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Fight to Forget

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I threw the empty glass beer bottle at him with wet, black trails of mascara forcing their way down my cheek. I was aiming for his head but he dodged it just in time and it broke into sharp, jagged pieces against the wall. For a moment, I felt vaguely like the shattered bottle that piled at his feet, but then I picked up the dusted over picture frame that held our wedding picture and chucked that towards him next.

“I can’t fucking believe you!” I screamed hoarsely. He scowled at my choice of distraught ammunition.

“Would you stop throwing shit at me and let me fucking talk?!” He grabbed my arm before I could pick up another heavy glass something and I beat his chest with my other hand. My black hair stuck to my tear dampened face as I continued to swear at him. “Cassie! Stop!” His words were harsh and demanding, but I didn’t hear them.

“I don’t want to fucking talk to you, you piece of shit!” I hit him as hard as I could across his clean shaven face and he let me go, his dark brown eyes growing impatient with the both of us. “I’m going to my brother’s so I don’t fucking kill you.” I snapped.

“Cass, wait, you can’t just fucking leave.” He followed me into our bedroom where I grabbed his duffel bag that he usually took to work and started stuffing it with clothes from the dresser. I didn’t even know what I was grabbing. I couldn’t see through my sore, red eyes anymore but I didn’t care; I just needed to leave. “So that’s it? You’re just gonna take your shit and go?” He didn’t try to stop me and I didn’t know if that hurt worse than the fact that he had gotten drunk and had a one night stand with some floozy college girl at a bar.

“That’s the fucking plan.” With a huff, I crammed the remainder of the clothes into the bag and zipped it up. I stole one last glance at the unmade bed that we shared and I almost felt nauseous at the fact he was in someone else’s bed the night before. He grabbed the bag before I could and I glared up at him with all the betrayal and hatred that was boiling inside me and ripping my heart apart. “Give me my shit and get out of my fucking way, Negan.”

“Cassie, I’m sorry, okay. It was an accident, a stupid fucking mistake.” He tried to wipe a tear that was lingering on my jawline but I jerked away from his touch. “I love you, baby. I’m sorry, you gotta believe me.”

“You shoulda thought about that before you fucked up and fucked someone else.” I sniffed back another round of tears and ripped the handles of the bag out of his hand. “I’ll text you when I get there.” My shoulder knocked against his chest as I strode past him, grabbing the car keys off the small table by the bedroom door on my way out.

“Cassie! Wait, God dammit!” He shouted after me in an attempt to plead his case but I quickened my pace enough to beat him to the front door and slam it shut on him and whatever bullshit story he was cooking up. “Fuck!” Even as I got into the beat down dark blue sedan I could hear him shouting from inside the house and throwing things against the wall in the midst of his regret driven rage.

The axles of the car creaked as I backed out of the driveway and turned onto the road. My phone started vibrating in the pocket of my holey, washed out jeans as I angrily pushed my foot onto the pedal. There was no way in the seven circles of hell that I was going to answer that call or the multiple ones that he kept making afterwards. I couldn’t let myself hear his voice because I was afraid that I would say something that I wouldn’t be able to take back. I knew he would be able to convince me to forgive him.

He was sweet and charming and a little off putting to everyone else but me. I could never say no to him, especially when he smiled. He was the tall, dark and handsome to my average height, dime a dozen body, dark haired, pale complexioned, humdrum, nothing out the ordinary self. His boyish charm won me over when we met in high school and lingered perpetually. As a freshman, everyone thought I had lost my mind when I agreed to go on a date with a senior and the resident bad boy, no less. How was I supposed to resist a sweet talker who could pull off a white t-shirt and blue jeans with short dark hair better than anyone who ever attempted it? It was like he had walked straight out of a movie and into my dull, lackluster life.

I smiled bitterly and hoped that ten years of my life, our marriage, hadn’t been circling the drain just to leave me high and dry with a late twenties divorce.   

When I realized I was no longer imbued with the buzzing of my phone, I turned the radio on to drown out the silence. As I sat back, I saw the dark streaks that stained my cheeks like war paint in the rearview mirror. I pulled my sleeve down over my wrist to wipe off the evidence before running it under my nose to dry my upper lip of salty droplets. The sun blinded me as I reset my eyesight to the road and I flipped the visor down to block the rays.

“This morning the CDC released an updated report on the numerous outbreaks of rapidly developing fevers that have been found to cause extreme irritability, and in some cases, violence, in a number of those who are infected. Public health officials are advising those with weakened immune systems to stay indoors--.” The high strung voice of a middle aged woman was cut off when I changed the station. This ramped up flu had been talked about every evening on the news for the past two weeks. Every time it was brought up, Negan would scoff and comment on how everyone was being a pussy about a head cold. Being the gym teacher at the high school, he wouldn’t let anyone off the hook for running the mile just because they didn’t feel good.

“Violence in Charlotte, North Carolina has resulted in two fatalities and numerous casualties. Police have not made a statement yet on the attack but many locals are concerned that the recent epidemic may have been to blame. More on this at 7:30.” A young man spoke on the next channel before a line of commercials ran. I grew desperate to find something a little more upbeat and scanned through the radio before randomly stopping on a station.

“But did you see the video of that guy just taking a chunk out of that dude’s face?!” The DJ’s voice was perkier than everyone else’s but the topic was no less grim. “I mean, he just tackled him right in the street in front of everyone!” He somewhat chuckled at the end as if the idea was straight out of a poorly funded horror movie.

“Probably drugs.” His counterpart replied in a smoother feminine voice. “I can’t see what else would make someone do that.”

Annoyed, I turned the radio off and started up a CD instead. “Looks like everyone else is having a shitty day.” I muttered despondently. I thought it was all being blown out of proportion: the attacks, the illnesses, how quickly it seemed to move from one state to another, but I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by it all. No, I thought, the media makes everything seems worse than it is. That’s their job, to get people’s attention and make money off of molehill news stories that would otherwise be meaningless.

Sighing, I felt calm enough to check my phone to see how much damage he had done to my voicemail. I pulled it out of my back pocket and turned the screen on while checking the road every few seconds. There were thirty two text messages, nine voicemails and fifteen missed calls. All but one of the notifications was from him; one voicemail was from my brother. Ignoring my sibling for the time being, I delved into my texts.

Please don’t go to your brother’s. Please pick up your phone so we can talk. I know I fucked up, I’m not expecting you to forgive me but at least talk to me. Each sentence was sent as a separate message as if he was trying to get them out as quickly as possible before I drove too far. Okay, fine. Go to your brother’s. Cool off and then we can talk. His tone changed as I skimmed through the list. I fucking love you, Cassie. Please be careful. Text me when you get there so I know you’re not dead in a fucking ditch on the side of the highway. That was the last one and it made my heart ache and my mind think twice about driving so far to my brother’s house. We both knew I would need to put some distance between us before I decided what I wanted to do, though.

Satisfied that I hadn’t cried at the sight of his messages, I moved on to the voicemail from my brother.

His voice was muffled, like his mouth was far from the microphone. Movement filled up the empty space between his words and I knitted my brows in concern. “Cass, call me when you get this. I don’t know what’s happening but shit’s hitting the fan and I can’t get a hold of mom or dad. Please call me. Hope you’re okay.”

Chapter Text

The rising sun filtered through my sheer, dark burgundy curtains, dousing me in a shade of warm, blood red light. I had been up for a while, well before the stars were chased away by the day. Lost in my head, my fingers methodically spun the wedding ring around my finger. The diamond kept catching on my knuckle with every twist and it had started to leave a mark on my skin after the first hour of its rotation. Flexing life back into my hand, I stopped and adjusted my head on the pillow beneath me to look at the jewelry. He had taken out a loan to get it for me and he was so excited to show it to me that he had forgotten to ask if I would marry him or not.

I didn’t know why I still wore the damn thing, though. It had been three years since I last saw him. For all I knew, he was dead or had moved on and forgotten about me. I had accepted the once frightful idea that I was never going to see him or have the closure that I thought I deserved. The last thing I said to him, aside from swearing at him through a stuffy nose and watery eyes, was that I would text him when I got to my brother’s and that never happened.

What did happen was worse than any alcohol, drug, or phobia induced nightmare that my mind would ever be able to conjure up. I had met up with my second oldest brother in Baltimore, a few miles outside of his downtown apartment, with his truck stacked to the ceiling with clothes, food, supplies, tools and any noteworthy family memorabilia. He had ushered me into what little space remained on the passenger's side and told me, breathlessly, to keep calling mom, dad and my other brother.

I still remembered how badly my hands were shaking as I kept making those calls. My fingers would slip and press the wrong number and I'd have to start all over which only made it worse.

It all happened so fast, but it felt like I was watching the world slowly collapse on its own ignorance like wet sand trickling down the center of an hourglass.

Sirens, screaming, gunshots, breaking glass, smoke and my racing heartbeat had occupied my once ideal life for the days after until we were reunited as a family on the border of Virginia. We hadn't all been together, under the same roof, in the same car, for at least two years. It was not the most ideal circumstance to catch up on how much we had missed one another.

My mother was a state senator of Ohio. She was trying to get back to the state to help with a cause that was far beyond anything that society could control. It was a prophecized end of days that left us forsaken by any existing or non-existent deity.

On our way home, we were stopped by the Army and insensitively directed to a yet to be filled, newly developed community of overpriced, superfluous houses that were built just so the wealthy could flaunt their exorbitant amount of cash. Even the name was a snobbish, jealousy provoking title; Alexandria. I had to make friends with the idea of living in a prime example of the phrase, “embarrassment of riches”, because we never made it to Ohio and I never got to call him back.

When I had tried, I was met with the ominous trills of monotone beeps and an indifferent voice. We're sorry, your call can not be completed at this time. Please try again later. Over and over again, I tried and hoped that a different voice would pick up.

The only way I could hear his voice now was by listening to the voicemails that were embedded in the overflowed storage of my phone. I kept that phone stashed in the nightstand that stood against the wall and next to the queen sized bed that had been in the furnished room I claimed as my own. For the first few months of living among a group of strangers in a foreign community, I would listen to every damn message on that phone every night until I fell asleep. Now, it had become an old tape that collected the dust of my past.

Sighing with diffidence, I rolled over to my side to check the time. 5:48. My alarm would go off in twelve minutes; might as well beat it to the punch and give it the day off. I tossed my legs over the side and my feet jolted back at the initial coldness of the wooden floor. I had left my window cracked open overnight to cool the room to prepare for the warm day ahead.

The muscles in my legs ached as I stretched my limbs on my way to the dresser. The drawers were filled with much of the same clothes that I had torn from my dresser when I left in a heart broken hurry years ago. Predictably, I reached for the dark flannel shirt that was much too large for me simply because it was one of Negan’s shirts that I had packed away on accident. I wore it over tees and tank tops quite often. He would always wear it on Sundays; the day of the week when he’d be happy about getting to sleep in, but bitter about the fact that he had to go back to work the next day.

It was sadistic, almost, to let my mind wander back to him, but I had spent nearly half my life with him. I couldn’t just cut my heartstrings free with a cold blade and move on like he never existed. He’d hurt me but I could still miss him; and I had missed him everyday, ever since I slammed the front door on him.

After showering and putting a couple slices of homemade bread in the toaster, I mindlessly stirred a spoon along the edge of a steaming coffee cup as I waited for my breakfast to heat up enough to spread a dollop of peanut butter over.

“Late night, sis?” Aiden’s voice was uneven still from just waking up as he strolled into the kitchen. He poured a cup of coffee for himself from the half empty carafe and yawned.

“Mmm, early morning.” I corrected quietly, taking a sip.

“Couldn’t sleep?” He peered down at me. He was much taller than me, even when he was leaning his back against the counter.

“Too hot.” I lied. We never had to speak much, that was what I liked most about our relationship. There were things I didn’t like about him, though. He was cocky and it got him in a lot of trouble. He thought that he had experience in a new world that had far too much to offer to a city boy that had never truly gotten his hands dirty or his morals questioned with only wrong answers as the solution. He was my mother’s pride and joy, though. He was going to be a lieutenant in the army while pursuing a degree in political science. The prodigal son, I called him. But, who was I to criticize him? I made up for what I lacked in a presumptuous self image with a realistic view on life as a former dental receptionist.

“You going out today?” My mom had deemed him qualified enough to be the community's main supply runner. I had voiced against it, but was dismissed. I set the mug down when the toaster went off. He shook his head and handed me a knife from the silverware drawer he was leaning over.

He snatched a piece of bread for himself and I rolled my eyes. “No, helping dad sort out all the material Tobin and his crew picked up the other day.” This place and the people in it were fortunate enough that our dad was a master of architecture. He was one of the most esteemed professors at the Ivy League university he had worked for. He had wasted no time in recruiting my brothers and every other able bodied man to help put a thick, steel wall around the development.

“What are you gonna do?” A few crumbs trickled out of mouth when he spoke. He was a few years older than me but still hadn't learned not to talk with his mouth full of food.

“Garden.” I nodded out the window to the garden plot I had been trying to create life in for the past week. I had started it from scratch and it had occupied most of my week. I was hoping that I'd be able to bring more fresh vegetables to the pantry. Canned carrots and green beans were getting old quick.

“God, you're like a boring old lady.” He chased down the rest of his bread with coffee and added the empty cup to the small pile of dishes in the sink. I gave him a sideways glare. “I'll clean the dishes when I get back.” He exasperated at my silent accusation.

“No, you won't.” I was always cleaning up after him and Spencer. The world had ended but their bad habits refused to die along with everything else. After spreading the peanut butter over my slice, I licked the knife clean and tossed it in his empty coffee cup.

“I said I'll clean my dishes. You can wash yours.” He punched my shoulder and pushed himself off the counter. Under my breath, just loud enough for him to hear, I insulted his integrity with a few choice words as he walked into the living room. He laughed in reply. “Have fun with your dirt patch.” With that, he left me in silence once more as he stepped outside.

My tired blue eyes flickered to the creaking of floorboards above me. The rest of my family was starting their day. Soon enough, my soft voiced father would come ambling into the room and begin his morning with philosophical -and slightly humorous- conversation. I was in no mood for it. Nor was I in the mood for my mother’s relentless optimism. Spencer, the middle child, was the family neutral and he knew better than to get trapped in the kitchen in the morning. Dusting my hands off over the sink, I poured the rest of my coffee out and escaped through the back door to my garden of solace.

 

A few hours later, I was in the backyard, dirt embedded in the thread of my jeans and peppered on my face. I was finally satisfied with the amount of soil I had tilled. The rest of the yard looked a bit desolate at the moment, though. It would look better once my envisioned plans came to fruition.

I sighed and wiped the sweat off my forehead before stabbing the shovel into the dirt.

“Hey, Cass.” I looked up to see Aaron emerge from around the corner of the pale grey house. I smiled a genuine smile. It was well known that I wasn’t exactly fond of everyone in the community, but Aaron, I liked. He was the balanced blend of pragmatism, sarcasm and positivity.

“Oh, hey, Aaron. When did you get back? Didn’t even hear the gates open.” He had been gone for a few weeks out looking for more people to bring into Alexandria. Personally, I felt we had more than enough people but my mom was stuck on the idea of “the more people, the better”. She truly, genuinely, believed that this place would become the forefront of civilization. As if we were the ones who would eventually lead the rest of the world to the promised land; once the promised land sprung back into existence, which it never would.

“About twenty minutes ago, actually.” He laughed tensely. I could see in his eyes that he must have had a stressful excursion. There was a bit of blood on his face and his entire demeanour seemed as if he wanted to lock himself away in his house for the next two days to decompress.

“Oh,” I narrowed my eyes, trying to figure out what had happened to him without actually asking. “You guys find anyone this time around?” His last few attempts had been futile and he had come back empty handed.

“Yeah, a lot. A group.” He paused to seem less impatient. “Is your mom around? I’d like her to talk to them.” I wasn’t expecting him to have success. I had gotten so used to the same answer time after time. I nodded and stepped out of my plot of overturned Earth to walk him up to the back door. “Think she’s downstairs in her office.” I stepped inside after him.

“Thanks, I’ll go get her.” He gave me a quick, rushed smile before disappearing down the dim staircase that was built between the living room and the kitchen. I looked down to my hands to find the creases blackened with grime as I ventured into the living room with curiosity driving my steps. I wanted to see if I’d be able to peek through the curtains and catch a glimpse of who Aaron had found. I wasn’t relishing the idea of more people but it was always exciting to see a new face.

“You trust these people? You think they’d be an asset to our community?” Just as I was about to pull back the sheer fabric that blocked the view through the largest living room window, my mom and Aaron made their way upstairs.

“I do. They’ve been out there since the beginning.” Aaron spoke in turn. “They’ve been through it all and they’re close because of it.”

“Their leader? What’s his name?” My mother sounded vaguely enthused, which was surprising, as she was typically the one to keep an unbiased, even tone and a poker face to match.

“Rick, his name’s Rick.”

Chapter Text

He was frightening, fiercely intimidating. Feral, almost. Every inch of his skin was emblazoned by the sun. Or, maybe it was dirt. I couldn’t tell. He stood on edge as if he was ready for anything that was hiding in the shadows. His facial expressions were hardened by the things he’d seen but trying to read what he was thinking was like reading a book in a foreign language. I could see it all, written all over him in dark ink, but I couldn’t understand it. His unkempt beard and long dark hair showed how long he had been without any sort of shelter or place to call home. The machete attached to his hip and the way he casually leaned on it said he’d killed people; it was almost as glaring as the gun that swung precariously against his other leg.

Just from the thirty seconds I had stolen to give him a once over as he stood out on my porch, waiting for my mom and Aaron, he had scared me; and I hadn’t even talked to him.

A few hours had passed since they arrived and the town was humming with murmurs and whispers. Everyone seemed to be intrigued but they were all too conserved to make the first move. Something told me that Rick and his people didn't want to be approached, though. They were just as apprehensive, or maybe, distrusting would be the better word.

I chose to leave them be as I began the rest of my day in the pantry. It wasn't a glorious job. Nor was it as admirable as the jobs that the rest of my family had in the community. My mom was the leader, my dad her voice of reason and the reason we were protected from the harshness of reality. Spencer was the lookout, even though he wasn't the best shot. Aiden was the main contributor to our vast supply cache. Me? I just organized cans of corn and boxes of crackers. Granted, I was trying my hand at gardening but that was a painstakingly long work in progress.

“Is this all there is?” Pete, the surgeon, the drunk, stood with his back to me as his glassy eyes scanned the shelf.

“Yep.” I sighed curtly. He was looking for more alcohol to feed his habit. After learning about his affinity for liquor, I started hiding it from view in the pantry specifically because of him. If my lowly task was to manage our supplies, I wasn't about to let our only medical professional be blacked out on his living room floor when an emergency happened.

He scoffed at what was available and angrily grabbed a jar of canned fruit. I flinched at the grating sound of glass against the cheap, painted plywood shelf. Pete was a short tempered man. He was tall, lanky and quick to blow his fuse to prove a point. I had been victim to his acrimony when I had refused his advances over the past year. Once I crushed his hand in the sliding door that guarded the armory a while back, he had left me alone, for the most part.

“I'll just take this.” His tone was consistently bitter, as if the world ended just to spite him.

I scratched the pen I was writing my inventory counts with into the notepad. To avoid the need for a vocal confirmation, I defiantly clicked the pen when I had marked what he took. Taking the hint, he left, grumbling.

Once he left, I began to hum to fill the empty space of the room and dull the white noise in my head. The one thing I enjoyed most about being hidden away in the pantry, if anything, was keeping my hands busy while being alone with my thoughts and poorly sung tunes.

Someone cleared their throat behind me and I jumped just enough to knock my shoulder into the shelf. A few items rolled off to the floor in a domino effect.

“Sorry,” his apology was sincere but given in a callous tone. I spun on my heel to face whoever had been quiet enough to sneak in here without creating the slightest sound. It was Rick.

He had cleaned the comingling of dirt and blood away from his skin and had shaved the distinguishing beard that must have taken months of untended hygiene to grow. Someone must have cut his hair, too. The dark curls clung to the nape of his neck rather than messily framing his face. Even though he stood a few feet away from me, with one foot inside the room and the other ready to leave already, I could see how blue his eyes were. It was the shade of blue that takes over the mid morning Autumn sky, right after it rains. They were bright and warm but subdued enough to keep me from staring into them for too long.

“Oh, no, I wasn’t paying attention.” I blamed my lack of situational awareness on my complacency; rightfully so. “Rick, right?” I mindlessly held my hand out for a proper introduction. He eyed it skeptically. “I’m Cassie, Deanna’s daughter.”

Awkwardly, my hand remained outstretched and my gesture unreciprocated. “Rick Grimes.” Finally, he walked the rest of the way and shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, Cassie.” I didn’t know why I was expecting him to reply in jumbled, broken english like a visitor from an unheard of country across the sea, but he articulated with daunting certainty that proved me wrong a thousand times over.

“Likewise.” I took my hand back just to run it through my hair. “Didn’t recognize you without the beard.” A quiet laugh escaped as I tried to break the ice.

At the mention of it, he scratched his fingers over his now smooth cheek. “I didn’t recognize myself with the beard.” He countered smartly without a hint of a smile. “Deanna told me to come here to get some supplies.” Straight to the point, he was. His voice was smooth, like warm, thick honey, but each word was spoken with rough definition. I liked it; it was different.

I nodded, trying not to shrink under his studious gaze. I couldn’t tell if he was looking straight through me or if he was picking apart my weaknesses in case I tried to do anything. “Yeah, I have some things set aside for you guys. They’re over here.” Gently, I waved my hand for him to follow me towards the closet where I had set aside their share of food, toiletries and gratuitous housewarming gifts. “I hope this is enough.” I opened the door and took it upon  myself to unload the two crates off the shelf and onto the floor so he could get a better look at them.

He stared at the boxes with a distant, empty gaze, as if he didn’t know what any of things were meant for. “This is plenty, thank you.” The sight of familiarity almost made his voice fracture like a thin sheet of ice. I knitted my brows and my chest ached with empathetic heartbreak.

“I can’t imagine how overwhelming this all is.” Something in me wanted to reach out and rest a hand over his shoulder to comfort him but I didn’t.

He shook himself out of his mental fog. “Just never thought I’d see all this again. Electricity, running water, houses, rooms of food.” His shoulders shrugged with a disbelief induced chuckle.

“Before...everything happened...I always thought places like this were a waste of money, ya know? I mean, what kinda person needed to spend a million dollars on a two story house with solar panels and cisterns in a secret community?” I rolled my blue eyes that looked grey and mousy in comparison to his. “It’s given us a chance, though, I suppose.” I smiled softly, knowing my words probably held little meaning to someone like him. When he looked at me again, his expression was amicable enough to ease my nerves. He was listening, waiting for me to continue. “I know you think everyone in here is naive and weak, and you’re right. You’ve done and seen things that we haven’t and you have every reason to have your doubts, but the people in here are good people. I don’t think there’s a lot of those left.”

With his hands on his hips, he almost seemed impressed. “You think we’re good people, too?” He wasn’t asking my opinion, he was testing me.

I took his challenge in stride. “I think you would’ve tried something already if you weren’t.” My fingertips dove into the pockets of my jeans. “Plus, I trust Aaron’s judgement over anyone’s; even my mom’s.” Both of us satisfied with my answer, I smiled once more. “Can I help carry all this back with you?”

A closed lip smile and a nod from him gave me hope that perhaps I could sprout a friendship between us. “That’d be great, thank you.” Even after living a life of moral deprived survival, he was markedly polite.

“Great,” I bent down and picked up the lighter of the two baskets. “I’ll follow you.”

 

“That song you were singing,” Rick adjusted his grip on the basket as we walked down the peacefully empty street to his new home. “I haven’t heard it in a long while.”

I shyly glanced up at him. He was a few inches taller than me. He was already watching me as I blushed at the fact that I suddenly remembered I had been caught performing sober karaoke in the pantry. “It’s one of my favorites. I would listen to it everyday on my way to work. Never got tired of it.” Even now, I’d find myself humming it without realizing it. Some habits were hard to scrub out of my mind.

“What did you do?” He was fighting back a smile that twitched at the corner of his mouth, like he didn’t think the world now, permitted smiling.

“Receptionist at a dentist’s office.” I felt that I hadn’t had to go through the ropes of introductions in a long time. “You?” I had forgotten how refreshing it was to have a new face to talk to. It was certainly better than listening to Mrs. Neudermyer talk about the mystical pasta maker that seemed to keep her tossing and turning at night.

“I was a cop.” Of course he was.

“What was that like?” I had to measure my steps carefully to keep up with his quick, authoritative strides.

“I enjoyed it, for the most part. I don’t miss it, though.” Before I knew it, we were walking up the short staircase that blended into the porch that wrapped around the house. He shifted the weight of the basket to his hip so he could open the door. “After you.” His stoic expression opposed the gentle voice he spoke to me in. My feet led me through the entry and I set the crate down on the center island of the kitchen. The air in the house was cool and uninhabited. It lacked the smell of family meals, the sound of genial conversation and the sight of belongings strewn in various places out of comfort and laziness.

Quick light footsteps made their way down from the second floor and we both turned our attention to it. A tall teenaged boy with long, brown, adolescently styled hair walked into the kitchen with a little girl in his arms. She couldn’t have been more than two years old.

“Carl,” Rick’s voice lightened another octave, “this is Cassie.” He looked to me. “Cassie, this is my son, Carl and my daughter, Judith.” Neighborly smiles were exchanged.

“Hey, nice to meet you.” I breathed. “I should’ve brought less boring stuff.” I joked as I glanced over the contents I packed for them. Rick shook his head and waved away the thought. “You like video games? My brother’s got a pile of them that have been collecting dust. If you want them, I’d love for you to have ‘em.”

“Really?” Carl’s voice was deeper than I was expecting but the childlike joy was still there. “I haven’t played a game in years.” He was quicker to smile than his father was. “If he won’t mind…” Reluctantly, he started to accept my offer but Rick cut him short.

“You don’t have to do that, Cassie.” I knew it was because he wasn’t even sure if he wanted his group to stay here, but I had already grown fond of his company.

“No, really, I’d love for them to actually be used. They’ve been taking up space for far too long.” I insisted, looking to the wide eyed, angel faced girl. “And Aiden found a ton of clothes that would probably fit her. They’re hers, if you want them.” Aiden was always thinking of the ‘what ifs’ when he went on supply runs. When him and his group found a children’s clothing store, he took a menagerie of things just on the off chance we would have someone who may need them.

Rick was gnawing on the inside of his cheek. I was chipping away at him. “Sure, we’ll take them.” At last, as if the stars had aligned and the fires of hell had frozen over, he smiled, the whites of his teeth showing in genuine appreciation. It was a beautiful sight to see a man as unnerving as himself smile. It reached his eyes and made their icy blue hue seem warm.

“Perfect, I’ll bring them by tomorrow, if that’s alright?”

He nodded once more. “I’ll be here.”

Chapter Text

“No,” I smacked his hand away like he was an unruly child or a persistent fly. “They're not for you.”

“Then why'd you make them?” Spencer tried again to reach for a muffin as I set them out on a rack to cool. The steam rose through the sugared crumble and dispersed into the sunlight that filtered through the kitchen window.

“They’re for Rick and his group.” I informed pointedly. “I’m trying to be neighborly.” Neighborly. That was a good word to replace the fact that I had spent all of last night with my mind stuck on Rick’s smile. It wasn’t a smile that I was accustomed to. It wasn’t impish or enticingly devious like the one I had spent most of my life admiring. It was strangely pure and candid.

“Who?” To get him away from the rest of the pastries, I gave him one.

“Rick. Him and his group showed up with Aaron yesterday morning?” In awe of my brother’s ignorance, I rested my hands on the lip of the counter and stared at him with a perked brow. Half the muffin in his mouth, he shrugged.

“Haven’t met him yet. I’m sure I’ll see him tonight.” Right, my mother’s block party. She was calling it a welcome party but it seemed strange to me that we should even have parties nowadays. It wasn’t that I felt we didn’t deserve to celebrate the small joys and victories of survival, it was mostly the belief that parties with snacks and excessive liquor consumption just didn’t seem to be the right way to go about it; not when people were out in the world starving and drinking muddy water. Or maybe it was the fact that my mom had fallen under the inconsiderate assumption that I would be willing to create a lavish display of baked goods to showcase alongside my father’s stash of aged whiskey and cognac.

“Right, the party.” I chose to voice a few specific words from my cynical thoughts. “Can you hand me that?” I licked a few crystals of sugar off my finger tips and nodded to the tupperware that remained out of my reach. After he gave it to me, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one would hear me whisper, “Don’t you think this party is a bit much?” Spencer and I were closer in both age and friendship. I often felt like the family disappointment, what with a low end, entry level job and a quote unquote, failed marriage, but he never treated me any different or with less respect.

“Oh, you know mom.” He sighed sportively, “she wants this place to feel like how the world used to be.”

I started putting the baked goods in the small container as I mulled the idea of that pipe dream in my head. “Yeah, but-.”

“Maybe it’s her way of coping with it all.” It was a thought invoking psychological interpretation that allowed me a modicum of understanding behind her ceaseless influx of ideas.

“Yeah, maybe.” I had too much on my mind, like what I was going to say to Rick when I saw him again, to add much input to Spencer’s theory. He had spent more time with her anyway and knew her better than I did. “I’ll see you tonight, then?” I set the encased baker’s dozen of muffins on top of the game console and baby clothes that I had gathered for Carl and Judith earlier that morning.

“I’ll save you a few beers.” He promised with a boyish smile.

I picked the box up and repaid the favor. “Thanks, I’ll need ‘em.”

 

I hadn’t traveled more than half a block when I ran into the man of the hour. He had been walking from the direction that I was heading. Each step was pronounced and purposeful.  

“Look at you. Lookin’ good, Officer.” I complimented cooly with an apologetic smile. My mom always dreamed of this place having a judicial system of sorts. When we first arrived, she had been rifling through the houses and had found a few-practically new- jackets with emblems of peace and authority sewn into the sleeves. It was only a matter of time until she bestowed the honor to someone.

Beneath the dark, charcoal grey jacket, he wore a snow blue button up with a tie to cover the buttons and match the coat. His jeans were patched but formal and dark as well. The boots he wore must have been the ones he came here with as they were dusty, tattered and traumatized by a life on the road. It was as if he was reluctant to let go of something that would remind him of where he came from.

“Your mom’s very thorough.” He closed the distance between us. “Here, let me take this.” Without waiting for an answer, he alleviated the weight of the box from my arms. I winced as I looked up at him, blinded by the sun that was making his dark hair appear much lighter than usual.

“She is, unfortunately.” I laughed. She never took no for an answer. That’s probably why she had lasted in the world of politics so much longer than anyone else. “I appreciate you humoring her, though.”

“I understand where she's coming from,” he drawled in a southern voice that I hadn't asked more about yet, “can't say I agree with it all, but I get it.” Following my lead, we started walking back to his place. Like a shift in the wind, he changed the subject. “This party your mom’s throwing…”

I cut him off to save him the oxygen he was about to spend. “It’s ridiculous, I know. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. Hell, I don’t even want to go, but I think I’m a little old for hiding out in my room the whole time.” To keep my hands from pulling at my fingers with nervousness, I stuffed them in my back pocket and kept my eyes forward as we neared the steps of his home.

He set the box down on the first ledge of the staircase and graced me with another short, quiet chuckle. His lips pursed in amusement and I caught the way his stance mimicked mine, one foot pushed slightly ahead of the other, leaning his weight on one leg. “I was just gonna ask what I should wear.”

 

I changed out of the flour dusted, unsightly ratty jeans and oversized shirt that I had spent the afternoon baking in, and into a somewhat formal, but more casual, black dress for the party that was taking place downstairs. I left my hair in its messy, fly away filled ponytail. It wasn't that nice of a celebration, no matter how much my mom made it out to be. I took a deep breath to revitalize my internal battery enough to get me through the rest of the night and headed downstairs.

The giddy, slightly intoxicated laughter and smooth but upbeat classical style music grew into discernible conversation as my feet anxiously bounced down the stairs with my hand on the black railing to steady me incase I lost of my balance. The all too familiar sea sick like feeling that twisted my stomach into knots gave me an inkling to the kind of night I was blindly walking into.

It was times like this when I missed him.

I always hated going to family events because it always turned into a subtle competition for the award of black sheep. I always won. I used to sneak out when I was in high school to be with him. He’d take me for rides on his bike until one or two in the morning. I left home and got married as soon as I graduated. I didn’t go to college. I lived in a quaint, less than luxurious house, drove a used car, and I didn’t pay much attention to the world news because I didn’t want to hear how humanity was driving itself into the ground. But I was happy. I was happy because of him.

Whenever I’d be forced to attend a holiday or graduation that would involve my entire family, I’d be sick with dread the whole way there. He would hold my hand against his leg while he drove and say, don’t fucking listen to a damn word they say, Cass. You’re fucking perfect.

My family hated how much he swore but for some reason, I loved it. He used profanity like a bad habit. Some men drank, some people gossiped or bit their nails, but he swore. He never cared about what anyone thought of him. He knew the kind of man he was and as long as he stuck to his convictions, he rested easy at night.

I wondered if he could still could. If he was alive, anyway.

“Cassie!” My mom’s sprightly voice was starting to age but it never lost its vibrancy. I turned, at the base of the stairs, toward the sound of my name. She was standing with my father and Rick. She waved me over from across the room. As I waded through the small sea of people that took up every nook and cranny of floorspace, my steps degraded in confidence and were eroded by fluttering timidity when I became acutely aware that Rick’s discerning fixed stare hadn’t left me from the time I had walked down the stairs to when I stood between him and my father. “Cassie, have you met Rick? Rick, this is my daughter.”

“Yes, we’ve met.” I wish I had a glass of something - I didn’t care what -  to hold onto and keep me from crossing my arms over my chest. My dad wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his side as if I was a child that needed support.

“She’s our little homemaker.” My father was a well intentioned, grey haired man that still managed to find sweater vests to wear in unison with khakis and loafers. He was the type of man who would start his day sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee and untouched plate of toast while reading the newspaper in impenetrable silence. The fatherly love he had for me was unyielding but it was hard to miss the selective condescending phrases he used from time to time. I forced a smile and gave it my best shot at looking like I wanted to be here.

“It’s good to see you again, Cassie.” Rick offered me a supportive smile and I held onto it like a life vest in a sinking boat.

My mom, clad in a pants suit of sorts, spoke next. “We were just telling Rick about your garden idea.” The way she tacked on the word idea to the end of her inclusion made it seem like she was already expecting my attempt to fail. I discreetly pushed myself away from my paternal hindrance.

“It’s more of a dirt patch than a garden.” I dismissed, wishing it hadn’t been brought up.

“We had a farmer in our group for a while.” Rick broke up the quickly cementing tone that my family was setting. “He taught me a lot about growing crops. I’d be happy to help if you ever need an extra pair of hands.”

I finally let myself look at him. He was in a nice white button up and a clean pair of dark jeans. In the hospitable light that was emitted by the numerous candles and lamps, I could see the stubble that was already growing back on his cheeks and along the defined line of his jaw. As hesitant as I was to admit it, he was very handsome.

“You won’t catch me complaining.” I could feel the brim of my cheeks getting warm as I smiled.

Just as my mom was preparing to comment on Rick’s offer, the front door open and distracted her. “Oh, Reg, there’s Marjorie and Bill. I’ve been meaning to talk to them.” She wrapped her weathered hand around my father’s forearm. “Rick, let Cassie know if you need anything and please enjoy yourself.” She excused themselves away from the two of us and gleefully welcomed the couple inside. I expelled a stressfully annoyed sigh as soon as they were out of earshot.

We faced each other. “You regret coming yet?” I laughed uneasily. I couldn’t pinpoint the sentiment exactly, but for some reason I felt worried that my parents had already given him the wrong impression of me.

“No,” he looked over to his son, who was talking with a few of the other boys that were around his age. They were laughing. “It’s good to see Carl acting like a kid again.” His attention came back to me. “And you look very nice.”

At first, I didn’t know how to reciprocate his flattery. I hadn’t been given a compliment since before everything happened. “Th-thank you.” I stammered bashfully. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if he had said it just to have been kind, but he didn’t seem like the type of person who would say something just to make you feel better. If he said it, he meant it. Regardless, I preferred the spotlight to remain off of me. “Do you want something to drink? Water, beer, something with a lot of alcohol?”

His lips pulled back into a laugh induced smile. “No, thank you, I’m good.” He seemed oddly at ease, even without liquor in his blood. I nodded in defeat and let myself relax a bit. “Tell me about your garden.”

We talked for a few hours about my project, his life outside the walls, his job as a cop, my interests in classic literature and offbeat movies. I’d laugh, he’d smile. We exchanged stories of happier times and he’d listen to me voice my concerns about the future and offer his input where he could. When the sun had set and the sky grew dark, we were out on the back porch with empty glasses of bourbon in our hands.

I sighed happily. “Looks like things are winding down. I should go help clean up.” I could hear the dishes piling up by the kitchen sink.

“I can help.” He stood up from his flimsy lawn chair after me.

“I think the rule of guests not doing the cleaning still applies.” I took his glass from him and stacked it over mine. “Go grab some leftovers before my brother eats them.” I informed him that Spencer would probably be lurking around the living room table, eyeing what hadn’t been touched yet and silently claiming it for himself. “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yeah, of course.” He nodded and looked down to his boots as they scuffed over the deck. I smiled and touched my hand to his arm to say goodbye before I walked back inside and left him alone with his thoughts.

 

By the time I was halfway through washing the small plates and crystal drinking glasses, most of the guests had retreated back to their homes and only a few voices lingered from the living room where my parents sat with a couple of the residents that they had established a stronger friendship with.

“You need some help?”

I turned to his dulcet words and smiled sweetly at the little girl in his arms. She was wearing one of the small, pale yellow dresses that I had packed away in the box that I gave him this morning. Her wide eyes stared up at the lights that flourished over her head.

“She’s a beautiful little girl, Rick.” I kept my voice low as to not disturb her fascinations. I never wanted children of my own but I could appreciate miracles such as herself when they were right in front of me. He seemed at peace as he gently jostled her in his grasp. I could see it in his eyes. She was his world and he would’ve done anything to keep her out of harm’s way.

“You want to hold her?” Carefully, he walked over to the mat I was standing on in front of the sink.

“Yeah, of course.” I dried my hands and set the rag on the granite countertop and held my arms out to create a safety net over the space between us. “Hey,” I cooed to her with the delicateness of a feather riding along the spring breeze. She fussed for a moment until she was snug in the curve of my arm. Her innocence was enough to give you a new outlook on the world. She was unbothered by anything, it seemed. All she cared about was that she had someone to hold her and keep her warm. When I looked back up at him, he was close enough for me to see the flecks of gold and midnight blue in his eyes and the sophisticated tint of grey in his five o'clock shadow.

He leaned forward and brushed his lips against my cheek in a quick but deliberate kiss. The blush returned to my cheeks in the deepest shade of red that wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. The rhythmic beating in my chest missed a few beats and my brain and my mouth struggled to find enough common ground to get a single word out. He breathed a smile, a smile that conveyed more than words could say.

In that moment, standing there in a dim lit kitchen with a man that I barely knew but felt oddly close to, I knew the gridlocked feelings in my head and my heart were about to get a lot more complicated.

Chapter Text

I didn't sleep that night.

It was all his fault.

He had turned me into an insomniac. He was the reason calescent tears kept me company when nothing but silence and my jarring thoughts fenced me in. The idea of him prevented me from taking the silver wedding band off my finger. I had become married to the inane belief that if I were to take it off, I’d be letting go of the only possibility of seeing him again; and I wanted to see him again. I wanted to see him smile, hear him laugh, feel his hand on the small of my back, and roll my eyes at his charismatic nature.

I wanted to forget the way I felt when he told me what he'd done. He always told me the truth. He couldn't lie to me because he was a man who believed in blunt honesty. I wished he wouldn't have told me. I would've been better off not knowing. I wouldn't have left. I’d be with him. I would be content living under the blissful shade of ignorance.

Then there was Rick.

He was kind, deceivingly so, perhaps, but he was a good man. I hadn't known him for more than a few days, but I knew that much. He was reserved and kept his thoughts to himself with minimal asseverations. Negan was never like that. It was beyond the bounds of possibility to not know what he was feeling.

I shouldn’t have even been comparing them, though. I didn’t know Rick before the world ended and I probably wouldn’t know the man I married anymore either. They were separated by so much more than a few differences in character. The world now didn’t twist personalities, it toyed with the humanity of one’s soul and washed away the once rigid line between morality and corruption. The grey ambiguous areas of life had become red with the blood of survival.  

I had been guarded from paying the cost of staying alive. I hadn’t had to kill anyone; I don’t think I ever could if I had to. Somehow, over the course of time, somewhere between the dead trying to consume the living and the living struggling to keep from joining the growing majority, the disgrace of killing had become nullified. It had almost become a standard. If you were alive and breathing, you had to kill to keep it that way. Rick was alive. He had killed people. How that weighed on his shoulders, I didn’t know. Surely, he never envisioned himself as a killer.

If Negan was still alive that would have meant that he had killed people just the same. I couldn’t picture it, though. Not with that smile; the smile I fell in love with.

 

The next few days passed slowly for me. My brain felt detached from my body and I was just mindlessly going through the motions of living. I was saved from my tumultuous sea of conflicted thoughts whenever Rick would go out of his way to stop by and talk to me. He had spent most of yesterday helping me dig through dry dirt and plant seeds in my backyard while Judith rolled around, sunbathing, on a thin blanket in the green grass. When we had to stop her from determinedly trying to eat a worm, we had decided to call it a day.

Every time we said goodbye, the drowning seemed to worsen. I wanted to take his hand and be rescued from the vicious riptide I had been dragged into but some reserved, tactful alternative conscious kept me under like a cement block tied to my foot. I didn't want to consider moving on from the man who broke his vow to me even though I should. He was gone. Dead or alive, the chances of seeing him again were slim to none. But Rick, he was here.

Aiden had commented on the matter as he was getting ready to leave for a supply run. We were in the garage and I was handing him the boxes of rations and ammunition him and his small band of people would need for the trip. They were planning on being gone for at least three days.

“You and Rick seem to be getting along.” He had started the conversation ever so casually as he stuffed a box into the trunk space that was too small for it to fit properly.

“Yeah, he's a nice guy.” I didn't like to talk about anything related to relationships with my family, much less my oldest brother. It never ended without someone insulting someone else.

He had stood straight and fixed his black hair that the two of us only seemed to inherit. “I'm no expert but I'd say he likes you.” I shifted my focus down to the cement floor beneath my feet. I'd spent most of my free time dwelling on that idea. It wasn't that I was vain or so self absorbed that I believed a man I'd recently met had interest in me, it was the fact that a man I barely knew was consistently taking an unusual amount of time out of his day to get to know me over menial tasks.

“He seems like an alright guy. If he makes you happy I'd say go for it.” He shrugged, unbothered by the fact he was giving his baby sister romantic advice.

“I'm not looking for someone, Aiden.” In my head, the lie was more convincing. He slammed the trunk shut and leaned his weight on the SUV.

“Cassie, listen,” he had said with loving sternness, “your husband was a dick; no offense.” I had guffawed at that. Negan had said the same thing about Aiden from time to time. “I know you loved him and he made you happy but he cheated on you and he's gone. You're never gonna see him again. You need to move on and be happy with someone else.” As brutally honest as his words were, I needed to hear them. “I know you and I don't always get along but I want you to be happy, sis.”

“I know, it's just...hard.” I had gotten used to pretending that it was all a distant memory but it was more like a fresh, open wound that refused to heal. Every reminiscent thought would bite and sting like salt in the cut.

“I’m just trying to help.” At the sight of my eyes misting with dewdrop like tears, he had held his hands up away from the scene in surrender. “Didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” Emotions were not handled well in my genetic pool. The Monroes, save for myself, were only able to process warm successes and joyful pride. Crying or anything else of that nature, not so much.

“You should probably go, don’t wanna keep them waiting.” I quickly brushed my finger under my damp lashes and maneuvered away from the subject. Emotions were something I could deal with but I was more than willing to remain woefully ignorant to the truth, even when it was staring me straight in the eye. It wasn’t my most admirable trait. “Be careful, okay?”

His defeated sigh filled the room and cut through the tension between us. “Always am.”

 

I poured the small cup of over pasteurized, forever shelf stable capsule of creamer into my black coffee. There was always something oddly serene about watching the dark liquid suddenly billow with white and infuse into a golden hue. Without stirring it together, I took a sip and picked up the second cup before making my way back to the living room. Rick, Michonne, Maggie and my mother were gathered around the table. I set the steaming cup of tea I had brewed for Maggie beside her hand and took a seat. She thanked me with a smile as warm as the drink in my mug. When I thought of the saying ‘girl next door’, Maggie was the poster girl definition. She was honest, gentle and forbearing to a point of disbelief. Her and her husband made an unexpected duo but I could appreciate that.

The small smirk that Rick sent my direction when I joined the informal meeting had me biting the inside of my cheek. He had to have known that I was starting to fester some suspicions about him. Aiden may have been a pain in the ass but he also may have been making a fair argument yesterday morning before he left.

“We need to start keeping a lookout in that tower.” With the shift in his gaze, Rick’s tone changed with it as he spoke to my mom who, I could tell, was starting to become visibly agitated by the innate arresting tone that he spoke in.

“There’s no need to. This isn’t an armed community, this is the start of civilization. If we start keeping guns on the perimeter, people won’t feel safe.” If the world had been in a different state, I would have been able to see the reasoning my mother’s argument. Now, it seemed that guns were what kept sprouting civilizations safe from the things and people that wanted to tear them down.

“We’re not saying that everyone needs to carry a weapon, but it would be good for whoever’s watching the gates.” Michonne spoke next. She was dark skinned and light hearted and was the other poor soul who had gotten roped into my mother’s made up judicial system. I hadn’t gotten to know her as much, other than the fact that she was the first person I’d ever met who adeptly used a sword as weapon against the dead.

“He’s right, Deanna,” Maggie had a notepad resting under her forearm. She was taking notes as my mother’s advisor; something my mom never bothered to ask me to assist with. “People are the threat we need a lookout for. If someone were to get in, we wouldn’t know until it was too late.” Her words were spoken deftly with a sweet southern voice and they disguised her harsh past well.

“Spencer hangs out in the clock tower sometimes,” I used the term ‘hangs out’ intentionally. The gun he kept up in plain sight was empty and covered for the books and bottle of spiced rum that he ran to when he wanted to relax. It was more of a man cave than a lookout. “Why not have him and a few others rotate on shifts?” My mother looked at me as if I had spoken in a foreign tongue. It was strikingly similar to the expression I received when I showed her the ring that Negan had proposed to me with. I had been smiling so much my cheeks hurt but she had appeared to be on the verge of a stroke.

“Sasha would be good to have up there as well. She’s our best shot.” Maggie added supportively to my suggestion. Sasha….I fumbled with the name in the front my of mind but I couldn’t place a face to it. There were so many of them that had arrived and, as it were, I had only spent time with a few of them.

“I’ll think about it.” The exhale that my mom ended with showed her irritation. She wasn’t used to be contested. She wasn’t used to having people from the outside who knew what actually was going on out there. She was treading new waters and had forgotten how to swim through strong willed currents. “What else is it that you want to talk to me about, Rick?” The way her upper lip curled in the slightest defiance made it seem like his name left a bad taste in her mouth; like a medicine. She knew Rick and his people were good for our community, we needed their help if we were going to thrive for years to come, but she didn’t like the taste of change.

“Can we take a walk around the wall and talk security?” Instinctually, he went to rest his hand over the empty gun holster on his leg but nothing was there. For a split second, he was grasping at air. He did that a lot, I noticed. With heavy reluctance weighing her down, my mom stood and went for her jacket. Maggie and Michonne followed suit and made their way to the door without hesitation. I got to my feet, grabbing my coffee cup and taking another drink. “I don’t think I’m her favorite person.” Rick joked humorlessly with me when my mom left the small space.  

I chuckled. “Well, you’re not her least favorite person.” No, that title belonged to someone else, who had accepted it rather proudly. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you if, maybe, when you have time, you could maybe teach me how to shoot?” My question became more faint and mouselike with every stalling word I nervously added.

“You want to learn how to shoot?” He seemed surprised, which in and of itself seemed unorthodox.

I nodded sheepishly. “It’s just...I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said and I wanna at least try and protect myself and this place if something were to happen.” I wasn’t asking him to teach me how to kill someone but it would be nice to be able to fend off a dead one or at the very least keep someone from killing me with a well placed aim to a leg or arm.

He smiled proudly. “I’d be happy to, Cassie.” He looked down at the old silver watch on wrist. “We can go in a few hours, if you’d like. There’s a good spot not far from here.”

 

The wind was quiet but wove through the fabric of my grey sweater and made me shiver like the crisp leaves rustling in the trees around me. I should’ve brought a jacket.

“You ever shot a gun before?” He walked up behind me and pulled a small, black pistol from his behind his coat.

Negan had taken me shooting once before. He wanted me to be able to take care of myself if he wasn’t home. We went to a shooting range and I still remembered how wide his deep brown eyes got every time I would accidentally wave the gun in his direction without the safety on. I couldn’t aim straight to save my life but I was rewarded with the comfort of his arms over mine as he tried to help me shoot a paper silhouette in the chest. After the last bullet, he shook my shoulders and kissed my cheek and said, “maybe we'll just get a baseball bat to keep in the closet.” Then he took me out to dinner at a little Italian place tucked between a laundromat and a florist. It was a good day.

“No, not really.” I answered Rick's question, watching him as he dropped the clip to make sure it was empty.  The man seemed to be in his domain. We had only gone for a twenty minute walk outside of the walls but in those twenty minutes he was almost a different person. His feet were quiet and he took long strides with relaxed shoulders and a cool gaze. It was like a wild animal released from captivity. He took to the vulnerability as if it was his natural habitat.

His hands were warm as he placed the gun in my grasp. “Alright, here’s the safety.” He pointed to the small switch like lever that rested comfortably under my thumb. “Keep that on unless you want to shoot.” His thumb moved mine to show me. “This drops the magazine. It’s empty, see?” I nodded along as he pointed to another button and pulled the top back to show the chamber was clear. “Now, when you hold it, you wanna put this hand here,” I let him grab my fingers and wrap them around the grip, “and then you can put your other hand on the bottom to keep your aim steady.”

“Okay.” I didn’t know if my voice was shaking because of the cold, my nerves, or the fact that he was so close to me. Every time he touched me it kicked up another dust storm of conflicted thoughts.

“When you aim, you want to line up the rear sight and the front sight.” He started to recreate a moment from my not so distant past when he guided my arms up until I was pointing the empty gun at a dead tree a few yards in front of us. “Keep your shoulders relaxed and your finger off the trigger until you’re ready.” I looked down the line of sight and tried to focus on keeping my arms from moving side to side. “Hold it up a little higher.” The tips of his finger tapped my hand and I did as he said. “There you go. Now, when you want to shoot, press the safety down and pull the trigger until it clicks.”

I took a deep breath and switched the safety off and put enough pressure on the trigger until the sound of an empty chamber echoed back at me.

“How’d that feel?” He looked around us to make sure we were still alone before he returned his concentration to me.

“Good, it’s not too heavy.” I went to move my arms down but he shook his head and motioned for me to drop the empty magazine. As soon as it was out, he reached into his pocket to grab one that was full of golden copper bullets.

He caught the fact that I knitted my brows in anxious regard. “I’ll help you for the first few rounds.” The smile he offered was sedative and I let him offhandedly take a place behind me and shadow my movements under his touch. I felt the weight of his wedding band over mine and I knew he gave heed to the diamond on my finger that was digging into his calloused skin. “Alright, right there.” He rested his finger over mine and assisted my arm in gracefully absorbing the recoil when each bullet left the chamber. I smiled breathlessly when I saw that I actually hit the target and it didn’t ricochet anywhere. “Good job.” His lips were wavering over my cheek, the same spot he had kissed a few nights before, but he seemed emphatically patient for something else. As I went to meet his gaze, we both looked ahead to where I shot the gun to see a dead man ambling out from the thickets of trees and overgrown raspberry bushes.

I had only seen the dead from afar, never close enough to see the moldering human like features that made them that more frightening to look at. It was a middle aged man who died in a plaid button up and washed out jeans. Its shoes were gone and its dark hair was missing in clumps. The eyes were gaunt and empty, just like the growl that emanated from its open mouth. My body felt cold with fear even though Rick still had his arms around me.

“Stay here.” He took the gun from my hand and moved towards it. I was confused about why he wasn’t shooting it. Instead, he threw it to the ground with a forceful shove and crushed its skull beneath his boot. When a second one appeared, he didn’t hesitate to impale it on a protruding branch from the tree.

Blood splattered across his jacket but he was as indifferent to it as rain. I didn't know whether to be awestruck or horrified with how flawlessly he killed two dead alive bodies. The way he used his hands was brutally barbaric but he seemed to have his reasons. Either he didn't want to waste the bullets or he didn't want to draw any more of them with the sound of gunfire.

I stood there in ominously silent shock, feet rooted to the ground, oblivious to the woods around me. He stood across the clear cut space from me, shaking the blood off his hand, when cold, decayed flesh covered fingers tugged at my arm from behind. Some sort of distressed noise escaped my mouth when I realized I was face to face to with a dead woman in a torn sundress. Had she not been missing an eye and most of her right cheek, I might not have screamed so loud.

Rick shouted my name as I held back the snapping jaws that were gunning for my arm. For something that was contradictorily lifeless, it was absurdly strong. It's strength was no doubt fueled by the insatiable need to tear the flesh from my bones.

As I continued my struggle to remain out of its reach, my heel rolled over a jagged rock and I lost my footing. Before it could follow me down and pin me to the ground, Rick pulled it away from me by the back of its dress and pressed the muzzle of the pistol against its skull to muffle the sound of the bullet.

A fine misting of stagnant blood sprayed across my face and the soundless, motionless corpse fell beside me. I looked from the body to him, my palms flat on the ground behind me to keep me upright. In a sudden gasp of clarity, I realized that I had experienced a too damn close brush with death.

“Are you okay? Is your arm okay?” He crouched down and pushed the sleeve of my shirt up to give a thorough inspection of my untouched skin. His empathetic touch brought back my sensibility and I nodded as he helped me up on my feet. He wiped the blood off my cheek with his thumb and searched for an answer in my wide eyes.

Maybe it was the adrenaline or the fact that Aiden’s words had started to dent the mental wall I had put up to keep myself from letting go of the past, but I kissed him like he was the air I needed to breathe to keep my heart beating. He reciprocated my impulsive fervor and I timidly settled my hand over the stubble along his jaw and he pinned me to his chest with his hand on my back. There was sense of relief between us as his lips moved against mine, like a rainstorm after a summer of barren heat. I didn’t want to let him go. It felt like he was the only thing keeping me afloat when it was him who had caused me to drown in my own internal conflict.

I was okay, though. I was alive. I was here. He was here with me, with all my naive, despondent heartache and irrevocable past.

He kissed me one last time and I finally replied. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

Chapter Text

When I was in grade school, I was friends with this girl that wore pretty pink dresses and shiny black shoes, but had the mind of a tomboy through and through. She was an angry little thing that wore pigtails held up by mismatched oversized hair bands. She would pick a fight with any and everyone who looked twice at her. I always admired her attitude and the way that she wouldn’t let anyone push her around.

One time, she had, without batting an eye, shoved this kid off the top of the jungle gym just because he made fun of the way she said the word library. The boy busted his arm and she got suspended for a week, leaving me all alone on the playground.

I wished I could be like her. She wasn’t afraid of anything and no one dared to think that they could get away with pushing her buttons.

As I dabbed a pre soaked square of rubbing alcohol over the small yet ostentatious cuts on my palm, I wondered what had become of that crazy girl. I couldn't remember her name for the life of me. Jeannette? Missy? Lauren?

She would've been shaking her head in dismay, no doubt, at the small lilac bruise that formed under my skin on the side of my face. I winced in the dim lit pantry as the alcohol seeped into the cuts and waged a battle with the blood that threatened to escape to the open air.

It was dark outside. I was alone. Most the people were safe in their homes, unsuspecting of the fact that I was standing among shattered jars that once held dried fruits and cereal with a cut up hand and throbbing headache. Scoffing with ill conceived frustration and a slow surfacing mental fatigue, I wrapped my hand in a thin kitchen towel and grabbed the broom that was leaning on the wall.

The wooden handle pressing into the lacerations hurt like a hot iron burrowing under my skin, but the clinking of glass kept my mind off it.

Once the shrapnel was consolidated into a neat, jagged pile of blood stained crystal, I heard a pair of boots that were as weathered as the voice that wore them.

“Cassie, you in here?” The foreign elation I felt whenever Rick struck up a conversation with me filled my head and heart with lukewarm dread this time. I wasn't feeling up to explaining myself to anyone; most of all him.

I rekindled my dying flame of courage and spoke up. “Yeah,” I cleared my voice of the cracks, “just cleaning up.” My bandaged hand reached for the dustpan to validate my transparent white lie.

He stepped in the room with an air of authority and warm concern. “In the dark?” he almost chuckled. I closed my eyes to the impending disaster that I could feel like a dark foreboding cloud when he flicked the light on. “What happened?” I watched the light in his eyes fade to a simmering, suspicious grey. He walked over to me, every step like a crack of muted thunder. I stood, helplessly unable to evade him, with rounded shoulders and my hair covering the darker, out of place, side of my face.

“I just slipped and knocked some stuff over.” I shrugged the poorly fabricated story off my shoulders. The words that left my mildly tingling lips were the farthest thing from the truth. He took notice that I was avoiding making eye contact with him and he used the tips of his fingers to gently nudge my chin up enough to make the hair fall back behind my cheekbone.

“You hit your head?” He knew I was bearing false witness. I could tell in the way his voice sharpened like an arrowhead and his jaw tensed until his upper lip twitched in the slightest. The man that I initially believed to be so hard to read was not so hard at all if you knew what to look for.

Insecure among my vacillating thoughts, I nodded. I wanted to tell him what happened but I was afraid of what he’d do because we both knew I wasn’t clumsy enough to lose my balance, drag a shelf of glass jars to the floor, all while managing to smack my temple and cut my hand.

“It was an accident.” The words were barely more than a whisper. “I’m fine.” My dishonesty was for his own good, not mine.

He knitted his brows and dipped his head to keep track of my wandering eyes. “Cassie, look at me. Tell me the truth.” He managed to keep his voice low enough to be endearing but harsh enough to coerce the truth out of me. I finally looked at him when he spoke again. “Who did this?” He was trying to detain his protective nature from jumping to conclusions.

It seemed like it took me a long time to answer him as I played back the past thirty minutes in my head and picked out the parts that wouldn’t stoke the fire. I had been counting what was left on the shelves from the past few days, including the party. Pete had lumbered in, swaying on his feet like an inebriated child with two left feet.

“It was Pete.” The mention of his name seemed to make the bruise throb. I heard him take a deep breath before I continued. “He was drunk.”

He had made some snide comments regarding how much time he had seen me spending with Rick, or as he put it, “an untrustworthy stranger”. This led him to falling back into his washed out dialogue about how rude I had been to never give him the time of day or go on a date with him. Every word was slurred with liquor and when I had angrily told him to get out after he put his hands on me, his liquid courage turned to viscous rage.

“He...I told him to leave me alone and he lost his temper.” Pete had lost his temper in my presence before but this was the worst I’d been subjected to. He yelled something that I no longer remembered and swung an uncoordinated hand towards me, only to knock the jars on the shelf. Like the fool I was, I had threatened him with the idea of evicting him from the safety he had taken for granted and that’s when he had thrown me into the shelf where I roughly fell to a glass covered cement floor with a fresh bruise. My hand had caught the brunt of the damage from the sharp edges of the debris. He left after that, muttering under his breath without a single care to hold him back. Up until a few minutes before Rick walked in, I had been picking the glass out of my palm. I was certain there were still some bits and pieces hiding beneath my skin but I would deal with them later.

“He tried to hit me but got the jars instead. Then he pushed me into the thing and left.” I thumbed to the cabinet behind me, unable to find the words to speak.

“Are you okay?” He softened his voice to match mine and carefully moved my hair to get a better look.

I nodded under his touch. “Yeah, hand just hurts.” I set the dustpan down when I felt the blood seeping through the cloth that was wrapped around my hand.

He was remaining relatively calm, to my surprise. In the short week I had gotten to know him, he vaguely reminded me of a chaotically organized ticking timebomb. The seething anger was there, lurking in the shadows of his concern. He sighed gruffly. “Come on, let’s get your hand taken care of. I’ll take care of Pete tomorrow.”

 

I sat, like a child on an exam table, on Rick’s black and white speckled bathroom counter, with my legs dangling off the side. He held my hand in his with my red serrated palm facing up. His face was impassive as he picked the remnants of glass out of each cut with a pair of tweezers. The only sound in the room was made when he would drop a piece of crystal into the sink. Still, I smiled faintly at the way his fingers curled around my wrist as he worked.

He set the utensil down and reached for the hydrogen peroxide to clean out the unseen, infection bearing assailants. With a rag, he soaked it with the off smelling liquid and dabbed it over each cut with care. I winced but kept the silence.

“Almost done.” he breathed. I let him turn my forearm so he could press the end of a snow white bandage over the back of my hand. There was no ignoring the stare that lingered on the ring on my finger as he covered my discolored skin with the wrap. I watched his lips with expectancy. They’d part ever so slightly, as if he was outwardly practicing what he wanted to say. “What happened to him?” As he asked, he flipped my hand so that the ring was out of sight and tucked the end of the bandage under the layered edge to keep it in place.

He continued to hold my hand as I spoke. “Don’t know. We got in a fight and I drove to my brother’s to let things cool off between us and the world decided to fall apart.” I left out the mention of the dark scandal that drove me away. Maybe I did it because I didn't want to ruin his image or maybe because every time I tormented myself with the thought, I was reminded of what it felt like to have a knife driven into my back and stabbed out through my chest.

I shrugged and traced the creases etched into his palm with the tips of my finger. His skin was always hot, as if he was running a few degrees warmer on a daily basis. “Haven’t seen him since. He could be alive but I don’t think I’ll ever get to know.” I could feel it, the salty prickling that gathered below my beryl irises. He pushed his fingers in between mine like he wanted me to focus on the present rather than the past.

“My wife died when she had Judith. I can’t remember the last thing I said to her, but I know I didn’t get to say goodbye.” His words were distant, stuck in that moment eternally. “I regret not being with her and the way I acted before she died, and God knows I shoulda been a better husband.” he paused. “But after being out there for so long, then coming here, having a safe place to raise my family, ” he looked up at me, his eyes as blue as the hottest flame of a fire, “meeting you,” he added smoothly, “it’s made me realize...we get to start over, Cassie.”

He continued to surprise me with his strangely balanced and emotional words. I sat there, taking in the sound of his voice and staring at him with an amalgam of cluttered thoughts and lucid understanding.

“I’ve done things to keep my family alive, things I can’t take back,” he continued, “but I want to start over; with you. I can keep you safe, Cassie. I can...I can take care of you.” For the first time since hearing him speak, he seemed to be having trouble getting the words out. I couldn’t tell if he was struggling to overcome the barrier he had built up in his head to keep out the idea of growing close to someone, or if he had gone without heartfelt attachment for so long, he no longer recognized it as a native sensation.

I didn’t want to start over, I knew that, but I also knew that I had to. My vice grip on the past was starting to drag me further and further beneath my baseless hope that I would be reunited with my estranged husband and things would miraculously go back to the way they were; but the gravity that I felt from Rick grew stronger everyday, along with the lie in my head that kept telling me he’s gone, he’s gone.

Faintly, I nodded. I was both so disheartened by the concept of letting go of what was, yet enamored at the sound of a clean slate, that I couldn’t manage anything more than a dazed dip of my head.

Cautiously, I asked, “What are you gonna do about Pete?”

A sigh passed between us. “I’m gonna talk to your mom and tell her he can’t stay here.” He kissed my forehead to make his ruthlessly spoken words seem less abrasive. “If she won’t do that, then I’ll kill him.”

Chapter Text

“Stay the night.” he pleaded quietly; not willing to shatter the cool silence of isolation that made my heartbeat seem much louder than a faint echo in my chest. I parted my lips to fumble out an excuse that wouldn't've made any sense. He put my words to rest with a resolve breaking kiss that would’ve bruised my lips had he put the slightest addition of force into it.

“I shouldn’t.” I argued without a single damning piece of evidence to back up my claim. I stood in the doorway of his second story bedroom, two feet on the border of going home and giving in.

He pressed his lips to my ear and the hand he rested on my waist pulled me closer to his side of reasoning. The heat in his voice made my eyes close and the stubble on his cheek made my skin feel cool with nervousness. “Why?” When I couldn’t find it in me to refuse or reply, he made the decision for me and shut the door.

His fingers dug into the table as he leaned against it to meet my mother's wildly stern gaze. It was no match for the venomous glare Rick gave in exchange for her reluctance.

“He can't stay here, Deanna. You can either tell him to leave or I will.” Rick snapped in a controlled but harsh voice. I sat between them, my chair slightly angled towards him, quiet as a church on a Wednesday afternoon. He was clad in his constable attire and I kept my focus trained on the empty gun holster that drifted against his leg.

“I'll talk to him, Rick. We can't exile him, he's a doctor. He's saved people's lives and we need him here.” My mom was unwilling to look at me, as if she was ashamed that she was knowingly ignoring the fact that her own flesh and blood was attacked by the town drunkard.

“I don't care who he is or what he does. He hurt your daughter, Deanna. He leaves or we kill him. Those are his two options.” He decided to make it personal, hoping it would bring clarity to her opaque line of thinking. When he mentioned me, my viewpoint switched to his face and began to slowly drift down from there.

I'd seen the scars on his bare chest, the matching set under his ribs and on his back from a bullet he took when he was a cop in the old world, the thin, rigid line from a knife driven into his shoulder, and the other smaller ones that had been stamped into his skin like a calamitous passport. I’d felt the way the muscles in his arms, his shoulders, his back, moved beneath the tips of my fingers. I didn’t think I’d be able to shake the feeling of his bare skin against mine or his lips ghosting a trail down my collarbone. It made the heat creep up to my cheeks just thinking about it.

“We are not killing him!” she almost shouted. “I’ll take care of it. He won’t be allowed to take anymore alcohol from the pantry, alright?” My mother was trying so hard to keep the peace between right and wrong and it was getting harder and harder everyday. She couldn’t let the only source of medical knowledge be mistreated to the point of discontent and malpractice, but she couldn’t allow his behavior to remain unpunished. “If he won’t agree to the terms I give him, then and only then will we take further action.” What kind of further action would be taken was a vague charade. If anything, she would chastise him like a bitter grandmother and give him a slap on the wrist at the most. After hearing Rick serenely inform me that he would be quicker to kill Pete than give him a second chance, I had a heavy pit in my stomach that this dilemma would not end well.

She turned to me and I sharply averted my eyes from watching Rick’s finger tapping against the thick black belt that fit snug against his hips. Either he had pushed last night out of his mind or his attention was better held than mine.

“Cassie, I’m sorry about what happened with Pete, but I promise you, you won’t have to worry about him anymore.” She reached her hand out towards me from across the table but all I could do was acknowledge the effort. How many times had I complained about him to her and she had done nothing? A few too many for my appreciation. “Why don’t you show Olivia the pantry and we can have her take over? I know she’s been wanting a change of pace.”

“What am I supposed to do all day then?” For the first time since I had been drug out of Rick's bed this morning and brought to this convention, I spoke.

“We’ll figure something out. Maybe you can work with Maggie or your father.” Even when she spoke to me, she sounded more like she was addressing the Senate rather than her daughter. “Until then,” she paused to look to Rick and judge his opinion by how much he was grinding his teeth in agitation, “why don't you take a day off and relax?”

“Promise me you'll do something about him. If not for me, for the rest of the people living here.” Blatantly, I laid our differences out on the table.

My mother and I always had a less than idyllic relationship. We fought quite a bit as I grew up and, at one point, she had grown desperate enough to put our family through counseling for a short lived month. We'd even gotten in a heated argument a week before I got married and she refused to come to my wedding. Whatever chance we had at a functional mother-daughter relationship quickly deteriorated after that.

She nodded stiffly and I stood. “I'll go talk to Olivia, then.”

“I'll come with you.” Rick rolled his shoulders under his jacket. He held the weight of the world on those shoulders but last night he'd been able to forget about every dark, unforgivable act his hands had committed. He had scars on his hands too, and I'd felt them when he memorized every part of me that hadn't been touched in years.

He'd taken his time, but there was no mistaking the fire of impatience that had kept him alive in a world where everything was left to die. I ran my tongue over my bottom lip where he had bit into the skin at the thought.

“Can I talk to you alone for a minute, Cassie?” she requested.

“I'll wait for you outside.” Rick pressed his hand over my shoulder in assurance before taking his leave. We watched him go and she spoke as soon as he closed the front door behind him.

“Why didn't you come to me first?” she sighed in disappointment. The all too familiar burning in my chest and grating of my teeth told me to choose my words carefully to avoid a scathing argument.

“What would you have done? Told him to go home and sleep it off?” Like twine being pulled at the ends, I snapped.

“I would’ve taken care of it. Now I have to deal with Pete and Rick.” She stood from her chair to make her appearance and her leadership more conspicuous. I was taller still, despite her effort.

“Rick’s not the one we have to worry about.” I all but threw my hands in the air in frustration. “Pete’s harassed me since the day he got here and you’ve done nothing just because he’s a doctor.”

“I know, Cassie, and I’m sorry that I let it escalate, but Rick’s methods aren’t civilized. He thinks we can just kill people and solve our problems. If we want this place to stay standing, we can’t kill someone every time they do something wrong.”

Her stubborn disregard for the present day asservation of how the world worked baffled me. “The world isn’t what it used to be. We can’t keep pretending that things are going to go back to how they were just because we play by rules that don’t even exist anymore.”

“Playing by the rules,” she repeated irascibly, “is how I’ve kept everyone here alive and given them a life worth living.” To reset her mood, she closed her eyes and kept them shut for a minute. “Rick cannot kill him and we cannot exile him; for the good of the community. That’s just the way it is.” she settled, quiet and calm once more.

“Yeah, well,” I pushed my chair into the table, ready to leave, and caused the floral centerpiece to shake from the impact, “maybe your way of doing things needs to change.”

 

With my bandaged hand, I handed Olivia the worn, discolored green notebook like the passing of a ceremonial torch. She seemed delighted to have it in her possession and I wondered how long she had been pining to spend everyday locked in a small room counting the dwindling amount of food that we had. It was depressing, if you asked me.

“Just make sure to mark what people take and if we start getting low on the essentials let Aiden, or Deanna know.” A forlorn sigh interjected the end of my instructions. “Oh, and make sure the door to the armory’s locked when you leave at night.”

She clutched the journal to her chest and smiled happily in my direction. “Thanks, Cassie,” her eyes swept across her newfound kingdom. “This is gonna be so much nicer than sitting out in the sun watching the gate all day.”

“Glad to hear it,” as if to showcase how excited she was, she started shifting things on the shelf like a game of tetris, her lips motioning numbers as she counted. “Thanks for taking things over for me. If you need anything let me know.”

“‘kay, thanks,” I took her disinterest in my words as my cue to leave. I turned to find Rick was still waiting for me, his hands buried into the pockets of his coat. An iota of a smile played on his lips when he opened the door to the blinding sunlight that my eyes struggled to take in.

“I’m sorry I stirred things up between you and your mom.” His smooth drawl was drowned out by two young kids racing past us, chasing one another with shrill screams of laughter. I glanced up at him to smile and roll my eyes at the apology.

“Things haven’t been settled between us for a while. That ship sailed and ran aground a long time ago.” I felt the tips of his fingers drift down my arm as he searched for my hand. “I appreciate you trying to get through to her though.” I stammered tacitly. His confidence shone through as he interlocked our hands. Then again, he had no reason not to be self assured with his actions; not after last night.

“What do you think she’s going to do about Pete?” His thumb brushed warm circles over my wrist to expel his agitation.

“Honestly? I don’t know. Pete’s the only doctor we have and I doubt she’ll kick him out.” I tried to distract myself from the fact that I was willingly holding another man’s hand. It felt like I had thrown myself into a scandal as we walked side by side, hand in hand, down the road. I had cursed my husband’s name for less. His iniquity had only lasted a night; mine had been drawn out over a week, it seemed. But he was gone. This was different. Still, part of me was still a nervous wreck; shaken by the idea that he would find out someone else had seen what belonged to him and that he’d feel a pain that would clutch at his heart and make it hard to breathe. That’s how I had felt and I wouldn’t wish that upon him, even now.

“You agree with her, keeping him here?” he wondered.

I shook my head. “If he wasn’t a drunk and if he had ever actually saved someone’s life, I might, but he’s done more harm than good.” For a moment, I worried that Olivia would be subjected to the same treatment if my mother didn’t take Rick’s suggestion to heart. “I’d rest easier if he was gone.”

He squared his shoulders at the challenge. “If he tries anything again, he will be.”

 

I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there in the midnight dewed grass with my knees pulled to my chest as I stared vacantly into the small, man made lake that was carved into the side of town. The lake was as dead as the rest of the world. There was nothing in it to create peaceful ripples and I had yet to see a single feathered creature take a dip in the dark water.

Once the clock ticked past one in the morning, I shrugged on the plaid button up - the emblem of my reluctance, a memento of another time, the hallmark of wishful thinking- and headed outside to sit on the edge of the murky pond. The saturninity that settled over the water helped me think; and I had forgotten how quiet my thoughts used to be.

Footsteps crushed the grass behind me. “You making up stories to get me kicked out now? Is that what you’re doing?”

Startled, I sprung onto my feet and stared at the man behind me with trepidation taking over the tranquility that had barely begun to set in.

“The hell are you talking about, Pete?” As he trudged towards me, I took a step back. Even in the faint sliver of light from the night sky, I could see the igneous rage in his dull eyes.

“She said that you told her I attacked you and that she’d have to exile me if I did it again.” he laughed faintly. “You really think you can do that?!” he shouted this time and my feet moved me away from him and closer to the water. I could feel the gravel slipping beneath the soles of my worn out shoes and the ebbing flow licking at my heels. It was cold.

“Just leave me alone, Pete! You think what you’re doing now is going to keep you here?!” My only choice was to stand up to him and hope that my raised voice would carry and cause enough commotion for someone to step out of their home and investigate. If anything, I hoped Rick would hear. “Go home and get the hell out of my face before I get you thrown out on your ass and left for the walkers.” My words were expelled in a snarl that managed to eclipse my bone chilling fear.

“You think you can threaten me, Cassie? You actually think you have a say in anything?!” He advanced towards me again and in my thoughtless action of defense, I lost my footing and fell into the abrupt depth of the lake. Before the water overtook me, I managed to get out one last shouted plea for help. When I tried to break the surface, he held me under. The sharp pain of water filling my nose and burning an erroneous path down my throat flooded my thoughts. My body acting on its own accord, forced me to cough, which only forced more water into my system. I could hear him shouting still over my struggled splashing.

The pressing weight of his hand left my body and, in the same fleeting moment, I was pulled back into the air that I couldn’t breathe. Warm water sputtered out of my mouth and nose and my vision was blurred like a rain stained window.

“Cassie! You okay?” his voice was harsh and grating, like being drug over gravel on a hot summer day.

“Rick?” I coughed again to rid my lungs of the last of the unneeded moisture. He was in jeans and a white t-shirt, pulling me into his arms and burying my head against his neck like he didn’t want me to see the fact that Pete was laid out on the ground; on the execution line.

He didn’t say anything. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I could feel the acrimonious rage burning off him and searing my cold skin. His hand pressed me tighter against him while he raised his other arm; steady as the rising sun.

I heard him pull the trigger. I felt the percussion of the bullet leaving the gun and the recoil reverberating through his body. I could smell the gunpowder drifting through the air and mingling with the metallic blood from a gaping, inoperable wound.

After that, I couldn’t hear anything but the sound of him telling me I was okay and my heart leaving fearful bruises in my chest.

Chapter Text

The dark, inexorable fires of hell were going to make him pay for the things he’d done; that much he knew -very fucking well- and he intended on putting that visit off for as long as possible.

He sighed, his breath icing over into a puff of fog as soon as it left his mouth. His sigh was that of a tired, perpetually vexed man who was too stubborn to steer himself off the collision course that had morphed into a one way ticket to his ultimate self destruction.

He was outside, staring down the barrel of another sleepless night. This time, he was at one of his smaller outposts, which was better than lying in an empty bed, blanketed in regret. The glow of headlights from the trucks flooded around him and pervaded every dark space within a fifty foot radius.

He stared at the foreign vehicle that had been found outside the outpost and scratched at his cheek with his hand that wore the glove - the glove that hid his wedding band out of his own sight. He sure as fuck couldn't take it off, but he couldn't bear to look at the damn thing either. Everytime he did, he was reminded of how her hand had felt against his cheek when she slapped him hard across the face. Again, he sighed; bitterly, this time.

“Got 'em rounded up for ya, boss man.” Simon stole his attention away from the past. He had met Simon while chasing after his runaway bride up the East coast. Simon didn't know shit about his past and he preferred to keep it that way. He had committed his fair share of sins; swearing, killing, stealing, but his one act of drunken adultery had to take the fucking cake. Losing her was the worst punishment he could've received.

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” he grinned brightly. He didn't know if he cracked smiles as much as he cracked skulls for everyone else or for himself. Maybe he made everything into a comical perversion so that he could cope or ignore the pain that sat restlessly in the back of his mind. He didn’t know, though; didn’t care to do a fucking psychological evaluation on himself to figure it out. “How many?” he asked as he situated his foreboding bat on his shoulder. He loved seeing the confused, helpless fear in people’s eyes when they saw it; like they thought it was a joke, even though jokes were hard to come by nowadays.

“Five.” Simon answered with the promptness of a right hand man.

“Oh, goodie.” he wasn’t nearly as excited as his choice of words may have made him sound. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with a group of asinine fuckwits who thought they could’ve gotten away with stealing his shit. He understood that times were tough and resources were hard to come by, but he wasn’t about to start giving shit away. If people wanted to drink from his well of exorbitant supplies, they were going to have to work for it. If not? Well...they were going to have to pay a hefty, painful, bloody fine.

They walked over to where the five unsuspecting men had their knees burrowed into the gravel. One of them, with sweat dampened, brown hair was shaking with the ghost of a sob wreaking havoc in his chest. All of his men from the outpost were out to watch with guns in their hands and expectant looks painted on their faces.

He drew out a chuckle, “Which one of you sorry shits thought it’d be a good fucking idea to sneak into my place and steal my shit?” As he spoke, he could almost hear the sound of how much force they all used to not look at him. He swung the handle of the bat around in his hand as he walked down the line of soon to be dead men. He was gunning for the man on the end, the one who would be easiest to break, but he stopped short when the cocky, black haired son of a bitch in the middle glanced up to meet his malevolent gaze.

“Well, ho-ly shit. Look who it is,” he crouched down, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t stand the man in front of him, but the busted lip the guy sported did make him feel a little better. “Don’t be rude, asshole. Say hello,” he chuckled darkly.

“Negan,” Aiden spat his greeting to his brother in law as coarsely as he could.

“It’s good to see you, too.” he wiped the cousin of a smile off his face. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Negan was happy to see him. If Aiden was around, maybe she was too. “Where is she?” he skipped the pleasantries. Aiden glared but didn’t offer up a reply. Negan exhaled sharply. He could feel his temper quickly slipping between his fingers like hot sand. “Where is she?” he repeated with a growl fighting to break through his words.

“She’s dead, asshole.” Aiden snapped with little remorse. “She’s gone.”

He remained impassive while his brain rinsed and repeated those two words over and over again, like he didn’t understand what they meant. They weren’t true. She couldn’t be gone. Not the one thing he’d been doing unspeakable things to stay alive for. Not her. Not his wife.

He stood up once more, stricken with a silent despair. “How?”

“Why do you care?” Aiden challenged, as if he knew he was on death’s doorstep and had no inhibitions in front of the reaper. “You didn’t give a shit about her then so why start now?!”

“Watch your fucking mouth.” Negan snarled, pointing his weapon of choice at him, his dark brown eyes laced with malice. “I fucking loved her.” He was fighting against the strong tide of his emotions and he wanted nothing more than to swing the wire studded bat against Aiden’s head.

“She deserved so much better than you. She deserved someone who wasn’t an ignorant, stuck up, asshole, who only gave a shit about himself. You--”

Aiden's insults fell short when a bone exposing, bloodied gash was gifted to him by a baseball bat being malevolently slammed into the side of his head. The man who delivered the blow could let a fair deal of misgivings slide by without so much as a hint of irritation, but accusing him of not loving the one person that he cherished more than anything was enough to trigger his homicidal tendencies.

Aiden fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding, but Negan didn't rein his anger back in until his wife's brother was an indiscernible mess of dark pooled blood and shattered bone that had become partially beaten into the soaked dirt. He'd like to say that he'd lost sight of his temper and acted without thinking, but between finding out she was gone from his world for good and hearing his own spiteful words spoken back to him by someone else, he wanted him dead by his own hand.

“Well, shit,” Negan stood back, his bat dripping a cascade of red as it moved. “I wasn't planning on killing you all but it looks like things have changed.” He wiped the blood off his brow and looked to his men then to the wide eyed, pale faced man on the end. “Keep him alive,” he pointed, “kill the rest.”

He had grown accustomed to the panicked pleas that always rebounded off his commands. The four men were reduced to helpless crying children as they stared at the mutilation that took place in front of them but their waking nightmare ended as quickly as it had started.

The gunshots weren't in the perfect unison he envisioned but three snaps of lead leaving a chamber filled the air and did the trick all the same. All but the red eyed, trembling, sniffling man fell face first into the unforgiving ground and he sighed a smile at the survivor.

“You,” Negan curled his index finger, beckoning the man forward. When he didn't move, one of his saviors urged him up on his feet with a kick to the back. His feet stumbled beneath him as he made his way front and center. Negan towered above him, just as he did with everyone. Often enough, his height would intimidate most people but the inclusion of a black jacket and a bloodied bat never hurt.

“Please don't kill me.” Before Negan could get a single word of his speech started, the man started to sputter and choke on his apprehension. “I promise, we didn't know you were here. We would never steal from someone.” As he continued to desperately bargain for his life, Negan raised his brow in boredom and amusement. “We have supplies! You can have some! Just please don't kill me!”

“Shut up,” Negan exasperated. “What’s your name, shithead?”

“Nicholas,” he stammered.

“Look, Nicholas, I believe you.” he leaned down in the slightest and rested his gloved hand on Nicholas's shoulder. “Now, I want you to go back to wherever the fuck it is you came from and tell your people what happened here.” His voice was as sharp as the barbed wire on his bat. “And if I ever see you or any of your people again,” he continued, “I will do that,” he jabbed a stiff finger to the body that was still oozing blood into the ground, “to each and every one of you.” Finally, he smiled to feign an ease of tension in his words. “Understand?”

Nicholas nodded like a bobblehead. “Y-yes.”

“Good!” he exulted. “Now get the fuck out of here before I change my fucking mind,” he paused on a lingering thought, “and leave me all the shit you got in that car of yours. It's mine now.”

Like a child elated to be excused from the dinner table, Nicholas ran to the car and began throwing everything out in a last ditch effort to appease the temporary god that had him on a string, dangling between life and death. Meanwhile, Negan made his way over to Simon.

“Follow him for me, will ya? I wanna know where this prick lives and how much shit they have.”

Simon smiled in understanding, his well maintained moustache moving in synch, “Can do.” Negan nodded gruffly and went to leave but Simon had more to say. “I take it you had a history with that guy?” Negan knew that 'the guy’ he was referring to was his now very dead brother in law.

He chuckled, but it wasn't as jovial as usual. It was more like a final puff of smoke being exhaled from a dying fire, “Something like that.”

“You wanna talk about it?” Simon was anything but serious.

“Fuck no and fuck you.” Simon huffed a laugh in reply to his leader’s words and they parted ways. The man in black stole into the empty truck he had arrived in to sort out every distorted emotion that was threatening to demolish his daunting, nonchalant facade that had somehow became his trademark. Through the rubble of his anguish and lamentation, he had built an empire upon a foundation of self loathing and regret. In the course of searching for her, he found himself leading a group to survival with a ferocity that either would have made her proud or chased her away; again.

But it didn’t matter now, did it? She was gone and he would’ve given up every memory of every happy moment just to replace the image that had been scarred into his mind of her baby blue eyes, red with tears that made him wish he was six feet under rather than six feet above the ground. Now he had to struggle with the thought of her out there, alone, forgotten and somewhere where he’d never find her. He had no one to blame but himself; which he did, every fucking day.

That blame had followed him everywhere he went, like a dark shadow that clung to his every thought and made every spoken word seem acidulous and baleful. He wasn’t himself without her. He had managed to hold onto his charismatic nature that she had endeared, but now he was always angry; angry at himself, the world, the people around him…

He smothered his grim chuckle as he smoothed the tides of his raging emotions by rubbing his hand over his cheek to rid himself of the blood that had splattered onto his face. He’d let that anger run rampant and kill his wife’s brother for God’s sake. If she hadn’t hated him already, she sure as fuck would have now.

Staring into the night, after the glowing red, fading taillights of Nicholas’s car, he started up the truck and shook his head at himself, “Fuck me.”

Chapter Text

He must have just taken a shower.

His skin was damp from the warm air escaping from my nose that was still buried into his neck. Every breath I took, I could smell the soap he had used; crisp, light, like sandalwood that had been basking in the sun on a summer morning. I tried to focus on that, on the way my lashes brushed against his skin as I struggled to keep them closed to the storm raging on behind me. There were palliative words were drifting from his lips but they were lost to me in the sound of an echoing gunshot.

His fingertips tangled their way into my cold, wet hair and the hand that held his revolver wrapped around my waist. I didn’t know if I wanted to let the salty tears welling up in my red, sore eyes spill over, or if I wanted to slip beneath a warm blanket and find solace in Rick’s rough hands and his kiss that would be enough to melt the icy fear in my heart. “It’s okay, Cassie, you’re okay.” He kept saying it like a quiet lullaby or a broken record.

“Dad?!” Carl’s voice joined the fray. “What happened?” I tried to pull away from Rick, my curiosity eating me up, but every move I made against his hands was met with persistent protectiveness.

“Everything's fine, Carl.” Rick's voice was tense like he knew killing Pete was the least of his issues. As soon as my family, namely my mother, found out that Rick had outwardly gone against her one request and had killed Pete at the first chance he got, I didn't know how the next twenty four hours would go.

“What’s going on?” The second voice was that of a sweet, older woman that I had only heard among groups of conversation from the gossip mongering ladies that occupied the corner every afternoon like clockwork.

“Carol,” Rick called to her, reminding me of her name, “can you take her and get her some dry clothes?” He gave me a chaste kiss on the top of my head before attempting to hand me off to Carol.

“It's okay,” I echoed back to him through chattering teeth, “I'm fine.”

“You're gonna get sick standing out here in the cold.” She tried to coax my sanity back in place with a soft voice that contrasted Rick's gaze which was tensed with heated concern.

“No, I'm fine,” my voice was unexpectedly sharp and defiant. He seemed put off by my tone and they both gave me the space I silently requested.

I'd lost track of how many times I'd heard that word slip between my teeth like thread through a needle. Every time it had been a lie. I was beginning to feel like the serpent of Eden with all the deception I dealt out on a daily basis by telling everyone that I was fine.

I was fine when the life I loved was ripped away from me by the cold clutches of time’s demise. I was fine when I saw people dying in ways that I would never be able to forget. I said I was fine in the mornings when I had spent the night crying until my eyes were as dry and barren as a wind carved desert. Even now, as I stood above Pete's lifeless body and stared at the caliber of Rick’s cold ruthlessness, I heard myself force out the word, “fine”. Moments ago, Pete was a living breathing torment, a plague almost. Now, the bullet hole carved into the majority of his shattered skull was a blessing and a relief. It should’ve sicked me to be wordlessly singing praises over a man’s sudden death, but I couldn’t find an ounce of disgust anywhere in my body.

The truth of the matter was, all of my cards on the table, I wasn’t fine; I hadn’t been for a while. I kept it buried; smothered under happy memories that I clung to with an unmatched vitality, but I was resentful, indignant, and embittered.

My husband cheated on me after spending damn near fifteen years swearing up and down that he would never do anything to hurt me. He’d done worse than that. He’d taken my trust, my love, my heart, everything that I had ever given him, and gotten them hooked on his every touch, smile, kiss, and heartbeat. Waking up alone every morning was torture. Every day without him was my rehabilitation but my memories were the drug that kept me from reaching recovery.

Then, there was my mother.

“What the hell is going on?! Cassie?!” Her voice was shrill and it chafed against my stripped temper like a wire brush scratching into a chalkboard. She stumbled upon quite the sight, no doubt. The doctor was dead at our feet, my clothes were drenched and sticking to every bone in my body, and Rick held a gun in his hand when it should’ve been locked up in the armory. I turned to her and I could feel it; the pressure that was forcing splinters into my fortitude and my point of breaking reaching its most fragile state yet.

“Your lack of leadership is what’s going on.” It was as if my lips and tongue were acting on their own accord while my mind was incessantly pleading for me to tread carefully.

“What are you talking about, Cassie?” Even in the dark, her eyes trailed away from my shivering frame to the lifeless one among the grass. I stepped towards her, hoping this time she would hear me.

“You did this! You didn’t kick Pete out when you should have and he almost fucking killed me! You chose him over me just because you didn’t want to have his blood on your hands!” This wasn’t me, this was my emotions running wild after being held captive for three years without seeing the sun. For the first time in my life, she was speechless

“Cassie, come on, let’s get you inside.” Rick put his hands on my shoulders as if he was reprimanding me rather than trying to seep some comfort into my tensed muscles.

“You just don’t get it, do you? You know what you have to do but you don’t do it! You keep pretending that everything’s gonna work out just because you say it will but it doesn’t work like that! Your way of doing things is going to destroy this place!” I fought Rick’s grip, no longer feeling the harsh cold wind whipping against me. I went to hit the last nail on the metaphorical coffin but was silenced by the sound of a car horn repetitively blaring on the outside of the gates.

“Let me in! Please!” Nicholas's voice carried into the community and he continued to honk the horn, drawing attention to whoever and whatever was out there.

“Cassie, get inside,” Rick's tone was nothing but authoritative.

“But my brother-” Aiden should have been back from their supply run earlier today and the fact that Nicholas was the one pleading for help didn't give me much hope that I would be hearing good news anytime soon.

“Inside, now , Cassie,” he knew as well as I did that something was wrong. The strong command he gave to me left no room for argument. I nodded and let Carol walk me back to his house while him, Carl and Glenn- who had joined the group of people that was watching my sanity unfold- ran to the gates. I stared after him, knowing my night wasn’t over yet; not even close.

 

“What do you mean he's dead? What the hell happened out there?!”

I wanted to cry, I should have been crying, my oldest brother was dead and gone, but as I sat across from Nicholas, all I could do was stare at him in incredulity at his cowardice. He left my brother out in the woods for the dead to claim just because he was afraid.

“I told you!” He was shaking and his eyes were red and puffy with tears. “We were looking for supplies and I told Aiden we shouldn't have gone in there but he wouldn't listen to me!” He tightened his grip on the sofa pillow that was clutched to his chest. My family was joined by Rick, Glenn and Michonne in my living room.

“Hey, just slow down and tell us what happened.” Spencer was sitting beside my mother who was inconsolable. He was keeping his emotions intact while trying to keep her lamenting at bay. As soon as she had heard that Aiden, her beloved son, was dead, her tears were the only reaction we could get from her.

“The building we checked out...a group was living there. We didn't know. We wouldn't have stolen from someone but we got caught and the leader…” his eyes were wide with horror as he replayed the consequences of their actions in his head. He started to shake once more. “Oh, God, it was awful, he killed him with a baseball bat, right there in front of us and then they shot everyone but me.”

At the mention of my brother's brutal demise, my mother began to wail into my father's embrace. Killing someone with a bat seemed like an unconventional, but mostly brutal, method. I cringed at the thought. I assumed there were dark and twisted people out there but this surpassed my preconceived notions.

“Did they say who they were? What they wanted?” Spencer questioned. Nicholas pulled himself together and shook his head.

“No, at least not that I remember.”

Rick had been impatiently waiting to intervene. “Were you followed?” He was seeing beyond the singular incident because he knew what people were like on the outside.

“I-I don't think so,” he sniffed, realizing that the thought had never crossed his mind until now. Rick stood straight and shared a nod with Glenn. It was as if they were gearing up for war without any consideration for the death that had taken place tonight.

“We need someone watching the gate, there might be more of them.” Standing in the middle of my living room, center of attention in the grieving circle, Rick was giving orders once more. “I don’t want anyone else leaving until we know it’s safe.”

“I’ll take first watch and get Sasha in the tower.” Michonne assured Rick that she would take care of things while he figured out how best to mitigate the possible threat. It amazed me how little Rick and his people needed to communicate. They had been out there so long, surviving together, that they had almost developed their own language. Meanwhile the rest of us were the naive, innocent, lost sheep being hunted by the wolves. I knew Rick cared for me to some extent, and I for him just the same, but when I saw him like this, the land that separated us was significantly more noticeable.

I felt his gaze, those steely blue eyes that had become the highlight of my days, burning like embers into my fresh, dry clothes as I sat on the couch with my head down and my hands folded in between my legs. I glanced up at him and he gave me a nod to walk with him to the front door. The dim lit room was thick with somber thoughts and it felt like I was following him through webs of objectified grievances as my bare feet shuffled over the carpet and onto the hardwood of the foyer.

“Are you okay?” The solicitude flooded back into his voice and softened it to a cloying refrain. I nodded with my face rested in his hands.

“Yeah, all things considered.” I licked my lips apprehensively. I didn’t know what I was feeling. My mind was still out at the lake, sinking slowly to the bottom and suffocating in the darkness. “Thanks for what you did back there. I’m sorry you had to.” I mumbled despondently.

“I’m not,” he gave me a kiss before relinquishing his hold on me, “I’m sorry I didn’t take care of it sooner, and I promise I’m not gonna let anything else happen to you, but you have to promise me you’ll stay inside until I get this taken care of.”

“I promise.” My heart was starting its sporadic rhythm again. “Do you really think they followed him back here?”

He glanced out the window through the parted curtains just to check before he gave me an answer, “I don’t know, but I do know that people outside these walls can’t be trusted and that’s all I need to know.”

“Rick?” We turned to see my mother standing at the mouth of the living room. It was the first time she had spoken since finding Pete’s body by the lake. Her voice was cracked like a vase on the verge of shattering into a hundred unrecognizable pieces; I had never heard her sound so defeated.

“Deanna, I’m sorry about Aiden,” Rick replied as sympathetically as he could.

The next words out of her mouth took us both by surprise. “If you go out there, I want you to find who did this and I want you to kill them.”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, I watched the place that I had called “home” for the past three years become wrought with fear and anxiety. The town's mentality had been thrust out into the thundering clouds of realization and soaked in the rains of mortality; no longer sheltered by the false protection that kept it warm and dry. For so long, no one had seen death and they'd forgotten that we were living in a world ruled by the dead.

Nicholas was almost like the herald of the end. Once his story had spread to every doorstep, people were on edge. They needed reassurance but found none in the leader they had entrusted their safety to. My mother spent most of her days in a locked room, fawning over memories of Aiden. My father wasn't much for conversation and Spencer was just angry. Their despondency only pushed me away and into Rick's infallible, steady arms.

He was resilient, to say the least. Nothing seemed to move or distress him; the misfortune only made him more determined. Amidst the abstract bedlam, he managed to dutifully watch my precarious emotions waver somewhere between a breakdown and a mental fortification. Meanwhile, I watched him, listened to him, delegate and keep the peace and wished I could be more like him and less like the rest of them.

He stayed close to me until he couldn’t. I could see it in the way he walked with his hands constantly balling into a fist and then flexing his fingers to shake away whatever dark thought was settling in his mind. When he spoke to me, he struggled to hide the primal edge of vigilant savagery that was as sharp as the knife he forced into my possession as we said our temporary goodbyes at the gate.

He had to go out and finish what Aiden had inadvertently started. He had to be out there. He had to keep his family safe. He had to survive because he'd been doing it for so long that he had forgotten how to live.

“Are you sure about all this? There hasn’t been any sign of anyone out there. Maybe no one’s coming.” I questioned him as I stared down at the knife in my hands. It was useless without him; just a polished piece of metal in an unexperienced grip.

“I’m not gonna wait for them to hit first. It’s smarter to just end it now.” His hand wrapped around my upper arm as he tried to convince me that he wasn’t going on a suicide mission.

“Do you really think that more killing is the answer?” The way I saw it, there were two forms of violence; defensive and senseless. What happened to Aiden was the product of what I assumed was his smart ass remarks up against a primitive personality that was bred out of this new savage world. His death was something that could have been avoided, just like Rick’s potential reaction. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen it myself, but I couldn’t imagine how adding more bloodshed would resolve anything.

The nonchalance of his shrug was cold and made my spine twinge. “Better them than us.”

I reached my hand across my chest to grip my other arm and dig my thumb into my muscle to ease the uneasiness. “Right,” I breathed.

“Hey,” he murmured, “everything’s gonna be fine, Cassie.” The way he adjusted the strap of his rifle on his shoulder gave me little consolation. He was wearing a brown coat, faintly lined with dusty white fleece. The machete was back on his hip, so was the stubble that would soon become a beard if he didn’t tend to it within the next few days. He was more himself than he had ever been in the past two weeks.

“I just don’t want anyone else to die. I don’t want you to die, Rick.” I heard my voice get louder with distress.

“Nothing’s going to happen to anyone. I’ve got Daryl and Michonne to watch my back and Glenn and Carol will be here if anything happens while I’m gone.” he assured. A smidge of offense glinted in his winter blue eyes, as if my worry was the same thing as me doubting his promises. I nodded to placate him and he sighed, “Come here,” he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in. I wanted to stay where I was. I wanted him to stay here. I didn’t want to be alone.

“Don’t keep me waiting.”

He chuckled and mussed my hair with a warm kiss. “I won’t.”

 

Rick had been gone for a few hours and the sun was resting nicely in the middle of the blue sky, occasionally losing its luminosity to the thick clouds passing by. I was walking back to my house with my hands stuffed in the pockets of my black jacket after talking to Olivia about the levels of provisions left in the pantry.

As I passed by the garage, I heard something heavy and metallic drop to the concrete floor, followed by Spencer swearing not so quietly under his breath.

I poked my head in the cracked open door, “You alright, Spence?” Spencer was, and always had been, the one stable blood relative I could rely on. With both of our parents gone AWOL, we were all we had left.

He jumped at the sound of my voice. “Hey, Cassie,” he graced me with the slightest glance over his shoulder before he went back to cleaning up his mess, “yeah, I’m alright.”

“What are you doing? Going somewhere?” I joked morosely as I stepped inside. He had a small pack on the craft table and a box of rifle bullets spilled across the wooden surface.

“Yeah, actually,” he huffed as if my mere thirty seconds of conversation was stonewalling his plans for the day. The closer I got, the more I realized that he was serious. He was packing enough food to last him until tomorrow night and enough ammunition to take down a small herd of the dead. My eyes narrowed on him and my lips pursed with agitation.

“Where? You gonna go find them too and get revenge? Spencer are you insane?” I snapped, sounding like my mother-God help me.

“No,” he corrected, “I’m gonna find Aiden and I’m gonna bury our brother.” He couldn’t hold back the anguish in his voice anymore. The flood of emotions had broken the dam of feigned strength and indifference.

I softened my rebuttal. “By yourself? Spencer, it’s not safe to be out there on your own.”

“Well, I’m not gonna leave him out there to rot!”

“And I’m not gonna let you go out there alone! You’re all I have left Spencer, I won’t have you dying over a burial ceremony!”

“Cassie, I’m sorry, I have to do this.” Turning has back to me, he slung the hunting rifle over his back and grabbed a small utility shovel. There was no stopping him. Nothing I could say would change his mind but if we had anything in common, it was that we were stubborn as hell.

He went for the door but I cut off his path with my five foot four inch height. “You’re not going alone,” I reinforced,  “I’m going with you.”  

 

There was something harmonious about being out here.

Everything was greener and somehow the air was easier to breathe. I saw the birds and the squirrels and every insect like creature that I used hate roam around as if nothing had ever happened. In a way, I was jealous of their mindless, habitual actions. They could still enjoy the warmth of the sun as it filtered through the canopies of the trees. They didn’t have to see the same house, walk the same street, hear the same thing, day after day after day. Everything out here was free and fearless.

I stayed a few steps behind Spencer as we disturbed the stillness of the forest in search for Aiden’s body; which may or may not still even be around. He hadn’t spoken so much as a few words to me since we left Alexandria. Maybe he was letting his thoughts circle the drain of observation. He held his rifle close in case something stepped out of the shadows but it seemed to be just us and the trees. I wanted to say something; it felt unnatural to keep words that needed to be spoken locked behind closed, unconfident lips. Sentiments of truth and comfort and worry layered my tongue until it felt heavy and foreign in my mouth, but I didn’t know how to speak them in ways that he would hear.

“Do you even know where we’re going?” I finally asked, avoiding all other conversation starters.

“Nicholas told me where, we’re going in the right direction.” He looked back at me. “You didn’t have to come, Cassie.”

I toyed with the knife in my hand, “I couldn’t let you go by yourself.”

“It’s just…” he stopped in his tracks to find himself in his mental haze, “I think if it were you or me, Aiden wouldn’t have left us. He would do this for us, or mom or dad.”

“Yeah, I know,” I smiled faintly, “Aiden was a dick,” I laughed quietly, “but he was a good man. He was proud of you Spencer, you know that right?”

“I should’ve been there, I should’ve gone with him.” His eyes were shut with regret.

“You might not be here now if you went with him.” I hated to say it, but it was true. Aiden was notorious for digging himself into holes and dragging people along with him. “We should keep going.” I nudged his shoulder to change the subject like changing stations on a radio.

“And where is it exactly that you’re going?”

Our heels turned sharply on the carpet of dead leaves to see a thin, scraggly man with short blonde hair and a denim jacket. He had a twisted smile on his dirty face but the most disturbing feature was the angry, red ‘w’ carved into his forehead.

My heart jumped up to my throat and the air I was breathing became deprived of oxygen and I was suffocating. Spencer pushed me behind himself to shield me from the stranger.

“We’re just scavenging,” Spencer lied.

“Doesn’t look you’re finding anything.” the blonde observed. I yelped when two hands grabbed me and pulled me away from my brother. The knife I was holding, my only defense, fell to my feet from the sudden movement. Spencer turned again to see a second man with longer, darker hair holding a blade to my throat. Spencer held his hands out as a white flag.

“Don't hurt her. You can take whatever you want, just please don't hurt her.” The overprotective, loving, caring brotherly nature spoke for him. His eyes were wide with apologetic apprehension. I stared into them, hoping they weren’t going to be the last thing I ever saw.

“You see,” my captor lowered the knife, “we're not the type of people to negotiate.” he informed cooly before plunging the blade into my side from behind my back. I screamed in pain and looked down to see the bloodied tip of the once silver metal poking through the front of my abdomen. When he pulled it out, I fell to my feet and gasped for air through the gut wrenching agony, my hand pressed to my side.

“Cassie!” Spencer called to me while they ripped his gun and bag away from him. With clenched teeth and a bleeding wound, I reached for my fallen knife before I was pulled up to my feet by my hair.

“We will be taking all your stuff though, including her.” The one who stabbed me laughed as if this was a casual afternoon activity. I fought to get away when I realized all too late what was about to happen.

I wanted to look away. I didn't want to remember him like that. Hot tears blurred my vision but it wasn't enough to spare me from the sight of Spencer getting his throat cut open by a man with a sadistic smile. Dark, thick, red blood spilled from his neck and onto the ground where it was soaked up like rain in a desert. I cried out to him as he fell to the ground, eyes open, staring up at the sky with an empty gaze. Just like that, he was gone.

It could have been the fact that I was losing a fair amount of blood through the gash in my side but I felt numb and my knees were shaking under the weight of my body. When the man tried to pull me away from the scene, my fight or flight reaction finally took over and I stabbed my knife into his leg and bought myself until time to pull out from under his hands and broke free towards anywhere that wasn’t here.

The young man howled in pain but replaced his baying with swearing when he saw that I was making a run for it. As I put as much distance between myself and them, I heard him snarl to his counterpart to chase after me and kill me.

I pushed through thickets of branches and thorny bushes that bit and pulled at every inch of exposed skin, adding trickles of blood that dripped from my body, along with the throbbing reminder that I was still alive; for now. I was running blindly towards my own death. I knew that without something to stop the bleeding, I would eventually exhaust my supply of adrenaline and succumb to the fatality of blood loss. Overexerting my body and oxygen like this wasn’t buying me any time, either. They’d catch up to me before too long and I hoped that they would be kind enough to end my suffering and keep me from turning into a mindless killer.

Time seemed to slow and my breathing became more labored with every step. I could feel the glacial tingling starting to crawl up my spine and give me the impression that the world was no longer standing still. My sense of direction was distorted by dizziness but I had to keep going.

I broke through the forest and found myself on a dirt road.

And in the company of yet another group of potential marauders.

My lungs were pleading for a single breath. I was swaying on my feet, sick to my stomach and wishing for my heart to stop beating against my chest as if it was trying to break through the bone. A man with grey hair and a slick smile approached me. It may have been the substantial blood loss, but I thought I saw a blip of concern in his eyes when he roughly grabbed my shoulders to keep me upright.

“Whoa there, missy, where’s the fire?” his tone was affable and buoyant.

“Please…” I choked, “please don’t.” My grip on reality was slipping through my fingers like water in a raging river. There was nothing to hold onto. He spoke to me again but it was as quiet as a mosquito buzzing in my ear. The sun behind him faded, obscured by black clouds in my eyes. There was a dull pressure from his hands on my arm but it was gone as soon as I hit the ground and let my blood and my body join the Earth.

 

---

 

He stared blankly at the snarling, dead bodies on the other side of the fence. Most of them had ended up in their by his own hand. Their jaws snapped wildly at him as he stood just a few feet away. They seemed to be the only company he could foster in the past few days. Ever since he’d had a run in with Aiden, the dark brown tint in his eyes was almost black with anger and disquietude. No one dared approached him unless they wanted to come face to face with the reaper that occupied his body from time to time. Even among a sanctuary of people, for the first time in a long time, he felt alone. The slightest possibility of finding his wife alive and well kept him going day in and day out but now that was gone and there was nothing left.

Remembering he was in the middle of a conversation with the small group of men and women lingering behind him with an awkward patience, he faced them. “Just, send Simon over first, see if we can ‘good cop’ this thing and see how far we get.” He didn’t want to put that much thought into a solution at the moment. “Where the hell is Simon anyway?” His right hand man had left earlier today to check on the outpost that his brother-in-law had tried to steal from, but Simon had yet to return.

“Late to the party,” Laura chuckled, nodding to the two cars that were kicking up a flurry of dust and gravel as they drove up to the gate. He watched with an unamused smirk as someone pushed the iron fence open long enough for them to pull in and park in front of the large factory building. The doors flew open and Simon hopped out with his thumb hooked into the belt loop of his jeans.

“Gavin, go get Carson, chop, chop.” Simon’s request for medical assistance was unusually casual. Gavin made sure his gun was locked in place against his leg before running inside to get the Sanctuary’s doctor.

“The fuck took you so long?” Negan’s temper was running a bit shorter than usual. Simon didn’t seem offended by his leader’s caustic lilt.

“Found a girl on the way back. Poor thing was running from something and passed out right in front of me.” Simon shrugged, “Didn’t wanna leave her out there.”

“Well, aren’t you a benevolent fucking soul?” Negan miffed a laugh and started to walk towards the car to see for himself. One of the other men that Simon had taken with him took the liberty of opening the back passenger door and hauled her out of the car with little regard for the gaping wound that had turned her shirt into a red rag that was still dripping from the oversaturation of the threaded fabric. Her dark hair stuck to her face which was spattered with dried blood and dirt. The longer he stared at her, the shorter his stride became. He felt feverish, and it wasn’t because his jacket was trapping all the heat from the glaring sun.

The young kid was weak and struggled to hold her dead weight across his arms. When he lost his footing and accidentally let her slip from his hands and to the ground, Negan found his voice, the voice that put the fear of God into every man, woman and child left on this forsaken Earth, and shoved the man to the side.

“Get your fucking hands off of her!” he was on the verge of shouting as he looked down at her.

He had to have been losing his damn mind.

He picked her up and she fit right into the crook of his arm like a puzzle piece that he’d been missing to complete his picture of what made life worthwhile. Her head lolled against his chest and the sight of her face made his heartache like none other. She was right here, back in his arms after all this time, only to be hanging onto a slowly snapping limb of life.

By the time he had made it Carson’s office and laid her down the small bed, his white t shirt had become permanently discolored with his wife’s blood, but that was the least of his concern. For the first time since the world had gone to shit, his hands were shaking and he felt the kind of fear that he had witnessed everyone else endure when they lost someone that they valued more than their own life.

Carson wasn’t his favorite person, but he was damn good doctor and, right now, the only thing that stood between hearing Cassie’s sweet voice again and burying her in the ground.

The doctor shook his head when he peeled back her shirt to get a better understanding of the extent of her injury. “She’s lost a lot of blood, Negan.” he murmured quietly. He was afraid that his boss would take out his frustration on him, despite his lack of responsibility for any of it. “She’s unconscious and her blood pressure is dangerously low,” he slung the stethoscope back around his thin neck, “I can’t do anything without a transfusion and I don’t know her blood type.”

Negan was ripping his jacket off before the doctor could throw the towel in. “It’s the same as mine,” he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Even now, she was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Get your fucking needle and get to work, doc!”

“How do you know?” Carson scrambled at the force of his leader’s command.

“Just fucking doing it, Carson, God dammit!” God help him if he had to watch his wife die on a makeshift operating table just because the old man wouldn’t take his word for it.

“Okay,” the man of medicine gave in without another word. He swiped some rubbing alcohol over his skin before piercing a needle into one of the prominent veins in his leader’s arm. Negan barely flinched. He was more focused on the faint rise and fall of her chest, afraid that at any given second there would be no exhale following an inhale.

For a split second, his thoughts flickered back to Aiden and his lip twitched in perverse joy. As he reveled in the sight of his wife, he had suddenly felt justified in killing him; that lying son of a bitch.

 

                                                                                      Negan's Dirty Girl

Chapter Text

“Cassie!” His call for her fell short when it was muffled by the afternoon wind and the falling leaves.

“Keep your voice down, we ain’t the only ones out here.” The archer hushed him with a voice that had been perpetually roughened by one too many smokes and underage drinking of hard liquor.

“You see any tracks?”

“Yeah, they headed this way,” Daryl told him, his eyes seeing patterns in the monotonous leaves that no one else could recognize. Rick followed after him, squinting his blue eyes as the sun broke through the clouds. “Anyone see 'em leave?”

Rick shook his head;annoyed at the lack of observation from everyone. “No,” his gaze shot to the left at a snapping branch just to see a deer flee from their presence. “I told her not to leave.” He sounded angrier than he was. Truthfully, he was scared.

After he'd lost Lori, he barred off the possibility of letting someone get that close to him. He buried his sense of self under miles of cold black earth just so he wouldn't have to ever feel the mind numbing sting of losing someone who made him feel human again. God knows he'd damn near lost his last few remaining shreds of sanity after his wife passed and hell only knew what would happen if he was put to the test again.

He didn't want to test those waters, couldn't trust what lurked beneath the surface, but when he met her he seemed to throw everything out the window and jumped in without a moment's hesitation.

It was in her smile. It was pure. It was innocent. It gave him hope that there was a future that didn't involve so much bloodshed and heartache. She didn't know about the things he'd done or how effortlessly each pull of the trigger was. He wasn't a monster, but he was a killer, yet she still thought of him as a good, well intentioned man.

More often than he should, he caught his thoughts sneaking back to the night that they shared. He knew she had been hurting, and maybe he took advantage of her empty heart, but he wasn't exactly the epitome of emotional well-being either. He wanted to protect her and he couldn't explain why. Hell, if he looked at it through a black and white color scheme, he just wanted her; wanted to be near her, touch her, listen to her, kill for her if he had to and she hadn't denied him any of it.

He'd let her close, locked her inside his mind, only for the cruel hands of the world to take her away right from under him.

Daryl spoke once more and viciously pulled him out of his spiral, “I'm sure she's alright, seems like a smart girl. We’ll find her.” he assured.

Rick opened his tensed jaw to express the blame he was putting on himself for her absence but stopped short when something burrowed in the grass reflected the sun's rays. He pressed past Daryl to pick up a knife with a bloodied grip. It was the knife he had given to Cassie right before he left. There was blood everywhere but nothing to show for it.

“What is it?” Daryl put his crossbow down to get a better look.

“I gave this to her before I left,” Rick felt a flash of white, overprotective rage sift through him. Daryl hummed and studied the red tinted ground.

“Something happened, two more sets of prints over here.” his eyes followed a path that jutted off from the pattern. “Someone ran, mighta been her. Maybe she got away.” He pointed towards the specks of blood that had dried and become a breadcrumb trail. “See that? They’re bleedin’, couldn’t have made it far.”

There was a one in four chance that it was her blood and the former deputy wasn’t in favor of those odds. Angrily, he stuffed the blade under his belt for safekeeping. The two of them started towards the unkempt trees when they heard the familiar snarl and uncouth dragging of feet from behind them. Rick didn’t want to look. He’d been witness one too many times to the consecution of losing someone to an unfinished death.

He forced his feet to turn and was greeted by Cassie’s brother, Spencer. As twisted as it was for him to believe, he was almost relieved that it was Spencer who approached him with outstretched hands and a throat that was cut open from side to side. A gruesome sight but not the worst he had ever seen, and at least it wasn’t her that he would have to put down.

The movement of his arm, knife gripped tightly in his hand, was flawless as he drove the blade into Spencer’s skull. He let him drop without a shred of respect or dignity that the dead used to deserve. When he was a cop, he had only killed two people- out of self defense. The death of two criminals had gifted him nights of restless sleep and inexorable hours of recapitulating his actions, wondering if there was something he could have done to spare their lives. Now, he’d lost count of how many lights he had extinguished. He didn’t have to think about it anymore. It was as effortless as breathing.

“Maybe she got away,” Daryl echoed. Rick couldn’t help but get caught on the sharp edge of ‘maybe’. It pulled on his mind and cut into his newly rekindled sense of hope.

“Come on,” Rick directed tautly as he trudged through the trees to follow the crimson trail, “I wanna find her before dark.”

 

---

 

It was a battle to open my eyes.

The faint movement made me groan in discomfort. Every blink made my skull throb and it felt like I had been dropped on my head a few times over. As the light forced its way into my mind, I took a deep breath to restart my system. My side surged with a fiery protest and I took shallower breaths to avoid the pain. I moved my hand to my forehead to search for a sign of impact that was causing me an alcohol absent hangover. A slight pressure followed my arm and the sheer shock of seeing an IV needle nestled in the vein of my hand and taped to my skin woke me up like a blaring alarm clock.

“The hell?” My fingers made quick work of pulling the tape off and, though I was shaking terribly, they went for the needle next.

“Oh, I would strongly advise against removing that.” A very southern and rather monotone voice spoke.

My head snapped up hard enough to give me whiplash. There was a portly man sitting in an antiquated wooden chair a few feet away from me. He had a thick book in his hands and seemed at ease in a button up and khaki shorts.

“Who the hell are you?” Like a slow, oncoming rainstorm, each new detail of my surroundings that dawned on me was a heavy drop of rain. I was resting on a twin sized bed that was just long enough to keep my feet from dangling off the end. There were two frosted windows carved into pale yellow walls that allowed me to discern the time of day. It was early evening and the sun was bleeding red and orange into the small room.

“I’m doctor Eugene Porter, I’m the Chief Engineer of this facility.” He informed pointedly. Judging by the mullet he was sporting, he didn’t seem like a threat. I had no idea where I was but I didn’t think it was somewhere I wanted to stay.

I was already searching for the door, “Where am I? How long have I been here?” The panic seared my tone.

“You’re at the Sanctuary, you’ve been occupying that bed for the last three days, but I can assure you that you are safe here.” Three days?! My head collapsed on the pillow in defeat. Everything in my mind was a violent whirlwind as it struggled to piece everything back together. “Can I get you some creature comforts?” Before I declined his innocuous offer, I stopped to think that it may be the only chance I would have to be alone.

“Yeah, some water would be nice.” I breathed, feigning a hoarse voice.

He nodded, “Can do. I'll be back quicker than a cat on a mouse.” He set his book down on his seat when he stood and headed out the open door. When I could no longer hear his footsteps, I took the needle out of my hand and winced at the sting it left behind.

I sat up too fast for my own good and immediately regretted it. The puncture from the knife in my stomach was still in the process of healing and began to force it's misery onto every nerve ending in my body. I laid back down, easing the pain out with every breath, my eyes closed to the mirage I was currently living in.

“Want some company?”

The word disoriented paled in comparison to how I felt at the sound of that voice. I had to have been dreaming or maybe I was dead. Perhaps the afterlife was a disillusioned wish come true that was only meant to put me through a torturous cycle of showing me things I'd never truly have again. I opened my eyes and they found the door and the man leaning against the frame, with a smile on his face that could break my heart and piece it back together without so much as a single scratch.

He chuckled, the sound of his laugh as warm to me as a fireplace in the dead of winter, “'Bout fucking time, I've been losing my damn mind waiting for you to wake up.” He pushed himself off the door and walked over to me. I stared at him, my blue eyes wide with disbelief, afraid that if I blinked, spoke a single word, or even breathed out of my monotonous pattern, he would disappear and haunt my every notion of existence.

The way he carried his six foot something self made the air catch in my chest. He looked different but in a way,everything about him was the same. He was all confidence, from the dark boots to the heavy, scuffed, black leather jacket and those dark brown eyes that could make me lose my train of thought with one single look. The dark scruff of a beard that was flecked with what had to have been stress induced greyness was atypical from his clean cut habits. It made his wolfish smile and overall appearance that more pleasant to drink in.

“You,” his deep voice sung, smooth and rich like aged whiskey, “left me on one hell of a cliffhanger, baby.” He pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down with an overly satisfied sigh. My body felt like it was leaning off the edge of hyperventilating. All I could do was look at him with my lips trembling in hesitation of every lexeme and sentiment that had consumed my life for the past three years.

I didn’t know what to say. There were at least fifteen hundred questions I wanted to ask-not to mention the diminutive amount of residual anger that was melting away in the warmth of his gaze- but I couldn’t get a single sound out of my throat.

Crying seemed like a reasonable, melodramatic medium.

“What are you doing here?” I choked through the sobs that were making my chest feel tight with a lack of control, “I thought you were stuck in Philadelphia.” It was the largest city in the state and, from what I had heard, was hit the hardest by both the military and the dead. Hardly anyone made it out alive.

He let out a soothing hum and reached for my hand. The heat of his skin against mine only solidified the fact that I wasn’t hallucinating. “Did you really think I wouldn’t chase after you? Give me a little fucking credit, baby,” he laughed. “I’d go through hell and back a thousand times over to see those baby blues.” At the mention of my weeping blue eyes, he pressed his hand to my cheek and wiped the salty drops off my skin with his thumb.

He moved his arm back when he saw me forcing myself to sit up. I exhaled sharply once I was upright and the pain that twisted inside me was camouflaged by the tears that were traversing down the side of my face and getting lost in the fringes of my hair. I wanted to slap him across the face, pick up where we left off. I wanted to tell him that a part of me died when he told me what he’d done and that the reason for my happiness was dropped at the door when I had left.

“I missed you,” I whispered, “I missed you so fucking much .”

In the few seconds it took for me to blink my perception clear, he rested his forehead against my temple. The breath of his laughter against my ear made me shudder in defenseless abdication.

“Hmm,” he used the tips of his fingers to turn my head to the side until his lips hovered precariously over mine, “still got my dirty mouth, I see.” He closed the agonizingly sheer distance between us and captured my lips in his kiss.

It only took the slightest, ephemeral touch from him to remind me why I had missed him so much; why I refused to let him go. He was the sultry heat of summer and the ambrosial cool night that followed after. His touch was enough to tease the oxygen out of my body and I was pulling him closer to me by his jacket for a breath of air. He bit down on my lip when he broke away, the evidence of how his nature would stumble and sway between rugged cupidity and thoughtful devotion.

I kissed him one more time to savor the taste of his lips that reminded me of cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate and burnt caramel; the month of November when we got married, Sunday nights when we stayed up too late watching cheap movies because we didn’t want to go work the next day, and coming home to his smile when I’d had a long day.

“Not one goddamn day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you, Cass.” He grabbed my jaw with a ferocity that caught me off guard. “I know we got shit we need to work out but I promise I’m gonna make it up to you if you’ll let me.” It had been eating at him just as much as it had taken a toll on me. I could hear the regret and the nights with dreams of nothing but self loathing in the jagged edge of his voice.

I nodded, helplessly lost in my newfound paradise.

“One glass of ice cold hydrogen-oxygen bonds and some first class DIY fruit leather.” Eugene returned in an over elaborate fashion of words. Negan stood up and whirled around on his heels with a smirk pressed over his lips.

“Dr. Smarty-pants,” he drawled, “would you mind keeping my girl company for a few more hours?”

“Wait,” I whined, almost like a child as I pulled at the sleeve of his jacket. He gave me his full, undivided attention, “where are you going?” The thought of letting him walk away sounded worse than any form of torture my mind could conjure up.

“This fucking place ain’t gonna run itself.” he grinned with his typical cocky tune.

“You...you run this place?” I tried to hide the astonishment in my words. It wasn’t that he lacked the leadership skills, he could don the authority of a five star general, but he never seemed like the type to enjoy babysitting people.

He pulled the air into his lungs and laughed, rocking back on his heels. “There’s a lot we gotta catch up on, baby,” he bent down to tenderly kiss my forehead, “and we will. I just gotta take care of a few things and I’ll get Dr. Carson to give you a once over and make sure you’re good to go and be back in a few hours.” Part of me felt like he was playing on my chaotically puzzled mind but the rest of me didn’t give a damn.

“Yeah, okay,” I gave in breathlessly. He smiled again, that resolution breaking, make-me-fall-head-over-heels smile.

“Eugene’ll get you anything you need while I’m gone.” He glanced over at the man with the mullet, who was sheepishly staring down at his socked sandals. “Then it’s you and me, baby,” he winked. I blushed a shade of pink that had escaped me for some time. He chuckled and tapped his fingers to the color in my cheeks as if he had been expecting it and was pleased to be right. He gave me another kiss before showing himself to the door, the swing in his step more pronounced than when he had come in. My longing gaze lingered after him.

“You consider yourself a fan of the tangy or the sweet variety?” Eugene asked out of context. I knitted my brows and looked to him.

“What?” He was an odd one, linguistically speaking.

“Fruit leather,” he clarified, “green apple or raspberry?”

“Uh, raspberry, I guess.” An awkward trace of a smile brightened his otherwise impassive expression. My attempt to return the favor was in vain but he seemed to appreciate the effort regardless.

“Good choice, sister.”