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The Road Ahead

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Anna Brooks wasn’t sure of many things.

But regardless of the unpredictability of life, there was one thing she was absolutely certain of — the small fact that she was completely screwed.

It was sometime in the late afternoon, she was all alone, and her pickup truck had suddenly decided that it was time for a premature departure. She’d been confident that her small truck would last another couple of weeks — or leastlong enough to get her to Atlanta — but going along with the theme these days, it met an early demise.

The pickup didn’t belong to her — she’d stumbled upon it a couple weeks ago in a deserted parking lot. It’d been pretty banged up — the rusted green paint chipping, scratches and dents covering the exterior, streaks of blood here and there. But in a rare stroke of luck, she’d found the keys in the glove compartment and a full tank of gas. It had been a Godsend.

Anna slammed her hand against the steering wheel as the truck finally rolled to a stop, steam seeping out from under the hood. She put the truck into park before shutting off the engine. Taking a deep, steady breath, she turned the key, hoping to hear the engine turn over. But her heart dropped when she was met with what could only be described as ‘clanking metal’.

“No, no, no, c’mon baby,” Anna murmured as the truck sputtered for a moment longer, before ultimately dying out. She yanked the key out of the ignition with more force than necessary and threw it at the windshield, watching it clatter onto the dashboard. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” she groaned softly, pinching the bridge of her nose, fighting off the sense of hopelessness washing over her.

The smell of exhaust floated through the open window, the steam becoming thicker. Anna’s head snapped up, worried that her truck was moments from combusting. She shoved the car door open and hopped out of the truck, moving to stand in front of the hood. After some jostling, she popped the hood open and took a step back, coughing as she ingested some of the fumes. A few moments later, the smoke settled and she approached the car once more.

Anna had no idea what she was supposed to be doing. Sure, she knew how to jumpstart a car or check the oil, easy things that her older brother, Ben, had taught her years ago. But other than that, this was unfamiliar territory. She wished so desperately that she’d payed more attention to her brother’s lessons — maybe it would’ve helped her now.

Sweat dripped down the back of her neck, soaking into the collar of her flannel. She swiftly pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail, pushing the shorter pieces that fell into her face behind her ears. She shrugged off the flannel, feeling much cooler in just a white tank top, and tied the extra layer around her waist.

With a huff, Anna placed her hands on her hips and stared down at the mess of metal below, unsure of what she was even looking at. She gnawed on her bottom lip anxiously — the last thing she wanted was to tinker with something and cause further damage.

She sighed heavily. Now it was going to take her twice as long to get to downtown Atlanta — and that was if she even made it that far on foot. The last she’d heard, Atlanta was a safe zone. The military had set up camp in the heart of the city with food, medical supplies, and weapons. Not only was it safe, but it was the last known location of her brother, who she’d lost contact with after communications dropped.

Heading to the city had been the original plan once the world went to shit, but after —

Anna felt a sudden pang in her chest, caught off guard by the rush of emotion hitting her. Tears sprung to her eyes as she quickly grabbed the necklace hanging around her throat — a feeling of calm instantly washing over her. It was a long silver chain that fell just beneath the collar of her tank top, two objects strung through the coil.

Her parents wedding rings.

Anna’s mom had died first. Right at the beginning of the end. It was during the time when no one had any idea what exactly they were up against — had no idea that a bite meant ‘game over’.

Her dad followed just a few weeks later. After her mom passed, her dad just sort of…faded away. He became a shell of a man, simply surviving for the sake of his daughter. And then she lost him too.

There had been a herd…they’d been surrounded…and her dad just…he just let go — provided himself as a distraction long enough for her to get away. Once she’d stumbled out into the open, she’d spun around, desperately searching for her father. And then she’d spotted him, the first wave of walkers finally closing in on him…tearing into his flesh…

But he didn’t scream…he didn’t cry…he smiled.

The weight of someone’s sacrifice was a heavy burden to bear.

Anna squeezed the rings in the palm of her hand, grounding herself back to reality, shoving the horrible memories into the dark recesses of her mind. Now wasn’t the time to deal with her trauma — she had a broken down truck, nearly ten miles left to travel, and only a few hours left until nightfall.

Anna let the rings fall back into place against her chest. She leaned over the engine, trying to figure out where exactly the smoke was coming from. If she could just get the truck started again, all her problems would —

“My, oh, my…an’ what’d we have here?” a voice suddenly rang out.

Anna jolted and spun around, her eyes landing on a man standing just a couple feet away, staring at her in a way that made her feel incredibly exposed. He was dirty from head to toe, as if he’d been rolling around the woods for hours. His jeans were torn and ratted, similar to his faded black tank top and leather vest. She watched his mouth curl up into a sinister grin.

“Now what’s a pretty lil’ thing like yerself doin’ all the way out here in Bumblefuck, Georgia?” he cooed, sneering at her.

Struggling for words, Anna slowly inched backwards. This was the first survivor she’d seen since her father died. She’d made it a priority to stay away from other people after that fateful day. Walkers were deadly. But people…people were cruel.

Anna cursed herself for forgetting her gun in the truck, leaving her defenseless.

“C’mon, darlin’. Ain’t gonna bite ya,” the man purred, taking a step closer. “Unless ya ask me ta’,” he finished with a wink.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” Anna managed to squeak out. It seemed like the right thing to say in the moment. But the man just laughed, loud and bellowing, as he rubbed a hand through his buzzed gray hair. Anna felt her heart pounding against her ribcage and wondered if the man could hear it from where he stood. “What’d you want?” she finally asked, feeling her backside hit the front of her truck.

The man feigned innocence. “Jus’ tryna get ta’ know ya. That a crime?” he shot back, eyes darkening, hands twitching at his sides, hovering a little too close to the knife strapped to his belt.

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat as she began to maneuver around the truck, towards the drivers side door. She knew if she could make it to the open window, she could reach inside and grab her pistol off the passenger seat.

But the stranger seemed to catch on right away. “Why ya runnin’ from me? I asked ya a damn question, woman!” the man snarled, voice threatening.

Then suddenly, he was rapidly closing the gap between them.

Anna spun on her heels and ran for the door, desperately reaching through the window for her gun. But right as her fingertips grazed the handle, she felt the man wrap his hand around her ponytail and yank her backwards. Anna cried out in pain as he spun her around and slammed her into the truck, keeping one hand wrapped in her hair, the other pressed against her throat.

Her breaths came out in huffs, a tremor racking through her. The man ticked his tongue disapprovingly, a mischievous look in his eyes. “Jus’ what in the hell were ya thinkin’, sweetheart?”

Anna glared at the man, deciding to let her rage override her fear.

“Whatcha hidin’ in there?” the man inquired, jerking his head towards the truck. “Let’s take a looksie, shall we?”

The man turned his attention away, giving Anna the opportunity to slam her heel into the top of his foot. He howled in pain and released her, giving her enough space to throw a solid right hook, connecting with the edge of his jaw. He stumbled backwards as she spun around once more, her fingertips finally closing around the gun’s handle.

Anna turned back around just as the man regained his balance, immediately launching himself at her, slamming her body back into the truck with a grunt. She swung the gun towards him, but he quickly slapped it away, a single shot ringing through the air.

Before Anna could do anything else, the man overpowered her, wriggling the gun from her grasp and throwing it off to the side. In one swift motion, he had her arms pinned on either side of her head, pushing his body into hers, holding her firmly in place. He chuckled, slightly out of breath, a gleam in his eye expressing that he’d truly enjoyed the little scuffle.

“Damn, girl. Ya got a nice arm on ya,” he rumbled, licking the blood spilling from his split lip. “I like ‘em feisty,” he whispered, before spitting a glob of blood onto the pavement.

“I don’t have much. Take it all. Just leave,” Anna urged between heaving breaths.

The corner of his mouth quirked up into a smirk as he looked her up and down, hovering a moment too long on her chest, pressing himself a little too hardagainst her body. Anna spotted a light trace of white residue on the tip of his nose, noticed how dilated his eyes were, and figured the man as some type of junkie. “M’ jus’ lookin’ ta’ have a lil’ fun, is all,” he mused with a shrug, finally letting go of her hands and pulling out the hunting knife from his belt.

Holding the blade towards her, he bent down and scooped up her gun. “Ya know, I’m feelin’ mighty generous today. Imma jus’ take a couple things an’ be on my merry way,” the man spoke cooly, sniffing loudly as he rubbed his nose with the crook of his elbow, wiping away the cocaine remnants.

When Anna didn’t respond, he went about his business. The man tucked her gun into the waistband of his pants and opened the door to her truck, rummaging through her belongings and throwing the things he didn’t want onto the pavement.

Anna stared off into the trees, standing motionless. Part of her wanted to fight back — he was vulnerable, especially with his back to her. But he was also stronger, faster, and now had not one, but two weapons.

The man slipped out of the truck, empty-handed except for her water canteen he’d found and his hunting knife. “Ya weren’t lyin’ when ya said ya don’t have much,” he grunted, cracking the canteen open and taking a long swig, finishing the remaining amount of liquid. Anna felt her stomach drop — that had been allthe water she had left. He screwed the top back on and threw the now empty container onto the ground. “Ya ain’t got shit, girl.”

Anna remained quiet, seething silently. He once again looked her up and down, almost curiously, before his eyes settled on her neck. “Gimme that,” he stated, pointing towards her necklace with his knife.

Anna’s hand immediately came up to clutch the chain, her heart stilling. “It was my parents,” she whispered, as if sentiment would make a difference.

The man scoffed irritably. “An’ now it’s mine.”

Anna slowly lowered her hand, willing herself not to cry in front of the horrible man.

He reached towards her, his hand hovering just above her chest. His fingers lightly traced the top of her cleavage as he fished out the bottom part of the necklace. He puffed his chest out, clearly pleased with himself.

Anna clenched her hands into fists to stop herself from clawing his eyes out.

He examined the wedding rings in the palm of his hand. “Mighty fine rings ya got here,” he stated with a low whistle before pulling the necklace up and over her head and sliding it over his own.

An emptiness settled over Anna’s chest where the rings used to lay. The last remaining pieces of her mother and father now hung around the neck of a monster. “Look, you can have anything else, just…just not that necklace,” Anna offered desperately. She simply couldn’t let that man walk away with such a big piece of herself.

The man just chuckled, pulling out her gun from his waistband.

“You can have anything else —” Anna urged, taking a step towards him, not even remotely phased by the gun now pointed at her head.

“Back up, lil’ lady. Hate ta’ ruin that pretty face ya got there.”

“You don’t understand — ”

“Are ya deaf or jus’ fuckin’ dumb? I said back —”

“I’ll do anything!”

The man paused, that malicious gleam returning in his eye and it didn’t take a genius to know where his mind was at. “Well, I’ll be damned…are ya hittin’ on me, sweetheart?” he taunted, licking his lips quickly, shoving the gun back into his waistband. “Maybe if ya ask nicely…”

Anna’s body stilled and she immediately regretted opening her mouth. A spark of rage suddenly coursed through her. There was no way she was going to give this monster the satisfaction of begging. “Go to hell,” she suddenly growled, enjoying the look of disbelief that shot across his face.

But he quickly recovered, grabbing her by the elbow and pulling her close, moving to hold his knife at her neck. “Wanna say that again, girl,” he snarled, towering over her intimidatingly, his face close enough where she could smell the remnants of cigarettes on his breath.

Anna swallowed the lump growing in her throat, refusing to back down. “Go to hell, asshole,” she spat through clenched teeth.

The man suddenly smiled, his wicked grin sending a shiver down her spin. “Suit yourself,” he shrugged casually.

And then he began digging the tip of his knife into her throat.

Chapter Text

Anna hissed, forcing herself to bite back the cry rising in her throat as she grabbed onto the man’s wrist, trying to push his hand away from her throat. She felt her flesh beneath the tip of the blade split, warm liquid beginning to spill down her neck as the man chuckled darkly, lifting the knife from her throat.

She gasped, looking up at him wildly as she struggled against his hold. “Havin’ fun yet?” he murmured, that dangerous gleam in his eye returning, clearly reveling in her fear.

But just as he brought the knife back down, a sound in the distance made him pause.

“The hell’s goin’ on here?” another voice suddenly rang out

Anna’s head snapped towards the trees as a second man emerged, storming out of the forest and heading straight for the first man. He looked just as, if not more, dirty than the first man — sporting a ratted, faded green shirt that he’d ripped the sleeves off of to turn into a tank top. His pants were torn and slightly too big for him, most likely hand-me-downs that hung off his hips. And his brown hair was cropped short, the longer pieces sticking onto the sweat coating his forehead.

Anna’s first instinct was to cry out for help, to pray that this second stranger wasn’t as twisted as the first — but then she noticed something. The similarities in their features, the gruff Georgian twang to their voices, the smug smirk that grew over the first man’s face…and she realized that they were on the same side. Any thought Anna previously had of survival disappeared instantly.

“Nice of ya ta’ join us,” the first man jeered, lowering his knife and casually tossing an arm around Anna’s shoulders, ignoring how she shrunk away from him.

The second man’s eyes darted back and forth between the two. His gaze hovered a moment longer on Anna, his eyes then flickering down, spotting the blood trickling down her neck. “What the hell ya doin’, Merle?” the second man suddenly snapped, addressing the first man — Merle — directly.

“Jus’ havin’ a lil’ fun with the locals,” Merle brushed off cooly, shoving his knife back into its sheath.

The second man shifted his weight back and forth, quickly surveying the rest of the scene — the ransacked car, the look of fear in Anna’s eyes, the look of triumph in Merle’s — and put two and two together. Whatever his reaction was, he hid it well, his face turning even stonier than it already was. “Let’s get the hell outta here,” he rumbled, glancing at Anna once again.

She could’ve sworn she saw something flash through his eyes in that split second — it almost looked like guilt.

Merle scoffed, hacking another mouthful of blood onto the road. “Ain’t done playin’, lil’ brother,” he shot back, tightening his arm around Anna’s shoulders, his fingers thrumming back and forth against her skin.

A chill settled over her bones as she attempted to wriggle away from Merle, who only dug his fingernails into the soft flesh on her arm. Anna glanced desperately over at Merle’s brother, who seemed to be the more reasonable of the two.

The brother locked eyes with her, seeming to understand her silent plea. He quickly tore his gaze away and shook his head. “Nah, c’mon. Let’s go,” he urged, taking a step forward and placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder to pull him away.

Merle shoved Anna to the side as he pushed his brother backwards. “Get on back ta’ camp, Daryl,” he ordered, a sharpness in his voice. “Ain’t tellin’ ya twice.”

Then Merle twisted back around, pulling Anna’s gun from his waistband and reaching towards her. Anna shook her head back and forth frantically, holding her hands up. “No, no, no, please don’t — ”

“Hey!” Daryl shouted, suddenly appearing right on Merle’s heels, grabbing his arm and pulling him away.

Merle spun around and once again, shoved Daryl back. “The fuck’s wrong with ya!” he growled wildly, getting in his brother’s face.

Me? What’s wrong with you!” Daryl snarled, pushing Merle in return before pointing a finger in Anna’s direction. “We supposed ta’ be findin’ food for our people an’ instead I find ya out here, gettin’ high an’ pullin’ this shit? Again?”

Merle rolled his eyes dramatically. “Ain’t make no difference much, now does it? We all gon’ get what’s comin’ in the end. Ain’t that right, lil’ brother?”

“Your a real piece a’ work, ya know that?” Daryl snapped, eyes narrowed into slits, face drawn into a permanent scowl.

“Don’t fuckin’ come at me all high an’ damn holy all the sudden,” Merle shot back, his agitation growing — partly from Daryl’s objections, partly from the drugs coursing through him. “Did ya forget ‘bout our lil’ plan here ta’ begin with? Did ya forget why we decided ta’ put up with those goodie goodies a’ all? Don’t go switchin’ sides on yer big brother, now. Ta’ hell with those fruity ass people! They gon’ get what’s comin’ ta’ them. They ain’t our people. Never was, never gonna be. Me an’ you, Darlina — that’s all we got.”

Anna saw Daryl clench his jaw, looking thoroughly done with his brothers antics as his finger twitched towards the crossbow strapped across his back. She hadn’t even realized he was armed in the midst of all the chaos.

It felt like a private moment happening between the two brothers, like she’d accidentally stepped into the middle of their lives — and she wanted no part of it. While the two men were distracted with each other, Anna began slowly inching away. But she didn’t make it far before Merle’s voice cut through the air. “An’ where the hell ya sneakin’ off ta’, cupcake?”

Anna’s body stilled, her head snapping up, eyes locking with Merle’s. And then suddenly, he was raising her gun…aiming the barrel at her head…and —

“Hey!”

Anna’s gaze swung over to Daryl, who now held his crossbow in his hands, the tip of the arrow pressed up against Merle’s temple.

Everyone froze. Anna couldn’t hear anything over the blood pounding in her ears. She held her breath, watching Daryl’s eyes darken as they frantically bounced between her and Merle — yet his crossbow remained steady, his grip unwavering.

Merle, on the other hand, just chuckled and Anna was starting to realize that laughter seemed to be his automatic default. He whistled through his teeth, glancing at Daryl over his shoulder. “Lookie who decided ta’ put on his big boy panties today,” he sneered and although his expression was furious, Anna could almost hear a sense of pride in his voice.

“Drop it,” Daryl growled, voice low and threatening.

“Well, ain’t that a bitch. Ya rather side with the skank than yer own flesh an’ blood,” Merle scoffed, shaking his head.

When Daryl didn’t waver, Merle rolled his eyes dramatically, lowering the gun with a sour look on his face. “Give it back ta’ her,” Daryl continued, nodding towards the pistol.

Merle once again scoffed, almost incredulously, and threw the gun off to the side.

The archer slowly lowered his weapon, any emotion he was feeling masked by that same stoic look permanently etched on his face. Merle started to move away, but Daryl quickly stepped in front of him. “An’ that,” he said simply, pointing at the necklace wrapped around Merle’s throat.

Merle muttered a string of curses under his breath as he ripped the necklace off and threw it at Anna’s feet. He glanced up at her and winked. “See ya ‘round, darlin’,” he smirked, before clapping Daryl a little too forcefully on the back and storming away.

Even as Anna watched him stalk off into the forest, she could still feel her heart hammering in her chest, afraid he’d change his mind and come back for her.

She quickly bent down and picked up her necklace with shaky fingers, pulling it over her head and exhaling heavily. She clutched the chain and squeezed her eyes shut, pressing her other hand against the cut on her neck, wincing from the contact.

Anna was vaguely aware of Daryl’s presence, who apparently hadn’t followed his brother into the woods. Her eyes shot open, turning to glare at the man, about to tell him to get lost, but something about his expression stopped her.

He was watching her, standing completely still, expression drawn tight — but his eyes…his eyes she couldn’t quite place.

“M’ sorry ‘bout my brother,” Daryl suddenly spoke, breaking the tension. It was the first time he’d addressed her directly and she simply didn’t know what to say. When she remained silent, the archer continued gruffly. “He’s a real prick sometimes.”

Anna scoffed humorlessly. “Yeah, no shit,” she bit back sharply, breaking eye contact with the man.

Wordlessly, she marched over to where Merle had thrown her gun and picked it up, shoving it into the waistband of her jeans. Feeling much safer now that she had her weapon back, she began scooping up everything that had been thrown out of her truck and tossed it all into the backseat. She could feel Daryl watching her move about the scene, yet he made no attempt to help.

Which was fine.

She didn’t want his help. She wanted him to leave her the hell alone.

A fresh wave of anger started building up inside of her. Who the hell did this guy think he was? His brother nearly killed her and now he was just standing there, watching her pick up the few pieces left of her life?

Anna spun around, about to tell Daryl exactly where he could stick his apology, but then once again, he spoke up. “Want me ta’ take a look?”

She froze, confusion spreading over her face. “Excuse me?” she snapped, placing a hand on her hip.

“The truck…I meant the truck,” he clarified, motioning to the open hood. “Maybe I can, uh, get ‘er up an’ runnin’ or somethin’,” he offered, slinging his crossbow off his shoulder.

Anna’s eyebrows furrowed as she stared at the man warily. “Why?” she demanded.

Daryl simply shrugged one shoulder up, shaking his head slightly. “Least I can do.”

Her expression faltered, some of her anger fading. She gave the archer a once over with guarded eyes, trying to gauge whether or not this was some kind of trap. But the man seemed genuine enough from what she could sense — and she also desperately needed a working vehicle if she stood any chance of making it to Atlanta. “I guess,” she finally agreed, nodding her head once.

The man said nothing else and headed straight for the truck, propping his crossbow up against the front wheel. He exhaled heavily as he surveyed beneath the hood, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Anna watched from the side as Daryl began fiddling with different parts, working silently and efficiently. His fingers moved delicately, which came as a surprise considering how he seemed a bit ‘rough around the edges’, to say the least.

He peeked up and did a quick double take, seeming surprised that she’d been watching him. It could’ve been the Georgian heat, but she thought she saw the tip of his ears turn a light shade of pink.

“There’s, uh, there’s some tools in the back if you need them. Not much in there, but maybe something could help,” Anna murmured, crossing her arms over her chest.

Daryl just grunted once, which she figured meant ‘yes’.

Anna made her way to the bed of the truck, hoisting herself up and grabbing the toolbox stashed near the front of the cab. Hefting the box back around the truck, she dropped it near Daryl’s feet and took a couple steps back, letting him continue his work in peace.

She finished gathering all her belongings that had been strewn across the road, keeping a wary eye on the archer and her hand on her pistol — just in case.

Afterwards, she used one of side mirrors to survey the damage done to her neck. The cut wasn’t as bad as she’d thought, not too deep or wide, and it was finally starting to coagulate. Using the sleeve of her flannel still wrapped around her waist, Anna wet the cloth with her tongue and began wiping away the dried blood. After cleaning herself up, she was able to get a good look at the wound. It was only about an inch long gash, but there was always a possibility it would scar.

Anna already had her fair share of scars, but a simmering anger bubbled through her at the thought of her newest. Walkers were deadly. People were cruel.

Anna pushed away from the mirror, coming to stand near the hood, leaning casually against the truck. Daryl didn’t acknowledge her, but she saw his shoulders stiffen slightly. He didn’t seem big on conversation, choosing to work in silence rather than awkward small talk, but she was too curious for her own good. “So, you’ve got a camp around here?” she probed, more so a statement rather than a question.

Daryl glanced up at her from under his eyebrows, almost trying to gauge her words — like he was deciding whether or not she was a threat. He focused back on the truck and grunted once.

Anna took that as another ‘yes’.

“How many people are in your group?” she inquired, crossing her arms over her chest.

Daryl just mumbled incoherently under his breath, not taking his eyes off whatever he was fiddling with.

Anna took that as a ‘none of your damn business’.

“Where ya headed?” Daryl suddenly spoke, making her pause. She hadn’t expected a question in return.

“Uh, the city, actually. I hear Atlanta’s safe,” Anna finally murmured, staring down at her boots.

The archer shot Anna a funny look, before uttering two single words that shattered her world completely. “Atlanta’s gone.”

Chapter Text

What?” Anna whispered in horror, her head snapping up at his response.

Daryl quirked a brow and straightened, wiping his hands on a red rag he’d pulled from his back pocket. “Ain’t nothin’ left. Jus’ them geeks. Whole damn city’s overrun,” he rumbled, watching her reaction carefully.

“How do you know?” she demanded, unable to stop the sharpness in her voice.

Daryl didn’t seem to be affected by her tone and continued on. “We got a guy. Makes runs downtown. Says everythin’s gone ta’ shit.”

“But…but they said Atlanta was a safe zone,” Anna shot back desperately, her thoughts immediately going to her brother, who had still been in the city last she spoke to him. “There’s a refugee center and everything — the broadcasts said to go there. They said that the military set up camp —”

“Military up an’ left,” Daryl interjected. “Or turned if they didn’t.”

Anna felt her last remaining bit of hope shatter, the pieces scattering amongst the ashes of her heart as images of her family clouded her mind. Her father skimming over the morning paper, peering over his reading glasses as he sipped a steaming mug of coffee…her mother perched in front of her vanity mirror, gently brushing her hair…her brother hunched over his car’s engine, patiently pointing out each part and its purpose to his little sister who was thrilled to be spending time with him.

Her entire family was gone, ripped away by this horrible new world. Her parent’s were dead and now her brother was…well, he might as well be dead too.

Anna dropped her head to her chest, hiding the tears that suddenly sprang to her eyes. Atlanta had been a long shot — but it’d been her only shot. And she wasn’t naive. Part of her had always thought that maybe her brother had left the city before the outbreak got too out of hand — maybe he found a less populated town to hole up in. But now, hearing that the city had been totally destroyed…what if he never even made it out of Atlanta to begin with?

Ben could be dead. Ben could be missing. Ben could be hiding out in the middle of nowhere. But all Anna knew for sure was that he was gone. The chances of finding her brother now were nonexistent, the reality weighing on her heart like an anchor. She would never see him again.

Anna could feel Daryl’s gaze burning a hole into her and quickly pushed away from the truck, heading towards the cab instead. Wiping a tear that snaked down her cheek, she hopped into the bed of the truck, letting her legs dangle off the back.

Toying absently with her necklace, Anna brushed away another tear, staring blankly down the long deserted road behind her. She had no idea what she was supposed to do now. Things felt incredibly hopeless, incredibly bleak, and she suddenly found herself wondering what purpose she truly had left here.

Anna heard the hood slam shut and Daryl’s footsteps quietly approaching, coming to stop beside her. She peeked over at him, noticing how he was staring off in the general direction she had been, eyes far away. He stood awkwardly, like he had something to say but couldn’t exactly get the words together, which led him to just shift his weight back and forth.

For the second time, Anna wondered what this man was still doing here. Trying to make up for Merle’s actions? Trying to pay off some kind of debt he thought he owed? Whatever he was trying to accomplish, he didn’t need to suffer through her misery alongside her.

“Why are you still here?” Anna whispered thickly — not accusingly, more so just curious.

Daryl seemed thrown off by her question, looking even more uncomfortable as he shrugged a shoulder up, grunting softly — almost like he himself didn’t even have that answer. “What’s in Atlanta?” he suddenly asked.

Anna cast her eyes down, letting her necklace fall back into place as she took a steady breath. “My brother,” she murmured, hating the way her voice broke.

Daryl didn’t respond, instead choosing to just nod absently. Loss was a part of life — and it became a bigger part of life after the world ended. It was the nature of the game. People lived, people died, people suffered — it was just how things were.

Anna glanced over at Daryl, her brown eyes locking with his blue ones — his expression remained impassive, but something deep in his gaze shifted as a moment of silence passed between the two strangers.

The archer suddenly cleared his throat, pushing away from the truck. “Uh, try startin’ ‘er up.”

A small glimmer of hope bubbled in Anna’a chest as she hopped off the truck. She slid past Daryl, yanked open the drivers side door and jumped inside. Grabbing the keys still lying on the dashboard, she said a silent prayer and shoved them into ignition.

Then, she took a deep breath, turned the key, and the sweetest noise she’d ever heard in her entire life filled the air — an engine roaring to life.

Anna’s breath caught in her throat as she squeezed her eyes shut, letting her head fall back against the headrest, reveling in the moment. She opened her eyes and looked over at Daryl, who was standing next to the open door, the corner of his mouth quirked up in what she assumed was the closest she was going to get to a smile.

“I don’t even know what to say,” Anna murmured, catching his eye. “How did you do it? I can’t…you just…thank you,” she babbled, hoping her words expressed how truly grateful she was.

Daryl merely shrugged, clearly not comfortable taking a compliment. “Gonna need another car soon. Engine’s pretty shot,” he mumbled, shutting the door softly, but hovering near the open window.

“Thank you,” Anna said again, feeling some pressure lift off her chest.

Daryl nodded once, scooping up his crossbow and slinging it over his shoulder. He took a couple steps backwards, clearly waiting for her to drive off.

But Anna paused. She wasn’t exactly sure what her next move was. She could still head for Atlanta, regardless of what Daryl told her. She knew where Ben’s apartment was — maybe she could find answers there. Maybe he was even still alive, waiting for her to arrive. It’d be a suicide mission, navigating a city full of the dead on her own…but then again, what did she truly have to live for?

“Fort Benning,” Daryl suddenly spoke.

Anna turned her head, looking at him curiously. “What?”

“Fort Benning. The army base. Hear it’s a safe zone, still up an’ runnin’, an’ all. There’s been talk a’ my group headin’ that way,” he offered, adjusting the strap of his crossbow restlessly.

Anna nodded thoughtfully. If Ben wasn’t in Atlanta, maybe he’d made the trek to Fort Benning. It was definitely a possibility with it being the next closest safe zone. “Thank you, Daryl,” she murmured, now feeling like she owed himsomething. “Is there anything…can I give you something, or — I-I don’t have much but — ” she began rambling.

“Nah,” he immediately interjected, shaking his head.

Anna sighed. It still felt unfair to just leave. “Are you sure —”

“We’re square,” he countered with a nod, voice unwavering.

And then with nothing more left to say, Anna shot him a small smile, put the truck into drive and started forward.

She’d only driven a couple feet when she heard Daryl call after her. “Hey!” he shouted and she slammed on the breaks, putting the truck back into park.

Anna stuck her head out the window in confusion as the archer jogged towards her. “What is it?” she asked, puzzled as he came to a stop beside her.

“Look, uh…uh,” he paused, eyebrows furrowed as he cocked his head to the side.

Anna then realized that the man didn’t even know her name. “Oh,” she murmured, a bit embarrassed. “Anna.”

Daryl nodded. “Look, Anna, if ya want —  my group, we’re, uh, we’re holed up by the quarry on the other side a’ the mountain. End a’ the road here, ya make a left. Head up the mountain for ‘bout half a mile,” he spilled out, almost in one breath. “If ya ain’t got no where ta’ go.”

Anna couldn’t hide the shock from her face. That was the last thing she’d expected to come out of his mouth — and she couldn’t say she wasn’t intrigued by the thought of not toughing it out on her own anymore.

But after her little encounter with Merle…maybe sticking it out alone was her best bet. “Thank you. But, I’ll be okay,” Anna declined.

Daryl nodded, shrugging a shoulder up. “If ya change your mind, then. We got food…people…protection,” he added with emphasis. “Ain’t too smart bein’ out here on your own anymore.”

Then Merle’s face popped into her mind and his “see ya ‘round, darlin’,” echoed in her ear. “I’m probably safer out here than in a camp with your brother,” she couldn’t stop herself from spitting out, hearing the venom clearly in her voice.

“He won’t bother ya,” Daryl immediately shot back, resolutely.

“How do you —”

“I’ll make sure of it.”

And she believed him.

But, Anna didn’t know him — any of them, for that matter. And her stubbornness got the best of her. “Thanks for everything.”

Daryl seemed to get the hint and nodded once, taking a step back from the window.

Anna sent him a small wave, before driving off. She looked in the rearview mirror to find Daryl standing in the middle of the road, watching her drive off. She kept checking the reflection until he was nothing but a speck behind her.

As she continued down the road, she couldn’t help but start to second guess herself — had she made the right decision? Had she made the smart decision? Were those decisions even the same anymore?

She was torn.

Sure, there was safety in numbers. There was also resources back at Daryl’s camp — resources that she just did not have right now, water being the most vital. Atlanta was apparently in ruins and who was to say that Ben would even still be there? Fort Benning was another option, but what if that place had also been taken over by the dead? It was nearly a hundred miles away from where she was — would she be able to make that trek on her own?

And then there was Daryl. He was the first person she’d come across who gave her hope that not everyone left on earth was a prick. She felt okay with him around — something she hadn’t felt in a long time.

But Anna hadn’t come this far just to give up. She knew how to take care of herself. She knew she could make it at least another five miles to Atlanta. And she had a big brother out there somewhere, maybe looking for her the same way she was looking for him.

The truck rumbled beneath her as she slowed, coming to a stop at the end of the road. Anna looked left and right — left sent her up the mountain towards Daryl’s group and right sent her towards the city.

Anna grabbed her necklace, squeezing her parents rings in the palm of her hand as her stomach flip-flopped.

She’d made it this far on her own. If Ben was somewhere alive out there, she’d never forgive herself for not at least trying to find him. He was all she had left.

His final words to her on their last phone call rang through her mind —“It’s gonna be okay, Annie. Me, you, mom, and dad, we’re all gonna be okay. The freakin’ military just rolled into the city, so don’t you worry about me, okay? I’m safe. Just focus on getting you guys to Atlanta. We’ll figure this out together. I promise.”

Anna took a deep breath. “I’m comin’, big brother,” she murmured, determination coursing through her as she finally turned right.

But as she drove towards the city now populated by the dead, thoughts of her brothers promise replaying in her mind, another voice made itself known — “I’ll make sure of it.”

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat, pushing away any thoughts regarding the gruff redneck who’d saved her life.

She was on a mission — live or die, this was the right decision. Family was the most important thing and damn it, if she didn’t have her family, what did she really have left?

Forcing herself to take a calming breath, Anna began to map out a game plan as the Atlanta skyline came into view.

Chapter Text

The simple five-mile trek to the city ended up taking much longer than expected.

The closer Anna got to Atlanta, the more walkers she stumbled upon — some in groups, some ambling about solo. But she’d spotted a larger looking herd spread out along the main highway and decided backroads were her safest bet.

Once the sun began to set, allowing some of that brutal Georgian heat to fade, Anna decided to pull over for the night, not wanting to navigate the city in the dark. She discovered a rundown gas station with an attached market right on the outskirts of the city and figured it was as safe as any to hole up in for the night. Seeing as Merle had drunk all of her remaining water earlier, she was in desperate need of supplies and prayed the mini-mart hadn’t already been ransacked.

Anna parked her pickup behind the building, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and scanned the area for any signs of biters or other survivors. When all seemed quiet, she crept through the back door of the building, feeling her heart drop when she noticed that the door had already been broken down.

Keeping her pistol aimed and ready, Anna slithered through the back storage area, forcing herself not to gag as the smell of rotted produce hit her. She paused at the doorway that led into the main area, waiting with baited breath for any telltale signs of walkers — but all she heard was silence.

Anna took a breath and continued into the store. She inspected each aisle thoroughly, her gun never wavering from her vice-like grip — but she eventually came to the comforting realization that the store was vacant. She exhaled heavily, feeling her nerves settle for the first time since she’d been on the road.

Anna glanced through the dirty, smudge-stained front windows and spotted the dimming sun — it’s brilliant orange and red colors setting the room ablaze around her. She figured she had about thirty minutes left of sunlight — enough time to search the store for supplies and barricade all the entrances.

As suspected, the mini-mart had already been scavenged, leaving little to no supplies that would prove useful. She did manage to find a couple jars of canned food that had rolled underneath the shelves — most likely knocked over by walkers or hurried survivors that hadn’t bothered to crawl along the floor in search of them — and a couple protein bars hidden behind the counter. It wasn’t much — she would still feel that ever looming ache of hunger in her gut — but it would keep her alive for a couple more days and that was what mattered.

Finding water became her main issue — humans could go a month without food, but three days without water…now, that was a death sentence.

The refrigerators had been totally cleared out — except for a single can of Red Bull that’d been wedged underneath the bottom rack. Anna popped open the Red Bull, desperate to quench her growing thirst. The moment the lukewarm liquid hit her lips, instant relief washed over her, no matter how brief the sensation. She forced herself to take only three small sips, saving the rest for later, before continuing her search.

Anna checked the small, dingy bathroom next, the stench inside enough to send her stomach rolling. But she held her breath and made her way towards the sink, turning on the faucet in hopes that the pipes might still have some water left in them — she wasn’t all too surprised when they turned up empty. It’d been a long shot, but she was growing more desperate with each minute that ticked by.

Right before she turned to leave, her reflection in the mirror above the sink caught her attention. She froze, using her hand wipe away some of the grime coating the glass, unable to hide her shaky intake of breath as she looked at herself fully for the first time in weeks.

She was covered in a mixture of blood and dirt, the dried flakes caked into every crevice of her body, masking her Italian complexion. Her once vibrant, dark brown hair now hung limply down her back, stringy from grease and sweat and lack of basic hygiene. Her face was too thin, with hollowed out cheekbones and light brown eyes that looked too big for her face. With a shaky hand, Anna softly ran her hand over her features, hovering for a moment over her jutted out collarbones.

She was beginning to look like one of the dead.

But it was her eyes that scared her the most — dark circles beneath vacant eyes that had seen too much and done too little. She barely recognized the twenty-seven-year-old woman staring back at her — it was some sort of twisted, warped version of herself, obscured by thick, suffocating layers of pain and guilt and hopelessness.

Anna quickly shoved away from the mirror, unable to stand the sight of herself any longer. She slammed the door to the bathroom shut behind her, taking a moment to lean against the wood and calm her breathing. Her hands trembled at her sides — she told herself it was from lack of sleep and nutrients. But she knew deep down that wasn’t true.

“Focus,” Anna murmured quietly, squeezing her eyes shut to keep from screaming. She licked her chapped lips, her mouth feeling drier than ever as she contemplated her next move.

The sun was just a sliver now, sinking deeper into the Earth. Anna pushed away from the bathroom door, determined to finish what she started before darkness enveloped the store.

She made quick work of closing off the two main exits in the front and back, using old slabs of plywood from the storage room and scattered shelving units to block the open doorways. Her last means of protection was gathering empty cans she found strewn around the store and piling them beneath the single busted open window — so if anyone tried to sneak in through the night, she’d hear them before she saw them.

Anna set up a makeshift bed hidden behind the counter — using her backpack as a pillow and her flannel as a blanket. She tried not to think about how dirty the floor was. Did it really matter at this point?

Anna took a deep breath, turning onto her side and curling her knees into her chest, feeling a shiver wrack through her as she pulled her flannel tighter around her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d fallen asleep unafraid. Even when her parents were alive and she wasn’t surviving on her own, she never slept sound. There were just too many bad things that could happen while her eyes were closed.

She watched the final moments of sunlight dance along the wall before nighttime swallowed the colors into its shadows. The store was deathly still, void of any sound besides Anna’s quiet breathing — the silence was deafening, almost too much to bear.

Anna slipped her hand into her backpack, pulling out a small flashlight she kept in the side pocket and switched the light on. She exhaled shakily, pointing the bright beam on the wall opposite of her. A memory came rushing back to her as she stared at the illuminated, off-white drywall.

Anna’s four-year-old eyes were wide and fearful as she watched the relentless strokes of lightning bounce off her bedroom walls, a deep rumble of thunder shaking her room soon after. Her fingers gripped tightly around the edge of her blanket, pulling the soft fabric up to her chin as she trembled. With each bolt of lightning, the shadows of the branches outside her window flashed onto her walls like outstretched fingers, inching closer and closer to her with each strike.

A particularly earth-shattering crack of thunder evoked a sharp yelp out of Anna’s mouth, causing her to jump out of bed and rush out of her room. She crept down the hallway, her favorite stuffed bunny tucked safely between her arm and ribcage. She reached the door next to her own and pressed her ear against the wood, waiting to hear any signs of movement. Another deep rumbling shook the floor beneath her and Anna quietly cracked the door open.

She slipped inside the room, gently closing the door behind her. Hovering at the doorway, she squeezed her stuffed bunny to her chest, straining her eyes to see through the dark. “Ben?” she whispered softly but heard nothing in return. “Ben?” she tried again a little louder.

Anna heard sheets rustle before a groggy voice spoke up. “Annie?”

“I’m scared,” Anna squeaked, wincing as another bolt of lightning lit up the room.

“Where’s mom and dad?” Ben rasped sleepily, propping himself up onto his elbows.

“Daddy said not to bother Mommy when she’s not feeling good.”

She heard her ten-year-old brother sigh softly, followed by some more rustling. “C’mere,” he murmured.

“But I can’t see anything,” she pointed out, fear lacing her words.

Anna heard another long sigh come from Ben. His bed creaked as he slipped out from under the covers and padded over to where his sister stood. “Here,” he yawned, reaching out and taking her hand in his.

She squeezed onto his grasp, already feeling safer alongside her big brother as he guided her back towards his bed. Anna scurried up the mattress, wiggling under the covers and scooting over to make room on the tiny mattress. Ben slid under the sheets beside her, making himself comfortable once more.

But Anna couldn’t seem to shake her panic. Her eyes were glued to the window, watching the trees bend with the howling wind, waiting for one to snap and come hurling through the glass. “Ben?”

“Hm?” the older brother hummed tiredly.

“I’m scared.”

Ben yawned, rolling onto his side, his back facing Anna. “It’s fine. Go to sleep,” he murmured, words jumbled as he fought off sleep.

“Are we gonna die?” Anna whispered meekly, pulling the covers up to her chin as she scooted a fraction of an inch closer to her brother.

Ben’s eyes shot open and he slowly rolled over onto his other side, coming face to face with Anna’s wide eyes. “Don’t worry,” he finally murmured. “It’s just a storm.”

She nodded her head quickly but jumped as another roar of thunder sounded, her eyes shooting back to watch the window. Ben frowned slightly. “Hey,” he nudged his sister with his elbow, her eyes locking back with his. “Wanna see something cool?”

Anna nodded once again, holding her bunny closer to her chest. Ben grunted as he scooted himself up into a sitting position, reaching into the drawer of his nightstand and pulling out a flashlight from the back. Anna watched inquisitively as Ben made himself comfortable, leaning his back against the headboard, propping a pillow up beneath him — his sister mimicked his stance.

“What’re you doing?” she asked, her curiosity briefly distracting her from the storm.

Ben flicked on the flashlight. “Watch this,” he whispered, pointing the beam of light onto the opposite wall. Then, he twisted his hands into a specific shape and held them in front of the flashlight, his shadow lighting up the wall.

“A puppy!” Anna gasped, a toothy smile spreading over her face as she watched the shadow dance along the wall.

Ben grinned, transforming his hand from a dog to a duck. “Quack, quack!” he sounded quietly, eliciting a giggle from his sister who watched in awe.

“Whoa,” she breathed, mystified.

“Pretty neat, huh?” he smirked, her eyes lighting up as Ben created a new animal on the wall.

“A bunny!” Anna squealed, scrambling to kneel on the bed. “Like mine, Ben! See! Look!” she beamed, holding her bunny towards her brothers face.

Ben nodded, patting the top of the bunny’s head gently. “See? The dark’s not so scary. You just gotta find a light. And then you can make shadow puppets.”

Anna smiled sweetly, wriggling back under the covers, her eyes never leaving the wall. Ben glanced down at her, watching her eyelids grow heavier as he continued to create more animals, the shadows gliding along the wall.

The storm began to settle — the thunderous roars dimming, the lightning becoming less frequent — as Anna finally fell asleep, her head lolling over to rest against Ben’s shoulder. He sighed, her soft snores tugging at his heart as he flicked off his flashlight.

Not wanting to wake her, Ben remained sitting upright, instead choosing to rest his head on top of hers, until sleep eventually came for him as well.

Anna snapped back to reality, feeling a sob rise in her throat as she watched the flashlight shine against the mini-marts crumbling wall. With a shaky hand, she held two fingers in front of the light, creating the outline of a bunny’s shadow against the wall. She sniffled, feeling a tear slide down her cheek as she thought of her brother and how badly she wished he were with her right now. He would know what to do. He always did.

Anna heard a gust of wind blow outside, the trees groaning in protest, leaves scraping against the pavement as they swirled alongside the breeze. Not wanting to waste whatever little amount of battery she had left, she turned the flashlight off, becoming consumed in nothing but darkness.

She held the flashlight to her chest, curling inward as a hunger pain rocked through her body, her lips cracked and dry with thirst, unease coursing through her veins.

Then, with nothing more left to do, Anna cried herself into a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

Anna woke up the next morning feeling more exhausted than ever.

She’d tossed and turned all night, afraid the moment she closed her eyes, something would go horribly wrong. Every time she felt herself begin to doze off, flashes of blood and death would invade her mind, making sleep a futile thing. She could feel the ever-present dark circles under her eyes growing and wondered if she’d ever sleep well again.

Anna scoffed aloud at the concept of sleeping through the night ‘nightmare free’. She hadn’t had a good nights sleep since the world went to shit…and even before that, her dreams had been plagued with the horrors from her everyday life…

Anna scrubbed at her face, hoping a little blood flow would get her up and moving, but she found her limbs heavy as lead. She stared up at the decaying ceiling, feeling the Georgian heat beginning to press against her bones, the day already suffocatingly humid. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of her face, settling at the nape of her neck.

She needed to find water and soon — otherwise, she’d most likely die from dehydration before she even set foot in Atlanta.

Anna groaned softly as she pulled herself into a sitting position, absently rubbing her empty stomach, her fingers tracing the faint outlines of her ribcage — she hadn’t been able to feel her ribs last week. Things were not looking too good for her right now.

With a sigh, Anna clambered to her feet, dragging her backpack and flannel off the ground with her. She straightened out her dirty, torn jeans that hung off her hips, fastening her belt as tight as possible, hating how much room she still had between the fabric and her skin.

Ignoring the nagging in her head that told her she was slowly starving to death, she stretched out the kinks in her neck as she glanced out the front store window. If she had to guess, she’d say it was late morning — the sun wasn’t at its peak, but the morning dew had already settled — which gave her more than enough time to trek into the city and find her brother’s apartment — and hopefully her brother — before nightfall.

Anna started pulling everything out from her backpack, laying it on the counter to take inventory — two cans of string beans, one can of peaches, two protein bars, an open can of Red Bull, half a bottle of Advil, a toothbrush and travel size bottle of toothpaste, half a roll of toilet paper, a flashlight, a can opener, one change of clothes, an empty canteen for water, and her gun with five bullets in the chamber. Her supplies were dwindling faster than she was able to restock and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could survive off one can of string beans a day.

Anna took a generous swig from the opened Red Bull, knowing that the beverage would only result in further thirst but choosing to quench her parched lips instead. She unwrapped one of the protein bars, nibbling on the end as she toyed with the chain of her necklace.

She’d inspected the mini-mart top to bottom for water, but there was nothing — no bottles, no jugs, no cases, no hidden stashes in the storage room, no water in the pipes, not even a god damn vending machine. Scavenging a surrounding neighborhood was an option, but that would delay her getting to Atlanta. Plus, she only had five bullets left and no other weapon on her, leaving her defenseless against more than a couple walkers. But no matter how badly she wanted to get to Atlanta, no matter how badly she wanted to find Ben…she needed to find water first.

Anna finished up her protein bar, ignoring her stomach’s protest for more, and downed the rest of her Red Bull. She would just have to take half the day to scavenge — it was her only option at this point.

With a sigh, Anna shoved everything back into her pack, tied her flannel around her waist, and slipped her backpack over her shoulders. She scanned outside the front building, looking for any signs of the dead as she picked up her gun. Just a few lone walkers limped about the street, heading in the direction of the city. It was nothing to worry about — she would just sneak out the back, hop in her truck, and leave those biters in the dust.

Anna made her way out of the main room and into the storage area. She rolled away the shelving unit she’d propped up in front of the exit, pushing it to the side. But right before she moved the plywood she’d used to block off the open doorway, she paused, spotting something to her left.

A cooking pot.

Not the most convenient weapon of choice, but it was better than firing off her gun and risking the chance of attracting a bigger crowd of biters. Anna picked it up, testing the weight in her hand before tucking her gun into the waistband of her jeans. It would have to do.

Gripping the pot in her left hand, she used her right to pull away the piece of plywood, shielding her eyes for a moment against the glare of the sun bouncing off the pavement.

And then, after her eyes adjusted, she looked around — and what she saw made her stomach drop.

A herd. Right outside the mini-mart. Wandering across the back parking lot. Her appearance having drawn their attention solely on her.

“Oh shit,” Anna whispered in horror, quickly scrambling back inside the store as the first walker made its swipe at her. “Shit, shit, shit,” she hissed, gnashing her teeth together as she swung the pot towards the walker, slamming the bottom against the side of its head. Her heart hammered against her chest as more of the dead began to filter into the store, hungrily reaching for her as she stumbled backward, further into the storage room.

Anna’s stomach plummeted as she smashed the pot against another walker that had gotten too close. There were too many to fight off. She frantically scanned the room, searching for a way out, when she suddenly spotted a rusted ladder attached to the back wall. She had no idea where it led, but if she couldn’t go left, right, forward or backward…she would just have to go up.

Anna landed a powerful kick into the gut of the closest walker, watching as it fell backward into the crowd, knocking a couple others down like bowling pins. She took the opportunity to scramble over to the ladder and began climbing as fast as her body would allow her. She felt a hand wrap around her ankle but quickly kicked it off, climbing until her head touched the ceiling. Wrapping her shaking limbs around the ladders top rung, Anna looked down.

A mass of the dead crowded below her, the group so vast she could no longer see the floor. Outstretched hands reached up towards her, some soaked in blood, others rotting to the bone — but all vying for her flesh, fueled by nothing but innate hunger. Their collective groans grew into one deafening growl, sending Anna’s heart into overdrive as her grip began to quiver around the rung.

Anna took a deep breath and forced herself to think rationally. Someone wouldn’t attach a ladder to the wall if the ladder didn’t lead somewhere…she turned her gaze away from the dead and scanned the ceiling above her, using her fingertips to feel for some sort of door or latch.

Within seconds, she felt a groove in the ceiling. Using her finger, she followed the crack until she felt a handle. A burst of hope shot through her as she twisted the handle, using her shoulder to push the hatch up. Sunlight surged through the opening as Anna climbed through the hole and onto the flat top roof of the mini-mart, slamming the flap closed behind her.

Stumbling backward, Anna ran a shaky hand through her matted hair, sliding her backpack off her shoulders as she frantically looked around. She inched towards the edge of one side of the square building and peeked over, feeling as though someone punched her in the gut at the sight of how many walkers had swarmed there. She scrambled to look over the other three sides of the building, seeing nothing but an endless crowd of biters — even more ambling out of the woods, drawn in by all the commotion.

Backing away from the edge, Anna fell to her knees, splaying her hands out in front of her, her fingernails digging into the concrete.

What the hell kind of ending was this? After everything she had been through, she was either going to climb off the roof and get massacred by walkers…or she was going to stay put and die a slow, miserable death due to starvation and dehydration. Feeling every ounce of fight drain out of her, Anna curled up on the roof, too tired and too discouraged to do anything else.

The roar of the dead below eventually dulled as Anna closed her eyes and thought of her family. She pictured her father’s eyes — warm, like honey — so similar to hers. She remembered her mother’s smile — weary, but bright — even on the days she couldn’t muster the strength to get out of bed. She imagined her brother’s hands — strong and calloused from spending hours working on car engines — guiding her away from their mother’s hospital room…

Anna squeezed her eyes shut even tighter, curling her knees closer to her chest.

Things had gone from bad to worse to downright shit.

And now, the undeniable truth was this — for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Anna Brooks was completely screwed.

Chapter Text

Anna’s eyes snapped open, confused and disoriented. She had no idea how much time had passed since she shut her eyes — but as she turned her face up towards the sky, she noticed big, bulbous clouds rolling in, blocking most of the sun.

Anna sat up slowly, grimacing as she licked her chapped lips. All the moisture in her mouth had depleted, leaving her throat raw and achy. She slowly crawled towards the nearest edge of the roof, peeking over the side. The horde hadn’t lost interest, still clawing at the sides of the building.

Anna sat back on her heels, squeezing her necklace in the palm of her hand. She could make a run for it — jump down the ten-foot drop and sprint for her truck. Or she could wait it out — the herd was bound to forget she was on the roof eventually, once something else drew its attention.

But then Anna thought of Ben. If her brother was still in Atlanta, he could be in trouble and need her. Sure, the man she’d met yesterday — Daryl, if she remembered correctly — told her Atlanta was destroyed but what the hell did he know? How was she sure she could trust him? What if he was just as twisted as his brother?

Daryl’s face suddenly popped into Anna’s mind — more specifically, his eyes. She thought about how blue they were…how guarded…how they narrowed with distrust as he inspected her. But there was something else there — something deep in his eyes — that she couldn’t quite place. And her gut was telling her that he’d been telling the truth.

Anna groaned softly, rubbing her temples in an attempt to chase away a growing headache. She huffed a breath — it didn’t matter what Daryl said or if it was even true. She had to see for herself. Maybe Ben had stayed behind and hunkered down in his apartment. Maybe he took off and there were clues as to where he had headed. Regardless, Anna had to see for herself.

Having made a decision, Anna pulled herself to her feet, swaying slightly, ignoring how the world tilted beneath her. She slipped her backpack over her shoulders, cocked her gun, and grabbed the pot she had found. She was going to make a run for it.

She moved towards the back of the roof and spotted her truck just fifty feet from the building. All Anna had to do was find an opening and —

Suddenly, a noise caught her attention.

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

Anna froze, standing up straight and straining her ears.

Pop.

Pop.

She could’ve sworn the sound was coming from the city…it sounded a lot like distant gunfire.

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

And she wasn’t the only one who heard it, because suddenly, a big group of roamers began shuffling away from the building and towards the road, heading in the direction of whatever made that noise. Anna walked to the front of the roof and ducked down, watching a mass of walkers form as they ambled down the road, en route towards the city.

Pop.

Pop.

It was definitely gunfire. And it was definitely coming from the city. That meant that maybe, just maybe, Atlanta wasn’t totally destroyed after all. Maybe there were other survivors. Maybe even her brother…

A new plan quickly formulated in Anna’s mind — almost half of the walkers below had staggered away, increasing her chances of making it to her truck. All she had to do was wait on the roof just a little longer and maybe even more of the dead would leave.

She would wait one hour. And then, she’d make her move.

Anna had no way of tracking the time, so instead, she began counting. Because when the world ends, what else was there to do? So she started counting up to sixty in her head, tallying each time she got there on her fingers.

She was at number forty-three for the fifty-sixth time, when she heard the most beautiful sound in the world.

A sharp crack of thunder.

Anna’s eyes snapped up towards the sky just as a drop of moisture hit her cheek. With a trembling hand, she scooped the raindrop onto the tip of her finger and brought it to her lips, instant relief washing over that area of dryness.

And then, following a loud rumble of thunder, the skies opened above her.

Anna sprinted to her bag, fumbling for her empty canteen and unscrewing the top, setting it down on the roof. She picked up the cooking pot she’d found in the storage room and inspected the inside for any walker blood, before placing it beside her canteen, watching as a small amount of rainwater began to cultivate.

A delirious sort of giggle pushed its way past Anna’s lips as she knelt down, tilting her head towards the sky, allowing the rain to wash over her.

After everything she’d been through, it was about damn time for some good luck.

She opened her mouth, allowing the raindrops to quench her growing thirst, and suddenly felt tears spring to her eyes. Another elated laugh bubbled out of her as she scrubbed at her exposed skin, hoping to wash away some of the grime from her body in the process. When the rain ceased a couple minutes later, Anna deflated.

She remained kneeling for a few more moments, ringing out her soaked hair and rubbing at her face with the excess water, feeling more awake than previously. She crawled over to where she left her canteen and pot, inspecting how much water she’d been able to collect. Her canteen barely filled enough for one sip, but the pot, on the other hand, had gathered enough rainwater to fill at least a quarter of her canteen.

Pots weren’t the most convenient weapons, but they sure did come in handy.

Anna sat cross-legged as she carefully poured the water from the pot into the canteen, making sure not a single drop was spilled. She licked the excess water from the sides of the pot, before taking a swig from her canteen, closing her eyes in pure euphoria. It took all her willpower to not take another sip — she needed to ration the little water she had until she got to Atlanta. She quickly screwed the cap back on and shoved it into her pack.

Anna took a deep breath, feeling better now that she had water — plus, she didn’t have to waste time scavenging and could head straight for downtown instead. With newfound determination, she slung her pack over her shoulders and surveyed the biter situation below. There were still several walkers scratching at the building, but not nearly as many as before.

“Now or never,” Anna grumbled as she swung her leg over the edge.

But suddenly, another distant sound echoed from the city.

A car alarm.

Anna faltered as the alarm continued to blare for a couple minutes before the noise began to get louder and louder. It wasn’t long before the car sounded as if it was just on the other side of the trees — out of eyeshot, but within earshot. And the walkers heard it too. She watched as the majority of the dead below pushed away from the wall and limped away towards the trees, following the noise.

Anna nearly wept with relief, unable to believe the luck she was having and sent a silent thank you to whoever had been stupid enough to set off a car alarm. Now, all she had to do was distract the remaining biters below. A thought struck her as she turned the cooking pot over in her hand.

She suddenly ran towards the back right corner of the roof, throwing the pot over the edge. It landed on the pavement with a clatter, just loud enough to draw the attention of the lingering dead.

Like she’d said…not convenient weapons, but they came in handy.

Anna jogged back to the left corner, spotting a clear area below. It was only about a ten-foot drop if she jumped…but if she hung first, that’d cut the fall in half. Before she made her move, she reached into the side pocket of her backpack and grabbed her car key, holding it firmly between her teeth.

Then, taking a deep breath, Anna used what little strength she had left to slowly lower herself off the roof, hanging onto the edge with her fingertips, her body now dangling. She craned her neck over her shoulder, making sure the coast was clear, before letting go and falling to the pavement.

Anna dropped with a huff, wincing as her ankle rolled slightly beneath her. A couple of straggling walkers noticed her sudden appearance and took off towards her. Anna grabbed the car key from her mouth, grit her teeth together and forced herself to stand, limping towards her truck as fast as possible.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she hissed, the biters not far behind. She finally made it to her truck and yanked open the door, sliding inside and slamming it shut behind her. Anna shoved the key into the ignition, the engine roaring to life just as the walkers ambushed the truck. They reached inside the open window with their rotting hands — but just before they grabbed her, she shoved her foot against the accelerator.

Anna sped out of the parking lot and onto the main road, choosing to drive back the way she came — away from Atlanta — in case she happened to catch up with the herd. Once the gas station faded in the distance, Anna was finally able to take a breath, placing a hand over her racing heart. She was alive purelybecause of luck — and it was all thanks to whoever fired that gun and broke into that car in Atlanta.

All she could do was hope those survivors made it too.

Anna decided to try her luck on highway 85 — it was a straight shot to the city and only a few extra minutes out of the way. The drive ended up being somewhat enjoyable — the brief storm had cooled off some of the humidity and Anna found herself humming along to an old T.V. commercial she used to love, clearly on a high from her narrow escape. When she approached the main stretch of highway into Atlanta, she slowed, taking in the dismal sight.

The road was clear leading into the city, but the other side — driving away from the city — was filled to the brim with hundreds — maybe even thousands — of abandoned vehicles. Anna felt a shaky breath escape her lips, examining the cars as she drove by. Some were covered in streaks of blood, others with dirt and filth. Some had car doors that were still strewn open as if the occupants had left in a haste, others had broken windows and windshields. It looked like a scene out of a movie.

Anna wondered what happened to the people who owned these cars — if they were alive or dead, or maybe one of the walking dead. She turned her gaze towards the growing skyline, examining the decimated buildings as she drove closer. She couldn’t help but feel a pinprick of worry hit her — the city was abandoned, that was for sure. But it was deathly quiet. Not a gust of wind or a flap of a birds wings. It was silent.

Not wanting her truck’s rumble to attract any attention towards her, Anna decided to park right outside the city and walk the remaining distance. She found a railroad that was about a mile away from her brother’s apartment and figured it was as good as any to park her truck. She rolled to a stop below a bridge and shut off the ignition, scanning the area as she hopped out.

Anna was surprised at how empty the streets were. Sure, she wasn’t expecting other survivors to just be moseying around, but not even a single biter could be found. It was as if every living thing had suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth — and it sent a chill through Anna’s bones.

“Please be here, Ben,” Anna whispered aloud, grunting as she hefted her backpack over her shoulders and began walking. She kept her gun tight in her grip at all times, praying she wouldn’t have to use it, but also not wanting to be caught without it.

The streets were covered with assorted debris, smears of blood lined the sidewalks, streetlights were knocked over, some laying atop of more abandoned cars. Anna had only been to Atlanta a couple times, enough to have a vague sense of where she was headed. But without the usual buzz of commuters, heavy traffic, and bustling sidewalks, the streets were beginning to blend together.

The entire trek, Anna kept expecting to turn a corner and bump into a giant herd — or at least a large cluster of the dead. But as she traveled deeper into the city, she began to realize that she was utterly and completely alone.

Anna wiped away the sweat forming on her forehead, suddenly spotting her brother’s street ahead. A burst of hope shot through her as she began jogging the rest of the way, keeping her footsteps light. She turned onto the street, scanning the area briefly for the dead, but when all remained clear, she continued running. She located the five-story building halfway down the block, and her jog turned into a full-blown sprint.

Her breaths came out in huffs as her bones groaned in protest, but she forced herself to keep running, pushing past any aches, the desire to finally reach her destination overriding any pain. Anna slowed as she came to a stop in front of the building, heart pounding against her chest from the exertion and the fear of what she was about to walk into.

Anna took a breath, adjusting her grip on her pistol, and walked through the already opened entrance.

The lobby was small and barren — most likely due to looters, she figured. It was covered in dust and grime, but there was surprisingly no dead bodies or roaming biters — there wasn’t even a blood splatter, from what she could see.

Anna spotted the stairway at the end of the lobby and hurried towards it, the door creaking as she pushed it open. She began climbing the stairs, hating how quickly she became winded — but she pushed past the discomfort and forced her legs to carry her to the third floor, where she knew Ben’s apartment was.

The door to the third level came into view and Anna nearly wept with relief — she made it. After weeks of traveling, losing her parents during the journey, practically losing herself…she had finally made it here. She shoved the door open and slid into the hallway — stopping immediately in her tracks.

Unlike the lobby, the third-floor hallway was…gruesome.

Anna gagged at the stench that immediately hit her, like rotting flesh mixed with molding garbage. She buried her nose into the crook of her elbow, ignoring how her eyes began to water. And the walls…the pale yellow walls were coated in red liquid, streaks of blood that had dried were smeared over the wallpaper and along the carpet. Flies buzzed around the narrow hall, searching for something foul to land on.

Anna swallowed the lump growing in her throat as she slowly walked to Ben’s door. Her gut was telling her to turn back, that she wasn’t going to find what she was looking for here. But she couldn’t. Not after everything she had gone through to get here. She had to see for herself.

Steeling herself for whatever she was about to walk into, Anna pushed open her brother’s front door, taking notice that it had already been busted in. She took a step inside, closing the door shut behind her softly.

To her surprise, Ben’s apartment looked practically untouched — there were a few open drawers, some scattered paper and clothing, and a smell that told her that the garbage hadn’t been taken out in far too long. But other than that, it looked relatively normal.

Anna took a breath, feeling her eyes well up with tears. There was no way her brother was here. She felt it in her heart. But still, she couldn’t help herself. “Ben?” she called out softly, her voice breaking as she stood rooted by his front door.

She squeezed her eyes shut at the deafening silence that followed her call, refusing to accept the reality of her brother’s absence. But just as she was about to call out his name again, she heard something.

Thud.

It was faint, but it was there, and her eyes snapped open. “Ben?” she called again, a little louder as she walked further into his apartment, trying to locate the sound.

Thud.

Anna spun around, her eyes zeroing in on the closed bathroom door across the room. She slowly approached the door, spotting a shadow along the bottom crack of the doorway, her heart speeding up as she pressed her ear against the door.

“Ben?” she whispered, straining her hearing.

And then, Anna felt her heart shatter into dust as a low, guttural, hungry growl sounded from the other side of the door.

Chapter Text

Every ounce of hope inside Anna escaped her lungs in one breath.

She pressed her forehead against the creaking bathroom door, feeling the rotted limbs on the other side pounding against the wood, its groans growing louder. But Anna couldn’t seem to move from the spot she’d frozen in — afraid that once she opened the door, she’d come face to face with her greatest fear…losing her brother.

“No,” Anna whispered, pushing away from the door. “No, no, no, no,” she mumbled, storming towards the small kitchen on the opposite side of the room. It can’t be him. It just can’t be, Anna told herself, frantically yanking open each and every drawer, searching for some sort of weapon. She jerked open the cabinet below the sink and spotted a small toolbox. Hefting it onto the counter, she unlatched the top.

The first tool she spotted was a hammer. She grabbed the handle, testing the weight in the palm of her hand, before spinning around and marching back to the bathroom — the walker behind the door becoming more and more frenzied from the racket she’d made.

Anna grabbed the doorknob and paused. What if it was Ben behind the door? What if all of this had been for nothing? Would she really be able to ‘put down’ her own brother? She didn’t think she’d ever come back from that.

Anna gnashed her teeth together, pushing away her tormented thoughts, and twisted the knob. 

Once the door opened a crack, she took several steps backward, waiting for the walker to wiggle out on its own. The walker stumbled out of the bathroom, its sights zeroing in on Anna. She kept herself at a safe distance, narrowing her eyes, raising her hammer — it was hard to tell if it was Ben or not, due to its decaying flesh and drooping skin. She could tell it was male — or at least used to be — but other than that, the features were unrecognizable.

Anna jumped back as the walker swiped at her. “C’mon, damn it!” she shouted, growing more and more frustrated. She dodged another swing, watching as the walker fell off balance from its own momentum.

Seeing her opportunity, Anna grabbed the biter by the throat, using her foot to kick its kneecap in backward. The walker dropped to its knees before Anna tackled it to the ground, keeping one hand firmly against its throat, forcing it to lay on its back. As the dead snarled beneath her, she maneuvered her body so that she straddled over its middle, using her feet to keep its hands pinned down. Still, Anna found it too difficult to distinguish who it was on top of its vicious writhing.

She was starting to lose her grip when suddenly, she spotted something on the side of its neck — a tattoo.

The ink was sagging, bits of ripped flesh tearing across the thick, black marking, but it was a tattoo, no doubt about it.

And Ben didn’t have a neck tattoo.

Anna nearly sobbed with relief at the realization that this monster was not her brother. Raising her arm high about her head, she slammed the claw of the hammer down into the forehead of the biter, its movements stilling immediately. She stumbled away from the body, placing her hands on her knees as she took deep breaths.

It was a bittersweet moment for Anna. She was so thankful that the walker wasn’t Ben, meaning her brother might very well still be alive out there. But, if he wasn’t here in his apartment…where was he?

A fresh bout of frustrated tears sprung to Anna’s eyes as she kicked away from the wall, beginning to pace the length of the apartment. Her eyes fell on the walker she’d taken down, a course of anger rushing through her veins.

With a huff, Anna grabbed the walker by the ankles and began dragging the body along the hardwood floors. She managed to maneuver it through the front door and out into the hallway, the horrible stench from before as strong as ever. Before she made her way back inside, Anna grabbed the handle of her hammer, yanking at it roughly — but the claw remained embedded in the biter’s skull. She tugged even harder, losing her balance once the claw snapped free — she noted the difficulty of removing the claw and reminded herself that she’d have to use the head next time.

Anna slid back into Ben’s apartment, desperately needing to escape the repulsive smells in the hall, and slammed the door shut. But as she closed the door, her eyes suddenly landed on something she hadn’t seen when she first walked in…a note taped to the back of the door.

Anna recognized the illegible scrawl of her brother’s handwriting and inhaled shakily, pulling the note off the door. She took a moment to trace her fingers over the outline of his words, moving to sit down at the kitchen table. Biting her lip anxiously, she began reading.

A,

The military’s evacuating the city. If you’re reading this, that means you guys made it to Atlanta… god, I hope you’re reading this. It’s not safe here. Not anymore.  I’m so sca  I’m okay, sis. I’ll stay as long as I can. But if you find this note, I left for the Fort Benning  refue  refugee center. Some people are saying it’s already been overrun by whatever the fuck’s happening out there — but I don’t know  what else to do  where else to go. So I’m gonna try for Benning — I’ll wait there for you. Take care of mom and dad. Please be safe, Annie. Please be okay.

I love you, sis.

- B

Anna reread the letter over and over, tracing over his scribbled words, most likely written in a rush. She tried to ignore the streak of blood on the bottom left-hand corner and the way his handwriting seemed to get more and more distorted as the sentences went on. She read the letter until the lines blurred together, until she could’ve recited it word for word by heart.

Take care of mom and dad. A pang of guilt coursed through Anna — Ben didn’t know about what happened to their parents. For all he knew, the rest of his family was alive and well and searching for him at this very moment. If only he knew the brutality of their deaths…if only he had seen it firsthand as Anna had…the graphic images forever burned into her memory...

I’m gonna try for Benning — I’ll wait there for you. Anna had barely made it to Atlanta alive…how the hell was she supposed to get to Fort Benning with limited supplies, no backup, and a deteriorating truck? What if the refugee center no longer existed? Before the broadcasts shut off, the voice on the radio had been directing any survivors to head for Atlanta — and look how that turned out. If Ben had started the trek to Fort Benning and found out it’d been destroyed, that meant he could be anywhere. If he was even still alive, for that matter…

Anna glanced up from the paper, suddenly noticing that dusk had begun to envelop the room. She stood up and headed towards the open window, leaning out and peering down below — a few lone walkers had ambled into view, mindlessly roaming the empty streets. She wasn’t about to venture through the city at night, so she decided staying in her brother’s apartment was the smartest move.

Anna made quick work of securing the place, locking the front door and pushing the couch up against it for good measure. There was no balcony or fire escape outside the windows, so she left them open, allowing some fresh air to enter the space. She inspected the rest of the apartment, checking closets and other nooks and crannies for any hidden walkers or unwanted guests.

Once the place was fortified, Anna used the last remaining moments of light to search the kitchen for any nonperishable goods or water that’d been left behind. She opened the doors to the refrigerator and was immediately hit with the putrid smell of rotted food. Burying her nose in her arm, she pushed aside old cartons of Chinese food, spoiled milk and produce, searching for anything that hadn’t expired already.

When the fridge came up empty, Anna began searching the cabinets. She had more luck in the pantry, coming across half a sleeve of saltines, a can of black beans, and a jar of olives. A smile spread across her face as she thought of the wonderful spread of food she’d have for dinner that night.

A memory struck Anna and on a whim, she decided to check the freezer before she called it quits — and boy oh boy, was she glad she did. It was inside the freezer that she found two lukewarm unopened bottles of water. An incredulous laugh escaped her lips as she grabbed the bottles, turning them over in her hands.

Summers in the south had been unbearable. Anna recalled on most of those hot, sunny days, Ben would stash water bottles in the freezer. When Anna would question him, he’d say ‘Long, hot days call for ice, cold water.’ Anna would roll her eyes but accept an icy beverage anyways. Today, she couldn’t be more grateful about old habits dying hard. “Thank you, Ben,” she murmured aloud, feeling some weight lift off her chest.

The night passed quickly — Anna was able to put together a small plate for dinner, munching on her meager meal at the kitchen table. She filled her canteen with one of the water bottles, shoving the extra one in her backpack. Afterward, she peeled off her dirty, sweat-soaked clothing and slipped into one of Ben’s old t-shirts that he’d left behind, before crawling into bed.

She curled up beneath the sheets, keeping her gun tucked under the pillow, feeling the day’s events finally catching up to her. Her body felt heavy — limbs tired, stomach aching, growling for more food than she was able to provide. But she was hydrated and she was warm and she was alive — she was okay.

Anna wasn’t surprised when the nightmares came — they always did. But when she woke up with her heart racing, she grabbed the collar of her t-shirt and brought it up to her nose. It smelled vaguely like Ben, a little musty from sitting in his drawer for so long, but the scent was still there. And she felt her nerves calm.

When morning came, Anna laid in bed for a while. She was still exhausted, but it didn’t affect her as much anymore — it was just an aspect of who she was now. She sighed, running her hand through her knotted hair, struggling to formulate a new plan of action.

Since Ben wasn’t in Atlanta, she had no purpose being there — sure, she hadn’t run into many walkers when she arrived, but there had to be a herd somewhere in the city. Downtown Atlanta was not safe anymore — Ben had said so in his note. Her only other option was Fort Benning.

It was about a one hundred mile trek from the city if she recalled correctly. Ben may or may not be there…the base may or may not still be running…but what other choice did she have? She had to at least try — she had to see for herself. That seemed to be her mantra these days.

Anna knew her pickup truck was on its way out, so she figured she’d drive as far as it would take her, and then she’d walk the rest of the way — unless she stumbled upon another vehicle, which would be incredibly helpful.

As for supplies, she had enough to last her a couple days — and she could always scavenge for more if needed. She could take care of herself. She could do this.

Feeling confident, Anna mustered the strength to get out of bed and changed into her extra set of clothes, preparing for the road ahead. After getting ready, Anna packed up her backpack and headed for the door, pushing the couch out of the way, but pausing before she reached for the knob. She turned back around, taking one last look around the apartment, an echo of sadness washing over her. Right before she turned to leave, she spotted an old frame with a picture of her and Ben hung on the wall.

Anna grabbed the frame, popping open the back and slipping the photo out from behind the glass. She ran her fingers over the glossy picture — her and Ben smiling wide, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, nearly doubled over with laughter. Ben had made some smart-ass joke before the picture had been taken — she couldn’t remember what he said, all she could remember was the ache it brought to her belly from laughing so hard.

She sighed softly, swinging her backpack off her shoulders. She slipped the photo into the side pocket of her pack, alongside the note Ben had left for her to find. Then, after her gaze swept the room one final time, she made her leave.

Anna decided to take advantage of the apartment complex and spent the entire day scavenging supplies for the road. She worked through each floor, each room, one by one. Opting to use her newly acquired hammer instead of wasting her limited bullets, Anna took down any stray walkers trapped inside the rooms. She fell into a sort of rhythm — open the door, kill the dead, search the home. She only kept items she really needed, her backpack already incredibly heavy, straining her shoulders — but she soldiered on.

By the end of her hunt, she left the building with two more water bottles, a box of matches, a couple cans of tuna, and a stick of deodorant. It may not have seemed like much, but it was all she could fit in her pack and all things she desperately needed. Anna even found a pair of combat boots, just her size, and decided to get rid of her old, broken-down sneakers. Her body was tired and sweaty from a hard days work, but she left the complex feeling satisfied with her finds.

All she had to do now was navigate her way back to her truck. Anna crept out of the complex, scanning the street for any threats — at the opposite end of the block, a small group of biters had formed, but they were far enough away that she could escape without notice. With her hammer gripped tightly in her hand, she jogged through the streets of Atlanta, keeping her footsteps light and her senses on high alert. At one point, she was forced to cut through an alleyway due to a blockade of the dead, but she luckily remained unnoticed.

Anna had to slow to a walking pace at one point, the weight of her full backpack leaving her breathless, as she neared the end of her mile run out of the city. She suddenly recognized the location and knew her truck was only a couple blocks away, parked right beneath the bridge ahead. The sun was beginning to dim, late afternoon settling over the city. She hadn’t realized how much time had passed during her day-long supply hunt, but she was glad she took the time to scavenge — it would come in handy later.

Anna had never been so relieved to see her pickup finally come into view — her legs felt like jello, her shoulders spasming in pain as she adjusted the straps of her pack.

But as she got closer to her truck, her blood suddenly ran cold when she realized she wasn't alone anymore.

A soft hiss escaped her lips as she ducked behind an abandoned car, peering over the hood at the strangers surrounding her truck. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, but she saw three of them — one African American man on his back beneath the steering wheel, looking as though he was trying to hotwire her truck. One younger looking Asian man wearing a baseball cap, who paced nervously back and forth. And one middle-aged man with some sort of sheriff’s hat, sporting a duffle bag filled with guns.

Anna couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they looked as though they were in the middle of a tense conversation. She crept forward once the coast was clear, hiding behind one of the bridge’s pillars, their voices now carrying.

“— make it back before dark. It’s only a few miles, we can just —”

“Almost got it, alright? Jus’ gimme a second,” the man working on the car snapped.

“He could be back at camp already! We need to go now,” the younger Asian boy shot back, adjusting his grip on his rifle.

“An’ we’ll get there a lot faster with a vehicle,” the sheriff interjected calmly, but Anna could tell by the way he fidgeted, he was anxious.

“Jus’ one more minute, alright?” the man grunted, pulling wires out from beneath the wheel.

Anna felt her heart begin to speed up and before she could think twice, she shoved her hammer into her backpack and grabbed her gun instead. “Hey!” she shouted, jumping out from behind the pillar, aiming her gun towards the men.

The men looked startled at her sudden appearance, their attention snapping towards her as she took a step closer, praying they couldn’t see her grip wavering. The Asian boy lifted his rifle, aiming it at Anna, but looked more confused than intimidating.

“Hey, easy!” the sheriff snapped, pointing a finger at the boy. “Put it down, Glenn,” he urged, training his eyes back on Anna. “Let’s jus’ take it easy, alright?” he addressed her directly this time.

“Get the hell away from my truck,” she demanded through clenched teeth, tightening her grip around her pistol.

“Okay, okay,” the sheriff nodded, motioning towards the man inside the truck. “C’mon, T-Dog, you heard the lady.” The man named T-Dog seemed reluctant to move but eventually went to stand beside Glenn, his fingers twitching at his side. “Our apologies, ma’am,” the sheriff continued. “We didn’t know the truck belonged to anyone.”

Anna narrowed her eyes — what the hell kind of game were these men playing? “Back up,” she ordered.

The sheriff nodded, directing his group to follow his lead. “Why don’t you lower your weapon, okay? Don’t need anyone gettin’ hurt out here, right?” he spoke calmly and Anna could totally picture the man being a cop before the end of the world. “My name’s Rick Grimes,” he offered, placing a hand on his chest earnestly.

“Look, I’m just trying to get out of the city,” Anna shot back, taking a step closer to her truck, wanting this encounter to be over and done with. She didn’t trust other survivors — ever.

“I understand that. We’re jus’ tryin’ to get back to our camp, is all,” Rick responded, his words genuine and Anna found herself slowly lowering her gun — something in her gut telling her this man wasn’t one of the bad ones.

But then suddenly, the three men were no longer looking at her…they were looking behind her.

Anna’s stomach dropped as she spun around, simultaneously raising her gun, coming face to face with…a crossbow. Chest heaving, her eyes landed on the person holding the weapon and her stomach dropped.

It was the man from the road — the man who saved her life.

Except for this time, he wasn’t looking at her with guarded eyes, curiously inquiring about her life, offering her shelter and safety.

This time, his expression was cold and calculating, unflinching as his finger twitched towards the trigger.

Chapter Text

Time seemed to stand still as Anna stood toe to toe with the archer, each training their weapons on the other, both refusing to back down.

“Daryl, enough!” she heard Rick call from behind her, but the archer simply narrowed his eyes.

Anna couldn’t comprehend the character shift she was witnessing from the man in front of her. Just two days ago, he was willing to go up against his own brother for her sake. He’d saved her life, fixed her truck and on top of all that, offered her a place in his group. What the hell could’ve happened since then to manifest this hostility?

She’d clearly been wrong about the archer — she’d believed he was a decent man, most likely one of the only ones left on Earth. But she was wrong. He was just like everyone else — dangerous, cruel and out for themselves.

Whatever was going on with him, Anna wasn’t going to play into it. She huffed a breath when Daryl still refused to stand down, slowly lowering her weapon, standing with her arms out at her sides. “Go ahead,” she challenged. “Finish what your brother couldn’t,” she leveled coldly, watching a flash of something flicker through Daryl’s eyes.

She heard footsteps rapidly approach and then the sheriff was standing beside them, looking impatient as he held a hand out towards Daryl. “I said enough, Daryl,” Rick stated lowly, giving him a stern look.

Daryl finally pulled his eyes away from hers, shooting the sheriff a nasty look. “Who the hell died an’ made you head honcho, huh?” the archer spat. But still, he lowered his crossbow.

“Come on, you guys,” Glenn suddenly urged, a desperation to his voice. “We’ve got bigger issues here.”

“The kid’s right,” T-Dog interjected, taking a step closer. “We need ta’ get movin’. It’s already gettin’ dark.”

“This is y’all’s fault ta’ begin with, ya know,” Daryl shot back, pushing past Anna without a second glance. “If y’all hadn’t left him on the roof like some kinda god damn animal, this could’a been avoided,” he snapped, beginning to pace back and forth

Anna turned on her heel, confusion spreading over her face, a million questions racing through her mind. But she didn’t say anything — it wasn’t her place and all she really wanted to do was get the hell out of the city.

“Merle was out of control, Daryl. He was —”

“Ta’ hell with all y’all!” Daryl growled, cutting Glenn off, waving his hand around angrily.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. He’s probably headed back to camp right now — we need to go,” Glenn continued, ignoring the archer’s outburst.

“Well, c’mon then!” Daryl commanded, slinging his crossbow over his shoulder and storming away. Glenn and T-Dog looked between Anna and Rick with uncertainty, before taking a couple steps back, motioning for the sheriff to follow.

Anna fully expected the sheriff to take off — but when he remained steadfast, she glanced up at him, surprised to see that his eyes were trained on her. “You gonna be alright?” Rick suddenly asked, a hint of worry in his gaze.

“Huh?” Anna retorted, puzzled. She had met a lot of people after the world ended — but she had never met a man like Rick Grimes. “What? Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she shook off, her eyes wary as she tried to figure out his angle here — and more importantly, why he gave a shit about whether or not she would be ‘alright’.

“C’mon, Rick! Ain’t got time ta’ sit ‘round the campfire singin’ kumbaya!” Daryl snapped, becoming more and more agitated from ahead.

Anna shot the archer a dark look, her hands balling into fists at her sides. Daryl leveled her stare icily. She tore her gaze from his, pushing down whatever insult she was about to hurl at him. Rick gave her an apologetic look as he ran a hand over his face. “Take care a’ yourself, alright?” he murmured, Anna nodding slowly in return.

Then, with nothing more left to say, he started jogging towards the other men.

Anna’s eyes trailed back over to the archer, who was watching her intently as she began making her way towards her truck. She yanked the door open as Rick met up with the others, the tail end of an argument between the archer and sheriff floating through the air.

“— not right to jus’ leave her like that.”

“Ain’t our damn responsibility!”

“It wasn’t right.”

“Oh, so now ya’ll got some kinda damn moral compass? What ‘bout my brother?”

Listen to me — if Merle goes back to camp an’ pulls anythin’, I mean anythin’ —”

“Lemme handle my brother, alright?”

“That is my wife an’ my son there. If anything happens —”

That was the last thing Anna heard as she watched the four men begin jogging down the railroad track, their voices fading the farther they got.

Anna pulled herself into her truck, tossing her backpack onto the passenger seat, and exhaled heavily. It was hard for her to comprehend what just happened — between the hostility from Daryl, the unwarranted kindness from Rick, and hearing the vague details about some incident involving Merle, it was a lot to process. A shiver wracked through her at the thought of Merle and their previous encounter, her fingers absently grazing the cut on her throat.

Anna pushed away the unsettling memory and started the truck, her eyes unwillingly trailing back towards the four men getting smaller and smaller in the distance. She took a breath, ready to start her trek to Fort Benning, but something stopped her.

She tried to ignore the nagging sensation in her heart, the inexplicable pull she felt towards the men she’d come across. But no matter how much she rationalized things — the journey ahead, the desire to find her brother, the fact that the men were complete strangers to her — there was one small fact that kept her from driving off and never looking back — and that was Daryl.

Because regardless of his sudden shift in behavior and whether she liked to admit it or not…he had saved her life. And the fact of the matter was that she owed him.

Anna groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. “Shit,” she mumbled, kicking herself for what she was about to do. Then, she put her truck into drive and started speeding off in the direction she’d seen the men last.

Anna caught up to the group only a few minutes later, impressed by the amount of distance they’d covered in such a short amount of time. Then before she could stop herself, she leaned her head out of the open window. “Hey!” she called out, the men stopping dead in their tracks, regarding her cautiously, all four out of breath. She sighed, her features softening. “Want a ride?”

The men shot each other wary looks before Rick ultimately stepped forward. “We couldn’t ask —”

“You’re not asking. I’m offering,” Anna interjected, motioning them forward with her hand. “C’mon, I’ll give you a ride back to your camp.”

Rick made the first move forward, Glenn and T-Dog following in suit. Anna locked eyes with Daryl, who clenched and unclenched his jaw, before storming towards the bed of the truck and jumping in. The sheriff slid into the passenger seat, placing Anna’s backpack in the back seat as Glenn and T-Dog joined Daryl in the cargo area. “Thank you,” Rick spoke once he slammed the door shut. “You didn’t have ta’ do this.”

“I know,” Anna nodded, shooting the archer a look through her rearview mirror. “But I owe the prick back there a favor,” she grumbled, not needing to clarify who she was talking about.

Rick just nodded, pointing out which road ahead to turn on.

Anna began driving, flipping on her headlights as the sun began to fade. Her mind raced a mile a minute, demanding for her to explain just what in the hell had gotten into her. She had avoided other survivors at all costs, people time and time again proving just how cruel the human race could be. She worked well alone, solitude agreeing with her for the most part — sure, it was a lonely existence, but it was safe. She had survived thus far and had to attribute that towards her decision to be on her own.

But here she was, hauling four strangers to god knows where. How did she know there was even a camp? How did she know this wasn’t just a ploy to ambush her? To steal her things? Maybe even worse?

But as she glanced at Rick from the corner of her eye and at Daryl, Glenn, and T-Dog through her rearview mirror, she felt nothing. No hint of worry, no subtle nudge of discomfort, no feeling in her gut telling her to ditch them and run — even after her not-so-friendly reunion with Daryl.

Maybe it was because deep down, Anna’s will to survive was slowly dwindling. Maybe she’d finally reached that point of acceptance where she just truly didn’t care about what happened to her anymore.

Or maybe, just maybe, she’d finally encountered a group of incredibly decent survivors.

“I’m sorry, I never got your name,” Rick suddenly spoke, cutting off Anna’s thoughts.

“Oh,” she murmured, clearing her throat slightly. “Anna Brooks,” she spoke, shooting Rick a small smile.

“Well then, on behalf of the prick back there,” Rick sighed, jerking his head towards the bed of the truck, “thank you, Anna Brooks.”

Anna scoffed lightly and nodded once, turning on the road the sheriff had pointed out.

“How’d you know Daryl?” he inquired, his fingers tapping incessantly against his pant leg. He seemed anxious, maybe deciding small talk would take his mind off the apparent trouble at his camp. Anna pressed just a little harder on the accelerator, wanting to get them home sooner.

She paused, unsure of how to go about his question. “My, uh, my truck broke down a few days ago. He kinda appeared out of nowhere and got it running again,” she shrugged, deciding not to delve into the full story.

Rick nodded silently, his eyes scanning the road warily. “An’ what brought — turn up here — what brought ya to the city?” he questioned, directing her down another winding road.

Anna followed his directions, gnawing on her bottom lip for a moment. “Uh, the broadcasts, actually. Before they shut off, I mean. They said there was a refugee center downtown and all that,” she explained, narrowing her eyes as she maneuvered the darkened side street. “My brother was supposed to be there,” she finished quietly.

Rick was silent for a moment and Anna took that as her opportunity to flip the question.

“What about you?” she asked, her eyes flickering up to the rearview mirror to check on the others. She noticed Daryl staring off towards the passing trees, his expression troubled — but when his gaze flashed her way, a stoniness settled over his features and she quickly looked away.

Rick was quiet again. “We had an issue with a member of our group yesterday — had ta’ leave him behind, otherwise none of us would’a made it out. Went back today ta’ get him an’ he was gone,” he sighed, his words laced with guilt.

Anna knew he was talking about Merle and had a certain inkling as to why he was left behind — the man was dangerous, plain and simple. He was a reckless junkie who gave zero shits about everyone and everything.

She figured that must’ve been one of the reasons behind Daryl’s sudden shift in character — he was pissed at his group for leaving Merle behind. And then on top of that, after making the trek into the city to bring him back, had discovered that he’d apparently taken off. But Anna was sure that deep down, underneath all that animosity, Daryl was really just worried about his missing brother — and she could relate.

“You did what you had to do,” Anna murmured simply, shrugging a shoulder up.

Rick scoffed lightly, shaking his head. “Explain that ta’ Daryl Dixon back there,” he muttered heavily.

Anna opened her mouth to respond, but a strange noise suddenly sounded.

Pop.

Pop.

“Is that the engine?” Rick questioned, shifting in his seat as Anna slowed her truck, the brakes groaning in protest. A heavy silence settled over the cab, both Anna and the sheriff straining their ears through the open windows for where the noise had come from. And then suddenly, it sounded again.

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

But it wasn’t coming from the truck — it wasn’t even the engine.

It was gunshots.

A stream of incessant pops began echoing throughout the night as Daryl jumped to his feet and banged his fist on top of the truck. “Hey, it’s comin’ from camp!” he hollered.

Rick let out a shaky breath, his knuckles turning white as he clenched his fists. “Drive,” he uttered in horror, his voice trembling as Anna immediately slammed her foot onto the accelerator, the truck lurching forward.

Her heart pounded against her ribcage as she pushed her truck as fast as it would go, winding up a steep dirt road, covered in nothing but darkness. Rick was murmuring something under his breath — almost like a prayer of some sorts — as he reached into the bag strapped across his chest. He began pulling out several different types of guns — rifles, handguns, shotguns, pistols — making sure they were all loaded as he directed Anna down another dark path.

Anna gripped the steering wheel tightly, feeling her palms begin to sweat against the leather. “C’mon, baby,” she murmured under her breath, praying her truck had enough left in it to make it up the steep hill it was climbing. The gunshots started getting louder and louder, alerting the group that they were close. It wasn’t long before a large RV suddenly came into view, a small fire dwindling in the middle of an open area.

Anna narrowed her eyes, scanning the field for movement — and that’s when she saw them.

Walkers. Waves upon waves of the dead filtering in from the trees, circling around a small group of people, only visible by gunfire.

Anna skidded her truck into the campsite, slamming onto the breaks as Rick’s door flew open, a desperate shout escaping his lungs as he ran towards the others. “Lori! Carl!” he screamed, firing at a nearby walker. Daryl, T-Dog, and Glenn had already jumped out from the back and were taking down every single biter in their path.

Anna didn’t think — she just moved. She put her truck into park and leapt out of the front seat, grabbing her pistol and joining the fight. Her five remaining bullets ended up in the brains of five dead ones before she was forced to switch over to her hammer.

It seemed like for each walker she killed, two more took its place. The camp was filled with deafening gunfire and screams, but Anna tuned it all out, focusing solely on each biter that came into view. Chest heaving, she slammed her hammer against the temple of one of the dead, before quickly searching the campsite — there was a group of survivors backing up towards the RV, huddles of walkers feasting on fresh kills, and a graveyard full of dead biters.

Some of the people armed with guns had spread out along the trees, moving closer into the herd. Anna took a couple steps back, wiping away a streak of blood spatter from her face. She turned once more to look at the group huddled near the RV and suddenly spotted a boy.

He was young — probably eleven or twelve years old — with big fearful eyes, holding onto the back of a dark-haired woman’s shirt — who she assumed was his mother. But what he didn’t see was the biter who’d strayed from the herd and was now rapidly approaching him from behind…

“Hey, kid!” Anna shouted, trying to get the attention of the boy or the mother. But over the roar of gunfire, her cries fell on deaf ears. “Kid!” she screamed desperately, taking off towards the boy, just as the walker reached for him with its blood-stained fingers.

Anna threw herself at the biter, tackling it to the ground in one swift motion. All of the air from her lungs escaped in one big whoosh as she hit the dirt floor, feeling the skin on her left palm split open as she skidded against a perturbing rock. She hissed in pain as she wrestled against the walker, fumbling for the hammer she’d dropped on impact. Anna quickly flipped onto her stomach, spotting the weapon just ahead, and desperately reached for it.

But a cry escaped her lips as she felt a heaviness slam into her back, bony hands twisting into her hair and yanking her head backward. She wriggled beneath the walker’s weight, grappling to free herself from its clutches, but the biter simply pulled her head farther back. A hungry growl sounded against her ear as its hot breath spilled across her throat, teeth snapping just inches from her flesh.

This was it. This was how it ended for her. She couldn’t say she was surprised — she’d figured if she didn’t take her own life, the dead would. An odd feeling of peace spread through her as time slowed for a fraction of a second, Anna’s gaze lifting towards the starry night sky. A shaky breath escaped her lips as she squeezed her eyes shut, welcoming death with warm, open arms…ready to be reunited with her family once more…

But the pain never came.

Instead, the body on top of her stilled, its full weight pressing against her. Anna’s brow furrowed as she twisted her body out from beneath the dead, grunting from the exertion until she was freed. She took a deep breath, quickly scooting backward through the dirt before she stilled, noticing something she hadn’t before.

An arrow shot clean through its temple.

Anna faltered, searching through the darkness until her eyes landed on the man she knew it belonged to — and there stood Daryl on the opposite side of the camp, crossbow in hand, gaze locked on hers, a slightly wild look in his eyes.

Then the gunfire ceased, the campsite eerily quiet, the only sounds coming from soft cries of grieving survivors who’d lost loved ones.

Anna tore her gaze away from Daryl’s, cradling the hand she’d cut open against her chest as she collapsed backward, laying flat against the soil. She exhaled a shaky breath, heart hammering against her chest, eyes wandering the glistening night sky.

And she wondered silently to herself…just what in the hell had she gotten herself into.

Chapter Text

No one slept that night.

The survivors worked from dusk until dawn, sifting through the decimated camp, dividing the dead walkers from their dead friends and placing them into separate growing piles. They worked in silence, the grief settling over the camp nearly tangible.

Anna stuck around to help clean up the aftermath — she’d felt like it would’ve been disrespectful not to. She had no ties to these people, dead or alive, but just because the human race was destroyed, that didn’t mean humanity had to fade along with it. No one questioned her presence either — she received some curious looks, but she just kept her head ducked down and focused on whatever task she was dealing with.

Her heart felt heavy, the gruesome images from the attack seared into her brain. She’d seen so much death and destruction since the world ended, it was all starting to blend into one, long, never-ending nightmare.

The morning became just as grim — it’d been brought to light that one of the survivors, Jim, had been bit while helping take down the herd the night before. His fever was already starting to take over, hallucinations bending the cusp of reality, and Anna knew it wouldn’t be long until he turned — she’d seen it happen before. There was no coming back from a bite.

Anna took a break from dragging yet another biter to the growing fire, the group having decided to burn the dead and bury their own. Stretching out her sore muscles, she arched her back, relishing in the brief moment of relief it brought. She tightened the cloth wrapped around her torn palm — she’d ripped off a strip of her flannel, using it as a makeshift bandage around the hand she’d cut open tackling that final walker.

She peeked under the cloth, inspecting the angry red slash mark, picking at the dried blood caked around the wound. Gritting her teeth together, Anna pushed away any discomfort and reached down to grab the ankles of the walker below her, continuing her trek to the fire.

“Need a hand?” came a soft voice from behind.

Anna craned her neck, spotting the mother of the boy she’d saved standing in her path. “Uh…yeah, sure,” Anna nodded, voice rasping from being unused.

The woman quietly walked over to stand opposite of Anna, bending down to hoist the biter up from its armpits. They made it to the fire much faster working together, each slightly out of breath as they tossed the body into the flames with a huff. Anna paused, wiping the sweat that formed on her brow with the back of her hand. She felt eyes on her and glanced over at the woman who was watching her, an odd expression on her face. “Want me to check that out?” she suddenly asked, pointing towards Anna’s makeshift bandage.

“Oh, no. It’s okay. Thank you though,” Anna waved off immediately.

The woman sighed, taking a step closer. “You saved my sons life,” she stressed, tears suddenly swarming her vision. “Least I can do is wrap your hand properly,” she finished, a steely determination settling over her face.

Feeling a bit cornered, Anna relented, nodding her head in acceptance. The woman shot her a tight smile, motioning for her to follow. “I’m Lori, by the way,” the woman introduced as Anna fell in step beside her.

“Anna,” she retorted, reaching out to shake the woman’s outstretched hand.

“I’m gonna grab the first aid kit — you just go on an’ make yourself comfortable by the fire pit, alright?” Lori urged, her expression taut despite the kindness in her eyes.

Anna nodded, parting ways with the woman and heading towards one of the lawn chairs set up near the fire pit. She winced as she lowered her body onto the chair, not realizing until that moment how sore her entire body was. She hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours, barely ate or drank anything, and was finally feeling the aftermath of her scuffle with the walker that almost ended her life.

That should’ve ended my life, a quiet thought suddenly snuck up.

Anna sighed, surveying the campsite. Glenn and T-Dog were working together to carry more bodies to the fire. An older woman, with buzzed gray hair and a faraway look in her eyes, held a young blonde girl to her chest, absently running a hand through the girls short hair. The other police officer in the group who’d already introduced himself to Anna — Shane — was hunched over a map, speaking in hushed tones with an older man wearing a khaki fisherman’s hat.

And then her eyes landed on Daryl, who was wielding a pickaxe and making sure the dead stayed dead. She watched as he swung the pickaxe into the temple of the dead, grunting as he yanked the blade out. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the crook of his arm, resting the weapon against his shoulder as he turned.

His eyes suddenly flashed towards Anna, narrowing when he realized she’d been watching him. But Anna didn’t back down, holding his gaze steadily until he clenched his jaw and stalked back into the forest.

Daryl had saved her life — again. For someone who seemed to trulydislike her, he sure was making it a habit of keeping her alive. Twice now he had interfered, putting a stop to whatever had been putting her life at risk. Which led her to believe that maybe underneath all of the archer’s stoniness, he had a heart. She had seen it before — that day she first met him on the road, she saw it. He could’ve left her to fend for herself against Merle, he could’ve left her stranded, he could’ve walked away. But he didn’t.

She sighed once more — there was no use in trying to unravel the enigma that was Daryl. She wouldn’t be sticking around long enough to figure him out. As soon as the bodies were cleared and buried, she was leaving for Fort Benning like she should have from the get-go.

Anna saw Lori striding her way, first aid kit in hand. She silently sat on a chair opposite of Anna, balancing the kit on her knee as she rifled through the supplies, pulling out antiseptic and a bandage. “Alright, lemme see,” Lori murmured, setting the kit by her feet as she held out her hand. Anna untied the knotted flannel strip, hissing as some skin was pulled along with it, the blood having dried against the cloth. She held out her exposed palm to Lori, who held it gently, examining it close to her face. “Not too bad. We’ll have you fixed up in no time,” she assessed, a soft smile tracing her pretty features.

“Thank you,” Anna replied quietly, allowing Lori to begin cleaning the cut, wincing as she dabbed antiseptic along the wound. “How’s your son doing?” she asked, trying to distract herself from the sting.

“He’s okay…” Lori hesitated, looking up at Anna. “Carl’s strong. He’s a real strong boy. He gets it from his father,” she emphasized, her eyes softening as she glanced over to where her son sat beside the older woman and her daughter. “So, have you been on your own long?”

Anna paused, gnawing on her bottom lip for a moment. “Uh, kinda. A couple weeks, I think.”

“An’ before that?” Lori questioned, unraveling the bandage, satisfied that the wound was cleaned thoroughly.

Anna reached subconsciously for her necklace, squeezing the rings in her hand. “I was with my parents,” she murmured simply, not needing to go into detail.

Lori looked up at her, expression somber. “Oh, honey. I’m sorry.”

Anna shook her head quickly, letting the rings fall back against her chest. “It’s okay. It’s just how things are these days, right? I mean, look around,” she scoffed humorlessly, motioning towards the growing pile of bodies near the RV. Lori followed her stare, nodding sadly as she began wrapping Anna’s hand.

“It never gets easier,” Lori exhaled. “Loss, I mean,” she clarified, sniffling softly.

Anna hummed in agreement, her gaze landing on a blonde woman sitting by the RV — she hadn’t moved from that spot all night, still holding hands with one of the survivors who hadn’t made it.

Lori followed Anna’s eye line over to the pair of women. “Amy was such a sweet girl,” she murmured, voice thick with emotion.

“Who’s the other woman?” Anna asked quietly.

“Andrea. Her sister,” Lori explained as she finished tying the bandage around Anna’s wrist. “Amy came back. Andrea put her down. But she still won’t let us take her — even pulled her gun on my husband when he tried to talk to her,” she griped, clearly not happy with Andrea’s threat.

“I’m sure she’ll come around once she’s ready,” Anna sighed sympathetically as she examined Lori’s handiwork. “Thank you for this,” she spoke, holding up her bandaged hand, quickly changing the subject.

Lori waved her gratitude away. “Like I said — least I could do.”

Anna forced a smile before pushing up from her chair and heading back to work, needing to distract herself from her haunting thoughts. All she could think about was Ben and if she and her brother had been in the position Andrea and Amy had been in…would she have been able to pull the trigger?

She hoped she’d never have to find out.

The rest of the morning remained uneventful. The group had decided to put together some semblance of a funeral, wanting to bury their own and pay their respects. And once again, Anna found herself sticking around. She could never seem to find the right time to make her leave, something always drawing her back in.

By early afternoon, the entire group was standing on top of the quarry’s peak, the Atlanta skyline in the distance, watching the bodies of their loved ones being rolled into shallow graves. Anna stood off to the side, hands clasped tightly in front of her, watching body after body disappear beneath the Earth. But it wasn’t until Andrea stepped forward that it became too much for Anna to bear.

Watching the woman’s quiet desperation as she gently maneuvered her sister into her grave broke Anna’s heart. She recognized the defeat and utter sorrow crumpling the woman’s features, so similar to her own. Anna wiped at a stray tear that snaked down her cheek before she turned on her heel and made her leave, hurrying back down the hill and to the campsite, unable to watch any longer.

The campsite was quiet with the others still up the hill and for the first time, Anna felt like she could finally take a breath — she found peace in the silence. She wandered past the RV and came to a stop beside the quarry’s cliffside, overlooking a breathtaking body of water below.

Fort Benning. She needed to start making her trek to Fort Benning — she had to know whether or not her brother had made it there. That was the point of everything she had done up until now and she wasn’t going to stop until she found the answers she was looking for.

The quiet didn’t last long, a truck’s rumble sounding through the air, followed by a crowd of shuffling footsteps. Anna peeked over her shoulder, watching Daryl park his pickup near the RV, sparing her a quick glance before he stormed off to his tent. She watched as the group dispersed, some joining together by the fire pit, others heading towards their respective tents.

Her eyes then landed on the sheriff bringing up the rear of the group, hand in hand with Lori, their son running ahead to catch up to the little blonde girl. Rick caught Anna’s gaze and leaned in to kiss Lori’s cheek, before parting ways with her and making his way towards the cliffside where she stood.

“Afternoon, officer,” Anna greeted with a small salute. He scoffed lightly, some of the tension in his face fading despite the fact that he looked as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“How you holdin’ up, Brooks?” he inquired, nodding towards her injured hand as he came to a stop in front of her.

“Could be worse,” Anna shrugged. “Hey, I’m sorry about your people,” she murmured, kicking at the dirt with the toe of her boot.

Rick nodded quietly, eyes far away before coming back to settle on her. “Could’a lost a lot more if you hadn’t shown up.”

Anna shook her head, brushing him off. “Oh, I really didn’t — ”

“You did,” he urged, his expression worn but gaze fierce. “You didn’t have to give us a ride, but you did. You didn’t have to help us with that herd, but you did. I haven’t had the chance to properly thank you for last night. My son is alive an’ that’s because of you.”

Anna didn’t know what to say, watching as Rick’s eyes flooded with emotion, his gaze swiveling towards Carl, giggling alongside Lori near the fire pit.

He cleared his throat, turning his attention back to Anna. “Now, I know you said before that you’ve got a brother out there somewhere. An’ you said you were thinkin’ of tryin’ for Fort Benning, is that right?”

Anna simply nodded, still taken aback at the sheriff’s words.

“I met a man a couple days ago. He told me there were rumors about the CDC an’ how it might still be up an’ runnin’. Now, Fort Benning is a hundred miles in the opposite direction. I think we should try for the CDC — maybe they’re workin’ on a cure, maybe there’re other survivors,” Rick paused, quieting his voice as he took a step closer to Anna. “Jim’s gettin’ worse an’ we can’t stay here — all those gunshots last night…we might as well have rung the dinner bell. Those walkers from the city could be headin’ up this way as we speak. I think this may be our best shot,” he implored, seeming sure about this new course of action.

Anna’s brows knitted, confusion spreading over her features. He was speaking as if she was involved in this decision — ‘our best shot’. “If you think the CDC is the best move, I would trust your gut,” Anna finally responded. “But my brother left me a note in Atlanta. He said he was heading for the army base. So that’s where I need to go.”

Rick exhaled, looking torn for a moment. “I get it, Anna, I do. Family’s everythin’. But this world jus’ isn’t what it used to be,” he pressed, holding out a hand warily. “Now, riskin’ it on your own…the chances of you gettin’ there may be slim. But in a group, you may jus’ have a better shot. You got people watchin’ your back, you got supplies…an’ if the CDC’s a dead end, we can turn back an’ try for Fort Benning.”

Anna crossed her arms over her chest, still unsure why she was being included amongst this group of strangers. “Why does it matter what I do? You’ve got your own people to worry about, don’t you?”

Rick cocked his head to the side as if she was missing the point. “You’ve more than earned your place in this group, Anna,” he expressed sincerely. “It’s your decision, of course, but I think it’d be good for us all to stick together — an’ I’ve seen you take on those geeks. I know you can handle your own out there. We need more people like that in this group if we stand any chance of survival.”

Anna exhaled heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose as she mulled over his words. “Yeah, no pressure,” she scoffed sarcastically. The corner of Rick’s mouth quirked up as he waited for her answer. “Look, you guys seem like good people — otherwise, I would’ve been long gone by now,” she began. “But my brother…he’s all I’ve got left, you know? I mean, what if the situation was reversed? What if it was your family out there?”

An odd expression flashed across his face as he paused. “I’d do anythin’ to find them,” he admitted truthfully, a weightiness to his words but Anna didn’t press the matter.

“So would I,” Anna shrugged meekly, watching as Rick’s expression deflated, although he seemed to understand where she was coming from.

But as a heavy silence hung in the air, she wasn’t sure as to why she was suddenly so torn about her decision — finding Ben meant everything to her. It’d been something she’d been so dead set on. It’d been what kept her alive this long. But now, after finding this group, after hearing Rick’s words…that certainty wavered.

“Jus’ think about it, alright?” Rick finally relented, placing a hand on his hip as he scanned the camp. “We’re leavin’ first thing in the mornin’. Stay the night an’ see how you feel tomorrow, okay?” he offered.

Anna found herself nodding in agreement before she realized what she was doing, the sheriff possessing a compelling nature in the art of persuasion. Rick shot her a tight smile, reaching forward and squeezing her shoulder gently.

But as he walked away, heading towards his family and the group of survivors Anna felt so drawn to, she came up with one, single, frustrating conclusion — she was more conflicted now than ever before.

Chapter Text

Dusk crept upon the camp quickly. A couple members of the group had already turned in for the night, exhausted from a long day of work and loss. The rest remained huddled around the small fire pit, some speaking in hushed tones, others trapped in their own thoughts.

Anna made herself comfortable beside the fire, fighting away a chill that wracked through her body. She watched as Lori began divvying up food for the group, scooping each meal into separate bowls and handing them out one by one. Anna had offered up some of the rations she’d acquired from her brother’s apartment complex — the can of black beans and the can of peaches — wanting to contribute something for the group’s hospitality.

Dinner consisted of black beans, a small portion of fish, and for dessert — one half of a canned peach. Lori handed her a bowl and as if on cue, her stomach growled wildly, eliciting a sad smile from her new friend. But Anna shrugged it off and dug in, forcing herself to take small measured bites, wanting to savor each and every morsel.

It wasn’t until she was halfway done with her meal, that she suddenly felt like she was being watched. Her head snapped up, scanning the crowd around the fire, half-expecting the culprit to be the archer shooting her another dirty look. But she spotted Daryl on the opposite side of the fire pit, isolating himself away from the others, eyes glazed over as he watched the flames dance. Anna’s brow knitted as she craned her head to the right, faltering once she realized who had been watching her — the blonde little girl, huddled beside her mother, staring at Anna’s bowl of food.

Anna slowly chewed what she had in her mouth, noticing how thin the girl’s arms were, wrapped around her slender body. The way her cheekbones hollowed and collar bones jutted out. The little girl’s bowl was practically licked clean, sitting at her feet, her eyes glued to Anna’s remaining dinner — and she felt something tug at her heart. She saw a lot of herself in the little girl, remembering all the times she’d gone to bed hungry growing up, the little money her father made going towards her mother’s treatments instead of provisions for the household…

Anna shook away the memories, sighing softly, before turning to face the girl. “Hi there,” she smiled, noticing how the girl startled at the sudden attention. “I’m Anna. What’s your name?”

The girl buried herself deeper into her mother’s side, looking up at her with big, questioning eyes. The mother smiled tightly at her daughter, nodding once encouragingly, the two seeming to have a silent conversation. “I’m Carol,” the mother spoke, voice soft and meek, her body curled inwards, almost protectively. “This is Sophia,” she introduced, running a hand through her daughter’s short blonde hair.

Anna smiled warmly. “Hi Sophia,” she shot the girl a small wave, a pang of sadness hitting her when the girl flinched slightly. The mother and daughter seemed constantly on edge, eyes darting around the camp nervously, never speaking more than a few words at a time. When Sophia didn’t respond, Anna continued. “Hey, want to help me out with something?” she asked, noticing how the girl sat up a little straighter, her curiosity piqued. “So, I had a huge dinner last night and I’m pretty stuffed, to be honest. But I don’t wanna put this to waste. Do you want the rest?” she offered, holding out her half-full dinner bowl.

Sophia eyed the bowl eagerly, her hands twitching out towards it, but suddenly Carol intervened. “Oh, no. No, thank you. That’s very kind of you, but we can’t accept that,” she immediately declined, a strained smile flittering across her lips.

Anna regarded the mother earnestly, pursing her lips together. “It’s nothing, really. I swear,” she urged softly, before glancing down at the girl. “Like I said, I’m stuffed. You’d really be doing me a solid here, Sophia,” she continued, keeping her tone lighthearted, glancing up at Carol from under her eyelashes and giving her an encouraging nod.

Sophia licked her lips quickly, peeking up at Carol who’s features softened, pausing for a long moment. “Go ahead,” Carol whispered with a nod, words tangled in her throat as she locked her teary gaze with Anna, mouthing ‘thank you’ over Sophia’s head. Anna just smiled, pushing her bowl closer to Sophia, who scooped it up with her bony fingers. “What do you say?” Carol nudged her daughter, quickly wiping away a tear that slipped down her cheek.

“Thank you,” Sophia murmured shyly, the hint of a smile tracing her features as she began scarfing down the rest of Anna’s dinner.

Anna felt a warmth spread through her chest, despite the growing ache in her belly. She had lied, obviously — she was starving. She hadn’t eaten a full meal in weeks, her ribs becoming more and more visible each day that passed. But Sophia…she was just a little girl. And sometimes sacrifices had to be made — sometimes a little kindness went a long way.

Anna sighed softly, rubbing her hands together to create some warmth as she turned back towards the fire, her body stilling when she noticed something — every single person sitting around the fire was frozen, all eyes trained on her. Apparently, her private conversation between Carol and Sophia hadn’t been as private as she thought.

Some looked astounded, others smiled kindly in her direction, and Anna felt her cheeks redden from all the sudden attention. She cleared her throat awkwardly and slowly stood up. “I’m, uh, I’m gonna turn in,” she announced quietly, feeling incredibly exposed all of the sudden, wanting to escape the scrutiny.

As she turned to leave, she spotted Daryl watching her walk away, only pulling his gaze from hers when Lori moved to hand him his own dinner bowl.

Anna ducked her head down and hurried to her truck, which was still parked in front of the RV. Still feeling slightly flushed, she took a moment to breathe deeply, shaking out the fuzziness in her fingertips.

Rick had been kind enough to lend her an extra pillow and blanket, allowing her to set up a rickety little bed in the back of her pickup. She sifted through her full pack, grabbing her travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste, quickly brushing her teeth before hoisting herself into the bed of the truck.

With a heavy sigh, Anna laid down, pulling the blanket to her chin, staring up at the clear night sky. She’d slept in worse conditions before — but tonight she had a pillow and a blanket. She was happy.

Anna figured sleep would become a futile thing with her mind ticking nonstop. She still had a big decision to make — stay with the group or risk it on her own. She’d been going back and forth for the better part of the evening — each time she swayed towards one choice, another reason to go with the other would pop up.

Her thoughts were filled with never-ending questions and so few answers — would she make it to Fort Benning on her own? Was Fort Benning even still standing? Had Ben made it to the army baseat all? Or was he already gone? What would he think of this new group? What did she think of this new group? What if she went with them to the CDC and the CDC was destroyed? Could she trust this new group? What if they weren’t who they appeared to be? What if she found herself fitting in with them? What if she found her placewith them? What would Ben want her to do? What would Ben do? What should she do?

Anna groaned softly, feeling the start of a migraine begin to form as she absently rubbed her temples and squeezed her eyes shut — she would give anything to finally have some clarity. She opened her eyes, feeling her thoughts stray as she focused above instead. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, allowing millions of beautiful, shining stars to be gazed at, the deep blueness of the galaxy vast behind them.

The quiet was peaceful. It was calm. Anna simply breathed, feeling the day’s events begin to weigh her body down, the heaviness of sleep creeping upon her. But just before she closed her eyes, she suddenly heard someone clear their throat.

Anna jolted up with a soft gasp, not having heard them approach, and swiveled around to see who it was.

She had to hide the look of surprise on her face when she saw none other than Daryl standing beside the bed of the truck.

Anna locked eyes with the archer, feeling slightly breathless for a moment as she pushed the hair back from her face. “Hey,” she murmured softly, watching him nod once in return.

An awkward silence passed between the two as Daryl glanced past Anna and towards the darkened city skyline, shifting his weight back and forth uncomfortably. Anna furrowed her brows, picking absently at the bandage wrapped around her palm, waiting for him to talk first. When the quiet stretched on for a moment too long, she couldn’t help but speak up.

“Look —”

“I —”

Both Anna and Daryl’s words overlapped, having spoken at the same time, neither finishing their sentence as they waited for the other to go on. The archer quickly nodded, motioning for Anna to continue.

She sighed, running a hand through her matted hair. “Look, I meant to — uh, I just…” she sighed. “Thank you for what you did last night,” she finally mustered, shrugging a bit helplessly. “You saved my life — again,” she pointed out, scoffing humorlessly.

“Was nothin’,” Daryl brushed off gruffly, kicking the toe of his boot against the rear tire.

Anna’s lips pursed as she waited for the archer to continue, wondering why he’d come over in the first place. He hadn’t exactly been the most welcoming person in the world since she’d run into him again. In fact, he’d been downright disrespectful. Yet…here he was, some of that harshness melted off his features, seeming a bit lost for words and Anna once again, couldn’t seem to get a read on him.

She gnawed on her bottom lip a moment longer. “Did you need something? Or…” she urged, trying to give the man an out.

But he just shook his head. “Nah,” he grumbled, before straightening up, his deep blue eyes locking with her light brown ones. Then, he raised one of his hand and set a bowl on the edge of the truck’s bed.

Anna’s brows knitted as she slowly reached for the bowl, pulling it towards her and peeking inside — and there she saw a full bowl of food, the same meal that’d been distributed for dinner. Her head snapped up, confusion spreading over her features. “What’s this?”

Daryl shot her a look. “Ya lied ta’ that lil’ girl. Ya practically skin an’ bones.”

“I’m fine,” Anna protested, unsure why she felt slightly offended by his accusation, subconsciously pulling the blanket further up her body. “I’m not taking your food, Daryl.”

The archer simply shrugged. “Had a huge dinner last night — don’t wanna put it ta’ waste,” he rumbled pointedly, recalling her words from earlier.

Anna ignored the swell of warmth spreading through her chest. She quickly shook her head, offering the bowl back. “No, I can’t. Youneed to eat.”

“An’ so do you,” he shot back resolutely, turning on his heel as if to leave, ending the conversation.

“Wait!” Anna called after him, feeling muddled as she tried to figure out what to say. Daryl glanced over his shoulder. “Thank you,” she managed, her tone a bit wary as if waiting for the punchline.

But the archer just nodded once, before continuing the walk back to his tent, zipping the entrance closed behind him without another word.

Anna stared at his tent for another long moment, completely baffled as to what just happened. With a frustrated grunt, she fell back against the side of the truck, holding the bowl on her lap. She was having trouble keeping up with the archer’s mood swings — one moment, he was holding a crossbow to her head, looking at her as if she were the devil himself, and the next, he was saving her life and making sure she didn’t go to bed hungry. She couldn’t keep up.

But as her stomach let out a loud growl, Anna decided to put aside her conflicting emotions and dig into the lukewarm meal, moaning blissfully as her empty belly began to fill. She tried not to think about Daryl, but somehow, someway, he just kept on prodding his way into the forefronts of her mind. He was a mystery, that one. And Anna wondered if deep down, there was more going on with him than met the eye.

The food disappeared rather quickly. Anna licked the bowl clean as to not leave any scraps behind and let out a content sigh as she placed the bowl down beside her. She hadn’t felt this full in weeks. A quiet giggle escaped her lips as she poked at her perturbing belly, her eyelids suddenly feeling incredibly heavy.

Anna nestled against her pillow, pulling the blanket up around her shoulders as she laid on her side. She stared at the indents marring the interior metal lining the bed of the truck, her thoughts roaming aimlessly as sleep began to overtake her.

She thought of Ben — the way he always watched out for her and made sure she was safe…the way he looked the last time she saw him, asking her to stay in the city and her declining the offer, telling him that one of them needed to stay to take care of their parents…the way his smile always lit up his whole face…the way his honey-brown eyes, similar to her own, crinkled around the edges when he laughed.

If Ben were with her, he’d want her to be safe. That’d been the only thing he’d ever wanted — for Anna to just be safe.

Images of Ben’s brown eyes suddenly morphed into deep blue ones, hooded and guarded, but a swell of warmth mounting from deep down inside them…

And then the world fell away.

Chapter Text

Anna didn’t wake until the suns rays shone through her eyelids.

She groaned softly, rolling onto her back, draping one arm over her eyes. After adjusting to the glaring light, she attempted to stretch out the kinks throughout her body — sleeping in the back of a pickup truck did that to a person.

The air was heavy — the blanket sprawled over her creating a furnace of some sort, trapping the humidity in, beads of sweat saturating her clothing. Anna quickly kicked off the blanket and groggily propped herself up onto her elbows, surveying the already bustling campsite. It looked as though she was the last one to wake, the rest of the group busy taking down their tents and gathering their belongings, getting ready to make their way to the CDC.

Anna pulled herself up with a huff, fighting back a yawn as she collected the pillow and blanket to return to Rick, along with Daryl’s dinner bowl that she’d set aside. She hopped over the side of the truck, landing with a thud onto the dirt below her, beginning to make her way over to the sheriff’s tent.

Lori was crouched down, shoving an assortment of clothing into a small duffle bag, but looked up after hearing footsteps approach. Her furrowed brow melted into a soft smile as she came to a stand, wiping the dirt from her hands onto her jeans. “Mornin’, sleepyhead,” she greeted, using one hand to block the sunlight from her face.

Anna rolled her eyes, a smile slipping across her lips. “Uh, Rick leant me these last night. I just wanted to make sure you got them back,” she offered over the items in her hands.

Lori shook her head. “No need. We got plenty here,” she brushed off, motioning towards a small assortment of bedding near the duffle bag.

Anna faltered, hands still outstretched. “Are…are you sure?” she hesitated, brows furrowing.

“Positive,” Lori settled with a nod, hoisting her duffle bag off the ground and adding it to the growing pile beside her.

“Oh…wow, okay. Well, thank you,” Anna voiced earnestly, tucking the pillow and blanket beneath her arm.

“You’re welcome,” she smiled in return. “An’ I’ll grab that,” she reached out for the bowl, taking it from Anna’s hands, before nodding towards something in the distance. “Rick wanted ta’ speak with you if you wanna head over. He’s packin’ up the car now.”

Anna nodded, still taken aback at the graciousness of the people in this camp. But it was time to face the music. A decision had to be made and it was now or never.

Taking a breath, Anna hurried back to her truck and tossed her new belongings into the back seat, before steeling herself to speak with the sheriff. Rick was dressed in uniform, securing a larger looking suitcase to the hood of a light yellow 1979 Jeep Cherokee, but spotted Anna making her way towards him and sent her a friendly nod. “Hey,” she called out, sending him a small wave.

“Hey,” Rick returned, tying the last knot and pushing away from the vehicle, coming to a stand in front of her. “So, did you make your decision?” he asked straight away, skipping the bullshit and getting to the heart of the conversation — she liked that about him.

“I did. I, uh…” Anna started, taking a breath as Rick patiently waited for her to speak, eyes knowing and kind. She gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment, gazing off behind the sheriff as she tried to formulate the exact words she wanted to say to him. “I think…I think I’ll stick around,” she finally mustered, watching the corners of Ricks’ mouth turn upwards. “I’ve thought a lot about it and I, uh — I think staying with a group is the smartest decision,” she nodded, as though she was still trying to convince herself. “If you’ll have me, of course,” she added quickly.

“I wouldn’t a’ offered you a place here, otherwise,” Rick countered, looking at her empathetically. “You sure about this?”

Anna pursed her lips. “Honestly, no,” she retorted, although the sheriff didn’t look surprised. He simply nodded understandingly as she continued. “But I just don’t have the resources or the means to make it another hundred miles on my own. I just don’t,” she shrugged, staring down at her boots for a moment before exhaling heavily. “I know my brother better than anyone. And I know that he would want me to make the decision that kept me alive — that kept me safe,” she murmured softly. “Even if it meant that I might not ever see him again,” she whispered, her voice breaking slightly.

She felt Rick reach forward and gently grab her shoulder, her torn gaze meeting his steady one. “Ya can’t give up on family, Anna. Not ever,” he spoke softly, yet words fierce. “There was a time I thought I’d never see my family again. But I found them. I did. An’ Fort Benning’s still an option if the CDC’s a dead end.”

Anna readied his gaze, her expression serious. “I hope for everyone’s sake that it’s not.”

Rick paused, nodding slowly. “Me too,” he murmured, a heaviness settling over his shoulders before he slowly pulled away and cleared his throat. “So, y’all packed up then?” he asked, changing the subject quickly.

Anna nodded. “Just got me and my truck,” she shrugged.

Rick peered around Anna, surveying the old, run-down vehicle. “Sure you don’t wanna hitch a ride instead?” he offered warily. “That truck seems like it’s on its last limb.”

“Hey, I love that truck,” Anna shot back defensively. “Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, but it got me here, didn’t it?”

Rick held up his hands in surrender, a soft chuckle escaping his lips. “Alright, alright. Down, girl,” he soothed, the corners of his eyes crinkling, some of the stress lines on his face fading.

“What’s goin’ on here?” came a new voice as Shane suddenly appeared from around the car, shooting glances between Anna and Rick.

“Anna’s decided ta’ join us ta’ the CDC,” Rick explained, moving to shut the rear door of the Jeep, leaving Shane and Anna standing opposite of each other.

Shane’s form fitted black t-shirt clung to his body, patches of sweat seeping through the material. Anna spotted a chain wrapped around his neck, but whatever was strung through it was hidden underneath his shirt. He was handsome, she had to admit — with tousled, black hair, a strong jawline, and broad shoulders. By the look of his nose, Anna figured the man had been in his fair share of fist fights — it looked slightly crooked, as though it had been broken several times and never healed correctly.

But there was something about his eyes — they were dark and hungry, like a predator stalking its prey — and she subconsciously took a small step back.

“Is that right?” Shane suddenly spoke, talking to Anna directly now.

“Huh?” she sounded, having zoned out for a moment.

A smooth, easy smile slipped over his features as he took a step closer to her. “Rick’s sayin’ you’ll be joinin’ us?”

Anna watched as he gave her a thorough once over, eyes hovering over her body a moment too long, and she couldn’t shake the feeling of unease he gave her. “Uh, yeah. Seems like it,” she replied simply, crossing her arms over her chest as Shane ran a hand through his thick, dark hair.

“Well, then. Happy ta’ have ya,” he smirked, outstretching his arm towards Anna. She shot him a tight smile and shook his hand, dark eyes glinting as they surveyed her features. She slowly pulled her hand from his, taking another step back as the sheriff rejoined the conversation.

“So, how ‘bout we get ourselves a lil’ pow-wow goin’ before we head out?” Shane inquired, redirecting his attention.

Rick placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the campsite, nodding slowly. “Yeah, let’s gather everyone up,” he nodded slowly, brow furrowed. “C’mon,” he murmured, placing a hand on Anna’s shoulder and guiding her away.

“Hey! Need everyone out here!” Shane called out, whistling loudly to draw everyone’s attention, the rest of the group slowly filtering in, forming a circle near the vehicles. “Time ta’ rollout, alright? Got a couple things we need ta’ discuss beforehand,” he started, before motioning towards Rick to continue.

Rick straightened himself up and took a deep breath, scanning the group of people watching him, waiting for him to speak. “As most of you know by now, we’re headin’ for the CDC. After what happened the other night, I think it’s pretty clear that this place jus’ isn’t safe anymore. Now, we might have a real shot here with this move — we can’t be the only survivors left an’ from what I know, the CDC was built for instances like this one.”

“Place is built like a damn fortress,” Shane piped in, propping his shotgun against his shoulder. “They’ve gotta have some sorta idea on what this shit is — a cure or vaccine, maybe a defense of some kind.”

“We stick together, alright? No matter what happens, we’re in this together. There’s gotta be more out there. There’s gotta be more than jus’ this. I’ve gotta believe that. An’ I hope y’all do too,” Rick finished, taking a moment to look at each and every group member, some bowing their heads, others nodding in agreement.

Anna spotted Daryl — sporting a worn, mustard-yellow flannel with the sleeves ripped off — listening from the outskirts of the circle. He chewed on the side of his thumb as the two men spoke, glancing up every so often, but mostly seeming deep in thought. She wondered what he was thinking about — maybe he was worried that the CDC was already gone. Maybe he didn’t want to risk it on the road. Maybe he was thinking about his brother and if he was still alive out there somewhere…

When Rick suddenly placed his hand on Anna’s shoulder, she snapped her gaze away from the archer and towards the sheriff instead, catching onto the tail end of his sentence. “— sure most a’ you have already met, but this is Anna Brooks. An’ she’ll be joinin’ us to the CDC. Jus’ wanted to make sure everyone’s been properly introduced before we head out.”

Anna felt her cheeks redden at the sudden attention, despite Rick’s encouraging nod. She shifted awkwardly, sending a small wave towards the general vicinity of the group before Shane stepped in.

“Alright, everybody, listen up,” he intervened authoritatively. “Those of you with C.B.’s, we’re gonna be on channel 40. Let’s keep the chatter down, okay? Now, you got a problem, don’t have a C.B., can’t get a signal, anythin’ at all, you’re gonna hit your horn one time. That’ll stop the caravan. Any questions?”

The group was quiet for a moment, before a Hispanic man, who Anna hadn’t been introduced to, spoke up. “We’re, uh…we’re not going,” he mustered, glancing over at his wife and two children for a moment. The group fell silent, looking at one another uncertainly.

“We have family in Birmingham,” the wife spoke up, pulling her daughter close to her side. “We want to be with our people.”

“You go on your own, ya won’t have anyone ta’ watch your back,” Shane pointed out warily.

“We’ll take the chance,” the man retorted after a brief pause, before turning his gaze onto Rick. “I gotta do what’s best for my family,” he emphasized, knowing that of anyone in the camp, the sheriff would be the most understanding as to where he was coming from.

Rick placed his hands on his hips, expression torn. “You sure?”

“We talked about it. We’re sure,” he countered without missing a beat.

Rick nodded once, sensing that any further protest would be a futile attempt. “Alright,” he murmured. “Shane,” he waved his friend over, the two bending down to sift through the bag of guns at their feet.

Anna sighed, taking a moment to pull her knotted hair up into a ponytail as she watched the men hand over one of their pistols and a box of bullets. From across the way, she spotted Daryl rolling his eyes and storming off, heading towards a rusted pickup truck, similar to her own, with a motorcycle strapped into the bed.

When a few members of the group began to say their tearful goodbyes to the family, Anna took her leave, feeling like she was encroaching on a private moment. She hurried to her truck and hopped inside, exhaling heavily once the door slammed behind her, comfortable now that she was in her own space.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she pinched the bridge of her nose, suddenly feeling unsure about her decision to stay with the group. The last people she’d traveled with were her parents and she’d lost both of them during that time. She’d witnessed their gruesome deaths right before her very eyes, losing a part of herself in the process — and she didn’t know if she could go through that again.

What if she began to care for the people in this group? What if the world tore them away from her like it had with everyone else? Integrating herself into their lives with the possibility of losing them was only going to destroy her even more, taking away pieces of her soul until all that remained was flesh and bone, leaving behind merely a shell of who she used to be.

“C’mon, let’s go!” Shane’s voice broke through the quiet morning air. “Let’s move out!” he called to the rest of his group, clapping his hands together as everyone began making their way to their respective vehicles.

Anna took a deep breath — there was no going back now.

She grabbed her key from the middle console and shoved it into the ignition, twisting it, expecting to hear her engine roar to life — but instead…silence.

“What the hell?” she muttered, trying to turn her truck over again, but to no avail. All she heard was an incessant click, a short sputter, and then silence once more. Her head fell back against the headrest, her eyes squeezed shut as she tightened her grip around the steering wheel. “Shit.”

Her truck had met its final demise.

When Anna opened her eyes, she spotted Rick standing beside her open window, a smug smile creeping across his face as he watched her sigh in defeat. “Mornin’, officer,” she mumbled wistfully. “Got room for one more?”

Chapter Text

Anna felt a new sense of resolve after leaving the quarry.

She’d said goodbye to her truck, thanking it for getting her as far as it did, before she gathered up her few belongings and joined the group. Rick had placed her in the RV for the journey to the CDC — the only other spots available being with Shane in his Jeep or Daryl in his pickup. Neither seemed particularly enticing, given the uneasiness she felt around Shane and the ever-present hostility from Daryl, so she made herself comfortable inside the Winnebago.

Dale introduced himself to Anna the moment she stepped foot in his camper, his kind eyes and bushy brows reminding her of her late Grandpa, who she’d lost when she was only seven years old. She knew right off the bat that Dale was a good man — a bit nosey, maybe, as he gave her a quick rundown of each member of the group, who to avoid, who she could trust, who was more skilled than others — but still, he seemed like a good man.

Glenn sat in the front seat, shooting her a warm smile as he officially welcomed her to the group. He seemed like a sweet guy, maybe two or three years younger than Anna — twenty-four or twenty-five, she’d reckon — but even so, he possessed a quiet strength to him.

In the back room, Jim laid wheezing on the rickety bed. He was pale and sweaty, fighting back a groan over each bump the RV drove over. Jacqui sat beside him, pressing a cool washcloth to his burning skin, her haunted eyes speaking what no one else would admit — Jim wasn’t going to last much longer.

And he didn’t.

The RV ended up breaking down about halfway to the CDC, fumes from beneath the hood cascading over the windshield. The caravan came to a halt on the deserted road, most of the group filtering out of their cars to figure out what had happened. Anna made herself comfortable outside the confines of the camper, leaning against the side of the Winnebago, welcoming the slight breeze in the air as she listened to the others discuss the next course of action.

Talk of searching for a new car part at a nearby gas station was cut short when Jacqui came bounding down the RV’s steps, alerting the group of Jim’s worsening conditions, before hurrying back to aid the deteriorating man.

“Hey, Rick, ya wanna hold down the fort? I’ll drive ahead, see what I can bring back,” Shane offered right after, figuring that dividing and conquering the accumulating problems made the most sense.

“Yeah, I’ll come along too an’ I’ll back ya up,” T-Dog added, lowering his binoculars.

Rick simply nodded an ‘okay’, taking a deep breath as he slipped past the group and disappeared inside the RV.

“Y’all keep your eyes open, now. We’ll be right back,” Shane called over his shoulder as he and T-Dog hopped into his Jeep and took off down the road, leaving the rest of the group in silence, trapped in their own thoughts.

Anna pushed away from the RV, deciding instead to take a seat in the overgrown grass on the side of the road. She let out a huff, resting her elbows against her knees as she closed her eyes, allowing the warmth of the sun to soak into her skin. She tried to calm her ticking mind — she’d always been an over-thinker, a worrier, and the stress of the new world had only heightened those issues.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain confident about her decision to stay with the group. It was for the best. She just had to keep reminding herself that. “The power of positive thinking,” Anna murmured aloud, a hint of sarcasm to her words as she sighed and opened her eyes.

Her gaze fell on Daryl, who was pacing back and forth in front of his pickup truck, scanning the trees warily, his face in a permanent scowl. She wondered what could have happened in the man’s life to cause that chip on his shoulder — she figured having a brother like Merle didn’t help much. The archer came across as a prick — a stubborn, rude, hot-headed redneck. But Anna had seen glimpses of something more. Like the day he fixed her truck and chased off Merle…like the previous night when he gave up his dinner for her…there had to be more to the man than met the eye.

Anna’s brows knitted together as she pushed herself off the grass, wiping the dirt from the back of her jeans as she made her way over to the archer, determined to find out for herself. Her steps slowed as she approached, Daryl’s pacing suddenly halting, his gaze landing on her. “Hey,” she greeted, a bit awkwardly.

The archer gave her a quick once over before subtly nodding his head once in return. He swung his crossbow over his shoulder, looking everywhere except at the woman in front of him.

Anna pursed her lips, shoving her hands into the back pockets of her jeans as she racked her brain for a conversation started. “Is that your bike?” she motioned towards the motorcycle strapped inside the bed of the truck.

“Nah,” Daryl grumbled, fidgeting with the strap of his crossbow, kicking at the gravel beneath his feet.

When he offered no explanation, Anna continued. “Did ya steal it?” she teased lightly, waiting to see if the man would take the bait.

But the archer simply leveled her cooly. “Was my brother’s,” he stated flatly, expression detached, but Anna spotted a shift of emotion in his eyes.

She lowered her gaze, feeling incredibly uncomfortable at the mention of Merle, especially considering the fact that the incident hadn’t been broached since she’d joined the group. It was like the giant purple elephant in the room. She wondered if that had something to do with Daryl’s animosity. “What happened in Atlanta?” she asked softly, only having gotten bits and pieces of information about the altercation with Merle and the other survivors.

Daryl’s eyes darkened as he took a step towards her. “The hell ya askin’ for? Ain’t your problem anymore, girl. He ain’t comin’ back — stupid bastard probably got ‘imself killed out there, anyways,” he snapped, pushing past Anna angrily.

“Hey!” Anna growled as he passed, unable to hold back any longer. “What the hell’s your problem?” she spat out, cherishing the look of surprise on the archer’s face. “You got something you need to say to me?”

Daryl’s features settled back into a scowl as he waved her away. “Ain’t got nothin’ ta’ say ta’ ya,” he bit back sharply.

Anna huffed a breath incredulously. “I find that hard to believe,” she muttered, rolling her eyes, thoroughly sick of the third degree she’d been getting from him. “Can you just decide whether you hate me or not? Because, honestly, I can’t keep up with the back and forth here,” she continued brashly, unsure where the sudden confidence came from. “One second, you’re saving my life, and the next, you’re like…you’re like this,” she sputtered, motioning towards his rigid stance.

“Ya don’t know nothin’ ‘bout ‘nothin’, woman,” he thundered darkly. “Jus’ leave me the hell alone, why don’t ya?”

Anna scoffed incredulously, before deciding to do just that, storming past the archer. But she paused for a moment, turning back on her heels, a thought coming to her. “Why did you invite me here?” she suddenly pressed, brows furrowed.

“Shouldn’t ya be askin’ the sherriff ‘bout that?” he snapped in return.

“No, no,” she shook her head quickly. “That day on the road, when I first met you…” her voice softened slightly, some of the fire fading from her eyes, replaced by genuine confusion. “You asked me to join your group. Why?”

Daryl’s expression remained impassive as he shifted back and forth on his toes, seeming like he was unsure how to react to her question. So instead, he remained silent.

After a long moment, Anna sighed, rubbing her forehead wearily. “This is stupid,” she muttered to herself, realizing that there were bigger issues going on than Daryl’s feelings — or lack thereof. She locked eyes with the archer. “I’ll leave you alone from now on,” she stated, holding her hands up in surrender as she turned around and headed back for the RV without another word.

So she had been wrong. There wasn’t anything more to the archer — he was just a slightly less dangerous version of his brother with a hostile persona and grouchy attitude. Those few glimpses of a kinder man had clearly been a fluke thing and she didn’t have the energy to delve any deeper.

Anna decided right then and there that she would no longer waste any more time thinking about Daryl Dixon.

It wasn’t long before the group was back on the road.

Jim had made the decision to be left behind, unable to bear the excruciating pain he’d experienced in the back of the Winnebago. It was his choice, his final wish. He wanted to be with his family again — and on his own terms.

Anna could understand his suffering.

In a rare stroke of luck, Shane and T-Dog had found the car part they needed to get the RV up and running again at a nearby gas station. And after a heartbreaking goodbye to Jim, the group began the journey to the CDC once more.

Anna watched the passing surroundings fly by, seated at the small table inside the camper, the breeze from the open window tickling her skin. She tried to push away the images of Jim’s pale, depleting body…the sweat-slicked hollows of his cheekbones…the life draining from his eyes…but they had already wormed their way inside her mind. There was something eerily familiar about his agony, sending her thoughts back to certain memories she tried so hard to suppress…

Anna hated hospitals. There was something about the cutting white walls, the overwhelming aroma of disinfectant, the too bright fluorescent lights, that sent her nerves into overdrive.

Her foot tapped anxiously beneath her, fingers drumming against her worn jeans as she stared at the closed door in front of her. She was told to wait outside the room, to take a seat in one of the many plastic chairs lining the hallway while the doctor spoke to her mother and father. Anna glanced down the hallway, wondering if Ben was on his way or if he’d gotten caught up at school. She wished he were here. Her brother always knew what to do.

The door suddenly swung open — a tall, lean, grey-haired man appearing, holding a clipboard. The doctor’s eyes landed on Anna as he exited the room, shooting her a sympathetic smile before striding quickly down the hall, pulling out a beeper from his back pocket.

Anna pulled herself to her feet, hoisting her bulky backpack over her shoulders. She wanted to see her mom. She wanted to know what was happening. Sometimes, Anna felt like her parents purposefully kept things from her — sure, she was only twelve years old, but she had a right to know.

Steeling herself to demand some answers, Anna marched towards the doorway, stopping in her tracks when her father nearly ran into her. “Dad,” she exhaled, slightly breathless. “What’s going —”

The words fell from her lips when she saw the tears forming in her father’s eyes — she’d only seen him cry a handful of times in her entire life — and the sight began to churn her stomach. He sniffled softly, sliding his glasses off his nose to brush away the moisture in his eyes, as he cleared his throat, trying to get a hold of himself.

He looked utterly and completely wrecked — his dark locks sprouted more and more grey hairs each day, the dark circles beneath his eyes becoming incredibly prominent, the stress lines on his face permanent. Anna couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her father smile.

He looked down at her then, haunted eyes searching hers, mouth opening and closing like a fish. And then, before Anna could say anything else, he took off down the hallway.

“Dad?” she called after him, feeling lost. But her father merely picked up his stride, shoving open the door to the men’s bathroom and disappearing inside.

Anna huffed a breath, feeling her eyes swell with tears — but she pushed back the emotion, adjusted the heavy schoolbag digging into her shoulders, and slowly crept through the doorway.

The first thing she heard was the steady beeping of a heart monitor. The room was deathly still, eerily silent — and then she heard the soft, subtle cries coming from behind the privacy curtain. Anna swallowed the lump in her throat, reaching out with a shaky hand to pull back the drape, hearing the whimpers cease the moment the curtain was drawn.

“Mom?” Anna whispered.

She saw her mother lying in bed, quickly wiping the tears from her red-rimmed eyes, forcing a small smile onto her face as she quickly sat up straighter. “Hi, sweetie,” she murmured, voice thick and shaky as she motioned her daughter over.

Anna took a small step forward, glancing at all the monitors and needles hooked up to her mom. Her eyebrows furrowed as she studied her mom’s taut expression, pale coloring, hollowed cheekbones, and felt her stomach drop. “Are you sick again?” Anna spilled out before she could stop herself. When her mother didn’t respond, simply lowering her eyes to her folded hands, Anna felt a wave of nausea wash through her. “B-but  but I thought…you said — the doctor said — he said you were better. He said!” she stammered, unable to distinguish whether she was infuriated or heartbroken or bewildered or all three feelings combined.

“Honey —”

“I-I don’t…I thought — he said after the chemo you’d be better, right? Right?” Anna urged, feeling a pinprick of tears swarm her vision. Her mother placed a frail hand over her lips, most likely attempting to stop another cry from escaping her throat, as she watched her young daughter helplessly try to understand.

“Anna, sometimes…sometimes those treatments only help for a little while, sweetie,” her mother tried to reason gently, her features crumpling as she herself tried to absorb the news.

“It’s not fair,” Anna whispered, lowering her eyes, unable to look at her deteriorating mother any longer.

“Oh, Anna,” her mom sighed, a heavy silence settling over the room.

But the quiet didn’t last long. A pair of footsteps suddenly came rushing into the room and Anna’s eyes snapped up, her gaze landing on Ben. His cropped, dark brown hair was disheveled, his tanned skin glistening with beads of sweat. Her brother had sprouted up to a solid 6’ 0” over the course of his senior year, muscles toned from working at a local auto body shop throughout high school — but in that moment, standing in the hospital room doorway, he looked as though he was ten years old again, finding out that ‘mommy won’t be coming home for a while’.

Ben was out of breath, his expression a bit wild, school backpack slung loosely over his shoulder as he stared at his mother. He slipped further into the room, sliding his backpack onto the ground as he made his way towards the bed, stopping beside Anna first.

“You okay?” he murmured to his little sister, squeezing her shoulder gently.

Anna nodded absently, gnawing on her bottom lip, lowering her eyes. Ben sighed softly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, before making his way towards their mom. The two exchanged a hushed conversation, but Anna couldn’t hear it over the blood pounding in her ears.

Sick. Her mom was sick. Again. After years and years of fighting tooth and nail, after narrowly escaping several instances of death, the cancer had come back. And Anna didn’t know how her family was going to survive another bout of that horror.

She hadn’t realized she’d begun to cry until Ben grabbed her shoulder and started leading her out of the room. She craned her neck, getting one last peek at her mother dropping her head into her hands before she disappeared behind the privacy curtain. 

Anna felt her heart shatter into a million pieces and she wondered if it’d ever feel whole again.

Ben guided her out of the room, closing the door shut behind him, before sitting his sister down on one of the hard plastic chairs lining the hallway. He kneeled down on one knee in front of her, rubbing a hand over his strained face — too weary and too taut for an eighteen-year-old.

Anna wiped her runny nose with the crook of her elbow, training her eyes down towards her clasped hands, a slight tremble coursing through her.

Ben brought down his own hand to cover hers, sighing softly. “It’s gonna be okay,” he finally mustered, brows knitted together as he waited for Anna to respond. When she didn’t, he continued. “Hey, look at me,” he urged, nudging her knee gently. “C’mon, Annie.”

Anna exhaled heavily, locking her teary gaze with his steady one.

The corner of Ben’s mouth quirked up, his honey-brown eyes twinkling despite the heaviness etched in them. “It’s gonna be alright,” he reiterated firmly.

“How do you know?” Anna whispered, quickly wiping away a tear cascading down her cheek.

“Because I know everything,” Ben retorted cheekily, forcing a smile.

Anna scoffed in feigned annoyance but felt some pressure lift off her chest. “Seriously, Ben,” she pressed. “What’re we supposed to do? Dad’s already struggling with his job and the bills and you’re supposed to be going to college in the fall and Mom barely made it last time she went through this and —”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, easy there,” Ben interjected, shaking his head quickly. “You don’t need to worry about any of that. Just…” he briefly struggled for the right words before continuing. “Just be a twelve-year-old kid, okay? Hang out with your friends. Join the soccer team. Gossip about boys or something.”

Anna felt a laugh bubble out of her despite everything as she rubbed her eyes. “Yeah and what about you?” she hiccuped, worry etching her features, making her look aged beyond her years.

A half smile slid across Ben’s lips as he reached out to ruffle Anna’s hair affectionately. “Don’t worry ‘bout me.”

Anna gnawed on her bottom lip. “I always worry about you,” she pointed out, shooting her brother a troubled look.

Ben sighed, eyes softening as he ran a hand through his messy hair. “Hey,” he coaxed, nudging her knee once more to get her attention. “I’ve always taken care of you, haven’t I?”

Anna nodded slowly.

“And you’ve always had my back, right?”

She nodded again.

“Me an’ you, kid — we’re gonna be okay. I promise,” he finished fiercely, hoping his words brought his little sister some sort of solace.

When Anna threw herself at him, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck, Ben felt his heart swell with warmth. He chuckled softly, hugging her just as firmly as he brought one hand up to cradle the back of her head. After a moment, he pulled away and stood, Anna clambering to her feet after him.

Ben took a deep breath, shaking off the sentimental moment as an easy grin slipped over his features. “I’m starvin’. Let’s see if the cafeteria’s got anythin’ edible down there,” he clapped his hands together.

Anna quirked a smile, adjusting her bulky backpack as the two siblings began to walk side by side down the hallway. She knew her brother better than anyone. This was what he was good at — putting that brave face on when shit got really bad. She knew he was freaking out, that he was scared out of his mind about the future — but he’d always put her safety and happiness first. And because of that sole reason, she knew they would be okay. “Hey, Ben?”

“Hm?”

She glanced up at him, her troubled features smoothing. “You’re my best friend.”

One of Ben’s wide, million dollar smiles, reserved for small moments like this, quickly spread across his face as he pulled Anna’s hefty backpack off her shoulders and slung it over his own. “And you’re mine, kid,” he beamed, throwing an arm around her, pulling her closer to his side. “And you’re mine.”

“Anna?”

Anna abruptly snapped out of her thoughts, her eyes swiveling towards whoever had called her name. That’s when she noticed Glenn, having moved from the passenger seat to sit opposite of her at the small kitchen table, his brows furrowed. “Hey, sorry,” she shook her head quickly, forcing the memory from her mind. “What’d you say?”

He paused for a moment. “You alright?”

Anna nodded quickly, waving off his concern. “Oh, yeah. I was just — I was just thinking, is all.”

Glenn looked like he wanted to ask further questions but instead remained quiet, leaning back against the booth and turning to stare out the window.

“I’m sorry about Jim, by the way,” Anna suddenly spoke, recognizing the loss in his eyes. “He seemed like a good man.”

“He was,” Glenn sighed, eyes far away as he absently drummed his fingers against the kitchen table, pausing once more. “I’m just tired of all the death, ya know?”

A sad smile came across Anna’s features. “I know,” she murmured understandingly, sharing a silent moment with Glenn. He looked so incredibly heartbroken it nearly brought tears to her eyes. And before she could stop herself, she reached across the table and laid her hand over his own, surprising both herself and Glenn.  

He glanced down at their intertwined hands, his hand stilling beneath hers for a moment before he exhaled heavily, shooting her a look that expressed a silent thank you.

Anna squeezed his hand gently before pulling away, turning her attention back towards the passing scenery. She noticed that the rural countryside had turned into city streets and figured they must be close to the CDC. As if on cue, Dale spoke up from the driver seat.

“I’ll be damned,” he whistled through his teeth as he brought the RV to a slow stop, the brakes groaning in protest. “Looks like we made it, gang.”

Glenn and Anna shared an apprehensive look before scooting out from behind the table, Jacqui hurrying to join them from the back room. Anna crouched down, staring through the windshield at the massive building in front of them — the Center for Disease Control.

It was colossal and mighty and most importantly…still standing.

Maybe there was hope here after all.

But for some reason, Anna couldn’t shake the feeling in her gut that told her things were only going to get worse from here on out.

Chapter Text

The Center for Disease Control.

There had been a brief, heartbreaking moment where everyone feared the CDC had been abandoned — it’s main entrance sealed up tight with an impenetrable steel door, unbreakable windows, and not a single soul in sight besides the dead that roamed the grounds. But much to everyone’s surprise, after a desperate plea from Rick begging for whoever was controlling the cameras to show mercy, the steel door slid open and enveloped the group in a beacon of light.

And there they met Dr. Edwin Jenner.

He was apparently the last man standing. All of the doctors, all of the military, all of the scientists — gone. He was all that was left. And that was a tough fucking pill to swallow.

After seeing the state of the group, a group filled with children especially, Jenner had decided to go against his better judgment and allow the distressed group inside — the only rule being that everyone was to get a blood test done to ensure no one had been unknowingly infected.

Which led Anna to this moment, watching Jenner pierce the soft flesh of her skin with a needle, her blood slipping from her veins and filling up a small tube to be taken away for analysis.

She was tired — no, she was exhausted. She’d been running on empty for days now, physically and emotionally drained from everything she’d gone through. All Anna wanted to do was curl up somewhere and process what her next move would be since the CDC was apparently chopping up to be a dead end. And if this supposed ‘safe haven’ wasn’t what it was promised to be, could the same be said about Fort Benning?

“What’s this?” Jenner suddenly asked, his fingers wrapping around her bandaged hand.

Anna sat up straighter, turning her hand over for inspection. “Oh, uh, that’s nothing. I just cut my palm on a rock the other day,” she shrugged, watching as Jenner began to unwrap the wound.

“I cleaned it up already,” Lori spoke from where she sat, Rick propped up behind her, squeezing her shoulder gently, his expression deep in thought.

“Better safe than sorry, wouldn’t you agree?” Jenner directed his attention towards Anna, waiting until she gave him a short nod before continuing to unwrap the bandage. The cut didn’t look infected — just an angry red slash mark with dried blood caked onto the frayed ends of her skin. Anna watched as Jenner grabbed a cotton swab, dipping it in some sort of liquid before turning back to her. “Saline solution,” he murmured before she had a chance to ask what it was.

He began prodding at the wound, collecting a sample of the dried tissue for further examination, eliciting a quiet hiss from Anna as he pressed the swab a little too deep.

“All set,” he voiced once he was satisfied, slipping the cotton swab into a separate vile before reaching to grab a small first aid kit. He swiftly wrapped Anna’s hand in a clean bandage, removed the needle from her arm and motioned for Andrea to come forward for her turn.

Anna pulled down her sleeve, rubbing her sore arm as she stood, the floor tilting beneath her for a moment before she regained her balance. Black spots danced in her vision as she eased herself down onto another chair near the rest of the group, a soft sigh escaping her lips as she pinched the bridge of her nose.

She had so many questions — what happened here? Where was everyone? What was this outbreak? Was there a cure? What did Jenner know? She had a weird feeling that the man was keeping some important information from them, but she was too tired and too overwhelmed to find the energy to ask. There would come a time for that — and the time sure as hell wasn’t now.

Anna nearly wept with relief when Jenner offered the group all the food they could stomach, ushering them into the CDC’s cafeteria for dinner. There was a nearly tangible electric buzz coursing through the group as they spread out amongst one of the long tables, waiting eagerly for the first decent meal they’d eat in weeks.

Anna took a seat at the far end of the table, putting a little distance between herself and most of the group. But the isolation didn’t last long when Glenn spotted her, furrowed his brow, got up from his seat at the opposite end and made his way towards her instead. “Do you think he’ll have Twinkies? Man, I hope he has Twinkies,” he grinned as he approached, rubbing his hands together, plopping down in the seat next to her.

Anna felt a small smile creep across her face — she liked Glenn. He seemed like a truly decent guy with an incredible warmth to him. He made her feel welcome — like she’d always been a part of the group and not some random newcomer. A soft laugh bubbled out of her. “Twinkies? Really?” she teased.

Glenn nodded his head quickly, scooting his chair closer to the table. “Are you kidding? Twinkies are the best. I practically lived off them in college,” he beamed, drumming his fingers along the table top as he eagerly scanned the cafeteria for Jenner’s reappearance.

Anna just shook her head as another laugh slipped through her lips. Glenn shot her a kind smile before he turned the other way to say something to T-Dog, giving Anna a moment to assess the current situation without distraction.

The group was splayed out around the table — most busy chatting with one another, everyone looking more relaxed than Anna had ever seen them. All except for Andrea, who sat quietly, hands folded in her lap, eyes glazed over as she stared off into space. She was thinking about her sister — Anna wasn’t a mind reader, but she also wasn’t stupid. The poor woman had just lost her sister — there was no possible way she could be thinking of anything else.

A sudden pain tugged at her heart and Anna forced her eyes away, unable to watch the grief crashing through Andrea’s eyes any longer. She found her gaze suddenly traveling towards Shane, who also wasn’t participating in conversation — he sat upright in his chair, elbows on the table, chin resting atop his clasped hands, eyes trained on Rick and his family. There was something about his stare, something about the sharpness in his eyes, the coldness, that sent a chill through Anna before she pulled her gaze away.

And then, Anna found herself studying the archer.

She hadn’t spoken to him since the RV broke down — hell, she hadn’t even looked at him. The last thing she needed was more drama and that was all this guy seemed to bring to the table. She wasn’t one to play games and she, quite frankly, didn’t give a shit whether he liked her or not. There was enough turmoil in the world without his projected issues added on top. She hadn’t meant to get involved with the group, she hadn’t meant to run into Merle that day on the road, but it happened. There was no going back. And Daryl could huff and puff, he could be cold and aloof, he could do whatever the hell he wanted — it wasn’t Anna’s problem.

But…as Anna stared at him, watching his usual scowled expression relax for the first time since she’d met him, the infectious positive energy clearly affecting him as well, she couldn’t help but feel a pinprick of hurt.

Why did he hate her so much? She didn’t understand. She hadn’t done anything to him — at least, she didn’t think so. What could’ve possibly happened to warrant all the hostility from him?

Anna’s thoughts were halted when the cafeteria doors swung open and Jenner appeared, hefting a large crate into the room. The group perked up, eyeing the crate hungrily as he approached, placing it down onto the table with a huff.

“Tomorrow is never guaranteed,” Jenner suddenly announced, his gaze sweeping across the faces of his new guests before he reached into the crate and pulled out two bottles of wine. “So tonight we feast.”

A collective murmur spread across the group as they nodded their heads, some clapping, others cheering in agreement. Anna felt a smile spread across her face as she glanced over at Glenn who proceeded to tip his worn baseball hat in Jenner’s direction.

And then they feasted.

Spaghetti and meatballs, rice, baked beans, string beans, canned corn, canned pears, peanut butter, olives, cheese, crackers, and all the bottled water and wine they could stomach. It was as if the entire world around them wasn’t what it was — there were no walkers, no decimated cities, no bleak future. It was just a group of people, enjoying a nice meal and delicious wine, partaking in pleasant conversation — it was a glimpse of how life was before.

Jenner urged everyone to eat their fill, given the fact that most of the food wouldn’t last much longer and would end up going to waste.

No one needed to be told twice.

Anna scarfed down the meal in front of her, reveling in the lukewarm spaghetti, the nearly expired cheese, the canned meatballs. It was the best damn meal she’d had in her entire life and by the practically giddy expressions around her, it was safe to say she wasn’t the only one thinking that. She ate until her stomach rounded, finally filling up her loose jeans, the seemingly permanent rumble in her tummy ceasing.

“Sure you don’t want a drink?” Glenn offered later on, holding out the now almost empty bottle of wine towards her, his words slurred and cheeks flushed from the alcohol he’d been consuming throughout the night.

Anna had declined earlier, choosing instead to stick with water, unsure when it’d be so readily available again. “I’m sure,” she reiterated her answer, sighing contently, leaning back in her chair as she scanned the rest of the table, the room buzzing with laughter, flowing with booze.

“— not you, Glenn,” Daryl’s gruff voice suddenly interjected, drawing Anna’s attention.

“What?” Glenn sounded, caught off guard as a lazy smile tugged at his lips.

“Keep drinkin’, lil’ man. I wanna see how red your face can get,” the archer jeered, pouring himself another heaping glass of wine. Anna had never seen Daryl so relaxed, so playful, so… normal. It was a weird moment to observe, especially from a sober point of view, but she found a bewildered smile slipping across her features.

Daryl must’ve felt eyes on him because his gaze swiveled over towards Anna, the grin on his face faltering as he took in her bemused expression. A moment passed between them before a sudden clinking had them turning their attention towards Rick, the room instantly quieting.

“It seems ta’ me we haven’t thanked our host properly,” he announced, pulling himself to his feet as he raised his glass.

“He is more than jus’ our host,” T-Dog added with an incredulous chuckle, following suit as he toasted Jenner who sat silently at a separate table.

A collective murmur of cheers and thanks sounded throughout the room as everyone began to show their gratitude and appreciation for the man who had saved them all. Anna tipped her bottle of water towards the man, studying his pensive features, wondering what he was thinking about that had him so solemn all of the sudden.

But before she could ponder any further, another voice rang throughout the room. “So, Anna,” Dale suddenly declared, her head snapping towards him. “Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?”

Anna felt the room instantly shift around her, all eyes trained her way, waiting for her response. She slowly tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, glancing over at Glenn for support, but he merely shrugged and took a long swig of wine straight from the bottle. “Uh,” she mumbled, feeling her cheeks redden at the sudden attention. “Not much to tell, really,” she brushed off, scanning the faces of those around her uneasily.

“Oh, come on,” Dale laughed good-naturedly, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table, seeming genuinely intrigued. “There’s gotta be something worth sharing, right?” he looked around the table for agreement, some members of the group nodding in response, before Dale turned back to study her from under his bushy brows. “Why don’t you tell us where you’re from?” he offered, his kind eyes showing nothing but encouragement.

Anna clasped her hands tightly in her lap, digging her thumbnail into the bandage wrapped around her injured palm. “I’m, uh, I’m originally from up North,” she offered quietly, shrugging a shoulder.

“Was wonderin’ why I couldn’t hear an accent,” Rick quipped, smiling supportively in her direction. “So what brought ya down South?” he asked curiously, taking a sip of wine from his glass, staring at Anna from over the rim.

Anna felt her stomach flip and worried for a moment that her meal would reappear on the table in front of her. “My family had to relocate about ten years ago — moved down to Virginia. It was more affordable,” she explained, wringing her hands together in her lap as she addressed the sheriff, wondering if this was how he acted during interrogations.

“Did you go to college? Study anything in school?” Dale pressed, clearly intrigued.

Anna scoffed lightly, shaking her head. “I actually didn’t go to college. Couldn’t afford it.”

“Dale, enough with the twenty questions,” Andrea suddenly snapped, speaking for the first time since they sat down. She looked thoroughly annoyed, rolling her eyes at the old man as she gulped down the rest of her wine.

“What?” Dale laughed, holding his hands out innocently. “Just making friendly conversation, that’s all.”

“It’s fine,” Anna interjected quickly, not wanting to start any drama between the two. If Dale wanted answers, well then damn it, she’d give him some. “I just worked after high school mostly — waitressing, bartending, whatever I could do to make a little cash. My brother worked at an auto shop, so between the two of us, the bills got paid,” she shrugged, answering what was bound to be Dale’s next question.

He nodded thoughtfully, resting his chin atop his clasped hands. “And what did your parents do?”

Anna clenched her jaw, pushing away the inkling of frustration she was beginning to feel, Dale’s inquisition bringing up all of the negative feelings she’d been trying to ignore, all of the pain and grief she’d worked so hard to push away. “My dad was an electrician. Lost his job a couple years back. My mom didn’t work. Spent most of her life in a hospital. We picked Virginia because there were doctor’s down here who could take care of her.”

The room stilled. Anna glanced around, the intensity of everyone’s gaze burning a hole into her flesh, so she trained her eyes down on her clasped hands instead. After a long moment of silence, Dale spoke once more. “Cancer?” he murmured.

Anna’s head jerked up, her gaze boring into his. “How —”

“My wife,” he cut her off before she could ask any further, leaning back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “My wife passed not too long ago from it. You’ve got that look in your eyes — I’ve got it, too. Devastating illness, I’ll say. Nothing you can do but sit and wait, watching the person you love just…just disappear,” he whispered that final word, looking as though he was reliving some kind of painful memory. Anna felt her eyes suddenly water and forced her gaze downward once more. “I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he finished earnestly, waiting until Anna looked back up to give her a compassionate nod.

“She survived the cancer,” Anna finally muttered, clenching her jaw. “It was the bite that got her.”

The room quieted further, so much so that a pin could drop and Anna would hear it. Her face felt hot under the group’s stare and she hated the pity she could sense in their gazes. She knew Dale meant well, that he was just trying to get to know her, but Anna wasn’t trying to relay her pathetic life story to a group of strangers. She cleared her throat quickly as everyone began breaking off into separate, quiet conversations, a tangible awkwardness that wasn’t there before masking the room.

“Glenn?” Anna murmured once the group’s attention left her, turning to face her newfound friend. “I think I’ll take that drink now.”

Glenn didn’t say anything in return. He simply shot her a sympathetic look and poured her a heaping glass of wine. Anna grabbed the glass with her trembling fingers, exhaling shakily as she chugged the contents in one, long swig. When she pulled the glass away from her lips, her eyes caught sight of Daryl sitting across the table — he was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed against his chest, pensive eyes boring into hers.

The archer was the only person still staring at her, the rest of the group having broken off into side conversations. Anna slowly wiped the moisture from her lips with the back of her hand, leveling his stare, wondering what he could possibly be thinking about in that moment. Her thoughts were interrupted when Glenn nudged her, offering her another glass of wine which she gratefully accepted, pulling her gaze from Daryl’s.

“So when ya gonna tell us what the hell happened here, Doc?” Shane suddenly inquired, his voice drowning out the rest as everyone quieted uncomfortably. “All the, uh, the other doctors that were supposed ta’ be figurin’ out what happened. Where are they?” he asked, glancing around the table as he grabbed his glass, ignoring the pointed stares he was receiving from the rest of the group.

“We’re celebratin’, Shane,” Rick immediately interjected, shooting his friend a look. “Don't need ta’ do this now.”

“Whoa, wait a second,” Shane held up his hand incredulously. “This is why we’re here, right? This was your move,” he continued, directing his words towards Rick. “Supposed ta’, ya know, find all the answers an’ instead we, uh, —“ he broke off, a disbelieving laugh slipping through his lips. “— we found him,” Shane jerked his thumb in Jenner’s direction, his expression turning serious. “We found one man. Why?” he demanded, turning his attention onto Jenner, waiting for him to answer.

A heavy silence settled over the room and Anna took another long drink, relishing in the burning sensation it brought in the pit of her stomach, the effects of the alcohol already warming her body. Maybe if she drank enough, this horribly, uncomfortable tension would disappear — so she took another hearty swig as Jenner suddenly spoke.

“Well, when things got bad, a lot of people just…left,” he began slowly. “Went off to be with their families. And when things got worse — when the military cordon got overrun — the rest bolted,” he murmured, eyes distant as he stared down at the table.

“Every last one?” Shane fired back, his expression smug like he didn’t believe a word Jenner was saying.

“No,” Jenner’s head snapped up, his fiery gaze boring into Shane’s. “Many couldn’t face walking out the door. They…opted out,” he managed, shooting Shane an aggravated look. “There was a rash of suicides,” he explained softly, the group around the table shifting awkwardly, some choosing to drink, others lowering their gazes. “That was a bad time,” he murmured, mostly to himself.

You didn’t leave,” Andrea suddenly pointed out, genuinely interested. “Why?”

“I just kept working — hoping to do some good,” he finally replied, his tormented eyes locking with Andrea’s.

Another long moment of silence settled over the cafeteria, everyone trapped in their own thoughts, mulling over Jenner’s confession.

From the corner of her eye, Anna saw Glenn stand up and push away from the table. “Dude, you are such a buzzkill, man,” he mumbled in Shane’s direction, clearly annoyed with the reminder of the depressing reality they lived in.

The brief moment of peace had been nice while it lasted.

Everyone seemed ready to head their separate ways for the night, the lighthearted-dinner-turned-heavy having exhausted what little energy they had left. Jenner had brought the group down a long hallway lined with bedrooms, allowing everyone to pick a space to sleep in that night. The mood amongst the group perked up at the mention of something they never thought they’d experience again — a hot shower.

Anna made herself at home in a small, closet-sized bedroom at the end of the hall. There wasn’t much inside — just a rickety cot, a pillow and blanket, and a trunk at the end of the bed — but it was more than enough for her. She was most excited about the tiny bathroom attached to the room — she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d showered properly, her natural stench and those around her something she’d become accustomed to over the past few weeks.

But as she stood below the shower head, letting the scalding water wash over her bruised, tired body, cleansing her flesh of all the dirt and grime it had accumulated over the past few weeks, she felt rush of emotion clog her throat. It may have been the wine coursing through her veins, those two hearty glasses having taken advantage of her demolished tolerance, but for some reason, tears sprung to her eyes.

The CDC was a dead end. There was no one left. There was no cure. There was nothing. Anna wondered if Fort Benning would’ve held the same fate for her.

She sniffled softly, scrubbing her skin raw in the attempt to clean the filth from her body. She shampooed and conditioned her hair twice, a small, disbelieving laugh slipping through her lips as she finally washed the grease from her strands. Once she was done with the washing, she merely stood beneath the shower head, eyes closed, relishing in the moment, unsure when this small miracle would happen again.

The water began to chill and Anna quickly turned the faucet off, her lips frowning as a shiver wracked through her. “Nice while it lasted,” she murmured aloud, her words slightly slurred as she stumbled out of the shower. “Lightweight,” she muttered to herself, rolling her eyes as she grabbed a spare towel and wrapped it around her body.

She wasn’t a big drinker growing up — she spent most of her time working after she turned twenty-one, so she never went through that ‘party faze’ most people her age endured. She and Ben would have a beer after especially tough days at home, but other than that, her experience with alcohol was limited. She had to admit though — it felt pretty damn nice. Everything felt heavy and warm and foggy, like the world had muted around her — the brevity of calm was alluring.

In the midst of serenity, a sudden memory seeped through Anna’s mind.

Anna pushed open the creaking screen door that led outside, spotting Ben sitting on the crumbling front steps. “Hey,” she greeted softly, closing the door shut behind her.

Ben glanced at her from over his shoulder, giving her a short nod and patting the empty space next to him. “How was work?” he murmured as Anna took a seat.

Anna sighed heavily, resting her elbows on her knees. “It was fine. Pretty slow, so made shit tips,” she grumbled, staring at the deteriorating house across the street. It looked incredibly similar to her own — broken shutters, crumbling siding, the interior even worse. But it was cheap. It was affordable. And even though she and Ben were forced to share a tiny, closet-sized bedroom, they had a roof over their heads. That was all they could ask for.

“It’ll pick up,” Ben nodded, his ever-present positivity something Anna envied — although as she peeked a glance at him, she couldn't help but feel that something was off, that something was bothering him.

She nudged his side gently. “What’s up with you?”

Ben exhaled, rubbing a hand over his haggard face, his fingers still stained with grease from his shift at the auto shop earlier that day. He reached for something near his feet, picking up a half-empty beer bottle and taking a long swig before offering it over to Anna. She took a sip, swishing the lukewarm liquid around in her mouth, her stomach unsettled by Ben’s lack of response.

She nudged him again. “Come on, talk to me,” she murmured, locking her fingers around the bottle.

Ben dug the heel of his boot onto the concrete steps, absently brushing his fingertips over the growing stubble on his chin. “Anna, I’m moving out,” he finally mustered.

Anna studied his features for a long moment before turning her eyes downward, studying the beer bottle’s label. She wasn’t surprised. She knew eventually this was going to happen and she’d been preparing for it. “When?” she mumbled.

Ben sighed again. “Couple of days.”

Anna scoffed softly. Now, that she wasn’t expecting. “Where?”

Her brother fidgeted for a moment beside her and she knew by that short pause, she wouldn’t like his answer. “Atlanta.”

Anna’s head snapped up, her fiery gaze boring into his guilty one. “Atlanta?” she shot back incredulously. “You’re moving out of state?”

“It’s not that far,” he defended, rolling his eyes.

“It’s like fourteen hours away, Ben,” she protested, trying to mask how hurt she felt.

Ben shook his head slightly, training his eyes on the house across the street. “It’s nine hours and thirteen minutes, actually.”

Anna scoffed once more, feeling a swell of tears cloud her vision, but she quickly pushed them away. “Well, it might as well be on the other side of the country.”

“Anna, I’m twenty-eight years old. How many twenty-eight-year-olds do you know still live at home?” Ben snapped, huffing in annoyance.

“Our situation is different and you know that,” she shot back pointedly.

“Bullshit!” Ben cussed, standing abruptly, beginning to pace the small portion of sidewalk in front of the steps. “Mom and Dad need to start taking care of themselves — it shouldn’t be on us. We’re their kids, for Christ’s sake! Not the other way around!”

Anna’s brow furrowed, this rare outburst from her brother something she wasn’t used to seeing. “Ben —”

“I mean, at some point we’ve gotta start living for ourselves, right?” he continued, bulldozing over her attempt to calm him. “Right?” he pressed, waiting for Anna’s reply. 

She took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Right,” she finally murmured, squeezing her eyes shut. Her brother was right. He was always right.

When she opened her eyes, Ben was standing in front of her, his expression troubled as he moved to sit beside her once more. “I want you to come with me.”

“I can’t,” Anna retorted before she could even mull over his offer.

Ben shot her an exasperated look. “Well, you can’t stay here.”

“I have to,” Anna shrugged helplessly. “We can’t both leave, Ben.”

“Well, I’m not leaving you alone in this shit-hole neighborhood, in a house that’s about three seconds from caving in on itself,” he fired back, gritting his teeth together in frustration. “You’re twenty-two now and — Jesus, Anna, these are supposed to be the best years of your life. And all you do is work and take care of Mom,” he sighed, his tone soft, expression tense. “What the fuck kinda life is that?”

“Ben, I’m okay,” Anna murmured, nodding her head, trying her best to appear convincing. “Look, it’s not like I’ll be here forever. It’s temporary. And when Dad finds a job, or when Mom’s feeling better, maybe — maybe then I can go.”

A long moment of silence passed where neither of them spoke. “Okay,” Ben suddenly voice, nodding his head. “Okay, we’ll wait until then.”

A look of confusion flashed across Anna’s face. “What’d you —”

“I’m not leaving you. It’s not happening. I’m not gonna go off and leave you to deal with all this shit by yourself,” he stated, steadfast in his change of heart. “Fuck that.”

“Ben, no. I promise I’m fine. You need to do this and —”

“Not without you, Annie. I’m not going anywhere without you.”

Anna felt a pang of guilt shoot through her. “C’mon, Ben. I’m not a little kid anymore. I can take care of myself.”

“Anna —”

“No, listen to me for a second,” Anna interjected firmly, waiting until Ben nodded for her to continue. “Ben, you’ve taken care of me my entire life. Ever since I was four years old and afraid to sleep by myself during thunderstorms,” a quiet laugh bubbled out of Anna as Ben’s eyes softened. “You’ve done more for me than anyone else ever has. So please…please just do this one thing for yourself.”

Ben shook his head slowly, expression torn. “But —”

“No,” Anna snapped, cutting him off. “No, I don’t wanna hear it. I will be just fine. I promise,” she pronounced each word clearly, hoping she’d get through to her brother. “It’s temporary, remember?”

Ben sighed after a lingering moment, long and heavy, shaking his head slightly. “You’ve gotta stop putting everyone else’s needs before your own.”

Anna quirked a smile, ignoring the lump forming in her throat. “I blame you, big brother. You’re the one that raised me, after all,” she teased, but somehow, her words came out heavier than intended.

Ben just shook his head once more, shoulder slumped in defeat. “You’re really not gonna come with me?” he murmured, glancing at Anna from the corner of his eye.

Anna gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment before quirking her brow. “No guy wants their little sister crashing at their bachelor pad — total buzzkill,” she smirked.

Ben nudged her with his elbow. “I don’t mind. You can be my wing woman — help me pick up chicks,” he waggled his eyebrows at her and Anna felt a laugh push its way out from deep in her gut.

“Maybe when I come to visit,” she grinned, taking a swig from the beer bottle before passing it back to her brother.

Ben brought the bottle to his lips, finishing its contents, before slinging an arm around Anna’s shoulders and pressing a kiss to the side of her head. “Whenever you’re ready to leave, you’ve got a place with me. You know that, right?”

A soft smile spread across Anna’s features despite the growing pain in her heart. Still, she sighed, resting her head on Ben’s shoulder. “Right.”

Anna snapped back to reality as another chill coursed through her.

That had been five years ago — five years ago that she and Ben had sat on those steps and had that conversation. She’d had every intention of picking up and moving to Atlanta, but for some reason, it’d never happened. Her dad had never found a job with steady income, her mom’s health had only deteriorated, and she herself had never found the courage to make that final step.

Anna had visited Ben a handful of times once he’d moved — she’d drive to the city and stay the weekend, he’d show her around and introduce her to his new friends, and they’d talk about what her life would look like once she made the move herself. But over the years, time and distance ran its natural course and Anna found herself seeing less and less of her big brother…

Anna quickly pushed away the painful memory and toweled off before she wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror, getting a good look at herself clean for the first time in God knows how long. Although she was much bonier now, her face worn and tired, she was beginning to see a semblance of who she used to be — maybe there was hope in this place after all.

She grabbed a clean comb from one of the sink drawers and went to work untangling the mess of knots her hair had become. It took her a solid twenty minutes to undo the damage done, but in the end, her hair was clean, combed and looking healthy. 

Anna found some spare clothes in the trunk at the foot of the bed and slipped into them — she tried to ignore the nagging thoughts of who these clothes used to belong to. They were a bit loose on her, the sweatpants hanging off her hips and the t-shirt baggy, but they were clean. This was turning out to be one of the best nights of her life.

After getting all settled, feeling fresh and like herself again, Anna felt the sudden urge to explore. When would this opportunity ever come again? The CDC was a fortress. There were no hidden dangers lurking, no untended to threats waiting to strike. And it wasn’t like she was going to sleep much — her mind was a constant ticking time bomb, her dreams plagued with nightmares. She wanted to explore.

Anna crept out of her room, the hallway quiet, the rest of the group having either turned in for the night or off doing something else. She meandered down hall after hall, peeking into the rooms with open doors — she checked out the recreational room where she ran into Carol and the kids, she found the library, the walls covered with hundreds of dusty books — before she decided to try upstairs.

She found the elevator Jenner had brought them to when they’d first arrived and made her way up to the main floor. The lobby was eerily quiet, vast and vacant, concealed in darkness as she walked out of the elevator. But as soon as she entered the space, the main lights automatically turned on, sensing her presence.

She spotted the main doors that her group had arrived at earlier that night, the steel door returned firmly in place. Tilting her head up, she breathed in awe at that cascading glass windows that lined the broad ceiling. But just as she turned to make her way back towards the elevator, she spotted someone slouched on the staircase near the front window.

“Glenn?” Anna murmured softly, recognizing his trademark baseball cap first.

His head snapped in her direction, a lazy smile slipping across his features. “Anna!” he grinned, holding his arms out, one hand clasped firmly around the neck of a wine bottle.

Anna snorted a laugh. “What the hell are you doing up here? Sitting in the dark, might I add?” she pointed out as she approached the stairs.

“Oh, the, uh…” Glenn fumbled for the right words, scratching the side of his head. “The lights! Yeah, the — the lights turned off an’ I, uh, didn’t really kinda know how to sorta turn them on,” he shrugged, words slurred and incoherent. “Oh...well, m’ drunk,” he hiccuped, resting his elbows on the stair behind him.

Anna rolled her eyes, sighing as she took a seat beside Glenn on the stairway. “They’re motion sensors, I think,” she murmured, glancing out the window that gave sight to the outdoors. In the distance, she could spot the RV, but in front of that was a graveyard full of the dead. She shivered when she realized that she could’ve very well been one of them had Jenner not allowed them inside.

“Here,” Glenn mumbled, passing her the bottle of wine, which she happily accepted, taking a long swig.

“So, are you originally from around here?” Anna inquired, taking one more sip before passing it back to Glenn.

He shook his head. “Michigan. Moved — uh, moved to Atlanta after college. Got a job —” he hiccuped, “— deliverin’ pizzas. It was awesome. Was livin’ the dream,” he sang the last couple of words, using the wine bottle as a microphone before swaying from where he sat, his skin losing its color all of the sudden.

“Oh, boy, you really are drunk,” Anna laughed, grabbing his shoulder to stop his swaying.

Glenn groaned, dropping his head down to his chest and rubbing his eyes. “S’ Daryl’s fault,” he grumbled incoherently. “He — he wanted this and — and now,” hiccup, “now he got it.”

Anna felt the corner’s of her mouth quirk up as she patted Glenn’s back understandingly. She sighed softly, resting her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hand. Thoughts of the archer suddenly invaded her mind and although she’d promised herself she wasn’t going to bother with Daryl anymore, something was nagging at her. It could’ve been the booze, ‘liquid courage' as Ben used to say, but Anna found herself speaking before she could stop herself. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Mhm?” Glenn hummed, forcing his gaze towards her.

Anna paused, tucking a strand of her still-wet hair behind her ear, carefully formulating her next words. “What’s the deal with Daryl?” she spoke slowly, cautiously, part of her chastising herself for breaking her ‘no more Dixon drama’ rule. 

But she couldn't help herself — it was now or never. She was intoxicated and Glenn probably wouldn’t remember any of this in the morning anyway.

So it was time to get some fucking answers.