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The Refugee (Preview)

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Sasha was an expert commander and kept everyone on a strict schedule, both at home and on the road. Rick suspected she might have been able to tick down to the second without a watch and that may have been a factor in her constant deer-in-the-headlights expression: that she was always aware of precisely how long this hell had endured. Her eyes conveyed the shock and disbelieving wonder, the same they all felt every day: how had this gone on for so long?

This morning was no different. Three full days had passed on the road. They rationed for five but Rick did not want to push them that far. His chest hitched as he thought of how easy it was that those finite, limited supplies could easily be used up in a capture or ambush.

He hung his head and dug his heels into the dirt next to the fire. Ambush.

Capture.

Death.

The total and complete utter end.

Rick checked and double checked his weaponry, loading and securing his holster, distracting himself from the image of Abraham; stoic and determined for the last word and Glenn's sputtering breaths.

His completely disfigured face. Maggie's screams.

Rick set his jaw; willed the images out of his mind.

He had work to do. They had to find Toby--and soon.

Next to him, Sarah stirred. The zipper on her sleeping back clinked as she wrestled in it. Instead of slipping out in the crisp fall air, she sat bolt upright in it, her head and hands sticking out.

Panic sparked in her eyes. She twisted her head around, and around again, her eyes darting in every direction. "Did you hear that?" She breathed.

"Hear what?"

Sarah didn't answer, as she wrestled and grunted with the sleeping bag. She scrambled out of it, stumbling to find purchase and upright balance. She yelled and growled. "Show yourself! I command you!" She darted around the perimeter of the small campsite, her eyes searching the woods and shadows surrounding them.

Sasha crashed through the brush a second later, her eyes wide and gun cocked, her hand on the trigger. "What is it? Is it Toby?"

Rick responded in kind, forgoing his breakfast for brandishing his knife. Instincts took over and he flanked Sasha, guarding the rear, low in a crouch, the dagger in an overhand grasp.

Whatever Sarah saw or heard, he was ready.

"Sarah, what did you see?" Sasha asked, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "Give me something to work with here."

Sarah shook her head and hid her face. "It's not Toby. I'm sorry. I thought I heard something. False alarm." And without looking either of them in the eye, she returned to her spot and wordlessly packed. Rick had never seen someone so angrily stuff pack a sleeping bag before.

He and Sasha met gazes while Sarah's back remained to them.

What happened? Sasha mouthed, gesturing toward Sarah.

Rick shrugged and shook his head. I don't know, he replied silently. Just woke up.

We have to go home, Sasha replied, emphasizing "go" forcefully.

In the past, she would not have been so demanding. Rick didn't blame her for her assertiveness; as he had effectively handed off the reins. Without Glenn around, others had stepped up and asserted themselves. Things had to be done, decisions to be made, and Rick knew full well he could not make all of them anymore.

Still, the insubordination irked him, and he set his jaw and his hands on his hips. He nodded once, then kneeled next to Sarah. She had finished her own effects and now reorganized the rations. Rick slipped his hand onto her shoulder. "Sarah," he drawled, affecting his best Sheriff Grimes voice. The kind he used on blue haired ladies when their cats were stuck up in a tree. The hero for nothing-is-actually-wrong voice. "We can keep on until this afternoon, but then we have to go."

She nodded, sniffling.

Behind them, Sasha rolled her eyes and turned away. He shot a glance over his shoulder to her, eyebrow arched. The message was clear: chill.

"I don't want to be away from camp when Negan comes by for a pickup."

"We should just turn back now. We aren't going to find him. Toby's gone." The sobs shaking Sarah's body didn't match the tone of her voice; the finality and deliberation in her words. Sarah was not resigned and forcing herself to accept it; she fully owned the reality that her brother wouldn't return.

Rick shook his head and squeezed her shoulder. "We will find him. After the next pickup, we'll send out another team. We'll rotate until he's found."

She growled and rolled her shoulder to shake him loose. "No, you won't. Toby will not be found. Trust me." This time, Sarah threw an intense stare at Rick. Emotions in her eyes, her eyelids and brow pinched in anger, all contradicted the rest of her body language. She hitched her breath, just barely noticeable, as though she meant to say something further. She didn't.

Understanding dawned on Rick. Sarah knew something. He didn't know what, or how, but Sarah was hiding something from them. He sucked his teeth and nodded toward Sasha. He wasn't going to make a show of this now. Keep yourself in check, he thought. Deal with her later. Figure it out first.

Within minutes, they finished packing up camp and headed west toward home. They walked in silence, Rick leading and Sasha flanking. Sarah kept her gaze down as they stalked through the woods. Each of them frustrated and angrily silent for their own reasons.

With each step, Rick's frustration grew, a well inside his chest that swelled and flooded his mind with images. He knew Sarah hid information from them, but he couldn't figure out what she could have done. She wouldn't have killed Toby for any reason that he could imagine. Rick wasn't sure if Negan and the Saviors had any contact or awareness of his existence; Toby was skilled but not exceptional and would not have been a candidate for another of Negan's ambushes.

The despondency Sarah carried like a boulder on her shoulders their past few days had been genuine. Her face remained pale and the bags under her eyes dark and puffy, no matter how much sleep she got or food she ate. She explored and guessed and searched in earnest just as Sasha and Rick had, with even more dedication and determination.

But something had changed that morning. Rick didn't understand. They had not left each others' side or eyesight since dusk the night before. It had only been in the last hour since Sarah woke up that anything changed. They had encountered nothing but walkers. They hadn't crossed any paths or seen any evidence of the Saviors.

With a shock of clarity, Rick remembered Sarah's outburst, her frantic shouts at someone that did not appear.

Someone was following them.

Rick suddenly stopped and made an about face, staring directly at Sarah. She stopped short and met his gaze, her eyes like a deer in headlights.

"Tell me who's following us. Whoever you were yelling at this morning."

Sarah shrugged, her attempts to remain casual too obvious. "No one. I thought I heard something."

Rick didn't buy it. He leaned into her, dipping his head lower to hers. "Try again."

As she opened her mouth to speak, something thudded on the ground between them and landed between their feet.

If it hadn't made an indent in the grass, Rick would have missed that it was a pure crystal orb, perfectly clear, like spring water in solid state.