and had Tyreese not been there, Daryl may have beaten Rick to death. That tension still hung in the air between them, and Rick would never be able to live down what went down four and a half months ago. He would never be able to make it up to him, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that Daryl was here, Carol was not, and everything was back to normal. But that fight... There would be no coming back from it, not without something incredible happening. Something impossible.

––

Rick decided it was time to tell Daryl about Carol, he left Carl to pick the remaining pea pods, and he trudged across the gravel. It'd been two days, and Rick had managed to avoid him, but he couldn't avoid him anymore. Daryl had a right to know. He and Carol were... Hell, they coulda been a married couple, and no one would know the difference. They were that close. She changed him in ways only a woman who'd endured the same abuse could, and he'd changed her. Rick thought it was for the better, but it wasn't.

Rick smacked the worn farming gloves against his hand and squinted under the afternoon Georgia sun. He saw Daryl and Tyreese fortifying the gates with plywood and the rods from the gates that had fallen. He swallowed his lack of saliva and walked over to them. "Hey, Daryl."

Daryl looked over his shoulder. It's 'bout damn time, he thought to himself. He'd been waiting for Rick to tell him where the hell Carol was. Maggie mentioned a run this morning and he feared the worst. He assumed she was busy elsewhere. He hadn't had time to look. He and Ty had been busy at the fence for two days straight. He didn't have a lot of time to think about her, but he's mind had been crazed when he overheard Maggie telling Glenn about the run they went on. He wanted to tear the prison down to find her, but he had to do what he had to do, not let his emotions rule him. He was securing the prison, but all he wanted to do was find Carol...dead or alive.

"Ty, could I talk to Daryl for a moment?" Rick asked.

"Sure. I'll check on Sasha." He wiped his brow and headed inside.

"This 'bout Carol." Daryl nodded.

"Yeah. It's about Carol." Rick met his eyes. "It was her. She's the one who killed David and Karen."

Daryl felt ice run down his back. There was no way in hell Carol could that. She was toughening up, but not enough to kill two of their own in cold blood. Carol wasn't a killer. She was a caregiver. Daryl chewed his lower lip. A caregiver... She would die for anyone at the prison and take out any threat against them, even if that threat was in the form of two of her own family. She would step up and end that threat before it started. Killing them... Carol would do anything to protect the children. She didn't want another Sophia, he understood that. He didn't want that either. He could remember a time when he nearly killed someone because they were a threat, they were infected. Jim. He was going to kill him without a second thought, but Rick stopped him. Rick...made a decision to not kill the living. What decision did he make this time?

"Where's Carol?" Daryl asked.

"I sent her off. I couldn't have her living here, not after that. I had to protect everyone." He put a hand to his chest. "I had to protect my children. I couldn't have her come back. God knows what she woulda done with those who are sick now—to anyone she saw as a threat."

"She ain't a child killer," Daryl snapped.

"Do you think she woulda stopped if it was you?" Rick got in his face, his rage flaring up at Daryl defending her. "Would she have stopped if you were on that bed, coughin' and runnin' a fever? Hmm? What about Maggie? Glenn?"

Daryl didn't respond.

"That's what I thought." He turned.

"Your ass must be jealous," Daryl called out.

Rick stopped and turned. "What?"

"With all that shit that comes outta your mouth, your ass must be jealous!" Daryl shouted. "What the hell, Rick? Do you give speeches just to hear your own voice?" Rick stormed back, but Daryl kept on talking, not threatened. "'I can't sacrifice one of us for the greater good, because we are the greater good'," Daryl recited. "Beth told me 'bout that meetin'."

"That was different! Michonne never raised a hand to one of our own!" Rick hissed.

Daryl scoffed and dropped the hammer before he felt the need to use it. It was his turn to get in Rick's face. "You let Shane come back!" he shouted. "After you knew he killed Otis—no way in hell a man stays back to save someone's ass without his gun. You let that asshole come back!"

Rick's rage was boiling, but he had no reply. He did let Shane come back. He let Shane kill two, almost three more people. Shane was arrogant and rude and knew no boundaries, but Rick tried to look past all of that. He tried to find the man he knew growing up. And in the end, he paid for that. He couldn't let that happen again.

"Damn near kill you," Daryl seethed. "Damn near killed us all, but you brought that son of a bitch back. Why? 'Cause he was your friend! You brought him back, because he meant somethin' to you! Only you!"

"I paid for that," Rick spat. "He tried to kill me. I wasn't gonna let that happen again."

"She wasn't gonna kill you," Daryl roared. "She wasn't gonna kill nobody else."

"Can you be sure?" Rick demanded. "Can you be sure that she would never get an urge to kill someone else? Huh? She's changed!"

"We've all changed," Daryl informed him. "And if she was such a threat for killin' two innocent people, why is Carl still here? Huh? He killed a boy in cold blood. He wanted to go to Woodbury to kill even more people." Daryl gestured to Rick. "Why are you still here? How many people have you killed 'cause you thought they were a threat?"

Rick punched Daryl in the face, Daryl automatically retaliated, like muscle memory with Merle growing up. They'd gotten a few good hits in before Maggie came out and saw them. Maggie dropped the supplies she was holding and bolted across the yard, Michonne and Tyreese saw and quickly followed.

"Stop!" Maggie cried, sliding to a stop between them, pushing them back, allowing Tyreese to grab Daryl by the armpits and hold him back.

"What the hell is going on?" Michonne demanded, looking between the two men. Rick had a busted lip with bloody knuckle—on the same injured hand, no less—and Daryl's cheek was split open, his knuckles bloody as well. They were both panting, eyes focused on the other, a burning wrath behind both set of blue eyes. They were so enraged.

"Lemme go!" Daryl shoved Tyreese off and his eyes stayed on Rick. "Hypocritical bastard."

Maggie kept her eye on Daryl as he stalked off and they all turned to Rick. Maggie knew instantly, but the other two didn't. Rick wiped his lip with his good hand and tilted his head slightly. He looked at Daryl then the blood on his eyes and then met the faces of the people in front of me.

"What'd you say to him?" Michonne asked. "Was it about Carol?"

"Yeah." He exhaled. "She was the one who killed Karen and David. I sent her away, and Daryl got pissed, as y'all can see. She wanted to stop this flu from spreadin'." He wiped the remaining blood away as he saw Carl running toward him.

Tyreese stared at Rick, his heart compressing. Carol was the one who killed Karen and David dragged their bodies out and burned them. He felt conflicted. He liked Carol, a lot. She was gentle and kind and always optimistic. She loved the children and the people here. He couldn't even picture her killing anyone, let alone Karen and David, two people she knew, spoke to, and even liked. He wanted to talk to her, ask her why, but Rick had told him why. He wanted to hear it from her. It all seemed so...unreal. Carol killed them. He couldn't swallow that.

"Dad!" Carl stopped in front of me. "What happened? I saw you and Daryl talking and then Daryl lunge at you when I turned around. Why?"

Rick squinted in the sunlight. "I'll tell you in a minute. Get the others together. They should all know." He headed inside with Carl.

Michonne looked at Tyreese. "Guess you never really know people."

"No, you don't," Maggie met her eyes. "Rick did what he did to protect us."

"From a twig with a knife?" Michonne crossed her arms.

"She's dangerous," Maggie shot back. "Did you not hear?"

"I heard him. Just think it's a bit odd how a man who's had more blood on his hands gets to decide how to handle a woman who just got blood on her hands is all."

Maggie met her eyes and tried not to agree. Rick had said it was up to them to decide on things like that. He'd stepped down as the leader. Maggie could never make that decision, no matter what Rick believed. She just wanted it over with. Karen, David, the flu, nearly losing Glenn and the others—she just wanted it over. They were almost out of the woods, and now Daryl's... She shook her head and started for the prison, questioning the little things now.

"I'm sorry," Michonne said to Tyreese, "about Karen."

"She said that too," Tyreese murmured. "She apologized to me. I just thought...'She's so kind', but I guess she felt guilty." He picked up the hammer. "I can't think about this now."

"Do you need a hand?"

He looked around the weakening fence and then back at her. They both laughed to lighten the mood, and they got to work on the fence to keep their mind off the murders.

––

Rick had specifically asked to drive, because of where they were going, but once he got out the car, Daryl was in the driver's seat, Maggie was in the passenger and Glenn was in the backseat. He shook his head and tossed his bag in the back, climbing into the car and closing the door. Daryl played some music that set Rick's teeth on edge, and eventually, Maggie turned it off, claiming to have a headache, and Daryl let it go. It was surprising too. Daryl had changed so much since Carol left, and Rick didn't think he would ever return until Carol did. Had he known Daryl would've reacted in such a violent manner, Rick never would've bothered. Tempting as it was, Rick couldn't lie and say walkers got her. It would've been easier, though, and Daryl would've mourned and gotten over it... But Rick knew it was the not knowing that was killing a part of Daryl each day. Was Carol dead? Was she safe? Was she in a hole...starving to death? Is she someone's prisoner? Had anyone hurt her? Raped her? Killed her? Rick asked himself those questions every morning, and every morning, he had the same answer: It doesn't concern him anymore. Carol was now Carol's problem, and if she's dead then good. She won't have to suffer this world alone. If she's alive, he hoped she'd found someone to rely on. Anyone would do at that point.

"It's just there." Maggie pointed through the thick trees as she chopped and whacked thick leaves and branches away.

Daryl nodded.

They dug their way out of the woods and found the house they were hitting. Rick and Daryl searched the bottom floor, Glenn and Maggie searched the top floor. Rick swept the basement, found some useful and useless stuff, and most of these things would come in handy. He climbed the stairs and found Daryl holding a finger to his lips, creeping soundlessly toward the door to kitchen, and Rick stayed rooted where he was. It wasn't a walker, couldn't be. He didn't hear it, but Daryl did, so he decided to let Daryl handle this. He was, after all, one of their best.

Daryl heard the floorboards creek behind the door beside him again, Rick and the others were hidden, and he knew that person—not walker—would be just inside. He had to deal with it. He armed his crossbow, silently inched forward and threw open the door. Weapons were free of their holster and in the face of the other, and he came crossbow-to-gun with Carol Peletier.

They stared at each other in complete shock, and then they studied each other. Daryl found she was well-feed, maybe even plumped up a bit, and she had a different gun. Her clothes were much nicer—no holes, clean, even her boots weren't worn anymore. Her hair had grown considerably and was braided into a small bun, and she appeared to have a bit of muscle on her. She was doing well. She was alive, and not dead. The woman he found in the tan shirt wasn't Carol. She was someone who happened to have on the same tan shirt he last saw Carol in. He was so thankful. There was just one problem to their reunion: she wasn't alone. Who else was with her? The boy Rick left behind? Deadly people? Good people? They were taking care of her, though, and that was all that mattered at the moment. If they saw him and the others, then it would be a problem.

"Daryl." A mixture of sadness and angry crossed her sky blue eyes. She looked him over and smiled inside that he hadn't changed much. Daryl's shaggy brown hair was shorter than she remembered. He still wore those black jeans, they might not be the same pair, but they were still the same. He had the layers overs his chest as well, even in all this heat. His had dirt on him as usual, and she wanted to close the space between them and just—she didn't even know. Hug him? Smack him? Tell him to get out? She had to do something about him. Martinez was on the way, and she couldn't let him see Daryl and whoever else was inside the house. She needed a plan. She thought quickly.

She lowered her gun, and in turn, he lowered his crossbow. His skin tingled at her saying his name in the strangled way she did. He wanted to talk, possibly even hug her. He'd been so worried about her, and with the shit hitting the fan that the prison, he was so sure she was dead. He could've smiled he was so glad she wasn't dead. Makes for the second time this woman has broken him down. You'd think he'd learn.

"Dixon!" a booming voice shouted. "Let's go!"

Daryl tensed. Dixon? Were they talking about him? No. No, they couldn't possibly. It must be Carol. She took up his last name. Why?

"Yo, Mery!" he shouted, approaching them.

She raised her gun at him again, Daryl tensed and she pulled the trigger without even batting an eye. She stepped back and glanced back once before disappearing around the corner. She climbed into the car with them, telling them there was nothing inside, and they drove off.

The bullet left a hole in the wall beside Daryl's arm.

"Carol." He turned and found the others behind him, but no one heard him speak her name. She was alive. Holy shit, Carol was alive. He met Rick's eyes. He would never tell.

– – –

Carol was shaken. She was so shaken. She felt like world was in a bottle of water that someone was trying to even out a power flavor mixture in. She handed over the rifle once back in camp, Phillip watched her closely until she disappeared toward her tent, and she saw Bobby lingering outside her tent. She exhaled deeply, but her annoyance went away with one of his bashful smiles. She sat beside him and began to pick at the Cherokee Rose on her wrist.

"It went good, I hear," Bobby spoke first. "You look pale. Y'all right?"

She nodded.

"Want some water?" He handed her a bottle of water from his daily supply.

"No, I couldn't. I have my own." She stilled her hands. "Are you on watch tonight?"

"Yes, I am. Why? Gonna keep me company?"

She nudged him in the side playfully. "Not tonight. I was just curious."

He hopped up and held his hand down to her, Carol looked up in surprise, but he wasn't backing down. She clasped his hand and allowed him to lead her through camp toward the "kitchen", and he sat her down beside Megan and Lilly and Tara. They were making dinner, and Bobby volunteered to help.

"You could use the company," he told her when Carol asked why she there.

"I have plenty of company," she replied, rising.

"Wait." Megan met her eyes. "Would you play a game with me?"

Lilly tucked stray hair behind her ear. "Phillip's on watch."

Carol offered the young girl a smile. "You'll have to teach me. I'm a quick learner, don't worry."

Megan smiled and started to replace the pieces. She was glad not to be playing by herself anymore. "Okay, so, this is your pawn—your soldiers."

Carol noticed one eye was missing from the King, so she picked up her King and held it as Megan explained the game. If she had a white or silver marker, her King would have a crossbow and torn jeans. It made her smile, even though it made her sad at the same time. Daryl was alive. He made it back from the run, and he was alive.

She began to glare at the little man in her hand. The rat bastard, she hissed in her mind. She set the small King down before she broke him, and Megan let her move first since she was a beginner. She was distracted by thoughts of her previous group as they played. Lizzie. Mika. Judith. Beth. Carl. Were they alive? She had no doubt that Lizzie made it through that flu, but with the weather lately—Steel can only last so long. Those walls would fall. She just prayed Rick was smart enough to fortify them while he still has the chance.

By the time Megan had her beaten twice, Carol had already decided what to do, and she smiled at Megan. She would do the one thing Rick had told her not to: she would go back to the prison. Tonight.