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This Time Around

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Screaming. High-pitched, desperate screaming, piercing the air and echoing all around, bouncing off the trees like rubber balls, ricocheting and growing louder with every thud of her boots on the dry, cracked ground. Or, was that her imagination? Her heartbeat thrummed in her head as she sucked in breaths to try and propel herself forwards, her chest burning with every gasp and her feet aching after each rapid step. She scolded herself for every single excuse she’d thought up to stop herself from going to the gym, or for a jog, or to the tennis courts. She really wished she wasn’t so inclined to sitting inside and gaming or reading. If she’d known she’d need such stamina to save herself from the jaws of another human being, she’d have jumped on a treadmill occasionally.

Twigs broke under her boots as branches snapped at her sweat covered face but still, she pushed on, further into the woods, away from the screaming. The snarling had grown quiet as the inferno in her lungs grew hotter, her breath became labored and she stumbled, her hands shooting out and grabbing at a nearby tree. Bark and dirt filled her mouth and obscured her view. She blinked, only to find her vision blurred by mud. It took a few precious seconds for her to realize that she’d fallen before she quickly hauled her body upright and carried on along her jagged path through the woods.

She thought there had to have been at least ten people behind her when she had flown off into the tree line from the highway, all terrified with eyes bulging and hearts hammering. Now, her surroundings had fallen quiet and it occurred to her that she was wandering alone in the thick darkness, meandering between trees with no weapons or idea where she was headed. She stopped in her tracks, leaning against a trunk and trying to catch her breath. Her ears strained to hear the slightest sounds around her so she could sprint off at any hint of danger. Her hands found the straps of her back pack, tugging it from her shoulder and swinging it around to her front. Inside, she selected a torch and quickly flicked the switch. A bright, beam of light shot through the velvet dark, illuminating her surroundings and proving that she was now alone. She swallowed hard and gradually edged around the trunk, shining the torch between the surrounding trees and listening, above the sound of her own breathing for the slightest snap of a twig of a distant groan.

She was walking the highway after being unable to drive any further. The city saw thousands upon thousands of people flee when the chaos hit and spread like a wildfire. She watched from a distant hill as the roads filled up with panicked, angry refugees that were offering each other money and all manner of expensive and luxury items for passage out of the highly populated area that had fast become a death trap.

After losing her companion shortly after fleeing into the woods, she was forced to shake off the shock of what she had witnessed. Her best friends throat ripped out in a split second, a river of crimson blood flooding over his bright, white clothing, the contrast somehow making the horrendous scene even more macabre. With no time to cry, no breaks in which to grieve, she raced off with blurry eyes into the night with her friend’s assailant hot on her heels, snarling and snapping its jaws until the sound was gradually replaced by the terrified screams of others, dotted about in the trees around her.

She kept walking until her heels ached and her knees grew weary and her stomach grumbled so loudly, she wrapped her hands around it to muffle the sound. Knowing she had to get some rest, she chose the sturdiest looking tree she could find and began to climb, her hands gripping the harsh bark and heaving her weary body up the structure until she was perched on a thick branch that was wider than her own body. She settled against the trunk. The contents of her backpack dug into her spine but she cared little for anything except being able to rest someplace that meant she wasn’t about to be consumed by what once was somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s husband or wife. Now, just a ravenous, monstrous shell of what they were.

When she awoke, light shone through the trees, a slither hitting her face and heating up one cheek. She blinked and shook her head before leaning over the edge of the branch and checking it was clear to climb down. Finding nothing, she was soon ambling back over the leafy ground in search of some semblance of shelter.


 

Carol watched as her young daughter gently plucked at the fabric of her doll. Such delicate fingers poised over the cloth face of an effigy she’d become attached to ever since she was a baby. She was a quiet child, even more so since they’d arrived at the camp. She’d seen things no one of her age should have, the same things that other children across the world had now seen. Not to mention the violence she’d witnessed before the turn. Violence at the hands of her own father. Carol’s heart hurt for her and not only the memories she would have to carry, but the new, even more brutal things she was unavoidably going to have to endure in her bleak and uncertain future.

Her dirty blonde hair glistened in the sun and her skin, still so young and flawless, had yet to display the pallid gray that some of the others had. Her freckles were still noticeable and each one reminded Carol of the times when she’d cradle the girl in her arms, counting the subtle dots across her nose and smiling to herself.

“Mom?” Sophia squeaked from the waters edge.

The quarry boasted a deep, teal body of water that provided the camp with a means to wash clothes, bodies and was a much-needed source of drinking water once boiled of its impurities. The blazing sunshine, intense temperatures and picturesque view from the top made it the ideal place to set up and stay for a while and most of the camps population had no designs on moving anywhere.

“Yes, sweetheart?” Carol cooed back.

“There’s a woman up there.”

The small girls tiny finger extended, pointing out a lone figure stood, buckled over at the top of the quarry. A red backpack was hanging from the woman’s shoulders and she used the front of her black T-shirt to wipe sweat from her forehead, exposing a pale stomach. Carol squinted and slowly got to her feet, shielding her eyes from the sun in order to gain a better view. Her brow furrowed and her heart began to race in her chest.

“Shane!” She suddenly shouted, her voice thrown around the quarry and traveling up the hill to the main camp. “Come on, Sophia. Come with me. We have to go and get Shane.”


 

She had been at the camp for three days before she summoned up the courage to talk to anyone. An introvert by nature and traumatized by her experience, she chose to retreat into her tent and sleep while others went about their daily tasks. She ate alone, sat alone and read her books alone. Carol was the woman that first approached her at the top of the quarry, flanked by a group of four men. She didn’t remember the names of any of them at the time, only Carol’s as she backed away like a frightened deer. Coaxed along to the camp on the promise of food and a tent, she hadn’t breathed a word then and still hadn’t as she sat, hugging her legs and peering up at everyone on the third evening.

She flinched when a man crouched down in front of her and offered her a square, metal camping bowl of food. She didn’t care what it was, her stomach protested loudly at its emptiness and she slowly took the bowl from his hands. Carol had been the one to make sure she ate, it was always Carol. Nice, non-threatening, motherly Carol. Now, it was this man with his sunken eyes, dark, military haircut and thin lips.

“How you doin’?” The man asked.

She half shrugged, not able to manage much more for fear of having to get into a conversation.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I’m Shane. Over there…” He pointed to a man dressed in a sheriff’s uniform. “…That’s Rick. Then ya got T-Dog next to him and then Glenn. That’s just some of us. You’ve been pretty quiet; just thought I’d let you know who people are. You need anything, just ask anyone, OK?”

She nodded a thanks and leaned forwards, taking a small sniff of her food. Some kind of meat stew, laden with herbs. It was the most amazing thing to grace her nostrils in four days.

“You got a name?” Shane asked.

“J-Jess.” She uttered through chapped, cracked lips.

“Well, Jess. I know you’re scared n’ all. We all are. But you’re safe here.” He assured her.

“OK. T-Thank you.” She stammered, picking up a spoon from the bowl and beginning to stir her food.

When Shane left her, she hungrily demolished the stew and picked up her journal from beside her. She knew she’d soon run out of ink for her pen and resigned herself to the fact that she would at some point, need to ask someone to fetch her a new one from one of the supply runs they seemed to frequently go on. As she scribbled, jeering from the other side of the camp caught her attention and she glanced up to see two more men emerge from the trees, one was carrying a crossbow, his sleeveless arms shiny in the light as he approached the glow of the fire with a string of squirrels hoisted over his shoulder. He wore a leather vest and his expression was sour, despite the cheering and jokes being cracked by his companion. The other man was visibly older, bald  and also wore a leather vest, he swung a dead opossum by his side as he walked, soon throwing down in front of the fire with a dusty thud and laughing.

“What would y’all do without us, huh?!” He cried with a voice louder than any of the others Jess had heard so far. From his body language and his attitude, she could tell this one was going to be trouble.

Jess saw Shane get to his feet and whisper to the man to keep the noise down, but he was met with nothing but a snarl. The man with the squirrels was already stalking over in the direction of Jess’s tent, suddenly veering off and slamming the dead animals onto a makeshift table and propping his crossbow against the structure at his feet.

“Merle, get ya ugly ass over here. I’ma get to skinnin’ these.” He announced.

Jess retreated back into her tent in an attempt to stay out of the sightline of both men, judging them both to be the kind of people she would have steered well clear of before she found herself running through the woods for her life.


 

In the time it had taken for Carol to persuade Jess to emerge from her tent and meet some of the others, her presence at the camp was now being noticed by just about everyone. She had briefly conversed with the younger members of the group; Carl, who was Rick and Lori’s son and Sophia, Carol and Ed’s daughter. Children were altogether less intimidating and energy draining than adults could be to Jess, especially in such a setting, where noise and rigorous activity needed to be kept to a minimum, as were the rules.

There were two other girls of Jess’s age which she deliberately steered clear of without hesitation, Sarah and Jodie. Initially met with outwardly false smiles and raised eyebrows, the transparency of the two females that peered back at her was evident and enough to make sure she knew her place was not with them. Her history with female friends not being one to shout about, other women never seemed to take to her due to her obscure and nerdy interests and quiet nature. Constantly a source of ridicule at high schools she'd attended, she kept herself to herself and spent her free time at comic book stores and conventions with her handful of close, male friends she would undoubtedly make eventually. All of which were now dead.

The loud man from the previous night, who’s name she had learned was Merle, had already proved that her suspicions about him being trouble were correct. Jess always knew to trust her gut; it hadn’t let her down yet. Walking past her as she hurried along behind Carol, he slowly looked her up and down, running his tongue along his bottom lip and rubbing his chin. Beside him, was the other man in the leather vest, his younger brother; Daryl.

“Aint she a meaty one? Lil’ more cushin’ for the pushin’, huh, Daryl?” He sneered.

His brother merely glanced up and caught Jess’s eye as she passed, his blue irises flashing before her. She had never seen such icy blue eyes before.

“Shut up, Merle” She heard him mutter in response.


 

Since arriving at the camp, Jess hadn’t seen any of the dead ones. She figured she’d wandered so far up the mountain, that hardly anyone alive, let alone dead would be likely to follow her. She noticed that they had coined the name ‘Walkers’ by those around her and felt safe in the knowledge that no one had seen one enter the camp for weeks due to the surrounding makeshift alarms comprised of tin cans and other noisy materials. Whispers around the campfire had indicated that the city was full of them and they were now starting to run out of food and disperse into the surrounding areas.

Sat in her usual spot just inside her tent, she jotted down what she thought was the date at the top of the next page of her journal, although she couldn’t be sure if it was correct or not. Giggling in the distance caused her to look up, where she clocked the unmistakable sight of Sarah and Jodie making fun of her from across the clearing. Jess couldn’t help but lift an eyebrow in disgust at the typical nature of their body language. Hands deliberately blocking mouths as they spoke, eyes intermittently locking on her and childish giggling that she expected from the likes of Sophia or Carl, but not from two women in their twenties. She shook her head and sighed, turning her attention back to finishing the date on the page when her eyes lowered further, to the extra flesh around her middle, her thicker thighs than the other girls, even her fingers. Bigger, softer. She flattened her hand on the page and sighed. Then, screaming rang out across the camp.

Everyone seemed to move simultaneously, grabbing at everything that could be used as a weapon. Jess froze to the spot until she saw Carol making her way towards the children with several others and whisking them away. Curiosity fueled her to move and find out how high the threat was, knowing she needed to keep a safe distance but still get close enough to see what the fuss was about.

Just inside the tree line, Dale, owner of the groups RV and resident, straw hat lookout was busy beating the hell out of a single Walker with Rick and some of the others with blunt objects, bats and even a broom. Jess looked on in disbelief at the Walker that had eventually fallen to the floor and quietened, beside it, lay a deer with an arrow in its rear end and a myriad of bite marks taken out of its side. The small huddle of people exchanged glances, their chests all rising and falling.

“Never seen them this far up the mountain before” Dale commented.

“Well, they’re running out of food in the city” Carol remarked to the cluster of concerned and sweaty faces.

“Son of a bitch!” Came another, angry voice from further back. “That’s my deer!”

Daryl emerged from the bushes, crossbow in hand, sweat beaded on his chest and forehead, yet more dead squirrels thrown over his shoulder and ripped the crossbow bolt from the deer’s rump with one, swift movement.

“Look at it, all gnawed on by this filthy, disease-bearin’, motherless, poxy, bastard!”

With each new word, his boot collided with the Walkers body on the floor, Jess sidestepped slightly to gain herself a better view of him in his entirety through the bushes.

“Calm down, Son. That’s not helping” Dale scolded.

“And what do you know ‘bout it, ol’ man?! Why don’t you take that stupid hat and go back to ‘on golden pond’? I been trackin’ this deer for miles!”

As he finished his sentence, the Walker at his feet began to writhe and gnash its jaws. Jess felt her throat constrict at the thought of it not being dead and wondered just how the hell they were meant to be stopped if gunfire emitted too much noise.

“Oh my god” Glenn groaned as he resumed beating the corpse with a stick.

“C’mon, people! What the hell?!” Daryl exclaimed as he aimed at the Walkers head with his crossbow and pulled the trigger. A neon bolt embedded in its skull and instantly, the threat was eliminated. “It’s gotta be the brain. Don’t y’all know nothin’?”

Retrieving his bolt from between the Walkers eyes, he huffed and threw everyone an exasperated look. Before she could even think, Jess found herself face to face with him as he stormed through the brush, unexpectedly running into her. She quickly stepped back and tried to drop her gaze, but his stare was so intense that she found herself rooted to the spot while he paused to take in the view of her. She swallowed hard and finally managed to step aside and let him pass. When he did so without a word, she almost tried to blink the shock from her eyes as she turned on her heels and made her way back to her tent.

That night she braved sitting around the camp fire with everyone else at dinner, although she sat further back than the rest. Nibbling on strips of squirrel, Jess didn’t follow any conversations that were taking place. Opposite her, sat even further back than her in the shadows, was Daryl, who had just finished up licking excess meat from his fingers and was now watching her over the flames, his arms draped over his bent legs. She was aware his attention was firmly fixed on her and grew increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Why was he looking at her like that? Why was he looking at her at all?


 

After another two days, Jess was still finding it hard to settle in amongst the masses at the camp. Only speaking briefly to a handful of people, she decided that Carol was the easiest person to converse with, except Rick, who never seemed to give her a choice but to answer when he asked after her welfare. Her days were spent reading, writing or tagging along with Carol by the water and helping with the laundry. Her knowledge of certain historical periods meant she knew how to wash clothes without the aid of a washer dryer and was able to lend a hand in getting through the huge piles of dirty clothes that appeared in the crate at the start of each day.

Carol wasn’t shy about encouraging Jess to learn new skills and on one particular occasion, caused a great deal of anxiety when she handed her a knife and a pile of dead squirrels and told her to start skinning them. Before Jess could protest or express her ignorance on such a subject, Carol had vanished from sight, summoned by her aggressive and overbearing husband, Ed. Her hand shook as she looked down at her fingers clutching the knife, Daryl’s presence on a rock behind her niggling away in her mind. If anyone knew how to skin squirrels, it would be him. She turned her body slightly so as to block his view and began prodding one of the small animals with the sharp end of the knife.

Daryl, able to see over her shoulder from his higher vantage point, furrowed his brow and threw his smoke away. He climbed down from the rock and approached her.

“Kinda shit show is that? Give it here.” He snapped, reaching for her knife. She stilled, wide eyed and tried to focus on what she should say.

She slowly looked sideways at him with the squirrel in her hand. She still gripped the knife and he beckoned with his fingers for her to pass it to him along with the dead animal. She gingerly handed him him both and stepped aside, letting him take up her spot. Before he set to work, he noticed her discomfort and awkward expression.

“She uh-she left before I could tell her I have no idea what I’m doing.” She said quickly.  

He grunted and turned his head to see Carol with Ed, who’s voice was raised and echoing around the quarry. Shane stood nearby, arms crossed, keeping a very close eye on the arguing couple. Ed’s arms were flailing in the air as Carol stood meekly in front of him. Daryl bit his bottom lip for a second and decided to leave them to it, getting involved in other people’s drama wasn’t something he made a habit of. He turned his attention back to Jess.

“What exactly do ya do around here?” He asked her.

It was a good question and one she didn’t have much of an answer to. Since she’d arrived, she slinked about in the shadows, folding her collectable superhero T-shirts that she happened to have bought on the day the world went awry and scribbling in her journal. She’d only recently started to lend a hand with the laundry but other than that, she could honestly say she’d been nothing but a leech.

“Um… I got a pretty loud scream. It’s like a…Walker alarm. Just haven’t used it yet.” She said with a small smile.

He huffed, unimpressed and figured she would be even more useless unless he showed her what to do with the knife and the squirrel.

“Pay attention.” He mumbled, motioning to the animal with the knife. “Gotta start right here, cut up to the tailbone”

As he spoke, he physically showed her what to do, pointing out each part and showing her exactly how to angle the knife in the process. Jess winced at the sound of the knife slicing through the flesh and tried to act as though the blood didn’t bother her. But she was never a good liar and her stomach flipped at the sight. Her face paled and she took a deep breath.

“Then, down each leg. Gotta make a flap of skin on each. Can grab it and yank it right off, cut as ya go.” He explained, focused on his task and missing Jess’s pained expression. He ripped the skin from the animal and tossed it aside before holding the bloodied knife out to her and finally noticing her pallid skin and sweaty forehead.

“R-right.” She stammered, slowly taking the knife from him.

“Practice. Make ya self useful.” He said, his tone now less antagonistic and more akin to someone with a helpful suggestion.

“Right. Yeah.” She mumbled, taking the knife back and dragging the back of her wrist across her forehead.

Relief washed over her when he finally departed, leaving her to her task. While it took her probably double the time it would have taken Daryl, she eventually finished it and cleaned up with a sense of pride and accomplishment welling in her chest.


 

 'I'm not entirely sure I’ll ever fit in with this group. I know I don’t really fit in anywhere else either, but no matter how hard I try, I always seem to get left behind. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking a lot about mom and dad and my asshole brother who I miss so much. Seeing people that still have their families, I hope they know how lucky they are. I know I never really fit in with them either, but they were my blood.

 It’s a miracle I survived on my own, I see that even more now I’m around people with actual survival skills. There are fighters, hunters, people that are good with weapons, even people that think more strategically than me. I feel kind of useless. I’m slower and a liability compared to these people. A guy called Daryl had to teach me how to skin a squirrel today. I almost hurled on the table in front of him and I felt like an idiot at first but at least he took the time to show me instead of making fun of me. If I’m honest, I was really expecting the latter.'  

She closed the journal. Shoved it back in her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Then, she picked up the bunch of skinned squirrels and made her way to the top of the hill. The heat from the sun was starting to lessen and she was grateful for it, she wasn’t used to building up much of a sweat, so her new surroundings up in the sky, a top a mountain had been a shock to the system. People wandered about the camp and children played quietly as the fire in the middle started to intensify, ready to provide warmth from the sudden cold snap that came as soon as the sun vanished below the horizon.

Jess spotted Merle on the outskirts of the group. He sat with a tree stump in front of him and a large knife, dissecting meat and driving it onto skewers for cooking. Jess took a deep breath and made tracks towards him, passing the RV in the process, where Daryl sat on the roof, watching her. She kept her head up when passing Sarah and Jodie, Sarah brushing through her blonde hair with her fingers as they ambled along.

“Better get in quick before she eats every scrap. Girl definitely isn’t starving.” Jodie whispered to her friend.

The comment hit Jess’s chest like a bulldozer but outwardly, her reaction was minimal. She carried on walking and handed the squirrels to Merle wordlessly before turning on her heel and stalking off back to her tent. She could hear Merle chuckle to himself behind her but paid him no mind. He wasn’t the one that could stamp on her feelings so easily. It was other girls. Always other girls.

Daryl was noisily chewing on some beef jerky when he heard Jodie’s scathing comment and saw Jess hesitate as she walked, her head dropping and her shoulders slumping. Sarah and Jodie rounded the RV on their random path and as Daryl looked down at them, his eyes fell on a cup of water set down on the roof of the RV, near to the edge. The temptation proving too great to ignore. Dale must have left it there. Convenient. He kicked the cup, sending water flying over the edge and onto the heads of the two girls below.

“Hey! Watch it, Redneck!” Sarah shrieked as she flicked her hands out, ridding herself of any water droplets. Jodie merely stood there and seethed, her jaw clamped shut and her eyes narrowed up at Daryl. Her sweater was splattered with a dark and no doubt, cold stain.

“Sorry” He smirked.


 

Rudely awoken by a cooking pot being thrown against the side of her tent just before sunrise, Jess startled and considered herself lucky the foreign object that had collided with the canvas had missed her head by inches. She crawled out of her sleeping bag and poked her head out of the zipper to the sounds of Merle and T-dog shouting obscenities to each other and brawling in the middle of the clearing. Curse words were yelled and a plethora of racist remarks left Merle’s mouth as he swung another punch in T-dogs direction. Jess winced at the sound of some of his comments and thought herself grateful she’d been brought up in an accepting and open-minded family and didn’t have to endure the seething hatred Merle seemed to feel every time he set eyes on someone that didn’t share his skin color.

The two men wrestled on the ground, dust kicking up and clouding their air as more and more people filtered out from their tents to observe the spectacle. Jess could hear the moment T-dog’s fist collided with Merles face, a kind of sickening thud followed by a loud grunt and a roar as Merle launched himself up and ran at his assailant. Bowls and utensils flew through the air as they thundered through a nearby table and took out the peg of a tent in the process. The shelter sagged and Jess felt a stab of panic as they neared her. She stepped back in an attempt to put some space between her and the fight as Daryl shot out of nowhere and drove himself between them, taking a hard, right hook from Merle that made Jess jump with the loud crack that it made. But Daryl simply emitted a loud grunt and shook it off and she suspected that this was far from the first time he’d been punched in the face.

“Back up! C’mon! Back up, Man!” He instructed, hovering in front of his brother with his hands on his chest. Shane arrived seconds later, just in time to catch T-Dog and pull his hands behind his back in true cop style. Jess raised an eyebrow.

So much drama. She thought.

“Leave it. Just leave it. What the hell is wrong with you?!” Daryl was now hissing at Merle, who was desperately trying to skirt around him. But wherever Merle was, Daryl was firmly in front of him. “Let it go, Merle.”

She bit her lip as she witnessed Daryl manage to de-escalate his brothers rage and she knew that no one else in the entire group would have been able to handle him in quite the same way. His leather vest flapped at his sides in response to him shifting all his weight into his muscular arms in order to hold his brother still. With one leg placed in front of the other, he leaned forwards, a stable grip on each of Merle’s shoulders. Shane was busy dragging T-dog off and whispering in his ear when Glenn’s voice startled her, snapping her away from an image that had suddenly become a little easier to look at.

“You alright?” He asked. If he’d been there the entire time, she had no idea after having completely missed his presence. “Thought you might have gotten hit in your tent.”

“It just missed my head.” Jess replied with a small smile. “Just.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah. Just glad I wasn’t up and sat by the fire.” She expressed.

“You and me both. Those two have been gunning for one another for days now.” He told her.

She responded with a thin smile and turned her head back to where Daryl was now shoving Merle towards them. As they passed her tent, Daryl’s eyes managed to meet hers. He looked furious, unsettled. Uncomfortable. Taking it as her cue to make herself scarce, she climbed back into her tent.


 

It was almost a ritual now, everyone sat down to eat at the same time, like a giant, dysfunctional family. As far as altercations were concerned, everything was usually forgotten about in time for dinner, food being on the top of everyone’s list of priorities. It wasn’t surprising to Jess to see Merle and T-Dog sat in the same vicinity after such a violent fight, both of them seeming content enough with devouring their food than having any more fights. Merle had situated himself slightly further back than everyone else and made a few un-classy remarks under his breath that had so far been ignored by everyone. Jess heard every word but pretended she didn’t as she finished up her meal and made her way back to the cooking pot. Spooning the rest of the stew into a bowl, she dunked a plastic spoon into it and set off to find Daryl, who was the only one absent from the dinnertime ritual.

Sitting far away from the group, on a fallen tree on the edge of the woods, Daryl could hear both Jodie and Sarah making fun of Jess as she passed. Anger simmered in his chest and he grit his teeth at the sound of their incessant, immature and annoying giggling.  

“Here”

Jess’s voice cut through his thoughts and he peered up at her with suspicion. He threw the piece of bark he was picking at on the floor in front of him and locked his gaze on her.  

“You haven’t eaten. Your brother has. So, I took this before he noticed there was seconds.”

“Why?” He grunts.

She licked her lips and exhaled, her shoulders sagging.

“Saved us all from getting caught in the middle of a pretty nasty fight earlier.”

A grunt was all she received in response. Expecting him to react in any other way would have been futile, it was written all over his face that he was not in the mood to socialize.

“How’s your face?” She asked.

His right eye was beginning to swell and she knew that by morning it would be fully blackened. She wished she had a bag of frozen peas or an ice pack to offer, but figured it would only be met with a snappy remark or shrugged off anyway. But Jess wasn’t one to give up easily on something she believed in and in that moment, she believed that Daryl could use a distraction from his bad mood. Shoving away her doubts and shyness, she kept her eyes trained on him.

“Had worse.” He mumbled.

“You should eat, here.” She offed him the bowl again, telling him in no uncertain terms that she was not about to give up. After a small huff, he looked back up at her, slowly dropping his vision to the steaming bowl of food before eventually taking it from her.  

“Thanks.” He grumbled, taking hold of the spoon and shoveling stew into his mouth without any regard for manners or decorum. Jess sat next to him and ripped up a handful of grass from the ground, gradually picking through the blades and discarding them in the breeze.

“Actually, it’s you that deserves the thanks. You hunted the food and then showed me how to skin it instead of just doing it yourself or showing me up in front of the others. So, thanks.”

“Ain’t nothin’.” He dismissed with his mouth full of food.

“Don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Jessica.” She told him.

Why didn’t I just say ‘Jess’? No one calls me Jessica. What am I doing?!

“Jess. You can call me Jess.” She corrected.

He turned his head, quickly scanning her from head to toe and swallowing the contents of his mouth.

“Daryl.” He stated.  

“S’nice to meet you. I mean, as nice it can be, What, with corpses wandering around trying to eat us. That’s not exactly nice. But, there’s nothing like an apocalypse to bring out the best in people. But then again I guess some people are just crappy by nature.” She rambled.

He stared at her for a moment before shoving more food into his mouth. He was animalistic, almost feral somehow and he had an aura of unpredictability that made Jess nervous. Like a lion that appeared tame and calm but just below the surface lurked a danger that she didn’t want to see.

Jess was by all accounts, a self-declared introvert that didn’t actively seek out social interaction and felt the need to withdraw from situations or people that sapped her energy. Daryl was obviously not like everyone else and she would have hazarded a guess at him also being introverted, which meant that they possibly had something in common. It was unheard of that she made a marked effort to talk to someone that appeared so outwardly hostile, but the end of the world had brought with it a new found attitude in Jess; Just try it. See what happens. It was a philosophy that had kept her alive so far.

“It’s cold tonight, huh? I mean, I have enough blankets and stuff but it still gets through. It’s like ever since the world went to shit the nights have gotten colder” She expressed.

He finished up his food and dropped the bowl on the ground between his bent knees.

“Ya always talk this much?” He asked.

She wasn’t expecting such a question and didn’t know if she should be offended or amused.

“Uh… yes? No? I’m not sure.”

And she wasn’t. Not anymore. Now everything had changed and apparently so had she. If someone had told her she’d be sat beside a violent redneck and attempting to make nice during the apocalypse, she’d have laughed in their face.

Remaining at his side for half an hour more, she’d refused to move partly out of defiance. She braided grass into patterns and watched Carl and Sophia play at the side of the group while Daryl smoked and sulked, about what, she wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t got up and left, nor did he ask her to leave and she took that a small success.


 

Since she was a child Jess always poured her deepest thoughts and feelings into a journal. Each entry left her feeling like she’d been cleansed and was ready for whatever the next day held. Sometimes, if she wasn’t in the mood to write huge paragraphs, she’d write, poetry, haiku’s or draw simple pictures in biro. Even with everything else destroyed and gone, Jess still made sure her journal was not neglected.

That night, in her tent. She opened up the thick, black leather-bound book and began writing.

'Daryl intrigues me. He has a brother that made himself known to me way before Daryl did. In fact, Merle leered at me as I walked by and told me I had ‘more cushin’ for the pushin’.” He’s vulgar and rude. I’m pretty sure he’s a raging racist too from what I’ve seen. I’m not sure Daryl is like that although there is a possibility. He just seems quieter, more thoughtful somehow. He’s kind of cute. In a dangerous kind of way. He broke up a fight between Merle and T-dog today. I have no shame in admitting I was impressed by his courage, even if he did get punched in the eye. I took him some food and tried to talk to him but he now just thinks I talk too much. I don’t think I said too much to him though, he’s just super quiet. Or did I? Oh god. I don’t know.

I’m not sure about everybody else. Rick seems like a nice guy; he’s checked in on me a few times. Shane too, although he’s a little… odd. I think there’s something going on between him and Rick’s wife. I keep catching them whispering to each other. But I shouldn’t make such assumptions. I could be very wrong. I like Carol, she’s the safest person to be around and I think I trust her, when she’s not with Ed. I don’t like him one, little bit. He’s a bad egg. I can tell. Rick’s kid, Carl is pretty cool. He sees a lot more than people give him credit for and he’s smart. He reminds me of me when I was his age.

I’m making an effort to stay away from Sarah and Jodie. They don’t like me and I don’t like them. My fat offends them. Good. I hope it makes their empty heads explode. It seems that no matter what happens in the world, those types of girls are everywhere. Like a disease or a bad smell that won’t go away. When they’re around, I just feel like I’m back in high school and I wouldn’t go back to high school if I was paid.

I could be in worse places. I could be dead. But I can’t shake this overwhelming urge to just be alone. I know it’s not safe and I know it’s not wise. I thought maybe if I talked to someone, tried to gain a friend, it’d help. So, I’m trying with Daryl. Out of everyone, I think he and I might be similar. What am I even talking about? The world ended and here I am, worrying about my social anxiety.

I should sleep. I rarely sleep more than a couple hours at a time now. I can’t stand the nightmares anymore.'

Chapter Text

Shane tossed Daryl a pair of gloves and pointed to the back of the pickup, laden with logs and pieces of wood he’d gathered to make a shelter over the food preparation area. Daryl, more than Merle, tended to be a little more inclined to help around camp as opposed to only lending a hand if it benefited him directly. However, Daryl’s relationship with both Shane and Rick was strained at best. They were cops and both Dixons’ had always hated cops. But Daryl was smart and had already realized that if he was going to get by in this camp, or if he and Merle were going to get any closer to their end goal, he would have to play ball and make nice with the law enforcement.

Shane hopped up onto the truck and bent his legs, hooking his hands under a heavy log on the top of the pile. Sweat glittered on his forehead as he centered himself and lifted. The end of the log tilted towards Daryl and he took hold of it, bearing the weight and slowly easing it down towards him.

“Saw you sat with Jess up on the RV last night. You guys buddies now?” Shane asked through gritted teeth, the veins in his neck bulging as he continued to lift the wood.

“Just invited her damn self up there.” Daryl rasped. The log hit the ground with a thunk and Daryl rolled it to one side, coming back to the truck and sliding the smaller pieces of wood from the top. Shane climbed back down and began doing the same.

“Somethin’ about her. Always the quiet ones you gotta watch.” He pointed out.

Daryls back pricked with irritation. Typical cops, always finding something where there was nothing. His impression of Jess had been that she was a bookish nerd who was as socially awkward and outcast as him. His judgement of character hadn’t let him down in the past and when he looked at the groups newest addition, he saw nothing untoward or untrustworthy in the least.

“They teach ya that in the academy?” He quipped.

Shane huffed at him and paused his task, resting one gloved hand on the remaining pile of wood.

“Maybe I should be watching you too.” He suggested.

“Ya ain’t already? You a rookie or somethin’?” Daryl challenged.

Shane steppes closer to him, lowering his head and voice as he spoke to avoid anyone nearby overhearing.

“Why are you and your brother here? I know your kind. You two can survive just fine on your own. It doesn’t make sense.”

Daryls jaw tightened and his chest puffed as he fought to control the urge to punch Shane in the face. Who did he think he was? The world was over, there’s no more laws and cops had no authority, yet there this guy was, still trying to make his life difficult.

“Safety in numbers.” He managed to shrug noncommittally.

Shane’s gaze was locked on Daryls casual and nonchalant face as if trying to catch him out in a lie. But Daryl stood strong and gave nothing away.

“You better not be lying to me” warned Shane.

“What ya gonna do about it? You can’t prove nothin’.” Daryl sneered, his face twisting into a mocking smile.

“You do anything to put these people in danger and I’ll make you disappear.” Shame continued to scold, stepping closer and prodding Daryl in the chest with his gloved index finger.

“Looks like we all above the law now, huh?” Daryl smirked. “Ain’t so bright, are ya? Pissin’ off the person that provides the camp with food. You don’t back off, I’ll make sure ya starve.”

Shane looked down his nose at the angry Redneck in front of him before curling his lip and turning his attention back to the task in hand.


 

From the top of the RV. Dale laughed to himself and sighed, placing a hand on his head and securing his hat. Jess pressed her lips into a line and gave him an awkward look as he shook his head. From what she could tell Dale was in his 60’s with a weathered face and a white beard. He was logical and wise, full of opinions at the wrong moment, unafraid to offer ideas and seeing all of the commotion that presented its self among a group of individuals that didn’t really know one another, all living together in close proximity. Dale took up the majority of watch shifts, being the owner of the Winnebago meant he wanted to be the one sat on top most of the time.

Jess found that on the odd occasion she had climbed the ladder and settled next to him, he had shared his musings with her at best, but required little in the way of a response from her, which suited her just fine. Able to exist next to each other in peace, she realized she’d found the place where she felt most at ease. A high vantage point where she could see everything and everyone approach. No surprises and a sense of control were what she found most helpful from being so high above the rest of the group. Maybe Dale felt the same in some way, or even Daryl when he sat there of a night. She couldn’t be sure, but there was a possibility she’d find out, if she made the effort to do so.

“There’s a little too much testosterone going on around here. We need to be careful we don’t lose sight of why we’re all here and why we need each other.” Dale expressed to an intrigued Jess. Her face was still displaying a look of uneasy amusement at the exchange between Daryl and Shane.

“It doesn’t look like those two would get along anyway.” She pointed out.

“No, aside from the fact that Daryl and Merle have probably had a few brushes with the law in their time. He and Shane are both hot headed. No doubt they’ll clash again at some point and we’ll just stay up here, out of the way.” He nodded as if confirming his plan to himself and rubbing at his beard.

You got that right. Jess thought.


 

Merle shoved Daryl forwards over the dry, cracked ground. The younger brother whirled around; his face stony with vexation as he pulled the shoulder of his vest back into place. It was a common occurrence when the two of them were hunting. Merle would become inpatient and annoyed with Daryls methodical and careful approach to tracking. He walked at a slower pace, took longer to think and was generally a better hunter because of it.

Daryl carried on through the woods, picking his way over fallen trees and branches across his path while remembering his confrontation with Shane earlier in the day.

“Shane’s onto us.” He told Merle who grumbled something inaudible from behind him and lit a cigarette. The click of his lighter rang through the trees and Daryl realized there and then that he wasn’t going to catch anything with Merles careless attitude that afternoon.

“I said, we gonna have to do this thing. We’re off like a herd of turtles right now.” Merle repeated after getting no response.  

Daryl stopped in his tracks and turned, dropping his crossbow to his side. Merle, exhaling a plume of smoke, raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“We really gotta do this?” Daryl asked.

“Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout?”

“Maybe we should just stay here. It’s safe enough.”

“You pussyin’ out, little brother?” Merle challenged.

Daryl sighed loudly and glanced at his surroundings in the woods. He’d always felt at home there, even as a child when he’d amble in and out of the trees, a place that was much preferred to his own home at the time. He couldn’t say the idea of staying and hunting every day sounded like a bad one. Going off with Merle again would mean more confrontations, more fights and trying to make Merle see past his own nose. Life had undoubtedly been easier since their arrival at the camp and he couldn’t find a reason why they should throw that away.

“Naw, just think it makes more sense to stay instead of makin’ a ton of enemies.” He offered.

Merle’s body language changed instantly, becoming defensive and confrontational. He squared his shoulders and stepped closer to Daryl, looking down at him.

“Right. ‘Cause you ain’t been doin’ that, have ya? I saw ya, flarin’ up Shane’s temper.”

Daryl instinctively switched to argumentative mode and opted not to let his big brother win this one. Nearly all of his decisions had been a detriment to both of them and he wasn’t about to let him get away with thinking he had it all under control, when the truth was far from that.

“At least I ain’t been brawlin’ with black guys in the middle of camp.” Daryl snapped.

“Ahh he’s slicker’n owl shit.” Merle chuckled to himself. “Was just a little right hook”

“You wanted to do this! This was your dumb idea!” Daryl began to yell with now little to no regard about the potential food he was scaring away or the Walkers he could attract. His hand flew up in exasperation and he pointed with intent to Merle’s head. “You said we had to keep a low profile, but you don’t even know what that means!” He stalked off, quietly seething before turning back to Merle who was taking a long, slow drag of his smoke. “We got what we need here. I’m stayin’ a while and I ain’t robbin’ these people.”

With that, he stomped away with a half hope of resuming tracking at some point.

“What about me?” Merle called out.

“Do what ya want!” Daryl raged without even looking back.


 

Finding herself more comfortable sat on watch over the sleeping camp, darkness wrapped around her like a comfort blanket and a soundless watchman by her side, Jess figured she was likely to be spending many more nights on her perch next to Daryl. She quickly gathered that he really didn’t sleep and if he did it wasn’t for long and rarely when everyone else was in their blissful slumbers. How a person functioned on so little rest was a mystery to Jess, but then again so were a lot of other things about the archer of the group.

Most of her time in his presence was spent desperately trying not to ask half a million questions, her curiosity only becoming stronger with each moment spent around him. Maybe it was the now clear difference between him and his brother, maybe it was their matching reluctance to get too involved with anyone or maybe it was something else, but Jess felt more relaxed and social with Daryl than anyone else in the group.

Her fingertips flitted over the cover of her journal, the subtly mottled surface bumping under her skin as she counted the stars above them. Leaned back on her chair, her hands finally rested over the leather object on her lap.

“How old are you?” she asked, internally scolding herself for not being able to hold back the question. From the corner of her eye, she saw him slowly turn his head to her.

“Why ya wanna know that?” He responded bluntly.

“Curious.” She shrugged. “I’m 26.”

“Good for you. 26 trips around the sun.” He snapped back.

Feeling a little put out by the baffled look on his face and his dismissal of her interest with a shake of his head, she began to nervously drum her fingers on her journal.

Daryl tried his best to ignore the noise but soon found himself unable to concentrate on anything else. Feeling a slight sting of embarrassment for coldly throwing her attempt at conversation back in her face, he tried to think up a less offensive thing to say.

Jess shifted in her spot and took a sip of water from a crumpled bottle she kept by her chair leg. She knew he was watching her when he thought she wouldn’t catch him.

“Older than you” she heard him mutter when he looked back out at the crowded camp.

She studied the side of his face as numbers raced through her mind and she tried to guess how much older Merle was than him. She also wondered what he was doing with his life before everything went bad. Sensing her looking at him, he side glanced over at her.

“You wanna see some I.D officer?” He questioned.

The tuneful melody of her giggle was surprising to him. He fought against it, hiding a smile until it occurred to him that she was laughing because she found him funny. It was a new and interesting experience, having anyone think him humorous, let alone a female.

Reaching down to pick up her bottle of water, she offered it out to him.

“You want some water?”

He waved it off, rarely accepting anything from anyone else. Sometimes it was guilt, sometimes it was selflessness and sometimes it was him being plan pig-headed.

Jess withdrew the bottle, putting it back in it’s place and started to tap her sneaker against the edge of the RV in a nervous drumming until Daryl looked over at her in irritation. She immediately stopped.

“Sorry.” She mumbled.

What followed next was one of the longest half an hours in Daryl’s life, Jess read her graphic novel while intermittently lifting her gaze to him. In attempt to ignore her, he found the motivation to unsheathe his knife and carve some bolts from the small pile of wood he’d brought up with him.  

Whispering and chuckling  in the distance meant that both Daryl and Jess squinted into the distant dark in time to see Sarah and Jodie emerge on a late night walk around the camp. Jess was sure they only did it to taunt her and make her feel uneasy, or was she being arrogant enough to assume it was for her benefit when it wasn’t? They made everything questionable, drew in paranoia and riddled Jess with an anxiety she really could have done without.

The two girls were talking amongst themselves when they saw Daryl and Jess sat together on the Winnebago. When he sat back in his seat, Daryl noticed Jess’s body language change straight away, becoming still and wary. His eyes moved between her troubled expression and their disdainful glimpses back at her.

“The blonde one is fuckin’ my brother.” He mentioned.

As if he’d flicked a switch, she completely changed. Her eyes widened and a satisfied smile swept across her face.

“What was that?!” she exclaimed.

“Shh. Keep ya damn voice down” He scolded, unable to stifle a smirk

She cleared her throat and leaned towards him, encouraging him to elaborate.

“That is some serious gossip, Daryl.” She whispered.

“Yeah. Caught ‘em at it in the woods. Merle said it’s been goin on since we got here.” He explained.

She couldn’t help it, a laugh escaped her and she clamped a hand over her mouth. Being completely unaware just how humorous she would find the situation and in turn how funny he would find it once it had been said out loud; he hung his head and released a chuckle of his own.

“You got more than you bargained for when you were hunting that day.” She snorted as her body juddered with giggles.

“That shit can’t be unseen.” He confirmed with a nod.

“Well, thank you for that golden piece of information.” She offered.

“I know ya ain’t gonna sing.”

“What?”

“Ya ain’t gonna tell nobody.”

“Oh, right. No. Of course not.”

The atmosphere between them had vastly improved and Jess clicked on her torch and opened her journal. Sometimes, she thought of her mind like a sponge, absorbent of information but it was like it sometimes got overloaded and would become weighed down. Memories were important to her and her journal had become a roadmap of all the important events in her life, people she’d met along the way and of the small things that she knew not to take for granted. Small things like sitting on a roof and laughing together with Daryl.  

‘I’m sat with Daryl right now, he’s just given me the best piece of gossip and I even got a smile and a laugh out of…’

The ink from the pen faded before running out completely and she frantically scribbled on the page, furrowing her brow before throwing the pen in her bag and growling under her breath.


 

With the ability to write now taken away from her, the morning light saw Jess meandering along the outskirts of the camp alone. Her hands were shoved in her jeans and her shoulder length, black hair was braided at the back. A lot of the group had left early for a supply run, resulting in there being a tense feeling around the camp.

Taking herself away from it with her own thoughts had seemed like the best idea at the time and before long, she was so consumed by the sound of the leave fluttering in the trees that she had reached the makeshift border in the woods. Rope with tin cans hung from it to create as much noise as possible should anything collide with it or try to pass through. The path seemed clear and she couldn’t hear any evidence of threats.

Not too far. She told herself.

It was a hot day and she wished she’d brought water with her before she embarked on her little trip. She shrugged to herself and swung a leg over the rope, taking extra care to hold onto the cans so as not to alert any of the others. When she was clear of the border, she continued to amble through the trees, dragging her sneakers on the ground and humming a tune to herself.

In a split second she plummeted to the floor, her hands hitting the mud and her shoulder stinging with pain. Her toes throbbed and she quickly scrambled to her feet to discover that she’d tripped over a Walker. It was immobile and sported a small, bloody hole on it’s forehead. She swallowed hard. It was the first time she’d seen one so close without being chased. The dead man on the ground looked to have been turned quite some time ago due to it’s sallow and gaunt face, the normal color of it’s skin now gone forever and replaced by a grey hue.

She listened to the others in the group more than she spoke to them, which meant she was a gatherer of information. She had once heard Rick telling Glenn to make sure he checked the pockets of as many Walkers as he could after putting them down. The likelihood of them carrying useful items too good to pass up in such desperate times. Standing over the monstrous sight of what once was someone’s brother or husband, she concluded it wasn’t such a bad idea.

She crouched beside the body, having to shield her nose from the unbelievable smell with the back of her wrist. Her free hand hovered over the clothing and she move with trepidation, having to tell herself it wasn’t going to come alive and bite her.

Something barreling out of the bushes in front of her sent panic spiking through her veins and she jumped back, her ass colliding with the dirt.

Daryl, coated in sweat and with brown smears all over his exposed arms, swung his crossbow at his side and rolled his eyes at Jess sat on the floor of the woods and trying to catch her breath.

“Jesus.” She panted “you scared the shit out of me.”

“The hell you doin this far out? You got a death wish or somethin’?! Here” he offered her his hand and for a brief moment she toyed with the idea of completely refusing, afraid to embarrass herself when he felt the weight of her. Instead, she trusted him and took hold of his hand. The first thing she noticed when he effortlessly helped her get back on her feet, was his strength and how tight his grip was. With minimal effort from herself, she was soon brushing her clothes down and giving him an awkward look.

“I was just walking; thought it’d be okay if I didn’t go that far. Was going to search his pockets but…” She stopped talking, not wanting to disclose the fact that she was actually quite petrified of the dead man at their feet.

“But what?” he asked.

She blinked at him.

He knows I’m terrified anyway. Who am I trying to kid, here?

“…I kept thinking it was just going to shoot up and bite me.” She admitted.

He huffed and kicked at the Walker with his boot, stirring up the smell and making it even more putrid. Jess hoped that one day she would get used to it, if she survived that long.

“Naw. S’dead. I shot it earlier.” He told her.

She nodded and backed up away from the odor, unable to take anymore of it’s sting in his nostrils. doesn’t know what else to say.

“You all the way out here with no weapon?” He wanted to know.

She passed the weapons table on her way out of the camp but arming herself hadn’t crossed her mind. She was simply embarking on an early morning walk and at the time had no plans to leave the compound. That was until curiosity got the better of her.

“Yes. I am.” She sighed.

Daryl gave her a lingering look of disapproval before bending down and rummaging in the dead man’s pockets, pulling out a silver hip flask that still had some weight in it.

“Bingo.” He unscrewed the cap and sniffed it, screwing his face up in disgust “God damn. That’s strong shit.” He threw it to her, catching her off guard but she still caught it, albeit at a strange angle in the crook of her elbow and with a twisted expression on her face. She held it out to him.

“Finders keepers.” She smiled.

“Naw.” He declined, waving her off.  “Can’t let Merle see that shit.”

“Why?”

“He’s a mean drunk. You keep it.”

She turned the hip flask over in her hands, examining the initials engraved on the front before shoving it in the back pocket of her jeans.

Daryl swung his crossbow over his shoulder and started towards her, twigs crackled under his boots and she followed him with her eyes as she walked past.

“C’mon, I’ll walk ya back to camp.” He muttered.

“I’m fine” She quickly stated, noting him stop and huff. “I can go by myself. Really. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Ya think ya got a choice? I’m walkin’ ya back. Can’t have ya out here without a weapon. Now, c’mon.”

It was a point she couldn’t argue with; she was out in the open, past the safety of camp with nothing but a hip flask to defend herself with. Admittedly, her morning plan was probably one of the dumbest she’d had in a while. She raced off after Daryl, noticing he’d slowed down to let her catch up.


 

After a day of unexpectedly being dragged into digging over a patch of ground with the intention to plant crops, Jess wished they had the use of a mechanical digger instead of shovels and bucket loads of sweat. Nevertheless, she had mucked in and done her part, which is more than she could say for the likes of Sarah and Jodie, who sat filing their nails and screeching with laughter for the majority of the day.

When evening rolled in the supply run team hadn’t returned, the mood around the campfire was somber and Jess wanted to be there even less than usual. She sat in the entrance of her tent, with her legs sprawled out in front of her and her book on her lap. Reading by the light of her torch, she looked up when she heard footsteps passing by some distance away. Daryl was heading to the RV after a full day of hunting and playing chaperone to an inquisitive yet thoughtless Jess. She flashed him a wide smile and he nudged his head up in acknowledgement to her before climbing the ladder to the RV and switching watch shifts with Dale.

She got to her feet and followed him, ignoring his mildly irritated look when she reached the top of the ladder. Taking up her usual seat, she fished around in her pocket and pulled out a candy bar. Snapping it in half in the packet, she opened the foil and offered it to him.  

“Naw.” He refused after taking a small peek at it and resuming his watch over the two people that sat beside the fire.

“Take it. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve had candy. Think of it as a thank you for walking me back to camp.”

He dropped his gaze, leaning forwards and bracing his elbows on his knees. Jess was convinced she wasn’t going to get an answer until he turned his head and stared at her.

“What are you doin?” He rasped.

“Sharing my candy with you. I have it on good authority that this is the last one around here.” She chirped, shoving away the suspicious nature of his question.

His eyes moved from her rounded and bright face to the candy bar in her grasp. He wanted to take it. She was right, the taste of confectionary was something he’d not indulged in for as far back as he could now remember. He took his half of the candy and messily chomps down on it while Jess happily chewed her own half.

“How did you end up here? At this camp?” She enquired with a new sense of confidence that seemed to come from nowhere.

I will never know unless I ask.

Daryls back prickled and he blinked down at his boots. Jess waited in ignorant bliss while he tried to figure out a way to avoid the question. Coming up with nothing, he resigned himself to the fact that he would have to provide her with answer.

“Was just makin’ our way through the woods” He grumbled, tossing the candy wrapper over his shoulder.

“And you just decided to stay?” She continued.

It was so far removed from the real reason they’d ended up at the camp, but Daryl wasn’t about to confess that they had designs on robbing as much as they could and setting off into the night. It was all about waiting for the right moment, biding their time and making sure there were minimal people around at the time to stop them. It meant Rick and Shane were both absent, which wasn’t a regular occurrence. When one was out, the other usually stayed behind to keep an eye on the camp. But it wasn’t impossible and patience was a virtue in such a situation. Daryl and Merle has always been together, two outcasts that had managed to survive on their own before the world went awry and as a result, they still believed that any more than two was a crowd. But Daryl had his reservations and was beginning to wonder why they would ever make the decision to move away from what was a rare situation of stability that had given them the chance to take a breather and utilize the fact that the sheer number of people around them would help to keep them safer

“Safety in numbers.” Daryl eventually replied.

“You seem like you can handle yourself, even if you were on your own.” She expressed.

It was a compliment he hadn’t been expecting and one that made his pride swell, as much as he tried to ignore it.

“Maybe.” He grunted.

“At least you wouldn’t starve.” She pointed out with a smile as she hinted at his much-admired hunting skills. “Take it you’re from Georgia?”

He studied her face and she knew he was trying to figure her out. She was apparently as much of a mystery to him as he was to her. She couldn’t tell if he was about to snap at her, answer her question or ignore her entirely. So, she waited patiently for the few seconds it took for him to reply.

“You ask a lot of questions for a shy girl.” He commented.

OK, I wasn’t expecting that.

“I’m not shy per se. I’m introverted. There’s a difference.” She explained.

“Whatever.” He grumbled, picking at a hole in his jeans. She quietened and tried to force away the urge to ask what she wanted to know again. Obviously irritated by her curious nature, she didn’t want to push him so much that he asked her to leave or lost his temper. She waited in silence, spotting him take a peek at her for a moment.  “Didn’t live far from here. In the mountains.” He eventually admitted.

“So that’s why you’re such a good hunter.” She smiled. His face softened slightly as he looked at her, finding her need for information both baffling and fascinating. He had never seen her probe anyone else like this before and was well aware that it was only him that she seemed to want to chat with. Which was strange, considering Daryl didn’t see himself as a conversationalist at all. 


 

Despite her tendency to keep herself to herself, bury her head in her journal and books and stay away from any drama, Jess was always polite around everyone and spoke when she was spoken to. However, she was still somewhat withdrawn. What she wasn’t expecting from talking to Daryl, was how they seemed to have struck an unsaid balance. He was curt in his replies and obviously not well versed in the art of politeness whenever she engaged him in conversation, but Jess was strangely comfortable in his presence and after almost ten days, Daryl was sure he was the only one who could see the appealingly funny and smart side to her. Unsettled only by her rambling episodes, during which he worried that she’d somehow run out of oxygen before her brain ran out of words to say, he noticed she had eventually ventured out of her shell with him and shocked him with her propensity for banter and light, playful mockery. Each afternoon became a routine, she would bring the food and he would offer his usual stunted answers to all of her questions as they used the tree line or the top of the RV as a solace away from the energy draining dynamics of the rest of the group. On the odd occasion, Daryl found that sometimes she wouldn’t speak at all, simply being content to eat in silence, read or scribble in her journal, trying to get her pen to work next to him for upwards of an hour before she would retire to her tent.

Her every move was still ridiculed by Sarah and Jodie, neither one of them seemingly less heartless and selfish than the other. It was something Jess could never understand, the need to make another person feel terrible just to feed one’s own ego. She sensed part of their hatred for her came from a fear of the unknown or something they didn’t understand about her.


 

Daryl busied himself checking his crossbow before heading out into the woods for the day on what had become his day job; keeping everyone fed. Sat by the extinguished campfire, he listened to the others quietly milling around and discussing the tasks that needed completing for the day. Everything from laundry, cooking, building more shelter and reinforcing the borders in the woods. The supply run group had finally returned in the small hours and were catching some rest, which meant that Daryl had some peace and quiet before he left.

He didn’t even look up when Jess sat next to him and passed him a bowl of berries.

“Eat. If you pass out in the woods and turn into a Walker we’ll all have to rely on Merle for food and that’ll be bad. Very bad.” She shoved the bowl closer to him, giving him little choice to refuse.

“Hm. He don’t bring back as much.”

“It’s not that. More that none of us want to rely on Merle for anything.” She remarked. “He would just love that.”

He looked sideways at her and mirrored her smirk, thinking her statement to be both true and understandable. He took the bowl from her hand and threw handfuls of berries into his mouth, chewing noisily and following Shane with his eyes as he passed, glaring down at him sat next to Jess. He slowed his chewing until Shane was out of sight, and Jess opted not to mention the volatility between them . She noted his leather vest with angel wings sewn onto the back that were now greying and boasting more dirt than the woodland ground.  

“If you let me wash that vest, maybe the deer won’t smell you a mile away.” Jess joked in an attempt to keep the mood light hearted.

“No one touches the vest.” He grumbled as he wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist.

“Right. The magic vest. Holds your powers. It’s where you keep all your energy for your angry glaring.” Her nonchalant tone made her mockery of him all the more effective and he finished up the last berries in the bowl and handed it back to her.

“Aint ya got some superhero shirts to wash?” He asked.

Jess laughed quietly to herself at his ability to seem both entirely disinterested in her, yet still able to dish out ridicule as well as taking it.

“Make fun all you want. My shirts are vintage. Some are collectibles.” She wagged a finger at him which only earned her a confused expression from before he placed a boot in the stirrup of his crossbow, slid a bolt into the flight groove and pulled the drawstring back, readying the weapon for hunting. Jess averted her eyes.

Too many muscles. Too many shiny muscles.

“Aint much good in the apocalypse.” He pointed out.

Struggling not to become overwhelmed with bashfulness and desperately trying to ignore the butterflies he seemed to provoke in her stomach, she got to her feet.

“They’ll be good enough quality to strangle you with when I can’t stand the smell from that vest any longer.” She shot back with a wide grin.

Daryl squinted up at her stood with her back to the sun. Chewing on his bottom lip, he partially closed one eye and managed to catch her peering down at him.

“Thanks for the food.” He said, possibly in the most sincere way she had ever heard him say anything before.

“Sure thing, stinky.”

She turned and started back to the food preparation area, keeping his focus until she disappeared from view and he hauled himself up from his seat and set off into the woods. 


 

After a morning helping Carol out with the laundry and avoiding Sarah And Jodie like the plague, Jess found herself resting in the sun on a rock and using her backpack full of books and comics as a pillow. She closed her eyes and listened to the pleasant and relaxing lapping of the small waves on the shore of the quarry. She didn’t like to dwell to much on what once was, finding it all too depressing when her heart longed to see her family again. Her pushy, demanding family that drove her crazy but who she still loved without question.

She also avoided re-living too many memories of her friends. Nights spent gaming and eating four different types of pizza with four of her close friends. Meet ups in the local Diner. Months of meticulous designing and creating of cosplays for comic cons. All gone. All of them. She was the only one left.

She was grateful for the saving grace of getting changed out of her renaissance dress before she left the fair. Running through the woods for her life wearing such a huge dress would have no doubt got her caught up in a bush somewhere and snacked on by a fellow renaissance fair fan. Either that, or weighed down by all the fabric and having to strip, mid run. She shivered at the thought. Somehow, turning up at the camp partially dressed was a much more chilling prospect than being eaten by another human being.

Someone sat next to her and stirred her from her almost slumber. She opened one eye to find Carl perched on the rock beside her. She sat up and drew her legs in, crossing them and getting comfortable again.

“Hey Carl.” She yawned.

“Hey” He mumbled sadly.

Jess had got to know both Sophia and Carl quite well since being at the camp. All in all, she found them a lot less taxing to talk to than the adults. Things were simpler with the innocence of youth and she enjoyed taking part in conversations about TV shows they liked and playing ball games with them down at the quarry in the late evenings before she would eat, return to her tent to read and then join Daryl on top of the RV.

“Something wrong?” She enquired.

Carl scratched at the side of his face under his father’s huge sheriffs’ hat that had quickly changed ownership and become his.

“I heard mom and dad talking.” As he spoke, he drew patterns on the rock between them with a pebble he’d picked up from the ground. White shapes of spirals and stars. Jess watched his absent-minded artwork come to life on the surface. “They say more of those things are turning up at the fences.”

“Yeah, I think there are. You’re safe though. Your mom and dad won’t let anything bad happen to you.” She assured him.

He slowly looked up at her face, his freckled nose and clear skin glowing in the sun.

“Do you get scared?” he whispered.

Jess’s heart ached. She could only hope that there were other pockets of survivors around the world that housed and protected children from the horrors of what lay outside their groups. But the reality of it was that a lot of very young lives had been lost and those that were left were now even more precious than ever.

“Yeah. I get scared. But I think we’re going to be OK. We’re fighting them. Like Superheroes.” She told him. “There is a superhero in all of us, we just need the courage to put on the cape. Do you know who said that?”

Carl grinned at her, a wide, genuine smile that filled her with a sense of achievement.

“Superman.” He replied.

“That’s right. Superman. He wouldn’t back down from this. So, neither are we. Right?”

“Right” Carl nodded. “What Superhero do you think would be able to make all this go away?”

Jess took a deep breath. It was a good question and a very debatable one. The kind of question she’d spend hours discussing on the floor of a comic con over some corn dogs and a slurpee. The kid was speaking to her soul with this one.

“Hmm…” She hummed, catching sight of Rick at the top of the quarry, his hand at his forehead and shielding his eyes from the sun. Once he saw Carl sat with her, he turned and wandered back to the camp. “How about Vision? His powers practically make him immortal and he can heal himself. He could rid us of a lot of Walkers and Ultron created him, he’s an android instead of human so he can’t be turned.”

Carl thought for a moment, resuming his drawing on the rock between them. The scraping noise was a lot less irritating than jess would have thought. In fact, it was soothing and a nice distraction.

“True. He’s pretty awesome. Maybe a Hulk would be handy.” Carl mused.

“Noooo. Too noisy. Huge bull in a very fragile china shop. Plus, he’s big and green part of the time but he’s still human.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

She lifted her vision again to the sky and clouds above them, she didn’t know how much she had needed this pointless and casual conversation with a kid that just wanted to be told by someone other than his parents that everything would be OK.

“Dr Strange.” She eventually said. “He could just go back in time and stop whatever caused this.”

Carl nodded and paused his drawing, throwing the pebble between both of his hands as he contemplated her suggestion.

“Yeah, that’s a good one. Dr Strange could solve this.”

“He sure could. But until he shows up, we’re on our own and I think we’re going to be OK” She beamed at him. She didn’t believe it herself but felt she was convincing enough to him and that was all that mattered. She took the pebble from Carls hand, shuffled over to create some space and began to draw her own image on the rock. A circle with four curved lines inside it. The Symbol of Dr Strange.


I think maybe we all need a little something to hold onto sometimes. When we're scared or uncertain of the future or if we'll even survive long enough to see the world rot or flourish again. I sat with Carl today and did my best to reassure and distract him from his own fear. What I didn't realise is how strong my own is. I'm terrified. I don't want to die. But I'm not sure if I'm right for this world the way it is now. Daryl, he seems to just get on with things, like nothing is all that different to before for him. But for me...I'm sure I should be dead ten times over. I still have this strong sense to just figure all this out on my own. Maybe Jodie and Sarah are right in the things I hear them say about me. Maybe I'm just a drain on the resources here. An extra, bigger mouth to feed. Not that they're any better. I should get some sleep, my head gets too noisy when I'm tired and I can't see Daryl on the RV tonight. Looks like I'll have to drown out my own thoughts this time. I wish I had a damn pen so I could write all of this down instead of just laying here, thinking it. 

Chapter Text

On her way down to the water, Jess blinked the sun from her eyes and slapped her baseball cap on. They still had many more weeks left of the relentless sun and heat, the only let up being the late afternoons and early evenings when there was a little respite from the heat. Only then, when night crept in did the temperature change drastically, becoming colder but not enough for Jess to wear a jacket or sweater. She never really seemed to feel the cold all that much, she put it down to having lived in so many different places with such differing weather. Sarah had quite loudly blamed the fact that she had more layers of fat than most. Jess grit her teeth and shoved the comment away, hoping that not too many people from the group had heard her.

Her sneakers flapped against the dusty surface of the slope as she neared the bottom. Carol was in the corner by the shore, Ed watching her closely as she washed his shirt. Sophia sat on a rock nearby playing with her doll. Her soft chatter like a delightful tune to Jess’s ears. On the opposite side, was Daryl, knee deep in the water and holding up a sopping wet shirt with a huge bloodstain right in the middle. She scuffed towards him and stopped by the waters edge.

“How you doing, smiler?” She chirped.

Daryl glanced over his shoulder at her. He was wearing a simple, off-white vest that was turning transparent from the water.

“Fine.” He called back.

She tilted her head to one side as she observed him trying to remove the stubborn stain from the garment. Her knowledge of history and attendance at many, authentic renaissance fairs had led to a vast knowledge of life without washer dryers and laundromats. She kicked off her sneakers, rolled her jeans up and waded into the water.

“Give it here, you’re making a pigs ear of that.” She chuckled.

“Been washin’ my stuff in rivers all my life, you can’t teach me shit, girl” he shot back, although he didn’t sound angry, more intrigued than anything else. She stopped beside him, the water lapping at her thighs. In the blistering heat, it was a welcome respite. Her body temperate cooled and she really wanted to just dive in and submerge herself in the tantalizing freshness of the water.

“You’re so stubborn. Just humor me, c’mon.” She said, reaching out for the shirt.

He reluctantly dragged it up from the water. Once again, she couldn’t help but notice his strong arms and dragged her lower lip under her front teeth. When her eyes lifted to his face, she was alarmed to find him staring right at her.

“Jess?” He asked with one eyebrow raised.

“Um. Sorry. I wasn’t looking- I mean...” She pointed a finger at him “…give me the damn shirt” and snatched it from his grasp. “Uh…” She shook the image from her head and waded a couple of steps to her left, meeting a large rock protruding from the water. “You need to use a rock. Like this.”

Swirling the shirt around in the water, she kept her eyes firmly on what she was doing, knowing that if she risked a peek, he would be able to see straight through her and her inability to ignore his two best features. Gathering the shirt up, she began massaging it into the smooth rock. He silently looked on from behind her, craning his neck to see what she was doing. Then, she took hold of one end of the shirt and beat it against the surface with a loud slap that echoed across the quarry each time. Daryl thought it looked like she was taking some serious anger out on his one and only shirt and hoped it would still be in one piece when she was done. When she stepped back, dipped it in the water and held it up, the stain had visibly diminished

“That was a lot of blood.” She remarked with a small pant. The last thing she wanted was for him to know how out of breath she was from battering a rock with a large piece of fabric.

“Yeah” He agreed. “Aint mine.”

“I know.” She said quickly, meaning he was now staring at her again. “That’s what I-I was looking for” She stammered, motioning to his arm. “Injuries.”

He nodded, feigning agreement. “Yeah, sure.”

“Damn right. That’s me. Always checking folks for injuries.” She babbled as she wrung the shirt out and attempted to slosh past him.

“No ya aint.” He argued with a small smile.

She sighed and turned to him “Alright. No, I don’t. But I really was with you. Honestly.”

“Right” He grinned.  

“Here.” She said, tossing the twisted ball of fabric at him “I’m going before I embarrass myself even more.”

“Sure” He grunted. “Oh, don’t forget to check Merle for injuries.”

She stopped and slowly looked over her shoulder, her lips pushed into a thin line before she released a bashful laugh and flapped her hands at her sides, tilting her head back and sighing at the sky.

“That’s for callin’ me stinky.” He confirmed while wading back to the shore and passing her.

“OK. We’re even. I’ll leave checking Merle over to twisted sister number 2” she mentioned, her hands coming up and dramatically shielding her mouth as she gasped and giggled loudly, the sound bouncing from the cliffs around the water. Daryl let himself go and laughed along with her as they both paddled through the water and back to dry land.

Gives as good as she gets, this girl.

 

Carol looked up when she heard Daryl and Jess laughing with one another as she walked out of the water, her lips curled into a smile when she saw Daryl beaming from ear to ear, a sight she had never seen since she’d met him for the first time. She’d assumed he never displayed such an expression, but it was now clear that he just didn’t have anything to smile about before.

“I say you could stop?” Ed snapped from behind her. “I need that damn shirt.”

She resumed her task without argument, the happy scene she’d witnessed making it all a little easier.


 

That night, Jess was taken off guard when she passed the RV. She held an empty, metal bowl after eating alone in her tent and was distracted by a whistle from the top of the vehicle. She looked up to see Daryl reclined in his seat, in his usual spot but a lot earlier than usual. He nudged his head up, beckoning for her to join him. It had been weeks since they’d first met and she felt a sense of pride when she thought of how far they’d come and how they'd managed to at least partially break down each others barriers. She wasn’t yet sure about saying they were friends, but she was certain they enjoyed each other’s company.

Returning her plastic cutlery and her camping bowl to the bucket in the food prep area, she passed Sarah and Jodie who were immersed in hushed whispers as usual. Also, around the campfire, was Glenn, Andrea, her sister Amy, Merle, Dale and T-dog. She offered them all a polite smile, receiving the same back. Carol and Rick retreated into their tents with their families and Shane was out checking the fences. Having never really seen Daryl and Jess on their regular perch, everyone exchanged glances when she climbed the ladder to the RV, their nightly routine now revealed to the group.

Appearing beside him, she sat down and caught his eye. Saying nothing, they sat side by side for a while until the chatter resumed below and both of them were certain the topic of conversation was not directed at them. Jess slumped down in her seat, rested her head on the backrest and closed her eyes while Daryl lit a cigarette. After a while, Jess found she’d drifted off into a light sleep and woke only when she heard Sarah wish Daryl a good night in her typical, flirtatious high school cheerleader voice. Daryl ignored her.

Jess sat up and rubbed at her face, clearing her throat and raising her eyebrows at the distance Daryl was able to flick his cigarette end out into the distance.

“What were you doing when the word ended?” She wanted to know. The sound of her voice seemed to slice through the atmosphere like a knife and she smarted at the sound. “Wow, never thought I’d say that sentence.” She added more quietly.

He flicked his lighter on and off over and over again as he struggled to decide if he should tell her the truth or not. Concluding that he had previously snapped at her and offended her and she was still sat with him, he guessed she would be able to handle it.

“Was workin’ my way through four lines of coke when I looked up and saw the TV had that national guard alert thing on it.” He disclosed.

“Yeah, we saw that on our phones. My friend and I. We were at a renaissance fair.” She said casually.

He briefly wondered why she didn’t seem bothered that he confessed so openly to being a cocaine user when it occurred to him that she simply took people as they were, flaws or not.

“A what?” He questioned.  

“A Renaissance fair. It’s a recreation of a historical setting with costumes and role play and stuff, for a whole weekend.”

His expression was one of pure bafflement as he stared at her.  

“So, you like… get all dressed up and run around in a field pretending to’ to fight or some shit?”

“Well, that’s the battle reenactment part. But it happens, Yeah.” She affirmed.

His brow furrowed. “You’re kinda weird, y’know that?”

“I think that’s what you like about me.” She grinned as she leaned towards him and nudged his elbow with hers. It was the first time she’d actually physically touched him aside from letting him help her up from the ground in the woods. He didn’t react which she could only take as a good sign.

“I don’t like nobody.” He scoffed.  

Jess huffed and rolled her eyes, a bright smile on her face that he could see clearly enough due to light from a lantern between them.

“Yes, you do. Just accept that you’re as weird as me and that’s why we get along.” She grinned.

Part of him hated that she was able to draw smiles out of him like no one else he had ever known, but the other part of him liked the fact that when he was with her, things seemed that little bit easier.

“Whatever.” He dismissed.

She laughed to herself and got up, reaching her arms high above her head and stretching her muscles.  

“Where ya goin?” He questioned.  

“Back to my tent.” She yawned. “Tired”

“Ya ain’t got no more weird hobbies to tell me about?” He continued.

Jess was mildly shocked by the question, he wanted her to tell him about her hobbies? He wanted to talk to her at all? It no longer felt like she was forcing him to converse with her, he’d taken the lead this time and she was more than happy to let him have it.  

“Wasn’t aware you were that interested.” She admitted.

“I ain’t. Just nothin better to do.” He shrugged.

Jess plonked herself back in the rickety chair again and shifted her body to face him, throwing one leg over the other.

“OK, so if my hobbies are weird, what are yours?” She challenged.

At the prospect of being asked more about himself and his life, his desire to talk lessened considerably in seconds.

“Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout me” He mumbled.

“I am.” She glared at him with a bold and entertained look.   

Accepting that he wasn’t going to get out of answering her probing and he was partly to blame for encouraging her to stay, he nibbled his bottom lip and answered her question.

“Fine. Huntin’, drinkin’, gettin’ high”

"And spittin' chaw in a bucket?" She joked. 

"Asshole" He grumbled as she covered her mouth with her hand and stifled a giggle.

Birds flew overhead, a now rare sight that meant there were still some species out there somewhere, flourishing away from all the decay. Jess swayed back and forth in her seat with her arms wrapped around herself. 

“Maybe you can teach me how to hunt, drink and get high one day.” She suggested breezily.

“Nah, I ain’t wastin’ time with no lightweight.” He declined.

“Just makes me a cheap date.” She realized instantly that she’d just come out with something unintentionally flirtatious and panicked. “I mean, yeah…uh… probably a lightweight.” She laughed awkwardly as she played with the hem of her T-shirt.

“Ya ever been huntin’?” He wanted to know, ignoring her outward discomfort and wondering what it was that made her so fidgety sometimes.

“No. I’d like to.” She said.

He nodded, leaning forward and picking up a leaf from the roof of the RV. He fiddled with it, folded it in half and then in half again.

“Too dangerous to be out there without knowin’ whatcha doin’.” He expressed.

“Yeah. Guess you’re right. And I wouldn’t.” She agreed.

Believing she’d murdered the conversation with her careless chit chat, she stopped talking and resigned herself to sitting quietly and tapping her sneaker on the edge of the roof again. More time passed and Jess couldn’t think of a way to get up and leave without seeming embarrassed or strange. She knew she was overthinking everything but being in the presence of someone she was actually starting to find highly attractive was unsettling and she wasn’t used to it.

“So, what’s the difference?” She heard him utter out of nowhere.

“What?”

“Said ya ain’t shy, ya introverted. What’s the difference?”

Two enquires into her personality and interests in one night meant that she may have been all over the place and afraid to do something wrong, but the night had still been a small triumph in itself.

“Shy means you’re anxious about talking to people. Nervous and timid. Introverts aren’t always like that; we just need to re-charge sometimes. We’re confident with people we’re comfortable around. I’ll talk to people but I usually find most folks just drain me. I guess I’m just quiet by nature, but I’m not shy.” She explained.

“Hm.” He grunted. “Some kind of head shrinker tell you that?”

“No. It’s kind of common knowledge. Or at least I thought it was.” She disclosed “I think maybe your introverted too, it’s something we have in common.”

“Nah. I just think most folks are assholes.” He countered quickly

Jess giggled at his stubborn streak and for the second time Daryl realized that he liked the fact that she thought him funny. His mouth quirked up into a half smile.

“I’ll leave you alone to recharge your introvert batteries.” She winked at him. “Goodnight.”

She didn’t hear him protest or call her back as she descended the ladder so when her feet hit the ground, she made straight for her tent, longing for her sleeping bag and wishing she had a pen so she could record the events of her time spent sat with someone she really would have liked to have called her friend.

“Hey.” A voice called out. She turned back and saw him smoking yet another cigarette and leaning forwards in his seat. “Ya wanna learn how to track animals?” A thin line of smoke rose from where he sat, high up into the air before it vanished.

A rush of excitement thundered through her and she wrestled with the urge not to grin too widely.

“Yeah, that sounds good.” She squeaked, her voice emerging in higher pitch than she’d expected.

“Sunrise. Meet me at the tree line over there” he lifted his arm, pointing across the camp. “Make sure ya have somethin to eat first. Ya pass out on me i’ma leave ya ass out there.”

Jess knew it was a playful dig at her making him eat a bowl of berries before going hunting and liked the fact that he’d remembered and used it on her. Turning the tables and proving that their jibing at one another was enjoyed as much by him as it was by her.

“OK. I will.” She beamed. “See you at sunrise”

“One more thing” He rasped, standing up and driving a hand into his jeans pocket. Her eyes grew larger when she saw the plastic box clasped in his fingers as he tugged them out of his pocket. He threw it down to her, the box clattering in the dust at her feet. She looked down at it and wanted nothing more than to run back to the ladder and hug him. Five precious, black, ballpoint pens.

“Yours stopped workin’, right?” He checked.

“Yeah.” She responded as she gingerly bent down to pick them up.

“Saw ‘em when I was out on a run with Rick the other day.”

He thought of me when he was out on a run?

She opened her mouth to speak, but what was a simple gesture from Daryl was a huge deal to Jess. He had just given her back the ability to express her emotions and keep her sanity in check. Now, she would need no more dangerous walks in the woods alone and she could write until she fell asleep.

“This is um…you don’t know how grateful I am for this. Thank you, Daryl.” She said, swallowing hard and looking right at him.

“No problem.” He grunted, raising a hand at her in a small wave “Night.”

Before she succumbed to sleep, Jess sat cross legged on her sleeping bag with her torch in her mouth, shining down on the page and began to write.

It’s funny, I never thought someone throwing a box of pens at me would mean so much. Daryl knew I couldn’t write because my one and only pen stopped working, so he brought me back a box from a supply run. I must have looked at him like he had grown an extra head. I just couldn’t believe he thought of me while he was out there. I can write again, my mind feels clearer already and I’m happier. All because he got me some stupid pens.

OK, maybe it isn’t just the pens. He seems to be coming around to the idea of us being friends. Tonight, he didn’t actually say it but he wanted me to go sit with him on the RV and then tried to act as though he wasn’t interested in me at all while asking me questions about myself. He’s actually got a sense of humor and a personality that he’s slowly but surely letting me see and it’s awesome. He’s pretty awesome.  

But he caught me looking at him today. It was mortifying and I’m so angry at myself. Yeah, the guy is hot. But I thought I was stronger than to get caught practically drooling at him. He knew too. He knew exactly what was going on and I feel like my life is officially over.

Hopefully, I’ll get eaten by a walker or he’ll get a bout of amnesia.

 


 

Her T-shirt was sticking to her back with sweat. She really wanted to know how Daryl did this every day in such heat and sometimes even with his leather vest on. She was sure she’d pass out and had consumed most of the water she brought with her before they’d even been out for an hour. Daryl crept along in front of her, examining the ground and snapped branches of foliage In the woods. Try as she might, she kept falling behind and her legs felt like they were made of cement.

I really should have used that gym membership.

“C’mon, keep up. Stay close to me.” Daryl instructed from in front of her. She could see that the back of his shirt was also dampened with sweat, but unlike her, he showed little to no signs of fatigue.

“It’s so damn hot out here” she complained “am I in hell?!”

“Purgatory at best.” He mumbled

She dragged the back of her hand through the perspiration on her top lip.

Great. A sweat moustache. Sexy.

“Looooord. I’m MEEELTING!” She cried.

“Shh!” He whirled around, bundling her against a tree with his fingers wrapped around the top of one of her arms. The movement was so quick and unexpected and her flesh stung but she didn’t flinch, his temper too short for her to react. She couldn’t deny that fear tickled her veins and she was rooted to the spot. “You stupid or somethin?! Ain’t just animals out here. Place is full of Walkers and ya gonna get us both bit if ya don’t keep ya god damn voice down.” He hissed at her through gritted teeth.

“OK. I’m sorry.” She whispered. “You’re hurting me”

In a split second, he was full of guilt for losing his temper at her as he examined her alarmed expression. He looked down at his hand clamped tightly around her arm. He quickly let go as if her skin was made from lava, seeing the red mark he’d left behind. An angry handprint. He shrank back and she noticed his eyes kept dropping and coming back to the burning patch around her bicep.

“I-I didn’t mean to-“ he mumbled.

“-It’s OK.” She interrupted “really, it’s OK.”

He dragged a hand over his face, his crossbow rattling against his legs as he held it loosely in his grasp with his other hand.

“Come on, let’s keep going.” She suggested, stepping away from the tree and motioning with her hand for him to pass her.

“Wait” he grunted. She stopped and stood still, witnessing what she could only describe as pure, genuine regret in the angry, aggressive redneck.

“I wouldn’t hurt ya. Not on purpose.” He told her

“Daryl, I know” Jess tried

“Naw, Naw” He dismissed, waving a hand at her. “I saw it. in your eyes. Ya scared of me.”

Jess exhaled slowly and tried to ground herself. This was a conversation she had definitely not anticipated and one with which she knew she needed to exercise extreme caution with.

“You just surprised me. I’m not scared of you. I wouldn’t spend half as much time with you if I was. I understand why you got mad at me, I’m kind of annoying and I don’t know how to handle this new world like you do.”

He paced about in the small space between the trees in front of her. Back to front, side to side, be fore he finally stopped and began to bite his thumbnail.

“Sorry.” He muttered from behind his hand.

Jess smiled at him. In that moment, she knew that Daryl was not good at apologies and had very likely, hardly ever, genuinely apologized for anything in his life.

“I told you. It’s OK”

He nodded once, raised his crossbow again and charged past her.

“Ya gotta keep up so I can keep an eye on ya.” He grumbled

She took a quick swig of water from the bottle that was fastened to a plastic strap on her belt and carried on after him, wishing that it was raining, or snowing, or that she was stood in the water of the quarry washing clothes. But the view made up for it and she couldn’t lie to herself, watching Daryl stalk about between the trees, concentration etched on his face, his crossbow at the ready and his strong physique shining in the light of the sun as he moved was almost enough to make her forget what she was doing there altogether.  But while she thought Daryl nice to look at, she remained platonically interested in him and what he had to teach her there and then, knowing that someday, she might need to use the information presented to her.

“See this right here.” He stopped and pointed with his boot to a nibbled patch of grass “deer.”

Jess finally caught up, standing next to him and regarding the slightly disturbed area on the ground.

“How do you know that?!” She asked with surprise.

“They’re messy eaters. They press it against their top palette and yank it right outta the ground.”

Her face changed and she thought for a moment as her lips rose into a smile.

“Like a really cute lawn mower.” She commented.

He just looked at her as if she was crazy.

“What about Walkers? Can you track them?” She wanted to know as she peered down at the missing grass, noting the disturbed earth under it.

“Walkers and live humans are easiest to track. We leave footprints, stamped down grass, broken twigs and messed up foliage. That kinda shit.” He explained.

She began to back away with a glint in her eye that he didn’t like the look of.

“So if I ran off, you’d be able to track me?” She asked.

He followed her, walking with her as she stepped backwards. She was challenging him and he didn’t like it one bit. Not out there in the open. Not where she could get killed.

“I could, but runnin’ off would be a real dumb thing to do.” He warned.

“Look at me, it’s not like I’m going to get far.” She gestured to her torso with her hands.

“Stop.” He ordered firmly

“Maybe I should try, could use the exercise” she shrugged lightheartedly, aware she was once again prodding at his temper but caring very little. Angry Daryl wasn’t all that bad to look at either.

He was glaring at her, his blue eyes intense. For such a mysterious, introverted and antisocial person, she couldn’t figure out why it was that he seemed to manage and maintain eye contact with her on a number of occasions. Not that she was complaining.

“Ya stay with me, so I can keep ya safe.” He affirmed.

His switch in tone from relaxed to stern and protective stirred something in Jess. She liked the way his eyes locked with hers as he talked about keeping her safe. She hadn’t expected this level of care from him and could only hazard a guess that it was because he actually did like her enough to want her around. She nodded and gestured with her hand for him to continue leading the way.

“How did you learn this?” She queried.

“My ol’ man used to take me out into the woods. Blindfold me and bail. Had to track him.”

“Well, it worked.”

“Yeah. He’d tan my hide every time I got it wrong.”

Jess smiled at the ground as she walked but it soon dawned on her that he could be serious and that there was the possibility that Daryl didn’t have the best upbringing in the world.

“You taught anyone else how to do this?” She continued in her quest to find out more about him.

“Naw.”

“Don’t you and Merle usually hunt together?”

“Not no more. We split up. He’s more interested in getting’ laid. Stop askin’ questions, every animal in Georgia can hear ya.” He scolded.

“Sorry.” She muttered as she scanned the area around them. A darkened, bumpy patch around a tree stump caught her eye and she skirted away from Daryl, approaching it with some hesitation.

“Are those edible?” She questioned while leaning forwards over the gathering of mushrooms.

“Again with the damn questions” he complained as he stomped over to where she stood and followed her gaze.

“I have to ask questions to learn” she corrected, straightening up and raising an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah, can eat those” He answered, ignoring her last statement.. “But don’t eat nothin’ like that without askin’ me or Merle or someone that knows what the hell they’re talkin’ ‘bout. The wrong ones could kill ya.”

“Or get me real high.” She suggested with a wink.

“You ever done shrooms?” His face was unimpressed, not taken in by her playful line of questioning.

She placed both hands on her hips and let out a small laugh “Do I look like I’ve done shrooms?”

“Right. No. Don’t touch any unless ya desperate.” He told her before resuming her lesson about different types of tracks. He explained how animals have certain ways of moving which leave footprints that signal what they are. Along with how to identify bird tracks and how to cover her own path if she ever need to escape Into the woods.

“Why would I run away from another live human?” She asked.

“Can’t trust people no more. Some of ‘em are worse than the Walkers.” He replied. “Ya see another person, keep ya distance and ya weapon ready. They could steal your shit or wanna eat ya with the way things are goin’.”

That’s food for thought.

“I’m a catch. I’d keep them fed for at least a fortnight.” She chirped.

He suddenly stopped and glared back at her. She couldn’t read his expression, somewhere between irritation and confusion. He said nothing and carried on walking.


 

The majority of the day was highly educational for Jess and she took a vested interest in being able to hunt her own food and escape without trace into the trees. She’d even been able to practice a few things. Daryl let her use his crossbow to shoot a squirrel and she shocked herself when she celebrated the animals demise instead of crying about it. That was her squirrel, he had told her. She was going to skin it and eat it because it was her first ever successful hunt. She felt a swelling sense of pride in her chest when he handed it to her and made sure she carried it back to camp.

As they neared the tree line that separated them from the clearing in which the fire was being started for the evening, Jess and Daryl slowly wandered along, neither of them really wanting to go back and sit among the others. Their time alone in the woods had been mutually enjoyable and peaceful and Daryl considered asking her if she wanted to do the same again the next day. Before he could speak, she beat him to it.

“I enjoyed today.” She confessed. “It was very educational.”

“Me too.” He replied quietly, keeping his vision on his path and hoisting the string of squirrels and various other small, dead animals further up his shoulder.

“Where’s your vest?” She enquired, using it as an excuse to catch a glimpse of his arms.

Screw it. I’ve earned this.

He looked up at her briefly, catching her eyes sweeping his upper arm and chose to ignore it as as he prepared for her reaction to what he was about to tell her.

“Washed it this mornin’. Was dryin’ when I left.” She began to giggle to herself and felt him shove her in the arm in jest. “Shut up.”  He grunted.

“He actually listened to me. Oh my god.” She said to herself with a wide grin.

“It’s a one off. Don’t act so smug.” He grumbled as they both stepped out of the trees into the open area of the camp. Activity was at a minimum. Shane and Lori were talking in the corner, Carol sat with Sophia by the fire as Glenn fanned the initial flames. Andrea was atop of the RV while Dale was at the food station. Jess turned to Daryl with her squirrel gripped in her hand by its tail.

“Thank you. For taking me out.” She said sincerely.

“You’re welcome.” He said with a nod.

 It was a clear and sincere acceptance and strangely polite for him. But she appreciated it all the same. He intended to follow it up with an invitation to do the same the next day, but something shattered his plan.

Thank you for taking me out Daryl I love youuuuu!” A high-pitched voice mocked from behind them.

Daryl whirled around and locked his sights on Sarah.

“What’s up? You jealous or somethin?! Huh?” He raged as he stormed towards them. Jess managed to grab one of his arms to stop him but she shrugged her off and told her in no uncertain terms that she was going to let him say his piece.

”I should ram this squirrel down her throat” Jess said under her breath. 

Daryl’s rage was evidently scaring Sarah into submission to an extent. When he stopped in front of her and loomed over as she perched on a tree stump, his eyes narrowed and Jodie, who was sat beside Sarah, instinctively moved away and stood nearby like the true coward she was.

“You deaf as well as stupid?” He seethed.

“N-no.” She said with an air of fake confidence..

“You wouldn’t wanna go out there anyways, I’d feed ya skinny ass to the Walkers before the heat melts that plastic shit in ya face.” He hissed. “You got a thing for Rednecks? That why ya jealous?”

“No”

“Funny. Ain’t what I’ve seen.”

“Don’t you dare.” Sarah warned

“C’mere. I gotta tell ya somethin.” He leaned closer, curling his index finger at her and gesturing for her to move forwards. She refused, so he defiantly positioned his face by her ear. “Threatenin’ me ain’t wise, bitch. Not with what I saw ya doin with my brother in the woods.”

“You didn’t see anything. I wasn’t doing anything.” She protested through gritted teeth.

He moved back slightly, looking right at her. His lip curling in disgust. He hated girls like Sarah and Jodie as much as Jess seemed to. He too had endured their persecution at high school.

“Harder, Merle. Harder.” He mocked quietly adapting his voice and making it higher-pitched.

Sarah’s face twisted into pure panic.

“Oh my god. Shut your mouth. You some kind of pervert?” She fumed, quickly looking over her shoulder at a petrified Jodie, stood hugging herself and biting her nails.

“Nah, that’s Merle. But ya know that already, don’t ya?” He leaned close to her again, hearing her draw in a jagged breath. “Maybe next time he’s balls deep in ya, you should keep it down. Just a suggestion.”

Jess was impressed at his ability to render them both silent and reasonably terrified in seconds and she only wished she could do the same. His comment regarding Sarah’s badly executed lip fillers had almost made her bellow with laughter. But she exercised some restraint and watched on with dignity. Then came his graphic ridicule of her sexual activity with Merle in the woods. She hadn’t seen this side to him. Spiteful and savage and she had felt a twinge of discomfort at his brash and crude references. However, she struggled to find a reason why it wasn’t justified and decided that it all boiled down to the fact that Sarah shouldn’t be dishing it out if she couldn't take it.

 It was some time before Daryl finally backed down after an intense stare off between then, but when he did, Sarah sat motionless and humiliated in her spot, her hands clasped in her lap and her jaw pulled tight.

“C’mon” Daryl said to Jess as he passed “let’s cook this shit up.”

 


 

I think I have a crush on him. I’m so pissed at myself. Why do I always like guys that wouldn’t look at me twice?! Who am I trying to kid? No one looks at me twice anyway. Suppose I’ll just have to window shop, as usual. The world ended. Only a few survived and my brain thinks it’s an appropriate time to develop a crush on someone. It seems it’s been noticed by the twisted sisters too. No doubt I’ll have to endure more mockery at their hands. Or maybe What Daryl said to Sarah will make her think twice in future. I don’t know. It was kind of…hot. Watching him shut her up like that. I can only hope it’s stays with her and she leaves us alone. Us. That’s strange. Me. Leave me alone.

 Sometimes, I feel like they’re how I’m supposed to be. Maybe if I were more like them, things would be easier. Are they roses and I’m just a Dandelion? Roses may have thorns but if you breathe in instead of out at a Dandelion, it’ll choke you.

 


 

Choosing to sit with Rick and Carl after everyone had eaten, Jess jotted down words in her journal, tilting it to avoid Carl’s curious gaze. After weeks at the camp, Jess concluded that the cop next to her and his young son were actually quite nice company and decent conversation in the late evening hours when the sun would set and she’d start to look forward to retreating to the top of the RV with someone who had become her favorite individual to be around. Daryl.

Glenn and T-dog sat on the other side of Jess, with Andrea beside them, Dale on the RV and Merle next to Daryl, who was positioned square in her sightline when she looked up. He carved bolts and sharpened his hunting knife while Carl, Rick and Jess conversed quietly between themselves.

Merle nudged his brothers arm and Daryl’s hands stilled, his knife poised and still over a rock in case he sliced his hand off as a result of Merle’s careless action.

“Hey, Darlina. What ya say we head into the city at some point? Pick us up a little whiskey for these cold nights.”

“City’s full of walkers. Ain’t worth it.” Daryl replied with a shake of his head.

“Ahh, don’t be no sissy! Be in and out faster’n a bat outta hell.” Merle reasoned.

It was the worst idea Daryl had heard in a long time. In fact, the last bad idea he’d heard had also come from Merle and all the bad ideas before that. A pattern had formed and Daryl was no longer interested in being involved in any of his big brothers hairbrained and dangerous schemes.

“Yeah, maybe.” He mumbled in an attempt to quieten him.

Rick, who had overheard what was said, lifted his head from watching his son sitting on the floor next to Jess.

“It’s wise to keep a clear head right now. you both know Walkers are working their way up the mountains” He offered.

Merle stood up. A lit cigarette hung from his lips, the ash from the end flittering down from the orange end like confetti.

“Yo, Sherriff good boy? This don’t concern you” Merle snapped with a point of his finger. In a second, he was gone, vanished into the approaching darkness and not a single soul sat around the fire cared where.  

Rick sighed and looked sideways at Jess, who was offering him a sympathetic smile as she turned a page in her journal and carried on scribbling.

“What are you writing?” He asked.

“Nothing exciting. Haikus.” She muttered. Making a mistake on the page, she scribbled it out, her tongue emerging from the corner of her mouth in concentration.

“Haikus” Rick repeated.

“Dad, a Haiku is a short, Japanese poem that has a 5-7-5 syllable rule.” Carl interrupted. Rick was more than aware of what a Haiku was, but decided to humor his son anyway and presented his best, faked surprised look.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Jess grinned at Carl.

“I see. Can we hear one?” Rick asked.

Jess never shared any of the fruits of her labor when she was writing, always finding it too personal and revealing to read out to anyone, let alone people she hadn’t known all that long. She was no Haiku expert, nor was she all that into them, but the short, direct nature of them was both an appealing hurdle for her to overcome and something that keep her mind sharp.

“Oh, I don’t know…” She mused.

“Yeah! Please?” Carl begged, shifting around so he could peer at her with inquisitive eyes.

Daryl looked up from across the fire and paused his task. He slid his knife back into its holster and leaned against the wooden box behind him, bending one leg and draping an arm over it.  

“Uh… OK. sure.” Jess reluctantly agreed. She cleared her throat and tried to speak without her voice shaking. Suddenly feeling like she was stood up at the front of class at high school with a room full of judgement staring right back at her. But she wasn’t at high school, this was different and the young boy on tenterhooks in front of her was so enthusiastic, she felt too bad to decline.

“I stand taller to

Overcome the shadows

Of those who doubt me.”

Her cheeks reddened and she stared at her handwriting on the page, noticing one letter ‘a’ that wasn’t quite joined up enough. The silence around her was deafening.

“That’s… personal.” Rick remarked “but good. I mean, I don’t know what I’m talking about but-”

“-it is good. I think it’s good.” Carl affirms. “You should write more of those.”

His encouragement was endearing and she could only hope that his happy demeanor would continue, despite their dire situation.

“Thanks.” She muttered bashfully as she drew a star in the corner of the page.

“Should write a Haiku for everyone.” Glenn suggested from her other side. “Merle’s would be interesting, that’s for sure”

He was right. What could she say about Merle? With an out of the blue surge of confidence, she wrote down what was in her head, smirking at the words on the page and giving Glenn a quick wink. Before sharing her Haiku, she checked that Merle was well out of earshot or she would have some serious explaining to do.

“Bug zapper becomes

Merle’s entertainment after

TV repossessed.”

Nervous giggles filtered through the group around the fire as most of them also checked over their shoulders to make sure Merle wasn’t present. Jess scanned the laughing faces to see Daryl dip his head and smile into his lap. A rush of pride and self-satisfaction surged through her at the thought that she’d managed to make at least five people laugh, including the brother of the man she was making fun of and the person she had developed a crush on.

As the chuckling subsided, Daryl tilted his head back and rested a cigarette between his lips. Lighting it, his eyes never left hers and she began to wonder what he was doing and how strange it must have looked to everyone else. Luckily, no one was paying them any mind. Crickets chirped in the surrounding long grass in the tree line and the chilled, nightly breeze arrived, Andrea pulled her jacket closer around her and shivered. 

“Bout me?” Daryl rasped.

The group fell silent, all exchanging intrigued glances. Jess stifled a huge grin, knowing it was quite something for him to pipe up in a social situation like this and put himself in the spotlight.

“OK.” She she giggled “Daryl…. Lets see.” She began to write on the page again as the others grinned and waited for the most anticipated Haiku of what had become the nights entertainment. When Jess was ready, she flashed him a wide, perfectly white smile and the brightness and life in her eyes seemed to hit him like a lightning bolt.

“Daryl. Person who

Lacks class but enjoys a life

Without rich folks rules”

Rick couldn’t help but snort with laughter along with Carl. Jess joined them and had to build up the bravery to look back at Daryl. When she did, she saw him pick up a smell pebble and throw it at her. It bounced off her sneaker and skittered across the dirt. But his smile was missed with a blink, wanting to hide how amused he really was from those around him.

“Dunno whatcha talkin’ ‘bout. I got class” He muttered.

“I have more class in my little finger” Andrea commented.

Instead of acknowledging Andrea, he continued to focus on the Haiku writing girl in the vintage Batgirl T-shirt that was able to make him feel more like himself than he ever did before. She was self-aware, able to make fun of herself, different and smart and she was as much of a mystery to him as he was to her. Neither one of them had experienced such an unconventional friendship with a person that under normal circumstances, they never would have crossed paths with anyway. But as she watched him with her unassuming, innocent and dark features, it dawned on him. Something he never thought about anyone. Ever. She was pretty.

For the first time in as far back as he could remember, he’d had a decent and enjoyable day. Not only was he able to do what he loved most and did most days, he was able to share it with someone that genuinely wanted to learn something from him and respected his ways of doing things. She wasn’t Merle, inpatient and arrogant. She was receptive, fascinated and soaked up information quicker than he’d expected. He was looking forward to sitting with her on the RV after Dark.

Chapter Text

Before the turn, Jess had packed her car for her annual visit to the same Renaissance Faire she’d been attending with her friends for the last five years. It was a much-anticipated event for her and her collection of costumes had grown into an impressive variety of elaborate garments. Being indecisive about which ones to take with her was always an issue and so on this occasion, she’d crammed her car with as many clothes as possible, along with a few casual outfits that she kept in the trunk anyway due to many, spur of the moment road trips to see friends and visit conventions across the state. Her best friend, Ben had made fun of her for never being able to make a decision when it came to clothing and for always being prepared for anything. 'Just in case' was her favourite phrase and it was usually met with Ben replying with 'just in case of what, exactly?". Little did she know that the car journey to the Faire would be the last time the two of them would ever argue over what music to play in the car, what greasy food they would start the day with and where was the best place to park. It would be the last time she'd ever laugh at one of his cheesy jokes or tell him not to bother checking out any cute girls, because he was so forgetful he wasn't likely to remember he had a girlfriend if he ever managed to bag one. Two hours after the car door slammed and they began their final journey together, Jess had watched in utter horror as a Walker tore out his jugular and chomped on it like it was eating a burger.

Her interest in such activities and active participation in events that required outfit changes in meant she was lucky enough to not only have more than one change of clothing, but also a backpack big enough to hold her journal and a couple of books. Unlike some of the others at the camp, Jess had the luxury of being able to change her clothes every day and therefore, made the effort to help out with the laundry where she could. When Rick and some of the others returned from the city with bags full of clothing, the laundry duties increased and meant that Jess found herself with a job and a way of contributing to the group.

Her superhero and cult film T-shirts were both an entertaining talking point with Carl and a source of ridicule to the likes of Sarah and Jodie. While Daryl also enjoyed making fun of her for them, his lighthearted mockery only resulted in debates about which was the better character in films they'd both seen and her crush on him intensifying to a dangerously consuming level. She blushed around him. Stared at him so much he continuously caught her and felt a slither of drool escape her lips when she saw him emerge from the water one day, shirt soaked and stuck to his body. One of her eyebrows had shot up to the sky so fast she had little control over it. She held her breath and let herself indulge as he ruffled his hair with one hand, flicking drops of water everywhere. Jess could only liken it to a scene from some kind of 80's romance movie, where the unpopular, dorky girl falls for the ridiculously attractive bad boy that smokes too much.


 

Stood in front of him in a bright yellow Pulp Fiction T-shirt and her jeans, her face was expectant and waiting for an explanation, she squinted in the sun and propped a hand over her forehead. Heat beat down on her head, her scalp burning. She wished that she’d picked up a baseball cap when she’d left her apartment for the Faire that day.

“Alright, don’t freak out.” Daryl told her. “Wait here”

She sighed and tapped her foot while crossing her arms. Information about the days expedition was minimal. He was taking her to the woods and she wasn't to argue or he'd push her off of the RV. When he turned and disappeared into the woods, he left her alone around five feet from the tree line. After a few minutes, she began to slowly wander back and forth, stopping occasionally to crane her neck and check for movement in the dull light of the trees.

This better not be some kind of stitch up. She thought. 

She knew it must have been at least fifteen minutes before the rustling of leaves and the crunching of twigs beneath boots caught her attention. Along with the snarling of a Walker. Her heart rate quickened. Instinctively, she took a couple of sizable steps back and frantically scanned the ground for something sharp with which to defend herself. A part of her was cross with Daryl for having left her here in danger of being seen by a hungry, walking corpse that would make a quick meal out of a slow, chubby girl with no means to defend herself.

I hope I taste like acid when it bites me.

Seeing nothing to use as a weapon on the ground, she looked back up to see Daryl bunding a Walker out of the woods. He had tied a belt around its neck which he used to keep it in line like some kind of macabre, oversized dog and was shoving it along in front of him. Both of its arms had been hacked off at the elbows and the bloody stumps waved about like two coagulated, beef patties.

Jess was rooted to the spot, paralyzed by fear and totally confused. Daryl grunted as he pushed the Walker against a tree and wrapped the remainder of the belt around the trunk, fastening the corpse to the tree. It bucked and gnashed its teeth at him as he stepped back, bloody drool seeping from its jaws and pooling at its feet.

Daryl beckoned her over with his hand “C’mon. S’alright.”

“Ha-have you lost your fucking mind?!” She gasped. “What are you going to do? Feed it a bone and teach it to sit?!”

“No, smartass.” He huffed. “I’m gonna teach ya how to kill one of these things.”

Her enlarged; terrified eyes stared at him in disbelief. “Why?” she asked.

She thought she saw him swallow hard before he locked eyes with her and took longer than she was expecting to answer her. The Walker’s noises now drowned out by her mind racing and the panic welling in her chest.

“Case I aint around.” He replied quietly.

“Why would you not be around?”

“I dunno. I killed seven of these things in a day yesterday. Numbers are goin’ up. We’re either gonna have to move or we’re all gonna have to know how to fight. Ya gotta know how to do this, Jess. Ya ain’t safe if ya don’t.”

Is he saying he cares about me here?

Unsheathing his knife, he felt it’s weight in his hand for a moment before holding it out to her. She gingerly took hold of it, the heavy handle providing it with the majority of its weight. The blade was sharp and shiny. She often saw him sharpening it as an almost mindless task while sitting around the campfire.

“You right-handed?” He asked.

“Yes”

He moved behind her and it took all of her self-awareness not to flinch when she felt his fingers curl around her left wrist. He lifted it up and she slowly turned her head to see her pale flesh in his tanned grasp.

“Get closer” He rasped in her ear, encouraging her to step forwards by pulling on her wrist “use this hand on it’s forehead to steady it.”

Her breath caught in her throat when he took hold of her other wrist, sliding his hand up further to move her fingers into the correct position around the knife. The warmth from his torso hummed against her back.

“Raise ya hand up, good n’strong. Move closer.”

But Jess stilled. Her feet were rooted to the spot at the sight of the monstrosity before her. She wondered how Daryl had managed to hack off both of its arms and wrestle it out of the woods by himself. She shook her head and swallowed a deep breath.

“No” She squeaked “Please, I don’t want to go near that thing.”

With his hands still tightly gripped around her wrists, he leaned closer to the side of her face, both of them more than aware that as the weeks turned into months and as their friendship had grown, the sensation of their skin connecting had been unknown until now.

“Look at it’s arms.” He told her “It can’t grab ya. I made sure of that.”

And he had. Snapping the bones was easier than he'd anticipated and hacking through the flesh to dismember it's limbs was not unlike preparing an animal for food. So, he told himself it was just a kill from the hunt like all the others, except this one was larger and the odor it gave off was enough to make even the strongest of stomachs flip. 

“I-I can’t.” She stammered, her hands beginning to shake. He could feel her bones trembling as he gently urged her forwards.

“Yeah, ya can.” He countered “S'alright. C’mon. Just try.”

Turning her head to the side, the first thing she thought was how close his face was to hers and how icy blue his eyes were. 

"What if it gets loose and I can't kill it? Don't leave me with it" She pleaded. 

"I got it if it gets loose. I aint goin' nowhere. I'm right here." He confirmed. 

She neared the Walker, Daryl allowing her a little more freedom with each step like a parent urging their child to ride a bike without stabilisers. His hands loosened their grip and drifted down her forearms, before he broke away and she was stood inches from the bloody stumps of the waving arms attached to the Walker.

“Don’t overthink it, just do it.” He said from behind her.

She lunged forward, slamming her hand against the cold, dampened forehead and smacked it against the tree. She didn't know why, but she expected it's skin to be warm somehow, like regular people that are wandering around, going about their day. But this man was dead, so it stood to reason he'd be cold to the touch. She lifted her other hand and paused.

“The eye, it’s the easiest. As hard as ya can.” He instructed.

She fought against the Walkers attempts to break free, the blood from it’s missing arms now smearing across her T-shirt. Her stomach churned at the putrid and rotting smell that grew stronger with each thrash of its head. She screwed up her face and with all her might, drove the blade into the weeping, white eye of the Walker. The wet sound of the blade against its skull meant bile began to rise in her stomach and an involuntary cry left her throat. The scrape of metal on bone, but loose, like sand along the sharp edge of the knife. She slumped forwards and tried to yank the knife from the bloodied hole in the Walkers face but it stuck fast. She fought with it, twisting it and tugging on the handle, until Daryl’s hand closed over hers once more and he pulled on the weapon with brute force, freeing it and catching Jess when she stumbled backwards.

He took the knife from between her fingers and noticed his other hand had ended up around her waist, stopping her from falling. He ripped it away in seconds and stepped back, dropping his gaze. Jess turned and tried to steady her breathing as she watched his ears turn pink and his shoulders sag.

“I did it” She whispered.

If anything, it was a desperate attempt to draw attention away from the fact that he had just touched her somewhere other than her hands and that was something she’d only dared to imagine during nights scribbling in her diary in her tent or while drifting off to sleep. Even then, it was with some reluctance, as if somehow everyone around her could hear her thoughts and see her imaginings like they were displayed on a projector screen for all to see. He had just touched her and yes, it was accidental, but it was a moment she knew would guide her through many more nights alone with her thoughts. A moment that was as funny as it was tragic and would most likely never happen again.

“Yeah, ya did it. Good job.” He mumbled. She stood immobile while he cleaned the blade with a red rag from his back pocket and offered it to her once more, all the while avoiding having to look at her.

“Why are you giving that back to me?” She wanted to know.

“Take it. It’s yours.” He said flicking the handle up in front of her and urging her to take it.

“No, it’s yours” She corrected, smiling at his now vividly apparent awkwardness.

“I got a another” He told her, tapping at another knife holster on the other side of his belt. “Shouldn’t walk around these days without a knife. Take it.”

“I can’t, it’s-”

“-Take the god damn knife, Jess.” He interrupted.

She smiled at him again, pleased to see that he couldn’t seem to look away once his eyes met hers. She delicately slipped the knife from his hand and resisted the urge to jump on him and hug him for believing in her and pushing her out of her comfort zone. It was working, she was learning, getting better at surviving in the new world and she had him to thank for that. Aware that hugging him would go down like a lead balloon, she simply smiled at him instead. 

“Follow me” He grunted before setting off into the trees with intent.

“What? Where are we going?!” She called after him

"Ya just levelled up.” He barked back at her. “Now ya gonna complete level two.”

 


 

The next few days consisted of Daryl teaching Jess everything he’d picked up in the short while since the world had lost it’s footing and plummeted into what now resembled one of the levels of hell. He also continued to pass on his already established and extensive knowledge of hunting and tracking. It was not only productive but unequivocally enjoyable to Jess to be able to spend so much time with him. She knew not to question his desire to train her, accepting it simply as a mutually beneficial act somehow. Although quite what he got out of it still remained a mystery to her.

He’d even taught her to fish, a skill which wasn’t altogether alien to her due to many family vacations at the lake house and boat trips with her brother. But she feigned ignorance and politely listened when he showed her how to reel fish in and swallowed the urge to vomit when he made her fillet them, a task she had always left to the men in her family.

It was no more than a few lingering smiles, one or two occasions when she would catch him watching her perform mundane tasks like writing in her diary or sewing up a hole in her jacket, but it was there. The feeling of something a little more than friendship that Daryl just couldn’t seem to fathom. He had given his all, put everything he had into teaching her to survive and if someone were to ask him why, he wasn’t sure he had an answer. He hadn’t taught anyone else a single thing, hadn’t felt the sheer panic at the thought of anyone but her being bitten by a walker. With Jess, it was different. What he did know, was that when other people looked at him, they saw nothing but a damaged, unpredictable criminal that wasn’t to be trusted. But when Jess looked at him, when Jess spoke to him, she really saw him. He was a person, another person just like she was. Right from the start, she hadn’t given up and persevered with a most unlikely friendship.

 


 

On top of the RV for what had become their habitual time to unwind at the end of every day, Jess hummed to herself as she propped her legs up on Dales cooler. Her book rested on her lap and she batted away the smoke from Daryl’s cigarette beside her. The cool night air carried it up into the atmosphere but the smell still hung heavy around her. 

“Those things will kill you y’know.” She remarked with a scrunched-up face.

“You gonna miss me?” He quipped, deliberately expelling a large plume of smoke at her. She waved her hand dramatically and fake coughed.

“No. I’ll get some peace and quiet.” She joked with a light chuckle.

Thinking the conversation to be over, Jess opened her book and began to read. It wasn't unusual for Daryl to just cease speaking when he'd had enough or when he felt like whatever had been said didn't warrant a response. Jess pushed the end of her pen between her lips and bit down on the lid, leaving the end peppered with small, teeth marks.

“What was that sposed to mean?” Daryl eventually asked with a tone akin to mild irritation. She closed the book and looked quizzically at him.

“I just mean you making me run around in the woods killing things.” She grinned “It ruined my Pulp Fiction T-shirt. I’m going to have to beat the holy hell out of it against a rock to get the bloodstains out.”

His eyes were narrowed at her, and worry that she’d offended him prodded at the back of her mind.

He’s touchy tonight.  She thought.

“I don’t make ya do nothin’. S’for ya own good.” He grumbled.

“I’m just playing.” She tried. But his jaw was clenched and he looked away, taking a forceful drag on his cigarette and exhaling it in the opposite direction to her this time. Instead of stoking the fire that apparently had appeared from nowhere, she lowered her eyes back to her book and tried to ignore the now taut atmosphere between them.

Daryl rarely lost his temper with her, even out in the woods after hours of training, coated in sweat and blood and gore, repeating the same things over again, he never got angry when she couldn’t get it right. He never usually took her jokes the wrong way either which made their current situation both baffling and extremely awkward.

Why am I being such a jerk to her? He thought.

But he didn’t know the answer. All he knew was that the churning ball of anxiety in the pit of his stomach was for a reason and it was always at it’s worst when he was sat quietly beside her, watching her be nothing else but herself. It was frustrating and enraging and entirely mystifying to him. 

“It’s only you.” He muttered. Him facing away from her meant that she only just caught the words. Far from wanting to jump to conclusions that would only land her in an awkward and uneasy mess., she needed more information. 

“What?” She questioned, closing the pages of her book once more.

“That I teach stuff.” He added.

“I know” She said softly. “I’m grateful, for everything you do for me. I don’t know why you do it, but I know it’s only me.”

He nodded at her statement but still didn’t turn to see her, opting to carry on staring out into the darkness and watching the smoke from his roll up dissipate into the blackness.

“Want ya to be safe.” He uttered.

Jess’s heart lurched and her face broke out into a strong smile that was just too stubborn to shove away. Biting her bottom lip, she gently nudged his upper arm with her hand, thinking it a shame he’d put a leather jacket on and scuppered her chances to cop a feel of the biceps she so admired on him. Feeling braver than ever, in part due to the confidence that Daryl had instilled in her with his belief in her abilities, she took a risk.

“That you saying you care about me?” She jested.

Not turning to her straight away, she saw his body jolt when an amused exhalation followed a small head shake and it took all of her self-control not to blurt out what she really wanted to say.

I think you care about me and I care about you too. I have such a huge crush on you. You are the most interesting and amazing person I have ever met.

The look on his face when he gradually worked his line of vision around to her took her by surprise. Chewing on his lower lip, she could see him hiding a smile, one that didn’t need hiding because it was in his eyes.

“Maybe a little.” He told her.

“Wow” She laughed loudly “A little, huh? Lucky me!”

Oh lord. What the hell was that, Jess?! ‘Lucky me!’ I’m such a dork.

Footsteps below silenced them both and Daryl leaned to his left, catching a glimpse of a figure wandering past the RV. When the sound of whistling danced through the air, Daryl realized who it was.

“It’s just Merle.” He dismissed. Jess nudged her head up in acknowledgement and re-opened her book, feeling like the moment had passed to delve even deeper into what appeared to be Daryl caring about something other than running out of smokes and hunting deer. Her eyes scanned the words on the page, but none of them actually registered as her mind raced with thoughts of confessing her feelings. With no intentions to actually do so, all she had was her vivid imagination and the ability to simply dream.

He cares about me. 

 


 

Two nights later and by the flickering glow of the fire, Jodie rummaged through her laundry at the opening of her tent, carefully folding her minimal wardrobe, enough to fit inside a backpack should they have to pack up and leave. Sarah, who sat beside her was painting her nails. A necessity of the apocalypse, of course. Along with applying her eyebrows in a pocket mirror and curling her lip in disgust at the thought of having to go to the makeshift bathroom in the woods. A far from pleasant necessity that everyone else had come to accept, as was the way of the world now. They were all thankful to be alive, Sarah and Jodie were just happy to have their matching, Gucci belts still intact.

Jess was busy on the other side of the fire, sharing a few overcooked squirrel strips with Carl. They were so dry and tough that it was more like eating jerky than anything else. Carl winced and chewed relentlessly on a piece of meat that looked like a leather shoe while Jess snorted with laughter as she pointed at him and covered her own mouth which was also full of food.

Daryl was at her other side, the two of them now barely apart for more than half a day and just about able to ignore the jibes and attempts at humor at their expense from Jodie and Sarah. Daryl’s threat seemed to have worked to an extent, but whispers and mockery could still be heard if they listened hard enough. By now, the entire camp had accepted that Jess and Daryl had become friends and that Jess was the only person that Daryl would tolerate being around for so long. Likewise, he was the only one that didn’t drain her energy after more than an hour with incessant chit chat.

Merle hadn’t expressed an opinion but Daryl knew it wouldn’t be long before he made his feelings known and was waiting for the day when he would have to bite his tongue and remember that Merle was not the smarter one of the two of them. From a distance he watched, sneering and tutting as if Jess’s mere presence was at a detriment to his existence and the downfall of his plan to rob the camp was somehow her fault. Jess was none the wiser, blissful in her ignorance and Daryl had no plans to change that.

“Oh. My. God!” Jodie’s voice rang through the camp and everyone at the fire stopped what they were doing to look up. “There’s a frickin’ tent…in my tent! Look at the size of that!”

Daryl was the first to register what was happening and immediately snapped his head around to see Jess, leaning on her elbow to see past Carol, who was opposite her. It was like slow motion had kicked in when her eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks.

Her body suddenly flushed with heat from embarrassment and fury and her surroundings increased in volume, the shrill laughter from the two girls holding her underwear a loft began to echo through her ears. The sound was deafening and her eyes glazed over, her vision glassy. Tears dripped down her cheeks.

“Sorry, Jess. I guess this wasn’t how you imagined Daryl seeing your panties for the first time.” Sarah announced.

With an inferno burning in her cheeks, she sprang up from the floor, stomped across the clearing, snatched the garment from Jodie’s hand and raced off into her tent. Daryl sat frozen for a moment, watching both girls fall about in hysterics before he also got up and went off into the woods with his crossbow. A backdrop of people expressing their disgust did nothing to quell the anger he felt as he departed. He wanted to go to her, to tell her it was alright and that it was just two dumb girls that didn’t mean anything. But his legs took him in the opposite direction so he could take the time to retreat into himself and try to push past his own humiliation.

Through tears and sobs in her tent, Jess took out her pen and journal and started to pour her feelings onto the page. Her teardrops tainting the ink.

'I don’t know if I can stand this anymore. Daryl is literally the only good thing about being at this camp. I have these urges to just leave. But I am reluctant to leave him. We’ve become friends, good friends and I think we actually care about each other. I made progress with someone, I spoke to a person I wouldn’t normally have bothered with and something amazing happened. But now those assholes have stamped on it all. He’s never going to want to be around me when I’m such a glaring target for those two bitches. Carol once told me that they’re just jealous of me. But I don’t have a single thing for anyone to be jealous of.' 

 


 

Tracking, hunting and fighting lessons had become less social and more strictly on a need to learn basis between Jess and Daryl. He had less and less to say as the days crawled on after the humiliating scene at the campfire. Her efforts to engage him in conversation feel on disinterested ears and with each new day, Jess felt their friendship slipping further and further away. She still sat with him on the RV every night, her stubborn streak refusing to let her give in. The only sounds came from her turning a page or him lighting a cigarette. He’d still look over at her, she registered it every single time and she so wanted to look right back at him, to smile at him and crack a joke, but she knew any attempts to fix things would be futile.

She wasn’t sure what she was guilty of exactly, except being the reason Daryl was mentioned during the horrendous ordeal of the panty announcement. Now, it was apparent to Jess that there was every possibility of Daryl wanting to distance himself from her to avoid being targeted again.

More and more Walkers appeared every day and the Group made the collective decision to start gathering supplies in order to move on and find another safe haven. But with food, medicine and weapons running low, a supply run into the city was arranged and planned which Merle very quickly attached himself to due to the prospect of stocking up on something he deemed to be a priority; Whiskey. Daryl initially agreed to go along, but Jess could tell it was simply because he couldn’t tolerate his brother’s complaining about his lack of interest.

On the way back from a hunting lesson, Jess carried a large hog which she was immensely proud of hunting by herself and with the aid of Daryl’s crossbow. Once the animal had been taken down, he’d offered a simple appreciation of her skill that could have been missed if Jess wasn’t paying attention

“Good job” He’d muttered.

“Gee, thanks.” She replied with a roll of her eyes before she surged through the bushes and claimed her prize

Now, she was getting used to being out in the heat, creeping about in the woods and had even killed three Walkers without Daryl having to step in. As she trudged through the thick, hot air towards the camp with the hog around her shoulders, she sighed to herself in frustration and stopped walking, flicking her head and freeing a few strands of hair that were obscuring her view. Daryl walked on and it wasn’t until he was a good ten feet away that he noticed she wasn’t beside him anymore.

“Why ya stopped?” He enquired.

Jess looked down at her feet. Once brand-new sneakers that had seen better days. Tatty and stained beyond repair. She kicked about in the mud and tapped a finger on the hoof of the hog she held on her back.

“Are you angry at me for something?” She said quietly.

“Say what?” He questioned, bringing a hand up to his ear to signal that she wasn’t speaking loud enough.

“I said, are you angry at me for something?” She repeated, much louder this time.

Jess expected him to look confused at least, but his expression was deadpan, almost blank and with not a single scrap of emotion.

“No.”

“Then why are you being off with me?” she demanded.

He shrugged his shoulders and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist.

“I ain’t.”

“Yes, you are. You barely talk to me anymore. We come out here and wander around like a couple of strangers. It’s not like it was.” She explained. It had taken a lot of courage for her to address the situation. Daryl wasn’t known for having a gentle nature and she was not unfamiliar with how hostile he could be. But she missed the way things were before, when they would talk into the night, make fun of each other while training in the woods or simply sit in each other’s comfortable company.

“I ain’t being off. I am off. This is how I am.” He snapped, turning around and walking off. “Get over it.” She heard him grumble under his breath.  

In her chest, she wrestled with anger and sadness. The one person she had a connection with was now further from her than he’d ever been. As he vanished from her sightline, it occurred to her that it was physically as well as emotionally.

 

When she deposited the hog at the food station, she caught sight of Daryl sat on a rickety, plastic chair outside the RV with a smoke between his lips and his knife clamped in his hand. He was buckled forwards, carving something into the dirt with the pointed end.

“Everybody! Can I have your attention please?” Sarah’s voice sounded out through the camp and people stopped their tasks and chatter in anticipation of some kind of announcement. Beside Sarah, who was stood on top of the RV, Was Jodie. The sleeve of her bright pink sweater was pulled up over her hand and she chewed excitedly on the fabric while she waited for her friend to speak.

Jess’s veins stung with dread when she clocked what Sarah was holding in her hand. A leatherbound journal.

I left it on the RV last night. Shit. Oh no. No no no no. Please no.

“I found this awesome book up here! It really is gripping stuff! So I thought y’all would like to hear an excerpt!”

She opened the journal and cleared her throat, holding it out in dramatic fashion in front of her.

“Sarah.” Jess blurted out. The blonde girls vicious glare swung over to Jess. “Please. Don’t do this. Please.”

Without a single glimmer of apprehension, Sarah’s eyes moved back to the page and she began to read aloud.

“To everyone else he just seems to be this angry, unpredictable redneck. But to me he’s different. Daryl is an enigma. He has a personality that he tries to keep hidden but I see it and it’s so interesting.”

As she spoke, the mocking tone to her voice added to what was already a mortifying and agonizing moment for Jess, who was stood, red faced and wishing the ground would open up and she would fall into an abyss, away from Sarah, away from Daryl, away from all of them.

Daryl was totally still, his Jaw taut and the veins in his neck popping with rage. He wasn’t even watching Sarah. Instead, his eyes were fixed on nothing in particular at floor level. Sarah continued and with every single word, the fire inside Daryl was stoked and a piece of Jess fell away to nothing.

“He’s snappy and rude at the moment but I still really like him. But alas, I shall carry on admiring him inside my own head and outwardly being his friend. Friend zoned without ever having to have that awkward conversation, as usual. There’s no point in being any other way, anyway. He probably thinks I’m weird and a total loser and doesn’t even see me as a friend. Just the clingy nerd that follows him around. That’s me. The cling on.”

The cackles of Sarah and Jodie were soon stopped by Dale climbing the ladder, snatching the book from Sarah’s hand and scolding them both for being so cruel and childish. Below, Lori and Carol looked on, both shaking their heads in disgust as Andrea shouted up to them, asking how they would feel if the same were done to them. Everyone was there. Rick, Carl, T-Dog, Glenn. They all heard it as clear as day and could clearly see the damage done to Jess.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s never done to them. They’re never made to endure the torment that people like me have to live with. Some people are the lucky ones. Me? I’m not.

As if a bass guitar was droning in her head, her despair grew so much, she could no longer hear what was going on around her. Her vision was a blurry haze and her feet felt like two cement blocks. But she knew she had to move. Remove herself from the situation. Someone was laughing. Merle. Chuckling loudly and mentioning Daryl’s name. She couldn’t see, but then there was yelling, swearing. Daryl’s voice.

SHUT THE FUCK UP, MERLE!”

Picking up the dead weights of her legs, she ran to the slope. Down to the waters edge. To the calm and quiet where she sat in the dirt and sobbed so hard her throat and chest were raw and her tears sliced down her skin like razors. 

 

Chapter Text

 Sleep. It’s when the body recovers and processes the day’s events. It makes things clearer and allows for a new perspective. Resting the mind, the body and the soul all at once. That is, where decent sleep can be attained.

Jess tossed and turned in her sleeping bag all night, tears staining her thin and threadbare pillow. Eventually, when the exhaustion of humiliation and rage had defeated her, she drifted off in the early hours of the morning only to dream of being chased and jolting awake a mere hour later. Her eyes felt puffy and stung with the reminder that emotionally, she desperately needed a break. She sat up, wiped the sleep from her eyes and faced the dread that festered deep inside. Facing everyone after the events of the night before was going to be tough, she knew that much.

When she emerged from her tent, she quickly scanned the camp, seeing no sign of Sarah and Jodie and figuring that it was a good start at least. Carol and Andrea offered her a small smile as they stood and talked by the RV and Dale lifted a hand in a small wave from his perch at the top. Aside from their small acknowledgements, no one else looked up as she headed for the food station. The minimal and careless reaction she received did something to aid her relief at least and she sensed her heart rate calm and her anxiety lessen.

After a night of replaying her recent torture by Sarah and Jodie, she wanted nothing more than to sit next to the one person she found solace with, but even he seemed too far out of reach. She knew deep down his distance from her was down to being associated with the girl that was constantly made fun of. She wasn’t the only one that had been humiliated. The thought of giving up on their friendship was not one she wanted to entertain and so, she had to at least try to talk to him.

Sat on a rounded rock, alone and with eyes pinned on the still water, like a sheet of glass in front of him, Daryl could hear footsteps wandering across the gravel towards him. He sighed, knowing it was Jess and feeling more torn than ever. Half of him wanted to yell at her and make her go away. To tell her that he was not the type of person to maintain friendships and that he was better on his own, without the hassle of drawing attention from the lesser liked members of the group. The other half craved her company, her lighthearted banter, her smile, the gentle way she nudged his arm and laughed quietly when she was making fun of him. It was this half that was stronger, but he was locked in a war with them both.

“Hi” She said quietly.

A quick glance at her told him she had been severely affected by what had happened. Dark circles under her eyes told of a sleepless night spent crying and pouring over the details. The ‘what if’s’ the ‘maybe I could have’s’. His heart stung with sympathy but his face displayed nothing. A blank expression.

“Hey” He grunted.

She held out a metal bowl to him. It was another habit of their friendship that had suddenly become as routine as their nightly RV meeting place. She would wake as early as him, before many of the others would stir. She’d fix them some food and they’d sit together and eat quietly as the sun crept up into the sky and the warmth in the air became heavy and intense. Jess was never much of a morning person but her disturbed sleeping pattern and her unavoidable new life meant she was adapting and although she rarely spoke much before the others began to emerge from their tents, she enjoyed the fact that Daryl obviously felt the same about the comfort of the morning routine, having never complained or walked off until she moved first.

“Brought you some breakfast.” She told him.

“I aint hungry.” He muttered. His body was rigid, stressed and on edge and no matter how many cigarettes he smoked, he could not ease the tension in his muscles. He wasn’t lying. Food was the last thing on his mind.

“You can always eat, Daryl.” She smiled.

“Said I aint hungry.” He snapped. His chest constricted with guilt.

I’m being an asshole to her. Again. Why do I do this?

She immediately noticed his changed attitude towards her and joined the dots, realizing that he was angry about the previous night.

“Look, about last night-” She started

“-I don’t wanna talk about that.” He cut in

“But, I don’t-”

His head snapped around and his eyes met hers. To her dismay, they were filled with fury and she almost flinched at his aggressive attitude towards her.

“-What is wrong with you?! Huh?!” He raged “We ain’t gonna be no best friends! I don’t have friends n’ I don’t want ‘em neither! I don’t work that way! So just give it up!”

Her mouth dropped open and she blinked at him in disbelief. It was no secret that Daryl could be unpredictable and sharp tongued, but she had seen very little of it directed at her until that moment. Her entire body recoiled and screamed at her to leave before she was faced with more bitter disappointment and hurt.

Still clutching the bowl, she turned and walked away. Her path was blurred through yet more tears and she considered that if she was going to cry at anything since the turn, it would be the loss of her friends and family. But it was different, Daryl had changed things. Sarah and Jodie had changed things. She was mixed up, confused and frustrated.

Daryl grit his teeth and swallowed hard as he watched her walk away. Sliding from the rock, he started after her, boots noisily crashing through the pebbles of the shore. But his mind was too filled with complexities to have formed any kind of calm and coherent conversation. He stopped and raised his arms, his hands pushing into his hair on each side as he closed his eyes.

“Shit.”

He didn’t know why he was angry at her, logic told him that none of it was her fault. She was merely an unfortunate and easy target, but the humiliation was still raw and he still felt it from the night before. Always being an outcast and a target himself during high school and in the small, mountain town where he and his brother lived, Daryl had quickly become tired with being kicked when he was down and being dealt the worst hand. He evolved as he aged into what people that knew of him saw as a mini-me version of Merle and it was a judgement he couldn’t seem to shake and so eventually accepted. But the truth was, he wasn’t like Merle. He was empathetic and sensitive, two traits that would only get him targeted even more. He knew how Jess felt, maybe it was why he had raged at her, the all too familiar feeling of being so publicly ridiculed. Or, maybe it was because he felt genuine, powerful concern for her that had startled him and he didn’t know where it had come from or to do with it.


 

Sarah flashed Daryl a wide grin as she approached him on the slope but received nothing but a scowl in return. She could see why the camp nerd had attached herself to him, he was brave, mysterious and surly. Not like the other men in the camp and he had garnered her admiration from the day she turned up with Jodie in tow, both shaking with fear and exhausted from the hike up the mountain. Merle had been easier to get through to, easier to persuade to follow her into the woods so she could use him to forget for a while.

It was an occurrence that he didn’t want a single soul to know about and gathered that Sarah felt the same. Daryl didn’t even register the first time she propositioned him, he’d shrugged off her passing, flirtatious comment as nothing, but it occurred to him when she tried a second time and made it more than obvious that she wanted something from him. He knew of girls like her. Whiter than white, rich kids from privileged backgrounds who love to make out that they’re so wholesome and in a position to persecute everyone else for their bad decisions, all the while going about numbing their own pain with the same activities they claim to loathe in others. When she confronted him in the tree line one evening and shoved him against a tree, he felt her hand cup between his legs and for a split second thought he might be having some kind of screwed up dream. Sarah’s long blonde hair tickled over his arms when she pressed herself to his body and brought her lips close to his ear.

“Wanna have a little fun, Daryl?”

His face twisted with disgust as he shoved her away from him, stopping himself from going as far as pointing his crossbow at her.

“Get the fuck away from me” He warned while she regained her footing on the woodland floor and stared at him with a determined look on her face.

“C’mon, let’s just forget for a while” She purred, reaching a hand out and dragging her fingertips down his bicep and biting her lip. “You’re hot. I’m hot. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He grabbed her wrist so quickly it made her jump, his fingers like a vice as he used her arm to propel her backwards until her back hit a nearby tree and the air was knocked from her lungs, she buckled over and wheezed before gasping up at him in shock.

Self control was something Daryl was either good at or impulsive with, depending on the situation. Stood before a fed faced, coughing Sarah, all he wanted to do was shoot her in the face. But he wasn’t about to risk the place in the camp that he had earned. He knew Rick would banish him and probably Merle too for killing the living. He found himself inches from her face, sweat trickling down his temple.

“Don’t ever touch me again.” He growled.

Storming off into the dimly lit woods, he withdrew his knife from its holster and veered off in the direction where he’d last seen Walkers, needing to expel some rage.

 

When he noticed Sarah walking down the slope towards him, he decided that his lack of action to defend Jess and himself had meant that she thought she had triumphed over them, and so he needed the satisfaction of confronting her. But it wasn't just that, it was also years of being tormented, of seeing other kids dragged through the same ordeals. Dragged down to rock bottom by insecure, selfish kids that just made an already difficult childhood and life even harder. It was more than one thing. It was a multitude of things that Sarah represented and finally, he'd decided enough was enough.

Wearing a thin, dusty pink cami top that left nothing to the imagination, she ran a hand though her hair, gathering it at one side and winking at him. The tiny gesture did nothing but make him want to yell in her face. He stopped in her path and noted her looking him up and down with approval.

“Changed your mind?” She asked with a raised eyebrow.

Hi stomach churned. He couldn't think of anything less appealing. Merle's leftover's which happened to be highly undesirable in the first place. Daryl wasn't altogether as interested in the fairer sex as his brother was. Having never encountered a woman that possessed the traits in which he found attractive. While Merle went for the physical aspects of a female, Daryl was more drawn to the complexities of one's character and personality; Honesty, integrity, a sense of humour and a level of intelligence. As a result, the likes of Sarah was the embodiment of everything he despised.

“The hell was that last night?” He snapped.

“Just lightening the mood. Everybody’s so tense and boring around here.” She complained, rolling her eyes and twirling a piece of blonde hair around her fingers. 

“Yeah?” He squared up to her, closing the gap between them. She tried to back up, stopping when she realized she was almost flat against the crumbling wall of the walkway to the quarry. “The next time ya do somethin’ like that for fun, ya better watch ya back, ‘cause you’ll be the one I trip up in front of Walkers to buy everybody else some time.”

An unsure but mischievous smile crept across her face.

“You’re real sexy when you’re mad, Y’know that? I bet you can unleash all kinds of rage in the bedroom. Can see why she’s got such a huge crush on you. It’s a pity your taste in women is so terrible, you sure you’d rather get your kicks with her over me?”

Actually, I would but I’m not about to admit that to you.

A idea crossed his mind. A risky one but an appealing one nonetheless. Sarah and Jodie toyed with Jess like a cat toys with a mouse before it kills it. Bit by bit, stealing small parts of its life force away. Daryl very deliberately dragged his eyes from her face, all the way down her body and back up again.

“You really wanna go to the woods with me?” He asked.

“You were my first choice, you know that.” She grinned.

“Alright, you gonna make it worth my while?” He asked.

“Oh yeah.”

Impulsivity. It was one of his flaws. His emotions and sensitivity leading him astray, into the realm of snap decisions that he sometimes regretted. But in the grand scheme of things, he couldn't see how any consequences that developed from his sudden idea could possibly make anything worse. 

“Follow me.” He instructed with a small nudge of his head.

 

In the woods, Daryl walked as far as he could before reaching the border, stopping and leaning against a tree. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and tilted his head back at Sarah, who had halted in front of him and was looking at him like a lion eyeballs a steak. Merle was the better manipulator out of the two of them, but Daryl possessed the higher intellect that meant he knew exactly what to do going forward. Sarah was a simple creature, after one thing and one thing only. All he had to do was lead her there and she would do the rest. 

“C’mon, get over here” He encouraged. "Unless ya shy."

“I’m not the shy type.” She purred as she moved close to him began skimming her fingertips along the edge of his leather vest, drawing subtle lines down his chest. Everything in him was screaming to be removed from the situation. The sensation of her fingertips skimming down his chest over his shirt felt like pure poison. 

“Bet you can be a real bad girl, huh?” He asked. She slowly peered up at him, licking her lips. He let her close the gap between them and felt her nose and lips graze the side of his face.

"You wanna find out how bad I can be?" She uttered against his skin. 

He clenched his jaw in disgust and wondered how anyone could possibly enjoy this kind of seedy and nauseating state of affairs. He took a deep breath before rapidly seizing her shoulders and ramming her back against the opposite tree. Her back hit the bark with a thump and shock flashed across her face, her hands coming up and tugging at his wrists. She wriggled under the pressure of his weight, his forearm now clamped across her chest and rendering her immobile. He levelled his eyes at her, his glare burning into her self-centered soul. 

“I aint never laid no violent hand on a woman, but you aint no woman. You’re nothin’ but a fuckin’ parasite. I wouldn’t screw you if my life depended on it. What ya did to that girl was fuckin’ low. She aint never done nothin’ to you.” He seethed, finally standing up for Jess’s honor didn’t feel as strange as he imagined it to. In fact, it felt totally right.

“That’s cute. You’re defending poor, chubby Jenifer” she pouted breathlessly

This bitch really doesn’t give up.

Daryl suddenly felt like he was watching someone else make a move as his hand lowered and took hold of his hunting knife. In a split second, the shiny, silver blade was pressed against Sarah’s throat and her eyes flashed with pure terror. The knife pressed further towards her skin and he knew he’d have to let up soon or he really would end up killing her. Her chin rippled and a small, frightened whimper was enough to tell Daryl that he had succeeded in scaring her into submission. Finally, she gave in, her cheeks suddenly wet with tears.

“Her name’s Jess, dumbass.” He spat. “I don’t know how the hell you’re even still alive if ya this fuckin’ stupid. You even look at her again n’ I’ll slit ya god damn throat and leave ya out here to the Walkers. You understandin’ me?”

She nodded tearfully, sniffing and still trying to feebly pull on his arm to release her. But Daryl only moved when he was ready, staring her down before he eventually released her and was gone in the blink of an eye.

 


 

Jess didn’t move from her tent for the entire day. She ignored Carol’s attempt to coax her out to eat something and Glenn checking in on her by peering around the zipper of the tents entrance. In the night, she got up and wandered down to the waters edge. Unbeknownst to her, Daryl was sat in the dark, smoking and reflecting upon his actions that day. He was sure that Sarah deserved to be frightened into ceasing her childish and spiteful antics, but he was unsure if his violent threat had been the right move to make. He had never hurt or threatened a woman before, telling himself his whole life that he would be nothing like his father. But in that moment, with Sarah shoved against a tree with a blade to her throat, he wanted nothing more than to be able to follow through with his threat, especially when he visualized Jess’s horrified and devastated face while she watched in horror as Sarah read her journal aloud. He was some distance from her, far enough back from the water for her not to notice his presence but close enough to see her hugging her knees, lit by the moon and hear her quiet sobbing.

It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon. The first Jess and her family had spent in their new home on the Army base in Ft Rucker. Their sixth, official military base home in as many years. Moving so much had come at a cost, Jess never really settled anywhere and found it difficult to hold down friendships. Her studies suffered and her parents piled on the pressure to succeed despite her struggles. She wasn’t like them, not an overachiever in everything she tried and as a result, always felt a little outcast, even from her own immediate family. But she loved them unconditionally anyway. The Barbeque was in full swing, the burgers were being slid into buns and piled up on the table in the yard, the smell of charcoal and burning meat filling her nostrils and cementing its place in her memory as a connection to one of the most enjoyable afternoons of her life. Jess and her older brother played cards while sipping punch made from fruit juices and an extremely large bottle of rum that her father had emptied into it without her mother knowing. He offered Jess a small wink after he hid the empty bottle in a cupboard and carried the punch bowl outside. They ate as much as humanly possible in one sitting, laughed and felt the hazy blur of alcohol after a couple of hours and finished up the evening with a loud and boisterous game of charades. If she could choose to have anything, to go back to any point in time, she wouldn’t erase the last few hours, she would simply opt to go back to that day and re-live it again. To be with her family and drink her father’s super strong punch and eat four burgers without caring what anyone thought. But she was stuck in a quarry, in a camp at the end of the world with Sarah and Jodie, the type of people she despised, a bunch of others that she hardly knew and didn’t want to, even though their hearts seemed good and their intentions were sincere. And Daryl, she didn’t know what she thought of him anymore.

He finished his smoke and drew in a deep and thoughtful breath. His heart told him to go to her, but his head said otherwise. He was getting attached; he knew that much because the feeling its self was unknown to him. He’d never felt it before about anyone, never cared enough. Certainly not enough to hold a knife to another human's throat in their honor. It was dangerous to become attached to people, he couldn’t trust them and didn’t need to rely on them and eventually, everyone goes away in the end in some way or another. But Jess seemed different and he pondered if it would be so bad to just have one friend. To have that one person that knew him more than his brother did. His heart won the battle and he got up and went to her, his boots crunching on the gravel. When she heard him near her, she jumped up and swiped tears from her face with her sleeve.

“Hey, Jess.” He said.

It was most unusual, the use of her name in his greeting to her. From this simple and apparently meaningless phrase, she knew everything had changed.

“Hi” She sniffed.

He sighed when he saw her puffy face, a tear glistening in the moonlight on her cheek. In his whole life, he was certain he’d not felt an ounce of sympathy when anyone cried, but stood there before Jess, who was undeserving and innocent, his chest hurt and he wanted to do something totally out of the ordinary…he wanted to hug her.

“Heard ya cryin.” Was all he said instead, unable to muster the courage for physical contact.

“Bad day at the office” she remarked.

It was clearer than ever that she was the only person he’d ever spoken to that seemed to want to be around him and be his friend. His angry and embarrassed reaction to recent events meant he took it out on her with no grounds in which to do so, but it was all he knew and what she’d written in her journal had made everything exceptionally awkward.

“S’my fault. Shouldn’t have gone in on ya like that” He admitted.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to bed. Goodnight.” She responded, turning her back and walking to the slope.

Something in Daryl urged him to stop her. To say something. Anything to prevent her from walking away and the situation remaining unsolved or even improved in the slightest.

“Hey. Wait.” He called out, but she continued to walk, bringing a hand up and wiping her face again. “Jess. Stop. Please” He tried again. She stopped but didn’t grace him with turning around or even a glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t look at him, too mortified to be near him.

“Just ignore ‘em.”

By all accounts and by his own admission, it was a feeble and pathetic attempt to soothe her feelings. Far from being an expert, the intention was there but the know how and the sensitivity lacked. However, Jess couldn’t deny that she appreciated his effort, it was just too little, too late. Finally spinning around to face him, she flapped her arms by her sides with exasperation.

“You said it yourself, we weren’t even friends in the first place. Why are you even talking to me?” She asked, by that point totally done with skirting around the issue and feeling her temper beginning to rise.

“That was just some shit I said in anger.” Daryl tried to explain as honestly and to the point as possible.

“C’mon, Daryl. Don’t say that just because you feel guilty for yelling at me and being a dick for the past few days. You don’t even have a right to be angry at me, I haven’t done anything wrong. You don’t like me any more than they do. I’ve just forced you to talk to me since I’ve been here.” She argued. Her body language had changed, now laced with hints of anger and irritationas her hands flew up every time she started a new sentence.

“I don’t do nothin I don’t wanna do.” He told her.

She wiped at her face again, her skin still damp and puffy and the extra tears now doing nothing but increasing her anger. He wished he could say what he wanted to say but far from being an expert at such confrontations, he was having trouble getting his point across. Panic set in when he saw her try to leave again and so he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“The way you are with me, ain’t like nobody else.”

She halted and shot him a confused look.

“What does that even mean? I’ve always treated you like you’re another human being.” She cried with exasperation. If no one in the camp had heard her raised voice by now, they were lucky.

“Yeah” He agreed. “Exactly.”

Then, she understood. His uncomfortable expression, his hands pushed into his jeans pockets and the fact that he was still stood there despite the emotional toll of the topic, told her a lot. He was trying. What she couldn’t decide, was if it was through guilt, or because he genuinely cared. The prospect of them carrying on as friends after the journal incident was a ridiculous notion to Jess. Nothing would ever be the same again and neither of them had asked for it.

“I’m sorry you had to hear all that. What she read out. I-I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote it.” She attempted to explain.

“Don’t have to explain. It’s alright.” He dismissed as he dug a boot into the dirt.  

“I don’t want you thinking that the only reason I hang out with you is because I think your attractive or that I have a stupid crush on you. That’s not the reason I talk to you so much.” She confirmed with little belief that it would do anything to stop him going over what he had heard every time he looked at her.

“I know.” He mumbled

“I mean, I’m not saying you’re not attractive. You obviously… are. Very attractive. I just…”

I’m digging my own grave here. Stop talking.

“Nevermind.”

She heard him huff and caught him smiling in the moonlight. It was an overly shy smile and in that moment, during the most difficult conversation they’d ever had about a subject that was leaving them both highly uncomfortable, she had delivered a compliment to him that she was convinced had actually made him blush. To her it was the most amazing thing and a sight she could have looked at all night. He appeared so bashful that his lip was curled up into an almost never ending half smile and he could only look out across the water. Her growing affection for him intensified in those few seconds.

“Um…Thanks.” He grunted

She sighed and dropped her gaze to the floor, sensing him studying her silently for a moment. He was baffled by his urge to protect her having previously failed to see how much their friendship had grown over the months they’d spent at the camp.

“We are friends. Alright? And I don’t think you’re a loser.” He wanted her to know.

She slowly looked up at him and he wished it was lighter, just a little more, so he could see her eyes and try to gauge how she was reacting. But a silhouetted figure and a darkness shrouded face was all he had to work with.

“Maybe a little weird…n’ too damn loud in the woods. But ya ain’t no loser.” He added, lightheartedly.

Just smile at me. Please.

“Not sure about that.” She whispered as she wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her torso.

“Jess, it don’t matter. What she did. What she read out. It don’t matter.”

It was a last-ditch attempt at trying to convince her to put it all behind her and try and start over. For a fleeting moment, he thought she was about to agree when she offered him a small smile. But then, she started to back away.

“Matters to me.”

 


 

Such a conversation with Daryl was a first and Jess lay in her tent with her head propped up on her backpack full of clothes and overthought every single detail. It was one of her downfalls, overanalyzing everything and coming up with six when she put two and two together. The stitching on the inside of the roof of the tent was now serving a different purpose than to just keep a roof over her head. It was now a visual representation of every single time she’d been hurt by Sarah or Jodie. Every little quip or whisper sewn into the fabric just like it was now sewn into the fabric of her being.

Sitting up, she crawled to the front of the tent and checked the top of the RV. Andrea was sat alone at the top, reading a book. No sign of Daryl. She growled to herself. Typical. She wanted to find him, to speak to him and tell him that she was willing to try and put everything behind her and continue to be his friend if he wanted her to be. That she’d had time to think and had decided that the friendship that had blossomed from nowhere between them was too good a thing to throw away.

She climbed out of her tent, crossed the clearing and approached the slope that led down to the water, checking the place she’d last seen him made the most sense to her. Hearing whispers in front of her from the cloak of the darkness, she detected Merle’s voice, along with Daryl’s.  

“I hear you right earlier? Ya aint comin’ into the city.” Merle asked.

“No. Ya only want whiskey, Merle. Rick was right, s’a bad idea.” Daryl replied, shooting the idea down in flames.

“That little girlfriend of yours got ya all mixed up? You aint no fun no more” Merle complained.

Jess sighed, releasing a huff of anger at the notion that everyone seemed to have it in for them.

“She aint my girlfriend, man. Get outta here with that shit.” Daryl protested.

“We all heard what she wrote in that diary o’hers. Tellin’ me you wouldn’t tap that? it wouldn’t take much convincin’.”

“Stop.” came Daryl's short warning.

“Oh, I see it now. She actually means somethin’ to you, don’t she? That the reason our plan means diddly squat to you now? ‘Cause ya went n caught some feelin’s for the little, fat chick?”

Ignoring Merle’s offensive description of her, Jess’s mind raced with the possible responses Daryl could have to the question. Would he tell his brother that he cared about her? Would he just brush it off and remind him they were just friends? Or was she about to hear him confess to seeing her the same way as she saw him?

“The plan aint a plan no more because it was a fuckin’ dumb idea! She’s just a girl, she don’t mean shit to me, alright?! Just drop it.”

In the blink of an eye, upon the delivery of one sentence, Jess stopped believing in happy endings. She knew fairytales didn’t exist and it was confirmed for her that she would never fully trust anyone again. Her sneakers scraped up over the gravel as she began to back away from the sound of the voices. Her heart was undoubtedly broken, but she was done with crying over it. 

 


 

I think it’s time I left this place. Maybe it’s better to keep moving. I don’t contribute anything to the group that can’t be replaced by somebody else and I don’t think I can live with the the humiliation that Sarah and Jodie have caused. I also overheard Daryl telling his brother that I mean nothing to him. I thought we were friends at least. I should have known his mixed signals were lies. I’m so stupid. What was I thinking? In hindsight it was obvious that getting attached to someone like him would only get me hurt. But I just had that hope. Stupid, wasted, dangerous hope. I still can’t believe it’s all been a lie.

I stole a gun from the RV and a couple cans of food that nobody will notice are gone until I’m at least a few miles out. Hopefully, it’ll help to keep me going on my way back to the city. I suspect Daryl may try to track me at first, but at least I know now that it won’t be because he cares. It’ll be because people will ask him to. Maybe Carol, or Carl. I’ll miss them and I hope they make it.


 

Two hours was all he needed. Two hours of broken sleep and he was up and tracking rabbits in the woods. The task at hand would have been easy enough, having been performed a million and one times over. But that was when his head was clearer and his circumstances were different. Even before the turn, there was always something hanging over him right from when he was a child. His father’s violence, his mothers drinking, Merle’s increasing absence, school, bar fights, drugs, bail money. The only tranquility in Daryl’s whirlwind of a life was the woods. The place he felt like he could be himself and stop entertaining thoughts of whatever issue he had to deal with that day. But now the world had changed and so had he, thanks to the introverted but chatty girl he had befriended and managed to hurt at the same time. He told himself; one more rabbit. It would be enough and then he could go back to camp and sit with her. He didn’t plan on saying much, but he hoped his presence alone would be enough for her to see that he wasn’t going to enable anything that Sarah or Jodie had done to impact their friendship after all.

Catching the final rabbit had been easy, barely ten minutes spent tracking the target that was so busy trying to find it’s own food that it noticed nothing untoward until the last, deadly second. When he pushed through the trees, clutching a collection of rabbits and squirrels, he was forced to halt where he was. Carol stood in front of him with her arms tightly wrapped around her torso and her lips pushed into a thin line. The first thought that entered his head was that the camp had been attacked and someone was dead. The flash of panic that surged through his veins at the thought of it being Jess took him by surprise. Carol slowly walked towards him.

“What’s goin’ on?” he questioned.

“Daryl…” She started. “It’s Jess.”

No. No, this can’t be happening. Tell me she’s alive.

He could sense his chest constrict and his grip become tighter around the legs and tails of the dead animals in his grasp.

“What? What about her? She OK?” He demanded.

Carol let out a sympathetic huff and tilted her head to the side, shrugging one shoulder up.  

“She’s gone.” She whispered.

“Gone? What d’ya mean, ‘gone’?”

Daryl’s voice was now a lot louder than he had meant it to be, but the need for more information was now starting to press on his last nerve.

“Her belongings are missing, so is one of Shane’s guns. We think she left in the night.” Carol explained.

His eyes flashed with disbelief and he surged past her, striding over to the camp and dumping the animals in the dirt by the burned-out fire. Everyone stopped their tasks and conversations as he began throwing open people’s tents, storming in and out of the RV like a hurricane and calling her name at the top of the slope to the water. Carol watched on as he paced back and forth with his hands on his head as Merle emerged from his tent.

“Naw.” He shakes his head “Naw. She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t just leave.”

“She not here. We’ve looked everywhere.” Glenn offered from beside Rick and Shane, who were stood next to the loaded-up truck which had all their guns arranged on the hood like a bizarre art installation.

Daryl looked over at her tent, lunging at it and ripping it open, his face falling in dismay when he saw nothing inside. He growled loudly to himself as his breathing increased and his heart started to hammer. Carol, who was usually skittish and nervous around aggression and anger, made the attempt to calm him by gently touching his arm but as soon as the contact was made with his skin, he flinched and threw her off.

“SHIT!” He bellowed.

Throwing his crossbow from his back onto the floor, he spun around, his gaze stopping on Andrea.

“You!” He exclaimed, pointing a calloused finger at her. His hand hovered over her chest and she took a step back. “You were sposed to be on watch! Why didn’t ya see her leave?! Huh?! The fuck were ya doin’ up there?!”

Before she could even begin to fathom an answer, Rick stepped in and worked his way in between them, placing a hand on Daryl’s chest and coaxing him back. Again, he flinched off the contact which told Rick in no uncertain terms that now more than ever was not a good time to be touching him.

“Daryl, this isn’t anybody’s fault. She took everything with her. She wanted to go.” Rick reasoned.

“No! You don’t know her! She wouldn’t!” He argued.

“You got it bad, boy” Merle laughed from the other side of camp. His boots cracked over snapping twigs on the ground while he slowly made his way over to the scene. Sauntering casually and rolling a cigarette between his fingers. “I thought she didn’t mean shit to ya. Aint that what you said?”

Something in Daryl snapped. He swung an arm out and collided his fist with his brother’s nose. The impact was so strong that it caused Merle to stagger back after everyone winced at the sickening crack that echoed around the camp and bounced from the trees. Merle blinked in surprise and brought his hands up to his face. Warmth coated his fingers as blood tricked through the gaps. His eyes flicked up and he lunged at Daryl, only to be stopped by Shane. Daryl's hand thundered with pain but it was a pain he needed, a welcome distraction from the pain in his heart, caused by the knowledge that he had failed to reassure her, to keep her here under the promise that nothing had to change. A million and one 'what if's' floated through his mind. 

“Easy” Shane grunted while throwing his weight back against Merle to prevent him from surging forwards and causing a mass brawl.

“I’ma knock you into the middle o’ next week, you little shit!” Merle hissed. Blood sprayed messily from between his teeth, peppering his vest and anyone unlucky enough to be close enough to him.  

Daryl, chest heaving and teeth clamped together, made off for the trees.

“Where are you going? Daryl?!” Carol called after him.

“To find her!” He shouted over his shoulder. “Y’all would do well to stay outta my fuckin’ way too.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be found?” Carol reasoned.

Ignoring her, he vanished into the trees, leaving Shane Still struggling with Merle and a dozen shocked faces all peering awkwardly at one another.

 


 

When evening arrived, it brought with it Daryl’s return to the camp. Much to the surprise of the other inhabitants that expected him to be gone for days on end. He said nothing, only sitting down by the fire and hanging his head. His arms were decorated with scratches and as Rick watched him push his fingers into his dirty, tousled hair he realized that Jess’s departure had impacted their resident hunter more than he had thought.

“Here” He said, throwing a plastic bottle of water over at him. It landed between his boots and Daryl wearily reached down and picked it up. He unscrewed the cap and took a large gulp. Around him, was every single other member of the camp. He had walked into some kind of meeting but could care less about interrupting. He knew Rick was mid-sentence when he’d appeared and flopped down onto the ground, not listening to a word that was being said. In fact, he didn’t even notice when the cop and seemingly unelected leader stopped talking and his surroundings grew uncomfortably quiet. Clearing his throat, Rick carried on speaking.

“Is everybody in agreement that we should go ahead with tomorrow morning’s run?”

People must have nodded but Daryl didn’t look up or show an ounce of interest.

“We need more food.” Rick continued “Daryl?”

He didn't want to talk, or have to make any decisions. he didn't want to take part in a meeting or do anything except rest until he had enough energy to go back out in search of his friend. A long and exhausted sigh followed an angry glare when he finally looked up meant Rick had already been put in his place. But he knew he had to ask the question regardless."

“You OK to hunt over the next couple days?”

“No.” Daryl said firmly.

Rick’s eyebrows raised momentarily and he caught the gaze of his wife, Lori. She gave him a small nod, urging him to continue.

“We don’t have enough food for the next few days.” He explained.

“Yeah, n' I said no. I’m goin’ lookin for Jess.” Daryl snapped back.

“Oh, come on.” He heard Sarah scoff. Rage flared in his chest and pumped through his veins, white hot fury fueling him to act. He jumped to his feet and with a click and a gasp sounding out from those around him, he pointed his crossbow at her face. Tense murmurs filled the air and Rick was rapidly crossing the space between them with intent to stop him.

“Back off, Sherriff.” Daryl warned without moving his vision from his target, stopping Rick in his tracks and pushing the crossbow further into Sarah’s face.

“Hey, shit for brains” he hissed through his teeth at her. “You two are the reason she’s gone. If ya don’t shut up I’ma put a bolt between ya eyes”

“Daryl, you won’t be hurting anyone. Put it down.” Rick insisted, drawing his gun.

Merle, who had been slowly ambling up the slope to the camp when he heard a commotion, seemed to turn up out of nowhere. Calmly, and apparently with no recollection of his brother’s savage punch earlier in the day, he stepped between the barrel of Ricks gun and Daryl.

“Woah, now Sheriff. What ya say you just let my brother do what he pleases? He’s been feedin y’all for weeks now. He wants to shoot the bitch, then I say we let him.” He smiled. “She ain’t good for much anyways”

Sarah looked up at Daryl’s fierce expression over the tip of the arrow pointed at her forehead.

“You calling me shit for brains? Please. Stupid Redneck.” She shot at him with little to no fear of being impaled in the face with a crossbow bolt. Telling herself he wouldn’t do it, she forced her shoulders back and tried to hide her fear.  

“Rednecks good enough to scratch ya itches though, right?” Daryl commented.

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Oh whatever, asshole.”

“You been fuckin’ Merle in the woods” He proclaimed loudly. Sarah’s jaw dropped open and Jodie, who had shifted up considerably from her side, stared at her friend in disbelief.

“You said he was lying.” She whispered.

“Oh, aint no lie, sweetheart!” Daryl shouted as he jostled the crossbow closer to Sarah's face. “Likes herself some rough, this one! Tried it with me n’ when I turned her ugly ass down she went after my brother! Goes around judging folks, makin’ fun of ‘em. When all the while, she’s lettin’ my brother search her for pocket change in the woods most nights!”

Glenn, who was sat across the fire with wide eyes, sucked both of his lips into his mouth to stifle what would undoubtedly be a roar of laughter, not only at Daryl’s rage, but at his amusing choice of words.

“This is awkward” He pointed out. 

“I know. It’s great.” T-dog added from beside him. He shuffled around on the spot, getting comfortable for the remainder of the show. 

Andrea sprang forwards from where she was leaning against the RV, obviously feeling the need to intercept at the sound of such a crass topic.

“Daryl, that’s enough, there are children that can hear you.” She scolded as she stepped into the circle behind him. He lowered his crossbow and turned on his heels, locking her in a death glare.

“People out there eatin people!” He shouted as he raised his arms. His crossbow swung clumsily in his grip “Sluts fuckin’ rednecks all over the show but we better not say no bad words, huh?!" His neck flared red and veins protruded on his temples.

Sarah, who by now was completely mortified at the whole camp knowing about her night-time activities, slowly lifted her vision to Merle, who was still stood between Daryl and Rick. He began to laugh loudly to himself.

“Cats outta the bag, sugar! God damn!” He chuckles, throwing a wink her way. “No more squat thrusts in the pickle patch!”

She immediately got up and stomped off, leaving a collection of stunned faces. Jodie watched her depart, her face twisted with disgust.

“I ain’t doing nothin’ for none of y’all!” Daryl fumed, whirling around and swinging a pointed finger at them all. “Gonna look for Jess. Merle can hunt. I’m out”

With that, he threw his crossbow over his shoulder and scuffed out of the circle around the fire, off into the woods to set to work finding the girl that had managed to work her way so far into his heart that he wasn’t about to let her go without a fight.

Chapter Text

Jess wasn’t sure how long she’d been walking, but the sun had changed position in the sky considerably since it had risen shortly after she’d left the camp. Her heels burned with the first signs of blisters and her stomach growled so loud, a jolt of anxiety came with it every time it protested at the lack of food. She was sure every animal and walker within a five-mile radius could hear how hungry she was, but she pressed on anyway, knife in hand and listening for the slightest snap of a twig or gurgle of a ripped-out throat.

With every glimpse down at her T-shirt came a reminder of the two walkers she’d already encountered on her travels. Blood from their battered and diseased bodies now covered the batgirl image on the front of the shirt. That, and a ring of sweat had already made its self at home around her neckline.

At least it goes with the two maps of Africa under my arms. She thought

Contrary to what she’d expected, she managed to eliminate both of the Walkers with minimal issues. A small stumble here and there and one missed attempt at impaling an eye and before she knew it, they were both down and she stood over them with a sense of twisted pride at her new skills. Ignoring the fact that she’d screamed twice and bit her own tongue when she lunged at the second corpse, she thought it to be a success regardless. She couldn’t deny that if it hadn’t been for Daryl and his insistence on teaching her how to defend herself, she would most probably have been dead by that point.

Her stomach raged with hunger once more and she wrapped one arm around her middle, hoping the pain of starvation would subside soon and she would enter into that strange, not so uncomfortable, over-hunger that meant her energy levels would plummet but she’d at least be quieter. Her bones were beginning to ache as she glanced up at the sky through the spiked branches above, it was lower than when she last checked and the air was beginning to cool. Night was approaching and she knew she needed to start seeking out a shelter.

She wiped the back of her hand across her soaking brow, grateful for the evening air that was now licking at the perspiration covered areas of her skin. Her sneakers continued to thud against the woodlands blanketed, mossy ground as her skin stung with every single step. She wished she had band aids, or different footwear, or a bed and a bath and food and all the things she took for granted before the turn.

In her heart, she had no regrets about leaving the camp. It felt like the right thing to do at the time and even as she trudged through the thick and imposing trees, all she felt was relief. Relief at not having to deal with Sarah or Jodie anymore, Relief that she’d managed to leave behind the gnawing nervousness that being around so many people she hardly knew induced. Above all, she was relieved that she would no longer have to invest any more of her time, effort and feelings into a man that thought nothing of her.

Just as she was beginning to imagine herself falling asleep as she walked and getting eaten by another human being, the ground beneath her feet changed from twig ridden to hard asphalt. She looked up, blinking sweat from one eye and inhaled sharply at the sight before her.

The windows were still intact and the door was closed. The forecourt and gas pumps were still neatly hooked up and the entire gas station and store was seemingly untouched. For a fleeting moment, Jess thought she may be hallucinating. A kind of mirage in the desert situation. She didn’t have such luck. Or, did she? Surely, she was due some. With a lingering look up and down the street, she took a deep breath and focused on the building. It was silent and inviting.

They sell maps. And food.

She surged forwards, her feet skimming across the roads surface and emitting hardly a scuff as she raced to the door. Peering through the glass, she rapped lightly on the frame and waited. Inside was dark and still like the night and Jess could see aisle upon aisle of food and supplies. Her head told her it was too good to be true and that she shouldn’t charge in expecting a three-course meal and a map to freedom. But her heart was arguing that what she could see in front of her was to the contrary.

Irrespective of her misgivings she tried the door and huffed in irritation when she found it locked from the inside. Searching the forecourt for something to use to break the glass, she resigned herself to entering back into the woods when she came up with nothing. Picking up a rock and heading back, she hoped with everything she had that the noise would not attract any Walkers from the surrounding woods.

The glass panel in the bottom of the door shattered with ease and allowed for a narrow but useful entryway into the store. Thousands of tiny blocks of glass littered the floor as Jess climbed inside and straightened herself up. She brushed her stained and dirty clothes down and set about filling her backpack with packets and tins. As she worked, she opened bags of potato chips and lined them up on a shelf, stuffing her face with a myriad of different flavors and wondering if she’d ever been so happy to see a gas station before. She moaned with happiness as she munched along the shelves, grabbing bottles of water and a can of soda for good measure.

“Maybe I should just stay here.” She said to herself. The sound of her own voice seeming so alien after hours of not uttering a word other than two panicked shrieks when she was attacked by Walkers.

Her heart nearly stopped when a hand slapped against the counters surface from below. She spun around, locking her eyes on the gnarly, discolored fingers with missing nails that were clawing over the counter for grip.

“Oh shit.” She whispered, sliding her knife out of her belt and gripping the handle so hard her knuckles turned white. Urging herself to remain collected, coordinated and quick to react, she heaved in a deep breath and stepped into the middle of the aisle. The Walker seemed to pause when it noticed her standing before it, knife raised and a bead of sweat racing down one temple. She slowly edged forwards with a sideways stance, ready to steady herself should she fall. It was another thing Daryl had taught her on one of their training jaunts and in that moment, while she stared into the dead, rotting eyes of a reanimated corpse in such an enclosed space, she was more grateful for the knowledge than she had ever been.

It lumbered towards her, rounding the counter and reaching out with bony, blackened fingers that made her empty stomach bubble with bile and pure disgust. The smell hit her like a freight train and only grew more intense with every step the corpse made. Like a million, rotting rats in a room full of pork roasts left to fester. Her senses were overwhelmed and she blinked back a wave of nausea as she forced herself to move and eliminate the threat lumbering at her from the dim, dusty corner of the store.

Squinting at the throbbing mass of maggots that were living in one eye socket of the Walker wasn’t the best idea she’d had so far, especially when it almost cost her life when teeth were gnashed at her arm, missing the skin by a hair’s breadth. Startled, she screamed and dropped her knife, shrinking back down the aisle and backing away.

“Oh shit. Oh shit.” She gasped, panic now driving her every move.

In the blink of an eye and without even registering the movement of her own body, she found herself running around the shelving, heading for the counter and hearing her sneakers slapping against the shiny flooring. Reaching the register, she dove behind it and frantically began scrambling around on the floor for something to use as a weapon. Her fingernails dragged over the surface of the wooden shelves below and her breathing was now thundering so loudly through her chest that the snarling of the Walker was now just a distant interval in a chorus of terrified gasps.

Cold metal against her skin stopped time and she widened her eyes at her discovery. Under the counter, mounted on two hooks was the most glorious sight. She ripped the shotgun from it’s place and swung it around just in time for the Walker to lurch into view around the counter and stepped over her. Her finger squeezed the trigger as her back hit the floor and all at once, a deafening bang blasted through her head, straining her eardrums and leaving nothing but a whistle. Red mist fluttered in the air and brain matter splattered her clothes from the one, well-aimed bullet that had saved her life and completely changed the color of her clothes and skin. The Walker’s body slumped down onto her and her face crumpled with irritation and dismay. She shoved it off to one side and sat up, drawing her knees up and hugging them. She buried her blood-soaked face in her arms as sobs choked an escape from her throat.

Minutes must have passed but she wasn’t counting, consumed only by a baffling mixture of feelings that had risen in her chest and erupted from her body in a sudden and overwhelming rush. Her shoulders juddered as she sucked in breaths and rubbed her face on the sleeves of her T-shirt. Tears soaked the fabric and before long, she felt the niggling knowledge that it was too dangerous to have a breakdown in her current location.

“What would Daryl say?” She asked herself aloud. After all, it was Daryl’s teaching and insistence that she knew about self defence that meant she wasn't dead right then and there. “He’d tell me not to be a pussy.” She concluded.

Hissing a breath through her teeth, she reached up, dragging the heavy weight of her tired body from the floor and managed to stand on her feet again. She scanned the room, now coated in a thick layer of crimson and body parts.

For the next ten minutes, she found as many bags as she could and stuffed them full of food and supplies before heading back outside and skidding on her heels when she noticed a car parked at the side of the building. She crunched over the uneven ground towards the vehicle and opened up a map she’d retrieved on the hood. It took some time to figure out exactly where she stood on the map and after three incorrect guesses, she finally figured out her location. Checking the area around the pinpoint on the map, her eyes stopped over a large expanse of fields and she held her breath.

“The faire. I need to go back to the faire.” She whispered.

She threw open the car door and searched the glove box, the sun visor, every compartment and nook and cranny she could find but could see no sign of any keys. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she wished she’d led a more rebellious lifestyle, or at least one in which she would have gained the skill of hotwiring a car. Accepting that the most she’d been blessed with was a knowledge of weapons and armor from way back when, she glanced over her shoulder, seeing a discarded jacket with a name tag pinned to it.

Clive.

The pin badge boasted the logo of the gas station store and Jess quickly put two and two together in her head. Shooting across the empty gas station as fast as her legs could carry her, she crashed back through the stores door and sprinted to the counter, narrowly avoiding slipping on the wet, bloody floor. Bundling to her knees, she quickly searched what was left of the body that tried to attack her. Reaching into its pants pocket, she cringed at the thought of having to search a dead body that had tried to eat her previously but was soon over the notion when her fingers grasped a set of keys. She ripped them from the clothing and stood up, picking out one in particular that matched the make of the car outside.

“Thank you, Clive.”

Hoping with all of her heart that the car still had enough gas in it, she ran out of the store and jabbed the key into the lock.

 


 

Three days had passed and Daryl still carried the weight of Jess’s departure upon his heart. Blaming himself for her decision, he considered that maybe if he’d had more understanding of what it was to be someone’s friend, maybe if he’d defended her when he should have done, maybe if he’d tried harder to tell her that he was grateful for her willingness to try and see past what everyone else couldn’t when they looked at him, maybe…Just maybe, she wouldn’t have left.  He tracked her with such determination that he had failed to eat or sleep much in the days that she’d been gone. Carol and Carl had asked for updates away from the listening ears of the others in the camp. He wished he had more to tell them and felt like a failure every time he shook his head and signaled that no; he hadn’t found anything.

With each new, more obvious part of a trail, his heart rate quickened and he tried to prepare what he wanted to say to her if he was to find her. But, the blank page inside his mind remained crisp and white. He didn’t know how to tell her that he missed her already, that he liked her company, that she made him smile and laugh for what felt like the first time in his entire laugh. He didn’t know how to tell her how her strange quirks and hobbies actually did interest him. He also didn’t know how to tell her that he cared about her and how pretty he thought she was. Difficult communication was a bridge he would have to cross if he ever managed to find her.

The trail in front of him became so pronounced that it made him stop in his tracks. Footprints from sneakers were clearly visible in the dampened mud under the trees and stretched for as far as he could see into the trees. He tightened his grip around his crossbow, well aware by now that if he did find Jess, there was a high possibility that she had succumbed to the bite of a Walker. Daryl wasn’t a religious man, but something inside him urged him to pray to whoever might be listening that his friend had come to no harm. That he would find her wandering the woods, lost and lonely and she’d beg him to take her back to the camp.

The footprints came to a stop in front of a tree and Daryl slowly raised his vision, taking in every slight movement and around from his surroundings. He froze when he saw the note pinned to the tree in front of him. A biro pen had been worked through the top of the paper and between the bark, a pen he recognized straight away.

I got her those.

He plucked the note from the tree and blinked rapidly, trying to focus on the writing with fatigued eyes.

‘Well Stinky, if you’re reading this then you’re more stubborn than I thought. I’ll let you off the hook with anyone that’s actually asked about me. I’m guessing it’s Carol and Carl that wanted you to look for me. You can tell everyone that you found me just as I was being attacked by walkers. I fed them for days. The Twisted Sisters will cackle over that, I’m sure.

In the meantime, it might be beneficial that I unburden my soul right now as I will never see you again. At least this way I won’t be hurt by your indifference or disgust when you read it.

Daryl, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that someone like myself - A fat, irritating burden like myself remotely thought that we could be friends. I saw you as someone strong, brave and smart. You are a survivor. Someone I looked up to and could be myself around. I guess I took your quiet demeanor as acceptance when I should have understood that you were barely tolerating me. I get it now. I know you just didn’t want to tell me face to face and cause another embarrassing scene. Those seem to follow me around, right? I’m hoping by telling you this, it will release me from how much I cared about you.

But until then, Love, Jess’

The air left his lungs in an involuntary rush and he slowly turned, thudding his back against the tree as he gripped the note in his hand. He bit down on his lower lip as anger tightened his muscles and jaw. The words he’d read were still at the forefront of his mind. Tolerating. A burden. Irritating. Fat. He slid down to the floor, his crossbow clattering on the ground and he rested his arms on his bent knees with the note still screwed up and gripped in his fist.

No, Jess. No.

Unable to summon the motivation to get up, he stayed there until the sun started to lower in the sky, trying to come to terms with the fact that he’d managed to make the one person he’d ever given a damn about believe that he was merely tolerating her. Every conversation they had ever had was scrutinized inside his head and he could only conclude that which he had thought all along. It was his fault. Somehow. Someway, with the help of Jodie and Sarah, he’d driven her away. Although the words on the paper were now distorted and crumpled, he read them over and over again, each time worse than the last, before he finally shoved it in his pocket and headed back to camp.

 


 

The camp’s atmosphere upon Daryl’s return was noticeably tense and if he was honest with himself, he struggled to care about any of the possible reasons. All he wanted to do was sit away from everyone and read Jess’s note, but such a simple desire was not to be. As soon as Rick and Shane saw him emerge from the trees, both of them stopped talking in their hushed tones and exchanged an awkward glance. Everyone else that was visible in the clearing wore the same expression. Daryl couldn’t be bothered with this.

“Merle! Get ya ugly ass out here! Ya get any whiskey?” He called out while skirting around the fire and stalking over to Merle’s tent.

“Um…Daryl?” Shane tried

“Merle!” Daryl shouted, ignoring his pursuer. He threw his crossbow down and swooped a hand into the tent, tugging the opening to one side and finding it empty.

“Daryl, I need to talk to you.” Shane continued.

Daryl whirled around, noting the solemn look on Shane’s face and quickly checked everyone else as they gathered together. They were all was staring at him as if he was a bomb about to go off.  

“’Bout what?” He wanted to know.

“Merle. There was a uh-a problem in Atlanta.” Shane told him.

His bones seemed to lock at the thought of losing both his friend and in brother in as many days. Merle wasn’t always the best big brother in the world. In fact, he was downright useless and more trouble than he was worth most of the time. But blood was blood and Daryl loved him regardless. He didn’t want to ask the question, but Shane was obviously struggling with something.

“He dead?” Daryl asked.

“I’m not sure.” Came the response.

Daryl furrowed his brow and once again, looked at the others for some kind of clue as to what had gone on. Carol hugged her own torso as Sophia clung to her leg. Sarah and Jodie, for once, were silent, their eyes locked on him as they slowly stood up from their chairs outside the RV. Dale’s gaze quickly shot from Shane to Daryl, then to Glenn and to Lori as if he was waiting for one of them to intervene, but no one did until a voice rose up from behind Shane.

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.” Rick announced, stepping into view. “Your brother was a danger to us all. He almost got us all killed. So, I handcuffed him to a pipe on a roof. He’s still there.”

Daryl’s entire demeanor and body language morphed into that of a brawler in a single second. His eyes narrowed and the veins in his temples protruded. He began to pace about in front of Rick, kicking up dust with every turn. Dale signaled for Carol to move the children back and Sarah’s jaw dropped open like a trap door.

“Lemme process this” Daryl snapped, wirling a finger around at the side of his head. “You’re sayin’ ya handcuffed my brother to a goddam roof…” His voice was louder with each word and Rick prepared himself for what was to be an explosion of rage that was not only fueled by his actions against Merle, but by the loss of Jess also. “…and ya LEFT HIM THERE?!”

“Yeah” Came Rick’s feeble reply.

He turned his back to everyone, took a deep breath and spun back around, launching himself at Rick and tackling him to the floor. Withdrawing his knife with effortless precision, he raised the blade and prepared to deal out as much damage as would quell his fury. But Shane had other ideas, running at him from the side, he barreled into him, knocking him free of rick and maneuvering him into a chokehold. Carol ushered Sophia into the RV and continued to watch in horror as everyone else observed the drama with keen interest. Rick wasted no time in getting to his feet and gathering Daryl’s arms behind his back, disarming him as he bucked and kicked against the weight of the two men, gasping and grunting from the pressure in his head and neck.

“Chokehold’s illegal, asshole.” He managed to wheeze.

“You can file a complaint.” Shane quipped in response. “C’mon now, I can keep this up all day.”

It seemed like forever that the three men remained there with an enraged Daryl struggling in their grip. People had started to make whispered comments to each other.

“We’re going to have a nice, calm discussion on this topic. You think you can manage that?” Rick hissed at Daryl as his breathing began to slow from its rapid speed. A small nod from Rick to Shane saw Daryl released and tossed onto the dust.

“What I did was not on a whim” Rick insisted as he knelt down in front of Daryl “Your brother does not work and play well with others.”

Before Daryl could answer, screams pierced the atmosphere and people started to run at him, darting past him and every which way, so fast he couldn’t see what was happening. Rick stood up and accepted a rifle passed to him by Shane. Daryl scrabbled back on the ground, turned around and staggered to his feet in enough time to retrieve his crossbow before the first bullets started flying. As his vision cleared, he could see at least a dozen Walkers emerging from the tree line, all evenly spaced out as if they were the soldiers of some kind of miraculous and coordinated attack. In the chaos, the panicked shrieks of children rang through Daryl’s ears and he zoned in on Sophia, who was being hurried behind Carol as Rick triggered shot after shot at the approaching Walkers in front of them.

His crossbow popped as a bolt was released, hitting a walker square between the eyes just as it reached for Sophia. He hurried to his feet and raced over to her, swinging the weapon from left to right to check for any more threats. Seeing an opportunity, he swooped Sophia up into his arms and sprinted to the open door of the RV, where Dale stood, firing off shots from an ancient looking rifle.

“Carol! C’mon!” Daryl yelled behind him, willing Carol to follow him. She complied and left Rick, who by now was edging towards a truck that he could see Lori and Carl climbing into. Shouts and yells filled the area and it was difficult to distinguish between instructions, cries for help and screams of pain and death. Daryl shoved Sophia, then Carol into the small space behind Dale.

“I got this, get the engine started!” he ordered. Dale gave him a nod and disappeared inside as Daryl inched forwards, firing bolt after bolt and reloading faster than he had ever done before. His fingers were raw from the crossbows drawstring but he paid it no mind as he successfully managed to rescue three people from being bitten. Seeing some of the camps occupants flee into the trees on the other side, he decided to follow them.

Jodie was a sight to behold as he shoved through the thick bushes and found her on her knees and clinging onto a tree trunk with one hand. Her neck sported a gaping hole, flesh literally torn from the bone and blood pumping from the wound in waves. He slowly approached her, crossbow raised and ready to pick off any nearby Walkers. When she saw him, she reached a shaky hand up to him, her blood-soaked fingers sprawled out, begging for assistance.

“Please, help me.” She croaked.

He aimed the weapon at her head as tears fell down her cheeks. There was no helping her even if he wanted to. They now lived in a world where a single bite could kill, reanimate and turn a corpse into a disease of pandemic proportions. A bite that literally triggered the end of the world.

“No. Please. Daryl. No.” She begged.

“Sorry.” He grunted, squeezing the trigger. The bolt shot through her skull like it was butter, pinning her to the tree, silencing her and freezing her face into the same pleading expression she had used to beg him to spare her. Had she been aware at the time, she would have known he was in fact showing her mercy above all else. He stepped closer, tugged the arrow from her head and moved on as if it was nothing, because to him, it wasn’t. Jess and Merle were gone and he wasn’t sure if he had much else to live for.

Pushing his way out of the trees, he witnessed the trucks and RV heading off down the graveled path to the highway. Everyone was leaving with a trail of Walkers behind them. Glancing to his left, he spotted Merle’s motorcycle and was revving the bike to life before he even had time to think about it. Walkers were now emerging from everywhere around him but his fear was still minimal. Fear wasn’t something that came easily to Daryl after growing up beside it like two best friends. Fear guided him through his darkest moments, it wrapped him in its arms while he tended to his wounds and warned him not to disrespect or answer back. That was, until he reached an age where he could use his fear to fight back. It was what had got him where he was in life and now, at the end of time, he had almost disowned it altogether.

The bike roared to life and he eased the clutch out, swerving grasping, rotten hands and following the taillights of the RV.

“WAIT!”

A desperate cry came from behind him. He knew the voice and as a result, opted not to turn around. Instead, he watched Sarah run at him in his rear-view mirror with two walkers on her tail. Her feet were bare, her long, peroxide hair was being ripped from her head and her face was twisted into a terrified, doomed grimace.

“Daryl! Please! WAIT!’” she tried.

But Daryl only gave the bike more speed, approaching the RV faster and joining the rest of the group in abandoning their camp. He knew there was space on the bike for her. He knew he could slow down, hit both walkers with bolts due to his exceptional aim and save her life. But he did no such thing. He watched in the mirror as she was dragged to her knees, her arm yanked out and subjected to the vice-like grip of a Walkers teeth. Her screams seemed to melt into everything else. The sounds of engines and rubber on gravel, the sobs of people sat in the flatbeds of trucks, the gunfire still going on from somewhere, the growling, gurgling and rasping noises of the dead. She was just another noise and for a few seconds, he allowed himself a vengeful satisfaction.

You got what was coming to you.

 


 

Jess had been in the city for two days and was in the middle of clearing an apartment block to live in. A tall, secure building with small windows and a heavy front door that she struggled to open on her own. Each apartment she’d worked on so far had only contained one walker each and by the end of the first day she had cleared two floors, reinforced the doors and blocked the stairs with shopping carts, boxes and trash to prevent any unwanted visitors from the upper floors without making a hell of a racket.

Re-visiting the Renaissance faire had not only provided her with chain mail that did a good job of protecting her arms and torso while she was checking the rooms of the apartments, she had also gained a bow and arrows, three daggers and a sword that she was still unsure of using, preferring the distance and lightweight ease of the bow over anything that involved too much close combat. She just needed practice, practice at everything. Finding a closet full of Kevlar and a case of handguns and ammo in one of the apartments was even more of a win and she considered that maybe, just maybe, her luck was about to change due to someone’s one upon a lifetime gangster activity.

A camping store was her aim for day three. She watched over it for an hour from the rooftop of a building opposite and saw no obvious signs of danger on the outside. The street was quiet save for two walkers ambling along a couple of blocks away. She was confident she could get in reasonably quietly and without being seen if she managed to gain access to the roof. She pulled her plain, black bandana up over her mouth and nose and set off for the stairs that scaled the side of the building. Aside from not being the nimblest person, she also wished she was a little lighter footed, her new, heavy boots only making her approach seem even louder than it was. When she scuttled along the alley beside the camping store, she raced up to the roof and was surprised to find the door open and a trail of blood drops leading down the concrete stairs inside. She pulled a flashlight from her belt and clicked it on, following the blood but hearing nothing that would indicate the presence of any Walkers. 

At the bottom, she tapped on the metal railing with the handle of one of her daggers. The noise was louder than she expected and even she startled when the clink rang through the open door to the aisles of the store. Nothing, but still, she waited.

Give it a minute. You’ve got this wrong before.

She swiped at a stray piece of hair that had worked free of her ponytail and slowly shone the flashlight into the store as she crept through the door. Hearing no movement certainly didn’t mean there wasn’t anything inside that could kill her, a lesson learned the hard way when she wandered through the Faire, expecting it to be empty. It wasn’t and she’d left completely exhausted and glad she had Clive's car to drive herself back to the city.

As she started to quietly pick at the shelves and select appropriate clothing for all sorts of weather, her boot hit something in the darkness that felt soft and more human than a fallen backpack. She pointed the light at it and gasped when it moved. It was a man, a live man. He lifted an arm across his face, shielding it from the light. At the end of his arm, was a bloody stump, dressed with thin, bleeding bandages. Jess’s body stilled with shock.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” She whispered.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” The man croaked.

“Merle?!”

Chapter Text

Lucky wasn’t something that Jess considered herself to be. Her life hadn’t been unlucky per se, but if it wasn’t for her determined approach to life, strokes of bad luck would have dragged her down altogether. It had taken the end of the world before it dawned on her that maybe it wasn’t responsible for things that went wrong, it was merely that she’d been unable to see life’s small wins, the glimmers of goodness and positivity that shone through when she was too busy occupying herself with the darkness.

She didn’t know if it was luck that had led her to where she was in the city or if it was down to her own methodical and logical approach of planning and protecting herself. She had managed to part drag, part walk Merle back to her apartment, administer enough painkillers to knock out an Ox and forage for enough food to keep them both going for a comfortable number of weeks. Merle did nothing but sleep for the first four days after Jess had painstakingly sewn his stump up and she was glad for it. She needed the peace after fretting he would die on her in the night and feast on the plump flesh of her legs, turning her into one of the mindless monsters that now roamed the streets. She checked on him religiously and returned from every supply run with caution, her knife drawn and a loud knock at the door before she committed to entering.

Jess was smart, it was no small feat to gather medical supplies and weapons along with setting up for a life of self-sustainability and loneliness, but armed with enough self-belief and her weapons from the Faire, she worked her way around the buildings, using the rooftops as her pathways and dead soldiers and police officers as sources of body armor. She gathered herb cuttings from the balconies of other apartments, seeds for vegetables from a gardening store, buckets, tarp and plastic containers to collect water from precipitation and enough wood to carve arrows for her bow. She spent a large portion of her time in her new living space reading books from the library and trying to retain as much information about survival, self-defense, weapons, basic DIY and tools and hacks from books on doomsday prepping as possible. For Jess, knowledge was most definitely power after being thrust into the apocalypse with next to no useful skills.

After 8 days, her unexpected lodger finally woke from his blurred, meds induced slumber and tried to move around the room. Jess jumped to his aid but he quickly waved her off, the two of them having never spoke more than a few words to one another unless they had no other option. Despite their lack of communication, Jess was sure there was a kind of mutual respect forming between them. Merle had protested very little at everything she’d done for him, accepted her help, her food, her desire to keep him in one place until he recovered enough and he tried to explain as much as he could about how he'd ended up sawing off his own hand. He also never made it a secret that as soon as he was well enough, he would be out of her hair and heading back to the camp to find Daryl. Upon finishing up the stitches on his arm, he had thanked her sincerely and told her she had balls for a little, fat kid. She’d accepted the backhanded compliment with a surprising ease and had to admit that she was impressed by his resilience.

“Gotta stretch my damn legs.” He grumbled as he wandered aimlessly around the room, picking up books and throwing them down again with his one, remaining hand. He studied her weapons, neatly hung on hooks on the wall, her body armor and boots on a coat stand near the door and squinted at the planters that filled the balcony outside. She had left the door open, needing to air the room out and spare herself the agony of breathing in Merle’s thunderous flatulence while he slept. Another one of his redeeming features, she figured. She watched as he swiped up his leather vest and struggled to slip it on over his shoulders without bumping his stump. Jess stood up from her spot on the sofa surrounded by books and took hold of the back of his vest, holding it out so he was able to thread his arm through with ease. He shot her an irritated look but she decided not to react, knowing that accepting help was probably not something he was used to.

When he sat back down on the opposite couch, she grabbed two tumblers and poured him a whiskey before filling her own glass. His eyes widened when he noted the bottle. A Nice, expensive whiskey. The likes that he would have stolen rather than bought from a store back in the day.

“It’s what you came to the city for, right? Booze?” She queried as she passed him the drink.

He accepted gratefully and held the glass up, taking in the deep color of the liquid and the long-missed smell.

“That’s right.” He grinned before knocking the drink back in one go. “Best painkiller out there.”

Jess scoffed and sipped her own drink. She’d never been much of a drinker, especially not hard liquor, but since she’d been in the city, she found herself able to understand a little more of why Merle sought out something mind altering. It was an escape, one in which she needed sometimes, just maybe not as often as someone like Merle Dixon. She lifted a leg and shoved the bottle across the table towards him with her sock-covered toes, signaling for him to have as much as he wanted.

“Get trashed if you want, better you do it here than out there.” She shrugged.

Not about to argue, he quickly poured himself another helping and this time, took his time working though it. Jess could feel his eyes baring into her soul as she skimmed the words on a page of a book she’d opened in her lap. She glanced up and stared right back at him, no longer afraid or intimidated by the old redneck with the cuss-laden vocabulary. If she could haul herself through the woods and get herself into a safe and seemingly maintainable situation in the middle of a walker ridden city, she could deal with Merle.

“That shit about my brother that barbie doll read from ya little diary that day…” He mentioned.

Here we go. She thought.

 “…It true?”

Jess slapped the book shut and threw it onto the couch next to her as she lay back and huffed, sending strands of her dark hair billowing into the air above her.  

“Been dying to ask me about that, haven’t you?” She sighed.

“Was on the top of my list of priorities, after not dyin’, of course.” He grinned, swirling his drink around in the glass in front of him.  

She was never a liar. Lies always spiraled into something complicated and regretful. Lies were responsible for many failed friendships and she concluded that even now, at the end of days, lies were still as poisonous as ever. But she also wasn’t about to tell Merle the complete truth about her true feelings for Daryl.

“I like him. But I think I was confusing a connection as friends with something more. I was wrong.”

A throaty chuckle emerged from his throat and for a moment, he winced in pain as if the juddering movement of his body had aggravated the life-changing wound on his arm.

“Shame. Kid could use some action. He’s wound tighter than a monkeys nut.” He quipped. “Can’t recall the last time he got laid. Not that he’d tell me. Always was quieter than a damn mouse about shit.”

Not feeling the need to join him in the direction he wanted to steer the conversation, she just shook her head and smiled at him.

“Barbie, she uh-she tried it with him first, y’know. He turned her down. I was second fiddle but that’s alright with me. Pussy presents its self on a plate n’ who am I to say no?” He said, levelling his gaze at her and carefully observing her reaction. Giving nothing away, she kept her face as nonchalant as possible while her insides churned at the thought of Sarah trying something with Daryl.

“She hit on Daryl, huh?” She asked casually.

“True as i'm sittin' here now. He said no. Might be ‘cause he aint got a scooby what the hell he’s doin’ with the females. Or maybe he was holdin’ out for ya.”

The thought alone made Jess laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It was outrageous to even consider it now she knew what she knew. Now she’d heard how he really felt.

“Pretty sure he never saw me like that. He made it clear he didn’t give a shit about me” She expressed, finishing her whiskey and contemplating another when Merle snatched the bottle from the table and re-filled his glass. At the rate he was drinking, he’d have the whole bottle down in an hour. Nevertheless, she held out her glass and nodded to it. He dutifully re-filled it and she sat back again.

“One thing I know about my baby brother? He’s always been real off with folks. Don’t trust nobody. No friends, no nothin. But he spent all the hours god gave him with you at that camp. When he found out you’d skedaddled in the small hours, he lost his shit.” He explained with a knowing look on his face which Jess tried to ignore.

“He did, huh?” She mumbled

“Almost shot blondie in the face with a bolt. Got up on his soap box n’ told the whole group what she’s been getting’ up to. Damn good job I don’t blush easy.” He smirked. “He’s lookin’ for ya.”

Jess shook her head again and reached into her pocket, retrieving a packet of cigarettes and throwing them into his lap across the coffee table that divided them. Merle looked down at them in disbelief.

“Don’t look so shocked. I’m a good host.” She quipped.

She’d picked up cigarettes and whiskey for him while sweeping a store for food. She had everything she wanted and needed so far save for a few comforts like ice cream and electricity. So, she figured giving Merle something he would be thankful to have once he woke up was only fair.

“He just feels guilty.” She muttered, dismissing his observation of his younger brother.

“Maybe.” He shrugged as he ripped the pack open, propped a smoke between his lips and rummaged in his jeans for his lighter. He paused before he lit the end, peering at her over the cigarette. She offered him a small nod and picked up a heavy, glass ashtray from the floor and positioned it in the center of the table, gestures that told him she was fine with him smoking in her apartment and were met with an even more surprised expression. He sparked up, sat back and waved the small, white stick around as he spoke.

“Ahh I don’t wanna talk about no sentimental stuff, but the kid liked ya.”

“No, he didn’t.” Jess retorted straight away.

A flash of exasperation flickered across his face and he raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

“Argue all ya want. I practically raised that boy. He’s a little odd but I ain’t never seen him flip his lid like that about some skirt. Should go back n’ find him. Or, let him find you. ‘Cause he will. Could find a flea in a haybale, my brother.”

It was non-negotiable to her. Daryl had made it clear how he felt and she wasn’t about to go back to a place where she was constantly ridiculed and humiliated with no one to step in and defend her. Jess took a gulp of the liquor and winced at the warmth that radiated from her stomach. Whiskey really wouldn’t have been her drink of choice. She wished she’d picked up some rum, or spent the time bothering to find some Sam Adams.

“I’m not going back there. I know you’ll go and find him and you owe me no loyalty, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell him where I am” She requested.

Merle’s eyes dropped to his glass and then back up to Jess’s waiting face, over and over as he thought over the prospect of withholding important information that Daryl would want to know. Jess knew she was asking a lot of him, but the thought of being found and forced to face what had happened before she’d left, along with the heartbreaking confession from Daryl to Merle about her meaning nothing to him was too much for her to handle. She wanted a new start, alone, with no reliance or ties to anyone. Merle was still glaring at her intermittently but she paid it no mind, figuring she would get her answer soon enough and if she didn’t like it, she would be forced to move on and find somewhere else to live.

“Saved my life.” He mentioned. “Got me booze and smokes. Sewed up my arm. Hell, I’m pretty sure ya had me doped up on some pretty shit hot pain meds these last few days too. I may be from the wrong side of the tracks but I aint no dumbass, sweet cheeks. know when I owe somebody.”

It had never even crossed her mind when she stood in the dark store, gawping down at a bloodied, mutilated and half-dead Merle, that she should just walk away and let him die or kill him herself. Instinct kicked in and she reacted in a calmer, more together way than she had ever done previously, knowing that she had to get him out of there and away from any danger. There was simply no other option. It occurred to her as she was sitting there opposite him that she had already come a long way, she was no longer as scared. She was more accepting of her situation, more tactical and shrewder. Now, more able to survive alone than ever before, simply because she had given herself no other choice. She stifled a small smile when she studied him, looking over his heavily bandaged arm and his bloodstained shirt. She made a mental note to make sure he did some physical therapy and got a new shirt before she let him go anywhere.

“I can’t believe you cut off your hand, you fucking psycho.” She said.

“It was that or be Walker jerky.” He replied.

The two of them giggled and Merle finished his smoke and glass of alcohol while Jess got up and started to prepare him something to eat from the piles of tinned food she’d hoarded. Now, she was providing for two of them for the time being and she’d felt it necessary to stock up. She’d hauled him out from near death, so she wasn’t about to starve the man that had been surprisingly pleasant to her, going against everything she’d expected of him. Maybe, just maybe, there was the same element in Daryl after all. But that no longer mattered to her.

That night, while her houseguest snored noisily on the couch in an alcohol induced coma, Jess settled on her bed and opened her journal. 

Merle has turned out to be much more personable than I ever imagined. Maybe that’s because I saved his ass. Or, maybe it’s because underneath it all, he’s actually OK as long as you know how to deal with him. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I trust him. But right now, I have the upper hand and he is relying on me to get him well enough to leave and go and find Daryl.

Daryl. It’s not like I don’t think about him. I do. I do miss him. Or, rather I miss the person I thought he was and I remind myself of what I heard that night. I should have known better, it’s not the first time I developed a crush on somebody that was way out of my league. It’s my frequent reminder not to get attached to anyone, not to feel anything for other people or it will be me that suffers. There are only a few survivors left and I have to look out for myself. It’s been five weeks and I’ve not seen another living soul apart from the alcoholic redneck that sleeps on my couch and stinks to high heaven.

Besides this, I have set up quite the fortress here, I think I could live here for a long time. That’s if Merle doesn’t tell Daryl where I am. I’ll be forced to move if he does. I don’t want to be found. Just leave me be. This way, I may get physically hurt but I can deal with that, I’m studying books to deal with every possible outcome. But I just can’t handle more emotional turmoil. As much as I miss him.

I managed to get a punchbag from one of the other apartments in the building along with some weights. I intend to train and improve my stamina, heaven knows when I’m going to have to run and keep running, so I intend to be ready for anything. The herbs are taking and the bell peppers I planted on the roof are well on their way. So far, I’m doing well. I just can’t figure out how to get rid of the Walker behind the grate in the elevator shaft on the first floor. But he’s not a problem right now. His cage keeps him contained and some days I even wonder if he can hear me when I sit on the steps and tell him about my day.

Maybe I am going crazy. 


 

Daryl had been looking for Sophia for hours. Days actually, but on this one particular occasion, in the blistering sun atop of a nervous horse that had bolted at the sound of a Walker and sent him tumbling down a hill into a watery area below, he was sure he’d had better days and was seriously rethinking his belief in Sophia still being alive. But still he pressed on, even injured at the bottom of a ravine, his eyes fluttered open in the stark light of the sun and his body thrummed with pain, but he managed to get up, treat his wounds and carry on.

God damn horse.

Where he got his strength and determination, he wasn’t sure but he could only really credit his terrible home life and childhood for instilling a kind of armor around him. A protective wall that he never let anyone pass. Surviving was second nature to him; he simply didn’t know any other way to be. Sophia was a child, alone in the walker-filled woods and Daryl couldn’t help but think of the time when he had found himself lost, back in the days when Walkers were something one only saw in a horror movie. He was merely a child and was missing for eleven days. Little did his father know, Daryl eventually found his own way home, wandered into the kitchen and fixed himself a sandwich like nothing had happened. It was Daryl’s way, even back then, he relied on no one by himself and as the years passed, he still lived by the same rule; just get on with it.

Of course, nothing was ever easy anymore and his departure from the ravine was trickier than he’d planned. Reaching the top by literally dragging his bleeding body through the mud and shoving away hallucinations of his brother, ridiculing him for not making any effort to find him. He had to keep telling himself it was down to him hitting his head and not insanity creeping in. Slumped onto the flat woodland ground, he was never more grateful to see even terrain before. He glanced down at the state of his body, a broken bolt in his side from the fall sent spikes of pain through his veins that turned his stomach and blurred his vision. His head thudded back onto the mud as he took a minute to compose himself and figure out how he was going to get to his feet with his side impaled by a piece of wood.

“So, you can teach me not to die but you can’t quite manage it yourself, huh?”

Jess’s voice made his eyes snap open and he frantically scanned the area around him, seeing nothing but trees until she stepped out from behind a tree, her pretty smile broad and her clothes clean.

“Jess?” He croaked.

“Time to get up, sleepy head.” She instructed, crossing her arms. Daryl noticed her woolen sweater looked brand new, her hair was shiny and well-conditioned, her skin was clean.

“I-I tried to find you.” He rasped, sitting up and sucking a sharp breath in through his teeth when the pain rampaged through his nerves.

“Took a bolt to the side for the girl, but you just gave up on me.” She pointed out.

Daryl’s sweaty brow furrowed when he peered up at her as the sun shot out from behind her, silhouetting her in the light until she was gone. He quickly checked over his shoulders and rubbed at his face.

“Jess?”

Nothing. She wasn’t really there. Nothing more than a mirage, a figment of his imagination and most likely a result of a hard knock to the head. Seeing her again made his heart hurt regardless of if she was real or not. He missed her and the burden of ceasing to look for her after finding her note was now weighing even heavier on his shoulders. His hands fell to his sides, clawing up clumps of the dirt as he drew in a deep breath and pushed through the pain of getting to his feet.


 

Carol rapped softly on the door before turning the handle and quietly gliding inside. The tray in her hand contained soup and water that she’d prepared after hearing that Daryl was refusing food and just wanted to get patched up and back out into the woods. Carol hadn’t ever felt gratitude like it, nor had she ever been so surprised at one person’s sheer selflessness. Her child had been missing for days and Daryl had worked tirelessly, relentlessly and without any decent rest in order to find her. She didn’t know if he was harboring some kind of guilt over Jess and his brother, but as long as he was using it to find her little girl, she couldn’t complain. That was until now, until he’d almost died in the process.

The room was dim, the drapes drawn and the surfaces dusty from neglect. Daryl lay facing away from her, his side sporting a large square of gauze and bandages. Every part of his exposed skin was covered in scars, Carol could see that some of them were new, from the past day. But some, the largest ones were at least a decade old and her chest constricted with thoughts of the violence that she had known and how it could cause such trophies of trauma upon a person’s skin.

Placing the tray on the nightstand, she leaned over him and tenderly kissed the side of his head. Initially, he recoiled but she knew why and waited until he relaxed and let her offer her small token of appreciation and affection. He rolled over slightly, able to catch her eye for a moment and seeing them filled with worry. She sat on the edge of the bed.

“I couldn’t go look for Merle.” He whispered. “Gave up on Jess. Can’t find Sophia neither. Fuckin’ useless.”

Having known him only a few months, it was enough for her to come to the conclusion that Daryl was not like other people. On the outside, he was hostile but inside, he was sensitive, shouldering blame for deaths and caring so deeply about others that it ate away at him when they lost someone. But Daryl never spoke about it, preferring instead to internalize it all and simmer away, alone at the edge of the camp while glaring at the others and trying to understand how they could be so open and free with their emotions. Daryl never uttered a word about his feelings. That was, unless it was to Carol.

He couldn’t figure out exactly when it was that they’d become close but he suspected that his loss of Jess and Merle and Carol’s husband being turned by Walkers had somehow brought them together. He knew she was a broken soul, just as he was but neither of them needed to discuss it. Out of everyone, Carol was the one that seemed to understand him the most without even trying.

“No, Daryl. You did more for my little girl today than her daddy did in her entire life.” She promised.

He continued to look at her, saying nothing but speaking volumes with his expression. He was tired, almost defeated and knew that she would manage to say something to quell the exhausting guilt in his heart.

“And Jess… she didn’t want to be found.” She added.

Daryl resumed his previous position, fluffing up the pillows under his head and settling down.

“How are you feeling?” She asked.

“Like Andrea shot me.” He grunted.

An unfortunate accident it may have been, but Andrea’s trigger-happy attitude from the RV that evening had left Daryl in the dirt with a bullet graze to his temple and in his delirious state, he was unable fathom exactly what had happened. Carol thought it was no wonder Andrea had mistaken him for a Walker after he’d staggered from the trees, covered in dirt and mud, snarling at everyone with a crazed look in his eye. A split-second decision was all it took and as luck had it, Andrea was still a bad shot with a rifle.

“You need to recover before you go back out there. I know you; you’ll want to push it. You almost got yourself killed. Took a bolt and a bullet today, all for Sophia. I can’t even begin to thank you.” She confessed.

“Don’t want no thanks.” He dismissed “I didn’t do nothin’ that Rick or Shane wouldn’t have done.”

Carol scoffed from behind him, rendering his last sentence as complete rubbish.

“I don’t see them laying in a bed with a hole in their sides. You’re every bit as good as them. Every bit.” She affirmed.

A silence from him told her it was her time to depart, pushing Daryl too much was likely to result in him lashing out, especially when she considered his current state of mind along with the fact that he was physically exhausted. She got to her feet and tapped the glass on the tray, the ringing of her nails on the glass reminding him that she wanted him to eat and drink something. In the doorway, she paused when she heard him speak again.

“Sophia, she's out there, I know it. I found her doll” He murmured.

“Maybe. Maybe Jess is too.” She suggested. “You can admit it, y’know”

He rolled onto his back, craning his neck to see her stood half in, half out of the room with her arms wrapped around herself.

“Admit what?”

“That you miss her. I know you two were good friends.” It was a hazardous approach for Carol to take due to her knowledge of his reluctance to talk about Jess. Every time someone mentioned her name his temper flared and he wasted no time in reminding everyone that she was probably dead and that they shouldn’t bother talking about her anymore. Carol knew it was a defense mechanism and in true Daryl form, his rage expelled its self in a series of abusive and offensive remarks.

“Aint gotta admit shit. Leave me alone.” He grunted.

“OK, but just eat something. Please. Or you won’t have the strength to get out of bed, let alone pick up that crossbow.”

With that, she left the room and closed the door behind her. A few hours sleep and some kind of sustenance would undoubtedly help his mood a little, but she wasn’t betting on him becoming a ray of sunshine anytime soon. She knew he had a better version of himself inside, but the loss of his friend and brother had began to chip away at it, eroding it day by day and she worried that eventually, there would be nothing left.


 

A month had passed and Jess was sitting on the steps of the stairwell in her apartment block. She now had free reign of the entire building, every dwelling now empty and safe thanks to her tireless efforts to secure the building and ensure she had enough space to keep any supplies she might need. Her days had become routine, but she liked it that way. The mornings consisted of rising from her bed at sunrise and heading up to the next floor, where she had turned an elderly couples’ home into a gym. An hour’s rigorous exercise a day and a limited diet had seen her weight drop drastically over the four weeks she had been in residence and she was now confident she could run a life-saving distance without stopping at least. Late mornings were spent tending to the growing vegetables and herbs and checking the main street below for any swellings in the number of Walkers. If there was, she would make her way across the rooftops to the other side of town, where she would set off firecrackers or make enough noise to wake the dead all over again in order to draw them away and set them on a different path that didn’t include gathering outside her new home. In the afternoons, she scavenged and spent some time carving arrows on the steps with Ben- The Walker trapped in the elevator shaft. He wore a janitor’s uniform with his name embroidered on one side. She waffled on as if they were two best friends in a bar, telling him about her day and even regaling him with tales from comic cons and her opinions on the best beers in Texas. The evenings consisted of rooftop target practice and tedious conversations with Merle while she aided him with his physical therapy. He complained non-stop, telling her that he didn’t believe in all her ‘therapy shit’ and that he would be just fine without it. Eventually, he yielded and allowed her to help him with the advice of yet more books from the library.

Ben swayed back and forth as she held up an arrow for him to see, although she wasn’t quite sure if he could really see anything. More that he just seemed to know she was there with whatever part of his brain was still active enough to make him walk and want to eat people.

“I’m getting pretty good at this.” She mused with a smile. Ben reached through the elevator grate, his purple fingers with snapped nails grasping at her hand holding the arrow. She quickly snatched it away and slid the arrow into her quiver before standing up and throwing it over one shoulder. Her daily supply run had taken longer than usual after she ran into some unsavory undead in a camping store while trying to bring back more gas canisters. She had returned with her prize but decided to take some time to herself to carve some arrows before she had to endure Merle’s uncomfortable stare and chain smoking.

“Later, dude.” She said to Ben over her shoulder as she stomped up the steps to her front door. She stopped when she noticed the note pinned to the wood.

‘Gone to find my brother. Took some food and meds. Thanks, Sugar tits. M.’

Chapter Text

 

Human nature. With all its complexities and flaws, was now the one thing that presided over a land filled with the dead. True human nature, in it’s most naked, exposed and unapologetic form was now both the best and worst of the world. Jess had seen the best and worst of it from her spot in the city and had managed to live, unnoticed by any survivors passing through. She’d witnessed grown men put themselves in harms way, sacrificing themselves to save children too slow and small to keep up the running pace of the adults in their group as she’d watched from her perch on the corner of the roof. In contrast, she’d stared in horror as another group simply tossed a woman out of a truck like last night’s burger wrapper, onto the street in order to slow down a small herd. She’d been bitten before Jess could grab her bow and race down the stairs. In an act of mercy that allowed her to prove to herself that she was still on the good side of human nature, she’d shot the woman in the head from the roof with a well-placed arrow and spent all night replaying the look of pure terror etched onto the stranger’s face.

Yes, human nature was complicated and destructive, inspiring and devastating. A double-edged sword. Jess was better off on her own, that much was true, but she did miss the conversation, the debate, the ideas swapping over hot chocolates and the late-night hilarity that came from a few glasses of beer and games of pool in a bar. Those days were gone and now all she had in the way of company was a reanimated dead body at the bottom of the elevator shaft and a huge, stuffed bear wearing an army jacket that now took up it’s place opposite her on the roof, a stale birthday cake waited to be devoured between them on an upturned, wooden box.

“Well, Sgt Pepper. Looks like it’s just you and I celebrating another trip around the sun.” she commented as she held her glass aloft.

Merle had finished off all the whiskey and she knew better than to go scrounging for more. It wasn’t a necessity and she wasn’t about to get herself killed for a bout of nausea and a fuzzy head the next day.

The bear was tatty, threads pulled from his ears and his jacket splattered with dried blood. Jess found him in the next apartment block where he’d been positioned proudly on the pillow of a perfectly made bed in a room decorated for that of a young adult. On the floor were three bodies, two adults and a girl around 13 years old. Jess carefully nudged each one with her foot as she passed. The bullet holes in their heads told her that they hadn’t turned and like many of the people that chose to remain in the city, they thought suicide to be a better prospect than the exhausting slog to survive day by day. It hurt Jess’s heart to think that some souls felt there was no other way, but it wasn’t an option she could say she hadn’t considered at least once while she resided in her fortress of loneliness.

It was a no brainer to her. She had to leave with that bear. He reminded her so much of her own childhood companion, jacket and all. Her father had gifted it to her and during every tour and every training exercise, she found comfort in the military bear that she had dubbed ‘Sgt Pepper’. Aware that if any other survivors were passing through and saw her, she would look positively ridiculous, scurrying across the rooftops with a huge stuffed animal under her arm. But just as before the turn, she wasn’t going to change who she was to suit anyone else. Especially not in the apocalypse.

“You say it's your birthday” She sang at the bears pinned and permanent smile. She sipped the soda in the glass and slapped her other hand on her thigh to create a beat. “It's my birthday too, yeah”. She paused, looking up at Sgt Pepper as if his plastic eyes would change their expression and for a fleeting second, she was disappointed when they remained exactly the same. She raised the glass to him for a second time. “They say it's your birthday, we’re gonna have a good time” She thudded the glass on the box and began to pluck at imaginary guitar strings, closing her eyes and leaning to one side. “I'm glad it's your birthday, Happy birthday to you!” The Beatles were her favourite band ever since she was a child and that was not something that was going to change just because they and their audience weren't around anymore. Jess was still there and as long as she was, so was her love of their music. She'd found headphones while scavenging, even and old portable CD player, but her rule of keeping a clear head and always being aware of her surroundings meant that the headphones went untouched and she was reduced to singing to herself to stave off the boredom and silence. It wasn't a problem to her, she knew all of the lyrics anyway and there was no one but Ben and Sgt Pepper to complain about it.

Her eyes lowered to the dried birthday cake. Three, colored, marzipan Balloons floated across the top and the rim was adorned with cracked and discolored frosting. The chances of a strong bout of stomach cramps after consuming it were high, but it was her birthday and she was going to have a damn cake if she wanted to. A single candle flame flickered in the center of the off-white frosting and as she blew it out, she wished that she would survive long enough to see mother nature take back the earth. To reclaim what was hers and what was destroyed by the arrogance of human nature. She wanted to see vines and branches seep into the cracks of buildings, pulling them apart and turning them into a ghostly mirage of what once was. But through it all, she wanted to be around, content and safe and able to live into her old age while still being the survivor she had realized she really was.

She also wished for something else; that one day, Daryl would know how much he inspired her. If nothing else, she wanted that for him. Without his guidance, his training and his words, she was certain she would be dead. He may have broken her heart, but at one point, somewhere in between all the angst and anger, he believed in her. She regretted not writing it in the note she left pinned to the tree but time was of the essence and she had to think quickly. Now, when she thought back to the good times spent tracking and hunting in the woods, putting Walkers down and making fun of one another, it made her smile. A smile that was not through genuine happiness. Far from it. It was a smile of sadness for times that she desperately missed. But they were times of blissful ignorance of how he really felt, times based on a lie. She pressed her eyes shut and quickly shook the thoughts from her head. She watched the thin, sliver of smoke drift up from the wick. Picking up a plastic fork, she stabbed the cake and shoveled a large piece of the sponge into her mouth. Wincing at the dryness, she chewed and swallowed hard. It was like eating sand.

“Happy fuckin’ birthday to me.” She sighed.

She had resorted to guessing the time of day by using a sundial or her hands against the horizon from the roof. Her knowledge of such historical practices had proved to be invaluable and she now appreciated her interests much more than she ever did before the turn. The night was creeping in, dulling the view from the roof and creating a cold sting in the air. There was just enough time for some target practice.

The streets below the apartment were far from clear. Walkers milled in and our of side streets and alleys, some amassed in the middle of the road and if it wasn’t for Jess’s diversion tactics from time to time, she was sure the street she lived on would be clogged with festering corpses by now. Fireworks were usually the best, she’d found. They seemed to like fireworks. The dreamer in her liked to think that maybe the noise and the colors stirred something deep inside their mainly inoperative brains, some kind of distant memory of 4th July firework shows or new year celebrations. But the realist side of her knew differently. Now, they were even lower than most animals, driven to move by sounds but completely devoid of thought or any type of feeling. Just shells.

She picked up her bow and slid on her bracers as she approached the small wall that lined the edge of the roof. The faint murmur of the odd, swaying Walker was the only sound that rose from the scene below. Taking a peek over the edge, she nodded in approval at the numbers.

“That’ll do.” She said to herself before picking up a small, children’s chalkboard that rested against the inside of the wall. Her eyes flickered over the names on the list, selecting the first one and shuffling forwards to get into position.

“OK, Madonna. Are you out tonight?”

With one foot placed in front of the other, her body turned and her stance strong, she raised the bow and nocked an arrow. She smiled when she noticed her. A blonde woman with wavy, hair wearing what appeared to be a thin, satin nightgown. She wasn’t as designer clad as the real thing, but she would suffice as a target. She drew the bows string back and exhaled slowly as she took aim. The Arrow embedded in the side of the Walkers head as if it was nothing but a bag of sand and she hit the floor, causing the others around her to start shuffling towards her.

“Oof!” She exclaimed with a fist pumped in the air. “That one was a ten pointer. Sorry, Madonna.” She marked her score on the chalk board next to the name and checked her next target.

Sarah.

It was now a habit, each time she re-filled the board with names, Sarah and Jodie’s would always be mixed in somewhere. Jess was never one to remain bitter or hold grudges, too many so-called friends had come and gone over the years to make sure she’d got used to it. But she was also never one to not make an exception for some things. When she was feeling low and having a bad day, the list of names on the board changed and she wondered at one point if she should indulge in an ‘abhorrent people target practice day’ once a week, where Sarah and Jodie’s names could mingle with the likes of Hitler, Robert Mugabe and Vlad the Impaler. But it was yet to happen because she wasn’t bitter. Not at all. Or, so she told herself as she chose a doppelganger of Sarah and took aim.   

 


 

Ben was hanging on the bars of the elevator gate when she descended the stairs, his arms were loosely draped through the gaps and his face was pushed against the cold metal. She lifted a hand in acknowledgement before sitting down on the bottom step in front of him and seeing him try to reach out to her. She held her hand out, gently tickling his grasping, blackened fingertips in what could have been seen as a gesture of affection.

“Hey dude. So, my birthday cake tasted like feet but it was one hell of a pity party you missed.”

The sound of her voice was like fuel for Ben. He instantly began to clamber up from his spot, hanging through the gate and started to snarl at her, his mouth hanging open and his teeth bared.

“Not that I know what feet taste like.” She added, her eyes locking on his now cloudy, pale and blinded orbs. “I guess you might though. Depending on how long you’ve been locked in there.”

Stepping back, Ben’s arms dropped from the grate and he stumbled backwards, his body hitting the back of the elevator and causing it to shake. A slight jingle caught her attention and she froze, straining her ears. As he moved back towards her, his pocket gave off a tinkling sound and Jess quickly put the pieces of the puzzle together. Many a week had passed when she’d been sitting on that same step engrossed in a one-way conversation with the dead man trapped inside his cell. Sometimes she even contemplated if he really would try to hurt her if she managed to somehow release him from the confined space he occupied. But then she reminded herself of her own naivety and how that kind of thinking could get her killed. Ben was a Walker. A mindless, stinking, lump of useless flesh but still a predator in his own right.  

“You have the god damn keys to the elevator in your pocket, don’t you?” She asked him.

He stilled and her eyebrows raised. She knew better than to think he could understand her, but it was strange nonetheless. The keys would change everything. She could get him out of there and actually make use of him. She sprang up from her spot.

“I have an idea. Wait here.” She told him. After striding up two steps she rolled her eyes and sighed at her own stupidity.

Like he’s going to go anywhere.

 

 

When she returned, she placed her supplies in front of her; a cylindrical block of wood with a dish cloth tightly wound around it, attached at either end to a string of thick, rubber bands, a hockey mask and a length of rope tied into a slipknot. Another one of her skills acquired from the thousands of books she had now amassed in her apartment. She paced back and forth for a few moments, observing how Ben followed her every move from behind the barrier like a magnet. Although she was almost certain he was blind, he was completely obsessed with her and she huffed with amusement when she figured that he was only guy that had ever been obsessed with her…and he was dead.

She picked up the block of wood and tilted her head to the side, it would fit through the gaps perfectly but her task was not going to be easy. Her left arm was covered with three, thick layers of tape, strapped over a Kevlar sleeve and glove in case Ben fancied a snack halfway through his rescue mission. She was now glad of her forethought. She threaded her arm through the grid, silently and without rattling the metal. Ben, who could detect no sound whatsoever, merely peered around through his useless eyes as she used her armor covered hand to quickly grasp the back of his head. He jolted and began to gnash at her, the sounds bubbling up from his throat as his lips parted provoking a rush of bile from her own stomach. She couldn’t have prepared for the smell or the sound of liquidated, rotting human organs no matter how much she knew about Walkers. She snapped his head back as he grabbed a hold of her police issue vest and dragged her forwards, slamming her body against the gate. With her other hand, she managed to wedge the piece of wood so far between his jaws that they became locked in position. She quickly stretched the string of bands over his head, creating a most macabre and brutal gag but an effective one regardless.

He thrashed and growled, throwing himself at the gate over and over until Jess was able to shove a hand into his pocket and pull out the biggest bunch of keys she had ever seen. Her heart dropped as she stepped back and sat down, the racket of Ben desperately trying to get to her now drowned out by just how many keys she had to contend with.

“Guys got the keys to every lock in the city on here.” She mumbled.

She began sorting through them, checking the branding on the lock and looking for a match. She must have gone through at least twenty keys before she stopped and pinched one particular one between her fingers. She looked up at the lock again.

“Nova” She whispered.

The key boasted the exact same branding. She stood up, moved closer to the lock and slid the key into the chamber. Holding onto the gate as tightly as she could, she gently and quietly turned the key, a subtle click made her smile. She’d found it. The whole time he’d been locked inside, Ben possessed the key to his freedom all along. At first, she didn’t know if someone else had thrown him in there but now it was evident; he’d been bitten and locked himself in.

“That was noble of you. But this is my apartment complex now and you’re going to earn your keep.” She quipped, swiping up the hockey mask and rope from the floor. She shoved the mask under her arm and released the lock, slowly sliding the gate back. The rattling noise sent Ben into a frenzy and he collided with the gap she’d created in the gate with such force that she doubted her ability to follow through with her plan for a moment. She took a deep breath, reached into the gap and snapped the mask over his gagged face. Next, she threw the rope around his neck and pulled it tight before throwing the gate open.

He threw himself at her, knocking the mask against the side of her face while she tried to tighten her grip on the rope enough to keep his head away from hers.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m pleased to see you too buddy.” She remarked.

Ben couldn’t have been more than 30 years old when he was alive and Jess gathered that even thought he was now deceased and extremely dangerous, he was once a good-looking guy. She felt a pang of sympathy for such a wasted life. But what else was left to hang around for? The experience of wresting the undead from elevators and up the stairs to a roof wasn’t one she’d wish on anyone else. By the time she’d maneuvered him to the top of the steps and shoved open the heavy, metal door to the roof, he’d quieted considerably. Jess knew Walkers didn’t get tired; they no longer possessed the brain capacity to register fatigue. Nor were they able to come to the conclusion that something wasn’t worth the trouble. She didn’t know why he became more compliant, but she certainly wasn’t about to complain.

Tying him to a pipe inside a ramshackle, wooden shed. She stood back and looked him over, pleased with her efforts and feeling triumphant at the result. She now had a moving target, a sparring partner and little did Ben know; he was about to become her Sensei.

 


 

 

She’d lost track of time. It had been months, she knew that to be a fact, but just how many had escaped her. Her need to journal would have helped keep tabs on just how long she’d been housed in the apartment block in the city, but she had Sgt Pepper and Ben and she chattered away to them without a care in the world, dispelling her darkest fears and her inner, most private thoughts. There wasn’t a need to write everything down anymore, not in a world where no one and everyone was listening all at once. If she tried to guess, she looked at her crops which filled the balcony and most of the rooftop, they were huge, prospering in the summertime and struggling during the winter. But they still existed she thought it had maybe been close to a year that she’d lived alone.

People below had come and gone. Rarely was it that anyone would try her apartment. If they did, they found it to be locked up tighter than a secret military camp and soon moved on when they realized the noise and time it would take to enter such a building while surrounded by Walkers just wasn’t worth it. In so many months she had uttered hardly a word to anyone but Merle, who’s absence was felt much greater than she ever would have expected or would care to admit.

Training with Ben was one of life’s perks, she enjoyed experiencing the change in not only her body, but her mind as she jabbed and kicked her way into a full, self-defense skill set using a dead guy as her fake attacker. She goaded him, riled him up until he would lunge at her and swipe with his arms and kick out with his legs. His hands constantly grabbed for her, the need to taste human flesh far too great for him to ignore. But Ben could only go as far as his leash allowed and his hockey mask was eventually replaced each evening before he was led back to his shack.

Gunfire interrupted one sparring session during a hot, summers evening and Jess’s head snapped around while the rest of her body completely froze. Ben also stilled and started to jolt and snarl at the source of the bangs. It was close, much too close for comfort. She wiped the sweat from her brow and eyes and crept to the edge of the roof, her heart almost stopped at the view below.

Is that a…a TANK?!

Driving towards her corner apartment block with a speed that couldn’t be easily stopped, was an M1 Abrams Tank. Jess had seen them many times before, a sight that Army brats tended to get used to. It was flanked by a dozen, heavily armed men with their weapons pointed at the door to her block. Her chest constricted when she heard them start to jeer and her eyes clocked another vehicle turn a corner at the top of the street. A large, black truck that was equipped with an animal cage on the flatbed. Inside the cage, was a screaming woman. She scanned each face as quickly as she could. Blackened teeth. Then, she observed their hands and movements. Tremors. Poor coordination. She’d read about the depths some humans would reach on the moral scale in a post-apocalyptic situation. Fear raged through her body and she stumbled back when the tank collided with the door on the ground floor.

I have to get out of here.

The building shook and she whirled around, her mind racing and her heart hammering. Adrenaline began to surge through her veins, urging her to remove herself from the threat. She grabbed Ben’s rope and sprinted to the roof door. Dragging him down the steps, sweat trickled into her eyes and she cursed the timing of the attack above all things.

Could have waited until training was over. Jesus.

Crashing through the door to her apartment, she fastened Ben’s rope to the radiator and he thrashed and clawed at her as she dashed around the living space, filling her bag with handguns and supplies. She quickly slipped on anything Kevlar or armored she could find and collected what seemed like millions of arrows from almost every room. Now, there was shouting ringing out from the floors below.

“Place is cleared. Someone lives here, keep searching!” ordered a man’s voice that she could just about make out as a muffled sound through the floorboards. They were on the floor below. She had to be fast. Now wasn’t the time for sentiment, now, she had to be practical, smart and stealthy. She threw the backpack she’d lifted from yet another dead policeman onto her back, the barrels of the guns inside poked at her back but she paid it no mind as she collected her primary weapon, her bow from the hook on the back of the front door. A machete nudged against her leg as she walked, pinned there by the loop on its handle around the belt loop on her pants. She quickly freed it, clutching it in her hand as she adjusted her backpack. She stopped and looked at Ben.

He was glaring at her with his white eyes in the middle of the room, his rope was pulled taut and his neck tendons protruded. His hands were locked out in front of him with his fingers fanned out. She could hear the men clearly now, they were on the other side of the door and with every harsh bang of the wood in the frame, her heart jumped. She closed the gap between her and the corpse. Taking hold of one of his hands but not allowing him to pull her any closer. She gradually shifted his position in the room and gently squeezed his fingers.

“Don’t let me down” She whispered.

She raised the machete, sliced through his rope and ripped the wooden gag from his mouth. Then, she turned on her heels, taking hold of the window frame and diving through the gap. Outside, she slammed the window shut and watched as Ben’s hands slapped against the glass.

“Slow ‘em down, buddy. Thanks for the lessons.” She smiled.

 


 

 

Daryl chewed his bottom lip as he adjusted his position on the rickety, prison mattress. His back was pressed against the wall and no matter how hard he tried, she couldn’t shake the thought that of all the places the group could have ended up, a prison had to be one of them. He hated being forced to sleep in a cage and live behind heavy, clanking doors. Even the sound of Rick’s keys irritated him. Rick, the leader. Rick the prison guard.

He wasn’t a regular at the Georgia Department of Corrections like his brother. But he’d been on the wrong side of the law just enough to know what staring at the same four walls, sitting at the same metal table and taking a dump in the same room that you sleep in was like. Charges for drug possession and fighting were hardly the kind of things he wanted to share with the rest of the group and so, he kept himself to himself, merely stating that he’d rather sleep outside of the cells. That was when he slept at all.

In his hands, he held a newly carved bolt for his crossbow. His ability to make them had improved some over the months and it was now second nature to him to create as many as possible while sat around, babysitting his brother who was locked in the cell opposite him.

Merle hadn’t managed to track Daryl down since leaving the city. Instead, he’d come across another group of survivors led by a callous psychopath and had slotted perfectly into his role as the main foot soldier. Everything had been fine and dandy for Merle at first, he was given a metal prosthetic arm with a removable bayonet attachment which meant he was never short of a weapon against the undead. He had a roof over his head, food in his belly and medicine at his disposal. Above all else, he had a purpose, a job that he did well and with gusto. That was, until Daryl appeared in front of him. The Atlanta groups run in with the Governor and his community has resulted in a lot of pain, injuries, fear and grudges, some of it at the hands of Merle, who was at the center of it all, but he was Daryl’s blood and he had made it clear that now they were together again, he would not be parted from Merle again. Initially, the two of them left the group and headed into the woods, but things were not as they used to be. Daryl had changed and with it, Merle felt outcast, even from the lifelong bond the two of them had shared since Daryl had entered the world as a sensitive and observant child. Merle quickly realized that Daryl had a code that he stuck by no matter what. A code that meant others were put before himself which infuriated and baffled Merle. A fight in the woods revealed a childhood trauma that they both shared, much to Merle’s surprise. He was aware that Daryl was a witness to violence in their household, but the extent of which was only evident upon a scuffle in which Daryl’s shirt was ripped, revealing deep, scarred lacerations to his skin. Then, everything changed.

Daryl made it clear that he was going back to the prison. Back to the group he belonged with and Merle had the choice to either walk away or try to make nice with the others. Being parted from his little brother for a second time was the less favorable option and so, Merle decided to tag along with Daryl. Upon their arrival at the fences, they found the place under attack from Walkers and although Merle helped to save lives, he was still bundled into a cell and scowled at by every other member of the group. No one had forgotten the things he had done and no one was about to forgive and forget.

“The hell were ya doin, running with that psycho?” Daryl asked.

Merle was leaning on the bars, his good hand smoothing a thumb around the edging of his prosthetic stump. His hooded, weathered eyes fixed on his brother. He found it difficult to believe that someone could change as much as Daryl had. He saw him, carrying out orders for Rick, going out on runs alone, doing as he was told. It was unlike the Daryl he’d grown up with, yet he’d always known that his baby brother was more emotionally driven than he had ever been.

“Everybody’s a psycho now, little brother. Everybody’s got a gun, a kill number and a big ol’ chip on their shoulder. Hell, I’d be more worried if some sommbitch walked up to me with his mitts in his pockets.” He reasoned with a small shrug.

Daryl shook his head in disbelief at his brother’s casual attitude to his actions. Merle was never one to take responsibility for anything, least of all his misgivings. Apparently, the end of the world hadn’t changed that in him.

“They ain’t never gonna trust ya, ya know that, right?” Daryl confirmed.

“Yeah, I know.” Merle agreed with a hint of exasperation in his voice. Daryl went back to carving his bolts, slicing through thin pieces of wood with his sharp hunting knife. “I don’t know why I do the things I do. I’m a damn mystery to me.” Merle added.

Daryl scoffed and glanced up from his task.

“You’re a dumb ass, man.” He mumbled.

They both huffed in amusement and Merle couldn’t help but revisit the last few months and how he’d come to be locked up in a cell, even after everyone died and started eating one another. Was this really where he was meant to be? Maybe he was bad through and through, just like their daddy used to say. Maybe he didn’t deserve any more chances after the one he’d been given in the city. Then, he remembered her. Jess.  

“Remember the little, fat chick from the quarry?” He asked.

Daryl's body tensed and his eyes slowly worked back up from his bolt. He remembered her. Of course, he did. He thought about her every single day, especially when he closed his eyes at night. He wished he could wake up one day and she’d just be there, having never ran away. He remembered her because she was the only person he’d managed to connect with in his entire, sorry life.

“What ‘bout her?” he rasped.

“I seen her” Merle stated, his expression becoming smug as he straightened up and tilted his head back, looking down his nose at Daryl.

“She’s alive?!” Daryl exclaimed as he sat up to gain a better view of his brother’s expression. It was not lost on him that this could all be a lie to get him out of the cell.

“Was a few months back, mind. But yeah, all in one piece.” Merle told him.

Daryl stood up, dropping his knife and bolt and slowly approaching the cell door.

“Where is she?” he wanted to know.

Merle grunted and rubbed his face as he watched Daryl’s entire demeanor change. He was becoming irritated at the lack of information and it was apparent to Merle that Jess meant something to him, after all.

“Asked me to keep my mouth shut about that part.”

With his teeth locked together and his breathing increasing, Daryl began to stalk back and forth in front of the cell door, his boots scuffing on the smooth surface of the floor. He no longer thought it was a lie. He knew well enough that Jess would have made herself known if she wanted to, especially by then. After all, he found a note to prove it.

 “She don’t wanna be found, kid. Let it go.” Merle added.

He stopped his pacing and let out a loud sigh. This kind of discussion was rare for the Dixons, it involved a degree of emotion and honestly which was something Merle didn’t seem to possess and Daryl managed to hide extremely well. Until the mention of her name.

“She doin OK?” He questioned “Least tell me that much. Please”

“She’s good. She’s real smart.” Merle nodded.

Picking up a pile of previously carved arrows from a table, Daryl began to sift through them with his fingertips. It looked to Merle like he was counting them, but he knew Daryl better than he knew himself. He was using them as a distraction. Merle didn’t even flinch when Daryl angrily threw the handful of wood onto the floor, the sound was like a million pencils falling from a table and rolling across the ground.

“Just tell me where she is!” Daryl raged.

Merle couldn’t help it when the corners of his mouth lifted into a small smile.

“Ooof! You got it bad, huh, boy?”

“Shut up.” Daryl hissed, turning his back and trying to calm himself. His shoulders heaved as he breathed. “I’m your fuckin’ brother” He muttered, hearing a rasped growl from behind him. A glance over his shoulder told him that Merle did really want to tell him as he witnessed him lean his head on the bars and close his eyes.

“I owe her, OK? She did right by me. Mans only as good as his word.” Merle explained.

Daryl spun around, his face now enraged and reddening fast, his eyes were filled with the kind of anger that Merle had usually only seen when the two of them fought and it was never the same kind of rage that presented its self in a fight with anyone else. It was different. It was real.

“Word?! WORD?! You can’t be fuckin’ serious! Your word counts for shit, Merle! You tortured Glenn and Maggie so don’t start pretendin’ you’re some good guy, ya aint!” Daryl yelled.

“I ain’t no good guy but I got a code. Just like you.” Merle retorted.

Stooping down to collect his arrows, Daryl knew he had to remove himself from the building or he would end up strangling the truth out of his own brother. With all of the arrows gripped in his hand, he pointed them at Merle and narrowed his gaze.

“If they wanna starve ya, I’mma let ‘em. If they wanna tourture ya, I’mma walk away. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ for ya until ya tell me where Jess is. They can keep ya in that damn cage for all I care.”

Before he could think of an answer, Merle was left alone in the room with nothing but the fading echo of the door slamming for company.

 


 

Jess was running for so long that her feet were staring to burn and her knees were seizing up. She needed to stop somewhere and rest but being snared by the group of men with the black teeth and the woman in the cage was a thought that struck pure terror into her soul. She was sure she’d rather be eaten by Walkers than trapped with such a group. She’d stayed away from any roads, trekking through woodland and climbing over fences to remain undetected. Her clothing had helped keep her under the radar; a tight, black Kevlar top covered with her police vest and a black, hooded jacket. Dark, camouflaged cargo pants, black hand gun holsters and a mask that covered her mouth with a plastic outer shell that she had found on a dead biker as she fled the city.

Her bag was starting to feel heavier with every step as she approached a small town filled with abandoned cars. It looked as though people may have tried to settle there after the outbreak and the vehicles were left in a panic. She surged forwards, trying each car, looking for keys and gas. If she could just find one with enough to get her further away from the city, she could take some time to rest up. Darkness enveloped the town and birds and crickets sang a chorus as she wound her way through the cars, pleading with whatever deity would listen to just give her a break.

Then, her prayers were answered. A station wagon filled with boxes of clothes roared to life and to Jess’s delight, the tank was almost full. She set to work removing all the boxes, lightening the load so the gas wouldn’t be consumed as quickly and settled in the front seat. She pulled the door closed and drove off. Her destination was unknown but as far away from the city as she could get would be a start.

It was days before the truck ran out of gas and Jess had managed to put many, many miles in between her and the group that had almost captured her. On her journey, she’d swept through houses and collected anything she could carry on foot. She slept in buildings where they could be secured and had more than one exit, consumed any food she found in strict intervals, ensuring it lasted as long as possible and continued in the same direction she’d been travelling in for two weeks. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for in a settlement, just that it had to be safe, away from other people and walkers and with the capacity to be self-sustainable. Then, she found the boat.

Situated in the middle of a lake, accessible only by a large, fortified gate at the end of a dirt track that was well hidden from any passersby, Jess thought it might have been an old quarry due to its similarities to the old camp. The top of the gate was covered with razorwire and she narrowly avoided being sliced to ribbons when she caught her backpack on the barbs. But a rigorous wiggle and some quick thinking had literally saved her skin. The boat was so far away from the shoreline that Jess accepted that she had to use a canoe that was moored by a jetty. The water appeared to be untouched and there wasn’t a walker in sight. But chances weren’t to be taken when the dead roam the earth and she had to be sure. A collection of rocks of all sizes ended up in the lake, she threw them out as far as she could, trying to cause a stir and encourage any swimming walkers to rise to the surface. But nothing came to pass. By the evening, she’d hunted a rabbit and cooked it over a small fire on the beach. Using the skin attached to a tree branch, she dangled it in the water as the sun was going down and pondered how relaxing the place seemed.

 “Huh. Walker fishing.” She mumbled to herself.

When nothing happened and the rabbit skin floated off the branch and out into the body of water, she decided to risk rowing out to the boat. Much to her surprise, the water was crystal clear and she spotted fish swimming below. Her stomach growled, the stringy, fatty meat of a rabbit hardly sufficing when such plump, and apparently disease-free fish were swimming all around her.

I need a fishing rod.

Climbing aboard, it was clear that she was not stood on a regular boat. This was luxurious, spacious and well looked after. The deck was starting to show signs of disrepair but it was a far cry from the dilapidated states of some of the houses she’d stayed in. She crept inside, sweeping the rooms one by one and eventually finding the inhabitants of the vessel. A middle-aged couple on the double bed in the largest bedroom of three. Both wrapped in an embrace in the middle of a mass of bottles of pills. She moved into the room, draping a sheet over them and resting her hand on the man’s arm.

“I hope you’re at peace. The world sure isn’t”

 


 

 

Merle stared at the dangerous, powerful and very angry black woman in the passenger seat of his car. She was not one to be messed with and that explained why he needed to knock her out before bundling her into the car and driving her to the Governor. It was all the man wanted. Michonne was responsible for his life changing injury after taking one of his eyes out with her samurai sword. Now, he wanted revenge and Merle was more than aware that if the Governor didn’t get what he wanted; he would obliterate the entire group. The group his brother was a part of.

“So, he takes you in, cleans you up and feeds you a load of bullshit. Why would you kill someone else for him?” She asked.

Merle didn’t answer, his eyes were on the road but his attention was elsewhere, with the safety of his brother back at the prison. He didn’t want to be there, handing Michonne over to the man that would ultimately torture and kill her was most definitely not something he wanted to do. But there were little options that he could see. Only he knew the true wrath of the Governor.

“We could go back. You and me. We could just go back.” She suggested.

“Aint gonna happen.” He commented.

“Why?”

Her eyes were bearing into his soul and wished he could put into words the things that were circulating in his mind. He had killed sixteen people since he’d been with the governor. Before that, he’d killed none. It dawned on him that Michonne was right, why would he kill any more people when he did have another way out? The alternative was less appealing and altogether more permanent. But it was an alternative nevertheless. He stopped the car and raised his prosthetic hand, the bayonet was fixed to the end. Michonne leaned back slightly in her seat, wondering if he might slit her throat there and then and cut out all the talking. Instead, Merle hooked the blade through her wire handcuffs and cut her free.

“You go back. I got somethin’ I gotta do on my own.” He told her, nodding towards the door. “But you’re gonna tell my brother somethin’ for me.”

Chapter Text

 

It was Daryl’s fourth hour of sweeping apartment blocks in the city. Everyone at the prison urged him to stay put, they needed him, one of their most competent and brave fighters, but his stubborn streak had prevailed and he set off for the city regardless. As he moved from one building to another, he collected any useful supplies he could carry, figuring if he could at least return to the group with some kind of offering it might count for something. He didn’t hesitate long in one place; he was aware that he needed to be with his group but a big part of him wanted to find Jess. He’d planned it all out in his head, what he would say, how he would convince her to go back with him. But first, he’d ask her what her bullshit note was about. The same note that he carried everywhere with him, burning a hole in his pocket like it was made of the cinders of his fury at her departure.

He knew when he’d found it. Stacks of books everywhere, some with wooden planks across them to make tables, graphic novels, hunting guides and medical textbooks. A balcony that was once full of flourishing herbs and fruits now torn down and scattered through the open door onto the carpet. At first glance, it could have belonged to any number of lone survivors in a city as large as Atlanta. But he knew Jess had been there when he saw the pile of neatly folded T-shirts on the arm of the couch. It was the one thing that hadn’t been torn asunder by whatever had transpired before he’d arrived. There was no sign of her now and the dried blood smeared across the interior, in particular the carpet, had darkened and started to crisp, telling him that he was at least a few days too late.

After a frantic search of every corner and his hope of footprints leading somewhere being dashed, he dropped onto the couch and leaned forwards with his elbows on his knees. His mind cast into a detailed flashback of everything that happened at the quarry and guilt gnawed in the background. He thought of her note. Who was she to tell him how he saw her? Where did she get such an idea? He’d tried to make amends and show her that the announcement of the contents of her journal didn’t matter to him. He’d tried and she still left. It bubbled under the surface, that same rage he’d endured when he first realized that she really was gone. Now, he was risking being absent at a time when his group needed him because for some reason, he couldn’t just let her go.

He lashed out, sweeping the entire contents of the coffee table across the room. Candles, empty tins and glasses collided with the wall and sent a spiraling, noisy commotion through the walls of the building and down the staircase. He watched the items from the table scatter and still felt no relief. She was gone, possibly for good. His one and only lead had come up with nothing.

 


 

She dreamed of Ice, licking at her toes and fingertips and creeping into her bones through sensitive skin. It was all around her, every inch of her tainted by it’s freezing embrace as she thrashed and gasped for air, her breath a white cloud expelling from her weakening body. Her heart, which felt ten times the size it should have been, compressed and struggled in her chest. She shuddered and tried to call out, tried to scream but nothing emerged on the useless huff of air that was all she could manage. Her eyes flew open. Where was she? Was she safe? Why was it so cold?

“Oh…Jesus.” She breathed as she tried to catch her breath, her freezing cold hand resting on her chest and her dream slowly drifting away, most of it anyway.

Her eyes moved up to a window. The Boat. She was in the bedroom on the boat and it was so cold she thought she might freeze to death. The inside of the glass was coated in condensation from the minimal amount of warmth that her body had given off as she slept. She drew the blankets around her and shuffled from the mattress, her socks slipping on the shiny floor. She lifted a hand and rubbed at the window with her fingertips. So cold were they that she couldn’t even feel the damp surface through the numbness in her limbs. She squinted out at the water, unsure if her eyes were playing tricks on her.

“Shit.” She hissed.

Outside on the deck, she stood with her boots on but unlaced, a thick sweater and the blankets from the bed wrapped around her. Unimpressed and irritated by the sight, she sighed slowly, rubbing her hand over her sleepy eyes and brushing her dark hair back from her face. The boat was a safe, albeit unusual choice for a sanctuary during the apocalypse but Jess found it to be everything she wanted. She was far from the shoreline which meant any Walkers or humans had to cross a lot of water to be able to get to her and her weapon-filled, floating fortress. On the roof of the cabin, she grew crops which she moved inside when she noticed the season taking a turn. Now they took up residence in a spare room inside, encouraged by an infra-red light, powered by a small generator which still had enough juice to be switched on for an hour or so every day.

She learned how to fish, catching her meals easily most days after conducting an experiment with a stray dog on the beach that proved the life in the lake was untouched by whatever had turned the human race. The boat was quite the picturesque scene, peaceful and still luxurious even given the situation. But heat was becoming an issue and no number of candles could change the fact that her route to the land was now covered with ice, rendering her unable to fish and eat for the foreseeable future. As far as she could see, the layer stretched from the boat to the shore, the edge of it bumping against the boats hull beneath her feet.

She rolled her eyes and vanished inside, immediately setting about packing her things in order to move on yet again. She told herself she would return once the weather was better and had no plans to move out completely, she kept the key to the cabin in her pocket and eventually climbed into the canoe which split the ice around it into jagged pieces from the movement of the water underneath. With her machete, she smashed at the cold surface between rowing. It was a painfully slow process that left her frustrated and sweating despite the below zero temperature but progress was progress and as she neared the beach, she began to feel a sense of achievement. She climbed out of the boat and onto the jetty, rolling onto her back and cursing under her breath, her machete clattered onto the wooden landing.

It was a peaceful couple of months living on the boat but Jess was smart enough to make sure that she never became complacent or lured into a false sense of security. The world was still full of threats, people that ate people if they were alive or dead. The living reduced to the depths of depravity, stealing, murdering, raping, looting. She’d seen near enough all of it in less than a year of being on the road alone. Death was always part of life, but not in the way Jess had now been witness to and sometimes when it came to a matter of them and her, she’d been forced to commit acts that she didn’t even know she was capable of. After the initial horrendous guilt, she’d been forced to carry on and survive, just like every other person that remained walking the earth with a brain that hadn’t been reanimated.

Being a nomad after leaving the boat was the toughest thing she’d experienced yet. The cold was biting, destructive and relentless and her movement was restricted when defending herself due to her layers of clothing that were needed to shield her against the bitter winds. She hid in frozen ditches for convoys to pass with trucks full of screaming people, their leaders decorated in warpaint as If it gave them any more rights than anyone else. She fought off wildlife, ran from Bears and Coyotes and found Deer harder to hunt than they had ever been before. But still, she persevered and soldiered on with a strength and determination that was now cemented in her being. By that point, she knew she was no quitter.


 

A fairground wouldn’t have been her first choice of homestead but the discovery, one crisp morning after sleeping in a tree, of a small building in the corner between the Ferris wheel and Haunted House piqued her interest enough to draw her inside. The structure was solid enough, protected from the wind by the carcasses of rides around it. A broken sign above the door read ‘Casey’s Diner.’ Jess thought it was the smallest diner she’d ever seen, but once she’d kicked the door in and checked the inside for any dangers, she found it to be quaint and full of potential. She ran her fingertips along the tables and chairs as she walked through the seating area, even the black and red tiled walls were an aesthetic she could live with. The tables could all be removed in favor of more useful furniture that she could find almost anywhere. There was a long counter in the middle that opened up into an open-plan kitchen, some of which could still be used if she could only find a generator big enough to power it. The windows were thick, the outside fitted with bars to deter those wanting to take up residence or rob the place out of season.

Handy. She thought.

Stepping back outside into the cold, she surveyed the area. The wind whistled through the rusting metal of the rides, signs flapped in the breeze and the fence enclosing the small fairground it’s self needed repairs in certain places, the most important being the main gate, which Jess had managed to unlock using a small pair of bolt cutters from her backpack. She could work with it, the effort it would need not deterring her in the slightest. She needed shelter before it started to snow and the disused diner would have to do.

It wasn’t easy to find the materials she needed to make the necessary repairs to the fence and fortify the building. She walked for miles to and from the next town, having to use her conserved energy to hack Walkers to death and shoot them with arrows until she was left with a mere two hours of daylight to get a huge, heavy bag of supplies back to the fairground. She may have found what she needed but her fingers were raw from making snare traps in the area around the fences to ensnare small animals for food. Her joints ached from hauling the old furniture out and hacking it all to pieces. Finding a truck with gas left in it parked on the dirt track of a farm was just the stroke of luck she needed. A generator awaited her in the barn, the only issue was how to remove the solar panels that fueled it from the roof.

 


 

Jess’s senses were more than heightened from being on her own for so long and having to be mindful of any threats so as not to become Walker food. Sounds such as snapping twigs and scuffing on the ground alerted her immediately and within seconds, she was alert, bow readied and eyes carefully scanning her surroundings. It was the sound of breathing on this occasion while she stood in the barn trying to figure out how to get the huge generator out and onto the truck, along with the panels, she had no idea where to start. She pulled the string of her bow tight and straightened her back.

“I know you’re there.” She called out. “Make yourself known or I’ll be forced to find you and kill you.”

The barn was piled high with hay bales, a tractor stood to one side and wooden posts obscured her view of the entrance she’d wandered through, dead set on fetching her generator. There was no way she was about to let anyone else take it. Finders keepers, that’s how she saw it. She’d never robbed anyone or felt the need to when supplies were around, they just took a little patience to find.

She spotted boots on the other side of the tractor, moving past it’s massive wheels and wading through hay dropped from the bales on either side. She aimed as a man stepped into view. His hands were up in surrender, he wore a clean, blue and white flannel shirt with a black wax jacket, his hair was cut and tidy, his skin bore no signs of dirt or injury. He held no visible weapons and on his back he carried something else spotless, a tan backpack.

Jess never went anywhere without her mask and hood, they provided her with extra warmth as well an anonymity to anyone she may meet on her travels. She was now a solitary roamer with no desire to connect with anyone or bear the burden of having to take care of someone else. She peered at the man over the top of her mask, which obscured her nose and mouth, showing only her eyes. She quickly swept one leg back, moving into a defensive stance and lined her aim up with the center of his head.

“Who are you?” she demanded firmly.

“My name is Aaron. I come from a community nearby.” He explained. His tone was calm but Jess could sense the underlying anxiety that came with confronting strangers in the new world. Everyone possessed it, it was just more obvious in some than others.

“Backup.” She spat, jutting her bow at him. He jumped in surprise and held his hands up higher. “This is my generator. I found it first.”

Aaron’s eyebrows raised at her intent to take the generator. It was obvious to him that it was all she cared about, aside from not being killed.

“Fair enough. I don’t need one anyway. I just came to talk to you.” He told her.

She glared at him, trying to read him, to figure out what intentions he could possibly have being so squeaky clean and turning up out of the blue for a conversation. It didn’t add up and she didn’t trust him from the moment she heard his breathing from the other side of the barn. She didn’t want to have to kill another living human and so hoped that distraction techniques and words would provide her with enough time to figure out an alternative.

“You expect me to believe that you cornered me in a barn for a conversation?” She asked

“Uh…I know how strange that must seem.” He smiled.

“Hm.” She grunted. It did seem strange, just like everything else about him. His eyes may have looked kind enough, but she had seen all this before. The wolf in sheep’s clothing. She kept a firm grip on her bow. “So talk.” She instructed. “Or I’ll shoot you in the face.”

A kill count wasn’t something Jess ever wanted to have. But it was inevitable for her to have survived so long into what was now a rotting world full of death. She wasn’t yet in double figures, or so she thought. Who knows how many of the people she’d shot in the legs had failed to escape the clutches of an oncoming herd or a hungry, lone Walker in a small space and succumbed to the turn? She couldn’t dwell on it or more of her soul would fall away. She didn’t cry about it anymore. In fact, she hadn’t cried in months, unable to remember the last time. Maybe she was just numb and that wasn’t good. But it didn’t mean she wasn’t prepared to execute another person in order to protect herself.

 “I’ve been watching you. You’re very resourceful and handy with that bow.” Aaron explained with his hands still held aloft. “We could use someone like you. We have a lot to offer. Houses, electricity, hot, running water, medical care…walls and-”

“-Cannibals.” She interrupted loudly. Aaron blinked at her in surprise. “You must be cannibals if you have all that.”

His hands began to lower again as he used them to enhance his argument. He stepped closer but she nudged her head up in warning.

Stay there or I will shoot you between the eyes.

“No.” He protested. “I can assure you. We have food, but we’re not cannibals. Please, lower your weapon. I’m not a threat to you.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m a threat to you.” She warned boldly. “Hold your hands out in front of you so I can see ‘em clearer.”

Doing as he was asked, she couldn’t ignore the puzzled look on his face as she inched closer and observed his empty hands as he held them out, palms down and trembling slightly. He flinched when she suddenly stooped down and collected a small rock from the ground and threw it to him.

“Catch”

He caught the rock effortlessly, still baffled by her behavior and concerned that she may be a little more unhinged than he’d anticipated when he’d observed her fixing fences and hauling tables and chairs around while singing quietly to herself at the fairground. He was impressed by her resourcefulness and skills after finding various traps around the fences that could prove almost lethal to anyone that happened to stumble into them.

“What are-”

“-Kuru. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Prion Disease. Whatever you want to call it. Cannibals have tremors and difficulty grasping things. Slower reactions and poor co-ordination. Among other symptoms. Its incubation period is usually ten years but with food scarce and dumb folk all over the place, people eating people on the daily is common enough to speed up the process”

“That’s…Interesting.” Aaron offered, mildly concerned by her detailed knowledge.  

“Not as interesting as the tremor in your hands.” She shot back, seeing him tilt his head back slightly, a look of worry creeping across his features.

“Forgive me, but I am on the business end of an arrow right now. If I were you, I’d be worried if my hands weren’t trembling.”

Jess huffed with amusement. She couldn’t deny he had a point and it was delivered a thin lacing of sass.

You’re a funny fucker, aren’t you?

“You’re a smartass too.” She declared.

Aaron finally smiled and laughed. Jess lowered her bow subtly but not enough for him to notice. She wasn’t naive enough to let him win her trust that easily and so keeping something sharp and pointed aimed his way seemed like a wise course of action, no matter how charming and polite he appeared.

“I was just going to say that about you. Just, in my head. Not out loud. I kind of still like being alive.” He grinned “So, did I pass the test?”

She went back over their conversation in her head. A community nearby, food, water, walls, medical supplies. Even if it was true, it was something she no longer wanted. She was better alone. Safer, cunning, clever. If only she could get that damn generator into the back of the truck. She raised an eyebrow at Aaron.

“So far.”

 


 

 

Jess sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes, it was cold in the room but nowhere near as cold as the boat with nothing to break up the howling wind. She swung her legs from the wooden framed bed, taken from the same farm where she ran into the man called Aaron with the kind eyes and clean clothes. In her newly re-arranged kitchen, she prepared a breakfast of tinned sausages and beans, cooked in a pot on a stove that was powered by the generator Aaron had helped her get back to her new home.

She’d bargained with him; He helped her get her generator and she agreed to scope out the community of Alexandria from outside it’s walls, observing the operations, security and supply run teams from high up in a tree that gave her the perfect vantage point. It all seemed innocent enough, but Jess was still untrusting and guarded and eventually agreed to meet the leader of Alexandria on the promise that it was conducted away from the town and she was allowed to be fully armed.

It wasn’t easy to get through to Jess, but Deanna, the woman who made all the decisions for the community, was very convincing and it became apparent to Jess upon the arrival of a stray Walker where their meeting took place in the woods, that Deanna had not been outside of her community since before the world went wrong. Everything that was explained to her, she was able to corroborate and after weeks of surveillance, she took her first steps inside to meet the wary faces of the townsfolk.

Jess kept to herself and didn’t utter a word to anyone unless she had no other choice. Aaron stuck by her side at first, assuring people that she wasn’t a danger to them and when she began bringing back Deer and small game after the seasons switched again, people started to accept her as the mysterious bringer of sustenance and protector of the areas around the circumference of the walls. In return, Jess had access to medical supplies and a shower with hot, running water at Aaron’s house that he shared with his partner, Eric. She never once, let anyone see her face, going about her business in full, protective clothing. 

Jess refused to move from the fairground. It was her home and the place that she felt most as ease. She didn’t have fences as large as Alexandria, but hers were sufficient and she knew every inch of them. Living away from everybody else meant she made no connections. No friends, just one or two acquaintances. She wanted to live a life without ties that could lead to more emotional trauma or put her at risk of getting killed. She had a deal with Alexandria, an understanding. On top of that, she also got her generator and solar panels which Aaron had helped to install along with the help of a man Jess didn’t know and didn’t need to know. All she cared about was him being able to make her stove work before she could send him back inside the walls.

Hunting was both a necessity and an enjoyable activity once the weather warmed and the mornings and evenings became lighter. If the Walker numbers were kept low within a mile radius, which was Jess’s job, animals ventured closer to Alexandria to forage and when they did, Jess nabbed them. Sometimes, she’d be out overnight, so engrossed in tracking and taking down something larger than a rabbit that she just couldn’t let it go. That was another good thing about being on the sidelines of a community, the gas for a vehicle. Journeying out further to relatively untouched patches of woodland turned up some great results, especially when she borrowed a hunting rifle from the armory.

Slinking through the trees early one morning with her rifle readied and her eyes cast down across the ground, she followed the tracks of what she thought could be a large deer. Its imprints were deep, suggesting it was somewhat hefty and the foliage it nibbled along the way provided her with the perfect path. She breathed quietly thorough her nose, kept her footsteps light and her hood up.

This is going to be a good one. She thought, excited at the prospect of her share.

Then, male voices caught her attention and she dived behind the nearest bush; her body locked into such a stillness that she thought her heart might stop beating.

“A bitch got you all messed up. Walking around here like a dead man. She must have been a good’un. Was it one of the little ones? They don’t last too long out here.” A man commented.

There was a scuffle but Jess couldn’t see from her current position. While the noises of scraping boots on the muddy floor went on, she twisted her body just enough to make out the scene through the leaves of her hiding place. She needed to know what she was dealing with if she was discovered.

Clamping a hand over her mouth was all she could do to stop herself from gasping loudly with shock. There, beyond the leaves and with a long-haired stranger in a brutal headlock, was Daryl Dixon. His face was twisted into a rage, sweat slick on his forehead as he used all his might to choke the man in his grip. She almost fell backwards and gave her location away when the man whirled out of Daryl’s arm and swung a punch which Daryl quickly avoided. As he ducked, Jess heard the unmistakable shing of a knife being unsheathed and Daryl lunged with the cold metal in his hand.

Her mind was blank. She had no idea what to do. If she should intervene or stay put. It was Daryl. He’d hurt her and she’d deliberately put what she’d thought were hundreds of miles between them, only for him to show up right in front of her in the woods. Still, she didn’t want to see him get killed.

As he neared the man with his knife raised, someone else arrived. An older, grey man with a much more relaxed attitude stepped in and broke up the fight which, as she learned from the shadows, was over who the dead rabbit on the ground belonged to.

He was different, angrier and war-worn but she didn’t get the same vibes from him that she got from the others, and there were more of them. A whole group of them travelling through the woods, she’d discovered. It wasn’t until she retreated further into the trees and decided to follow them that she could tell their intentions were worlds apart from Daryl’s.

The railway tracks were incredibly difficult to follow along without being seen, but she stayed in the tree line, her dark, camouflage and protective clothing aiding her in her disguise. From there, she could hear what was being said. She didn’t possess one ounce of trust in the men he was with and maybe it was because she was an outside observer, but she was shocked that Daryl didn’t seem to know that they were merely using him. Now, there was no way she was leaving. She followed on until they stopped outside an empty auto repairs place on a crossroads. For a moment, Daryl was left alone while the others checked the building.

It was tempting. Oh, so tempting to signal him from the trees and alert him to her presence. He struck a lonely figure as he stood in the road by himself. He looked older, his hair was longer and he still wore his angel wings on his back, only now they were fading and ripped. She was completely torn, half of her wanted to go to him but she was stopped by the memory of what he’d said to his brother. That she meant nothing to him. So, why would he even care if she was there or not? She stayed quiet and hidden, creeping up to a window when darkness fell and they took shelter inside. Carefully, by peeking through a corner of the window, she was able to look inside without being detected.

From the glass, she sighed and watched him sleep on a black piece of plastic while the others took up resident in cars. For the first time since she discovered him, she had the time to acknowledge how much she’d missed him. She was still hurt, heartbroken in fact by what she’d heard. But it was Daryl. Once her good friend and if she was totally honest, the person she’d thought about every day since she left the group. He still inspired her and try as she might, she couldn't shake the notion that she still found him to be incredibly attractive.

I might mean nothing to you. But, I’m here. I’m not leaving you with these jackasses.

She slept against the side of the auto repairs building, under the window and shrouded in leaves. Waking only when she heard an argument going on inside. On the verge of stepping in to prevent Daryl from being hurt by the mindless, violent, idiots he’d ended up with, she gripped her machete in her hand and started to think about how she was going to charge in and take on seven men when the aggression was suddenly diverted from Daryl to one of the other men. Jess sank back and breathed a deep huff of relief. She didn’t have to see him get hurt.

When the body of the man Daryl had fought with in the woods was dumped inches from her as they departed, she held her breath until she was sure none of them could hear her and set about following them further. She didn’t know why, but going back was not an option. She couldn’t leave him. Not with this group. Not now. There were too many risks.

They re-joined the railway tracks and Jess was able to silently move along at the back of the group where Joe, the grey-haired man who she gathered was the leader, talked to Daryl and offered him a drink from a hip flask. She saw him hesitate as she carefully climbed over logs and slithered through the trees at a pace that was tough to keep up without being too noisy. He shrugged a shoulder up and accepted.

“I ain’t been lit at dawn since before everything fell apart” He expressed.

Jess couldn’t help it. The way he spoke and his conversational tone coupled with a nonchalant shrug was so typical of him and it stung at her emotions. But at his honest comment, her face broke into a wide smile that she struggled to control. So wrapped up in how much she’d missed him, she failed to navigate around a large tree trunk and smacked into it, causing a rustle that Daryl heard over everyone else. He paused and Jess was sure he was looking right at her from the tracks as she hugged the tree and wished that she hadn’t just acted with the dexterity of a toddler running through the woods. Joe carried on while Daryl squinted into the dark trees and adjusted his crossbow. Her lungs began to burn, she didn’t want to breathe for fear of being noticed, her knees felt like they might cave in.

You really are a tracker.

After what seemed like hours, Daryl finally moved on, joining the rest of the men at a metal sign on the side of the tracks. They gathered around, talking in hushed tones that she couldn’t quite make out from her position. Then, Daryl stepped back, revealing the word at the top of the sign which made her blood run cold and her eyes well with tears. She knew exactly where they were headed and she had to do something to stop them.

TERMINUS.

Chapter Text

Jess’s legs were starting to burn from maneuvering over the bumpy terrain of the tree line as Daryl and the men moved from one Terminus sign to another. She skirted off, deeper into the woods and attempted to gain some ground in front of them. She broke into a run, sprinting over fallen trees and dead bodies that she didn’t even bother to check for signs of reanimation. She could out run them and she needed to outrun Daryl’s group and cut them off before they reached certain death at Terminus. Destroying the signs was her best bet, or diverting them onto a path that steered them away, but she had to get there first and cover her tracks enough so that Daryl wouldn’t pick up on her footprints being fresh in the dirt. She knew he would. He was smart, an expert tracker and highly observant. Panic was surging through her when she thought of what could happen should she fail at her task.

She’d first encountered Terminus when she was alone, between settlements and bordering on freezing to death from the unforgiving weather. She didn’t trust the signs from the start, which is why she located the destination and dug in for the night under a plastic tarp. She watched from the fence as the inhabitants dragged people from a train cart, kicking and screaming. People that never returned. She knew the smell by now, a sickening odor that she would never forget. Burning flesh. Only it wasn’t being burned to rid the compound of Walkers or any infections, it was being burned in order to be consumed.

Since then, Jess made it her mission to destroy any signs for Terminus she came across which she realized was a frustrating and fruitless task due to them being replaced as quickly as she removed them. Whoever was running the place knew what they were doing, they were relentless and sadistic and there was no way that she would allow Daryl to end up there if she could help it.

Running wasn’t something that bothered her much anymore, her stamina levels were much higher with the change in season. The improved temperature meant she could go back to training properly, always finding new ways of keeping her strength and fitness up. Her legs burned and her chest felt like it might burst, but it was all expected for the amount of ground she would cover in a matter of minutes.

That was until she was stopped in her tracks by upwards of two hundred Walkers all heading straight for her. A herd. She leaned forwards, using her hands on her knees to stabilize herself as she caught her breath. Her brow was wet and her mouth dry. In her backpack, she carried three bottles of water but knew she needed to conserve them until she was desperate.

Right. There’s a herd. Of course, there is. Brilliant. That’s just great.” She complained as she flung her arms up, turned around and ran in the direction she’d arrived from.

 


 

One of the few good things about the apocalypse is not having to stick to speed limits or worry about other drivers. So, when Jess sped down the rural roads like a bat out of hell, she knew she had to burn some serious rubber to make it around the herd and back to Terminus before Daryl was put in serious danger. The sun was dipping the sky and evening was rolling in, the last thing she wanted to be doing was fighting an entire community of cannibals in the dark with nothing but a rifle, a machete and a bow but try as she might, she could not find it in herself to tear herself away and simply go back to the fairground.

She was no longer sure id Daryl would make the same sacrifices for her, or if he ever would have in the first place, but she did remember his attentive and protective attitude when he took her out training and hunting. Sometimes, she wondered why he even bothered with any of it, putting it down to boredom and a need to feel superior. She dared not think there was anything else in it, she’d been disappointed enough.

She hit the brakes hard when she came to the crossroads that met the railway tracks and considered her next move. She’d been driving for almost an hour at least and saw no signs of the herd. She’d successfully managed to drive all the way around them. Now, for her plan, or lack of one, starting with the truck. She would have to leave it somewhere accessible. She tickled the accelerator and steered to the left, veering around a broken-down garage and coming to a stop behind it. Believing it provided enough cover, she hopped out and set off for Terminus.


 

It was as if the elements could sense the oncoming pandemonium. A strange stillness filtered into her mind. Why was it so quiet? Her heart dropped when she heard an explosion so loud that the ground shook beneath her feet and she was sure she could feel the rush of air barrel through the trees. Smoke plumed into the air above, followed by dancing flames. Terminus was on fire.

She ran again, as fast as her legs would carry her. Boots thudding into the damp ground and the air lashing at her face, making her eyes glassy over her mask. As she approached the grounds around the fence, gunfire resulted in her jumping behind a tree to shield herself. Her eyes quickly scanned the woodland as she crouched and caught her breath.

Stay calm. You got this. Think.

She took a deep breath and clocked movement by the fence around 30 feet away. A cloaked figure stood with a rifle pointed through the chain link fence, firing off shot after shot. Jess risked a few steps closer and was glad she did or she never would have noticed that it was Carol who was picking off the people of Terminus one by one. She was dressed in a poncho covered in what Jess instantly guessed was Walker guts. The smell was obvious. At her feet, sat a bag full of semi-automatic weapons.

I’m not the only one that grew a pair of balls. Jess thought.

Glancing to her left, she could see the blown-up gas tank in the yard and the fire raging from inside it, Walkers attracted from all over the place were seeping in through the broken fence caused by the explosion. Jess could even hear them starting to approach from behind her and it forced her to move and find a way to protect herself. She scurried off in the opposite direction to Carol, who hadn’t noticed her over the commotion and equipped her Machete. Now, she was Walker hunting.

Finding two males slumbering along the fence in front of her, she raised the blade, bringing it down on one of their heads and slicing through its eroded and soft skull as if it was a piece of fruit. When the other one turned, she decapitated it with a clean swipe. Then, she rammed the machete into the smaller one’s chest, bracing herself with a boot on its shoulder as she snapped the weapon back, opening up it’s chest cavity and the contents of its stomach. She was gladder than ever for her mask at that point, even having to take a moment to turn her head away and hold her breath before she ripped the leather jacket from the other Walker and smeared it with innards and the rotting remnants of the dead body. She slung the jacket on and headed for the gate.

Inside the compound, people were scattering like ants. All screaming and trying to avoid both the Walkers and Carol’s bullets raining down on them. Jess had managed to get in by shooting at the chain that held the gate together and marched in like the cavalry had arrived. She had no idea where she was going, just that she had to find the door that she’d previously seen captive, live humans being dragged into.

Aware that Carol could see her and would probably shoot her, she kept to the small alleyways and scurried along behind cars and wooden boxes until she saw it. The door. That’s where they were taken. She sprinted at it, hammering her hands onto the glass and flying inside to find it empty. Uninhabited. But what she did find inside was enough to render her completely motionless. He breath caught in her throat. Cages with huge hooks hung from the ceiling. Ribcages, spines and femurs scattered the surfaces, carving knives and bone saws were discarded on metal tables. Beyond that was a vast room with a single, long, stainless steel sink through it’s middle. She was stood in the middle of a slaughterhouse once used to harvest the meat of cows, pigs and the like. Now, it was used to execute and carve up human beings.

Involving herself in such a situation only had one outcome; she was going to have to kill people. It was something she’d had to quickly accept as she shot the chain on the gate and charged into the chaos. As she cleared room after room, she shot everyone she found. Most of them in the legs and feet so they would be found by Walkers or bleed to death and turn. Those that attacked her were eliminated outright with a clean bullet to the head or heart. She didn’t count, nor did she want to. Just like she refused to look into any of their eyes. Twice, she almost ran into Carol, a confrontation she wanted to avoid and so she had no choice but to stop and wait patiently so she could continue, unseen. It wasn’t until she reached a room full of personal belongings that she stopped and had to take heed of things before she could continue her journey.

There were children’s toys, clothing, jewelry, photographs, books. Her fingertips bumped over the items as she slowly walked the length of the table along one side of the narrow room. She closed her eyes and sighed. All of these people. Gone. Lost. Eaten. Just like that. As if the world wasn’t screwed up enough already. Then, she felt the cold metal of a gun. She opened her eyes to find herself stood there holding Rick’s heavy, Python Revolver.

“Drop your weapons.” Came a female voice from behind her.

Jess’s eyes flicked up to the wall in front of her as she slowly slid the revolver into the sleeve of her oversized, Walker covered jacket. She turned slowly to find a blood-soaked woman with wild, long, brown and scraggly hair who was angrily pointing a very large gun at her. She staggered forwards.

“The men they pulled from that Train car…where are they?” Jess growled

The woman’s face twisted in a manic giggle while she hoisted the gun up, securing her aim. 

“You could have been one of us.” She chuckled.

WHERE ARE THEY?!” Jess yelled with such fury that her voice cracked. “I know you keep them in there!”

“You could have listened to what the world is telling you” The woman rambled.

It quickly became apparent to Jess that sense had left this woman’s head long before the gas tank exploded. Her whole appearance smacked of a mental breakdown, someone who now lived in the depraved and brutal world of a cannibal group. She had no time to waste but any semblance of useful information couldn't be passed up. She opted to try and goad her to gauge if she would turn up any clues.

“You lure people here. You take what they have and you kill them and eat them. Is that what this place is?” Jess demanded.

The woman’s crazed smile dropped and she shook her head, a single tear escaped down her blackened face. She did now lower her gun and Jess began to weight up her odds.

“Not at first.” She sniffed. “It’s what it had to be. They raped and they killed and they laughed over weeks.” She babbled.

Useless. Jess thought.

The woman hit the floor with a smack after the first gunshot. She clutched her foot and wailed so loud Jess thought she could probably be heard over the ruckus outside. Her vision lifted to the barrel of Rick’s gun inside Jess’s sleeve and her eyes erupted with tears. The gun in her hands clattered to the vastly growing pool of blood on the floor and the noise snapped her back to reality. She began to struggle with it, hauling it up over her wounded leg and trying to find the trigger. But Jess stepped forwards and kicked it away from her.

“The world was bad enough before the turn. The Walkers make it worse. But people like you…” She glared down at her with a coldness that made the woman's jaw clench with fear “… make it insufferable.”

The noise of the trigger being pulled caused a flinch from Jess’s victim. But she didn’t even blink from the shot that created a bloody hole in the woman’s other foot. She picked up her gun and slung it over her shoulder so both guns were positioned in a cross on her back. She whirled around, making for the door and heaved the fire exit bar open to a dozen waiting Walkers who all skirted around her and poured in as fast as the light beyond. Jess calmly walked through them with enough time to catch Rick and Daryl climbing over the fence on the other side of the yard. As Walkers milled around her and the war raged, the piercing and terrified screams of people still going strong, she smiled.

He’s safe.

 


 

Darkness had fallen and the traumatized group quietly walked the road, exhausted, dehydrated and starving. Rick, Daryl and Glenn were all wounded but still soldiered on. Daryl veered off every now and then to hunt but came up with nothing more than an even more frustrated expression each time. The ground was damp but water was scarce and the meagre amount they had on them had to last until they found another source or until they settled somewhere again. No one knew how long that would be, but Rick encouraged them to keep going through a thinly veiled feeling of doom. Where would they go now? 

Jess followed them for miles. Her discomfort at letting them out of her sight driving her to babysit them for a long as she possibly could. They were weakened, and morale was low, that much was obvious. They walked through the night into the next morning when the sun peeped through the clouds and the birds began to sing. Jess observed them from the safety of a tree a few meters back from the road. She perched on a branch and snacked on cereal bars from her backpack, even managing to take a power nap after tying herself to the branch, a trick she’d learned way back in the beginning. She discarded her Walker jacket miles back but the smell still festered around her no matter how much she tried to ignore it. So, she was relieved when the group finally started to look like they were getting ready to leave, at least she could get a breeze through her clothes.

When her boots hit the floor after climbing down from her perch, she caught the faint sound of someone gasping, followed by a low growl.

That’s not a Walker.

She swerved through the branches and bushes, keeping low and noticing movement on the road. The growl was louder now, followed by the clicking of guns being readied and Daryl’s voice.

“Easy.”

Jess managed to find a gap in the leaves that revealed Daryl aiming his crossbow at three dogs across the street. Once someone’s beloved pets, a Collie, Rottweiler and a Belgian Mallinois. They were now reduced to wild beings having never had to fend for themselves before. They looked starving. Protruding ribs and bony legs. Teeth bared and saliva dripping from K9’s. Everyone was focused on the three in front of them, but Jess was the only one that could see the Doberman creeping up on Daryl from behind.

“No guns.” Rick declared. “We can’t afford the noise drawing Walkers.”

He knew they were weakened and unable to fight effectively. Guns were holstered and knives unsheathed along with worried looks exchanged between those that were not used to such close combat, especially with three creatures that boasted such a sharp set of teeth.

Jess panicked. It was unusual for her but before she knew it, her bow was in her hand and an arrow was being aimed at the huge, black dog that was sizing up Daryl’s arm. Its jowls quivered, paws inching forwards. Daryl leapt at one of the dogs, managing to drag his knife across its throat before he was bitten. The other two were taken out by Rick and another member of the group that Jess didn’t recognize. Just as Daryl was about to step back into the inevitable and waiting jaw of the Doberman, Jess let go of the bow’s string and the arrow collided with the animals skull. It was sent skidding across the asphalt, a high-pitched yelp followed by nothing. Daryl swung his crossbow into the woods, pointing it at the darkness inside while the others couldn’t decide whether to look at the arrow embedded in the dog’s head or whatever Daryl was aiming his weapon at. Rick approached him and stood by his side.

“The hell did that come from?” He asked.

“In there” Daryl replied, nudging his head up at Jess’s exact location.

Jess released an angry sigh. Her rage directed at nothing but herself. She’d blown her own cover. If she didn’t step into the light now, Daryl would most likely go in and find her. The chances were, he’d shoot her too. She began to trudge forwards, bow in hand to the side of the road, where Daryl and Rick stood, flanked by an uneasy and tired looking group. Revealing herself from the low light of the trees, she slowly walked out into the light and hoped with all her heart that her mask, hood and weight loss was enough of a disguise to enable her to walk away eventually without having to show who she really was.

Daryl’s brow furrowed at the woman who calmly stepped out onto the road with an elaborate looking bow in her hand, two high powered rifles and a machete attached to her belt. She looked like something from one of the computer games he’d played with Merle before the turn when they’d get high and battle monsters. Her hood and mask obscured most of her face, her eyes just about visible as she moved into the light. Black, leather arm bracers covered her forearms, heavy, lace up boots reached her knees. Her clothing was clearly that of law enforcement, military or special ops. Daryl backed up, as did Rick when Jess raised her bow.

“Don’t move!” Daryl quickly ordered.

But Jess refused. She slowly continued to lift her bow and looped it across her body, disarming herself to show she was not a threat.

“Everybody stay back.” Rick instructed the perturbed faces behind him with an open palm in their direction. The crowd backed up, peering at the scene in disbelief. Daryl inched closer to her with Rick mirroring him. Somehow, Jess managed to stand completely still even though her body was shaking at the sight of him.

“Who are you?” Rick wanted to know. His voice was low, too hushed for everyone else to hear him and deliberate so as not to cause a panic.

“I helped her…” Jess told him as she motioned with her head to Carol “…get you out of terminus.”

Rick was incredulous. His eyes shot back and forth between Jess and Carol, who was none the wiser, multiple times until finally falling back to Jess.

“Why?” Daryl asked

“I know what that place was.” She said. So far, neither of them had recognized her voice, which she could put down to the plastic casing on the front of her mask that filtered the air of dust. It muffled her words subtly and she was sure that she’d never been more thankful for a piece of kit before.

“Take off the mask” Rick ordered out of the blue, raising his hand ready to pluck her disguise from her face. In the blink of an eye her machete was at his throat, held like a vice with an outstretched arm. His head tilted back, his eyes bulged and he looked down his nose at the blade. A sharp intake of breath from behind him told her that her actions had the desired effect. She’d shocked them into submission.

“Do not touch me.” She warned firmly.

Daryl stepped in, placing his body between Jess and Rick but with his crossbow still gripped in one hand.

“Ok… ok, aint nobody gonna touch ya…put the machete down.” Daryl urged.

She complied and gradually brought it back to her side, her hand still gripping onto the handle with a white-knuckle strength. 

“How do we know we can trust you?” Rick asked.

She nodded and reached around, inside her hooded jacket. Slipping Ricks revolver from her wristband at her back, she held it out to him. His face was a picture she would never forget. He blinked rapidly at the gun before slowly taking it.

“How did you know this is mine?” He questioned.

“Saw them take you in with it.” She lied “You don't have to trust me. But would I really be handing you that gun if you couldn't? Good luck, all of you.”

Her boots crunched on the ground when she made off in the opposite direction, digging her hands in her pocket when she was reminded of something she’d prepared earlier. All along, she’d tried to get a head of the group and plant water in abandoned cars or buildings but was hindered by Walkers every time. She’d stowed two bottles in her pockets just in case she had the chance and kept one for herself in her back pack. As she strode away, she twisted her body and threw both bottles at Rick and Daryl. They both caught them and swapped baffled expressions.

“Wait.” Daryl called out to her. “Why’d ya help us?”

Because I care about you and I hate it.

She didn’t respond, determined to cover the miles to her truck in good time so she could get back to the fairground and rest her weary head. She had some serious thinking to do and a big decision to make. Rick’s group consisted of men, women and a child. Carl. Jess had scanned every face, some were missing but some were the same, just older and wearing their horrendous experiences in their eyes. She had no doubt that all of them had endured a lot and on top of that, were almost blood-let and eaten at Terminus. It was a tough choice that would jeopardize the new, battle-hardened person she was. But in truth, she’d already decided. She had to go back to Alexandria's recruiter; Aaron. 

Chapter Text

Patience is a virtue. Or so Aaron thought after he’d followed Jess’s directions and located the distrustful and on edge group. He’d been warned of their reluctance to let anyone near them, but he hadn’t anticipated the level of fear he would witness. He sympathized, empathized even. He knew what it was like to be terrified on the outside of the walls. His job as a recruiter took him all over the place and as a result, he was unfortunate enough to have seen more than one horrific sight in his time. It took a lot of understanding and reasoning to get through to Rick, who by that point was just about done with allowing his group to endure any more near-death experiences. Some of the group were willing to take the chance, to see if what Aaron was promising really was real and Rick eventually agreed to it, mainly because he was rapidly becoming out numbered.

He’d located them in a Barn, sheltering from the rain. Their numbers were greater than he thought and he was surprised to see a baby with them. A precious, vulnerable detail that Jess had left out. Alexandria hadn’t seen a baby in a very long time and Aaron was pleased at the prospect of being able to bring such a tender, young life inside the walls and keep it safe from the world outside. Their journey back to the safe zone wasn’t without its issues. Walkers here, there and everywhere and a tetchy ex sheriff eyeballing him the whole way got tiresome rather rapidly. But he was determined to get them back to Alexandria and when he finally did, dusk was upon them.

Deanna was the town’s leader. An ex-congresswoman who was highly intelligent and intuitive when it came to people’s subtle strengths and weaknesses, those they tried and failed to hide from her observant eyes. She was fair, calm and had a lot of trust placed in Aaron’s abilities to tell a good person from a bad one. Multiple times, he’d proven her right, only this time he couldn’t take the credit.

As the gates rolled open, Jess was leaning against the side of Aaron’s house. She moved back into the shadows as she silently willed Rick to lead his group inside. But no one moved for what felt like an eternity. Deanna breezed out of her house and down the steps to her front porch with a smile on her face and her hands held out at her sides in a welcoming gesture. Jess couldn’t hear everything from her distance away but she could sense that everyone was uneasy about waltzing into a place they didn’t know, surrounded by high walls and a heavy gate with seemingly no escape.

She crossed her arms and waited, she wasn’t going anywhere until she was sure everyone was safely inside the gate and being given somewhere to sleep. Her wish came true when Rick stepped over the threshold and shook Deanna’s hand, although his eyes were everywhere but on her. He glared at the people on the sides of the street looking on, at the walls, at the houses and the faces in them. Her own eyes were on the tiny child strapped to his body. A baby girl. How could she not have noticed this before? Where did she even come from?

She could tell Rick had already noticed the lack of weapons on the townsfolk and wasn’t surprised in the slightest when he visibly recoiled when asked to surrender his gun. He wasn’t the only one. The big, ginger military looking guy with the mustache didn’t appear impressed at the idea, neither did Daryl. After some discussion between them and Aaron aiding Deanna in explaining why there would be no need to keep guns on them and that they could access them in the armory when they leave the safe zone, everyone slowly began to surge forwards, surrendering their weapons and placing them all on a metal cart, brought to the gate by Olivia, overseer of the food rations, armory and Alexandria’s answer to an excel spreadsheet.

Deanna urged them all to follow her so she could take them to their houses and Jess felt a small sense of pride in herself. Now, she didn’t have to fret about Daryl being killed. She wasn’t even sure why she still cared, but she couldn’t just switch it off. With no desire to change anything about her life, she intended to keep them arm’s length and never reveal her identity if she could help it. It wasn’t such a difficult task with the Alexandrian’s, they simply accepted her as she wanted to be. But Rick’s group had known her from another time. Daryl knew her. If she stuck to her own rules; no ties or connections to anyone, she wouldn’t have to change a thing. Or so she hoped.

She saw Aaron wandering over to her between wanting to watch the newcomers enter their houses and wanting to crawl through his own front door and collapse in bed after being out on the road for two days searching for them. Jess nudged her head up in acknowledgement.

“Well, you were right, it took a lot of convincing to get them here. They seem like a good bunch of people though.” He declared as he stopped in front of her.

“They are.” She replied in a whisper.

“Why didn’t you tell me they had a baby with them?” He questioned. His tone wasn’t accusatory, more surprised and Jess had to admit she was shocked at how she missed the newest member of the group. They had certainly done a great job of keeping her hidden.

“Because I didn’t know.” She told him with the shrug of one shoulder.

“We haven’t seen a baby in a long time. This is very exciting.”

Jess looked down at her gloved hands, the leather was fraying around the edges of her fingerless gloves. She plucked at the loose strands and nibbled on her lower lip behind her mask. Aaron sighed contentedly and crossed his arms.

“Thank you, Aaron.” She mumbled quietly.

She felt him suddenly turn to face her in surprise. It was unusual that she spoke much at all to anyone, let alone show such sincerity. Her sentences to the occupants of Alexandria were kept short and to the point, chit chat was no longer a part of her repertoire, it wasted time and formed connections she didn’t want the burden of. But she owed Aaron for the comfortable life she lived and the discretion with which she was allowed to live it.   

“What for?” he asked.

“For bringing them here.” She replied, motioning to the vanishing group with one hand, her vision still trained down on her gloves. “And for not mentioning me.”

“You’re distinctive. They’re going to see you at some point.” He informed her. Far be it for him to patronize her, he did feel the need to point out that as such a mysterious figure that everyone seemed to know of but no one actually knew, she would soon become the talk of the new group and with that, would undoubtedly come questions.  

“Maybe they will. But if it happens, it’ll be when it suits me.” She affirmed confidently, now glancing up at him.

“You have a history with them?” He asked carefully, aware he was treading on thin ice by probing into her train of thought.

“I was with them at the start. Left of my own accord.” Her eyes gradually worked back down, gazing at nothing in particular as she remembered the days at the quarry with a heavy heart and a sting of humiliation.

“Why am I not surprised?” Aaron smiled. “They’re going to figure out who you are one day.”

She returned her gaze to him, raising an eyebrow in amusement. But it was hard for him to read her due to only being able to see her eyes.

“I’ve lived here for weeks now; I sleep in your spare room and use your shower and you still don’t know what I really look like because you’ve never seen my face.” She pointed out with a certain degree of self-righteousness. It was true, she’d come and go as she pleased, always remembering her manners and ensuring to be a good house guest. But the mask never came off in the vicinity of other people. To show her face was to show a part of who she was and that was something she didn’t want anyone else to see ever again. If she ever ate at the house Aaron shared with his partner, Eric, she’d retreat to the spare room and thank them for their kindness upon returning her plate to the kitchen.

“You make a good point.” Aaron admitted with a nod.

“I know.”

He studied her eyes, their sudden twinkle and brightness that he’d rarely seen before except for when he’d attempted to tease her for something or Eric had tried to get her to discard her disguise by offering her tea, coffee and hard liquor for the millionth time. There was no way that the hospitality and genuine good souls of Aaron and Eric were not going to bring a smile to her face.

“I may not be able to see your face behind that mask but I’m pretty sure you’re smiling right now.” Aaron guessed.

“That’s correct.” She confirmed.

“I bet you’re really pretty too.” He grinned, nudging her elbow with his own.

“I’m not your type.” She commented as if she wasn’t beaming behind the black fabric and plastic that obscured her true identity.

“Headstrong and mildly irritating? I’d say you are.” Aaron laughed.

“I meant female.” She shot back with a wink. She raised her arm, offering her hand. “Seriously, thank you.”

 


 

That night, the new group found security and some semblance of safety together. They all occupied a corner of the living room in the one house despite being divided up and offered two separate houses by Deanna. The inability to trust anyone so readily was still raw, especially for Rick, who was not about to put his baby daughter and teenage son into a potentially dangerous situation. Others appeared to be willing to give the place and its people a chance, stating that it was worth a try for the safety of the walls, the most secure they’d been in a long time.

Daryl wasn’t sure. On the one hand, his loyalty to Rick dictated that he was likely to agree with him and while he did, it was only to a certain extent. To him, Carl and baby Judith deserved a roof over their heads and if Alexandria provided that, then the least they could do was try while still being on their guard. As was true of most of his life, Daryl also knew he didn’t fit in there and he found it difficult not to revert back to the hostile, angry redneck he was at the quarry. He was changing, he knew that much, but to him it was merely a matter of adapting and that was something he was wired to do regardless. The one thing he could not get his head around was the dark, imposing figure of the girl with the machete and bow who stopped him from being attacked by a dog. 

 

It was dark and most of the group were sleeping. Rick perched on the window ledge, watching over Judith as she slept in the first real crib that she’d had that wasn’t fashioned from crates of wood. Daryl remembered making her first one at the prison. A short supply run turned into a day long outing when Walkers made retrieving some wooden pallets from a parking lot all the more difficult with their heaving masses and determination to get at him when he climbed onto the roof of a military truck. But with a little patience and quick thinking, he got out of there in one piece and returned to the prison before dusk. It took over two hours to make the crib and the look on Carol’s face when he’d presented her with it made it all worthwhile. The death of Lori, Judith and Carl’s mother had sent Rick almost to the brink of insanity and while he was absent, talking to himself in the woods and disappearing for hours on end, Daryl was the one to step up and make sure that Judith had everything she needed while Carol and some of the others shared babysitting duties. He didn’t know he had it in him, but her tiny hands grasping his fingers and her big eyes peering back at him as he fed her formula that he’d almost died trying to scavenge changed something in him. He could actually get used to being ‘Uncle Daryl.’

He climbed up from his spot on the floor and headed outside. Those that were still awake didn’t acknowledge his movement and simply went back to staring into space or silently hoping that this would be it; that they wouldn’t have to move anymore. Daryl stepped outside, quietly closing the door behind him and pulled out his pack of smokes. He sparked up, inhaling deeply and waiting for the nicotine to seep into his bloodstream. Settling on the front steps, he reveled in the quiet.

 

Jess left Aaron and Eric’s place late that night after being given the third degree over how she knew the new group. She gave nothing away, merely telling them she used to know them once upon a time, swearing them to secrecy anyway and making her excuses to leave. The night was still and quiet with distant snarls rolling over the walls, the dim lights from the houses she passed lit her way with the light of the moon, which cast a glittering glow on the tarmac of the road. She adjusted the straps on her gloves as she took to the middle of the street, following the white line in the middle to the gate.

“Hey… you.” Came a voice from behind her. She halted and slowly turned around. She didn’t need to guess who it was; she knew that gravelly voice anywhere. He rose from the step and took a few steps closer to her, blowing smoke from his nose.

“I know you. From the road with the dogs. You live here?” He wanted to know.

Jess knew how smart Daryl was and that he’d figure out her real identity if she offered too much conversation or spent a great deal of time in close proximity to him. It was for this reason, that her response came as a small shake of her head.

“You tell Aaron ‘bout us?” He continued.

Her lack of reply grated on his nerves and he moved closer, resulting in Jess turning her body away from him to avoid him getting too clear a view of her eyes.  

“Cat got ya tongue?” He growled.

“I told him.” She uttered, pleased that her mask distorted her low-key response enough to render her unrecognizable. Her senses spiked when she heard him close in on her, standing mere inches from her body.

“The boy and the baby, they deserve a roof…” He started. To Jess, it felt like he was rasping right in her ear. Her chest tightened at the sound of his fierce protectiveness and want of a better life for the children in the group. “…but if any of these people try to hurt them, or any of us, we’ll kill ‘em all n’ we’ll take this place. Startin’ with you. You aint seen our bad side yet.”

Don’t threaten me, Dixon.

Jess gradually turned back to him, narrowing her eyes in the moonlight. Smoke billowed from his lips as he expelled a breath.

“And you haven’t seen mine.” She hissed before whirling around and striding towards the gate. She unhooked her bow from her torso and readied an arrow in preparation for whatever Walkers might be passing at that late hour. Daryl remained where he was with his cigarette balanced between his fingers and his mind full of questions. Who was she? Where did she come from? Why was she so familiar and why did she anger him so much?

 


 

The morning brought with it yet more questions for Daryl, who spent most of the night sitting on the porch and working his way through a pack of smokes, all the while staring at the spot in the street where he’d stopped the mysterious woman in the mask and hood who seemed to appear from Nowhere. There was something about her and every time he tried to figure it out, it only maddened him more. His instincts flared when he’d seen her that night, a fierce need to confront her overwhelming him until he found himself threatening her and receiving his own warning thrown back at him without an ounce of fear or distress. She was self-assured, confident in her actions but the mask and whole barrier in front of her identity told him that she hid secrets and maybe those secrets were as dark as his own.

Daryl never needed a lot of sleep; it wasn’t a blessing he’d been gifted in his childhood or teenage years. Yelling, drinking, drugs, violence all ensured that rest was a complete stranger to him and he went about his days with a slight sting in his eyes and a weariness in his bones but now he paid it no mind. It was the end of days, everyone was tired. After a short conversation with Carol on the front porch, he informed her that her new attire, which was typically mousey housewife, made her look ridiculous. She scoffed at him and threatened to hose him down if he didn’t shower, but he felt no need due to the gnawing idea that the whole town and people in it could turn out to be one, gigantic trap anyway. He wasn’t as paranoid as Rick, who had also been awake all night peering out of the front window and trying to figure out why such a community would be so generous and kind. But Daryl still had his reservations, especially at the request to surrender their weapons at the gate. That was another thing about her. The woman with the mask. She was allowed to keep hers.

He perched on the white railing to what would have been the perfect suburban home he would never have had before the turn. His attention was captured by Aaron, who was standing outside Deanna’s house obviously consumed in conversation with Abraham, the ex-military, handlebar mustache sporting warrior. He pulled his weight; Daryl had no qualms with him. But he did hope that he, along with the rest of the group wouldn’t become too trusting too quickly. Then, once again, she appeared.

Jess sauntered through the gate, tossing a string of rabbits at the first person she saw. The woman caught them with a stagger backwards and a rapid blink and stared down at them with surprise. Jess raised a hand, clicked her fingers and pointed to the pantry, to which the woman refrained to protest and obediently scurried off with her marching orders. It was evident to Daryl that the people of Alexandria saw her as some kind of intimidating figure who was not to be trifled with.

He watched from his spot as Aaron beckoned her over to them and formally introduced her to Abraham. Frustratingly, he missed her name as he stood up and moved closer on the porch, leaning against a pillar and peering around the wooden beam. She held out her hand, gaining a strong handshake from Abraham, who must have cracked a joke because Aaron laughed and to his surprise, so did she. Her face may have been obscured but the movement of her shoulders and the glint in her eye were obvious signs of her finding humor in whatever was said. He observed the short conversation before she appeared to excuse herself and made her way past them, hopping up the steps to Deanna’s house and vanishing inside. Abraham also moved off, wandering across the street and Aaron made off in Daryl’s direction. As he passed the house, the temptation became too great and Daryl walked the path to the sidewalk and stopped in front of Aaron, who glanced up with a broad and friendly smile.

“Hey, man. How was your first night?” He questioned.

“Fine.” Daryl grunted quickly “Didn’t tell us they’d be takin’ our guns”

He squinted in the morning sun, watching Aaron’s stubborn smile refusing to disappear at the sound of his disapproval and direct approach. He was not dropping the innocent façade, if it was one and Daryl considered that if they were all lying then they would possibly be the most convincing liars he’d ever encountered.

“You don’t need guns inside the walls. It’s safe here.” Aaron assured him.

“Ain’t nowhere safe no more” Daryl shot back.

Aaron’s face changed to a sympathetic expression which was laced with a thinly veiled hint of frustration. He sighed and shifted he weight to his other foot, glancing about the street and seeing other townsfolk start to go about their business. Some of which displayed similar distrust when they’d arrived. He reminded himself that people come around. Daryl may have been correct, nowhere was safe, but inside the walls they at least had a chance to keep living.

“Look, I understand your suspicions, but I think you’ll find this place is the exception.” He affirmed confidently.

“Hm.” Daryl hummed as he tried to detect any dishonesty in his eyes. If he’d learned anything in his time surviving the apocalypse, it was character judgement and try as he might, he couldn’t seem to pinpoint anything about Aaron that set alarm bells ringing. “Who’s the machete ninja?” he wanted to know.

Aaron had to think for a second about who was being referred to in such a way, when the pieces fell into place and he recalled his promises made the previous night.

“Oh, goes by the name ‘Parker’. She’s kind of illusive.”  He shrugged casually.

“Said she helped save our lives out there" Daryl pointed out.

Aaron had been informed of the series of events that had led to her guiding him to the group of survivors out on the road, starving and dehydrated. He’d promised not to give anything away unless she deemed it necessary and so his responses had to be thoroughly thought out before he opened his mouth and said the wrong thing.

“That doesn’t surprise me. She’s very capable, our best fighter. Dangerous, but still has a heart.”

“You know her well?” Daryl continued, his questions now sparking a slight concern in Aaron who, in that moment, opted to surrender just enough information to placate his interrogator.

“More that most. But she doesn’t do friendships and you’d be wise not to cross her. She has an agreement with Deanna, she helps us out with security, keeps the area around the walls as free of the dead ones as possible and in return we share medical supplies and food.”

Daryl and Aaron both looked over at Deanna’s house when they heard the door open and saw Jess fly down the stairs. She unhooked her bow from across her torso and nocked an arrow as she nodded at the gate guard, who began to heave the heavy structure open in order to let her leave.

“She lives here?” Daryl rasped from beside Aaron, both of them still observing her in the distance. He'd asked the same question directly to her, but wanted to see if the answer was true. 

“Oh, no. She has her own land. Protective over it too. No one is allowed near it. She sometimes stays the night here. Eric and I, we let her stay in our spare room, use our shower, that kind of stuff. Never seen her without the mask and hood though. I have no idea what she actually looks like. A modern-day caped crusader if you like.” He explained with an air of disappointment.

Aaron hoped that one day she would reveal her identity to him but was aware of how slim the chances were. Initially, she fascinated him and he bombarded her with questions until she shut down and refused to speak to him. Stating that he was to either shut up and carry on helping her reinforce the fences around her land or, she would shoot him and silence him the hard way. Taking no chances, he ceased his line of questioning and hadn’t resumed it so forcefully since. In return, she offered snippets of information, but only enough to imply that underneath it all, she had a sense of humor and a personality that he knew he would gel with given time and patience.

Never seen her face?” Daryl asked.

“Nope.” Aaron shook his head “But she’s smart and she’d hate me saying this but I trust her, she’s a friend to me if she likes it or not.”

It wasn’t much, but Daryl knew it would have to suffice in the meantime. He was still none the wiser, no closer to figuring out why she played on his mind and frustrated him with her incognito, enigmatic and irritating illusion.

 


 

The day’s seemed to go on forever while a heavy cloud of suspicion weighed on the newcomer’s arrival, the community, Deanna and Aaron all understood and made sure to give the group their space and let them find their own way. Aaron was always around to answer questions and Deanna held one to one interviews with everyone to determine which tasks would best suit their skillsets. That was the thing about Alexandria; everyone pitched in and nothing turned up free. There was even talk of a welcome party, although no one had expressed enough of an interest in making themselves vulnerable to the effects of alcohol just yet and so, it was postponed. 

Jess kept to the sidelines, moving through the shadows and avoiding any conversations or questioning. From her distance away and as she arrived and left over the course of the first week, she observed many interesting scenes. Some a lot more interesting than others. A plan was unfolding before her very eyes and she witnessed it with smugness. When Rick, Daryl and Carol all left the gate at different stages one morning, it wasn’t lost on her. She was smart enough to know they were up to something and she knew exactly what it was.

Following Rick through the trees, she kept her steps silent, carefully meandering over fallen branches, avoiding piles of crunchy leaves and keeping enough of a gap between them that she could easily duck out of sight should he turn around and scan his surroundings. Which he did. Multiple times. Rick was a cop and he wasn’t dumb enough to go for a stroll in the woods without being mindful of any potential threats.

A half-collapsed house appeared ahead of them and Jess shook her head inside her hood. Yes, she really did know what he was up to and felt a sting of pity when she thought of how easily she’d figured it out. Rick skirted around a tree and Jess halted in her tracks when she heard voices up ahead. She spun around, pressing her back to a trunk and straining to hear through the rustling of the leaves in the light wind.

“I’m sure they were right here.” Carols voice.

“They were.” Rick said “Keep looking.”

“Maybe a Walker came by and moved ‘em somehow. Lift that up, lemme see underneath.” Daryl instructed.

Jess boldly weaved out from her hiding spot and through the trees to the clearing in front of the house, not bothering to mask the sound of her footsteps any longer. She dragged the heavy back pack from her shoulders and stopped in the tree line. Clearing her throat loudly. All three of them quickly jumped into defensive stances, drawing their knives and seeing her unzipping the backpack. Guns tumbled out onto the grass, clattering against one another and drawing the horrified stares of the three people in front of her.

“Looking for these?” Jess asked.

“You” Daryl scowled “The hell you doin’ with our guns?”

“Next time you try to be deceptive, be smart about it.” She suggested bravely. “I’ve been watching you plan this all week.”

Daryl surged forwards; his jaw locked tight and his eyes ablaze with anger

“Who the hell are you?!” He raged. 

Rick shot an arm out, instantly halting him and easing him back to his pervious spot. Carol’s hand flew to her mouth while Jess, who was quite clearly the calm one, merely blinked and shifted her gaze to each of them in turn. She kicked a handgun with her boot, sending it scattering across the dusty, patchy ground.

“You want a gun? Here. Take it.” She instructed through her mask.

Rick’s eyes were flickering from the weapon she’d offered to what was visible of her unconcerned and cool face. If they wanted weapons, she was intent on proving to them that they did not need them. Rick swooped down, snatching up the pistol and checking the ammo.

“It’s loaded. They all are. I took the liberty of checking for you.” She mentioned.

As he stood there with the gun resting in his palm, he sensed Daryl's agitation from beside him. His breathing through his nose was becoming louder and he knew from enduring so many life or death situations with Daryl that when that happened, he was on the verge of making an impulsive decision. But before he could act, Daryl swiped the gun from his hand and pointed it at Jess.

“No!” Carol shouted. “Daryl, Put the gun down.”

Rick slowly raised his hands, opening up his palms in a submissive gesture, his mouth fell open and his eyebrow raised.

“Daryl. You don’t have to do this.”

“You talkin’ ‘bout? Huh?! None of us trust this freak!” he snapped.

Jess’s shell may have been almost impenetrable, but it was not perfect and his comment sent a shot of agony through her heart. She remembered the words he’d said, how she ‘didn’t mean shit’ to him, the devastating things Jodie and Sarah would whisper about her as she passed. Inside, she was still bearing the scars of such treatment, but outside, no one could tell.

“Haven’t we seen enough death, Daryl?” Carol reasoned.

Letting her words sink in, Rick kept quiet, his brow now beading with sweat as he inched closer. Jess felt Daryl’s intense and furious stare as if it were a hot poker burning away at her soul.

“Shoot me.” She challenged, unmoving and convinced that he would not pull the trigger.

“Stop” Rick ordered, his hand flying up at her. “You don’t know us. You’re putting yourself at risk” He turned his head back to Daryl “You don’t need to do this. Hey. Look at me.”

“I’m not in danger. I am the danger.” Jess informed them all. She threw the empty bag on top of the pile of smuggled guns and stepped back, ignoring the weapon that was still being pointed at her. With her whole being, she hoped that her mask would distort her voice enough to keep up her disguise as she spoke “You can have your precious guns and I won’t breathe a word to Deanna. But if you try anything like this again and put the people of that town in danger, if you jeopardize their safety in any way, I will single handedly destroy all of you.”

She wasn’t sure why such an extravagant and serious sentence had left her lips, but what she was sure of, was that she wouldn’t have hurt any of them. Her aim was to strike some sense into them, to make them see that what they’d been given was a blessing in such a harsh world and they were taking advantage of it. Before anyone could speak or come up with an equally as threatening retort, Jess fled into the trees and Rick slapped the gun from Daryl’s hand.

“We can’t just go around shooting people. Not unless we have to.” Rick scolded as Daryl skulked off a few feet away. Carol knelt down and set to dropping the guns back into the bag.

“I don’t like her.” Daryl grumbled. “Somethin’ ‘bout her.”

“I don’t trust any of them, least of all her. I didn’t even know she was still around. But if we get trigger happy, we’re screwed. We’re vastly outnumbered and even with this bag we’re out gunned. And…” He trailed off, reluctant to finish his sentence “…As much as I hate to admit it, she helped us out on the road.”

“She also said she helped me get you out of Terminus.” Carol called over her shoulder.

“How do we even know that’s the truth?” Daryl argued at Carol “I didn’t see her, did you?”

Carol zipped the bag up and slung it over her shoulder, its weight made her slouch to the side and her floral, stepford wife outfit seemed more out of place than ever.

“No. But something tells me she’s good at not being seen. None of us picked up on the fact that she knew exactly what we were doing today. She was watching us all week and we didn’t know. She knows things. She sees things. We have to be careful. She's like 1984 personified.” She scoffed.

Rick retrieved the pistol from the ground and shoved it into the back of his belt, nudging his head up for Daryl and Carol to follow him back to Alexandria. He didn’t need to tell them where they were going or with what plan, they already knew. They had no choice but to return the guns and surrender to the failure of their strategy, or they risked being outsmarted and potentially massacred.


 

The group saw Jess intermittently over the next couple of days while they settled, which began to happen, slowly but surely. Deanna dished out jobs and most were accepted gratefully, everyone had a role, all except Daryl who baffled Deanna so much she’d watched the tape of his interview several times. On one occasion, she’d even asked Jess what her take on him was. In order to maintain her anonymity and apparent indifference to him, she simply expressed that she thought he was more suited to being outside the walls. As a result, Deanna eventually tasked him with hunting the community’s food, a job that Jess had been doing since her own arrival at the town. She made sure to stay well away on her own hunting trips, so much so, that Daryl had no idea she was even around when she watched him from afar. His hunting prowess was second to none and he was such an effective and observant tracker that she almost got herself caught more than once.

It was on one of these hunting trips that Jess found herself distracted while tracking an Opossum. The growling and chest bubbling noises of Walkers quickly set her on guard and instead of running away from the dead, she ran towards them and was determined to rid the area of such a plague. As her boots thudded on the dry and cracked ground and she jumped over fallen branches and shoved through bushes, other sounds slowed her down.

Daryl and Rick were back to back, knives drawn and slowly circling. Walkers surrounded them, being put down one by one but through a slow and tiring process. Jess quickly equipped her machete and surged through the trees with enough time to swing with all her might and completely decapitate a Walker. It’s head was sliced clean off and Jess gripped onto its hair, dragging it’s gnashing teeth away from Rick’s arm while his other one was busy trying to dislodge his knife from the skull of another disease ridden corpse.

She stepped back, watching the body drop to the floor as Daryl finished stabbing the dead ones around him, the Walker head was still gripped in her hand as blood dripped onto the dust and it's teeth carried on grinding together. Rick spun around, his boots scuffing against the ground and his eyes wide with shock.

“You two were following me” She stated.

Daryl and Rick exchanged a glance as Daryl wiped the blood from his knife on his jeans and collected his crossbow, which lay on the ground by his feet. Rick wiped his brow with the back of his hand and quickly took in the bodies that littered the floor. He counted six but suspected more were on the way. He turned back to Jess.

“We just want to talk to you.”

“So, talk.” She snapped, dropping the head to the ground with a squelch.

“Ya name’s Parker, right? Why don’t ya live at Alexandria?” Daryl cut in as he stepped closer to her. She responded by stepping back, telling him in no uncertain terms that closing in on her was not going to be tolerated.

“I have my own home.” She told him.

“Where?” He quickly barked back.

Rick could hear the anger rising in his voice once more and readied himself for yet another tense encounter.

“Is this an interrogation? Because you’re advised against it.” She asked, her eyes flickering across both of their faces. Daryl’s was now older, even after just over a year, his hair was longer and his body, much like her own had changed to adapt to his new life. His arms were stronger and he appeared altogether more fighter like than ever before. His glare was fixed on her.

Those bright, blue eyes.

Rick moved in front of Daryl, who accepted the notion and backed off, trusting his friend to handle the situation better than he had last time they’d ran into her in the woods.

“It’s not. We’re just trying to figure you out.” Rick assured her with a tone that less glowing with rage than Daryl’s.

“You and everybody else.” She replied.

“Walls, food, medical care, nice houses. Why choose to live away from Alexandria? It’s doesn’t make any sense.” Daryl questioned over Rick’s shoulder.

“People die. Then, they get up and eat other people. Nothing makes sense anymore.” She pointed out while looking right at him by default and feeling her heart lurch.

Careful. He will figure you out.

“If you don’t live there, there must be a reason. You don’t trust them?” Rick probed.

“You can trust them.” She told him. She was deliberately avoiding some questions with the intention of making it common knowledge that conversation with her was going to be strained at best, if it was ever allowed in the first place. She had the control; she’d worked hard for it and she was not about to give it to either of them.

“Where d’ya learn to fight like that?” Daryl wanted to know.

“An old friend.” She said bluntly, looking at Rick “If you have any more questions, I suggest you arrest me.”

Both men stayed quiet meaning Jess took her cue to leave. Half of her wanted to sprint away from them, to curl up in her own shroud of mystery, her lack of identity which meant she didn’t have to acknowledge the fact that Daryl’s eyes were still so blue and his reckless, impulsivity was still ever present, but he’d matured somehow and showed a courage that she always knew was there. What she didn’t expect, was to feel proud of him for it. She strode over the fallen bodies in the direction she’d ran in from.  

“Wait.” She heard Daryl say from behind her. She stopped but didn’t grace him with anything else, her vision was skimming the path she was going to take.

“Who are you?” His voice was louder and she knew he was right behind her. She licked her lips and thought back to the first time she’d introduced herself to the hostile redneck of the camp. How brave she’d felt at that moment despite his short and curt responses.

I’m not her anymore. I am a better ghost than I am a human being. 

“Nobody.”

Chapter Text

A daily routine had become commonplace for Jess in order to preserve her sanity and to prevent her from overthinking and dwelling on the lives she’d taken, the people she’d lost and the one person she couldn’t help but think of when she was alone. He angered her. Who did he think he was? How dare he still consume her thoughts. Even when he wasn’t in front of her, walking through Alexandria or sat on his front porch where he smoked or watched the world go by with baby Judith, he was still bothering her. Her mind was fraught with mixed emotions. She missed him, she hated him, she cared about him and the thing that irritated her the most, was her constant need to be near him.

She didn’t know if he had any idea who she was but his abrupt and rude treatment of her was telling enough. Even if he had a clue, he couldn’t be sure and to him, she was still the strange, quiet woman in the mask that he had very little trust in. But as with most things, time began to mend the sharp, jagged shards of the relationship between them and after three weeks, they barely uttered a word to one another unless they were forced to work together on something for Deanna. Basic conversation and one-word answers were accepted as the limit of their interaction but the more time Jess spent near him, the more she felt the raging urge to reveal who she really was.

The snappy remarks ceased but the suspicious glares continued and with each time she felt his eyes on her, she felt the rising anxiety in her chest. The same anxiety that she felt back at the quarry, fueled by her intense crush on him. That was something else that angered her; how he’d somehow managed to go to hell and back and come out better looking for it. Jess had lost weight, there was no if’s and but’s about it, but that meant little when all of the same insecurities remained. Hiding behind armor and a mask meant that although it couldn’t be seen, she still felt them like a blade to her skin.

Part of her daily routine was to clear the Walkers from around the town’s walls. Small numbers gathered, attracted to noise from the gate and the houses on the inside. Once she’d done a clean sweep, she’d pick off any animals that could be used for food. Killing Walkers was probably Jess’s forte in life now, born from endless days of working her way through a city looking for food and supplies in order to live another day. She used the wanderers in the streets as daily practice, much like she still did with the Walkers around the walls through a reluctance to become complacent. Ben provided her with her one on one, Walker killing training while the corpses gathered below, waiting for the next noise to follow were where she gained enough skill to deal with more than one at once. She’d made mistakes, almost got herself killed once or twice, dropped her weapons, been bitten and thanked the stars above that she had armor covering her forearm at the time. But through her mistakes she prevailed, improved and learned valuable lessons. The main one being to never become backed into a corner.

She flicked her Machete towards the floor, dispelling the coagulated blood from the blade. It painted a dark, crimson, dotted line in the dust as she walked over it, attaching the weapon to her belt and arming her bow. For the past week, she’d noticed the numbers of squirrels and rabbits declining. Walkers were only able to capture a certain amount due to their lumbering frames and clumsiness and so, the decreasing numbers pointed to one thing; their habitat was changing and they were not breeding as rapidly as before. That morning, she’d only seen one squirrel which had managed to escape as purely a matter of timing, it had seen her before she’d spotted it. She tilted her head back, squinting in the sun as the small animal raced across the branches and she considered that there would be no squirrel stew for at least a week at this rate. Lowering her vision, she froze when a figure emerged from the trees in her path.

Daryl lowered his crossbow, the desire to point sharp weapons or firearms at her now all but a distant memory, although her snarky attitude and standoffish responses to his necessary conversations when they were forced to work together prodded at his temper. She was infuriating, impossible but still fascinating.

She also let her bow drop and her shoulders relaxed. She continued along her path, undeterred by his presence, as she approached him, he backed up and they circled around one another with a split second of eye contact that Jess quickly put a stop to. As he turned and ambled away from her, the image of his angel winged vest consumed her with nostalgia and memories of days spent in the woods, learning from him and admiring his courage and strength. Nights sitting a top of the RV, sharing playful digs at one another and enjoying comfortable silences. Her heart lurched and she grit her teeth under her mask.

Why can’t I hate you?

“You won’t find any animals this close to the walls.” She called out to him. He stopped and she picked up on him nod, almost to himself. As if he was expecting some kind of comment. “If the Walkers don’t get them, I do and their numbers are declining.”

Daryl shifted to face her and slung his crossbow over his shoulder. The muscular terrain of his arm as it held onto the strap sent a wave of annoyance through her.

You’re stronger than this. Stop looking at him like that.

“You hunt” He grunted. An obvious statement. He knew she hunted; he knew she hunted because Deanna asked her to. But he wanted to hear it from her.

“Every morning. I’m not as good as you.” She expressed. “You’re an exceptional tracker. It’s very impressive.”

The compliment had left her lips before she’d had time to register it. Like some kind if default setting that couldn’t be changed. There was no lie in her observations, Daryl was excellent at what he did and as he was an intuitive and effective tracker, Jess’s abilities were in moving, unseen and observing. Having spent so long in the city and sharing it with thousands of Walkers, she’d become adept at slinking through the darkness and becoming nothing but a faint echo. It minimized her need to fight and allowed her to pass by some groups of survivors without them ever knowing she was there. Daryl shifted his weight from one leg to the other, his expression bemused.

“How do you know that?” He asked.

Jess shrugged, outwardly collected but inwardly raging with nerves at such a frank and spontaneous chat. She had not planned this and cursed herself for following her heart and not her head. She fiddled with the arrow in her hand, twirling the thin piece of wood between her fingers and tapping it against her thigh. When she saw his vision drop to her nervous display, she immediately ceased moving and hoped he wouldn’t remember how she used to tap her thigh when she was nervous from before.

“I’ve seen you.”

“Right. Yeah. You see everything, don’t ya?” He commented in a tone laced with disapproval.

“You’re a good tracker. I’m a good ghost.” She reasoned.

He grunted and lifted his other hand which reached up and rubbed at the back of his shoulder. Already in turmoil over what to say or not say next and in the middle of figuring out how she felt about delivering such a sudden compliment to him, she turned, sighed loudly and walked ahead.

“Thanks” He said loudly “For the compliment”

Slowly but surely, Daryl’s guard was diminishing and he was starting to believe that the masked ghost of Alexandria wasn’t actually out to hurt anyone. Logic told him that if her intentions had indeed been of malice, he would have seen some death and destruction by now and all he’d really seen was how hard she worked to maintain her end of the deal she had with Deanna. As he’d stopped making snappy remarks to her, in turn, she’d followed suit, although she was still very much an ice queen. He shook his head and half smiled when he saw her raise a hand as she walked away, gesturing to him that she’d heard him.  

 

An hour later and Jess’s efforts had turned up two rabbits that wouldn’t go further than feeding one household for lunch. Alexandria had its rations, tins and non-perishables that were reserved and only given out in accordance with strict distribution rules that were made to be fair and just for all. But when the town had enough meat, food went further. Dishes could be made in bulk and collected from the pantry each afternoon and Jess admittedly felt a sense of pride when she was able to bring back something as big as a buck. But it had been a long time since she’d acquired such a prize and now, with Daryl’s hunting expertise, she could only hope that he would have more luck than her. But not too much, she didn't want to be shown up, after all.

After pausing briefly to adjust to the heat, footsteps in the distance rendered her motionless, she strained to hear, turning her ear to the direction the steps echoed from. Then, the sounds of panting and panicked scuffing on the ground. She sprang to her feet, readying her bow and charging through the trees, branches whipped at her legs and torso, the result dulled by her thick, now mainly leather armor. As she drew closer, she could see a Walker staggering around in a clearing, grappling with a live human who was grunting and trying to show it away. Her mouth dropped open inside her mask when it occurred to her that she knew the person.

She raised her bow, lining up the dead man's head as a target and steadied her breathing. It had to be a good shot, not one of her lesser, slightly off target attempts. The man's clothing caught her eye. The same maintenance uniform that Ben had been wearing back at her apartment in the city. But it wasn't the time for reminiscing. She breathed out slowly, releasing the string and hearing the sickening thud of the arrow embedding its self into the side of the Walkers head. It stepped back and dropped, revealing a red-faced and breathless Carl scrambling backwards across the ground and throwing up dead leaves as he moved. Jess slowly approached him, checking on the lifeless Walker crumpled on the floor first. It was a rule of her own, always double check the bodies. She’d learned the hard way while training with her bow that while a shot my seem as though it’s worked, the arrow may not penetrate the softened skull enough to cause trauma to the brain, meaning the Walker still moves and can still get up. She looked down at the terrified boy at her feet and held out her hand.

“What are you doing outside the walls, kid?” She demanded.

“I saw a girl climb over. I was looking for her… to see if she’s OK.” He rambled as he gripped her hand and allowed her to help him to his feet. He dusted off his clothes and Jess plucked a leaf from his sheriff’s hat.

Still wearing daddy’s hat.

“Enid .” She said bluntly.

Carl startled at the sound of the girl’s name.

“Yeah, how do you-?” He started

“-She’s fine. I’ll walk you to the gate.”

Jess was performing one of her earlier clear ups of the area around the walls when she’d first noticed Enid scale the high structure and drop down the other side. It had only been a week since Jess agreed with Deanna to trial an understanding between them and in that week she’d gathered a lot of information about certain people. Enid being one of them. It was obvious the girl was traumatized and trying to work through some heavy issues, much like Jess was when she’d settled in the safety of her city apartment. She understood the need for space and so spent time keeping a watchful eye over the teenager as she found a spot in the woods and settled, needing to just…be.

It wasn’t in Jess’s plan to get caught looking out for Enid, more it was a clumsy accident when she tripped over one of her own snare traps and looked up to find the girl staring at her in horror. Jess shoved away her own embarrassment and cleared her throat.

“I get why you need to be out here sometimes.”

Was all she said and within seconds it was like an unwritten contract that passed between them. Edith could leave the town whenever she wanted and as long as she didn’t take any unnecessary risks or venture too far, Jess would watch over her.  

Carl suddenly stopped, dropping back from Jess who slowly turned her head to see him stood still with his hands in his pockets, his eyes bright and confidently trained on hers.

“You still think Dr Strange can fix all this?”

Jess’s entire body flooded with dread. Shit. He knows.

“I knew it was you on the road. I just didn’t say anything.”

An involuntary whoosh of air left her lungs and she almost buckled over. If Carl had figured it out so soon, then who else was in possession of such knowledge and keeping it to themselves? Was her entire plan blown? Would she have to come clean to everyone? To Daryl? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, composing herself and standing back up straight.

“Who else have you told?” She questioned.

“Nobody.” He replied as he kicked dried leaves around with his sneaker.

“Keep it that way.” She ordered.

Carl surged towards her, his hands now shooting up from his pockets and into the air beside him.

“Why?! They will be so happy to see you!”

Jess flinched away, almost with disgust at a big, family reunion where everyone fake smiled and pretended everything was perfect because it wasn’t perfect, it was far from it. No one missed her and she didn’t matter. She knew that much. So, what was the point in any of them knowing?

Then there was Daryl. For old times sake, for all the good times they had, she wanted him to know the truth. But a simple, overheard sentence and a lack of action to defend her reminded her that he didn’t even care about her in the first place, so why would it be any different over a year later?

“No one is happy to see me, Carl. I’ve found a way of surviving that suits me. No ties, no emotional manipulation. Just me. You need to stay out of the woods. It’s not safe. Come on.” She told him, carrying on towards the gate.

“No!” he yelled at her. “You need to tell them! You don’t know what we’ve been through, we need this. This is good news. We need good news. You’re alive. All this time we thought you were dead.” Jess stared at him in shock. Not only was he yelling at her, he was trying to make her believe that any of them cared about her enough to actually be happy she was there. “What about Daryl? He was your friend and I know he’d be happy to see you. He looked for you!”

“You don’t know anything, Carl. Not really.” She mumbled sadly.

“I’m not a kid anymore, Jess. I had to grow up pretty fast. Please, tell them who you are.” He pleaded.

“I’ll think about it. Now move before I have to knock you out and drag you back by your arm.”

Silenced by her stubbornness and flat refusal to follow his request, he stomped along behind her, dragging his feet and looking up at their surroundings every now and then for any sight of the girl he’d followed over the wall.  

“So…Enid…” He mentioned warily, hearing Jess sigh loudly. She wasn’t going to get away with offering no explanation as to how she knew her and could be so certain that she was safe enough.

“She comes out here sometimes. She’s used to being on the outside, sometimes she just needs it to keep her sane. You don’t need to follow her. I keep an eye on her.” She explained.

“You two friends?”

“No. We have this unspoken rule, that’s all.”

“Do you have any friends?” Carl continued.

Jesus, kid. Easy with the questions.

Feeling her temper fray, she told herself that Carl was inquisitive and curious, the world around him had changed at a rapid pace and humanity it’s self was changing, becoming worse in some areas and there was no doubt he was going to have questions about near enough everything. Right at that moment, his attention was focused solely on the dramatic change in Jess.

“I told you. I don’t have ties to anyone or anything.” She replied.

From her peripheral vision, she saw his curiosity step up to the next level as he sped up and began walking at the same pace to gain a better view of her armor and weapons. It was just Carl, but she was still self-conscious, not that she would ever show it on the outside.

“You got pretty badass.” He commented with a pursed lip and a nod. “That mask is cool. You sound totally different. What is that? Army issue or something? You have a kinda Mad Max thing going on.”

Her head slowly worked to the side and she raised an impressed eyebrow at him.

“Your dad let you watch Mad Max?” She asked.

“No” He grinned.

Jess stopped walking and looked down her nose at him. He could tell she was smiling behind her mask, his own grin staying put.

“That’s cool, I’ll take that. Thanks, Man.” She chuckled, gently punching him playfully in the shoulder. For the first time in a long time, a glimmer of the old Jess worked it’s way through her iron defenses and reveled in a moment of humor and jest with Carl. The connection to who she really was became stronger the more she observed Carl smiling brightly back at her.

“You look different. Good different.” He stated

“What are you, like a teenager now?” She queried as she slowly carried on towards the gate. He took the hint and walked by her side.

“Just turned Thirteen.”

“Thirteen, huh? No wonder you’re chasing girls through the woods.” She quipped.

“It’s-it’s not like that. I-”

“It’s a joke, Carl. Chill your beans.”

 

The rest of the morning heralded hardly any results for Jess as she slogged through the high temperatures, desperately trying to find something else she could present as food. But the area seemed to be stripped bare and she began to convince herself that if the community was to continue to thrive, it needed to widen it’s geographical hunting area.

As she waited by the gate for the guard to signal down, Daryl emerged from in between two derelict houses with a large deer draped over his shoulders and his crossbow swinging from one of his hands by his side. Sweat covered his arms, chest and face and she figured he’d carried it through the thick heat from some distance away.

By comparison, Jess felt about two inches tall as she waited patiently with her two rabbits hanging on string from her grip. Humiliation flooded through her and she let out a long and seething breath while Daryl stood next to her and squinted at the argument that ensued behind the gate, where man and woman were shamelessly debating who’s turn it was to be on the gate while the two hunters lingered on the other side.

Jess attempted to throw a casual glance Daryl’s way. To be able to see her past the hulking deer across his broad shoulders he had to turn his torso.

“Nice white tail.” She commented in an attempt to brush off her embarrassment at her feeble prize.

“Thanks” He remarked in reply. “Nice cotton tails”

Behind her mask, Jess smiled.

Asshole.

Daryl sucked both lips into his mouth, stifling a smirk and turning his body to face the gate again. As the couple behind the barrier began to escalate their fight, Jess and Daryl stood side by side. The need to explain herself was overwhelming. She’d presented herself as capable and smart and now, he was going to think that she’d spent all morning hunting and only turned up with two small game. It was true, but she didn’t want him to think that.

“I had a bad morning.” She said quietly.

“OK” he nodded, now failing to hide his smile which Jess had picked up on when from the corner of her eye when he swayed slightly with the deer, revealing a decent view of his face. She heard the gate lock release and strode forwards, slipping through the gap on the way to the pantry and making sure she put a decent distance in between them before she let herself chuckle quietly at the situation.

That’s the last time I compliment his tracking skills.

 


 

Deanna’s first house meeting with the new group was organized with the main point on the agenda being to find out how everyone was settling in after almost three weeks in their new homes. She asked for updates with all of their jobs, ideas to improve the town and revised the security detail after Rick pointed out that an unmanned rifle up in the watchtower was going to do diddly squat to deter any potentially hostile groups of survivors.

Jess usually didn’t bother with Deanna’s meetings. Preferring to hang around until they finished and take the chance to catch up with the town’s leader on a one to one basis. A weekly report was all Deanna asked of her. Walker numbers around the community, any sightings of live people they should be concerned about, hunting success or lack thereof. Then, Jess would bid her farewell and go back to her daily routine which, after her morning perimeter walks and hunting was mainly hers to do with as she pleased. Most of her time was spent at her fairground home, which she used as her haven away from the world. She’d worked hard on it and over the weeks it had become more than comfortable, it was cozy and she couldn’t think of a single reason why she would ever want to leave it.

As she hopped up the steps of Deanna’s front porch, she picked fur and dried blood from her gloves, so engrossed in her task that she failed to notice the room full of people she casually walked into when she entered the living room. Her eyes slowly rose from her gloves to the many shoes and boots in front of her. Then, up to the 13 or so strong group that filled the room. The quiet was deafening and if she wasn’t wearing a hood and mask, her alarm would have been all the more evident.

“Ah. Parker! Please come in. We were just discussing how everyone was settling in” Deanna cried enthusiastically. “Won’t you sit?”

“Right. No. I’m good here.” Jess quickly dismissed, backing up to the nearest wall and using it for support.  

“Would you like to tell everyone what your role is here?”

Not really.

“Um… I keep the perimeter clear of Walkers. I don’t live here. I have my own land at a Fairground around ten minutes’ walk from here and you’d all do well to keep your distance. I shoot anyone that steps foot past my fences without permission. There are traps, snares and explosives around my home. So, you stay on your side, and I’ll stay on mine.”

Blank faces peered back at her from around the room, all but Carl who was grinning from ear to ear. Jess avoided his gaze as best she could, knowing that his beaming face would shatter her thin composure. Jess saw Abraham let out a quiet chuckle and shake his head. He leaned over to the woman beside him, Rosita and whispered into her ear. Hardly a lip-reading genius, Jess was still sure she witnessed him say ‘She’s a firecracker.” Rosita who couldn’t have looked more unimpressed shot him a death glare before rolling her eyes.

“That wasn’t quite the explanation I had in mind but, thank you.” Deanna said awkwardly.

At the back of the room, Aaron smirked and Eric nudged him in the ribs. They were used to Jess’s blunt and bossy attitude more than most after having spent more time with her than anyone else. But the fact that she was softer and more relaxed with them behind closed doors was not lost on them. They considered it a privilege, even if she was still a huge mystery to them.  

Almost forgetting the reason she’d turned up at the house in the first place, Jess stepped forwards and summoned up the courage to speak before lifting a hand and making sure her mask was securely in place.

“I have a request.” She announced at Deanna, who nodded graciously and allowed her to continue. “My truck is broken and I need to travel further outside of the safe zone in order to hunt and bring back more food. The numbers of animals around here is dwindling, the Walkers are getting some of them but it seems the others just aren’t breeding. I’d like to suggest the building of pens and cages to house animals that can be bred.”

“That’s a good idea.” Rick added “We need to think long term. We just need more land.” Carol nodded in agreement from his side on the couch and scribbled something down in a notebook she was holding.

“Deanna, could we maybe move the walls further out somehow?” Aaron offered.

Deanna studied the faces of everyone that had spoken, her mind ticking over so obviously that no one else dared to interrupt. Jess was pleased at the reaction to her idea, initially thinking it would be ignored or brushed to the side like she always used to be. Back before the turn.

“It’s possible. But it will take a lot of work and the risks of the danger outside during the process are great.” Deanna explained.

“We can help. Build temporary pens for now. In fact, I’ll oversee it.” Rick offered.

“Me too.” Abraham agreed.

Jess noticed more and more people nodding, willing to lend a hand. Deanna’s eyes fixed on her.

“Parker, you know the rules-”

“-Oh, don’t give me that, Deanna. I’ll be fine.” Jess scoffed to the surprise of everyone else. Her attitude towards Deanna was always respectful, but bordering on exasperated due to having to follow so many rules and regulations. She admired her as a leader, how she had this grand vision of how she wanted the community to be, how they would become totally self-sustainable and completely protected. It was all castles in the sky to Jess, but she had to give her credit for her dream.

“We do not allow anyone to venture outside of the safe zone surrounding this town on their own. Every time we have in the past, we’ve lost someone.” Deanna reminded her.

“Yeah, well I’m not just ‘anyone’. I lived out there alone for a long time. You can make an exception to this rule.” Jess argued.

Alexandria’s rules grated on Jess at first. She’d refused to give up her bow and Deanna let it slide, reasoning that as she looked after their security, she needed it. But Jess was expected to abide by the geographical boundaries established by Deanna and her late husband. She believed they kept people safe and out of the sights of any dangerous, rival groups. It also meant that deaths by Walkers were kept to a minimum and anyone that wanted to cross the boundaries was required to do so in the company of another person, disclose fully the position on the map they would occupy and a time frame for their trip. Like everyone else, Deanna was tired of losing people and felt each death like it was personal to her. So, the rules were upheld and it was something she was not going to budge on.

“Parker, you are an exception to a lot of our rules, you know that. I allow you to come and go as you please with that bow and that blade and I say nothing. But I can’t sway on this one. You have become too valuable to this community. We can’t lose you.”

Jess huffed and shook her head, painfully away of the room of eyes all pointed at her.

“You can go and I will agree for you to take one of the trucks. But you will take someone else with you.”

“For god sakes.” Jess complained under her breath. “You know I can-”

“-I’ll go.” Daryl interrupted from the window ledge. Until that point, Jess wasn’t even aware he was in the room. He’d said nothing and simply observed as things unfolded around him. Until something piqued his interest.

“Mr. Dixon, that is kind of you.” Deanna smiled.

“Seriously?” Jess sighed. “I don’t need a fucking babysitter.”

“Language, please, Parker.” Deanna scolded.

“I know this terrain. We go out, get some animals. Get it done. Sooner the better, seasons changin’.” Daryl expressed

“Then you have my approval. The two of you can take one of the large trucks from the street. You’ll have to rig it up with straps and cages, or any animals you catch will be battered to death by the time you get back. Take the appropriate weapons from Olivia in the armory and please give me a rough idea of when you intend to return.”

“Jesus” Jess hissed under her breath.

What have I got myself into?!

Daryl got up from the windowsill and caught Rick’s eye. Jess could hear a quiet conversation about what animals they were likely to find and be able to trap and how much space would be needed while everyone else in the room began to converse amongst themselves before gradually filtering out of the room.

Jess found herself stalking across the street, put out by Daryl’s intervention and having to accept that she would be spending at least an entire day with him if not longer. It meant she would not be able to remove her mask or hood for the duration of the trip and conversation would be kept basic.

She recoiled and whirled around when someone tugged at the leather bracer on one of her forearms. Carl was standing before her, his hands up and open, signaling he hadn’t anticipated such a strong reaction.

“Sorry” He apologized.

“It’s fine. What do you want?” She snapped. He moved closer to her, taking a brief glimpse over both shoulders to make sure the group were a safe distance away. They were now filtering back towards their homes and duties.

“Why didn’t you tell them? That was the perfect opportunity.” He wanted to know.

Frustration welled in her chest and for a moment she turned her body away, needed to compose herself so she didn’t explode at the kid in the middle of the street. The sun beat down on his tatty sheriffs’ hat and his big eyes pleaded with her. It was tempting and that was what was starting to get to her.

“I never agreed to tell them in the first place. Let it go, Carl.” She retorted, stepping away from him. He moved to the side, blocking her path and challenging her, she blinked at him in disbelief.

“At least tell Daryl when you go to get the animals. You’ll be alone with him. It’s perfect.”

Jess leaned down to him, inches from his face and jabbed a finger at his chest.

“No, Carl.” She growled.

Carl, undeterred by her resistance and even more determined than ever, noticed Daryl approach from behind her and deliberately raised his voice.

“Just tell Daryl!” He cried.

“Tell me what?” Daryl’s voice from behind her almost pushed her off the edge. Now clinging to the last threads of her temper, she grit her teeth and stepped back with both of them in her view.

“Uh…That you’re gonna have to keep up so I can keep an eye on you.” She lied.

Daryl looked confused for a moment as a memory hit him out of the blue. He was in the woods with Jess, back at the Quarry, teaching her how to survive. He’d used the exact same phrase. He shook his head, trying to shake away the longing he still felt for her sometimes. Longing for a conversation with her again, for her understanding of who he was, for her tuneful giggle at his attempt at humor. He hated thinking about her now, it only brought sadness and regret. He wished he didn’t think about her at all. But he did. Every single day.

“Aint no danger of that.” He corrected, pushing away his thoughts of before. “Deanna gave me this.” He held up a map. “Should talk about where we’re gonna hit.”

Carl nudged Jess in the arm and shot her wink before he walked away. Daryl caught the small gesture but paid it no mind, It had come to his attention that she was more willing to talk to everyone else than she was to him. Abraham seemed to happily receive any humorous remarks she made, Carl apparently had some kind of private joke with her, Aaron and Eric’s house was where she slept some nights and Deanna was the only one that could order her around and get away with it.

“OK. Fine. I’ll meet you on your front porch in ten minutes.” She told him. She hadn’t even realized that her legs were already taking her in the opposite direction. A subconscious reaction that meant she needed to put some distance in between them even just for a few minutes before she had to resume the pretense that she didn’t know him from Adam and that she wasn’t altogether maddened by his volunteering to be a part of her mission. If she was honest with herself, the flicker of excitement in the pit of her stomach refused to simmer down and she knew she would be forced to sit with the conflict through the entire trip.

 


 

Daryl spent more time on the front porch than inside the house and he spent more time outside in the woods than inside with the community. Always an outcast where ever he was. He frequently sought solace in being alone, something he’d been more than comfortable with since he was a child.

Some nights consisted of carving bolts and sharpening his hunting knives, readying himself for the next hunt. Others were less intentional and a pack of smokes and a shallow tumbler of hard liquor was the only thing he had to occupy himself. In the early evenings, he’d sit with Judith on his lap and read to her. A past time he’d grown fond of and didn’t expect to enjoy as much as he did. Try as he might, he couldn’t understand why Judith appeared to fall into a fascinated silence as soon as he opened the book, but it was the one part of the day that Carol, Carl and Rick got to pass her onto her ‘Uncle Daryl’ and wait until she fell asleep.

He’d scoffed at the title when Carol first coined it. He never gave a thought to being an uncle at any point in his life, figuring that Merle was more likely to conceive a life sentence over a child. But his close friendship with Rick led to him gaining a new brother and in turn, a family he was ferociously protective over.

Upon leaving Carl and Parker in the street, he settled in his usual seat on the porch and smoked a cigarette while he waited. Through the gaps in the houses opposite he could see her, the flash of the machete blade shining in the suns rays as she paced slowly back and forth. Her hand jabbed at her thigh as she wandered, an obvious stress reaction. Her head was low, her face obscured as always. He had so many questions. Some, he may never ask. The main one playing on his mind as he watched her ritualistic pacing; why are you so nervous?

When she arrived, Jess raised a hand in greeting to Daryl as she climbed the steps and pulled out the chair across the table from him, placing her bow against the house beside her. She settled down and got to the task in hand by scanning the map that was open on the table between them. Her eyes threatened to lift to his face more than once, but she resisted, knowing that their icy blueness would only scatter her thoughts and risk exposure.

“Said you know the terrain.” She mentioned. “How well?”

“Pretty well.” He replied, leaning forwards in his seat and placing a finger on a dark area of the map. Dense woodland surrounded by fields. “Right here is the best chance we got. These patches of land are farms. We should check ‘em for chickens, goats and sheep.”

“Been a while since the turn, chances of them being alive are slim.” Jess considered.

“Never know. Some of ‘em mighta got out, be runnin’ around in the woods. Only problem is, there’s small towns on either side. The people, they probably ran outta the towns-”

“-Thinking they’d be safer in the woods. Meaning Walkers followed them.”

she concluded.

“Exactly. Gonna have to be smart ‘bout this.”

“Tomorrow morning? Sunrise?” She proposed boldly as she rose from her seat and collected her bow. He nodded and ficked a hand carelessly in the direction of the gate.

“Meet ya outside.”

Deciding not to say anything else or bid him a polite farewell, she quickly left the porch and set off for the gate, needing to get back to her own personal space and think about what the next day might bring.

 


 

Furniture that Aaron helped scavenge, rugs, an actual bed with a fur blanket and certain working machines in her diner of a settlement made the whole place more a home and less of a temporary shelter. Candles in holders screwed to the walls were her source of just enough light not to draw attention through the boards on the windows from the outside.

She pulled her hood and mask off and lay on her front on the bed. Reaching under the pillow, she retrieved her journal, which she had not used since arriving in the city all alone. Aside from not feeling the need to write and having the luxury of telling Ben everything, she felt that the book it’s self had done nothing but cause her pain. It was a black and white piece of evidence that testified to how she really felt. All her innermost demons, insecurities and fears. She did still fear. But rather than fearing the dead, or the evil that humans could do, the thing she feared most was herself. She knew who she really was, but she had lost so much of it over the last year she wondered if it would disappear altogether. She opened the cover to find one of the pens Daryl had found for her and twisted it around in her fingers before setting it to the paper and beginning to write.

Being in such close proximity to him without him knowing it’s me is so strange. It’s terrifying me. I feel a need to watch over him. I still care about him and I hate myself for it, because I meant nothing to him. I guess that’s always been a flaw of mine. Caring about people that wouldn’t lend me a dime. He infuriates me. I get so angry when I’m around him but when I’m not, it’s like I need to see him. I’m drawn to him. I don’t know why.

Maybe I should just tell him. Just try. Maybe things will have changed. We’ve both changed after all.  I just can't risk getting hurt again. I can't take it.

She slammed the journal shut and heaved herself up from the bed, crossing the room and catching sight of herself in a full-length mirror on the wall. She was a lot thinner, having lost over half of what she weighed when she reached the city. At first, she didn’t even notice it dropping off. But then her pants were too big and she found she could train for longer and longer. First, it was through lack of food but then though exercise and months of rigorous training while she moulded herself into a survivor and shed her identity. She knew she looked totally different, the only thing remaining the same being her eyes and facial features. Even her voice was different with her mask on. On the outside, it looks like she had washed off every ounce of her individuality and became nothing but a shadow. A shadow with only one name.

 


 

The next morning brought with it more blazing sunshine and suffocating hot temperatures. The drive was long and quiet with only a few words exchanged. Jess felt more emotionally vulnerable than ever, finding herself constantly looking at Daryl as he drove. Half way through the journey, she slid some sunglasses on in the hope that it would hide her obsession with him and avoid any awkward questions.

He didn’t look any different. The same leather vest, ripped jeans and laces tied around his ankles. That same, red bandana he always had in his back pocket. The same gruff and indifferent attitude. All the same things about him she liked before. She still liked them now.

Upon arrival at the first farm, Jess couldn’t believe her eyes when she entered the barn, bow poised and expecting a huge shed full of Walkers or people waiting to take her down. But instead, she found four sheep and a pen full of chickens. They were skinny, malnourished and in need of medical attention but she couldn’t help but laugh from the doorway, unable to believe her luck. It was looking like her long and awkward trip with Daryl would be cut short sooner rather than later.

Daryl appeared at her side, also lowering his crossbow when he realized there was no threat.

“Well this was easy.” He commented.

“I was thinking the exact same thing. How the hell did they survive in here for so long?”

Daryl’s eyes scanned the inside of the barn, stopping on the large, metal tanks mounted on the walls in the pens.

“Those” He said, pointing to them. “Fill ‘em with animal feed, set a timer to go off each day. Got a drip feed ya aint gotta touch ‘til it runs out. They got their water tanks too.”

“For all that time? Since the turn?” She asked.

“Naw. There are a couple bodies in the house. Look like they only been dead a month or so. Don’t think these guys were actually alone for that long.” He expressed.

The two bodies in the house were without a doubt the owners of the property, both heads blown off and both sets of hands clutching family photographs taken outside the very barn that Jess and Daryl stood in.

“Good, it means we can fix them up and hopefully they’ll breed.” She said as she wandered inside and started unravelling a length of rope from a hook on the wall.

“I’mma go hunt, see if I can take somethin’ decent back.”

Far from wanting to argue, Jess figured she would just have to move the animals alone and hook them up inside the truck herself. The sheep would be easy enough, the chickens were going to be the main problem. But asking for his help was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Be back in two hours, I wanna get these animals to Alexandria as soon as possible.”

“Alright.” He grunted, disappearing from sight.

 

 

It took Jess almost the full two hours just to chase the chickens around the pen alone. With one particularly spritely hen causing absolute chaos when she refused to let Jess grab a hold of her. She cawed and screamed as loud as her lungs would let her and when Jess finally managed to capture her by throwing her jacket over her, she considered wringing her neck.

“Your name is Sarah. You hear me?” She spat as she carried the troublesome chicken to the truck and tossed it inside.

She slammed the door and leaned her back against the cool metal, catching her breath and letting the breeze blow through her hood. It was times like this when her clothing and survival wear proved to be impractical. But it was rare and not enough to make her want to wander around in a sleeveless vest like Daryl.

Her eyes moved over to the farmhouse, the door still swinging open from where Daryl had scoped it out upon their arrival. She straightened up and headed inside to search for anything else useful.

 

 


 

It was another half an hour before Daryl returned with a sash full of squirrels and two rabbits hanging from his belt. Not huge kills by any stretch of the imagination, but meat none the less and Jess figured Alexandria would be OK for a while at least. His timekeeping left a little something to be desired.

“You’re late.” She complained.

“Yes I am.” He proclaimed to the rolling eyes of the masked woman sat in the driver’s seat. She’d decided that she was the one that was going to drive them home and he was not about to argue.

Half an hour into the journey and Daryl had taken a ten-minute power nap followed by lighting a cigarette and winding the window down. Jess was surprised he’d even had the courtesy to do that, seeing as he’d thrown the dead animals he’d hunted into the footwell and left them there. They were beginning to smell and Jess wrinkled her nose under her mask.

“You have a group, before this?” She heard him ask through the noise of the trees that darted past beyond the open window. She hadn’t, for one second anticipated that he might ask about her past and panic began to thunder through her. Her mind raced and she knew she had to calm down and proceed with extreme caution.

“Yes.” She replied.

“They gone?”

“I don’t know.”

“You lost anybody?” His question was louder after the window was rolled back up and it struck Jess as an odd topic of conversation. She figured he might be testing her, to see how much she would disclose. Everyone had lost someone in some way or another, it seemed an obvious question to ask. But Jess knew Daryl and if he wanted to know something, it sometimes took him a while to actually say it.

He’s curious about me.

“My family. You?”

He nodded and nibbled on his lower lip. She remembered how he did it a lot at the quarry when he was trying to express himself and was finding it difficult to get the words out.

I know you, Dixon.

“My brother...” He mumbled.

Jess’s heart sank. Merle. Maybe he didn’t find him after he left the city. She hoped that he was alive and that Daryl just wasn’t aware of it. She hoped he was with some other group, annoying the hell out of them and offending all of their women.

“...Couple friends n’ a girl I used to know from the first camp we were in.”

Jess was biting her tongue. It was all she could do to stop herself from bursting into tears. Her stomach was churning and she felt nauseous. On the outside, she battled to keep her face straight and her eyes fixed on the road but the truth was, a heard of elephants could have charged at the truck and she wouldn’t have noticed.

He’s talking about me.

She sucked in a quiet breath, filling her lungs and trying to clear her head so she could find the strength to reply.

“A girl, huh?” Her voice sounded slightly shakier than she’d intended, but Daryl didn’t seem to notice.

“Not like that. She was a friend.” He grumbled.

“Oh.” Jess responded as unphased as possible. “I’m sorry.”

Half of her meant it, she really was sorry. Sorry for leaving like she did with no goodbye. But the other half was lying, she wasn’t sorry at all after what she’d heard and all the times she was left to deal with the aftermath of being belittled and humiliated by herself. Daryl said nothing else for the rest of the drive and dutifully helped Jess unload the animals from the truck upon their arrival back at Alexandria. The makeshift pens were just about finished after Abraham, Glenn and Rick worked on them all day. Children poured out of their houses wanting to see the new additions and Jess stood by the open door of the truck and watched the scene. She hadn’t seen so many people smile in a very, very long time.

 


 

That night, after dinner and a shower at Aaron’s place, Jess hooked her bow over her head and headed for Deanna’s place to drop the trucks keys off. As she passed Daryl sitting on the porch with Judith, she doubled back, changing her mind and striding over to the truck. She unlocked it, delved behind the front seat and retrieved what she was looking for.

The dim glow of the porch light above them cast an angelic halo around Judith’s bright, golden hair and the soft, raspy tone of Daryl’s voice lured her closer still when she stopped on the path. She knew the story, a dog was the protagonist and Daryl was adding parts to the story that were not printed in the book. She smiled at the thought of him reading Children’s stories, Dixon style to the amazed child sitting on his lap. He still hadn’t seen her, nor did Judith know she was there and she realized she was once again torn and battling an internal war, she didn’t know if she was doing the right thing. Seconds from turning on her heels and fleeing into the night, Daryl looked up and clocked her presence.

“You need somethin’?”  

“Uh, no” She stammered.

This is a dumb idea. Turn around, you idiot.

“When you were hunting today, I checked the farmhouse for anything useful. I found this. Thought she could use it. I had the same one when I was a kid.”

She brought her hand around her body where she'd been hiding a children’s book behind her back. She slowly took the steps and held it out to him, horrified when at first he just stared at it, then back up at her until he finally took it from her grasp. Judith squealed and sprayed her tiny fingers out, pulling the book towards her and playing with the thick pages.

Daryl looked completely and undoubtedly confused. He shifted Judith on his lap and narrowed his eyes at Jess. Feeling as though her cover was being majorly blown by her gesture and that such a thing would never be done by a masked assassin who lived in the woods and was capable of murdering a compound full of people at Terminus, she frantically thought of a way to throw him off.

“Is she yours?” She asked.

“Naw. She’s Ricks.” He replied in his gravelly tone.

“You read to her some nights.” She mentioned.

“Yeah. She likes this book about the dog. It’s her favorite.”

Judith was now happily pawing at her new book but Daryl’s attention hadn’t left Jess, who was now struggling not to tap at her leg.

“She seems to like you.” She pointed out.

Daryl finally looked down at Judith, who raised her head and flashed him a wide, toothless smile.

“She’s a good kid.” He mumbled.

As he said the words, Judith snuggled against his chest and Jess almost collapsed at the adorable sight. This man was not the kind of man she would have expected to be so good with a child. She always knew he had a sensitive side and that he had a hidden, selfless trait that was as strong as it was admirable. But seeing him with a happy little girl, reading her stories and making a regular thing of it to boot, simply astounded Jess. He may have broken her heart, but deep down, she knew he was the best kind of person.

“I’ll leave you alone.” She whispered.

She turned and adjusted her bow as she began to cross the grass.

“Parker.” She heard from behind her. She halted, her body humming with anticipation. She was no psychic but her gut was telling her he was about to say something significant. She looked over her shoulder.

“You remind me of somebody.” He told her.

It was on the tip of her tongue.

It’s me, Jess.

“Is that a compliment?” She asked instead.

“Yeah, it is. And thanks.” He held the book up with one of Judith’s hands still clutching the edges of the pages. Jess gave him a polite nod and resumed walking, getting faster and faster until she reached Deanna’s, dropped the key into the mail box and ran for the gate.

 


 

Maybe I was wrong about him. He’s not a bad person. Maybe he just said a bad thing. Maybe he just didn’t know how to defend me, or if he even should have done. I don’t know. I want to believe these things are true and the man I saw today is the real Daryl. But I can’t forget. I can’t forget what I heard. All the times I was alone and I needed him.

I don’t need anyone now. But I do want some closure. I owe it to myself to find out the truth, to find out his side of the story. So, one way or another, I can move on. I have to tell him who I really am.

Chapter Text

She could see the light of the moon reflected in his eyes as she stared at him on the porch of his house. It was the middle of the night and she should have been asleep in her fairground fortress but instead, she was standing before Daryl wishing the fury was not fixed on his face as stubbornly as it appeared. Her heart was hammering and her palms were clammy inside her gloves.

“What the hell did you just say?!” He demanded.

Her throat dried up and her words came out as a mere croak, she couldn’t speak properly, couldn’t think straight. He wasn’t asking her to repeat herself, he’d heard her perfectly well, his question was one of disbelief if anything else.

“It-it’s me…Jess.” She whispered. She slowly removed her hood and lowered her mask, finally revealing her face and stepping closer, further into the light from the living room window.

Daryl’s face only grew angrier and more twisted with hurt and betrayal and Jess felt as though her stomach were harboring bricks. She wanted to backtrack, to tell him that it was all some elaborate hoax but that would have made him equally as irate. He inched closer to her, squinting and letting his eyes drag down her body and back up to her nervous face. She swallowed hard.

“What the fuck?!” He spat “All this time…all this time?”

“Yes.” She uttered.

“How could you do this to me?” He asked quietly at first, but with every word, the volume of his voice increased as did Jess’s anxiety “Huh? You think you can just come clean n’ I’ll just forgive ya for bein’ a fuckin’ liar?! Just like that?!”

“I-”

“You bailed! You bailed on me, on all of us and now I find out you’ve been walkin’ ‘round here in this damn Halloween costume the whole time!”

Jess tried to speak, tried to reason with him and explain that she hadn’t planned any of it. She hadn’t planned to find him in the woods with follow him to Terminus, she hadn’t planned to arrange to bring them back here and she also hadn’t planned to be unable to stay away from him. She needed to keep one eye on him, because she still cared about him. So many things to say emerged at a small whimper as tears stung her eyes.

“We were ‘sposed to be friends, Jess.” He stated, now with a calmer rage than before. “But you aint no friend of mine. Not after ya left n’ then lied to me when we had a chance to go back to how we were.”

“You’re not innocent either.” She tried. “Please, just let me explain.” She begged.

“Aint nothin’ for ya to explain. When ya took me for a damn fool, ya only proved you’re more stupid than ya thought I was. Stay the hell away from me.”

With that, he flung the door open and Jess winced when it was slammed in her face, leaving her alone on the front porch. A loud sob wracked her body, her shoulders sagged and her knees gave way, her body thudding onto the wooden surface. Her hands covered her face, tears pooling around her fingers before racing down her hands, more and more of them pouring from her eyes while her mind flashed back to the Quarry. He threw her a pack of Pens from the RV. He taught her to kill a Walker. He implied her cared about her when she asked him why. With every memory came yet more salty tears and somehow, she wasn’t on the porch anymore. She was thrashing about in icy water, her arms flailing around her and trying to gain some traction to keep her head above the surface. On the shore she could see Daryl, still and watching her. Beside him were baskets of clothes for washing and beating against the rocks. There was a slope, an RV parked at the top. Her lungs filled with water when she began to tire, splutters and coughs did little to alleviate the pressure in her chest.

“D-Daryl” She gasped.

But she was sinking, the Quarry was gone and so was Daryl all that was left was the bottomless blackness and tremendous fear as the last breath of air left her lips.

 


 

Jess jolted up from her pillow, her hair stuck to her sweat covered face and her chest rising and falling rapidly. She scanned the room in panic, her hands shooting out and grasping at the sheets either side of her legs. They were real, it was all real and she was alive. She’d been dreaming. Just a dream. Her skin was burning with the adrenaline that was charging through her veins but also from the heat of the room which was acting like an oven. She figured it was considerably later than she usually woke and the sun was much higher in the sky. She raked her fingers through her hair, removing the strands stuck to her face with perspiration.

“Oh, hot damn.” She panted “It’s hotter than a preacher’s knee in here.”

The Morning light slithered through the gaps in the boards on the windows. The sun was unforgiving from mid-morning until well into the afternoon and she preferred to have been out and well into hunting by now. If it hadn’t been for Rick’s group showing up and Daryl walking back into her life, Jess would have gone back to the boat to spend the summer there. A vacation she thought she deserved but would now not be able to take. She sat herself up in bed and picked up a knife from the wooden, vegetable crate nightstand and turned it over in her hands, admiring the glint of the metal when the sunlight hit it. The knife Daryl gave her at the quarry. The knife she used for her first Walker kill. It held so much sentiment, so many memories and with those, a sense of desperate despair for something she lost but never really had in the first place.

She hardly ever used the knife anymore. It lived in her utility belt but was rarely brought out into the light of day unless she had no other choice. She leaned across her bed, dropping it onto her pile of clothes. She would wear it that day, the same as every other. But this time it would feel like it was burning a hole in her belt. It could be the crux, the thing that could spur her on to tell Daryl the truth. Or so she hoped. But if she decided against it, she didn’t have to use it. Her dream had set her back and made her doubt her intentions. There was every possibility that Daryl would react in the worst possible way and a niggling voice at the back of her mind told her that she deserved no less, that it would be a disaster and she was better off sneaking off into the shadows and staying out of his way. In her subconscious, she clearly thought that his anger would be justified and she was on the path to losing him forever.

But the idea of telling him the truth wouldn’t leave her mind, even as she went about her morning, getting dressed and making black coffee. She needed more powdered milk. Maybe she would see Daryl if she went to the pantry, maybe she wouldn’t. Should she seek him out, or leave things to fate? Fate hadn’t always been kind to her but surely, she’d earned a break.

 


 

As luck (or fate) would have it, Jess came across Daryl on her morning hunt. She caught sight of one, toned, bare arm through the trees and crept forwards until she could see him sitting on the floor with his back against a fallen trunk, a cigarette resting between his lips while his hands checked over his crossbow. It was starkly obvious he felt more comfortable outside the walls and he appeared pensive, deep in thought, maybe even sorrowful. She stepped out of her hiding place and he quickly raised his crossbow, the mechanism inside clicking with the movement. Jess held up her empty hands in surrender.

No one spoke as she stood over him but eyes were connected and she liked that he no longer become as hostile towards her, despite her sometimes standoffish attitude. She hadn’t had a weapon pointed in her direction by him for some time and concluded that was a triumph in itself. He got up and dusted his jeans down before collecting his crossbow.

“Mornin’.” he grumbled.

He shot her an uneasy look, as if he didn’t know what to say, his greeting rendered a lie by the tone of his voice. While he wasn’t hostile as such, she could tell that he was put out by her mere presence and that she still annoyed him. She gathered she’d intruded into what was his thinking time. He turned his back, dirty angel wings ready to vanish into the trees.

“Morning. How’s the hunt?” She asked.

“How’s it look to you, Robin Hood?” He snapped, stopping and standing sideways. “Every time I turn around, ya there. Can’t even think without you showin’ up. You keep to the left side; I’ll keep to the right.” He finished his cigarette and flicked it into the undergrowth.

Jess flapped her arms by her sides. It seemed on that particular morning he was still hostile and it was apparent that she could never actually be sure which Daryl she would get on any given day.

“You and Merle are two peas in a pod” She sighed under her breath as she whirled around and made tracks to the ‘left side’ of Alexandria, her ‘side’ that meant he wouldn’t have to see or speak to her while they hunted. At least she would be able to keep an eye out for Enid and maybe even Carl if he was still chasing girls through the woods. It looked as though her knife would stay in its sheath for another day, Daryl’s mood was not one she wanted to worsen and she was more than aware that her revelation might do just that.

“The hell did you just say?”

His voice shot through her head like a bullet and after an initial split second of wondering what he was referring to, her legs suddenly felt like jelly and her stomach filled with bile. It was the same question from her dream…and she had just mentioned his brother’s name. Something she never would have known if she really was a stranger to him.

SHIT.

Her eyes focused on the muddy ground before her, the faded footprints from Daryl’s boots where he’d trudged through earlier than she’d arrived. Her vision lifted to the dense trees ahead and her eyelids slowly closed. She tried to take a breath but her entire chest began to shake, the simple act of an inhalation was now ten times more difficult than usual. She was drowning, just like in her dream.

“Hey!” he shouted. “I’m talkin’ to you! How d'ya know my brother's name?!”

It wasn’t a dream. It was a premonition.

Inch by inch, her body rotated and she found herself faced with a furious and baffled expression that made her panic. He’d closed some of the distance between them, now nearer to her than she’d expected. She searched the corners of her mind to try and come up with a way to deal with the situation in the calm and collection manner she’d become accustomed to. Time passed, she didn’t know how much but Daryl was appearing increasingly annoyed at her lack of response and she concluded that ultimately, the only way out of this was to come clean and to do it with some semblance of confidence. She gradually swept her long coat to one side, revealing her knife holster on her belt. Her fingers plucked the fastening open and she took hold of the blade, flinching when Daryl’s crossbow swept up and he aimed at her head. Jess’s brain went into overdrive.

Say you just knew his brother from somewhere. No, that won’t work. He will want to know how you know it’s Merle. You can’t tell more lies. More lies mean falling deeper and deeper into this deception and it will only get worse. But he’s going to hate you. Not that he cares about you anyway. Or, does he? Do you care about him? Of course, you do, or you’d be at the boat right now. You have no choice. You’re backed into a corner. Do it. Tell him. 

She held up her free hand, signaling that she meant no harm and that he should let her continue. Evidently, there was still little trust between them because Daryl lowered the weapon but didn’t disarm himself completely. His finger was still planted firmly on the trigger as he held the bow at his side.

She slid the blade from the leather and her fingers clasped the cool metal of the sharp edge. Holding it aloft, she felt her eyes begin to sting.

“Do- do you remember this?” She asked with a croak. Any attempt to appear composed and confident was fading and fast. What she felt inside was a world away from the boldness with which she wanted to present herself. Below the surface, she was a scared little girl about to confess to the biggest lie she’d ever told to a person that had become important to her regardless of him treating her heart as though it was as empty and worthless as yesterdays can of beans. Whatever her reasons for such a deception, her dream had been a warning of the chance that Daryl would never forgive her.

His brow furrowed as his eyes zoned in on the knife’s handle. He instantly recognized it. Jess could tell, it was written all over his face when it crumpled and he blinked a few times like the sight would morph and change and it’d all be a big mistake.

“I told you an old friend taught me how to fight. He meant a lot to me.” She confessed.

She reached up and pulled her mask away before pushing her hood down. The sunlight hit her hair like a heater, the rays gracing her face and lighting up her skin. It was the first time she’d revealed her true self to anyone since she’d arrived, aside from when Carl had guessed and even then, she kept her disguise in place. It had to be Daryl. He had to be the first to see the face behind the mask because she wanted him to.

She could see the penny drop as he recognized her, his body recoiling in defense and his mouth dropping open.

“Hi” She uttered. “Stinky.”

Her voice was carried on the breeze and now he could hear her as clear as the day. It was Jess’s voice. The woman stood before him wearing elaborate, modified and impressive body armor, the woman who was abrupt, harsh and unapproachable, the mystery woman that he couldn’t get out of his head… was Jess, all along. He’d thought about her every day since she left. Even all those months later she still occupied his musings and he had no idea that she was right in front of him since he left Terminus.

“J-Jess?” He croaked

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Fuck.” He spat upon the exhalation of a breath of disbelief “Fuck.”

Jess swallowed hard when it occurred to her that his reaction was the one that she’d expected the least. She re-holstered the knife that had started it all. The first weapon she’d acquired in the apocalypse and the one that got her through the woods and on her way to her city apartment. The knife he’d given her and made her keep. He blinked rapidly through bloodshot eyes and began to scan the ground, stepping one way, then the other before stopping altogether. Jess held her breath.

Oh, lord.

He ran at her, crashing into her body and forcing her to take a stabilizing step back. A cloud of dust kicked up from the ground where his boots had skidded along the dirt. She thought she felt the exact moment when her heart snapped into two, useless pieces; it was when he whimpered against her shoulder and held onto her so tightly it was as if he was convinced that she would dissipate into nothing in his arms. Initially, she froze and her whole body turned to stone. But the more he clung to her the more her arms lifted slowly and she wrapped her fingers around his shoulder and bicep. Touching him for the first time.

“I thought…” she heard him breathe jaggedly “… thought you were dead”

Unable to speak, she said nothing but felt everything so vividly, the guilt was choking her. She closed her eyes, pushing tears from under the lids. They streamed down her face. She kept telling herself that he led her on and hurt her and that he was lying to her the whole time at the quarry, but it did nothing to quell the biting regret she endured for leaving it this long to reveal who she was.

“Ohmygod” he rasped into the shoulder of her coat. His grip on her was so tight she could feel the desperation seeping from his body into hers.

His fingers were holding her hair in a fist where it pooled in her hood and he was doing the same with a handful of fabric from back of her coat with his other hand. He had her in a vice like, white knuckle grasp and in that moment, she didn’t want to be anywhere else.

He dropped his arms, lifting his head and looked right at her, tears staining his own cheeks as he furiously bit down on his lower lip. She heard his breath catch in his throat and he stepped back, then forward again and rested his head on her shoulder. She reached up, threading her hands into his hair on either side of his head as she watched his body convulse with each breath. She had never touched him this much before, never felt his arms around her and never been able to get so close. It didn’t feel alien, like it was an out of place or new experience. It felt right. As if it was the right thing to do.

Suddenly he tore away from her, wiping at his eyes with the backs of his hands. Seeing him cry was like taking a razor to her own throat, unbearable guilt and pain raged in her chest.

Stop crying. Please. I wasn’t expecting this. I can’t take it.

His back was facing her and she quickly rid her face of her own tears with the back of her glove. She waited without a word for him to pull himself together, because as something clicked in her head, she realized she knew exactly what he was doing. She prepared herself for the point where relief turned to rage.

“You been lyin’ to me all this time” she heard him mumble before he tilted his head to the sun, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “So, you just bail with no goodbye, then show up over a year later with this cloak n’ dagger shit n’ ya don’t think that maybe I’d wanna know it was you?!”

“I’m telling you now.” She uttered.

“I been here for six fuckin’ weeks, Jess!” He shouted, whirling around and glaring at her with a fury she had anticipated with dread. Jess wasn’t even worried about the potential danger from nearby Walkers attracted to the noise, figuring that Daryl would probably welcome it as a way of venting some of his frustration. She could also use an outlet of some kind. “You been talkin’ to me as if ya don’t even know me! You think I’m some kinda fuckin’ idiot?! Huh?!” He yelled.

“No” she shook her head. “That’s not what-”

“-Ya owe me an explanation here, this is fucked, Jess. It’s fucked!” 

“I don’t owe you shit” she hissed out of nowhere. Her own anger was now presenting it’s self and her defenses were well and truly up. In her dream, she’d done nothing but let him vent in front of her as the Quarry camp Jess would have done. But she’d changed, evolved and built herself up along with constructing her own kingdom and methods of surviving.  

Daryl scoffed and shook his head at her, unable to believe what he was seeing and hearing. The sweet girl from the quarry camp was right there in front of him. The girl he’d thought about every day since she left. The girl he tried to find on two occasions. She was there, only she wasn’t. Not really.

“Who the hell are you? You ain’t the Jess I used to know” he spat.

“I guess all the bullshit just made me stronger.” She mumbled, the confidence she’d tried to display at the start now creeping back. “I didn’t mean to deceive you like I did.” She began to move off, away from him, mapping her escape. “I’d appreciate it if you let me tell the others, in my own time”  

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. But I deserve to know what the hell happened with us n’ why ya just left me” He demanded.

Jess raised both eyebrows and blinked slowly at the prospect of explaining everything to him. Figuring that if he didn’t already know what he’d done, she wasn’t about to spell it out to him.

“There was no ‘us’ and I didn’t leave you, there was nothing for me to leave.” She reminded him.

“We were ‘sposed to be friends.” He pointed out

“No, we weren’t.” came her stern correction.

She swiped at another stray tear, lifted her hood and mask and removed herself from the situation, leaving Daryl with his rage in the woods.

He didn’t return to Alexandria until dusk that day, staying out in the wilderness to gather his thoughts which were marred with questions and confusion. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. She was the only person that he ever felt a connection to, he still didn’t know the reason why but the fact that she’d been running through his mind for so long, even during her absence proved that she meant something to him. Now, she was different. Her eyes were the same and so was her voice but her body had changed, she was stronger, leaner, more agile. He wondered when her soul had changed, why he was no longer important to her. If he even mattered to her in the first place.


 

When the sun was going down, a single flare floated up into the sky, leaving a thin trail of red smoke behind it. Jess heard the crack from inside her diner abode where she had spent the day raging at herself for being unable to stop crying and thinking of nothing but Daryl. How she’d hurt him. How he’d hurt her. She supposed they were even, if it worked that way. She didn’t want to think about how stoic she’d have to seem when she next saw him, especially if it involved other people.

The noise startled her. Loud, almost like a gunshot but right above the building. She checked through the gap between the board and window frame, nothing. A regular, early evening rustling of the trees and a darkening of the woods beyond the fairground. She padded across the room, her bare feet sinking into the thick rug and unlatched the many locks on the door. She ducked her head out of the doorway, squinting up at the sky.

What the hell is…?

Her shoulders tensed and she breathed a deep breath. Alexandria was in trouble.

 

It wasn’t until the carnage was over that Jess found out what happened behind the walls. Someone had died in their home, turned and managed to break free, infecting everyone they came across and spreading death faster than anyone could have predicted.

Barreling through the gates, she took in the scene before her. To her left, Deanna and some of Rick’s group were ushering the townsfolk into the church to keep them together and safe. People were screaming and crying, holding onto their families tightly and shielding their eyes from the dead people wandering the street. To her right, Abraham was slashing his way through three Walkers with nothing but a metal pipe and a cigar clenched between his teeth. Ahead of her, Rick and Michonne were working together to kill everything dead that emerged from between the houses. Glenn was behind them, tackling his own assailant. At the opposite end of the street, Jess could see Carol, checking the houses for anyone hiding and shining a flashlight through windows. She sprinted ahead, passing Rick and giving him a quick nod with her bow aimed and ready in her hands. She slowed and took heed of the numbers around her. Three with Abraham, three emerging from each side with Michonne and Rick, one with Glenn, none with Carol. Deciding to sweep the perimeter, she ducked down a walkway at the side of Ricks home. Wishing the light was better, she crept along in pursuit of a snarling noise and when the smell hit her, her throat tensed. It was close. She backed against the house, edging closer to the corner where the Walker was dwelling. As she flung herself around the corner and went to release her arrow, she was beaten to it by a bolt flying in her direction. It hit the dead female with a splat and floored her instantly. 

Daryl was striding at her, grabbing her arm and bundling her back around the corner. His fingers dug into her arm which would have caused a certain amount of pain had she not been clad in Kevlar.

“You OK?” He asked.

“I’m fine. I just got here. How many more are there?” She said, peering up at him in the shadows over her mask.

“You shouldn’t be here. Go stay with the others in the church.” He ordered, quickly craning his neck around the corner of the building and checking the coast was clear.

“Oh. I see. Now you know who I am, I must need saving. Just like before.” She remarked.

“What? No. It’s just…we got this. You don’t need to be here.” He reasoned.

Jess stared at him, unable to fathom how she automatically had to be vulnerable and in peril because she was the fat nerd from the quarry camp. He’d seen her fight, he’d seen the change in her, yet he had dropped into protective mode nevertheless.

“How noble of you. Protecting the poor, incapable nerd.” She spat.

“What?” He asked. Not only because he didn’t hear her, but also because his attention wasn’t on her, it was on Carol, Rick and Michonne in the street, putting down the last of the Walkers.

“You didn’t hear me? I said fuck you.” Jess proclaimed. She ripped her arm from his grip before charging off and following the dark path around the wall.

 

Having to stop and calm herself after her confrontation with Daryl, she sank against the side of Deanna’s house and tilted her head up to the sky, closing her eyes and attempting to regain some control over her breathing. She knew she’d overreacted as soon as her heart rate began to settle and her body loosened up. But she still couldn’t believe how he’d jumped straight into protective mode when he’d seen, first hand how she could handle herself. It was like he still saw her as the old Jess. The ‘Little, fat chick’ as Merle had named her.

She was shoved off balance, saved only by her leg stomping on the grass and preventing her from plummeting to the floor. Hands grappled with her body, clawing feverishly with bloodied teeth gnashing at her throat. Her hands quickly raised, grabbing the dead man’s throat and pushing him back with all her might but the warmth in his skin told her he was recently deceased and therefore, stronger than some of the other Walkers. She recognized the crazed face and the cloudy eyes that gawped at her with such hunger. It was the man that lived next door to Aaron and Eric. He had two teenage sons. Having to think quickly, she heaved at his throat with all her might, letting out a loud grunt. He stumbled back long enough for her to snatch the knife Daryl gave her from her belt and slam it into his temple. The noise was sickening, an almighty crack that echoed from the towns walls and the side of the house. The man slumped forwards, pinning her to the wooden slats of the wall and dribbling blood down her clothes. But Jess didn’t care, she tugged the knife out and stayed there with the Walker laying on her, her knife at her side, pooling blood on the floor while her chest rose and fell and her forehead glistened with sweat.

 

When Alexandria finally became quiet again and Rick was sure there were no stragglers, he re-grouped everyone outside his house. Daryl stood beside Carol and flickered his eyes up to where Jess stood, thinking she wouldn’t notice his subtle observations. But she felt every glimpse like it was a sledgehammer. She knew he’d picked up on the blood on her clothes and hands due to a lack of gloves. Jess remained indifferent and on the sidelines, she was neither a part of Rick’s group or Alexandria’s. She marched to her own band now but decided to stick around and see if she could be of any more help.

Surprising everyone by not being present in the church with everyone else, Carl ran up to his father from inside the house and flung his arms around him. Jess wondered how Rick kept his temper with such a spirited and adventurous son to keep safe as well as a baby.

First I find him outside the walls and now he’s not even in the church. Like hollerin' down a well telling this kid what to do. Jess thought.

“I’ve asked Deanna to keep everyone on lockdown until we can move some of the bodies.” Rick announced after briefly scolding his son for disobeying him.

Carl caught Jess’s eye and mouthed something to her. She knew what it was, there was no mistaking it.

‘Tell them. Please.’

Keeping up an act was already becoming exhausting and emotionally taxing and that was without Carl’s stubborn streak. Daryl also knew now and that meant her anonymous days were numbered. She hated the thought of no longer being a silhouette without an identity, it was what had kept her alive for so long and allowed her to throw away her old misgivings and fears and become a survivor. She could stitch her own wounds and alone, by herself and in the kingdom she created for herself.

The universe had a funny way of putting things in her path. First, it was dead people that got back up again. Then, it was Daryl. After that, it was the desire and drive to be alone and work hard to better herself. Alexandria was next and it paved the way to her letting a select few people back into her cold and lonely life. Daryl appeared again after that and it just had to mean something. But he’d not shown up alone. The group of people around her turned up again too. Some of them were gone, replaced by new people but every one of them was undoubtedly loyal to the core.

Daryl agreed to keep her secret, to let her carry on living as she was. But he was right, she’d lied to him and after over a year of being alone, she knew she was no longer going to be able to deliver the apology he deserved. Instead, she would cease trying to say the words and use her actions to free him from the constraints of secrets and lies.

Her gaze lingered on Carl’s pleading face and try as she might, she could not ignore him.

She said nothing as she pulled her mask from her face and pushed her hood back.

Daryl was the first to notice her during one of his secret glances. He did a double take and realized that she wasn’t going to make him bear the burden of keeping such a huge secret from the people he cared about. Everyone was about to find out the truth and she felt her stomach grow heavy when he shots her the most heartbreaking, confused and relieved look. She didn’t know if she could take seeing him cry again and so, hoped with everything she had that he would not do so in front of everyone else.

I wish you never left.

Carol’s eyes swept around the group, eventually landing on Jess. For a moment, she blinked and leaned to the side for a better view before her eyes grew wide and her hands flew up to her face.

“No…it can’t be.” She gasped

Faces turned to her, all of them, all at once. She felt like she was on a stage under spotlights, totally naked and being made to sing the national anthem. Not a shadow any longer, her name was being muttered between everyone.

“Jess?! Is that you?” Carol asked.

“Hi Carol.” Jess whispered.

“Oh my god!” She cried, slapping Daryl’s arm. “Daryl, It’s Jess!”

Daryl’s head was low, his eyes moving from the floor to her face intermittently. His expression was downcast but she could see a glimmer of gratitude when he looked at her.

“I know” He mumbled.

“Wait, you know?” Carol questioned.

“Found out this mornin’.” He told her.

Carol set off, weaving around Michonne and Rick, gently placing her hands on either side of Jess’s face. Her skin burned from the touch as if she was a demon being held by a priest. Physical contact was not something she was used to and she was still reeling from Daryl’s desperate and intense hug in the woods from hours before.

“Oh, Jess.” Carol says “look at you, you’re so different. So…so different.”

Jess didn’t speak, offering only a small smile before she shied away and stepped out of Carol’s embrace. Rick slowly walked around them, rubbing his chin and staring at her in disbelief.

“Hi, Sheriff.” She smiled at him.

“It was you, you helped us get out of Terminus. Helped with the dogs on the road. Got Aaron to bring us here?” He asked.

Jess nodded still feeling like a performing monkey and wanting to shrink away into the darkness and run back to her solitary home at the fairground. But she couldn’t get away, especially when Rick wrapped her in his arms, kissed the top of her head and held her there. She wanted to scream at the contact but appreciated his reason for doing so.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” He uttered before releasing her. “My son, my daughter, all of us. We’re safer because of you.” She could feel her cheeks still burning and wondered if she was blushing or just extremely uncomfortable.

“I couldn’t just leave y’all out there.” She mumbled quietly.

The others presented their own greetings but kept their distance, having never met her officially before and Jess was grateful that she didn’t have to hug anyone else. Everyone swapped glances and Carol took a quick look over her shoulder at Daryl, who was looking at Jess with glassy eyes. He swiped at his nose with the back of his hand and turned on his heels, crashing into the house behind them and slamming the door in a mirror image of his exit in her dream.

“Where have you been?” Glenn wanted to know.

“Around.” She replied, her eyes briefly registering Carl, who was beaming at her from the steps of the front porch. Rick followed her gaze, noting the unsaid message that had passed between them.

Are you satisfied now, kid?!

“Did you know about this?” Rick asked Carl.

Carl shrugged “maybe.”

“Um…” Jess began after clearing her throat. “It wasn’t my intention to deceive anyone. I just want to be left alone. Regardless of how we know each other, the same rule applies. No one is to go near my property without my permission.” She said to Rick, who by now was hanging on every word and was totally shocked at the change in her. “If there’s any more trouble, you can signal me with a flare, just like tonight. They’re kept in the armory. Aside from that, I’d appreciate it if you all just… kept your distance and refrained from discussing my true identity with anyone else. The people here don’t know my name, where I’m from or anything about me. I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Of course.” Rick agreed. “Thank you for your help tonight.”

“No problem. I’ll come back in the morning and help get rid of the bodies. Looks like hell with everyone out to lunch in here” She said, motioning to two lifeless Walkers at the side of the road. Then, she calmly walked away, raising her hood again and positioning her mask over her mouth.

 


 

Inside the house, Carol found Daryl in the kitchen, braced against the kitchen counter at the sink with his head low and his hair obscuring his face. She sighed at the sight. Daryl rarely opened up to anyone and when he did, it was always her, the two of them having shared similar backgrounds and understanding what it was like to fight, even before the world went away. Carol understood his inner conflict like no one else and as a result, knew how to handle him when he was showing signs of lashing out or distancing himself from everyone.

His hasty and dramatic departure had been witnessed by the rest of the group and they all knew without having to be told that Carol would be the one to deal with the simmering archer. She moved further into the room, taking a glass from a cupboard and approaching him, reaching around him to access the tap. He moved off like an angry animal that was being disturbed in its lair. Carol filled the glass and brought it to her lips, grateful for the luxury of having running water after such a chaotic evening.  She could see he was reeling despite already having found out about Jess that morning. She observed him wander the length of the kitchen island before he stopped and met her eye. She offered him a sympathetic look.

“Quite the bombshell.” She pointed out.

“Yep.” He grunted, crossing his big arms over his chest.

“Especially for you. Are you alright? She wanted to know.

He didn’t know the answer to her question. He wasn’t sure if he was ‘alright’ or not. His head was still spinning and his chest was still tight, the confusion was still present and only worsened by her decision to tell the others the truth. He expected to have to carry the burden of such a huge secret for much longer and on the one hand he was grateful to her for him not having to endure it. But, on the other, he was furious at being lied to.

“I dunno.” He admitted honestly.

Carol took another sip from her glass and climbed up onto a stool at the island. She delicately placed the glass on the surface and kept her fingertips poised around it.

“Talk to me. Tell me how you feel.” She urged with the knowledge that unless she asked him directly, he was unlikely to disclose much at all. Since the beginning, there was no doubt that he was more forthcoming with his feelings, but he was still very much a closed book and unless he was encouraged in the right way, he would only retreat into himself until he boiled over at someone unsuspecting and undeserving.

“I’m pissed. I’m real fuckin’ pissed.” He confessed.

To her surprise, he also settled on a stool opposite her and leaned his elbows on the marble countertop with his hands clasped together. It was almost like he was telling her that he didn’t want to discuss it, but he needed to.

“Understandable.” She replied.

“But I’m happy she’s alive.” He continued “Seein’ her again…the way she is. It’s weird. She ain’t the same.”

Carol half smiled at his obvious observation of Jess’s evolution and his complete ignorance of his own. He had matured, developed a better handle on his temper, used his logic and intuition to help Rick make some tough decisions and earned the respect and trust of everyone in the group. She was proud of his journey and wished he could see it as she did.

“Neither are you. Neither are any of us.” She reminded him.

“You saw her.” He argued with the flick of one hand “She’s got Jess’s face but that’s it.”

“You don’t know that, Daryl. She’s protecting herself. She’s been doing that for a long time without us now. She might come around if you talk to her.” She suggested with a strong desire to see him try and build a bridge between them. It was no secret that he was devastated when Jess left the Quarry, his pain and determination to find her was plain for all to see and if there was even just a small chance that they could mend their tattered friendships, then she thought it was well worth it.

“Doubt it. She fuckin’ hates me” He scoffed.

“What? I’m sure that’s not true.” She expressed

“She lied to me for weeks, Carol. Weeks. She could have told me who she was. Instead, she acted like I was some stranger.”

His behavior was now considerably more subdued and his aggression was now translating to a sadness that Carol couldn’t stand to see. During a long pause in conversation which was more a chance for the both of them to collect their thoughts than anything else, Carol remembered the incident in the woods when Jess found herself at the end of a gun held by Daryl.

“No wonder she was so calm when you pointed that gun at her.” She mentioned.

“What d’ya mean?”

“She knows you. She knew you wouldn’t just shoot her like that. Not without a reason.” She concluded.

Daryl reached into his jeans pocket and retrieved his lighter. It clicked and clinked as he turned it over between his fingers, lighting it over and over as he attempted to clear his head. Carol watched on, growing slightly concerned when he began to run his fingers through the flames and letting them linger there a little too long.

“Daryl” She scolded lightly. His eyes shot up to hers and he flicked the lighter closed, enclosing it in his fist.

“Wish she never left” He muttered.

Carol proceeded with caution, now he was really talking and such an event couldn’t be forced or it would never present its self again. The conversation would be over and any chance she had at getting him to expel his real feelings would be long gone.

“Daryl, you know better than most that in his world, we adapt or we die. You and I adapted. Jess adapted, very well by what I can see. Give it time. Be patient. What is it that you want to say to her? What do you want her to know?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged.

“I do.” She smiled bravely, all the while hoping deep down that he would trust her enough to answer her. He peered at her through his hair, his eyes questioning exactly what she thought she knew, but she kept quiet and patiently sipped her drink.

“I dunno if I did somethin’…or, didn’t do somethin when I was sposed to” He said, his voice barely a whisper. When she looked back at him his eyes were cast down at the countertop between his forearms. “Liked havin’ her around, y’know? She just…made stuff easier. I aint no idiot, I know I was a shitty friend. But I thought about her every day since she bailed.”

There it was, what Carol had been waiting for. It wasn’t the precise words she knew he really meant, but it was as close as he was going to get and she had enough to work with.

“That girl meant something to you. We all saw how badly you took it when she left. You could have died looking for her. I might even be as bold as to suggest that you had feelings for her. Feelings that went beyond friendship and you just didn’t know it at the time. I think…” She trailed off, gauging his reaction which so far, was still collected and subdued. “…I think you should tell her that you missed her.”

“That ain’t gonna happen.” He quickly dismissed. A feat too tall for his withdrawn and quiet personality.

“It will. Like I said, give it time.” She remarked with a knowing smile. As he observed her confidence in her beliefs, the corner of his mouth quirked up at the thought of her always being right and how she reveled in it.

“Whatever.”

 


 

Jess made herself scarce from Alexandria for the next two days after offering to fetch some supplies from the nearest town which boasted a large gardening store. She borrowed a truck and found that once she’d filled it with everything on Deannas list, she had little desire to return anytime soon. She settled down on a luxurious, swinging chair with deep padding and enough room for her to stretch her legs and gently swayed from side to side, watching the high, industrial ceiling swing from left to right. Aside from two Walkers outside in the lot, the entire store was empty and the silence was only broken by the subtle squeak of the chair’s hinges.

The group knowing who she was did nothing to calm the rampant inferno of confusion that seemed to grow with each though of Daryl that passed through her mind and she was still conflicted, torn between hearing his side and ignoring him altogether. The look in his eyes, his intense embrace and the soul shattering whimper against her shoulder was urging her to try talking to him, but she didn’t know if there was a point or if she would every be able to forgive him for proving her insecurities to be correct. She wasn’t anything to anyone, she was just a girl.

It was dark when she woke, her bones weary with the heaviness of sleeping during the day. She groaned and rubbed her eyes as she sat up. Her backpack contained items she wouldn’t be without no matter what the circumstances, one of those items was a flashlight. She quickly found it in the pitch-black bag and clicked it on, shining it around her, over the shelves and into the gaps between aisles. Luckily, she still appeared to be alone.

She got to her feet, flung her bag over her shoulder and headed for the smashed bottom pane in the main door. Ducking outside into the lot, she noticed the numbers of walkers had increased to around a dozen. She stilled before any of them saw her and slowly crept towards the waiting truck which was around 500 yards to her left.

Walkers acted like dominoes, when one noticed movement the rest tended to follow with a knock-on effect that could be catastrophic. The nearest walker to Jess, only a few feet away reached out and took a hold of her backpack, slinging her backwards and colliding her with the asphalt. Her flashlight skittered over the ground and adrenaline shot through her. She quickly grabbed her knife from her belt as the Walker loomed over her, blobs of sticky, lumpy blood precariously hanging from its festering mouth like fruit from a tree. One of which dropped with a splat onto her forehead. She jabbed the blade at the Walkers head only to find that it appeared to dodge out of the way. It’s growls and bubbling throat and chest made her stomach flip and she rolled over, breaking free of its bony fingers on her shoulder and managing to scurry up onto one knee. It surged at her, snapping its jaws and dislodging a front tooth which rolled out and tinkled on the ground beside Jess’s knee.

“Ew” she breathed as she readied her knife again. With all her might she plunged the blade into its skull, surprised at how spongy it was. This one had to have been dead for a while, the longer they wandered around as corpses, the softer their bones became until eventually their limbs gave out and they had no choice but to crawl. The Walker dropped to reveal five more that were closing in on her. She scrambled backwards, the heels of her boots propelling her across two spaces of the lot.

Shit. Ohshitohshitohshit.

She leapt up and scooped up her flashlight just in time to avoid the grasp of more undead fingers while she dashed to the truck, throwing open the door and climbing inside, finally able to put a barrier between her and the Dead ones.

Jess could handle herself but being in such close proximity to walking mounds of rotten flesh still gave her chills. Especially when she considered that they used to be just like her. With working lungs and hearts and brains. With families and friends and lovers. Ok, maybe not exactly like her but five out of six wasn’t bad. It was sad, but it also made her nauseous and she was certain that if she was ever cursed with the trauma of being bitten, she would sooner shoot herself in the head than become one of them.

She started the truck to the sound of the Walkers hammering on the glass and groaning at her. She put the vehicle in gear, flipped them the bird and raced off into the night.

 


 

Not a lot of things were convenient in the apocalypse. Food was scarce, as were weapons, ammo and medicine. The seasons were harsh and Walkers roamed all of the potentially fruitful spots for supplies. Humans were becoming more depraved and even more dangerous than the dead and those that failed to evolve with the harsh changes of the world, perished. No, nothing was convenient, except Daryl being on gate duty just as Jess rolled through in her truck filled with gardening supplies.

Two days had passed and he’d not seen a hint of her since she’d revealed her identity to the group. Carol’s words stayed with him, her suggestion that he should try and talk to her, give it time and she might come around. He was mad at her, there was no question about that. But, more than anything, he just wanted some answers.

He closed the gate behind her as she climbed from the truck, her mask and hood were up but he could make out blood smeared on her face and his chest swelled with concern. Now he knew who she was, he couldn’t help but care no matter how much he didn’t want to.

“Hey.” He called out as he approached her. She leaned against the closed door of the truck and fiddled with her gloves, tugging them off and stuffing them in her pocket. He noticed in the light of the solar bulbs that lined the street that the knife he’d given her was also coated in dark blood and had stained her tight, faded, black jeans. She looked up at him over her hood, her blue eyes meeting his. “Y’alright?” He asked as he motioned to the smeared blood on her forehead.

“Yeah. Just Walkers.” She dismissed casually.

He nodded, temporarily glancing at the ground while he thought out how out of the blue his questions might sound. But she was there, in front of him in the middle of the night with no one else around. If he was going to ask, now was as good a time as any.

“Where ya been, Jess?”

“At the Garden store a few miles west.” She mumbled back. He didn’t notice until he raised his vision but she was checking over a list in her hand.

“I mean before. When ya bailed.” He corrected.

Jess’s eyes lifted and she side glanced at him, looking him up and down and wondering why he’d decided to ask her such questions there and then.

“Around” she replied, the same, standard answer she’d offered the others. She pushed herself from the trucks door and wandered around the side, rummaging through the full flatbed and checking things against the list.

“Why won’t ya talk to me? Aint seen ya in, what…over a year?” He asked sadly. His voice sent guilt through her heart like a spear and she fought not to cry again.

“Eighteen months” she corrected. “And I don’t know what you want me to say.” She turned to head back to the trucks cab but he stepped in, blocking her path. She huffed in irritation and stared at the toes of her boots.

“Get out of my way.” She uttered.

“Take the mask off.” He requested. “Please.”

“No.” She refused.

“Ain’t nobody here. Just you n’ me. Take the mask off. Just for a minute.”

He needed to see her, needed to be able to see that it really was Jess he was talking to because everything about her screamed that she’d discarded her old life and personality entirely. Little did he know that she was still there, deep down, terrified of exposure and rejection. She agreed that he deserved an explanation, she just wasn’t sure if she was up to offering one at that point. She needed space and time to think things over and decide what she wanted. Being forced to communicate was only making her more anxious. But what she could do, was afford him this one, small request. She moved her mask down to her neck and peered up at him. His face seemed to soften at the sight of her own and she saw his shoulders drop.

“Why’d you go?” He croaked.

It was akin to the moment he’d whimpered against her shoulder. Emotional, sincere and hurt. She wasn’t expecting it and it hit her like a train. She needed to leave before she broke down and she resented him for it. For a year and a half she’d learned to stop crying, that crying got a person nowhere when she had no choice but to suck it up and carry on and in the last week all she’d done was cry. That was Daryl’s fault.

“I can’t talk about this right now.” She whispered.

“But you will, right?” He asked

“I don’t know.” She pulled her mask back up. “Please, step aside.”

“Jess-“

“-Get out of my fucking way.” She spat, her eyes filling with anger.

Shocked and frustrated, he simply moved to one side and let her storm past him and get back into the truck where she held back tears until she was far enough along the road and around a corner to let them escape.

 


 

When morning came around once more, Jess walked through the gate carrying a plethora of small animals and the key for the truck she’d borrowed the day before. After dropping the animals off at the pantry, she made tracks to Deannas front steps where, to her surprise she found Carol sitting at the porch table with a plate of cookies on the surface in front of her. Jess paused when she noticed her, mid way up the steps and awkwardly positioned before she carried on and slowed when she reached the door. Carol’s face was displaying a bright smile as she slid the plate from the table and held it out.

“Cookie?”

Jess hadn’t seen a decent looking cookie in a very long time and her stomach, although reasonably full from breakfast, vibrated slightly at the thought. She almost accepted before she remembered that enjoying that simple pleasure would mean removal of her mask and the potential for passers by to see her.

Clever. She thought. But not clever enough.

“No, thank you.” She politely declined. “What are you doing here?”

“Just got out of a very nice meeting with Deanna. She told me to come and go as I please, so I’m doing just that. Care to join me?” She said breezily.

Her manner was a little too happy for Jess’s liking and she immediately became suspicious of some kind of trap.

“I can’t. I have shit to-“

“Oh, just sit down, Jessica.” Carol scolded through her teeth.

Feeling like a child that had thrown a tantrum and been told off using her full first name, Jess sheepishly sank down into a chair. Even though curiosity had killed the cat, it had got the better of her this time. Across the street, Daryl approached Rick who was busy hauling fertilizer around the vegetable patch. Jess looked up and clocked his presence, quickly diverting her eyes and licking her lips at the plate of cookies instead. They appeared tinted red and purple and she wondered what could possibly be in them to turn them that color. Berries of some kind?

Cherry, maybe? Mmm, Cherries.

“He said you won’t talk to him.” Carol blurted out but with a quiet confidence that snapped Jess out of her food daydream.

OK, we’re really going to sit here and talk about this?!

“I don’t have anything to say to him.” She retorted.

“Jess, you were best friends.” Carol reminded her which only served to prod at her temper and she sprang up from her seat, slapping a hand on the glass tabletop.

“Were we?!” She hissed “Where was he when I needed him? Hmm?”

Carol was taken aback but such an aggressive turn in Jess, but wasn’t afraid. She’d evolved just as much as the woman before her and was sure that if pushed she could be just as cold and distant herself.

“He’s different now. Just like you. It’s like he was a child before… now, he’s a man.” She noticed Jess glance over her shoulder at Daryl, who was now helping rick by carrying a heavy bag of soil over his shoulder. When she moved her gaze back to the porch, her eyes fell back onto the table and to the plate of cookies. “Give him a chance. You’ll see he’s changed. Please.” Carol added.

“It’s complicated. You don’t know anything about it. I appreciate what you’re trying to do but you’re wasting your time. It’s not just black and white and I’ve worked hard to keep my life as simple and pain free as possible and what have you put in those cookies to make them go that color?”

Carol was confused, her train of thought thrown off with Jess’s bizarre question.

“Uh… beets.” She stammered.

“Huh. Beets. Right.” Jess replied. She reached out, took a cookie and in a split second she had vanished into Deanna's house.  

Standing in the empty hallway with her back to the front door, she closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. She knew in her heart that she had to face him at some point. They were practically neighbors with her fairground abode less than a mile away and their similar skills meaning they were bound to be put together for hunting, supply runs and the like by Deanna. Jess didn’t really know what to do past hiding in her home and burying her head in the sand, but she was smart enough to accept that civility might be the least that could be expected of her. She had no plans to pick up a friendship ever again, her solitary lifestyle proving more than ideal both for her physical safety and her emotional stability. But the sting of loneliness succeeded in distracting her during dark, cold nights and every single time she thought of Daryl. Maybe if she just spoke to him and tried to clear the air, things would be easier overall.

 


 

Daryl had just passed Judith back to her father after a brief spell of her sitting on his knee and looking utterly compelled by everything he said to her. He told her about his first truck, how his brother had taught him to fish and drink shooters for hours in bars. He told her that one day, if Rick would let him, he’d teach her to fish too. He figured that hunting information was a little too much for a soul so young and figured he would leave it until she was at least old enough to hold a crossbow without falling over before he taught her how to kill a deer.

It was becoming a nightly habit. He would sit quietly with Judith and think about the day. Sometimes he’d read to her, sometimes he’d just talk quietly. He knew it was more than he would ever say to any adults, but Judith didn’t judge or answer back. She listened with such interest that he sometimes wondered if she would remember what he told her when she grew up. He liked having a kid around. Carl was getting older and more independent, thinking he knew everything yet still being vulnerable enough to need looking after. He was at an age where he could easily repeat things he heard, but Judith didn’t.

He lit a cigarette and reclined in the squeaky chair and watched the smoke expelled from his lungs billowing up into the night. The stars were out, bright and twinkling. If it wasn’t for the snarling beyond the walls from the nightly encroachment of Walkers, it would have been a peaceful and visually appealing night.

He was halfway through his smoke when movement in the night caught his eye and he did a double take at Jess, who was stood at the bottom of the porch stairs with her hood and mask up. Her eyes glistened under the light of the single bulb which flowed above the door. She seemed to manifest out of nowhere and by that point, he’d figured that it was one of her most honed skills. She was silent as the night, until she wasn’t and that was only when it suited her.

“Hi” She said quietly at the same time as fiddling with her fingers and dropping her gaze.

“Hey.” He grunted.

Daryl wondered what she was even doing in the same proximity as him, but he wasn’t about to ask. He considered Carol’s advice once more and decided he may as well give in to his curiosity and see what she was doing at the foot of the steps to his house after dark.

“Do you have a minute?” She asked.

“What’s it look like?” He snapped without thinking. When the words left his lips, he immediately regretted the tone, hearing it laced with anger and bitterness. “I mean, I ain’t exactly busy. Have a seat.” He corrected his inconvenienced emphasis and nudged his head up at the empty seat across the table from him.

She hesitated, one foot on a journey to accept his invitation and the other rooted to the ground. Telling herself she wouldn’t have to stay long anyway, she accepted and slipped into the seat.

“There’s something I should tell you.” She started. His eyes lifted from the now almost finished cigarette between his fingers. “I found Merle in Atlanta.”

He glared at her. She wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. His brother told him where she was. His message through Michonne urged Daryl to go to the City and find Jess. It said more than that too, but he was not about to let on that Merle had given away anything other than her location.

“I know.” He responded bluntly.

“He found you,” she stated with a nod of understanding.

“Yeah. He found me.” He echoed.

Merle obvious absence spoke volumes, as did Daryl’s downcast expression at the mere mention of his brother’s name. He wasn’t there for the same reason some of the others from the Quarry were absent.

“I’m sorry, about whatever happened to him.” She offered sincerely.

“Don’t be. Aint your fault” he told her. He stubbed out his smoke in a glass dish in the centre of the table. His snappy demeanour apparently vanishing as fast as the smoke in the air.

She felt the need to explain how she’d found him, for some reason thinking that information volunteered would somehow make things easier for him. It was still there, she still cared about him.

“I found him in a camping store in the city. Almost bled out. Delirious.” She began “Took him in and stitched him up. He always said he would leave when he could, to find you. He wasn’t the best house guest and he certainly had no manners.”

He raised an eyebrow before sucking his bottom lip into his mouth and nibbling on it.

“Ya didn’t have to help him.”

“Couldn’t just walk away and let him die.” She admitted. “I knew how much he meant to you.”

The last part of her sentence was unintentional and she’d aimed to think it instead of actually say it. But there it was, as plain as day. If he didn’t know she cared about him before, he certainly did now.

“Thank you” He expressed as he tried to make eye contact. Jess avoided his attempt and swallowed hard, staring down into her lap.

“No problem.” She whispered.

A long silence proceeded to engulf them both in an almost unbearable awkwardness that felt like a lifetime when it was merely a few minutes. Jess remembered the days when they could sit side by side in quiet understanding without having to fill the gaps with unnecessary chit chat. So unbearable was it that Jess was seconds away from springing up from her seat and leaving.  

“He told me where to find ya.” Daryl informed her.

“Huh. Of course, he did.” Jess scoffed knowingly.

“Said I should go after ya. I found your apartment. Why the city?” He wanted to know.

She realized there and then that he went out of his way to track her down in the city from Merles information. She knew he might, but knowing he actually did still surprised her and made her question everything she thought to be true. It was months between Merle leaving and Jess abandoning her apartment, even longer since she left the quarry camp. She couldn’t be sure if he got her note or not, but he was definitely looking for her after a considerable amount of time had passed.

“Um, well… all the people left, so it belongs to the Walkers now. Learn how to deal with them, use them to your advantage and the city is your oyster. Everybody leaves so suddenly; it means there’s supplies everywhere. Eventually, a group came through that I didn’t like the look of, so I left and stayed in the woods. Lived on a boat for a while. Then, I found the fairground.”

It was the most she’d said to him since she appeared in his life again and the sound of her voice through her mask was so different it was like talking to a stranger. She’d not only felt the need to hide her voice, she was also hiding her personality, her sense of humor and the essence of who she really was. That was, if there was anything left.

“You can fight now. How’d ya get so good?” He asked.

She wasn’t expecting to still be sitting with him at all, let alone having to answer questions. But he was probing for a good reason, she was aware that he was interested in her time away and how far she’d come. She just didn’t think he cared enough to ask about it.

“I can fight Walkers.” She corrected, making him aware that she wasn’t proficient in the art of grappling with live humans. “It was me and them, for a long time. A city full of wandering corpses makes for great practice. Then there’s the hunting and general survival skills I knew I had to have if I were ever forced to move out of Atlanta. There’s a lot of reading material in abandoned bookstores. I learned a lot while I was there.” She explained, hazarding a small glimpse of him and seeing his eyes dragging over her clothing and weapons.

“Turned up lookin like Rambo too.” he mentioned.

Now, she looked at him properly, their eyes meeting across her mask. He hadn’t changed much, not that she could see. He was more mature, more grounded but still Daryl. Still with the same sense of toeing the line and making fun of her. She found herself trying not to laugh, holding back a huge part of herself that just rushed out when she saw the corner of his mouth quirk up.

“Can kick your ass like Rambo if you don’t find someone more feminine to liken me to.” She quipped.

His lips curled further into a smile and behind her mask, Jess fought not to mirror him.

“Still got ya attitude” he pointed out.

It was news to her. Apparently, she did and he was the one to bring it out in her

“You still have yours too.” She shot back as she got up and walked back to the steps, her heavy boots clunked along the wooden flooring and she struck quite the intimidating figure, but Daryl knew the girl inside and he hoped that some semblance of her was still there.

“Goodnight” she uttered as she descended the steps and walked off into the darkness.

“Night, Jess.”

Now, he could use her name. The girl under the disguise.  

 


 

Glenn perched on the trucks hood, picking berries from a tree branch and shoving them into his mouth. He wasn’t taking a risk, Daryl had been forthcoming with ensuring the group only ate what he said was safe, and everything in moderation. Jess leaned against the wheel arch with a map open in her hands after traipsing through an entire town looking for Veterinary Hospital that didn’t seem to exist. Their fruitless trip so far had been nothing but a major inconvenience.

“You sure you saw it?” She pressed as she craned her back at him and held a hand above her eyes to shield them from the sun.

“A hundred percent. I just can’t remember where.” Glenn confessed as he threw the last of the berries into his mouth and threw the stick away.

“Helpful.” Jess murmured. “I’ve never ventured out this way before. Too many people, not enough animals.”

Glenn squinted down at her as she flapped the map in her hands, straightening its corners.

“People?” He asked

“Undesirables.” She murmured. “We have to be careful.”

“Oh. Sure.”

She circled an area of the map with her finger, mainly to herself and only half interested in Glenn’s attention. “Should check here. It’s the only area we haven’t covered in a five-mile radius. It’s got to be there.”

Glenn agreed and began checking over his gun, making sure it was fully loaded. Jess turned her body and leaned her elbows on the hood, re-strapping her gloves and pushing her hood down for the time being. With it only being the two of them, her worries about revealing herself were now non-existent and Glenn knowledge of who she was had given her a huge sense of relief. Being able to go on a run without the worry of him figuring her out was a new and enjoyable kind of peace.

“Where did you all go? When you left the Quarry?” she asked out of the blue.

He hesitated before answering her, the answer backing up in mind as he rifled through all the things that they’d been through since the Quarry, the people they’d lost and the terrible ways they’d died. It wasn’t easy and sometimes he wondered how they’d got so far but over time and through their shared trauma, they’d become a family. He’d become something else too, one half of a pair with Maggie. The woman of his dreams and he couldn’t help but smile when he remembered how she’d propositioned him in the middle of an abandoned store and ever since their relationship had grown into something he never would have anticipated.

“We tried the CDC. That was a disaster.” He said “One guy left and he blew himself and the building to pieces. Then we stayed on the Greene’s farm. Maggie’s dad owned it. Herd came through, pushed us out of there. Then, we ended up at a prison. We were there for a while. Until some psycho came along and tried to take the place. A lot of people died. We all got split up and that’s how we were reunited…in the worst way, at Terminus.”

Jess held his gaze for a few moments as she contemplated how their numbered had depleted but were replaced by new faces and yet they were still such a tight-knit group. She figured they had Rick to thank for that after witnessing the way he led his people through the gate of Alexandria for the first time with Daryl at his side.

“You guys have been through a lot” She stated.  

“Guess we have, Yeah.” He agreed thoughtfully. “But then again, everybody has, right? You have too.”

Jess didn’t think she’d fought anywhere near the kinds of battles Rick’s group appeared to have survived. She wasn’t without her own difficult memories, but most of those consisted of being alone and having to adapt to fighting Walkers and avoiding detection by other survivors. She’d faced more of an internal war than a physical one, born out of using stealth and cunning to avoid having to engage in actual fighting any more than was necessary. When she did kill the living, it was inevitable and got shoved to one side to enable her to carry on with life at the end of the world.

“Not really.” She disagreed “Keeping out of sight was how I lasted this long. Can’t be robbed, raped or killed if nobody knows you exist.”

“What if you’re discovered by chance?” Glenn argued.

She met his eye, a knowing look exchanged between the two of them. It didn’t need to be voiced that both of them were forced to do things they would never be proud of.

“Then you do what you have to do” She uttered.

Glenn nodded sadly before attempting a risky move.

“Why did you run? From the Quarry” he questioned.

She knew she would face such a question from nearly all of them at some point, her assumption was that it would be Daryl that was the first to ask had been correct, but Glenn being next happened a little quicker than she thought. What she hadn’t quite decided on, was how she was going to answer it. Should she be completely honest, or sugar coat the truth and skirt around the real reasons? She felt overwhelmed, pushed out, betrayed and like she was a mere burden that would never fit in.

“A lot of reasons.” She mumbled. “I ran away to save myself. I needed to lose who I was”

A spell of silence passed between them as Glenn tried to make sense of her response. Jess could feel his disagreement as if it were a weight on her shoulders. He shuffled closer on the hood and slid his gun back into its holster. A loud sigh was followed by a quick scan of the area they were parked in. All still quiet and safe enough.

“The people you loved that are gone…they helped to make you who you are. If you lose that, you lose the last bit of them that’s still around inside, who you are is gone…but so are they.” He told her, feeling her eyes locked on him, her brow furrowed as if surprised by his sudden philosophical take on things. “It’s how you lose people all over again, even after they’re gone. You honor them by carrying on, because they don’t get to”

The conversation was veering into a territory that Jess was no longer comfortable with. She didn’t want to be forced to stare her decisions in the face and dissect her train of thought and reasons for arriving at them. While she couldn’t say that Glenn was wrong, the idea that she’d lost everyone she’d loved for good due to her own actions wasn’t one she wanted to entertain. They were still there, in her heart, in her soul. Or were they?

“So, Carol got split from everyone else?” She queried, shamelessly changing the subject.

“Actually no. She was already on the outside on her own for a while. I’ll let Rick or Carol explain it themselves one day. Along with everything else that happened at the prison. But let’s just say we really appreciate what you two did. That place… was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” He mused, the flicker of fear in his eyes evident upon his reminiscence of his time at Terminus.  “I couldn’t stand the thought of Maggie dying in that hell hole. I’m glad it was me they almost killed. She didn’t deserve to go through that.” He added.

Jess said nothing, too wrapped up in the thought of being so in love and attached to someone that you would die to save their life. It was a completely alien concept to her, except for the likes of her family, she wasn’t sure there would ever be anyone else she would risk her life for. Then, she remembered the time she spent following Daryl through the woods with a group of men she didn’t trust one, single ounce, the people she murdered inside Terminus and the ferocity of her rage which she used to demand his whereabouts. She refused to leave until she knew he was safe and then it occurred to her; she would have died at Terminus. She would have died for Daryl.

“Where’d you get all the gear? The body armor. Looks like high-grade stuff.” Glenn interrupted, scattering her revelatory thoughts.

“Uh…” She grunted, having to take a dep breath and ignore the fact that she’d just discovered the actual extent of her fondness for the man that broke her heart. “Mostly dead Cops and Soldiers. Needed a little cleaning up here and there. Found some stuff in gun stores too, most were picked clean but one or two had the good stuff strapped to the dead owners”

“Nice. It looks good.” He smiled.

“Thanks, but It’s not about how it looks. It’s got to be practical. I can move around and none of it makes a sound. So, I can hunt and travel undetected and still remain nothing but a shaded movement in somebody’s peripheral vision. If anything bites me, it’s got to have pretty sharp teeth to break the barrier too.” She informed him with a certain degree of pride in herself. It was trial and error, endless days testing fabric and different levels of armor using sharp objects and creeping around groups of Walkers.

“We could really use this kind of thing for runs. Think you could find more?” he asked

“Probably.” She shrugged. “One thing at a time though. Let’s get this equipment first.”

He slithered down from the hood and slapped the surface with a grin as he rounded the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat. Jess settled beside him and frowned when he pressed ‘play’ on the CD player. Music filled the cab and she rolled her eyes, looking out at the rapidly passing houses on the side of the street.

 


 

Despite their conversation on the porch of his house, Daryl’s efforts to engage Jess in any more conversation in the coming days fell victim to her insistence to be left alone. He grew more and more frustrated with every instance that he witnessed her chatting away carelessly to others. She still laughed with Abraham and even joined him on gate duty. Aaron was treated to discussions while sat on the wall outside of the armory and even Glenn earned himself an enthusiastic handshake and some kind of mocking dig that couldn’t be heard upon returning from a run with her one evening. It seemed everyone else but Daryl was allowed to be around her and it angered him so much that one night, he decided that he needed to do something about it.

After seeing her playfully slap Abraham’s big arm as they spoke at the side of the road, she bid him farewell and ambled slowly to the gate, nodding at the guard. It was early evening and the sun was going down, the time of year dictating that one minute it was light and the next, flashlights were needed to light the way and the rapid change was almost unnoticeable. The sky glowed with pinks and purples and small birds were still singing in the trees when Daryl dashed out of the gap in the gate and surged after Jess.

She walked slowly, adjusting her bow on her back and calmly glancing around at her surroundings. She liked this time of the day, much like the early morning’s it always seemed to be peaceful and still no matter what horrors were unfolding across the world. It was a nice escape, even if it was only temporary. Her boots crunched over the dirt and she began to hum tunefully to herself. A Beatles song.

“Jess”

Daryl’s voice shot out of the serenity like an arrow and shattered her illusions of an enjoyable walk back to her home. She huffed, her jaw clenching and her body turning to him slowly.

“What do you want, Daryl? Just leave me alone.” She sighed.

His trespassing into her alone time was akin to him walking right into the fairground and making himself at home in her eyes. She had admitted who she was and now she just wanted to be allowed to observe things from the fence without getting involved with anyone or anything that would mean anchoring herself emotionally. But Daryl quite obviously had other ideas and wasn’t satisfied with her terms.

“Why you gotta be such a bitch, huh?!” He snapped.

She shifted her weight and crossed her arms, looking him dead in the eye.

We’re name-calling. Mature. There’s the old Daryl.

“I am being perfectly fucking civil.” She replied mockingly, a sarcastic smile emerging on her lips behind her mask. It occurred to Daryl that if he couldn’t see her face, he couldn’t judge her reactions to be truthful.

“Take it off.” He demanded, gesturing with a hand to her face.

“No.” She refused.

“Take the mask off.” He tried once more.

“Why?” She asked.

“You n’ I, we’re gonna have a conversation and I aint talkin’ to no mask. Don’t make me take it off myself ‘cause I will n’ you know it”

Aggression and testing her resolve were fast becoming the only way he could get through to her and get her to comply and he wondered when she developed such a strong will and courage to rival his own. If he was honest with himself, her bravery impressed him regardless of it being so far from the Jess he used to know. She needed it to stay alive and it seemed to be serving her well, even though it meant they locked horns.

Jess gave in and opted to endure whatever he wanted to talk about mainly because she wanted it over with, but also because there was a different side to her story that she was interested in hearing. She flicked her mask down with one, swift movement while the rest of her body stood completely rigid and angry. Her vision was narrowed, her eyes dark and unimpressed.

“What the hell happened to you? We were friends and now ya won’t even look at me.” He asked.

She moved closer, standing inches from his face and not showing an ounce of fear. She was defensive but challenging and he wanted to step back and observe this drastic change in her properly. She was no longer a shrinking violet, her confidence in the face of confrontation had come out of nowhere. The Jess from before would have said her piece but backed right off. This woman had a grudge and Daryl knew now that he was at the center of it.

Jess spoke clearly and deliberately her eyes not wavering from his for even a second.

“I was ‘just a girl’. I didn’t ‘mean shit to you’. Isn’t that right, Daryl?” She hissed

A flashback hit him like a bus. He was standing with Merle on the slope to the water back at the Quarry. It was dark, he could hear the waves lapping against the shore. Merle was mocking him for catching feelings. He rubbished his claims with a single sentence. One that unbeknownst to him at the time, Jess heard every word of and it changed everything. Destroyed something good, something meaningful. Something he missed everyday. 

She heard me. Shit. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean what I said.

He stepped away from her, sighing loudly and rubbing his eyes with his thumb and finger on one hand. Jess seethed in front of him, her hurt and pain now simmering just under the surface after the words being repeated for the first time. It all came rushing back, all the old feelings of being rejected and lied to.

That’s what this is about?” He asked quietly.  

“Don’t you dare trivialize it.” She warned with a slight tremor in her voice. Her emotions were boiling over and cracks in her defenses were beginning to show.

“I’m aint…. I’m-I’m not” he quickly assured her, lifting one hand and showing her his palm in surrender.

She felt as though she would burst with all the things she wanted him to know. She wanted him to feel the betrayal and sadness she’d endured for himself, to have to live with it festering in the back of his mind like she had. Her bottom lip quivered and she sucked in a sharp breath.

“You broke my god damn heart.” She whispered shakily.

Both of them froze at the sound of her admission. It wasn’t exactly something she wanted him to know but there it was anyway, the truth about how she felt, floating in the air between them. The air left Daryl’s lungs and his shoulders lowered. He dropped his vision, unable to look at the broken expression on her features.

She couldn’t hide it any longer, a single, salty tear flittered down her cheek and she whirled around, striding into what was now a thick darkness lit only by the moon. She was shrouded in black, protected by the night but the emotional exposure was kicking her anxiety into gear and meant she had to depart, to run away and go back to where she felt safe. She knew the way to the fairground even if she was blinded by the lack of light. It was like someone clicked their fingers and she was teleported to her destination, the route to her home a complete blur of tears and sniffles. She fumbled with the chain and lock on the gate, pausing to click on a hanging, LED light that bumped against the fence post. Her heart jumped in her chest when a hand wrapped around her wrist and she flinched away, seeing that Daryl had somehow followed her without her noticing. So wrapped up had she been in her own tears, that she’d made it home without a single care for the dangers that might be surrounding her.

“Wait. Please.” He requested, stepping under the light on the fence.

In her other hand, she still grasped the lock on the gate. It rattled when she let go and swallowed hard.  

“I didn’t mean what I said to him.” He said sincerely. “Ya know what he was like. I just wanted to shut him up”

She licked her lips, tasting the tang of her tears and roughly wiped at her face with the sleeve of her jacket.

“You didn’t defend me either.” She told him. Her voice was now akin to a pathetic whimper and she detested the sound of her own vulnerability. “If we were supposed to be friends, if I actually meant anything to you, you would have stood up for me when that fucking airhead started reading my journal. Because we both know I was not in a position to do that myself. I needed you and you walked away.”

He nodded in understanding and Jess thought he might have been expecting to hear such a thing.

“I know. M’sorry.” He said, stepping closer to her. She backed up.

“Right. Sure.” Came her sarcastic reply, her walls still raised and Daryl’s apology doing little to knock them down. It was going to take a lot for her to trust anyone again, let alone him.

She struggled with the lock, finally releasing it and noisily hauling the gate open. She stepped inside and slammed it, clicking the lock back into place and walking away. To her surprise, it began to rain. Small raindrops splattering long the path and gently playing a rhythm on the top of her hood.

“I let ‘em die.” He called out. “Both of em.”

She halted and peered over her shoulder at him, his fingers were threaded through the fence. To his credit, she couldn’t deny that he was trying more than she ever would have guessed. His determination to pursue her and make her listen was obvious. She knew exactly who he was referring to.

“How many people you killed, Jess?” he questioned.

She lowered her head and took a deep breath, not wanting to answer the question. It wasn’t something she thought should be a part of regular conversation unless absolutely necessary. Taking another human beings’ life was no menial task, nor was it something to be discarded like it didn’t matter. It was a huge deal, especially to Jess. But she kept the details and numbers locked away where they couldn’t play on her conscience too much.

“Wouldn’t be alive right now if ya hadn’t killed somebody and I know you must have put down a lot of them assholes at Terminus.” He reasoned, still gripping the fence and refusing to budge.

“Then there’s your answer.” She grunted. “A lot”

“Yeah. Me too. Those two girls? They were the first.” He revealed.

She needed to hear it. They were dead, that much didn’t need to be explained. But she wanted to know the how’s and why’s. She slowly wandered back to the gate.

“Merle told me you almost shot Sarah in the face.” She mumbled.

“Yeah. I really wanted to” he huffed “But… there was kids watchin’, y’know? Before that, before ya left, I took her to the woods and threatened to slit her throat if she bothered ya again. Didn’t know that, did ya?”  

She didn’t know, she had no idea but managed to keep her shock well hidden. Her eyes only flickering up to his.

“In the end…I watched ‘em get bit and I did nothin’ ‘cause I fuckin’ hated what they did to you. I know I was a shitty friend. But I wasn’t lyin’ when I said I just don’t have friends. I always been kind of a loner ‘cept for when I was with Merle.”

“You were ashamed of me.” She pointed out

“What?! That’s bullshit.” He exclaimed in disbelief.

She stepped closer to where he stood beyond the fence, the light illuminating them both from above enough for them to be able to read each other’s expressions.

“As soon as people started making fun of you being around me, you closed up like a clam and treated me like I was some kind of fly that just followed you around. God forbid you’d be seen with… what was it that Merle called me? Oh, that’s right, the ‘little, fat chick!’.” She explained with regret.

“Oh, c’mon, Jess!” He cried, frustration etched onto his features as he leaned closer to the fence, urging her to believe him.

“Tell me I’m wrong!” She shot back, silencing him. “Right. Because I’m not, am I?!”

He suddenly slammed both of his hands against the metal links on the barrier between them, sending a shockwave along the structure. Jess jumped slightly and moved back.

“Two weeks!” He yelled with no regard for the danger he might be attracting from the woods “I looked for you for two god damn weeks and they all wanted to move on n’ forget ya like ya never mattered!” His breathing had changed and she noticed that he was almost panting, his chest rising and falling rapidly. “WELL, YA MATTERED TO ME!” He yelled at her with another slam of his hands. She merely blinked but could feel the heaviness of tears building behind her eyes again. “I told ‘em, I said I wasn’t doing shit for none of ‘em until I found you.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a brown, crumpled piece of paper, unfolding it and slapping it against the fence. “Instead, I found your stupid note and I fuckin’ kept it! So, don’t you dare tell me I was ashamed of you!”

She cursed herself internally for being unable to quash the need to cry. She hadn’t cried in over a year, having learned to push her emotions away and carry on. Now, she’d hardly stopped and she hated every, single second. His confession regarding her note and his actions after her departure had changed everything. She was wrong. She had been wrong for so long. He did care about her after all and it was like they’d swapped roles. He didn’t know how to show it at the time. Now, she had more in common with him than ever. He had opened up to her and shown her a side to him that she didn’t know was there. He’d more than proved he cared and she felt more guilty than ever. It was too much to take in, to be able to stand before him and keep composed and so she quickly vanished into the Diner, leaving him standing alone in the rain with her creased note clutched in his hand.  

 


 

Eric and Aaron's place was the perfect show home, straight out of an interior decorating convention and cleaner than a surgical suite. Jess was often reluctant to touch anything for fear of leaving a fingermark and being banished. Eric and Aaron didn’t mind, of course, having welcomes Jess into their home with open arms and not once mentioning any house rules or cleanliness standards to be followed. She used the place like a hotel but was always grateful for their hospitality and the free rein to come and go as she pleased. She was also pretty sure that no other residents of Alexandria made spaghetti quite like them.

She stayed at the Diner for the next two days, eventually emerging and resuming her hunting and clearing duties only to find that Daryl had covered for her in both areas. The walls were clear and there was meat in the pantry. Feeling useless and still lumbered with emotions, she threw Daryl a split-second peep where he stood by the armory and raced to the other side of the street, letting herself into Aaron and Eric’s living room and slumping down onto their couch. Aaron ticked off a crossword in a wildly outdated newspaper on the opposite couch and peered at her over the broadsheet, observing her troubled body language; fiddling hands and constant sighing. She presented in such a way that he had never seen from her before. She was anxious.

He lowered the paper and zoned in on the only visible and readable part of her, her eyes. Stunned by what he was witnessing, he gradually discarded his newspaper and crept closer to her, eventually sitting on the coffee table in front of her. She looked up and he could practically feel the sadness seeping from her pores.

“OK…I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry.” He whispered.

“It’s a rare occurrence.” She sniffed. “Not happened in over a year. Now it’s like a fucking floodgate that I can’t close.” She stated plainly. While her eyes were watering, her breathing hadn’t changed, creating a strange and blank air around her.  It was a very odd sight for Aaron to comprehend.

“Are you here because you want to talk about it?” He pressed with a genuine desire to help. He wanted her to say yes and tried to urge her by shifting closer and waiting patiently.

“I don’t know.” She said under her breath.

“Look, I know you don’t trust anyone. But you’ve been staying in this house on and off for weeks now. You and I, we get along well. You can tell me, maybe I can help.” He tried.

Apparently, all Jess needed was a friendly face that wasn’t connected to Daryl to expel the contents of her mind to. She spent the next hour telling Aaron everything, right from the Quarry and up until that very day. She explained how her and Daryl used to be good friends and were torn apart by a number of factors, namely his mixed signals and her overthinking. At the suggestion from Aaron that her self-esteem played a part in it, a further door was opened in her head; he was completely right and it made her feel even more guilty for harboring such a huge grudge for so long. She expressed a need to make things right, but not to get too close and Aaron agreed, stating that while he thought it a good idea for now, she would not be wrong to let her guard down and give him another chance. Throughout their conversation, she cried more than once and was comforted by understanding and empathy. But when he reached out to hold her hand, she snatched it away and recoiled in discomfort. Aaron knew then not to push her too much, her refusal to remove her mask was also another telling factor that while she trusted him enough to accept his help, her face would remain behind a disguise that she used as a safety net.

“Sorry. I don’t do so well with the touching thing”. She told him.

It was the first time she’d trusted anyone with anything since Daryl at the quarry. She trusted him with her life and was left feeling like he’d lied to her. She hoped Aaron would not do the same and that his advice would help to mend the broken shards of what was left of her shattered friendship and she and Daryl could at least speak to each other without the past looming over them.

“What are you going to do?” Aaron asked.

“I have an idea. But I’m not sure it’ll work.” She replied.

Chapter Text

 

Nerves bubbled in the pit of her stomach; much like they did when she’d first spoken to anyone at the Quarry. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other repeatedly, dancing a nervous jig in front of the door to the large home Daryl shared with Carol, Rick, Carl, Judith, and Michonne. A fly buzzed erratically around the light on the wall and Jess scoffed when it dawned on her that she could relate to that fly. Attracted to something that she couldn’t have. She rolled her eyes and checked her mask and hood were firmly in place before knocking on the door.

It was almost midnight and the streets were deserted save for the guards and perimeter checks that Rick had insisted on. It rarely disturbed the residents and therefore Deanna had no reason to object to a little extra security. She glanced over her shoulder to see Glenn passing the front lawn holding a rifle. He nudged his head up in greeting to her and she returned the gesture, turning back just as the door was opened.

Carol stood in the entrance and crossed her arms, visibly and shamelessly unimpressed with Jess’s presence. Jess had no idea why she was receiving such a cold reception and could only conclude that Daryl had told her everything, just like she’d told Aaron.

“Good evening, Carol.” She said formally, not even recognizing her own voice for a moment.

She tilted her head up and looked down her nose at Jess, making it clear that she was not happy with her.

Why are you always telling me off?

“He told me you guys had a big fight.” She mentioned.

“Uh…yes. I guess we did.” She replied.

Carol shooed her away from the door and over to the chairs on the porch while she gently closed the door behind her. Jess, not wanting to protest and be scolded anymore, simply did as she was told and sat down as Carol leaned against the railings, looming over her like an angry parent.

“You need to know something.” She began “After the quarry, we were on the highway, hiding from a herd. Sophia…she got scared and ran off into the woods. We all went out looking for her. I refused to move until we found her. Eventually, people started to give up. I could see it in their faces, they didn’t think she was coming back. Daryl was out looking for her every day. Soon, every day turned into every night as well. Eventually, we ended up on the Greene Farm. Maggie’s dad owned it. Daryl continued to look for Sophia. He truly believed she was out there and that he’d find her. One day, he came back with an arrow in his side. He was covered in blood and dirt, hallucinating and talking crap. Andrea thought he was a Walker and shot him-”

“-Andrea shot Daryl?” Jess intercepted.

“Yes. Luckily, her aim was a little off and the bullet grazed his skull. But he could have died from that arrow wound if he hadn’t got back to the farm when he did. He was willing to sacrifice his life to find my little girl. I went to see him when he was recovering. He’s a man of few words but I remember what he said as if it were yesterday.”

She narrowed her eyes at Jess, who was hanging on every word, her lips parted behind her mask.

“he thought himself useless because he couldn’t find Sophia….and he couldn’t find you.”

Jess turned her head away slightly and swallowed hard. She’d done enough crying for one day and flat refused to give in again but the prospect of him still hurting from not being able to find her was something that stung at her heart. 

“You are not the only one that built a friendship with Daryl. He has grown up not knowing what it’s like to be cared about by another person. That is until he met you and I and the rest of this group. He is a good man, Jess. So, if you’ve come to fight with him again…” she sighed “…as his friend, I will be forced to turn you away.”

“I’m not here to fight with him.” Jess confirmed.

Carol studied her expression, trying to read her intentions and thought carefully. The night of his fight with Jess, Daryl arrived back at the house soaking wet from the rain and headed for the stairs without a word to anyone. Carol detected something was wrong straight away and followed him, stopping him at the top and making him face her so she could see his face. She’d asked what was wrong and he’d muttered something inaudible at first. It was only when she encouraged him to repeat himself that she finally heard what he’d said.

“I broke her heart.”

Seeing how much that night affected him bothered Carol and sent Daryl into a solitary existence. He spent his days outside the walls and when he did return, he was quiet and dismissive of everyone, even her when she was usually the one he could lean on, the one he told more than anyone else. She wasn’t about to allow another incident to knock him back further.  

“OK.” She finally agreed. “He’s here, I’ll go get him for you.”

She moved across the porch to the door and placed her hand on the Handle.

“Carol?” Jess said

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry… about Sophia.” She offered.

“Thank you.” Carol replied with gratitude.

 


 

Daryl stepped out onto the porch after what seemed like an eternity and Jess shot up from her seat like a nervous teenager. She removed her mask but not her hood, a single, simple nod to his preference of not wanting to talk to a mask. Still wanting to hide behind her strong, mysterious façade in front of the other inhabitants of Alexandria, she would not budge on the hood. The hood stayed put no matter what. He could see that her hair had grown a lot longer, her face shape had changed and her skin was bright.

“Hi” She whispered.

“Hi.”

“Take a walk with me?” She requested. He couldn’t simply walk away without finding out what she wanted and so, decided to honor her request and join her on a midnight walk. He was grateful she wasn’t wearing her mask, its simple existence annoyed him so much that he had visions of burning it to ashes and making her wander around with her face uncovered. To him, it was a much prettier picture than the computer game hero headwear she insisted on.

For a few minutes, neither of them said a word. Jess was almost suffocated with all the things she wanted to say and every time she opened her mouth, she quickly shut it again and re-thought her course of action. The curse of the overthinker; every single little detail was scrutinized. Daryl strolled beside her and glanced her way from time to time, a thin smile on his lips when she caught him on the third occasion in a row.

Aaron and Eric’s house came into view and she veered off to the garage, checking the street briefly to make sure she didn’t have to pull her mask back up. He waited wordlessly but with a bemused expression as she dug around in her coat pocket. Finding what she needed, she held out her hand, a black and silver key hanging from between her fingers.

“Here”

“What’s this?” He asked, taking it from her and briefly staring down at it as if he had never seen a key before.

“An Olive branch.” She said after taking a lungful of breath and trying to portray herself as more in control than she felt inside.

His vision lifted and she could see how baffled he was by the gesture that arrived with no context at all. His eyebrows knitted together slightly and he tilted his head back subtly, suspicious of where this was going.

“When I first got here, I was asked to stay and live here by Deanna. Multiple times. I’ve always refused. I have my own space that I worked hard for. I don’t like to get attached to things, or people. I live my life with no ties or connections. I have to protect my emotional wellbeing” She explained

Regret stung at Daryl's heart when he realized that he was part of the reason why she lived a life of isolation and seclusion from everyone. It was because of him that she kept a basic civility with the people of the town but had no one she wanted to call a friend. He was responsible for her changed attitude towards people and he hated himself for it.

“I was also offered a job and I’ve been considering it since.” She added.

“You hunt n’ clear the woods for ‘em. Aint that a job?” He wondered.

She shook her head and noticed she was tapping her thigh as she avoided the piercing gaze of his blue eyes.

“No. It’s an agreement. I do it because I want to. Not because I have to. I can survive by myself. I choose to help these people and it’s an arrangement I can walk away from at any time.”

She paused to see him tilt his head again, but this time to the side, thoughtfully. 

She even talks differently.

“I know that you’ve spent a lot of time outside the walls since you’ve been here. You volunteer for every run and you hunt more than is necessary. I know why. It’s because the outside is where you feel like you. I know because I’m the same. The other side of those walls is where I’ve learned to live, I don’t feel the fear anymore because it’s just become…normal. But the difference between you and I, is that it’s always been like that for you. Am I correct?”

He nodded, seemingly a little impressed by her observation and understanding of him. She knew him, even after so long apart, she still knew who he was.

“Yeah.” He rasped.

She reached out and tugged the handle on the garage and opened the door. Flicking on the light she walked inside. Daryl followed her to find a Motorcycle in the middle of the room. He looked down at the key in his hand as Jess closed the door behind them and shook her hood from her head. She ran her fingers through her long, dark hair and let it fall around her shoulders.

“What the…?” Daryl started as he slowly began to approach the bike.

“I’m assuming you no longer have your brothers’ bike.” She said from behind him. He glanced at her, unable to look away when he noticed her silky hair and hoodless appearance. Her blue eyes peered back at him; his lingering stare had not gone unnoticed.

I must look so different to him.

“Um, no….no, I don’t.” He managed to answer.

“I spoke to Deanna before I came to your place. I turned down her offer and asked that it goes to you instead. Alexandria needs another recruiter. Someone to go outside the walls on a regular basis and recruit other survivors to become active members of the community. When I met with her, I asked Rick to meet me there. He tells me you are intuitive and an excellent judge of character. He speaks highly of you. My decision was confirmed further when Carol answered the door to me and told me everything you did to find her daughter.”

The surprised look on his face refused to move and Jess thought he was now looking at her like she’d grown an extra head. Multiple times, he tried to speak but a grunt was all he could manage. Not knowing what to say, he finally just seemed to give up. Jess decided to fill the awkward gap with some more information.

 “You may not be the Daryl I knew back then. But there are parts of your personality that are befitting to this type of job. Carol, she said you’re a good man…I’m not going to disagree with that. I think you’d be able to find other good people, because they are still out there. I found you guys, after all.”

As he listened, he started to pace around the bike, raising his eyebrows in approval when his fingertips bumped over the handlebars and the leather of the seat.  

“it’s custom made, using all the parts that were found in this garage.” She told him.

“S’a damn nice bike.” He admitted. It was unlike anything Merle had before the turn and it was clearly comprised of all the best parts of some decent motorcycles. After years of arguing with his brother over who would get to use the bike on any given day, he was finally being offered his own.

“Accept the job and it’s yours. I can manage hunting alone. I did before.” She shrugged, secretly hoping he would agree and she wouldn’t have to walk back into Deanna’s house and explain why Daryl turned down what was a generous offer and one that suited him perfectly. It was the only olive branch she could think of.

“Alright. I aint got nothin’ better to do.”

Oh, thank the lord.

“Great.” She chirped casually, digging into her pocket again and throwing him a handmade keyring. He caught it with ease and opened his palm to find a metal, soldered ‘A’ looking back at him. He threaded the key onto the metal ring and licked his lips as he looked up at her.

“Thanks.” He said sincerely.

“Sure.”

She didn’t know why, but she felt the need to break away from his close proximity and wander around the garage, trailing her fingers over the tools and motorcycle parts on the workbench. She could feel his stare practically burning her skin as she moved, the stillness and quiet around them becoming nearly intolerable.

“I’m sorry. ‘bout what happened in the woods.” She heard him say.

She was tapping at her thigh again and this time Daryl noticed with a flicker of familiar amusement for the nervous tic she hadn’t managed to lose along with everything else that made her Jess. She swallowed hard and faced him, her eyes fixed on the floor. Her courage had vanished at the mere sound of his apology. He’d been the bigger person and apologized first, now, it was her turn. But she had no idea where to start.

“I don’t want to fight with you.” She muttered.

“Naw, me neither.” He agreed.

Then, she met his eye and her heart lurched. The top buttons on his shirt were open and his leather vest was absent. She could make out the alluring shape and tone of his chest and arms through the thin, dark grey shirt. His jaw was pulled tight and his hair was floppy, falling over his eyes just enough to make him smolder as he glared at her.

How did you get even more attractive? You asshole.

She closed her eyes for a second or two, needing to compose herself. She dropped down onto a wooden stool and sighed loudly, flailing her hands in the air before she’d began speaking.

“I’m not so good with apologies anymore. So…” She paused to check he was listening. Of course he was. He was on tenterhooks. “…unfuck yourself. Or, whatever.”

He snorted at the comment and she detected a small, half smile from him which told her he was about to forgive her a lot more easily then she’d thought.

“Right. Yeah.” He grunted, clearly forcing away a laugh.  

She had done what she wanted to do. Offered a way to start to clear the air, swapped apologies albeit not very well and Daryl had a task, a purpose that was given to him by Jess. She felt better, not as mixed up and confused but still wary of getting too close. She could be civil and that would have to be enough.

“Aaron will talk you through everything in the morning. I’m heading home. Goodnight.” She said quickly, standing up and making her way out of the door into the night and leaving him alone with his new bike in the middle of Aaron and Eric’s Garage.

Jess could only hear the thumping of her boots on the sidewalk while she charged towards the gate, needing to be alone in her own space, to write in her journal and vent everything that was building up inside her. She lifted her mask and hood up as she approached the gate guard and reached to her torso in order to lift her bow from her body to equip it. A hand tapped at the back of her elbow and she whirled around, finding Daryl in front of her having followed her from the house.

“I didn’t mean to.” He blurted out. Jess dropped her arm and took a step backwards, wanting to put some distance between them and his out of the blue comment. “In the woods” He continued “Ya said I-I broke ya heart. I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t mean none of it. I never would have… .”

Jess stayed silent.

“… I never would have done that on purpose. I guess I didn’t know that… that ya gave a shit about me.”

She swallowed hard and tried to decide exactly how honest to be.

“I cared about you.” She croaked, her vulnerability now peeping through the cracks in her hardened exterior.

“That stuff ya wrote in ya journal-" He mentuioned

Oh lord. This again.

“-it was true.” She interrupted bravely. 

In the months since her departure from the Quarry, she had thought of little else other than that journal entry and the trouble it had caused. She wished she could turn back time and rip the page out, throw it in the fire and pretend it never existed. It was one of the reasons she rarely wrote anything down anymore. But as time ticked on, she realized that if it wasn’t the journal to open a can of worms, it would have been something else. Convinced that Daryl thought nothing of her and that their friendship was a sham, she accepted that the lines of fate would have crossed at some point and shown her that she didn’t belong anyway. She was tired of lying, tired of pretending it was anything other than her spilling her innermost thoughts onto a page.

“I had a crush on you. I lied and said it was all crap because I was embarrassed.” She admitted.

“Oh.” He grunted awkwardly at the same time as scuffing his boot along the ground “OK.”

“It’s in the past, Daryl. It doesn’t matter now. I have to go.” She snapped, attempting to turn around again.

“Hey, we good?” He called out to her as she raced towards the gate.

“I gave you a job and an apology. We’re as good as we can be” was her bland and standard response, thrown over her shoulder while on her mission to put as much distance between them as possible.

 


 

A short run to a canned goods factory sounded good to Jess. An opportunity to get out on the open road and spend some time with the elements. She needed to get out of her own head after spending three days replaying her last conversation with Daryl and staring at the journal in her upturned crate of a nightstand. It was begging to be written in and her head was getting full, but she knew that as soon as she put pen to paper it would force her to acknowledge that which she was fiercely avoiding; she still thought he was the most attractive man she’d ever seen and she hated that he distracted her so much. Part of her felt like she was back at the quarry again, the rumble of nerves in her stomach when she saw him, the pull to admire him from a distance. But one thing remained stronger; her desire to keep her life and emotions to herself. She had no plans to get hurt again and as a self defense mechanism she opted to linger at the sidelines of everything, Deanna’s weekly meetings and Rick’s supply run roster being the main things.

But this was needed and she wasted no time in stepping up and volunteering her services to collect as many boxes of canned food that was left in the factory. She’d felt a sense of satisfaction. The perfect task that kept her out of the way. That was, until Daryl piped up and announced he would go with her. It wasn’t a request and Rick didn’t treat it as such. Needing no convincing, he simply nodded at Daryl and moved on to the next thing on the agenda.

Jess could have strangled him there and then in front of everyone but her quiet, simmering rage soon dispelled when he mumbled in passing that he’d be taking his new bike.

At least I don’t have to share a truck cab with him. She thought.

It wasn’t easy to decide on the route either, with Daryl involved, everything seemed so much more difficult. He insisted that the highway would be the fastest way to their destination and had the cheek to scoff at Jess when she pointed out that the highway left them exposed and like sitting ducks and that they should stick to the smaller, more obscured backroads. His refusal to agree with her flared her temper and she failed to disguise a frustrated sigh as she turned and walked to the truck she’d borrowed.

Daryl was stubborn when he wanted to be and he was sure that they would cut down their journey time by half if they stuck with his idea. But Jess was meticulous and cautious now. She was also not one to suffer fools and waste time on worrying about being diplomatic. He watched her stomp across the street and climb into the truck, closing the door with a loud slam. She waited in the cab, sitting back and drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. Her attitude was new to him but not altogether unpleasant, he couldn’t deny he liked the firm stance with which she held her beliefs and how unafraid she now was to disagree with him.

She wants to take the back roads. I wanna take the highway. I guess we should compromise… and take the backroads. He considered with a small smile.

 

The factory was surrounded by a bustling crowd of Walkers that Jess chose to drive straight through at full speed, splattering the trucks windscreen with body parts and teeth. Daryl looked on with concern from the other side of the shattered gate and knew he was going to have to dismount his bike and help her chop her way through the remaining Walkers. Her apparent impulsiveness was a surprise to him, until he realized that in ploughing through the crowd she had, in fact, eliminated over half of them.

She jumped from the cab, machete swinging and blood flickering over nearby vehicles and walls. Bolts flew past her, dropping oncoming Walkers. Daryl was working his way towards her with his crossbow aimed and after a solid ten minutes of dodging, stabbing and shoving, they were able to make it inside through a smashed window. Daryl helped her up, using his hands joined together as a step to boost her up and through the gap. When she was safely through, she checked the darkness with her flashlight before leaning back through and offering him her hand. For a split second, he almost refused, unable to believe she would handle his weight, but he knew better than to challenge her capabilities. He slapped a hand into hers and allowed her to help him up the wall and through the window.

Picking through the numbered shelves with flashlights poised and filling large carts was a time consuming process and while Daryl worked his way though one side of the building, Jess covered the other and amused herself by humming a quiet Beatles tune under her breath. When they eventually met in the middle, Jess heaved a large box from a shelf to find Daryl staring back at her from the next aisle. She briefly held his gaze before tossing the box of cans into her cart.

“Wanna tell me why you volunteered for this run? I didn’t need a chaperone.” She questioned.

It was the first time either of them had spoken since leaving Alexandria. Even in the tussle out in the parking lot full of Walkers, not a single word was exchanged between them. Daryl sensed her barely disguised irritation. If he was to answer her question truthfully he would have to confess that she fascinated him and now he knew her true identity and was witness to her evolution, he wanted to spend more time with her. Missing her had become a familiar feeling, but she had walked back into his life and he wanted nothing more than for her to let down her guard a little, although he was almost certain it was never going to happen.

“Relax” he rasped  “Was a good excuse to use the bike for the first time.”

“Hm. You like it?” She wanted to know.

“Yeah.” He replied as he scooped his arms around several cans and slid them from the shelf into the cart in his aisle. “Purrs real good.”

A quick snort from Jess saw her veer off at the end of the aisle and head for the shutter to the lot. Reaching the metal structure, she took hold of the chain and pulled with all her might. A harsh rattle sounded through the vast space but the shutter refused to lift. She tried again, grunting with discomfort and using her entire body weight to pull the chain. Still nothing. She stepped back, defeated and hoping Daryl wasn’t watching her. As she rubbed her sore hands together through her gloves, she heard footsteps approach from behind her. A hand reached out and plucked a metal bolt from the chains mechanism.

“Was locked” he mentioned before taking hold of the links and hauling it open. His arms were illuminated in the glow of her flashlight and she not only averted the lights beam but her eyes too while she attempted not to let her attention wane and focus on things too indulgent to be thinking about at that moment in time. If anything, It did wonders to distract her from the embarrassment of not realising the chain was locked into place. 

That would have taken me a while if he wasnt here. Dumbass. 

 

When Jess backed the truck up to the edge of the loading area and everything they’d collected was moved inside the vehicle, Daryl settled on the edge and lit a smoke with little regard for Jess’s desire to head back to Alexandria. Instead of protesting, Jess sat down beside him, keeping a fair distance between them and exercising some self control over her own body. She wanted to tap her leg, fiddle with her hands and chew her lip. But she kept still and composed.

“You talk to Aaron?” She asked

From her peripheral vision, she saw him exhale a plume of smoke from his lips and nod.

“Yeah. Said our group was the first bunch of decent people found in a long time. ‘Sides you.”

She wasn’t sure if she wanted a conversation but the urge was becoming stronger. She hated that she was still so drawn to him even though the pull to her solitary life was so strong. He was different to before, somehow slightly more open and definitely more mature, she knew that much.

“Humanity is at its worst and best all at once” she found herself saying “Terminus is proof of its worst, Alexandria is proof of its best.”

He looked to the side at her and she met his eye. He tapped ash from his cigarette and it floated to the floor between his boots. She expected him to speak, but whatever he wanted to say was delayed while he examined her mask-less face. A sight he wished he could see more often.

“You really helped us get out? You were really there?” He queried.

The blood. The death. The booming explosion from the gas tank. People running, screaming for their lives. Yes, she was there.

“I saw you on the road a couple days before. With that group of men.” She told him.

He flinched at the memory of the small group he’d attached himself to for a brief spell. A group he should have steered clear of, killed every single one of them while he had the chance. Regret stung his conscience and he dipped his head.

“Hm” he grunted  “I didn’t know what they were.”

 “I did. I followed you for miles. Watched you sleep from the window of the auto repairs garage. They were another example of the worst of humanity.”

“You were there the whole time.” He stated quietly, the disbelief evident in his voice as the sentence croaked out.

“I was mad at you, but I wouldn’t have let them hurt you.” She admitted. The truth hanging in the air with foreboding. “I realized you were heading for Terminus when I saw you stop at one of those signs. I knew what it was after coming across the signs myself a few weeks before. Instead of just walking in, I scoped it out. Never went back after I saw them burying truck loads of human bones behind the building.” He was glaring at her intently, trying to figure out how she’d changed so much. Become so street smart, so calculating and always seemed to be one step ahead. Then, he remembered the quarry and all of their conversations. Jess was always smart; she was just underestimated by everyone. Even him. Even herself. “I was trying to steer you in a different direction by skirting around your group to get to the signs first, but I got cut off by a herd and by the time I got there, you were nowhere to be seen but Carol was in murder mode in the woods. I knew then that I was too late. I had to help…. I couldn’t just leave you.” The end of her sentence was mumbled, as if she wasn’t sure if she should say it, but Daryl heard her perfectly.” It was pretty unforgettable. Walking through that place was… macabre.”

Daryl threw his smoke away and cast his gaze out across the bloodied ground of the parking lot and loading bay. Bodies scattered all around, most of them chopped into pieces or ground to smithereens by the truck. The air lingered with the stench of rotting flesh, Much like it did at Terminus.

“You don’t wanna talk about it?” He offered without looking at her.

Rustling from beside him caught his attention and it dawned on him that she was casually unwrapping a protein bar during their unintentional lunch break. Little did he know, it was all Jess could do to keep her hands still.

When in doubt, eat. She told herself.

“Since when do you want to talk about stuff like that? She answered with a mouth full of seeds and dried berries.

“Since you had to kill a ton of people back at that hell hole to save our asses." he reminded her "You OK?”

“Gotta be.” She shrugged, swallowing and scrunching the wrapper in her hand.

“Alright. Well. I’m here.” He told her “talk to me, or don’t talk to me. I’m still here”

“Wow” she smirked “You got all sensitive while I was gone.”

“Fine. Forget it.” He quickly dismissed with a flick of his hand as he adjusted his body in his spot.

She smiled at him, the urge too strong to ignore and she found that his face was subtly mirroring her expression.  He was glad she was neglecting her mask while she was alone with him and not fighting Walkers. He didn’t know if it was proof that she was starting to trust him or if it was simply that she didn’t need it if there was no one else around.  Her blue eyes twinkled in the daylight, the contrast of her dark hair making them seem more icy than usual.

“Seriously, I like sensitive Daryl.” She quipped with a wink in what was possibly the most flirtatious gesture she’d ever offered to anyone. It wasn’t intentional and she shocked herself with just how well executed and smooth it came off.

“Stop.” he grumbled with a huff. Jess grinned smugly to herself when she noticed the pink hue across his cheeks and nose.

Holy shit. I just made a guy blush. I just made Daryl blush. I must be hallucinating. What was in that protein bar?!

She grinned at him and he was transfixed. Daryl had never thought anyone to be beautiful, it wasn’t a word he ever used or even mused over. No woman he’d met could be graced with such an adjective and he’d all but accepted that beauty was merely created to quell humanity’s desire for validation. But as Jess dwelled beside him and dragged a rag from her pocket to clean her machete, he stole glimpse of her while she concentrated and decided that maybe, just maybe, beauty was a reality after all.

“What’s with the name? Why Parker?” He asked with the desire to avert his thoughts from the fact that’d he’d always thought of her as attractive in some way, now it was becoming more and more obvious to him that it was stronger than ever and it wasn’t something that he could easily ignore.

“It was my brother’s name.” She answered “we both lost our brothers”

“M’sorry.” He offered sincerely.

She shrugged and let out a sigh, stuffing the bloody rag back into her pocket and tugging the keys to the truck out instead.

“I like to think of it as; at least he doesn’t have to see the world like it is now. All the fear, the death, the depravity. He was spared that. So were the rest of my family.” She explained before getting to her feet and looking down at him.

“Good way of lookin’ at it.” He nodded.

 


 

It was well into the evening by the time Jess and Daryl arrived at the gate and as Abraham was on gate duty, Jess jumped from the truck’s cab and greeted him with a masculine high five. Daryl steered his bike over to the side of the road and watched on with a sting of irritation at Jess’s friendly and accepting display of jest with the big, ginger military man. Her reluctance to make friends and trust people had been conveyed in no uncertain terms but it was the polar opposite to what he was witnessing at that moment. She’d been cold towards him and even questioned his reasons for accompanying her on the food factory run, she may have been more personable towards the end, but there she was, grinning and laughing behind her mask with someone she had nowhere near the same history with.

“A great ass and she brings home the bacon!” Abraham jeered at her

“No bacon, just a nice, cold serving of get-your-eyes-off-my-butt.” She giggled. “Evening, Mustache. you good?”

“Evenin’ darlin’. Feel like a can of mashed assholes. But I’ll live.”

“That’ll be the hangover. As usual.” She pointed out in reference to his habit of indulging in a little too much whiskey each night. She habitually passed his house on her way home from Aaron and Eric's in the evening's and caught him settling into suburban life a little easier than everyone else. Abraham was easily pleased and Jess figured that all he would ever really need was good whiskey, good cigars and a good woman. 

“Tell me you got some cigars in that goldmine.” He requested with a stroke of his beard and his neck craned to see into the truck behind her.

“No. Sorry. Just a whole lotta canned tomatoes.” She shrugged.

Abraham grunted and shot her an unimpressed look as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other and stepped closer to her. From the other side of the street, Daryl was concentrating on trying to hear what was being said as he pretended to check his bike over. The late hour and deserted streets meant their voices were clearer than usual.

“Well then I do declare that I’m owed a consolation prize. What d’ya say?” Abraham suggested.

Delving into her coat pocket, she fetched another protein bar and slapped it against his huge, muscular chest. “Of course, here ya are. Enjoy.” She smirked before turning back to the truck and climbing back behind the wheel without a second glance. 

“You’re stubborn as a mule, woman!” She heard him call out to her when she passed, heading to the pantry to deliver the fruits of her labor.

 

Daryl was walking his bike across the inside of the gate, heading back to the house when Abraham wandered up to him, chewing eagerly on the protein bar Jess had given him. Seeds attached themselves to the hairs of his beard but he paid it no mind, no one had to be classy in the apocalypse. He shifted his rifle strap on his shoulder and observed the trucks headlights go out by the sidewalk outside the pantry. Jess appeared again and began unloading the vehicle with Olivia, who was frantically scribbling notes on her clipboard.

“Mmm mmm mmm. Little bird tells me she never used to look like she does now.” Abraham commented.

“What?” Daryl probed, knowing who he was referring to but digging for more information.

“Jess. Apparently, she was a little chunky but funky n’ now…well, that ass is damn hypnotic” He pointed out.

“Hey, watch your mouth, man.” Daryl snapped. Anger coursed through his veins and his fists clenched around the motorcycle’s handlebars. Sounding like an overprotective boyfriend wasn’t on his agenda, but it had happened nonetheless and he could only hope that Abraham would take into account Daryl’s frequent and obvious protectiveness over the women of the group and apply the same logic to his relationship, or lack thereof, with Jess.

“Ahh I’m just yankin ya chain. She’s a pretty fine lil thing though, huh?” Was Abraham’s blasé response.

“Uh, yeah. Guess so.” Daryl grumbled. Having heard enough, he continued to push his bike towards the house, only to find the he had acquired an unwanted escort.

“You ‘guess so?’ What are you, gay?”

“Hell naw!” Daryl protested, stopping and glaring at Abraham in disbelief.

“Honestly, I don’t care what hole you think is a goal, ain’t no bother to me.” Abraham chuckled with a playful back slap across Daryl’s leather vest.

“Will you keep your god damn voice down?! I aint gay!” he hissed in defiance.

“Alright, alright!” Abraham conceded, holding his hands up in surrender. He turned his body and began to slowly stride back to the gate. “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Daryl could hear him say something to himself, under his breath and in a mocking tone. For a second, he had to think about the words he was able to detect as they floated in the air, but this distance between them failed him.

“What you sayin’?” Daryl demanded loudly.  

Abraham stopped and looked over his shoulder, a sly grin on his face.

“I said, I think I been patrolling this gate too much. My replacement is sposed to be here.” He said innocently, raising his hand and gesturing to the gate behind him.

“Mm. Good luck with that.” Daryl grunted before putting some speed behind the bike and wanting to put the conversation behind him. He knew he disliked the way Abraham spoke about Jess, but it wasn’t much different to the way he spoke about other females and Daryl struggled with the fact that the heavy, penetrating feeling in his chest that bothered him so much and only fueled his rage was, in fact, jealousy.

Chapter Text

With the help of Deanna and Michonne, Rick devised a guard and runs roster that seemed to run like a well-oiled machine on a weekly rotational basis. Those with similar skills were paired up with each other and assigned specific duties and tasks outside the walls. Having hunting, tracking and Walker fighting skills, Jess found herself paired up with Daryl at least once a week when he wasn’t out recruiting. It was a result that had left her with mixed feelings. When she was around him, she would cycle between pure irritation and an icy attitude and playful mocking while trying to hide the fact that underneath it all and no matter how difficult she could sometimes present as, she did enjoy spending time with him. Sometimes, it was like it used to be back at the quarry when they joked and Daryl tried and failed to hide his small smiles. Those moments were changing things and Jess’s guard was very gradually lowering but for the most part, she was confusing and standoffish.

Daryl never gave up his efforts to chip away at Jess’s defiance. He could see it glimmering through when she threw shade at him and giggled when he screwed something up. He let her simmer at him and tolerated her moods because she was there, the old Jess, shoved into the dark and repressed but she was most certainly still present and he wanted nothing more than to see her again.

Glenn’s idea of gathering more military grade supplies and armour to match Jess's meant Rick tasked Daryl and Jess with visiting an abandoned military outpost used as a safe zone at the start of the turn. Upon scouting the area himself, he reported back that the ground was scattered with dead soldiers wearing all manner of useful clothing and the inside of the fences may well contain medication or weapons if it hadn’t already been picked clean. Both Jess and Daryl agreed without question and Deanna threw Jess the keys to a pickup truck.

“I’m driving” Jess announced as she flung open the truck’s door in the wispy rain. Her hood was up and her mask obscured her face. Daryl carried his crossbow by the stirrup and rolled his eyes in plain view of Jess, who was sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me. We both know you can’t drive stick.” She told him.

“I'm a redneck, course I can drive stick” He mumbled, climbing up into the passenger side and depositing his crossbow on the back seat.

“You almost burned the gearbox out and gave me whiplash the last time. Stick to what you’re good at. Y’know, hunting, smoking and looking angry as shit all the time.” She turned the key and brought the engine to life, switching up the windscreen wipers to a low pace. Dust was smeared across the glass before it was finally washed away by the rain.

“Fine one to talk.” He rasped, slouching down in his seat and thudding his boots up on the dash.

“Excuse me?” She questioned.

“You. Always lookin’ at me like ya gonna cloud up n’ rain on me.” He braced himself for what would undoubtedly be a barrage of fury at his observation of her mostly angry demeanor. But he was waiting for something that never came and eventually, he glanced to his side to see her staring at him over the edge of her mask.

“I’m sorry” She whispered seriously.

Stunned, Daryl sat up slightly and tried not to appear so baffled. He scanned the area outside the truck, seeing people milling past, heading out to their daily jobs. He was glad no one could see them due to the partially fogged up windows.

“Uh...It’s OK.” He informed her. And it was. He mostly understood her reasons for wanting to keep a safe distance emotionally and the last thing he would ever want to do is hurt her again. But he couldn’t say he was altogether comfortable with it. “C’mon, let’s go.”

 


 

The military camp was a temporary one, only designed to be erected in case of severe emergencies. The fences were broken down and the tents inside had been raised, leaving only empty bullet casings and blood decorating the asphalt. But Rick had been right, the sheer number of dead soldiers, even those reanimated as Walkers would provide them with ample armor if they were ever in a position of needing to defend themselves and the town against an onslaught of some kind.

Daryl slinked through a gap in the fence and scurried, with his body low from the back of one tent to another until he reached what appeared to be a tank. The open area in the middle of the camp was crawling with Walkers, at least a dozen, probably more, He didn’t have time to count as he scaled the side of the armored vehicle and signaled with one hand for Jess to follow. The rain had only grown stronger the further away from Alexandria they travelled and the temperature was dropping rapidly as the day crept on. He rarely felt the cold but wished he’d brought his leather jacket with him this time, his bare arms somewhat impractical for a cold, wet supply run.

Jess wasn’t complaining, she followed the trail of the arms she so admired, winding around the bodies on the ground, the canvas structures and the bloody patches when she finally reached the tank. Daryl reached down to her, helping her climb up the metal and they both took up positions beside one another and surveyed the amount of work they had to put in.

“Gonna have to get rid of most of these Walkers.” Daryl suggested. “See that, over there?” He raised an arm, pointing at a tent that was full of black storage cases. “We can’t leave without checkin’ that out.”

“Yeah, it has potential. My dad and brother used to use those cases.” She mused, remembering the many different houses she’d lived in as an army brat, all the camo, the gear, the medals, running around with a bunch of boys playing ball as a child. Those were the days.

Daryl readied his crossbow and shifted, getting comfortable.

“Wait” Jess said. He peered sideways at her.

“You take the left; I’ll take the right. First one to clear their section, wins.” She grinned as she slipped her bow over her head and nocked an arrow.

“Wins what?” He asked.

“I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Glory, I guess.”

“I like glory.” He stated.

“You do?”

“Yeah”

“That’s a shame ‘cause you’re gonna lose!” She cried, firing off an arrow and dropping the nearest Walker on her side.

Daryl rapidly began to take down the corpses, one by one with meticulous precision and Jess had to admit she was still impressed by his accuracy with a crossbow. Even his reload took mere seconds which was one thing she thought may give her the advantage. Her arm began to ache after she dropped the tenth Walker on her side and she paused to count how many Daryl had left to take down. There were a lot more than she’d initially thought, especially when she counted twelve eliminated Walkers on her opponents’ side with three more being taken down. She turned back to her targets, four left.

He’s got this.

In the blink of an eye, Daryl’s side was empty and Jess was still aiming and shooting, now with only two Walkers left. Daryl floored one while she successfully dropped the other and slowly turned her head to face him, her lip curled in disgust.

“I hope you choke on your glory.” She growled.

“Tastes real sweet. You should try it some day.” He remarked in response with a smug smile.

Jess slid down the tanks front and jumped down onto the ground, closely followed by Daryl. They stepped over the bodies and shoved some aside from the entrance of the tent. Jess flipped open one of the black boxes and Daryl saw her face light up.

“Looks like we’re both getting some glory.” She grinned as she held up a heavy combat vest.

The rest of the boxes were brimming with combat clothing and their find had put them both in a decent mood, Jess’s being more evident than Daryl’s, who was much more stoic in general anyway. But he enjoyed her gentle mockery of him as they loaded up the back of the truck with boxes and tore any armor from the dead people that littered the camp. Daryl was pleased to have Jess’s smart comments and continuous chatter as a backdrop to such a monstrous and stomach-churning task.


 

When they had gathered everything that they could fit onto the flatbed, they covered it with a tarp and Jess embarked on the long drive back to Alexandria. After only a few minutes on the road, Daryl suggested they pull over and check out the woodlands for animals to hunt. When Jess disagreed, he managed to talk her into it by promising only an hour and if they didn’t have any decent tracks to follow, they could return to the truck.

She pulled into a small clearing in the trees and killed the engine before following Daryl into the darkening woods. Neither of them spoke as they trundled along as quietly as possible. Walkers were nowhere to be seen and Jess thought that to be a saving grace. When Daryl stopped to inspect some tracks in the mud, they were soon setting off in pursuit of what he thought could be a sizeable hog.

A fast-moving stream seemed to appear from nowhere up ahead and Daryl held up a hand, halting her behind him. She had to admit to herself that her heart wasn’t in it and she just wanted to return to her fairground home and collapse into bed, but the thought of hog for dinner wasn’t an altogether bad one. He moved forwards until they were both stood at the edge of the stream. The water was murky, mud kicked up from the bottom as though something had recently ran through it. The rain meant the streams banks were coated in thick, clay-like mud.

“Must have gone through the stream. Tracks have gone.” Daryl mused.

“Bye bye, Bacon.” Jess sighed. “C’mon, lets go back.”

The sound of engines raging towards them caused Jess to still and her mouth to drop open.

How have vehicles got this far into the woods?!

She didn’t have time to think before Daryl’s arms locked around her waist and she was thrown down into the water and out of the view of the five motorcycles that appeared from the thick dullness of the woods on the other side of the water. Jess gawped up at Daryl from where she sat in the water, panic evident on her face. He was peering over the top of the bank, over the grass and witnessing a group of men heading straight for them. All heavily armed.

He dove at her, ripping her bow from her body and throwing it under the water with his crossbow before dragging her down and under a nearby trees roots. The bank underneath stepped up slightly into a ledge that was wide enough to fit the width of her body. She didn’t struggle, in fact, she just let him manhandle her into the tiny space and stared at him in shock when he scooped up handfuls of the mud and smeared it all over her arms, legs and torso. Then, he set to work on himself, covering as much skin as he could and ensuring that they were both the same color as the muddy stream. He ducked under the roots and lowered himself on top of her just as the men neared and began to settle down, talking and jeering at one another.

Daryl’s body was pinning her to the sodden ground. Water dripped from his hair onto her face but she kept completely still, save for her breathing which was now jagged and shaky. He looked at her face, noticing it was completely clean in contrast to the rest of her and may as well have had a flash light beam shining on it. He slowly moved a hand up from the mud and gently wiped the brown gloop over her cheeks and forehead in a strange display of what would otherwise be mistaken for affection. She could only stare up at him.

“Shh.” He hushed.


 

It felt like hours. It may have been hours because night had fallen and the cold was biting at her bones. Daryl was fighting to hold himself over Jess without crushing her and his arms were trembling with the tension. They could hear the men building a fire and throwing insults at one another. Occasionally they would laugh about someone they’d killed which sent a shiver through Jess’s spine that wasn’t caused by the cold. Her only view was the stream trickling past beside her and Daryls eyes above her and the more she looked at him the more she thought that even in this situation, at risk of being killed and covered in shit and mud, he was still gorgeous to her. Having him pushed against her had created undeniable sexual tension and neither of them knew what to do about it.

“You alright?” He asked in a barely-there whisper. A short nod was what followed and he could see she was about to say something from her eyes darting around, from his face to the water beside them.

“This is kind of…awkward.”

She felt his body jolt momentarily from the short huff that escaped him. His arms were locking hers to her sides to keep her level on the tiny ledge and when his hair dropped into her face again, he flicked his head slightly to dislodge the sodden strands, failing in his efforts and giving up. He hadn’t been this physically close to a woman in years, his whole body pressed against her and his face inches from hers. He could feel the curves of her chest and waist and her hips were level with his. When his outside leg slipped from the muddy ledge, she bent her knee at his thigh to provide him with some extra stability. It wasn’t awkward to him at first, merely a matter of survival and needs must, but now she’d mentioned it and she was cocooned under him and his mind was kicked into overdrive.

Uuuggh, Damn friction. Think of somethin’ else.  

“Ya just had to mention that, didn’t ya?” He complained in a quiet growl

“Sorry.” She croaked.

The crackling of a fire could be heard up on the grass and the smell of smoke wafted down the stream’s banks and tickled Jess’s nostrils along with the delightful smell of cooking meat. Her stomach growled and vibrated and Daryl furrowed his brow at her as if he’d felt her stomach rumble and that she shouldn’t be thinking about food at a time like that.

One of them men was on his feet and wandering around, the crunching of the leaves under his boots getting louder and quieter and then louder again and it told them he was circling the group, possibly setting up tents or sorting supplies. Their conversation became more concerning as time went on and soon, they were discussing how many more women they needed to start re-populating the earth.

“He said not to come back unless we had one. We can’t go back empty handed.” One man said.

“Our supplies are runnin’ low. Can’t stay out here much longer neither” another offered.

“Y’all heard the man! What he wants, he gets or we all suffer. He’s been in a bad mood since we swept that entire city and found a whole bunch of nothin’. So, we keep lookin’.” A louder and more authoritative man explained.

Jess automatically thought about the large group that encroached on the city while she was living in her apartment. Their Mad Max style vehicles and the woman in the cage, it all told her that the men that were just yards away from her could well be from the same group.

 Daryl toyed with the idea of trying to slide his arms back up to Jess’s face and clamping his hands over her ears so she didn’t have to hear their savage and disgusting accounts of what they would do if they did have such a prize in their possession. He noticed her body trembling even more.

“Ya shakin’.” He whispered.

“F-freezing.” She mouthed.

He moved further over her, covering her entire body with his and it occurred to her that this was the closest she was ever likely to be with him. She wanted to wrap her arms around his waist and push a hand into his dirty, wet hair and kiss him. She could see it in her imagination, what a wonderful sight it was, minus the mud. But it wasn’t the time and he wouldn’t want her to anyway. She decided to keep the image on reserve, a girl could dream.

“Cross ya arms in front of ya.” He told her, lifting his chest slightly to allow her room before settling his arms flush with her sides. It was far from comfortable for him in more ways than one and Jess could tell he would end up with a terrible neck ache if he stayed as he was.

“You can rest your head on my shoulder.” She offered. He hesitated, his blue eyes peering down into hers with apprehension. “You won’t be able to move for days if you stay like that.” She didn’t know if he’d heard her, he was just staring down at her and the darkness meant his face was now partially obscured, the light of the moon reflecting off the water was the only source of illumination. She didn’t want to repeat herself for fear of being heard by the depraved group of men in the clearing and so, she stayed quiet.

“K” he finally agreed. He gently turned his head to the side and lowered it onto her shoulder.

He did hear me. Oh my god. This feels so weird. And nice. He must be super uncomfortable.

“Relax, I can take your weight.” She informed him. His body became heavier but it was tolerable, warmer but more awkward as time rolled on. The men were eating and still swapping stories of people they’d killed. Jess held her breath every time it sounded like one of them was getting up and closing in on their hiding spot. Her arms were numb and her skin was wrinkled and she was almost certain Daryl could feel every churn of her stomach and the hammering of her heart.

Daryl didn’t envision being on top of anyone like this. It was a rare occurrence for him to think of anyone in a sexual manner, but with her underneath him it was difficult not to. He was desperately trying to focus on their escape route and not the pretty face and curves under his body. His sole aim had been to get her out of sight and disguised enough to keep her alive, his own fate meaning less than hers. So far he had prevailed and his plan had worked but they couldn’t stay much longer. He could only hope the men would sleep soon and he and Jess could slip out undetected. She wriggled under him and he lifted his head, checking her face in the faint moonlight.

Stay still. Please, stay still. Stop rubbin’ against me. Shit. 

“Sorry. My ass is numb.” She uttered.

“Yeah? Well, my everythin’ is numb. Keep still.” He told her.

A short sigh followed a nod of acceptance from Jess and she rested her head to the side, watching the water as it trickled past in its tiny, mud filled waves.

“Hey, Bobby. Get ya lazy ass up and go on over yonder to that stream. We need us some water. Gonna have boil the shit out of it but it’ll have to do.” Came the voice of authority from the group.

Jess’s heart felt like it jumped up to her throat and Daryl jolted before his arms closed further into her sides, urging her not to move an inch. He heard her breathing increase as panic began to set in.

“It’s ok.” He soothed “I got this. It’s ok.”

Footsteps neared their location, along with tuneful whistling and intermittent mumbling about how they were all going to catch damn rabies from drinking that water but if Jack says it, then it must be so. Daryl shuffled up and brought his lips to her ear, his breath tickling at her neck.

“Whatever happens, stay here.”

She shook her head “But, I can help.”

“No.” He grunted back.

“Daryl-”

“-Shut up n’ listen to me, girl.” He demanded “I don’t care what you say or how much ya argue with me. Ya heard what they said n’ there’s five of ‘em n two of us. I can’t let them see you. Ya female. I won’t have ‘em touchin’ you. So, please…Jess…just stay here.”

Daryl wasn’t sure if he meant it as an affectionate motion but it screamed tenderness and caring when he lifted himself onto one elbow and gently moved some of her hair from her face. She blinked at him and held her breath, wishing that they were anywhere else but tucked under the roots of a tree in the darkness and laying in a puddle of stinking mud.

“I won’t lose you...not again.” He added.

Emotion rushed to the surface inside Jess and her eyes turned watery, she had no way to hide it and was forced to accept that Daryl could probably see that she wanted to cry.

“OK.” She agreed “but, Daryl...?”

The footsteps were almost upon them.

“Yeah?”

“Please don’t die”

She was sure she could sense his hand open at the side of her face as if he were about to caress her cheek but she couldn’t be sure, the darkness and her inability to take her eyes away from his face left her unable to decide. If he did, he stopped short of actually touching her and in the seconds that followed her thoughts were ripped away from his potentially romantic gesture and thrown towards the man that was crouched at the side of the stream, whistling and edging further towards the lip of the bank to fill the plastic bottle in his hand. He was a stones throw from them, a meter or so and Daryl was weighing up his options.

Jess almost squeaked in surprise when the man slipped from the edge and tumbled into the water, creating a loud splash. He swore loudly and sat up like toddler in a playpen, shaking his wet hair from his face and spitting out dirty water. Then, his head turned and he locked eyes with Daryl and Jess. The seconds that passed between him noticing them and his mouth opening to yell were more like minutes and slow-motion ones at that.

HEY GU-”

He was cut off by Daryl throwing himself at him and barreling him back under the water. Jess shot up and crawled from the bank, ignoring Daryl’s instructions to stay put and grabbed her bow and his crossbow from under the water. When she took a glance at the other men up in the clearing, they were all too busy laughing to have noticed the noise of the fracas that was unfolding in the stream.

Daryl’s arms glistened in the moonlight as he clenched his jaw and held on to the man’s throat with all his might. His victims head was completely submerged, bubbles billowing up to the surface from his nose and mouth. A strained grunt escaped Daryl as he shoved down harder, wishing the man would just give up so they could escape. He avoided the kicking of his legs and the desperate clawing of the man’s hands on his chest and biceps and kept on, applying more and more pressure while covered in dark mud like a crazed swamp monster. Jess slung the crossbow over her shoulder and readied her bow, nocking an arrow and taking a rough aim, well aware that she could shoot Daryl in the wrist or hand under the water if she got it wrong. The mud from her face was trickling into her eyes and she tried to blink it away, blurring her vision more. She steadied her breathing and tried to focus and just when she was about to release the arrow, the man went limp. She looked on with wide eyes, knowing that Daryl had killed people but seeing him murder a man in front of her made it all the more real.

Daryl’s chest was rising and falling rapidly and despite the freezing temperatures, his brow was slick with sweat. He flickered his eyes up to her and sprang to his feet, keeping his body low he grabbed her wrist.

“C’mon, we gotta run ‘fore they find him.”

 

Climbing up the bank as quietly as humanly possible proved to be quite the task with nothing between them to obscure the vision of the men around the campfire. Daryl had to choose a moment and stick with it and when he did, he pulled on Jess’s arm so hard he almost flung her off of her feet and up to the woodland floor. She grabbed handfuls of leaves and twigs as she dragged herself up to start running and felt Daryl clamp a hand around her wrist once more. He ran as fast as he could and eventually let go when he saw that she could keep up with him without assistance.

Behind them, shouting could be heard by the stream. The men had discovered their dead friend and Jess didn’t feel an ounce of guilt when she hoped that he would turn in the water and kill them all. Her feet were squelching inside her boots as they hammered the dirty ground and leapt over fallen branches and logs. Although the paranoia and fear that swirled around in her head was telling her otherwise, the distance between her and Daryl and their pursuers was enough to provide them with precious seconds upon reaching their truck.

Daryl jumped into the driver’s seat and Jess didn’t bother to make a comment about him not being able to understand a gearbox. Instead, she simply clambered into the passenger’s side and yelled at him to drive. Ignoring her instance upon trying to burst his eardrums, he tried to focus and the truck jumped back once, then twice.

“Stop switching it up so much!” She cried “Put it in first, then switch it!”

“I am, dammit.” He snapped back.

She could see silhouetted figures charging towards them through the trees and flashlights darting about like a light show. Her heart was pounding in her head.

“They’re coming, Daryl. Move the damn truck” she muttered, now rooted to the spot with fear. “We need to move. We need to go or they’re going to turn me into a baby machine. Let’s go. Come on, move it.”

“I know! Just shut up!” he spat, seemingly making the trucks gears grind with everything he tried.

“Trust me to get stuck with the one Redneck who can’t drive stick!” Jess suddenly yelled, trying to stand up in the tiny cab and shifting in front of him with her backside in his face. He sat back and held his hands up, not wanting to touch her without warning and make her even more mad.

“What the fuck are ya doin?!” He shouted back at her.

“Giving you a lap dance! What the hell do you think I’m doing?! Move your ass across to the other seat, I’m driving!” She shrieked at him.

“God sakes, girl!” He complained while he slid across the seats to the other side and made sure the doors were locked.  

Jess put the truck in gear, switched to reverse and hit the gas. The truck shot backwards to the road where she spun the wheel and set off into the distance, leaving the furious men from the clearing jogging to a halt behind them. Daryl opened the glove box and retrieved a map, opening it up on the dash and switching on the overhead light.

“What d’ya think? Circle back or change direction?” He questioned. He knew she would understand what he meant. She was smart enough to know that they had to choose one of two options to be able to outrun them when they got back to their bikes and set off down the same road.

“Change direction.” She answered.

“Alright.” He agreed “Take a right at the end of this road and just keep drivin’, we’ll have to camp somewhere.”

Her face was drying tight with the mud that was caked over her skin and she remembered how softy Daryl had smeared it across her cheeks. Despite the vehicle starting to smell like animal faeces and stagnant water and the two of them looking like the creatures from the black lagoon, Jess couldn’t help but admit that she enjoyed the feeling of him protecting her and in particular, how gentle he had been when he pushed her hair from her face with a fingertip.

The movement of the truck meant that his body swayed subtly as he leaned against the window and sighed. Jess stole a few glances here and there when guilt struck her for yelling at him. The road ahead was sill and dark and rain lashed against the windscreen as the truck pummeled through it. She could see no other headlights or signs of other vehicles each time she checked the rear-view mirror and could only conclude that they’d managed to escape and that if they stayed on the road a little longer, they would be able to find somewhere safe to stop for the night. Another glimpse to her side saw Daryl peering out of his window into the blackness.

“Keep ya eyes on the road.” He ordered.

“I am” She argued.

“No, ya aint. Ya keep lookin’ at me. Can see ya in the reflection.”

Dammit. You’d have made a shitty spy.

In pure spite of his comment and to prove that she wasn’t going to plough into the non-existent oncoming traffic, she twisted her body to face him and glared right at him. He scoffed and shook his head at her stubbornness. Whatever she’d been doing in the months she was apart from him; she’d definitely developed a stubbornness and a sense of defiance that he didn’t detect in her before. Ignoring her almost childish gesture, he leaned forwards to check the map after spotting a road sign that meant they were at least three miles out from where they’d come across the dangerous group of men.

Deciding between them on the next steps to take, they opted to continue driving until they were well out of the way of any patrolling members of their group and Jess put her foot to the floor and sped the truck to the next intersection, where she headed for the highway.


 

After forty minutes, Daryl held a hand up and signaled for her to slow down, a street sign for ‘The Blue Moon Show lounge’ shot past and he told her to take the next left. Jess was tired and disinterested in arguing, she could have fallen asleep at the wheel if she had to drive any further and so the inviting idea of four walls and a roof was a much desired one.

Little did she know, ‘The Blue Moon’ was an off the highway strip bar nestled at the end of a dirt track and hidden rom the road. It provided them with a place to keep the truck and a roof over their heads for the night. They worked together to clear the building with Jess taking the main bar area and Daryl sweeping the rooms at the back. Five dead bodies were inside, one almost skeletal and the others so chewed up that it was impossible for them to be a threat. Jess put them down easily with her knife and Daryl dragged them out to the storage room.

When he returned to the bar, Jess had upturned two flashlights to light up the room and was noisily rummaging around behind the counter, lifting up bottles and squinting at the labels. She’d emptied the refrigerators and huffed and puffed like a train when she appeared to come up with nothing.

Daryl headed to the door and secured the inside lock, giving the doors a shake in their frames to ensure they were solid enough to protect them.

“For god sakes” he heard her hiss to herself.

“What’s up?” He asked

“All this liquid and there’s not one, single drop of water. I want to clean this crap off my skin.” She complained.

He joined her behind the bar and examined the top shelf above the optics where there was a line of branded vodka bottles that all appeared to be full. He reached up and slid one from the shelf, unscrewing the cap and smelling it.

“Use this” he suggested.

“Really? A vodka shower?” She commented, unimpressed.

“No, dumbass. It’s water. They fill the bottles with it to make ‘em look full. S’all for show”

She didn’t ask how he knew such information and he was glad of it. He’d spent most of his life tagging along with his father and Merle in bars and strip clubs and as a result tended to know a lot of the tricks of the trade. He wasn’t proud of it and hardly ever enjoyed it, although he kept that fact to himself, knowing better than to complain and that if he did it was likely to get him nothing but a beating.

“Oh” She remarked with a degree of embarrassment “Well, OK. You’re going to have to leave the room or turn around or something. I need some privacy.”

“Check out back. These places usually have private rooms.” He suggested carelessly while rounding the bar and plonking down in a plush chair in front of the stage. Jess followed him and stopped at the start of the seating area. She raised her eyebrow at him. Now, she was going to ask.

“You spend a lot of time in titty bars before the turn, Daryl?” She smirked.  

“No.” He mumbled, taking a quick swig from a half bottle of liquor he’d picked up from behind the bar. He hadn’t been drunk since the turn and had no intentions to either. He didn’t like who he was when he was drunk, so the bottle in his hand was only there to take the edge off after recent events “Not unless my brother dragged me to ‘em.”

“Right. Blame it on Merle. So, it wasn’t the breast implants and g-strings?” She grinned.

That damn smile. Stop it.

“You’re an ass, y’know that?” His comment was not only directed at her mockery of his knowledge of strip bars, it was also a veiled prod at her bright smile and the effect it had on him. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to smile or not anymore.

“Yeah. I’m good with that.” She agreed as she headed for the double doors that led to the back rooms.

“’Sides, this aint a titty bar. S’a show lounge” He called out, hearing her chuckle as she left the room.

Jess paced through a hallway full of framed pin up pictures and pushed open doors as she went. Finding a dressing room and the private rooms Daryl was so sure was in existence. She entered the first once where she was able to partially undress and wash some of the mud from her skin with a t-shirt she found screwed up and discarded on the red, velvet couch. There were other clothes scattered about. The room boasted rather obvious CCTV cameras and she wonders how much one might pay for a dance in such a room.

Daryl took the opportunity to amble around the building and collect any supplies they might need. When he reached the hallway, he passed the partially open door to the room Jess occupied and found himself doing a double take. The glimpse of her bare skin and the clasp of a black bra through the crack in the door rendered him motionless and everything around him seemed to just drop away. Her back was to him as she gently wiped at her arms with the wet T-shirt. He knew he shouldn’t look and guilt raged through him but she was a vision, even from behind and with her skin sporting the cracked, jagged lines of dried mud. Her black hair swayed at her back in waves from being tied up into a braid. She dropped the t-shirt and lifted both hands, twisting her hair up on top of her head and fastening it with an elastic. He thought for a moment that he might have been dreaming at the sight of the curve of her waist, but it was real. So very real and all he could do was bite his lip and force himself to move on down the hall, giving Jess back the privacy that she deserved.

 

When she returned to the main area, she found him sat on the floor of the stage at the bottom of the pole opening up two cans of pasta with his knife. Jess was relieved they always packed cans in the truck in case they got caught holed up somewhere with no food, much like the situation she found herself in at that moment. She was starving, the smell of the meat from the camp by the stream stirring her need to eat.

Daryl slid a can to her when she sat down cross-legged opposite him with the pole between them and looked around the room, craning her neck to observe the ceiling, the unused lighting rigs and the DJ booth. She mirrored him as he lifted his can to his lips and took big gulps of the gloopy pasta. Her stomach immediately began to settle with some sustenance and she was soon feeling a lot more human again.

“So, how much would you expect to pay for a private room in a place like this?” She wanted to know. The need to wind him up a little more mixing with her genuine curiosity from standing in the room and playing with the idea of what the business must have been like before the turn.

“A lot.” He grumbled.

“C’mon, I’m curious. What would happen in there?” She pressed

“Private dance. No clothes. Some dirty talk. No rush to the next guy with a wad of fiftys. S’bout it.”

Her eyebrows lifted and she emptied the final remnant of the pasts into her mouth and chewed. When she was done, she thudded the can down beside her and narrowed her eyes at him.

“You ever done that?” She questioned

His expression changed as he looked up at her through his hair with a can of pasta gripped in his fist. At first, he was calm and willing to talk but her topic of choice was grating on him.

For someone who doesn’t wanna be too friendly she’s sure askin’ me a lot of shit.

“That what you think of me?” he wanted to know.

“Course not, you said Merle dragged you to places like this. So, I just wondered.” She shrugged as if it was nothing.

“Nah. I aint. Not my thing.” He replied. Cutting the conversation short when he lit a smoke and fell silent. His face was downcast and Jess could tell he was tired too. Taking another person’s life was never an easy task, even in a ‘one or the other’ situation. Given no choice, Daryl had acted to save them both and Jess knew from personal experience that the vision of it doesn’t just go away.

“Are you alright?” She asked him.

“Yeah.” He replied thoughtfully. It wasn’t hard to guess what she was referring to and he appreciated her asking.

“What you did back there… keeping me safe…” she started with a quick glance up at him. He was watching her though his still damp hair. “…thank you. I’m not so good with people. I can fight walkers but when it comes to people, I’ve always managed to just stay out of sight. Terminus was the first time I put myself in full view of anyone still living for a long time. I panicked tonight.”

“I’d do it again tomorrow. Forget it.” Was his oxymoron of a reply. Simple but complex in a way only Daryl could create. He said very little but meant a world of things behind it. It was not lost on Jess; she knew exactly what he meant without having to dissect the sentence.

I’d kill a hundred people just to keep you safe.

“Sorry I almost crushed ya.” He mumbled as he picked at the frayed thread on the ankle of his boot.

“Oh, don’t worry. You didn’t. It’s fine. We had no choice.”

“Yeah. For sure. No choice.”

“Uh Huh. I mean, it wasn’t all bad…”

Stop talking, Jess.

“…you kept me warm. I hope I kept you warm. It was- it was OK. Was fine...”

Stop. Fucking. Talking.  

“…it was nice. I mean, it wasn’t nice like that, uh…no. It was nice of you. I’m going to stop talking now”

He nibbled on his lower lip, a habit he used to stop himself from smiling but it was showing regardless, the corner of his mouth curling up. He didn’t know what she was trying to tell him or why she was suddenly so all over the place and full of nerves, but he did feel the intense, awkward nature of their experience under the trees roots in the stream and he couldn’t deny that if it had been anyone else but Jess, that awkwardness wouldn’t have been present at all. She was turning herself inside out as she picked at the cold can of pasta that had been discarded and brought back to her hands and he could practically see her cursing herself for talking too much. It was the most vulnerable he’d seen her since the quarry and in that moment, he was certain that the old Jess never really went away at all. Opting to change the subject and spare her the agony of mulling over her previous ramblings, he entertained his desire to find out more about why she left.

“Ya never told me exactly why ya bailed” he mentioned.

Unable to avoid his questions, with no one or nowhere to run to, she accepted she at least had to offer him some kind of explanation and after he’d murdered a man with his bare hands to keep her safe, it was the least she could do.

“A few reasons. I didn’t fit in. I was an outcast.”

Being made to actually say the reasons why she left wasn’t something she thought she’d have trouble with. Before it had all been written down in the confines of the pages in her journal. Now, having to voice her decision-making process was turning out to be harder than she thought.

“And I aint? I aint like them. You know that.” He countered.

“You belong with them. I didn’t.” She clarified.

She could tell her answer was nowhere near good enough for him and when he took a long pull of his smoke and sighed thoughtfully, she knew the conversation was far from over.

“That the real reason?” He pressed.

“You mean aside from hearing you say I meant nothing to you and the humiliation?” She quickly threw in.

“That was bullshit, Jess. Ya know I didn’t mean that.” He told her with no hesitation “N’ ya shouldn’t have let those bitches drive ya away like that.”

Hindsight had been a wonderful thing in the story of why Jess had left the camp. There were plenty of why’s and what ifs to contemplate when she thought back but perhaps the biggest one to her was; what if she’d stayed and asked him about what she’d heard? Would it have changed anything? In her heart she knew it probably wouldn’t have and that she still would have ended up departing at some point. She didn’t mean to dredge up the past and what she’d overheard yet again, in fact, she would rather have let it stay in the past and never be spoken of again. But it slipped out and now she knew she sounded bitter and resentful.

“Let me ask you something.” She said, shuffling forwards and holding on to the pole. She rested her head on the back of her hand. “When we first spoke, you asked me exactly what I did in the group. I couldn’t answer you. What did I contribute? What was my role exactly? Carol, she cooked, cleaned everybody’s clothes and is actually really strategic and logical and apparently great with a rifle. Glenn was the go-to guy for runs, You and Merle were the hunters. What did I do?”

Daryl had no answer to offer. All he could do was stare at her and his simmering gaze would have made her knees weak had she been standing up.

“Exactly. So, it wasn’t just a decision I made for me. I made it for everybody else too. I was one less mouth to feed. I’m not sorry I left, Daryl. Look at me now, I’m so much better off for it. I can look after myself. I’m not just some chubby nerd anymore.” She explained.

“Stop it.” He snapped.

“Stop what? Telling the truth?”

“Aint the truth” he argued, stubbing out his smoke on the stage and flicking it behind him.

“Yes, it is! I buried my head in books and still wore collectible T-Shirts! That girl, she was a big, useless nerd. It’s been a long time since I was her.”

“Yeah. I noticed.”

“You don’t like the change?” She asked.

“Never said that.”

“I guess I always liked the idea of not being what everybody else expected me to be.” She mused.

“Ya doin’ a great job.”

“Your sarcasm is stifling.” She shot at him with an irritated look.

“There wasn’t nothin wrong with ya.” He affirmed.

“Funny, that’s not how I was made to feel.”

“Yeah? Well I was out trackin’ that girl every day for two weeks!” He threw at her with a raised voice. “Guess she was really listenin’ when I taught her how to track. Covered ‘em well.” He got to his feet and started to pace the stage, back and forth, outwardly riled and angered by his disagreement of her choices. But they were not his choices to make and she was not about to get into a debate over that.

Jess didn’t rise to his temper. She stayed in her spot by the pole and witnessed him gradually slow down as the minutes passed.

“I listened to everything you taught me. If you hadn’t taught me all the things you did, I wouldn’t be here now.” She offered as a kind of truce.

You’re mad at me. But you’re the reason I’m still alive. You kept me alive and you weren’t even there.

“Shouldn’t have taught ya nothin. Ya wouldn’t have left then.” He mumbled under his breath.

His admittance said more to Jess than she’d anticipated and she realized as she sat and studied his body language, expression and the things he was saying that she really had hurt him by leaving without a word. By leaving at all. It was now more obvious than ever that he didn’t mean a word of what he said to Merle. Until then, Jess had never dared to hope that she meant anything to anyone. But it was etched on Daryl’s face as plain as day.

“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you” She whispered.

“Whatever” He grunted, jumping down from the stage and grabbing the liquor bottle from the seat he’d previous been resting in. He took a large gulp, winced and headed to the bar.

“Since you successfully managed to destroy that conversation, I’m going to find somewhere to sleep. Wake me in a couple hours and we’ll swap.” She declared.

“The fuck do you even want from me, huh?” He questioned out of nowhere. “Say ya don’t want nothin’ to do with nobody, live like a damn hermit, refuse to move to Alexandria. Ya let Abraham leer at ya like some two-dollar whore n ya blow so fuckin hot n’ cold with me I don’t know what the hell you want!”

In truth, Jess wasn’t sure what she wanted when she first revealed her identity to him. But after the events of the last 24 hours and all the days spent engaged in prodding mockery and sometimes meaningless conversations, she could conclude that trying to re-build what they used to have was what she truly wanted. But it wasn’t that easy. She blinked slowly at him from the stage, standing just out of the beam of the flashlight and tried to ignore his scathing comments, purely born from his anger. 

“It’s complicated.” She uttered. “I spent so long thinking you hated me. I don’t trust anybody.” He wanted to yell at her that he never hated her, that he cared about her more than even he knew and how much it killed him when she left.

“Ya said we’re as good as we’re gonna be. We’re doin’ better than that. You know we are” He commented. “Do you even wanna be friends like we were before? You n’ me?”

She jumped down from the stage and paused by the double doors with her hand flat on the surface. His apparent unwavering belief in their ability to re-build their friendship was touching and something she wanted to believe with every piece of her heart. His words back at the stream echoed in her head. 

"I won't lose you...not again."

“You and me” She echoed with a sad smile. “It’s a nice prospect…. I’m trying, Daryl.” She uttered before heading through the door and back to the private room she changed in. Before she could even think of such a heavy topic, she needed to invite the sweet embrace of sleep her heavy eyes and weary bones so craved.


Deanna was frantic when Daryl and Jess finally arrived back at Alexandria in the evening of the following day after enduring hours of tense silence. The route back was longer than expected due to how far out of the way Jess had driven them to avoid the eyes of the group of bikers from the woods. Once Jess explained to Alexandria’s leader what had happened and Daryl unloaded the boxes at the armory, Jess handed the keys back and crossed the street in pursuit of Aaron, who she’d spotted sitting on his front porch when she drove through the gate. Daryl noticed her striding past him and ran after her, catching her arm with his hand. She whirled around, mask and hood up and her eyes flashed with impatience.

“Sorry. ‘bout last night. I was an asshole.” He said, stepping closer and checking his surroundings. Night was falling and the streets were still occupied by patrols and children playing.

“It’s fine. I understand.” She said before trying to back up but he only followed her.

“I’ve never been good with feelings n' stuff. ‘Cept anger. Anger’s what I do.” He confessed.

“You don’t have to explain. Really. Thanks again for what you did - making sure I was safe. Goodnight” She nodded at him with another attempt to move away and this time she triumphed. Daryl stood at the side of the road, under a street light and watched her approach Eric and Aaron’s porch.

Chapter Text

Supply runs were a weekly, almost daily task. Feeding, clothing and providing medicine for so many people meant that getting creative with locations was now a must and Jess knew better than anyone else that sometimes it was possible to find what you needed in the least obvious of places.

A bright and sunny morning saw Jess leading a sweep of a wealthy area which boasted an exclusive club surrounded by lakes to collect anything useful from the huge, lushly decorated houses. Michonne and Rick were chosen to accompany her and before leaving the gate, the small group did a routine check; weapons, ammo, knives, route and rendezvous locations should they get split up. It was all at Jess’s request due to her never going anywhere without a plan and a weapon if she could help it. Daryl was the first to cross her mind when choosing her team, but she’d skipped him on the assumption that he’d be heading out recruiting and she wanted to avoid coming across as if she wanted to live in his pocket at all costs.

Standing at the gate with the map open on the trucks hood, the three participants in the days run pulled on gloves and discussed the roads to be taken. Jess glanced up at the street to her side to find Daryl pushing his bike towards them. He stopped in front of the truck, leaned the bike on it’s kickstand and headed over to the group. Jess lowered her head and tried to make out she was planning alternative routes, should they come across trouble. Her dedication to her task became transparent when she glanced up and caught his eye. She wished she’d taken a couple of acting classes in her lifetime.

Morning, handsome.

“Come to join the party?” Michonne called out.

“Where you guys headed?” Questioned Daryl with a squint. He brought a hand up to his forehead to shield his eyes from the suns glare.

“Tococoa” Rick chimed in. “Jess’s idea” Daryl wrinkled his forehead and scanned each of the three faces in front of him with a bemused expression

“The rich folks place in the mountains?” He questioned.

“That’s the one” Michonne confirmed “Lively street festivals and charming boutiques. I’m guessing that’s why you know of it.” She grinned sarcastically.

Jess felt a sting of irritation. Rick was right, it had been her choice to check the mountain town of Toccoa with its expansive and high-value houses and exclusive golf club. She figured there could still be supplies there, or people if they looked hard enough. With its fishing lakes and clubhouse, they could well return with a decent haul if they were lucky.

“Cherokee Club.” Jess snipped. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Yeah. I heard of it. Those people there got more damn money than sense” Daryl grumbled.

“You should join us” Michonne suggested as she traced the area on the map “the area looks pretty big; we could use the extra person.”

Before Jess could even think about such an idea, Daryl had agreed and was looking over the map, shoving his way between her and Michonne. She blinked sideways at him over her mask and all at once was aware of the side of his body against hers as he pointed at roads and areas of woodland and discussed them with Michonne. The odor of cigarettes and leather drifted to her nose and his arm brushed hers as it moved. Warm and firm. A rippled terrain. She backed away and Rick followed, making the whole scene look a lot more casual than it was. A stroke of luck.

“Take the bike” Rick called out to Daryl as he climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck “follow us. Michonne’s right, we need the numbers. I mean, if that’s OK with you, Jess? This is your run.”

Jess merely glanced between each of their faces, all waiting expectantly for an answer. She shrugged both shoulders. “Whatever” She sighed.

Jess saw Daryl nod in agreement “Alright. Lead the way” he instructed as he moved from the hood of the truck, Jess thought he’d head straight to his bike and stepped back to allow him to pass while re-strapping her gloves and checking her mask. When he halted inches from her body, she froze.

“Ya gonna wear that thing all day?” He challenged with a flicker of a hand towards her mask.

“Probably.” She replied uneasily

“Why? We all know who you are.” He pointed out.

“You do, but any still living we might find won’t know who I am…and that’s a good thing.” She shot back with a wink.

His dislike of her mask was becoming more and more obvious as time went on but it’s ability to irritate him amused her somewhat. Maybe it was a symbol of her dishonesty towards him. Or, maybe it was simply because he preferred her face to the black plastic and fabric that shielded it. She didn’t dare expect it to be the latter but no one could see inside her mind, where she indulged in the odd daydream where Daryl actually thought her to be attractive. An abrupt huff and a brief shake of his head was his only response before he left her and make tracks to his bike.


The journey up into the foothills and mountains was a picturesque one and anyone that had missed the end of the world would be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed. That beyond the canopy of trees was the usual population of animals, campers, fisherman, hunters, hikers and families vacationing. It couldn’t have looked further from a mass grave for the walking dead and Jess found herself having to look away or dangerous nostalgia would have taken precedence. In the passenger seat of the truck, Michonne gave Rick directions and the two of them discussed a plan between them. Jess was guilty of not completely paying attention as Daryl sped up on his bike from behind the truck and drove alongside her window. The bikes engine gave off a rumble loud enough to wake hell, let alone the dead that roamed the landscape but Daryl paid it no mind, if anyone was going to tear around the apocalypse on one of loudest vehicles available, Jess figured that it would be Daryl and a small part of her wished that she could be so adventurous and carefree.

Daryl’s hair flickered in the wind and he took a small glimpse to his side to see Jess push her hood back, drop her mask, tug the tie from her hair and slide open the sunroof. She climbed onto the seat, emerging at the top of the truck, closed her eyes and shook her hair out, letting it billow behind her as the truck moved along, the air gliding through the strands. Slowly, one of her arms rose up, covered with leather bracers and gloves. Then, the other and she casually leaned on the front edge of the sunroof, throwing one boot over the other on the seat below and achieving a comfortable stance.

Daryl switched between watching where he was going and gazing up at the windswept figure that was Jess, cruising along beside him like an apocalyptic goddess risen from the ashes. She caught him watching her and held up a hand, her index finger extended with the others slightly bent, not wanting to seem too excited to be catching his attention. He offered her a short nod before hitting the throttle and veering the bike over to the next lane, gaining distance between them.


Tucked away in the mountains and removed from the chaos of city life, Cherokee Club was a mountain-lake retreat nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that offered both a place to lose oneself and find oneself. It was a place to take the family away and to bring them together. With a year-round golf course, pristine lakefront setting, unparalleled amenities, real estate and activities for all, it made for the perfect supply run destination.

Rolling up to the still chained-together gates, Rick killed the engine and opened the drivers side door, using the footstep on the vehicle to hoist himself up so he could see over the roof where Jess was still standing in the sunroof. The gates were peppered with signs. Some neatly painted, some scrawled in harsh red paint, or so Jess preferred to think. The area its self was deathly quiet, no Walkers in sight and that gave Daryl suspicions when he dismounted his bike and crunched over the gravel to Michonne, who was hanging out of the trucks window and taking mental notes of her surroundings.

Jess read the sign at the top of the gate, sloppily written on a piece of white wood in black. Hurried and striking a simmering unease into her gut.

‘The end is extremely fucking nigh.’

“Jess?” Rick prompted, reminding her that this was her idea and therefore her decision how they should proceed. But she had already witnessed the natural leader in Rick throwing ideas back and forth with Michonne. Jess wasn’t deaf, nor was she stupid.

“What did you and Michonne come up with?” She asked directly. Her face was blank and unreadable.

Rick swapped an uneasy expression with the samurai wielding woman who by then had mirrored Rick and was stood on the passenger side step with her hands flat on the trucks roof. Since Jess’s return, Rick didn’t quite know how to approach her, finding her to be reasonably friendly one day and dismissive the next. He was never sure which Jess he was going to get and on that particular day, he was apparently getting both.

“Uh…we thought we’d get the truck through the gate. Michonne and I will take the clubhouse, restaurant and any other buildings around them while you and Daryl sweep the houses.”

“Fine by me.” She chirped, much to Rick’s surprise who was sure he would be met with an angry stare and protest. “I’ll get the bolt cutters.”

Huh. I’m with Daryl. Thanks, Rick. She thought. Don’t seem clingy. Admire from a distance.

After refusing to let Jess do any manual labour and fraying her temper slightly with his chivalry, Daryl accompanied Jess on the long and arduous task of sweeping the masses of enormous and luxurious houses in the compound. Conversation was kept to the task in hand and Jess managed to keep a lid on her emotions. That was, until he caught her stood in the middle of a teenage girl’s bedroom, sniffling while holding a Star Wars T-shirt in the air. She started to stuff it into her bag and stopped when she noticed Daryl in the doorway, leaning on the doorframe and with a small smile which held such affection that she could have fainted there and then. Keeping eye contact with him as he reached an arm up to clutch his crossbow strap to his shoulder, she gradually pulled the shirt back out of her bag and dropped it on the bed.

“Take it.” He told her.

“What, that? I uh, I don’t need it.” She quickly dismissed.

The lie almost stung her tongue. She did need it. It wasn’t just any Star Wars T-shirt. It boasted an image of a tiny, young Princess Leia, with her small arms around the waist of Darth Vader, who towered above her and rested a hand on her shoulder. The exact same image that she had presented to her father on a card for the last Father’s Day she could remember.

Somehow, Daryl could sense her need to take the shirt and she could only guess that it was displayed in her eyes like a neon sign.

“Take it.” He repeated.

“It won’t fit anyway.” She argued. Having put her mask back on when she entered the Clubs grounds, Daryl was only able to see her eyes and while he stood there in the dim, dusty room of a house that was worth more money than he would have ever made in his lifetime, he wanted to tell her that he just wanted her to stop hiding who she was.

“Take the mask off.” He rasped.

“Why?” She questioned.

“Please”

She slowly slid the plastic and fabric down past her chin and peered back at him as he stepped into the room and picked up the shirt from the bed. He took the bag from her hand, stuffed the shirt inside and handed it back. She sighed and briefly closed her eyes. When she opened them, she could only study the carpet beneath her feet while she took the bag from his grasp.

“It’s stupid” she whispered, sensing him move closer to her.

“Bet it ain’t” he uttered in response. “Tell me”

“Last Father’s Day… I made my dad a card with the same picture on it.” She explained. “Saw that shirt and it brought it all back.”

To her surprise, he lifted a hand and placed it on her forearm, giving it a slight squeeze. She couldn’t help but look down at the alien feeling of his hand on her skin and then up at his face, which in such a situation appeared softer and more handsome than she could have imagined.

“See? Aint nothin’ stupid ‘bout that.” He assured her before stepping away and leaving the room.


After pulling herself together and packing a third bag full of supplies to take back to Alexandria, Jess realized she’d not seen Daryl in a while. She began to search the many rooms of the third house they’d hit, eventually finding him sat on the balcony of the master bedroom, smoking a cigarette. The rounded, decked platform reminded her of a beach house with its white fencing on a back drop of matching white panels and window shutters. The view was quite something, the motionless lake reached as far as the eye could see on either side and on the opposite bank was a once expertly kept and impressive golf course.

She slid the glass door open and stepped outside, not bothering to pull up her mask. He looked up at her and removed his boots from the cushioned, wooden chair he’d been using as a footstool and shoved it noisily across the decking with his boot towards her. She hesitated for a moment, unsure of exactly why she’d opted to join him when she didn’t really have much to say. But being beside him for a few, taskless minutes was enough to provide a little relief from the gnawing urge to stare at him all the live long day. She sank down into the seat and admired the view.

The water was so still it resembled a sheet of glass, perfectly polished and untouched. If it wasn’t for the smears of blood on the front lawn, the dismembered arm on the kitchen counter and the walker trapped in the sunroom, it would have been an idyllic paradise. But such was life now and Jess had learned from her time alone that she should just make the best of things.

“How did you hear about this place?” She probed, managing to find a topic of conversation.

Daryl flicked the end of his smoke over the balcony and cleared his throat, shooting her a quick glance and shifting in his seat. He thudded both boots up on the table in front of him, reclining in his seat.

Someone’s getting comfortable.

“Broke in with Merle once. ‘Fore everything went bad.” He said.

Jess’s eyes widened, she was under no illusions that Daryl was no angel before the turn, but she didn’t expect to be graced with such a telling statement.

“No way!” She gasped “Really?”

“Yeah.” He huffed before falling silent.

She raised an eyebrow at him, craning her neck to encourage him to look at her. When he did, it occurred to him that she was waiting for more information. Usually, it was unheard of for Daryl to disclose such an anecdote to anyone, but this wasn’t just anyone, it was Jess.

“See that boat, right there? With the ‘49’ on the side?” He questioned as he nudged his head up towards the lake. Jess scanned the water and spotted the boat in question. A white, wooden boat with its oars slotted nearly into brackets along the inside walls. “Mmhmm” she hummed.

“All this, it’s private property. So, we waited til dark, scaled the wall. Stole that boat n went fishin’.”

Jess began to giggle and moved her chair closer to his. She also lifted her legs and rested her feet on the table, nudging his aside slightly with the toe of her boot.

“In the dark?” She chuckled.

“Yep. Merle said he could catch anythin’ come rain or shine, day or night. Really, he just wanted to get lit. So, he’s drinkin’ n’ fishin’. Time goes on. He gets pretty drunk n’ he falls in the damn lake. I mean real loud like KAPOOWSH.”

Jess’s face lit up at Daryl’s animated body language and the enthusiasm with which he conveyed the sound of the splash in the lake, his hands and fingers mimicking the shape of the water. She had never seen him so comfortable and relaxed. It was the first time he’d regaled her with a story from his past and she hoped it would be the first of many.

“So, I jump in and I’m like…” he grabbed her wrist and lifted her arm over his head, allowing it to drape across his broad shoulders and she struggled to contain her excitement at the contact and opportunity to lay a hand on his strong frame. “… like this, right? I’m swimmin’….” He continued as he rotated his arm in a swimming motion while Jess grinned from ear to ear “…N’ I save his life. We get to shore n’ y’know what that asshole says to me?”

“What?” She beamed, feeling a pang of disappointment when the physical contact was lost.

“He says ‘Yo, Dummy! Go back n’ get the fuckin’ beer!’”

Jess let herself laugh, holding nothing back. Her tuneful giggle echoed in Daryl’s head as her bright smile and genuine amusement at his cautionary tale stunned him into a near silence.

“That sounds like Merle” she giggled as she playfully nibbled on the edge of her fingernail.

“Yeah.” He agreed. His eyes swept over the view before them. The peaceful lake with its decaying boats, the swaying of the uncut grass and eventually the lingering of a group of walkers heading in their direction. “Heads up” Daryl grunted; his voice laced with irritation at the moment being interrupted. He picked up his crossbow and shot to his feet.

Jess also got up, equipped her bow and took aim, counting the numbers in her head and noticing the attire of the rotting dead wandering in their direction. Still a considerable distance away, neither of them were panicking just yet.

“Those are some filthy rich Walkers” she commented. “That guy on the far left, that ugly as hell jacket…” She squinted “…Yep, pretty sure that’s gonna be worth more than my old car.”

“Half ‘em. You take the four on the right, I’ll get the four on the left.” He suggested.

“You challenging me?” She prodded. He caught her wink at him and felt his cheeks simmer with warmth under the surface while he quickly turned his attention back to the Walkers below. It was a small motion but one from a pretty girl that for some reason that escaped him, brought out a shy side of him that he so loathed.

“More of a plan than a competition.” He mumbled.

“Chickenshit” She declared. Deliberately goading him into playing her game.

He didn’t know if Jess was competitive before he met her, but he had already seen for himself that she enjoyed the odd test of wills. She grinned at him and for a split second all that went through his mind was one, single thought.

She’s so damn cute.

“Get used to bein’ a loser” He shrugged as he took aim with his crossbow.


Bottles, plastic boxes and pills gave off a chorus of noises as they were tossed into the back of the truck by Daryl and Jess, adding to their carefully gathered mass of precious supplies. Jess was adamant that she’d won the Walker shooting competition but Daryl told her otherwise, expressing that she’d cheated by diverting his attention. Quite what she’d done remained to be seen due to his reluctance to admit exactly what it was that had caused him to miss his last shot. Daryl knew well enough what it was but wasn’t about to convey that he’d fallen into a temporary trance when he saw the look of pure joy on her face as she dropped each Walker and gave a running commentary as if the whole thing were some televised Walker shooting championships. The sight filled him with a feeling he’d not felt in a long time. Initially, he thought it to be contentment at having her back with him, but the more she laughed and cheered, the more her eyes glinted and her body adjusted to each shot, the more he wanted to vocalize the one simple thought he’d had before.

You’re so damn cute.

It had lost him the game. He was ready to accept as much but allowing Jess the glory was not in his plans.


Upon meeting Rick and Michonne and after spending hours clearing the dead from doorways and flooring the still mobile roamers, their departure saw the entire club’s property rendered almost completely safe. That was, until the time when another group came along and claimed it. Jess pondered for a fleeting moment that it may have made a better homestead than the fairground, but it was too far from Alexandria and as a result, too far from Daryl.

The trucks doors slammed and Daryl swung a leg over his bike, taking a final look around at the deserted yet still quite impressive Cherokee Club and tugging on a pair of black, leather gloves.

“It’s nice here, huh?” Jess mentioned as she went to grab the handle of the door to the backseat.

“If ya like too much space and overpriced shit” He mused.

“Wow. OK. Mr. Happy.” She giggled “Buck up, buttercup.”

He flicked a hand at her, a signal that he was literally brushing her mocking comments away. Jess let her hand drop from the handle and she stepped closer to him, his eyes moving up to meet hers and lingering there, questioning her motive.

“Could I…” She started before pausing and screwing her face up “…never mind.”

“Naw, what?” He pressed, curiosity about what she could possibly want to ask pushing him to seek an answer.

“Could I ride back with you? On your bike.” She asked sheepishly.

Daryl checked on Michonne and Rick who by now were both waiting with the truck’s engine running. Michonne was glowering at them in the reflection of the side mirror. Jess was stalling and holding everyone up but Daryl couldn’t have cared less.

Is she serious?!

Having a passenger wasn’t a common occurrence for Daryl unless it was his brother, needing to be ferried around after too many drugs or booze or both. Carol had hitched a couple rides with him in the past and the experience of having to be extra careful due to having another person’s life in his hands was one he’d rather do without. But as soon as the question had left Jess’s lips, Daryl was certain that there was no way he was about to decline. A motorcycle enthusiast from a young age, biking had become a part of his life and the fabric of his being and after Jess had gifted him a custom made, unique and powerful set of wheels and also given him the chance to make a difference while using it, he felt he owed it to her to say yes.

“Yeah. Sure.” He replied, trying not to sound too shocked at the sense of adventure she’d developed in her time away from him. “Hop on. Ya ever been on a motorcycle before?”

Jess approached the bike and climbed onto the pillion seat, shuffling about and getting comfortable.

“Does a racing game in an arcade count?” She giggled.

“Nah” He smirked.

“Then no. Never.”

Daryl nudged his head up to Michonne who got the signal immediately and told Rick to head out of the compound. The two of them knowing that Jess and Daryl would be more than fine on their own.

“Alright, lean when I lean and keep facin’ forwards. No waving ya hands in the air like some drunk college bitch. Hold on tight.” He ordered.

She hovered her hands over his leather vest, on either side of his body and bit her lip. Nerves rose to the surface and it occurred to her that she hadn’t thought this through. Being in such close proximity to him for an hour’s drive was quite the feat. That was on top of having never ridden a motorcycle before and having no clue what to expect. But she was determined. If he could raise hell with a motorcycle on the roads of a corpse infested Georgia, then so could she.

“To your waist?” It was a stupid question; she knew it as soon as she’d said it and wished she could just retract her words and erase them from his memory.

“Nah, to my thumbs.” He commented sarcastically while peering over his shoulder at her. She detected a small’ smug smile and felt her face burn red. She dipped her head, hoping that he couldn’t see the embarrassment parading across her features. Little did she know, he could see it. Plain as day and it wasn’t something he could ignore. “S’a’matter? Ya shy or somethin’?” He remarked.

The inferno under Jess’s skin continued to rage and she very nearly hopped off the bike and started charging down the road upon the declaration that she’d changed her mind and would walk back alone. Instead, she grit her teeth, forced her coyness away and gripped the sides of his clothing.

“I’m not shy” she mumbled next to his angel-winged back. “I’m just holding back my awesomeness so I don’t intimidate you.”

In her arms, she felt a judder and realized he was laughing at her comment.

“Right. Um, thanks for that.” He smirked.

“Start the damn bike, Daryl.” She sighed, much to his delight. If there was one thing he found completely endearing about her, it was her need to cover up her awkwardness with banter and humor.

She lifted her feet as the bike moved and clung to his leather vest like her life depended on it. He merely smiled to himself as he steered them out of the area and onto the road, sensing her relax around him once they were on a straighter route. Eventually, she let go of his vest and chanced shifting closer to him and holding his waist. He focused on the road, trying not to tense up at her touch. Daryl hadn’t had anyone that close to him for a long time and it was now an unfamiliar feeling to him, but not an unpleasant one.


It took a long time to unload the results of the run and people buzzed around the truck, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of anything they might want to request at the pantry. The garage that acted as storage space for furniture, clothing, bed linens and towels was rapidly stocked to a decent level and two bags of designer clothing were tossed inside as if they were nothing, which in reality, they now were. Jess worked with Daryl and Michonne to empty the truck while Rick checked in with Deanna, providing her with the usual requested breakdown of the trip. She liked to be in the loop, making no secret of the fact that if she were to leave Alexandria and go on a run herself, she would be more of a hindrance than a help. Regardless of her lack of prowess and survival skills outside the walls, inside, she was a logical and fair leader that liked to be provided with all the information at hand.

Jess joked and chatted with Michonne as they handed boxes and bags to one another while Daryl moved his motorcycle back to the house and watched them from the roadside. He lit a smoke and lowered himself down onto the edge of the sidewalk, wondering once again how Jess managed to appear so relaxed and carefree when talking to anyone else but him. He tapped ash from his smoke and brought it back to his lips, inhaling deeply and observing Jess giggle and high-five Michonne, who then left her and headed in his direction.

“Quite the result” She commented as she approached “Good job.”

“You too.” He replied, motioning to her with his cigarette. She tucked her sword strap over her shoulder and paused in front of him.

“We even picked up some insulin. Wouldn’t have done that if Jess hadn’t suggested this run.” She admitted.

“Yeah. She’s a smartass.” He mumbled as he pinched below the burning bud of his smoke, extinguishing it and brushing the orange end against the sidewalk.

“A smartass that you seem to get along well with. I thought she was coming back in the truck with us.” She remarked.

Daryl turned his head to the side and up at Michonne, who was silhouetted by the sun. So much so, that he was unable to read her expression amongst the glare.

“Yeah. We’re friends” He told her. “She was there at the start. When I met Rick n’ Carol at the Quarry. She aint never been on a bike before, asked to ride back with me.”

Michonne moved away from the spears of light from the sun and nodded.

“One to tick off the bucket list.” She smiled.

Daryl’s eyes dragged down her blood-soaked clothing. Rick mention they’d ran into some trouble while raiding the clubs bar area, which upon first inspection held dozens of dead bodies that littered the floor. It wasn’t until those bodies began to get up that they realized they were trapped. Now, both Michonne and Rick’s clothes were coated in dried blood. She stepped back, ripping off her fingerless gloves and offered Daryl a bright smile as she went to walk away.

“Hey, Michonne?” He asked, flicking a hand in the direction of her now dark red jeans “You alright? S’a lotta blood.”

She briefly glanced down at herself, twisting one leg and spotting a patch of untouched, grey denim on the back of her leg.

“Yeah.” She sighed, looking back up and shrugging “I’m good. Could use some new pants though.” He saw her vision move back to Jess, who was sitting on the sidewalk outside the storage garage, rummaging through a bag of clothes and throwing items off to the side, one after the other. Seemingly not interested in any of them. Changing her course and deciding instead to indulge in the Alexandria version of shopping, Michonne stepped off the side walk, away from Daryl and into the road.

“Rick came off worse” She called back “he had an ear stuck to his arm at one point”

Daryl snorted with laughter and stood up, retreating to the front porch of the house as evening began to close in.


For the next hour, Jess took the time to change up some of her wardrobe. As the apocalypse dictated that survivors opt for comfort over style, she was more than happy to oblige, thanking her lucky stars that even before the turn, she preferred sneakers and boots to heels and platforms, pants and shorts to skirts and ballgowns and cared very little about following the latest trends and having the newest release from an overpriced brand that used sweatshops to manufacture their goods. Jeans were now an issue considering her substantial weight loss. It meant that she wasn’t even sure what size she was anymore and most of her clothing was chosen through trial and error. Having picked out two black pairs and throwing them into a cardboard box that sat next to her on the sidewalk, she started sifting through socks, looking for the thickest pairs and totally ignoring anything brightly colored that a deer could spot at five hundred feet away. Night was falling and with her mask risen over her face, she made a mental note to go straight to Aaron and Eric’s house and use their spare room, where she had the use of a full-length mirror in which to try on her newest clothing selections.

 

Outside their house, Rick and Daryl took it in turns to aid Judith with a chunky, bright jigsaw puzzle that depicted a family going on a bear hunt. Daryl thought it to be quite apt considering his daily routine usually always started out with hunting for what had now become his adoptive family. Pieces were lifted into the air with tiny hand and chatter ensued over where the piece in question was to be placed. Rick volunteered the answer every time while Daryl held back, telling him he was too soft and that he should let the kid figure it out for herself. When the puzzle was completed, Daryl demanded the smallest of high-fives from Judith while Rick looked at him knowingly.

“What?” Daryl asked, uncomfortable with his friends’ smirk.

“Calling me soft.” He mentioned “Come a long way from who you were at the quarry”

Dressed in a crisp, white T-shirt that was the equivalent to the holy grail when they were outside of the walls, Rick leaned comfortably back in his seat and sipped a beer from a glass bottle. His brown, curly hair was still wet from the long shower that was much needed after being saturated with clotted blood earlier on in the day. Daryl’s beer remained on the tabletop, his attention having been too focused on Judith and her problem solving for him to have consumed more than a couple of mouthfuls. He dipped his head, Rick’s words playing on his mind.

“What’s what sposed to mean?” He questioned.

“It’s a good thing.” Rick started before sipping his beer again and gently stroking the soft, blond curls of Judith’s head as she chatted quietly to herself between them. “You were going to end up like your brother.”

“What, dead?” Daryl snapped, furrowing his brow

“No.” Rick shot back sternly. “Choosing the wrong path. You were smarter than that.”

Daryl finally picked up his beer and took a large gulp, the cold liquid providing a refreshing relief from the heat of the day’s activities. He didn’t see himself as some kind of success story, he was just a kid from the wrong side of the tracks that never amounted to anything. The fact that he hadn’t made the same choices as Merle in the end proved nothing. He’d missed out on a role model that wasn’t someone consumed by drugs, alcohol and hairbrained schemes to make money.

“Had the right folks ‘round me.” He mumbled.

Maybe he was right. But Rick thought he was selling himself short, as he always did by default. Tuneful humming from across the street caused him to look up to where Jess was ambling along the sidewalk carrying a box of clothes. Her mask and hood up. She turned her head in time to see Daryl notice her too and awkwardly shifted the box to one side, holding it with one arm while she raised the other to offer a wave at the two men and the tiny child on the porch. Daryl and Rick both mirrored her gesture, earning them a grin that neither of them could see under her mask. When the box under her arm began to fall, she quickly slapped her other hand under it and waddled to the end of the street, taking the corner and vanishing from sight.

“You know, for a long time we were just running from one place to the next, one fight after another. We never really had the time to stop and take stock of what we have. Of who we have. Now, we can and we should. We can all come back from it. We’re not too far gone.” He expressed.

Daryl met his eye and understood perfectly what he was saying. From all the death and destruction, he may have lost his brother and he would never forget him, but he’d gained an entire family. He was now ‘Uncle Daryl’ and had a friend in Rick who also saw him as a brother.

“I know.” He agreed with ease, placing the beer bottle on the table and turning it between his fingers.

“How’s things with you and Jess?” Rick asked.

Daryls back prickled at the question. He hadn’t expected to be asked such a thing and wasn’t sure how to respond. He sighed loudly and nibbled his lower lip while the thought. How were things, really? It was a good question.

“OK, I guess.” He offered “She talks to me more. Said she wants to be friends like before”

Rick shot a look at the corner of the street where Jess had disappeared from view not minutes before when he noticed Judith yawning loudly. Daryl ruffled her hair and lifted his arm, allowing the child to settle against his side and curl her legs under herself.

“That’s good. I’m glad she found us again. I remember how angry you were at the quarry, when she left.” Rick reminded him.

“Cared ‘bout her.” Daryl confessed, much to Rick’s surprise. His reaction to Jess’s departure spoke volumes at the time and Rick was certain that everyone and his dog knew that Daryl cared for Jess. What he’d never done was actually said it.

“And now?” Rick pressed.

Daryl huffed and glared at him, a thin smile on his lips. He was digging, Daryl knew that much. It was something that had crossed his mind more than once and oftentimes he found himself pondering over who thought that the friendship he shared with Jess could possibly blossom into something more. Now, he had his answer, Rick was one of those people.

“I know what you’re doin, man.” He confirmed

Rick set his bottle down as he chuckled quietly to himself. He held his hands up in surrender.

“Hey, I’m just reminding you that we’ve all been through enough. I get to be more of a father to Carl and this little one” He paused to gently run the back of his finger down the soft skin on Judith’s arm. “Can focus on what makes me happy a little more than I could before. I thought maybe you should do the same. Jess, she’d be good for you.”

Daryl shifted, his hand moving to his face and rubbing at the greying bristles of his chin. His vision wasn’t fixed on anything in particular, rather darting from one area to the next in an attempt to find something to comment on that would enable him to change the subject.

“It aint like that.” He uttered. It sounded as if he’d voiced the words to himself instead of Rick.

“Maybe not.” Came the reply from across the table. Daryl reluctantly looked over at his friend. “But it could be.”

Daryl raised an eyebrow in disbelief. It was the first time Rick had ever raised such a touchy subject. Carol tried and wasn’t granted a straight answer. Why was everyone so hellbent on seeing him become romantically involved with Jess?

“Aint gonna happen” He stated “She don’t want that from me. Can do better anyways.”

“That’s not what she wrote in that journal back at the quarry.” Rick mentioned “But OK. Whatever you say.” His face was displaying another smirk that told Daryl he could protest all he wanted, but it was all just denial.

Daryl thought back to a previous conversation with Jess and one particular comment stood out to him.

“I had a crush on you. I lied and said it was all crap because I was embarrassed.”

Maybe Rick was right, maybe there was a chance for something to happen between them, but for Daryl, the risk was too great. A friendship so unique and so unheard of for him was too precious to ruin and he knew he couldn’t face losing her again. She may have had a crush on him before, but times had changed and so had she, now he was nowhere near sure that she would ever think of him in that way again.

He picked up his beer, downed the liquid inside and suppressed a burp, holding a fist to his lips for fear of waking a now sleeping Judith. As he slowly inched away from her on the double seater, he lifted her from the cushioning and positioned her at his chest, where her arms clung to his neck and her face nuzzled into his shoulder. Rick offered a small nod of gratitude at Daryl’s decision to take Judith inside and put her to bed.

“Thanks, Man. I’ll be in a minute” he told him.

“I’ll get her to bed, then I’m gonna head across the street. Go see Jess.” Daryl rasped as he side stepped out from behind the table.

“Really? Changed your mind?” Rick asked with a grin.

“Quit it. ‘fore I start askin’ shit ‘bout you n’ Michonne.” Daryl threatened, his tone challenging but laced with a humorous intent that Rick could sense straight away. He merely laughed and offered no explanation or comment on his relationship with Michonne, he didn’t need to, Daryl was observant, he knew everything anyway.


Daryl was sure Judith would continue to give everyone around her the run around even as she got older. An hour later and he had answered a million questions, fetched her a drink, checked under the bed for monsters, put her back in bed after she bolted for the door, fetched her a different drink and successfully managed to avoid having to sing her a lullaby. As he watched her sleeping soundly from the door, he figured that if he had children or not wouldn’t matter anyway, he had all he needed in his duties as an uncle.

When he appeared at Aaron and Eric’s he was informed by Eric that Jess had just left for the fairground after declining and offer to stay the night. He’d missed her by maybe five minutes and if he hurried, he would catch her up. He hoisted the black bag he carried back onto his shoulder, thanked Eric and set off for the gate.


Inside her fairground home, Jess lay on her front on the wooden framed bed, flicking through the pages of an old journal, the same one that documented her transition from survivor on the run to quarry camp occupant. It told of her misplacement, her time as an outsider, unable to settle or find her place in the group. It reminded her of the humiliation she suffered and eventually, the lightbulb moment which resulted in her leaving the camp and making her way on her own.

It was strange to her, to read back over the words that she’d written herself. She wasn’t sure who that girl was anymore. Her awkward nature and tendency to overthink things was most definitely still present. But her fear and self-doubt had now waned and made way for courage and independence in most areas. Just not all of them. She knew her defense mechanism meant she was colder on the surface, stoic to those that didn’t know her well and intimidating to those that wanted to.

Candles illuminated the room along with two oil lanterns that she’d brought from the boat when she’d uprooted once more, in search of a new home. Her king-size bed, brought in by a truck borrowed from Alexandria, was layered with various, multicolored blankets and the floor boasted a large, black rug that she’d enlisted Aaron’s help with when she spotted it in the living room of a house nearby. Deanna provided her with a black bookshelf to match as an unsuccessful bribe to move to the safe zone for good and the walls were adorned with maps and drawings of the local area’s fauna. A workstation on the counter of what once was a diner was used to craft arrows and stakes that were lined along the fences, ready to impale any Walkers that happened to stray from the woods and into the minefield around her home.

On the front gate of her property hung a bell. Visitors were rare and were only ever in the form of Aaron, being the only one that knew the exact location of the fairground and the only one permitted to visit. From the one, uncovered window of the diner, she could gain a clear view of anyone hovering around the gate or fences.

Taking one last bite of the apple she’d been eating, she threw the core into the trash and rolled onto her back, staring up at the cracked and peeling paintwork on the ceiling. The sound of the bell from outside caused her to freeze for a few seconds as her mind struggled to think of who could possibly be outside at this hour. She’d seen Aaron already that night and so was almost positive it wasn’t him. She swung her legs from the bed and slowly raised her body to peer over the window ledge.

In the darkness, she could make out the shape of a crossbow. She sprang up, dragged her fingers through her tousled hair, checked her reflection in the broken mirror by her bedside and groaned to herself at the sheer inconvenience of it all. One blessing of wearing a mask all the time was never having to be too concerned with her appearance. It was the end of the world and such things shouldn’t be at the forefront of anyone’s mind, but Jess often told herself that if she asked around the women of Alexandria and had them all answer honestly, very few would say they got out of bed in the morning without so much as a peep in the mirror.

She brushed her eyebrows into shape with her index fingers, rubbed at the bags under her eyes and blew a tuft of hair out of her vision before grabbing a hooded jacket and heading to the door. Before opening it, she lifted her hood up and cleared her throat, readying herself. For what, she had no idea.

Daryl was leaning on the fence as she neared him, a black backpack hanging from his hand which was positioned above him, showing off the defined shape of his upper arm. She ignored it as best she could, instead trying to figure out what would bring him there at night and so out of the blue.

“Evening, Stinky.” She shot at him with a hand placed on her hip.

“Hey.” Was all he rasped back at her.

“Spend all day with me and then you turn up at my gate at this late hour. People will talk.” She jested bravely, all the while cursing herself inside for making would could be seen as a flirtatious comment.

“Let ‘em talk.” He shrugged “Can I come in?”

She moved closer to the gate, peering at him through the gaps in the chain link. He was pushing her rules, rules that she’d set in stone for a reason to protect herself both physically and emotionally. She had to stand firm and maintain her promise to herself.

“I don’t let anyone in, Daryl. You know that.” She told him. “I’m sorry.”

He stepped back, removing his hand and the bag from the fence. The metal shook in its frame and Jess closed her eyes briefly and sighed.

“I don’t let nobody on that bike.” He commented, telling her in no uncertain terms that he’d made an exception for her and he expected the same in return. She slowly looked him up and down, pursing her lips as she considered her options.

“Ya still don’t trust me” He added

“It’s not…” she paused and noticed his expression. Sad and defeated. “… OK, fine. But just in the grounds.”

She unlocked the gate and stepped aside, seeing Daryl slowly step inside and scan the fairground. After locking it behind him, she motioned with her hand towards the disused Ferris wheel, to which he followed her, sitting beside her in one of the cars which rocked back and forth with a soft rhythm as they dwelled in a temporary silence.

Handing her the backpack, his eyes darted down to it, signaling that she should open it. She dragged the zipper around and separated the two halves of the bag to find five, neatly folded t-shirts. Her fingers drifted over the symbol on the top of the pile. Avengers.

This is…mine. All of these are mine. What the hell?

Her mind began to race and her jaw dropped open. Daryl was in possession of five of her T-shirts that she’d worn at the Quarry. Utterly speechless, she lifted them out of the bag and onto her lap.

“Took ‘em from ya apartment in the city.” He croaked quietly “Knew the place was yours when I saw ‘em all folded on the countertop”

“You… you kept them.” She stated.

“Yeah”

“Why?”

“Kept this too” he said, ignoring her question and tugging the note she’d left him from his jeans pocket. It was folded up into a tiny, neat square. “But ya already know that”

She did know he’d kept the note but was seeing it for the first time properly since she wrote it. They both scanned the words on the page and Jess thought it was almost like looking at someone else’s writing. Like she never wrote it herself. Like it was from a different time, in someone else’s past. Shame and regret surged through her after she read the first sentence on the page and she quickly looked away.

“I don’t understand” she admitted

“Just figured you’d want ‘em back.” He expressed.

“No. I mean I don’t understand why you’d keep them. If you thought I was dead.” She corrected.

“Reminded me of you.” Was all he said. A short answer that meant so much. It was his way of telling her that he wanted to keep a part of her with him. She smoothed her hand over the T-shirts while he folded the note and put it back in his pocket.

“You should throw that away” she suggested, hoping that she would never have to see it again.

“No.” He refused bluntly.

“Daryl, that note is only a reminder of a time we’d both rather forget.” She pleaded.

“Nah. I’m good.” His declining to be rid of the note was hard to express to her in words. He wanted to keep it because it reminded him of how distraught he was at the realization that she didn’t want to see him again. It took finding the note to make him admit that he cared deeply about her and he never wanted to forget that. Telling her was near enough impossible and so, he kept quiet, hoping that he hadn’t come across as anything more than a close friend that had missed her. Jess could tell he was going to be adamant about keeping it and decided to avoid a confrontation.

“This was one of my favorites” she mused. Looking down at the Avengers T-shirt on the top of the pile. “I guess I could make some pretty cool tents out of these now”

“Stop it.” He snapped.

Jess could feel the irate nature of his comment and concluded that in making fun of herself, she was only making him angry.

“I’m allowed to laugh at myself y’know. Lighten up.” She smiled.

“Whatever” he mumbled.

Needing to dispel his anger and change the subject at the same time, she took the impulsive and bold decision to place her hand over his forearm. He immediately looked down at it but made no attempt to move. To Jess, it was like she was looking down on herself from some astral plane, watching the woman that looked like her and sounded like her and had a soul that was just the same, yet she was acting in a way that Jess never would. But he’d been the first to make this move, back at the expensive house in which she’d shared her reason for wanting to take the Star Wars shirt. He’d touched her first and she took that as a sign that maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t hate her imitating his gesture. Braving a physical touch, platonic or otherwise was so far removed from her regular behavior that she was sure she caught Daryl startle a little.

“Thank you.” She whispered. “It means a lot to me that you kept these”

He nodded once and cleared his throat. All too aware that his attempt to speak may well emerge as a gruff croak instead of actual words. “S’nothin’.” He grumbled “Just don’t want ya to forget who ya are.” For a fleeting second Jess thought that he may well have heard what was going through her mind as she poured over the pages of her old journal and tried to find some trace of her old self within her. Then, it dawned on her that it was impossible that he’d heard a thing. He wasn’t even there. What was possible, was that they were both on the same page, at the same time, thinking over the same thing. “I never did” he added.

Jess removed her hand, albeit not through choice. She would have left it there all night given the chance. But the longer she held onto his arm, the more uncomfortable it would get. The car gently rocked back and forth, lulling them both into a wordless trance for a few moments where they simply enjoyed one another’s company and listened to the wind blow through the trees.

“You really are sentimental these days” she grinned, snapping him out of his daydream.

He huffed and took the empty bag from her grasp. He busied himself by fastening the zipper and sliding it over his arms until it was comfortably positioned at his back.

“I really do like sentimental Daryl.” Jess added while looking down at the pile of shirts in her lap and tracing a finger over the ‘A’ emblazoned on the top.

“Dunno what ya talkin’ ‘bout” he mumbled.

She climbed out of the car and hugged the shirts to her chest. Daryl took it as his cue to leave, counting being let inside as a small triumph alone and not wanting to push his luck.

“Thanks for the ride today too.” She threw in as an attempt to steer the subject away from his sentimentality and not wanting to linger too long on anything that could encourage her to get carried away. “Terrifying but exhilarating all at the same time” she remembered.

“Anytime.” He told her with a small nod “only you though"

Chapter Text

The next morning saw Jess making her way to Deanna’s place via the pond. Bypassing hunting for one day meant she could take the time to wander casually around the town before many of its residents had risen and therefore, she could enjoy the peace and quiet. The Pond was usually occupied by those who needed to take some time out and just…be. It was the quietest part of town and was frequently host to smooching teenagers and individuals needing to mourn a loss which unfortunately, had become the norm in the apocalypse.

On that particular morning, Jess happened upon the lonely figure of Carl. His checkered shirt and sheriffs’ hat being the main giveaway. His hunched over stance lured her over to him, something wasn’t quite right. Whistling a subtle tune from behind him alerted him to her presence and he smiled broadly when he twisted his body on the bench and set eyes on her. His youthful, innocent face could have fooled anyone into thinking he’d not been exposed to the horrors that lurked beyond the walls. But Jess knew better than that. Carl was a smart kid, brave too. A little too brave, his father might say.

“Hey Carl” She chirped as she plonked down next to him.

“Jess, hi.” He grinned as he studied the attire she dressed in that seemed to intrigue him so much. He was sure he’d played computer games that mimicked her apocalyptic style and as much as he knew she only wore it for practical and defensive reasons, he thought she looked pretty cool.

“How’s it going?” She asked with a light pat on his knee.

“Good” He replied with a lingering look. Jess wasn’t buying it. The fact that he was occupying the most somber spot in the town all alone proved he was lying. Having been the one to encourage her to reveal her identity to everyone, to Daryl, meant that she felt she owed him one. The world hadn’t imploded and she still had her home and her life. She just got to look at Daryl a whole not more than before. Deciding she wasn’t giving up on the conversation any time soon, she threw one leg over the other and settled down beside him.

“Right. Of course. Because when I’m doing good, I like to come and sit out here all alone at the ass crack of dawn.” She challenged with a sympathetic expression as she looked down at him beside her. “C’mon, kid. What’s up?”

His eyes moved round to cast over the pond. Dragonflies and bees flitted in the air, going about their daily business and creating a hive of life over the body of water. Yellow and white flowers decorated the edges amongst the bright green hues of the foliage. A small piece of paradise in a rotten world.

“I talked to Enid.” Carl whispered. His hands fumbled in his lap, his fingers not quite sure of what they were supposed to be doing. Jess thought it might be a physical representation of what was going on in his head. She could relate. It was how she felt whenever she was near Daryl, but she wasn’t about to admit that to anyone.

“Oh, you did, huh? How’d that go?” She pressed.

“Alright, I guess. We payed some video games. I think we’re friends” He explained.

Jess was confused. To her, there was nothing bad about what he’d told her.

“That’s a good start.” She commented.

Carl side glanced at her, unimpressed but curious to hear her reasoning.

“It is?”

“Sure. They say that friends make the best lovers” she winked. Worried she was treading on dangerous territory with such a topic and having used the word ‘lovers’ she considered that she should just cut the conversation short there and then. But he looked too distracted and conflicted for her to just walk away and leave him with his thoughts without an attempt to help. The damage was done, so she opted to just roll with it.

“Who’s they?” He wanted to know, the corner of his mouth quirking up into a smile.

“I don’t know… people that were once friends and are now lovers?” She reasoned without a clue as to what the correct answer might be.

“Yeah. Right. I don’t have a chance anyway.” He dismissed as he adjusted his hat. It still seemed too big for him, even after he’d grown considerably. It was a reminder of his innocence and vulnerability.

“Sure, you do.” She encouraged.

Then, he turned his body to her and she prepared for the punchline.

“No, you don’t get it. She has a boyfriend.” He told her.

Her heart dropped.

Shit, kid. I bet he’s a douchebag too.

“Oh, dang.” She said, her words a little more PG than what was running through her head.

“Yeah. It sucks.” he complained

“Well, maybe she’ll get to know you a little better and she’ll realize you’re way cooler than the stupid boy she’s with and you’d make a better boyfriend” She offered with a genuine sincerity. All too often, the nice guy finished last and she wanted to urge Carl to be the exception to the rule.

“I don’t know about that. But Thanks, Jess.” He sighed.

“No problem. I gotta go. Keep me posted, OK?” She requested, getting to her feet and straightening her clothing.

“Jess?” He croaked. She halted, looking down at him still sitting on the bench. “Has it ever happened to you?”

“I’m sorry?” She asked.

“Have you ever had a friendship that turned into something more?”

What followed was a long and uncomfortable silence while Jess weighed up her two options; lie and give him hope or tell the cold, hard truth about her lack of dating experience. Lying wasn’t one of the skills she possessed, that much had been proven when she eventually caved in and admitted who she was to the group. After witnessing Daryl’s rage at her mistruth, she promised herself she wouldn’t lie again. Not to him and not to anyone else if she could help it.

“No.” She confessed. “But, I’m just not the kind of girl that guys want to date.”

His features fell into a truly baffled expression and he smarted at the statement.

“What? Why?”

Truthfully, aside from the fact that bigger girls were always overlooked in the dating pool and she thought herself to be nerdy, awkward, clumsy and clueless about relationships, she didn’t have a simple, clear -cut response that wouldn’t induce hours of trying not to sound like a self-pitying mess.

“I don’t know” She shrugged “But I’m OK with it.”

Yeah, maybe that was a small lie.

Carl still looked confused, but seemed to accept her interpretation. He nodded a couple of times and peered up at her.

“Well, I think you’re awesome.” He wanted her to know.

Jess’s heart swelled at his attempt to boost her confidence and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was Rick or Lori that had instilled such a fierce need to see people happy in him. Carl cared about other people and often went beyond the limits to try and inject a dash of positivity into their lives. She remembered how he’d begged her to come clean to the group, because they needed it. They’d been through so much, he truly believed that being re-united with Jess would make his father, Carol and Daryl happy.

“You’re a good person, Carl. You deserve some of the light that you try so hard to give everybody else. If she means something to you, fight for her…” She quickly checked over her shoulder, sweeping the area and mentally ticking off the list of routes to the pond that could potentially hold someone that could overhear her. Seeing no one, she turned back to Carl. “…But don’t you dare take any shit, you hear me?”

He giggled and held her gaze. “I hear you.”

She reached out and tugged his hat over his eyes, hearing him laugh from beneath. When he tipped it back again, he caught sight of her vanishing around the corner.


The furniture on the front porch of Deanna’s house was frequently used as a place to touch base, to make plans and to relay ideas and concerns. Deanna was clear that whether it be day or night, the inhabitants of the town were permitted to use the front porch at any time.

After the weekly meetings, those involved in the supply runs schedule would often meet here to sip lemonade and plan their next move, which was exactly what Jess, Rick and Abraham were doing under Deanna’s watchful eye one sunny morning. With a straw situated in her glass, thoughtfully provided by Deanna with no questions asked, Jess sipped Lemonade under mask and rocked back and forth on her chair with her boot planted firmly on the wooden fencing in front of her. Occasionally, she coughed and fanned the air in an attempt to rid the air of the smoke from Abraham’s cigar.

Rick and Deanna were hashing out the details of what type of vehicle would be required of such a run and what weapons could be checked out of the armory while Abraham made faces at Jess across the table, some crude, some goofy and some downright weird. In the street, Carl played with Judith, gently kicking a bright blue ball back and forth with her. Her innocent chatter and laugher were a welcome sound to everyone, grateful to hear anything but the growling beyond the walls. By all accounts, it was a normal Monday morning.

“Good morning Mr. Dixon.” Deanna called out, attracting Jess’s attention from blowing bubbles through her straw into her drink.

“Mornin” He muttered back.

Jess couldn’t help but do a small double take. Something was different about him but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it straight away. She wanted to laugh but in an ill-tempered way at how annoying it was that no matter what he was doing, Daryl was always extremely nice to look at. 

This is ridiculous. How is he getting hotter? Now, what the hell is going on here? That’s me not concentrating for the rest of the day.

Biting down on her straw, she pondered over what could possibly be different. Ripped pants patched up at the knees? Check. Leather vest with dirty angel wings? Check. Messy, ruffled and wavy hair that obscured his eyes most of the time? Check. No, she couldn't figure it out.

“Hey Daryl, we were just discussing clearing a five star hotel for supplies. We’re after another couple of generators too.” Rick conveyed “We need them, now the population here is growing thanks to you and Aaron recruiting.”

“Plus, I like those chocolates they give you with coffee and the mints they leave on the pillows.” Jess shrugged as she collected her quiver from the floor beside her and started to count her arrows.

“She’s lyin’.” Abraham droned from across the table “She just wants to be alone with yours truly in the honeymoon suite. Aint that right, Angel?”

Jess slowly looked up the big, red-headed military man that was winking at her shamelessly in front of everyone.

“Oh yeah, so I can drown you in the bathtub.” She shot back nonchalantly.

Daryl witnessed their exchange with a mild impatience. It wasn’t in his nature to converse with anyone like Abraham Ford did, least of all a woman. Therefore, his efforts to understand the motivation of such talk when the endgame wasn’t to pair off were all but failing. If he wasn’t interested in her in that way, why would he persist?

“When we goin?” Daryl asked, involving himself in the run without bothering to ask permission. Larger groups were always beneficial. Or, that’s what he would say if anyone asked. The real reason masked behind his stoicism; he just wanted to be near Jess.

“Oh, you’re not invited” She joked and he could see the smile behind her mask portrayed in her eyes.

“Today.” Rick replied with a more polite response.

“A’right. I’ma leave the bike here, sit up front." Daryl expressed "We can toss her in the back seat like a burger wrapper”

At that, Abraham chuckled loudly and extinguished his cigar on the sole of his boot. Deanna offered her a sympathetic smile but quite obviously found the whole thing highly amusing, having never seen Jess, or ‘Parker’ as she knew her in such a relaxed and social environment before.

“Hey!” Jess complained.

“Can dish it out, but ya can’t take it.” Daryl mocked with a slight curl to the side of his mouth.

“Easy you two, or I will turn the truck around and we will come right back here” Rick told them with a chuckle, as if he were a fed-up father taking his kids out on a trip to the beach.

“Want some company in the backseat?” Abraham asked Jess as he got to his feet and shuffled past her on the porch. His nose was turning pink from the sun. Jess merely rolled her eyes in response, meaning he only chortled louder and lowered a big hand into her shoulder, giving it a squeeze as he passed.

Daryl’s chest tightened. He wasn’t sure why he was faced with such feelings, but the playfulness that had developed between Jess and Abraham made his temper flare and his mood turn irritable. It was strange to him despite knowing that now, she was just as likely to engage in such mockery and teasing with him as well as Abraham and in public as well as when they were alone. It just wasn’t flirtatious. Jealousy wasn’t something he’d had to contend with in the past, having never had any real feelings for anyone in that capacity. Did this mean his feelings towards Jess were changing? Was he experiencing something akin to a romantic attachment? He wasn’t quite sure. But he did know what when she smiled, she lit up a room and with it and sparked a fire inside him that left him unable to deny that he thought she was the prettiest creature he’d ever seen.

“Be safe.” Deanna intercepted as everyone started to filter down the stairs and over to the waiting trucks that could be borrowed “stick to the route on the map. Please let me know when you return. Oh, Mr Grimes?”

Rick stopped and handed the map to Abraham.

“Yes?”

“No diversions, no changes of plans. You are all our best fighters; I can’t have you all away for too long.” She requested

“You got it.” He accepted, looking at Daryl and nudging his head towards the trucks.

“Parker, a word before you go?” Deanna called out.

Jess stopped in her tracks, already suspecting that whatever ‘word’ Deanna wanted to have with her was likely to exasperate her after a certain topic hadn’t been mentioned in a while. She hung back, sliding her quiver onto her back while Deanna waited for the others to move out of ear shot.

“Any particular reason you’re around here so much these days?” She asked.

Jess’s brow furrowed, she thought that if anything, Deanna would be pleased to have her around after being pestered so much to join the community, then to live among it.

“Any particular reason you’re asking me?” She retorted.

“Because it’s nice. I like having you here. I know Aaron and Eric do too.” Deanna expressed.

Ah, here it is. A few weeks of peace and she’s back at it.

“Annnnd here we go again.” Jess groaned

Deanna placed her hand over Jess’s leather gloved hand and peered at her with pleading eyes.

“Please reconsider. You would never have to give up the fairground. It’ll always be yours. But you’ll be so much better off living here with us. I know you and Mr, Dixon work well together and I always see you and Abraham laughing. Since their group arrived you’ve been happier.”

Not wanting to seem rude or cagey, Jess stepped back slightly, breaking the physical contact and clearing her throat as she tried to think of yet another way to decline an offer which had been put to her many, many times before.

“I just like being kept busy. This new runs schedule has me out almost every other day.” She mumbled in a tone that came across as less than interested.

“It’s more than that. I know it is.” Deanna pressed, managing to catch her eye.

“Your observation skills still remain unrivaled, I see.” Jess challenged with a smirk that could be detected even with her mask as a barrier. “Look, I’m not moving here. I like my life as it is. But thank you for yet another offer and I have to hand it to you, you’re one persistent woman.”


The Wyndham Grand Hotel was a five-star establishment, nestled into the woodland that surrounded a town that was a two-hour drive from Alexandria. As soon as she arrived, Jess was impressed by the grandeur of it all and couldn’t wait to get inside and start sweeping the rooms for luxury items and non-perishable food stuffs.

The lobby boasted marble flooring and pillars with a sweeping, oval desk and a plush, red carpet. Couches and cushioned armchairs filled the space and in the corners were what must have once been large and colorful exotic plants. Jess was glad they’d managed to make good time so navigating the building with be easier without the use of a flashlight. Having parked the truck in the loading area, Rick and Abraham made their way to the reception desk to collect keys and sweep the place for generators that could be removed and fit onto the back of the vehicle.

“I’m going to leave you guys to the technical stuff and heavy lifting. I’ll be clearing the rooms, see if I can find anything useful.” Jess announced over her shoulder while heading to the stairs.

“I’ma go with her unless you guy need me?” Daryl asked.

“No, it’s OK. We’ll be fine. You go with Jess, none of us should be wandering around alone.” Rick told him. He signaled to Abraham to follow him from the reception desk to a set of double doors with a sign above them which told them they were heading to the Kitchen.

“They could use some more alone time together.” He mused.

“What, Jess and Daryl?” Abraham questioned in surprise. “That’s a thing? He’s into her?”

“Think so” Rick confirmed. “Let's just say it has potential.” He stopped and positioned himself on one side of the door while Abraham did the same opposite, both with knives drawn and held up, ready to defend themselves.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Abe chuckled.


Getting a head start on Daryl, Jess breezed through any open rooms she could access, eventually finding a large designer suitcase on the bed in the penthouse suite which from the window, provided views of the mountains for miles across the canopy trees. So far, she’d found the maids trolley in the hallway and taken a series of miniature bottles. Shampoo, shower gel, soaps and spare toothbrushes.

They’ve thought of everything. She thought.

Pulling her mask down, she felt a trickle of perspiration run down her temple and decided to lose her hood along with it. It was hot in the room, mainly from the daylight hitting the windows and creating a greenhouse effect. She used her knife to crack the small and relatively useless padlock on the suitcase and flung it open, rummaging around various boxes of make-up and clutch bags until she spotted something she really could not bypass.

She gasped as she pulled out a huge box of tampons and stared down at them with her mouth open like they were the most precious thing in the world.

“Oh, sweet baby Jesus, thank you.” She said to herself.

Tampons and sanitary products, like medication and food, were becoming increasingly scarce and coming across such a find felt like a major triumph to Jess, who, like many other women, despised using old school, washable products that created not only a level of self-consciousness from such an adjustment, but a lot of getting used to.

“Hey, you find anythin’?”

At the sound of his voice cutting through the air so unexpectedly, Jess jumped. Everything seemed to kick into slow motion as she tossed the box in the air, widening her eyes in horror as the contents created an explosion of tampons all around her, rotating as they spiraled out of control and careered to the floor. Time jolted back to normal when they all scattered onto the carpet like a million grains of sugar, each tiny, little thud like a gunshot as they hit the floor. Jess stood with her hand’s half risen, still poised as if she was holding the box which was now at her feet. She slowly looked up to see Daryl stood completely still in the doorway with one eyebrow raised.

“Uuuuuh…” She tried. “I uh, I, I-found some of the mints I like.” She stammered “Aaaaand then…it started…” her eyes lowered to the floor at what felt like a sea of offending articles “…. raining tampons.”

The corner of Daryl’s mouth quirked up as he stepped into the room and nudged his head up at her

“Okay” He replied quietly and she could tell it was taking every single bit of his self-control not to burst into fits of laughter.

Jess sighed and grit her teeth, offering him a bizarre and strained smile as she pointed to the floor with one hand.

“Just going to…pick those up.” She uttered, bending her knees, staring in total embarrassment at the floor and feeling unwaveringly certain that her face was now a deep shade of crimson. Her hands started to scramble across the carpet, collecting the tampons and shoving them in the box. Daryl knelt down and started to assist her. “Oh, you don’t have to.” She said.

“Gonna be here all damn day if I don’t.” He pointed out. She had to admit, he was right, there was a lot of them. Or maybe it just seemed like there was because of the painfully awkward nature of the situation. Jess reached out to grab the last two which lay next to one another near the bed, unaware that Daryl also had his sights set on them. Their hands collided and Jess withdrew as if she’d just shoved her hand into a furnace. Dread engulfed her and she was sure her entire body had now turned red and not just her face. “Uh, sorry.”

“My fault.” He grunted, avoiding her gaze.

“No, it was mine. I’ll just-”

“-Let me”

Once again, they both reached out, this time stopping half way.

“Ooookay” Jess breathed, taking a minute to decide who she was going to pass her possessions onto when she died of humiliation "I’ll get them”

“Yeah. K.” He murmured, quickly withdrawing and scratching the back of his neck with his head low.

When Jess got up, she braved a quick look in his direction and noticed him staring right at her.

“It’s the end of the world. These are like the holy grail. I’m still expecting a pig to fly past the window at any moment.”

“Right” He nodded, straightening up. “You um, you want me to bring some back for ya if I see ‘em when I’m out?”

Not expecting such an offer, for a moment she was rendered speechless. Until it occurred to her how useful and thoughtful his offer was.

“That would be great, thank you.”

“Sure.” He nodded “So, uh…you just want the little, bullet-shaped ones or are they like a ‘one size fits all’ thing?”

Feeling her skin literally crawling at the awkwardness of it all, Jess let a small uneasy laugh escape her and wished the ground would open up and swallow her.

“Hah. Um, that is not a conversation you and I are going to have. Just, bring back anything you find.” She told him, turning her back and exhaling the large breath she’d been clinging onto and letting it flare out her cheeks and blow tufts of her hair upwards. She set to work removing the sheets from the bed and trying to put the last few minutes in a box in her mind so she didn’t ever have to re-visit it.

“Ya ain’t already got sheets?” he enquired, confused by her actions.

“Daryl, these are Egyptian cotton. I could never afford sheets like these before. But I can now”

Just about having enough with the topics of discussion so far, he reached out to help her remove the folded quit cover from the bed. His hand brushed against hers and it makes her skin tingle and her eyes closed. Her body froze and he noticed her still beside him briefly. He said nothing, only licking his lips and stifling a smile. If he didn’t know better, he could have sworn that she enjoyed the fleeting contact of his skin on hers.


From the risen bar area above the lobby, Daryl and Jess sat at a table by the window, watching the trundling mass of Walkers pass by outside. Trapped until the way was clear, Abraham and Rick played cards on the reception desk while Jess drew patterns on the table with a marker and Daryl watched her carefully. She glanced out of the window to what looked like the endless line of dead people below. Each one with a past, an identity. She scanned their vacant and pale faces, spotting one in particular that held her attention.

“Huh. He looks like Ben” She said to herself, forgetting for a moment that she was in Daryl’s company and was speaking aloud.

“Who’s Ben?” He questioned.

Having backed herself into a corner by absentmindedly voicing her thoughts, she accepted that Daryl was about to find out that when she lived in the city, she reached whole new level of crazy.

“My pet Walker from the city.”

Sure enough, he looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“Your what?”

“It’s not as weird as it sounds.” She began to explain “I found him trapped at the bottom of the elevator shaft in my building. He was wearing this janitor’s uniform with a name tag. Ben. I tried to figure out how I could get him out of there and put him down. But as time went on, I changed my mind.”

Daryl lit a smoke as she was talking and sat back in his chair, throwing a leg across his knee and resting his cigarette between his fingers, which were perched atop of the chair’s arm.

“Why?” he wanted to know.

“He became a kind of listening post for me. I stopped journaling and started telling him everything. He kept me sane.” Saying the words for the first time gave Jess a kind of clarity about the situation. She had indeed credited the Walker with helping to keep her sanity after spending so long alone and slowly learning to feel the fear and use it to her advantage.

His expression was unchanged, a wary disbelief in his eyes. Jess felt like a fool trying to explain her strange relationship with the dead janitor but worried that if she didn’t finish her story, the half truth would be much worse.

“Eventually I realized that he had the keys to the elevator grate in his pocket. Long story short, I managed to get him out of there and tied him up on the roof.”

“Why didn’t ya just get rid of him?” He furrowed his brow and tilted his head back, finding her story interesting. Having made out that she was better off solo, she was now proving to him that she did, in fact, need somebody when she’d left all alone.

“Because he taught me things. Like how the dead detect sound and how much they can see. How they move and how they deteriorate with time. He’s the reason I’m better at dealing with Walkers than with live people.”

Daryl thought it over while he checked the progress of the herd wandering by below. It was one of the smeller herd’s he’d seen, but it still meant they’d been waiting for almost an hour for it to pass.

“I dunno if that’s smart or stupid.” He eventually said.

“It was smart. Y’know why?” She asked.

He shrugged and smiled thinly, enjoying their conversation more than he cared to admit. Aside from the dead beyond the doors, and the uneasy quiet, it was like they were sat in a bar as friends, or maybe even on a date, swapping anecdotes over a beer. Only the beer in reality was in the form of his hip flask and her plastic bottle of water and the only date Daryl had ever been on was having to hold back a crack head’s hair in a parking lot after Merle had given her too much booze.

“Because if it wasn’t for him creating a distraction. I’d have been caught by those assholes we encountered in the woods. I’m sure they were from the same group that tried to capture me in the city. Ben bought me valuable seconds to make my escape. He saved my life”

It didn’t bear thinking about; Jess being caught by the gang and never walking back into his life. He held up his hip flask “In that case” He rasped, tilting it slightly “To Ben.”

Jess raised her own water bottle and gently touched it on the metal flask.

“To Ben”.

She grinned and took a sip. Then, out of nowhere came memory that she’d been mulling over for a while; The fact that he kept her T-shirts. She felt guilt come creeping back into her mind.

“Daryl, you know I’m sorry, right?” She blurted out, albeit quietly. A hushed whisper on her tongue.

“Thought ya wasn’t good at apologies.” He pointed out.

“I’m not.” She admitted.

“That explains the weird timin’ I guess. What’cha sorry for?”

In truth, she was sorry for a lot of things but didn’t want to ramble on for too long and make herself too vulnerable. It was only now, after getting to know him again and learning to trust him that she felt reasonably comfortable with bringing the topic up.

“Leaving the quarry without saying goodbye. Lying to you. The note I left. All of it. I realized I never really apologized. Not properly.”

He was peering up at her though the wavy strands of his hair, his blue eyes fixed on hers. She expected him to speak, but tome passed and he said nothing. She tried to divert her vision but found that it just didn’t feel right.

“M’sorry too. Didn’t mean to be such an asshole to ya” He confessed.

“It’s OK. So, we’re cool?” She grinned.

“We was cool anyways.”

“I just wanted you to kn-“

“-I know. You can quit yabberin’.” He teased, provoking a subtle giggle and a playful slap of his hand.


 

Some time later, Rick interrupted an intense game of I-spy when he thundered up the stairs, calling both of their names and pointing to the fire exit. When Daryl shot up and asked him what the racket was, he simply yelled “They’re inside! Move!”

Jess could hear the sound of hundreds of Walkers pushing through the glass doors on the ground floor, shuffled steps and groans striking fear into her chest. Without hesitation, Daryl grabbed her wrist and hauled her out of the bar and to the fire exit stairs, following after Rick. Behind them, Abraham was racing to reach the door with his M4A1 Carbine gripped in his hand like a relay baton. When he caught up, he slammed the heavy, metal door behind him and flew up the steps.

On one of the floors, which one Jess wasn’t quite sure, Rick flung open the doors to a lounge area with floor to ceiling windows, plush couches and heavy, gold and cream drapes. He hurried everyone inside, breathless and panicked, just as the mass of Walkers began to appear at the end of the hall.

“There’s a hell of a lot more than we thought, they’re moving up the hotel, right on our tails.” Abraham told them while behind him, Rick set to work securing the double doors with a fire axe slid through the bars. “There I was thinkin’ we were going to have to bed down here for the night. Shame. Looks like you’re going to miss out on a steamy night in a hotel room with me, honey” He prodded.

“Oh my god” Jess muttered to herself between labored breaths “shut up”. She shoved him in the arm and he laughed as he tried to catch his breath, clocking Daryl’s unimpressed expression.

Deciding to steer clear of winding Daryl up any more, Abraham aimed at one of the huge window panels and fired off a few shots, shattering the glass and leaving a whistling, gaping hole in the side of the building.

“OK. No guns unless we have to. We’ll just attract more” Rick instructed, quickly holding up a hand to stop anyone else getting ideas “We need to figure out how to get out of here before they break through that door.”

Daryl edged closer to the glassless window and peered out of the gap. Jess heard him sigh and her heart started to pound even faster.

“Can’t jump this” He said “It’s way too high.”

Jess, Rick and Abraham all joined him at the edge, agreeing that it was indeed too high for a human to jump and walk away with no injuries. But Jess knew they had to do something and fast.

“If you lower me down as far as possible, I could try? Go get hel-”

“No” Daryl interrupted loudly “you’ll break ya damn legs fallin’ that far.”

His tone was firm and stern but if there was a chance that she could make it then that was good enough for her. She charged back to the couches, lifting one of the cushions from the frame. The doors heaved with the Walkers outside and the fire axe clunked in its place.

“We could throw these down there, it’ll cushion my fall.” She suggested.

“No, Jess” Daryl replied without giving anyone else a say.

“We have to do something or we’re all going to die here!” She cried, stamping her foot like a child having a tantrum “I’m chunky but I’m the lightest out of us all. I can do this.”

“It is an idea” Rick admitted

“The only one we got” Abraham agreed

“I have to try”

Daryl crossed the space between them and stopped inches from her face, causing her to raise her eyebrows so she could look up at him.

“You not hear me or somethin’? I said no, Jess. We’ll find another way.” He scolded.

When he spoke, it was like there was no one else in the room and she couldn’t deny that his bossy refusal and need to protect her from injury was an unsettlingly attractive trait in him. Rick and Abraham swapped knowing glances before Rick took Daryl to one side and Jess wandered around the room and looked for another option.

“You got another idea?” Rick asked.

“No. But we ain’t lettin’ her go out that window. She ain’t gonna get outta that without an injury which means she could get bit. I ain’t riskin’ that.” Daryl confirmed. It was non-negotiable, there was only one way Jess was executing her plan of going out of the window alone and that was if Daryl couldn’t stop her. For that, he’d have to be dead.

“There are enough couch cushions in here to take a few feet off that fall, Daryl.” Rick tried.

“Gotta make a decision people!” Abraham announced from the door, the doors were splitting open, rotten hands with nails hanging off were slithering through, grasping at the air and leaving coagulated blood stains on the woodwork.

“It ain’t an option.” Daryl growled at Rick “She aint doin’ it. Over my dead body. Ya gonna have to shoot me because I won’t let it happen.”

“Uh, guys?” Jess said “I think I have an idea”

The three men all turned to find Jess sat on the floor, clawing bedsheets from her bag and testing their strength by trying to rip them as best she could.

“Can’t set up camp in here, sweetheart” Abe commented. But Jess ignored him and started knotting them together and pulling them tight. “Rick, give me a hand.” She instructed. Rick was on the floor beside her in seconds and she handed him the corner of a bedsheet while she took hold of another, a tight knot connecting the two in the middle. She got up, handing the other end to Daryl “You’re physically strong. Both of you pull each end, as hard as you can, try and rip it.” They nodded at one another and engaged in a tug of war. The sheets went taut as both men became red faced and failed to even dislodge the knot. Jess emptied the rest of the sheets from her bag and dumped them on the floor. “Great. If we tie all these together and attach it to that pillar over there, we have a rope.”

“Not just a pretty face. Let’s do it!” Abe cheered

“It’s a little ‘Cartoon Network’ but it could work.” She shrugged, picking up more sheets and tying knots. “Means we can all get out of here together”

Tying the crisp, white bed linen around a pillar and fastening it with a hefty knot, Jess, Rick and Daryl all applied their weight to the makeshift rope, pleased when it failed to break.

“OK, it’s holding” Rick declared “Good job, Jess.”

“I’ll go first.” She told him. A hand clamped down around her wrist, halting her before she could even take a step.

Like hell you will.” Daryl cut in “You’ll go second. Looks clear down there right now but it might not be once ya hit the deck. Pass me those couch cushions”

Swallowing her pride and allowing Daryl to have his protective moments, Jess began throwing parts of the couches to Daryl and Rick, who tried to drop them as strategically as possible to the ground outside. Before she could protest, Daryl shot her a warning glare, picked up his crossbow, slid it across his torso and grabbed a hold of the sheets.

“Alright, stay aware” Rick told him, holding onto the white rope himself as well as relying on the pillar for stability. Daryl slowly backed through the window and Jess was sure she was going to throw up from worry.

“Gotta hurry this up, guys. This door aint gonna hold much longer. This is makin’ my ass itch!” Abe informed them.

As Daryl worked his way down the rope, Jess appeared at the top with her bow aimed in case any Walkers appeared on the ground.

Don’t you dare fall. She thought, over and over again.

Her stomach lurched and her heard almost exploded when he slid at least two feet down unexpectedly, but managed to regain his grip by using a boot on a window ledge to halt the momentum. She was sure the two other men could hear her practically hyperventilating. When he was safely at the bottom, he equipped his crossbow, stood balanced on the cushions and beckoned for Jess to go next, followed by a finger pushed to his lips that urged them all to keep quiet and not attract any more attention.

Jess descended the rope under Ricks careful instructions, slowly working her way down and crediting herself for building up her upper body strength. She could hear Daryl below, encouraging her quietly and informing her of the distance she had left to go.

Back up in the hotels lounge, Rick quickly left Jess once she was a few feet above Daryl and shoved a couch over to where Abe stood with his back now pressed against the doors. The two of them worked to push the heavy piece of furniture into place, knowing it wouldn’t hold for long due to the shiny surface on the floor. Abraham was ordered to get to the ground next and Rick monitored the barrier they’d created between them and the dead as it threatened to release. When it was finally Ricks turn, he scaled the outside of the building as fast as he could, hearing the doors slam open above him and the snarling of Walkers filling the room.

The four of them ran through the trees and around the building to the loading dock, which by some stroke of luck, only continued a dozen or so Walkers. Jess started firing off arrows alongside Daryl, the two of them working together to take them down, while Abraham and Rick secured the generators and started up the Truck. Arrows and bolts criss-crossed in the darkened, warehouse like area and with each thud of a brain being penetrated, an echo sounded out, making the experience even more visceral.

Daryl yelled at Jess to get behind him as the second wave of Walkers closed in around the truck, when she didn’t comply, he moved in front of her and gradually stepped back, all the time firing and eliminating the dead in front of him. Eventually, Jess was forced to retreat to the vehicle and Rick hit the accelerator, ploughing into two corpses and allowing the archer to grab a hold of the truck and climb in as it passed.

Inside the trucks cab, everyone tried to catch their breath with the hotel becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Daryl leaned over to Jess in the back seat, pulling her coat to one side.

“You hurt?” He demanded.

“No. I’m fine. Are you?”

“Naw.”

“Good” She panted, turning to lean her head against the cold window. “Good.”


The aftermath of the hotel supply run was almost non-existent to Rick and Abraham, who arrived back at Alexandria and unpacked the cargo without the bat of an eyelid. For Jess and Daryl, the events of that day were entirely more lingering. Jess had chosen to be the one to relay the happenings of the run to Deanna, who listened in horror as she recounted the sheer numbers of Walkers they had to contend with and their close brush with death, had it not been for her quick thinking with the bedsheets. She made no bones about accepting the credit for the idea, it had been one of her better ones and she knew from her time in the city that she was resourceful and smart.

Daryl refused to leave the front porch of Deanna’s house until Jess reappeared and he smoked in a brooding silence, offering a feeble wave to Aaron when he rolled back through the gate, returning from recruiting. Rick tried to check on his welfare when he passed the porch on his way back to the house but Daryl simply told him he was good and that he’d be home later on.

Jess left Deanna’s place and descended the stairs without even checking the porch. She wanted to get back to the fairground and sleep, the adrenaline that pumped through her veins and aided her to come out of almost being eaten by a heard but now resulting in a crashing, heavy tiredness. Daryl sprang up when he saw her walk straight past him and to the gate, deciding to follow her.

“Hey” He called out. The gate closed behind him but Jess continued on her path.

“Oh, Hi” She sighed “Look, I’m exhausted, I gotta get home. You’re welcome to walk with me but I’m not exactly full of conversation.”

Wordlessly, he followed her, matching her pace and witnessing her check her distance from the town before she lowered her mask. He reached out, gently touching her arm which stopped her in her tracks.

“What is it? Are you okay?” She asked, concerned by the downcast look on his face.

“Maybe you should opt outta these runs” He suggested.

“Why would I want to do that? I like going on runs.” She turned her body to face him, shifting her weight to one foot as if she was preparing to be there a little longer than she’d expected.

“You could have died today, Jess.” He said sadly.

She studied his features, the way he nibbled at his lip when he was trying to say something revealing or awkward or out of character. His eyes were tired but still bright enough when he looked at her. Well aware that she could have met her demise, she’d tucked it away in her memories and counted herself lucky that she was with a strong team who took a chance on her idea. But as Daryl stood before her and refused to break their eye contact, she realized that what she was witnessing, was how deeply he cared for her.

“But I didn’t” She whispered with a small smile “Tomorrow is never promised for any of us.”

“I know.” He nodded, stepping back and digging his toe into the dirt. “S’why I don’t want ya to go no more. I um…” He grunted quietly and Jess waited, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought or distract him to the point that she would never find out what he wanted to say. He risked a look at her face, relieved to find she was still with him and waiting patiently. His head buzzed with thoughts, things he wanted to say but didn’t know how. He rubbed his chin and sighed and then, at the sight of her shy smile the words were there.

“…I can’t lose you. Not again. Not for good. I just can’t.”

His voice shook as he spoke, cracking at the end of the sentence and Jess had to close her eyes and take a step back to stop herself from doing one of two things; crying or kissing him. She slowly licked her lips, thinking over his intent. How exactly did he mean that?

To Daryl, he’d just spoken a very secret and emotional truth and was way out of his comfort zone. He hadn’t considered the true ramifications of his admission and that was that Jess now knew that her cared about her enough to follow her halfway home and beg her to take herself off of the supply runs team. That he cared so deeply, he’d taken longer than anyone else to admit it.

“I’m not going anywhere, Daryl.” She attempted to assure him.

“You don’t know that.” He countered. She didn’t. She didn’t know how much longer she would survive in the world. She knew that some people left Alexandria’s gates and never returned. She’d attended funerals inside the walls and even helped Aaron to retrieve bodies. She’d felt the heavy weight of loss and that was the people she didn’t even know that well. She tried to imagine the pain Daryl would endure if she were to never return. Based on what she could see in front of her, it was clear that it would destroy him.

“I’ll compromise with you.” She suggested “I’ll only do the local supply runs.”

Her offer seemed to placate him and he nodded subtly, mulling it over and eventually taking a deep breath.

“A’right. Thank you.” He mumbled.

“I’d ask where this has come from, but it’s a been a rough day.” She grinned. Her effort to lighten the mood and make him more comfortable fell flat when she noticed him suck his lower lip into his mouth once more. She braced herself for yet another one liner that was bound to silence and stun her.

“I know I was a dick today.” He acknowledged “I care about you.”

Now he was refusing to lift his gaze, his eyes focused on the dirt under his boots. It was not lost on her that Daryl was the kind of man to show his feelings though actions rather than words, which explained his snappy and bossy demeanour and refusal to put her in harms way at the hotel. But hearing him actually say the words to her had stunned her. She couldn’t believe what she was experiencing. It was a big first, a man so unusual and unique, a man so attractive and unattainable was declaring to her that out of everyone, he had some kind of feelings for her. It may not have been outwardly romantic, or even romantic at all. But it was enough to make her nervous when she contemplated that no matter how much Daryl cared about anyone else; Carol, Rick, Michonne, he never asked them to step away from their duties in order to keep them safe. Up in the lounge of the hotel, it wasn’t the thought of Rick or Abe being hurt that drove him to his defiant comments. It was her. Jess dipped her head, managing to encourage him to lift his vision just enough to see her return the sentiment.

“I care about you too, you idiot.” She told him. When his head raised enough for her to see his face, she beamed at him and saw him smile back for the first time.

“I’ll uh, let ya get home.” He moved back, shoving his hands into his Jeans pockets. His crossbow clanked against his back with the movement and he adjusted his shirt at the collar.

All at once, Jess had an epiphany.

“I know what it is!” She cried, the second time in one day that she’d thought out loud.

“What?” Daryl was baffled.

She held her breath and thought that in that moment she probably looked as awkward as she did when he’d walked in on her throwing tampons around.

“Ah. This morning, I thought there was something different about you. I know what it is now. You got a new shirt.”

Daryl huffed and glanced down at the plain, black, button down shirt beneath his leather vest. She was right, it was new, dug out from the mass of clothing they’d fetched from the Cherokee Club. But he never expected her to notice, he never expected anyone to notice. It was just a shirt, after all.

“Um, yeah. Carol made me.” He shrugged. Jess laughed at the thought of Carol ordering him to get himself a new shirt. If Carol told her to do the same, she wouldn’t argue, the woman could be terrifying. “Why’d ya notice that?”

“Because you look great in it.” She said without thinking.

Oh god. I just gave him a compliment without thinking it over a million times and taking into account every, possible consequence. Shit.

He sucked both lips into his mouth and gave her a slow and uneasy nod and she was sure, beyond any doubt, that she witnessed his ears and the tops of his cheeks turn pink.

“Thanks” came his gravelly response.

“Isn’t it supposed to have sleeves?” She asked as she squinted at the frayed edges around his broad shoulders.

“Cut ‘em off.”

“Why?”

“’Cause it’s fuckin’ hot here.” He shrugged as if she should know the answer to her own question.

Her mind delved into the gutter and for an indulgent moment she wondered what it would be like to slowly drag her fingers over the taut muscles of his arms and shoulders. She emitted a long sigh with her tongue tracing a line along her lower lip and her eyes shamelessly fixated on his skin.

“You’re right. It is…fucking…hot.” She breathed.

Daryl narrowed his eyes at her, wondering what the change in her signified and then it hit him; he’d seen this expression before. A long time ago, back at the quarry, stood in the water while she insisted on teaching him how to use rocks to clean clothes.

Is she…checking me out?!

“What?” He said loudly, snapping her from her delectable daydream.

“What?!” She quickly exclaimed back.

“Uh, I’ma head back now.” He smirked a smug sensation filling his body.

“Huh. Um. No problem. Yeah. I should go, too. I’m tired and hungry and I have mints. From the hotel”

You’re rambling! Shut up!

“See ya” She chirped, throwing him two finger guns.

“Sure. I’ll see ya tomorrow” he chuckled. Walking away, he tried to remember if he’d ever met anyone like Jess and came up with nothing. Not a single soul he’d come across in all his years was as delightfully awkward, funny and genuine as she was and when he wasn’t around her, he craved her presence and the ability to see her contagious smile and pretty features. Yes, he did care about her and the thought of her not being around anymore was just too abhorrent to comprehend.

Turning rapidly on her heels, Jess looked down at her finger gun hands and curled her lip in disgust.

“Such a loser” She whispered to herself.

Chapter Text

Carl was reading Judith’s new favorite book to her. The one Jess had given her and she'd become obsessed with. No other books were good enough. The night had crept in before he’d even noticed, the sky turning from orange to a deep black in the blink of an eye. The starts were out that night and he began to count them one by one as he bounced Judith on his lap. That was, until she began to fuss and pulled the book towards her on the table. She was getting good at communicating her needs, her main one being reading with her brother or Uncle Daryl.

From their position on the front porch, the front gate could be seen to the right, small lights lined the walls and illuminated the area for the gate guards and the sentries that patrolled the perimeter. Not only could he see the gate from where he sat, he could also see between the two houses opposite. The metal girder that held up that section of the wall and the holes in it that Enid used to fashion a ladder with metal pipes in order to scale the wall. He always kept a close eye on the gap between the houses, frequently following Enid over the wall despite Jess’s warnings. He knew she watched over her, but when she was sent on a run there was no one else to do so, meaning Carl took it upon himself to ensure her safety while keeping enough of a distance to avoid being detected. It was risky and dangerous, he knew that much, but he wasn’t about to let the girl he liked linger outside the safety of Alexandria all alone.

He was almost finished with the storybook when the gate squeaked open, it’s mechanical noise rattling through the street. Daryl struck a solitary figure when he walked through the gate and nodded to the guard, who heaved it shut behind him. He carried his crossbow over his shoulder and appeared pensive as he crossed the space between the street and the house.

“Hi Daryl” Carl greeted. He closed the book on the table and shifted Judith on his lap. Deciding she wasn’t quite done with the story, she reached out and opened the book again, scrunching up the pages with her little hand as she turned them.

“Carl.” Daryl nodded. Reaching the top of the steps to the porch. Leaning down to Judith, he ruffled her hair and ticked her fingers with his own. “Hey, Lil’ asskicker” he uttered to his adoptive niece. He pulled out a chair, dropped his crossbow beside it on the floor and sat down to a heavy sigh emanating from his lungs. Conversation was not on his list of priorities; his eyes were stinging and his head was busy. The day’s events coupled with his last conversation with Jess in the woods made everything seem muddled.

“Dad said you guys had a rough run today.” Carl mentioned.

“No more than usual I spose.” Daryl replied.

“Jess okay?”

Daryl looked up at the teenage boy, fresh faced and so young yet he had seen so much in his few years on the planet. He remembered that Jess and Carl got along well at the quarry but wasn’t aware that they were close anymore.

“Yeah, just walked her halfway home, she’s fine.” He answered. “Why?”

The ripping of paper and a happy giggle from the small child on Carl’s lap momentarily caught his attention.

“She’s my friend” He said simply while moving the book out of Judith’s destructive hands.

Daryl wasn’t surprised, it was easy to be friends with Jess as long as she allowed it. She was genuine and he could talk to her like he couldn’t talk to anyone else. Carl obviously thought the same.

“Yeah, me too.” He echoed thoughtfully.

“Daryl…” Carl started “…How do you fight for someone when they’re with somebody else?”

Confusion swept over Daryl’s face and he was baffled as to why Carl would ask him such a thing. Relationship advice was so far removed from Daryl’s talents that he was sure there was absolutely no point in him even answering. He was also inconvenienced and put-out by the question. But Carl’s face was pleading and a part of him was curious.

“You alright, kid?” He checked.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I just don’t know what to do.” Carl confessed. His head lowered and he gently combed through Judith’s hair as she leaned against his chest and settled down. Knowing he couldn’t just get up and leave and clearly able to see that something was bothering him, Daryl leaned forwards and braced his elbows on his knees. Rubbing his hands together, he prepared himself for what was a very uncommon occurrence to him. Even when he was a teenager himself advice was not something he ever dared to ask for, nor would he have received any in the first place.

“What’s goin’ on, Carl?”

“There’s a girl I like. Enid…”

Oh, Great. Daryl thought. Not exactly my forte.

He was busy wiping dust and dirt from his hands when Carl spoke, seemingly uninterested on the outside, until Carl continued to explain himself.

“…And I told Jess.” Then, Daryl looked sideways at him.

“Really.” He muttered.

“Yeah. She told me to talk to her. It must have worked because I think we’re friends now. We played video games and I made her laugh and Jess says it’s a good start.” He conveyed.

“I guess it is” Daryl agreed, casting his mind back to the Walker shooting competitions he’d had with Jess and how cute he thought she looked when she laughed bashfully at something he’d said.

“But she has this boyfriend. He hates me. Jess said I should show her that I would be a better boyfriend by being a good friend to her. She said I should do that because friends make better lovers.”

Daryl’s eyebrows shot up and he stared at Carl. This was a revelation in itself; Jess apparently thought that friends made the best lovers. It wasn’t what Daryl was expecting at all and a small part of him dared to allow a flicker of hope in. If she thought him to be a good friend to her, maybe there was a reason for him to entertain the feelings he had developed for her. But he was still unsure of what they were exactly.

“Oh, she said that, huh?” He enquired

“Yup. But I asked her if that ever really happens, like, if it had ever happened to her.” Carl explained

“And has it?” Daryl questioned, a little too quickly and now leaning further towards him.

“She said no because she’s not the type of girl that guys want to date.”

It was interesting to say the least, Daryl never would have put Jess in such a box and the flutter of anger in his chest took him by surprise. He hated it when she sold herself short or put herself down, he just couldn’t see why she would, or why anyone would.

“Those guys would be idiots.” He mumbled to himself.

“That’s what I thought too. Jess is awesome.” Carl expressed.

Daryl nodded and caught the confused look on Carl’s face. It seemed Jess’s advice had done little other than to baffle him even more.

“I aint no expert on this, but maybe Jess is right.” He proposed

“Well, what would you do? Would you tell her?” Carl asked, now desperately digging for some kind of guidance to follow. Daryl wished he’d asked anyone else but him but if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have gathered such information about Jess. The question he was faced with was a tough one and one he really did not want to answer when he applied it to his own situation and the potential it presented. He cleared his throat, shifted uncomfortably in his seat and sighed, a soft growl emerging from his throat. He wasn’t getting out of this without giving something up.

“Ahh probably not” He disclosed, taking a glimpse to his side. Carl’s whole attention was fixed on him, as if he were going to give him all the answers. But Daryl did have the answers to his own situation. “Alright, um…I guess I’d just be her friend. Treat her good, do right by her. See what happens”

It was all he could give at that point, his own lack of dating experience and zero knowledge about how women worked would have only served to hinder Carl even more.

“Okay.” Carl agreed “But what would I have to do to make her think I treat her good?”

“Hell, I dunno, Carl. Ask Jess, she’s a girl.” Daryl scoffed.

“Right. Sure. Thanks, Daryl.” Carl accepted, giving up probing for pointers when it occurred to him that Daryl maybe wasn’t as clued up on the subject as he’d thought. He Lifted Judith up and the child flopped like a ragdoll as sleep took her. "Here, she's been asking for you" Carl said as he lowered her into Daryl's lap. 


A mandatory meeting had been called for all members of the community and Deanna arranged for everyone that wasn’t out on a run or on guard to be there. She used her front porch as a stage to announce that she would be holding a party for the town. Not only to welcome the newest members to the safe zone, but also to create a sense of togetherness and allow people to enjoy some of the things they may have missed from the way things were before. Jess felt nothing but a rising sense of dread at the idea and when she sneakily caught sight of Daryl through the crowd, she could sense the same apprehension in him too. Driving home her belief in enjoying the little things to boost morale, Deanna expressed that she expected that everyone who could attend, did so. Jess couldn’t bash her leadership and genuine concern for the people under her watch, agreeing with most of what was said. Happiness was important, especially considering how little there was left in the world. But enforced fun wasn’t everyone’s preference and Jess had two days to decide what she was going to do.

When the meeting was dismissed, people filtered out every which way and Jess hung back, peering at the crowd from under her hood when she spotted Eric shuffling along a few feet from her. She wound her way around the people in front and walked along next to him, unaware that behind her, Daryl had rounded the entire crowd and was wandering along behind them.

“Hey Parker. So, what do you think? You’re going, right?” Eric chirped, nudging her in the arm.

“Huh. No.” She scoffed from beneath her mask.

“Parker! It’s a party! None of us have had a party for a very long time. Please, go with Aaron and I” he pleaded

She shook her head quickly, not wanting to have to discuss her reasons why in the middle of so many people.

“Please. I know Aaron will want you to.” Eric urged. Jess stopped and faced him in the sea of people that milled around them.

“I promise…” She started, Eric’s face lit up prematurely “…to think about it, Eric.”

He rolled his eyes and linked his arm through hers, directing her to his house, where he knew Aaron would have something to say about it when he got back from recruiting.

 

Seeing Jess amble away with her arm in Eric’s, Daryl spotted Rick heading back to the house and sped up to reach him. When Rick noticed his presence, he slowed his pace.

“Are you going?” He wanted to know.

“Nah. Ain’t my thing.” Daryl grunted. It really wasn’t. He’d felt like enough of an outsider at Alexandria as it was, preferring to spend his time outside the walls which so happened to be a blessing because Jess lived out there. The last thing he wanted to do was drop himself into a situation where he would be forced to make small talk with people he barely knew.

“Your thing doesn’t matter anymore. We should go. All of us.” Rick said sternly.

“I ain’t good at parties.” Daryl gruffed as he shoved his hands into his pockets like a moody teenager. 

“Daryl, you’re not good in any social situation. But we owe them this. We wouldn’t be living like we are now without Deanna, Aaron… and Jess. You should show your face at least.”

“Keep ya voice down.” He quickly hushed, looking around “She don’t want no one to her real name.”

“I know. Relax. No one can hear me. Hey…” he stopped and placed a hand on Daryl’s shoulder “… are you alright?”

“Yeah. M’fine.” Daryl brushed off.

No. I have these damn weird feelings for my best friend and it’s fucking me up.

Usually able to see through any lies like a pane of glass, Rick studied Daryl’s eyes and concluded that there could possibly be something playing on his mind, but if he was forced, he would close up and never tell him. So, he backed off and told himself that Daryl would go to him when he was ready, if there really was anything that wrong.

“OK.” He accepted “Just, go to the party. Please It’ll do you good.”

“I’ll think ‘bout it.” Daryl grumbled before surging past Rick and climbing the steps to the front porch of the house.


Early the next morning, Daryl watched the sun rise from the window ledge in the living room. The birds started singing before anyone but the guards started to mill about the streets. He found himself restless and consumed with too many thoughts to sleep. Every time he lay down and tried to relax, his time in woods the previous night with Jess replayed in his memory. It was a strange notion to him that he would feel anything more than friendship towards anyone anymore, let alone allow himself to be so open with someone about how much he cared for them.

Movement from outside the window saw him look up and catch sight of Jess leaving the basement armory, pausing to strap a pistol holster to her leg at the top of the stairs. Her backpack was bulky and he remembered that It was the time she usually always went hunting. In order to do so, she never had a reason to visit Alexandria first and she certainly never felt the need to equip herself with a gun due to her proficiency with archery and her habitual use of a machete and knife. He got to his feet and plucked his leather vest from the coat stand by the door. Sliding it over his shoulders, he leaned down to collect his crossbow, checked he had his cigarettes and left the house.

In a deserted house at the end of the street, a mere ten houses away from Alexandria, Jess stood in front of a floor length mirror and clutched a red, skater dress with black, lace trim against her body. On the bed, lay her nearly empty backpack and next to it, a pair of high-heeled, black ankle boots. She turned slightly, tilting her head for a different perspective of how the dress might look on her. She’d dug it out of the storage garage, from one of the bags they’d brought back from the Cherokee Club. It was a designer dress but she cared little for such things in the first place, let alone now the world had ended.

Her eyes lowered to the hem of the dress and she knew she needed a second opinion on the length of it. Too short and she would look like a lampshade, too long and she’d appear far too conservative.

This god damn party. She thought.

Then, something in the mirror caused her to grab her machete on her belt. A figure in the doorway. She whirled around and held up the huge blade, finding Daryl hovering in the doorway with his hands up in surrender.

“Easy” he soothed, noticing her increased breathing and panic slowly leaving her body.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” She sighed.

“Told the armory you were goin’ huntin’…this aint huntin’.”

“Are you serious? You’re checking up on me? What are you, my parent now?!” She adoped a mocking tone of voice “don’t go out on runs, Jess. Don’t lie about going hunting, Jess.”

“Just makin’ sure you’re safe” He reasoned.

I’m annoyed at you but my god, you sweetheart.

“Can’t go anywhere without you.” She mumbled as she threw the dress down onto the bed. “Like a damn shadow”

Initially, he figured he was mad at him and thought he should just leave her to it, but then he realized she was only messing with him when she threw him a reluctant smile. He dug around in his pocket and threw a packet of peanuts at her. She caught them, thankful for the offer of a second breakfast and eagerly ripped them open, throwing one after the other in her mouth and giving him a thumbs up in thanks. He stepped into the room and leaned against the wall.

“Talked to Carl last night when I got back.” he mentioned. 

She hummed at him with her mouth full. At the time, it was the only way of her acknowledging his statement.

“Told me you’re helpin’ him out with Enid.”

She swallowed and ran her tongue around her teeth.

“Trying to.” She said “I’m hardly the oracle of love and relationships. Far from it actually. Take it he asked your advice too?”

“Mmhmm.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Same as you really. That he should be her friend. Treat her good. See what happens.”

“Not bad advice if I say so myself.”

“He wanted to know how to do that. I kinda told him he should ask you.” He shrugged like it was nothing.

“What?! Daryl! Why?” She exclaimed, flopping down onto the bed and blowing the front of her hair up in exasperation

“I dunno, you’re a girl!” He proclaimed. Jess threw her hands up, palms to the ceiling as if she was already completely lost.

“Last time I checked I was but I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I know more about quantum physics than this stuff.” She fretted. It was true. Jess was by no means an expert on relationships and she had simply been trying to help a teenager experiencing his first episode of what was commonly known as the ‘school boy crush’. She didn’t see it as that serious, although she understood it was to him, and never expected things to get this far. If only she’d told the kid to keep his mouth shut.

“Well, what would you want if it was you?” Daryl tested. It was a risky move and one that could have backfired, but under the guise of helping Carl, Daryl could very well have been about to find out what Jess wanted from a friendship that could blossom into something more. For a few uneasy seconds, all he got back was a downright blank stare.

Help. Someone help me. Jess thought. 

“Uh…” She stammered, her hands and arms were suddenly everywhere, tapping her leg, wringing in her lap, playing with the bracers on her wrists. “…I’d want somebody to make me feel like I was important. Like, um… they like being around me and make time for me. I’d want someone I can have fun with and doesn’t care about all my quirks and faults. Someone thoughtful and who’s rooting for me and takes care of me.” She swallowed hard and cursed herself for getting so flustered and not obscuring her burning cheeks with her mask. “If there was a chance of being more than friends, I guess I’d want to know that they find me attractive too.”

She slowly looked up at Daryl. He was looking right at her and hadn’t moved a muscle the whole time she was speaking.

“That’s exactly what you tell him.” Was all he said. To Jess, they weren't just talking about Carl and she wondered if there might be a flicker of the same intent in Daryl.

I did. I just told him. I told you. Now, you know.

Jess just shook her head, becoming slightly irritated that she’d got herself into such a situation. “I don’t have the experience to give advice about this. I’ve never dated or had a relationship. It’s…it’s bullshit” She admitted.

“That ’cause you aint the type that guys date?” He shot at her. Her head snapped round and she gawped at him. Carl had told him that too?!

“That’s right” She confirmed through her teeth. “Probably my complete lack of allure.”

He moved further into the room, sitting next to her on the bed with his vision cast down at the floor.

“Most guys are idiots anyways” He said softly and she knew he was trying to make her feel better. If it was anyone else, she would have felt patronized and offended. But there was something in the way Daryl did it that set him apart from everyone else. “But any of ‘em would be lucky to have you.”

It was the sweetest thing she’d ever heard him say. The defensive side in Jess tried to make her believe he was just lying to save her feelings. That it was just a careless, throwaway comment that he didn’t really mean. But Daryl didn’t care for dishonesty just to give someone a confidence boost. He spoke to her in a way that was different to anyone else, he laughed with her, made time for her, made her feel important, was on her side and was fiercely protective of her. He ticked all the boxes and as he sat there beside her with his calloused hands on his knees, he became the first guy she’d ever liked to have said, and meant, something so profound to her. She wasn’t fool enough to believe he meant it as anything more than a friendly nudge to someone he cared about, but a smile crept across her face nevertheless and she watched him look at the floor, no doubt worrying about the reaction he was about to receive.

“Thank you” she whispered to him. He gradually met her gaze, seeing her wide grin. Satisfaction and relief washed over him. She’d taken it well and now she was aware that he thought a lot more of her than she gave herself credit for.

“Y’know…” He started “...I guess I aint the type of guy that girls date.”

There. It was out. He’d said it. Knowing her lack of history in the same department had given him a shove and urged him to offer up his own, very similar admission. Now her expression changed to one of puzzlement. He wasn’t getting out of this one without explaining himself.

“W-what?” She croaked, her eyebrows knitted together and her lips parted. “You’ve never had a girlfriend?”

“No”

Why?!” She asked thoughtlessly, totally shocked and quickly realizing that if she didn’t tone it down, she could offend him. “I’m sorry. I mean…you’re…uh…” The hole she was digging for herself was growing rapidly by the second and all she could do to stop herself was to gesture to him with her hands, drawing two lines in the air from top to bottom. “…you.”

“What does that mean?” He smirked

“Just that you must have had interest.”

Nice. Good save, Jess. She thought.

“Not really”

“C’mon, that’s a flat out lie. You must have.”

On the inside, Daryl was fighting an internal war over whether he should just tell her the entire truth or just some of it. Her lack of judgement on the subject and his trust in her meant he had very little worry about being ridiculed or thought of as strange and if he couldn’t tell the closest person to him about such things, then what was the point in having her as a friend at all?

“OK, yeah. But mainly just strippers and barflies. Was never interested in that shit. There was a girl at high school too. And uh, and you don’t really wanna know all this.” He dismissed, suddenly hating the sound of his own voice.

“I do” She insisted. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me but I am curious”

Curious. She was curious about him and his past. No one had ever shown such interest in him before and the act of sharing such information felt totally alien and strange. But he loved the look of wonder and fascination in her eyes and he didn’t want it to stop.

“K. Um, was like she just came outta nowhere. Never seen her before. Started talkin’ to me in the hall one day. I was a loner, nobody ever talked to me. So, I thought she was pretty weird at first. Then, she started sittin’ with me at lunch n’ we started hangin’ out outside school.”

Jess was enthralled, her body now facing him with her leg bent under her on the bed. Her mouth was partially open, as if she’d forgotten to keep control over her facial expression because the story she was hearing was much more worthy of her attention. Mimicking her relaxed body language on the bed of the deserted house, with clothes littered on the floor and bloodstains on the walls, Daryl leaned back on one elbow and picked at a hole in the pink quilt cover as he spoke. Jess couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Everything had gone from extremely awkward, to totally relaxed and she wanted to sit there all day with him, she wondered if he would agree if she asked.

“We used to go to the liquor store, steal some booze n’ go get drunk in the park. I didn’t have no friends or nothin’, just Merle. So, it was good to have her around. Then she um, she kissed me n’ it just…fucked everythin’ up.”

She startled as if the last sentence had slapped her across the face. She blinked and made a rolling motion with her hands, urging him to finish the story.

“You can’t just leave it there! Why?” She demanded. “Did you not like her like that?”

“I did” He nodded “Yeah, I did. I just didn’t know what the hell I was sposed to do ‘bout it. Had no one to go to. Not like I was gonna ask Merle. Naw, this girl, she deserved better than me. So, I backed off n’ she got all upset n’ shit. After that, I tried to talk to her at school, but she just looked straight through me, like I wasn’t even there. Never spoke to her again. Never liked nobody since.”

There was a loud sigh from Jess, like she’d just finished watching the emotional end of a soap opera. She gave him a sympathetic smile and he dipped his head, huffing quietly and attempting to stop himself from feeling exposed and embarrassed about his most honest and revealing of stories. Jess wanted to tell him how gorgeous he was when he was shy, but she kept it to herself and the two of them remained in an uneasy quiet for a few moments until Jess managed to find something to say.

“I like it when you tell me stories.”

It was like he raised his head in slow motion a disbelieving look in his eye and his eyebrow slightly raised.

“Yeah?” He asked.

“Yeah” She responded. “As sad as that one turned out to be.”

“S’pathetic” He scoffed.

“No. No it’s not. What did she look like?”

To Jess’s delight, he scooted back further on the bed and brought his legs up, crossing them loosely in front of him. He was certainly getting comfortable, which she could only assume meant he had no plans to desert the discussion and leave her. However, her question seemed to bother him and she could tell he tried to answer by the breath he drew in and the parting of his lips. But he stopped and she heard the words catch in his throat. She toyed with the idea of telling him it didn’t matter, that she didn’t need to know, but she really did and her delay in speaking meant he eventually got there first.

“You. She looked like you.”

Her mouth dropped into an ‘O’ and she sat back, speechless.

“S’a compliment” He felt the need to add.

“It is!” She blurted out. “It…really is.”

Realizing she still had half a bag of peanuts next to her, she quickly picked them up and placed them on the bed between them, hoping that the gesture would distract him from her obvious shock. He simply glanced down at them before returning his focus to her face, the corners of his mouth lifted into a smug smile.

For some reason unbeknownst to her, Jess hazarded a flirtatious gesture that she executed without giving it a second thought. Maybe it was the confidence that him disclosing something so personal to him gave her, maybe it was the compliment that the one girl he liked in his life looked like her, or maybe it was just sheer mindlessness but the lopsided wink she shot at him couldn’t have gone down in a worse way and when she was right in the middle of it, she scolded herself for her sheer impulsivity.

Daryl stared at her before he released a laugh that he just couldn’t hold back anymore. Jess’s face burned with an inferno of regret.

“What was that?” He chuckled.

She covered her face with her hands, rocking back on the bed. Her head hit the dusty pillows and she groaned with the painful image of how it must have looked to him.

“I think I just had a stroke” She muffled through her hands, hearing his gravelly laugh once more.

She lifted her head back up and completely avoided his eyes. When he stopped laughing, he noticed how her face had reddened, much worse than he’d ever seen it before.

“You’re blushin’” He commented.

“Yeah, thanks for that.” She complained sarcastically, flicking her fingers at the bag of peanuts between them. “Eat some fucking peanuts and shut up.”

This is awkward. So, so awkward. Why did I do that? WHY?!

“So, you goin’?” He asked, aiding her with a change in subject

She knew he was referring to Deanna’s party and after her last embarrassing moment she was sure the whole thing was likely to be a disaster if she did attend. But she did promise Eric she would think about it.

“I don’t know. I don’t have anything to wear and I’m not good around that many people.”

“Same.” He agreed, happy that she shared the same anxiety as him.

“You’re not going?” She asked.

“Rick wants me to. Ain’t decided.”

“Eric wants me to go. For Aaron.” She mentioned with a roll of her eyes “I’ve not decided either. Nothing like being guilt tripped into unwanted social interaction.”

“Aint that the truth.” Daryl muttered before nodding to the discarded dress on the bed “you don’t like it?”

“I like it. It probably won’t like me. I’ll look stupid.”

He wanted to tell her it wouldn’t look anywhere near stupid. That in fact, he wanted to say it would look great on her but he couldn’t gauge the effect his words would have on her after such a deep exchange between them. She snatched the dress and boots and stuffed them into her backpack which lay on the bed.

“Just wear it” He instructed.

She stared at him, trying to read what he really meant with such a short, abrupt sentence. His tone was mixed and hurried and he rubbed at his slightly greying beard, looking away and then back again, obviously uncomfortable.

“What will you wear?” She wanted to know.

“Same thing I always do.”

“So, you are going.”

“I dunno. Maybe I’ll go, if you do.” He proposed.

The light returned back to her face and she giggled, shuffling from the bed and collecting her bag. As much as she would have stayed there with him for hours, she had things to do if she was expected to attend a party wearing a dress for the first time since she was 6 and went to Chuck E. Cheese.

“I’d love to stay here and listen to you tell me another story, but I have things I need to do.” She said reluctantly.

“You got a mirror so ya can practice that wink?” He teased, grabbing the bag of peanuts and stuffing them in his mouth, smiling as he chewed. Jess stilled and glared at him with her mouth open.

“I hate you.” She told him.

He shook his head and chewed noisily. “Naw, you don’t.” He argued with his mouth full.

“Fine” She spat “I hate that I don’t hate you. See you at the party.”

With that, she stormed off, leaving Daryl chuckling quietly to himself. He watched her from the window as she left the house and crossed the street and it dawned on him that they’d been holed up in the bedroom of the house for almost an hour. The time had passed so quickly that it felt more like ten minutes. Time flew when he was with her because he could truly be himself and that was yet another reason why he just could not fathom why no one else had appreciated her like he could. She stopped at the side of the road and equipped her hood and mask and even though her disguise was on, Daryl knew who she really was. He also knew then that what he felt for her was teetering dangerously close to something more than a friendship. That was if it hadn't already tipped the balance. 


Back at Alexandria, Aaron was back from his recruiting run and was unpacking his truck in front of the house. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that he had already been informed of the party by Eric and given a run down of how Jess refused to attend and then half-heartedly said she’d think about it.

As soon as Jess stepped through the gate, she spotted him and gripped the handle of her backpack at her shoulder. She pursed her lips, checked her mask was in place and set off in his direction.

“This stupid party” she grumbled with a stamp of her foot.

Aaron, who was dragging a bag out from the passenger seat, spun around with a bright smile on his face.

“You’re going?! Oh, that’s great!” he cried. Jess quickly held up an index finger, silencing him and maintaining control of the situation.

“No. No I didn’t say that.” She corrected sternly.

“OK” He laughed “Then what are you saying?” he flicked his head in the direction of his front porch and she followed after him when he moved towards it and dropped the bag on the steps.

“That I’m thinking about it. I have- I have issues.” She admitted.

“Issues?” he questioned

“What to wear. I’m not good at being a girl. I'm a crappy girl. I-I don’t know how to do the party thing and I have this dress. The last time I wore a dress I was six years old and I ripped it when I was running around Chuck E. Cheese like a maniac. Daryl thinks I should wear it but he’s a redneck biker so I need another opinion.”

Aaron didn’t bother to hide his amusement at her predicament and in a way, he’d almost expected it. He could tell from her usual attire that she wasn’t the princess type but for one night and one night only, he was sure that with the combined efforts of him and Eric, they could transform her and maybe even convince her to leave her mask out of the equation.

“A gay opinion?” he queried. 

“Two gay opinions" She requested "Please"

“Absolutely” He beamed. Come on in.

Chapter Text

Aaron had been saying he was going to fix the creaky decking outside the front door of his house for months. His busy recruiting schedule and his role as general advisor and the person to aid Deanna in her decisions meant that he had very little spare time. When he did, he often pitched in at the vegetable patches or with supply runs. Not many of Alexandria’s residents were used to leaving the compound and some of them had never been outside of the walls. So, Aaron volunteered so the others didn’t have to.

Jess stood on the squeaky panel and exhaled through her teeth. She’d been standing in front of the door for around ten minutes, tied up in the decision of whether or not to attend the party after all. Aaron was graced with a glimpse of the dress and had given her his expert opinion that it was, in fact, the perfect length and that she didn’t have anything to worry about. But she still rammed the point home that it didn’t mean she was definitely going to attend.

Annoyed at the thought of being unable to remove her foot from the panel without alerting the occupants of the house to her presence, she shrugged her backpack off and pulled the zipper back, rubbing her thumb over the fabric of the dress. A make-up bag that she’d taken from the hotel supply run clunked to the bottom of the bag. She found it hard to believe that she’d even got that far, to the point where she was about to ask Aaron and Eric help her get ready for a party that was undoubtedly going to terrify her, all while wearing something she felt exposed and vulnerable in. However, it couldn’t be said that Jess shied away from change and progression, having survived for months alone on the outside and teaching herself a whole new set of skills. If she could do that, she could go to a stupid party.

She took a quick glance down at herself. Her heavy, knee high boots, her thick but tight jeans, her armored top, hooded jacket and her arms covered by archery bracers. This was how she was comfortable now; this was who she had become. She was never a dress wearing, social butterfly. But all she had to do was show up. Show up and show her face.

Eric let her in once she’d built up the courage to knock on the door and she saw Aaron emerge from the kitchen.

“Evening” she grunted at them both.

“Parker. You made a decision?” Aaron enquired, noting the backpack in her hand.

“Actually, I did.” She replied.

Reaching up with one hand, she took her hood down and pulled off her mask. Shaking her long dark hair free. Eric and Aaron’s faces drop with surprise and they swapped stunned glances.

“Anyone any good with make-up?” Jess asked nonchalantly

“Oh my god” Eric squealed, tapping Aaron’s arm

“Hi. I’m Jess.” She said with a small and nervous smile “nice to meet you.”

It was the first time either of them had ever seen her face. The persona she’d created to enable her to work inside Alexandria was now on its way out. No longer feeling the need to be nothing but a silhouette with one name, Jess felt she owed to Aaron and Eric to revel the truth in order to thank them for their unwavering kindness. Aaron slowly approached her and she noted the affection and pride in his eyes.

“I knew you were pretty under there” He stated.

“Jess.” Eric echoed “That’s your real name?”

“Yes. Jessica. Just call me Jess.” She confirmed. “Parker was my brother’s name”

“Why now?” Aaron asked

“We’re not wired to be alone” she whispered “you guys are good to me. You deserved to know the truth first. Besides, can’t go to this party wearing a mask. It doesn’t match my dress”

Both men appeared taken aback once more and Eric lowered himself down onto the arm of the couch.

“You’re not taking your mask to the party?” He questioned.

Aaron already knew the answer, she was done with being incognito and a mystery. Now, she was going to be Jess, she was going to be herself and he had a sneaking suspicion that a certain crossbow wielding archer had something to do with it.

“Didn’t you hear her?” He turned to Eric “She said it won’t match her dress” He grinned.

“You have a dress?!” Eric questioned. Aaron laughed and beckoned for Jess to hand over her backpack

“She has a dress.”

 

Make-up was another thing that Jess was not proficient at. A smidge of foundation and mascara were about the lengths she went to before the turn and in the apocalypse, she hadn’t expected to have to navigate the treacherous world of how much effort it took to be a girl. When Eric confessed to knowing a little about make-up due to his time working in theatre, she let him take control and trusted him not to turn her into a laughing stock. When he was done, she sat at the dining table in front of a mirror and studied the image of the girl staring back at her. Her blemishes were covered, her eyebrows shaped and her eyes larger, more defined with curled lashes. Her lips were tinted pink and her cheekbones more defined.

“Doesn’t look like me” She said under her breath.

“Yes, it does” Eric corrected “It’s just the enhanced version. You don’t like it?”

He picked up a pack of wipes from the table, poised and ready to rub it all off for her until she tilted her head to one side at her reflection in a pensive and tense pause. Behind them, Aaron stood with his hands on his hips, smiling down at her.

“Actually. I love it. Thank you.” She grinned as she pointed at the mirror “I have cheekbones”

“Mighty fine cheekbones they are too. You’re welcome.” Eric said, giving her shoulder a pat and collecting up scattered make-up items from the table. When he left the room, Aaron took a seat beside her and drummed his fingers on the table and leaning in to her to move her attention from her newly made-up face to him.

“Are you going to tell him?” He asked.

“Hmm? Tell who, what?” She answered with no clue what he was referring to

“Daryl. You like him.” He stated plainly.

Jess focused back on her make-up in the mirror and shifted her eyes to see Aaron meet her gaze in the reflection. She stared at him with suspicious eyes, where could this have come from? She’d not breathed a word to anyone. It was like he was a mind reader.

“I don’t like him. I mean, I do. But not like that” She divulged

“OK.” He chirped

“OK?” She repeated after not expecting her lie to be believed.

“Yeah, OK. You’ll come to me once the denial wears off.” He said, sitting back in his seat and crossing his arms. If his intuition was as good as Deanna always says it was, he could almost guarantee that she would give in and admit it if he just gave her space and didn’t push too much. The revealing of her face was a huge milestone and one that screamed ‘I trust you’ and so, Aaron thought himself to be the best person for the job. The job of pushing Jess to her next hurdle, admitting her feelings to the man she cared about.

Jess sighed deeply and looked down at her hands on the table. She swallowed and it felt like her throat had turned to sand. The painful truth of how she saw herself and the situation making it’s self known.

“I can’t ever tell him.” She whispered, not bothering to lie anymore. Her voice was so quiet, so broken that Aaron almost misheard her.

“Why not?” He questioned.

“He’ll never want me in that way.” She admitted sadly.

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.” She turned to him “I’m not that girl, Aaron. I’m not pretty and smart and beautiful.”

“Jess, you might feel that way, like to everyone else you’re somehow below them. But you’re kind of a big deal around here. To Alexandria and it’s people, to Deanna, to me and Eric and yes, to Daryl… you’re all kinds of amazing.” He watched her face closely as her eyes lifted up to his. “You are your own worst enemy. You don’t have to be perfect to be strong and brave and beautiful. I see how you and Daryl look at each other, it’s just that little bit too long for you to just be friends.”

Jess felt like crying at the understanding and thoughtfulness with which Aaron had delivered his take on who she was and how she was seen. But it still wasn’t enough to convince her to absolve herself of the burden of her feelings for Daryl. She was convinced her telling him the truth would only wreck things and so far, their friendship had grown to a level that she treasured.

“You’ve been reading too many self-help books” she joked with a thin smile.

“Maybe. But at least I know a persons worth.” He stood up and placed his hands on her shoulders over her Kevlar vest “I don’t want hear you say anything like that again. You’re a badass. You hear me?”

“I hear you” she giggled.


 

With Aaron on one arm and Eric on the other, Jess sucked in a deep breath and grounded herself when Eric rang the doorbell to the huge, white, corner plot house that Deanna lived in. Inside, she could hear the bustling of a crowd of people, along with quiet music and chatter. In the grounds, some people smoked and wandered, the inside not having the capacity to hold everyone from the town. It hadn’t been easy to get her there and Eric and Aaron were expecting to have to drag her inside kicking and screaming. After two failed attempts to convince them to let her wear her usual clothes and stay for half an hour, they’d endured a meltdown over her shoes and what felt like seven million requests to assure her that her dress was not too short.

Jess drummed her fingers on both legs and soon felt both Aaron and Eric lower their hands to stop her when the door opened and Deanna stepped into view. She beamed at the two men and regarded Jess as if she were a stranger for a moment. It wasn’t until she stepped closer that her face lit up in surprise and she gently placed her hands on either side of Jess’s face.

“Oh my” She gasped “Parker?!”

She didn’t know what gave away her identity, she looked nothing like the machete wielding, hooded and masked archer of regular days. Maybe it was her arrival flanked by the supportive presence of Aaron and Eric that gave the game away. Or, maybe it was Deanna’s intuition alone.

“M-my name is Jess.” Her words felt they were too complicated to voice but there they were, in a stuttered mess and tumbling out with no control. “Not Parker. Parker was my brother…Uh, Hi”

Deanna stepped back enough to be able to see all of her with a wide grin. If she was shocked, she hid it well and came across as simply happy to be able to see who Jess really was.

“Hi, Jess. It’s so nice to finally see that face of yours and to know your real name” She told her sincerely.

“Thought you deserved to know who I am. You’ve been good to me.” Jess told her.

“Not as good as you have been to us.” Deanna felt the need to point out.

It wasn’t a secret that Jess’s hunting and security sweeps were paramount to the community and more recently, she’d been helping with supply runs. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by Deanna that she appeared to be involving herself more and becoming less and less of an outcast. Her lack of mask at the party was a victory in itself.

“Please” She beckoned “Come in. enjoy yourselves.”

“I brought two dates.” Jess blurted out of nowhere “Guess men are like busses. Wait for one and then two come along at once. What’s a girl to do, huh?”

Deanna simply blinked and ignored the comment and Eric looked over at his partner behind Jess’s back and gave him a perturbed frown.

“That was weir -” He whispered.

“-Shh!” Aaron hissed.


Daryl stood with Carol, Glenn and Abraham and made no attempt to join in with the chatter. On several occasions, Glenn had tried to encourage him to have a beer only to be met with a curt dismissal and the notion that he really was not in the mood.

Jess’s arrival was met with a double take by Daryl. The first thing he picked up on was her lack of a mask, her true identity out there for all to see. Rick and Michonne hugged her and quietly communicated their happiness at her decision to show the rest of Alexandria who she was. People she didn’t know too well wandered past and shook her hand and she nervously told each and every one of them her real name, shedding her previous guise with each and every acknowledgement that she was, in fact, the notorious Parker. Only by the time she’d reached the buffet table, grabbed a handful of potato chips and returned to the protective wing of Aaron, Parker no longer existed.

The second thing he clocked was her attire. Her dark red dress cinched in her waist and showed off her curves. He found himself biting down on his lower lip and letting out a long breath as he watched people move in a conveyor belt like fashion to her, Jess accepting compliment after compliment and smiling politely when underneath it all, he knew she was screaming. Soft, dark curls rested on her shoulders and she’d never looked so feminine and elegant. It wasn’t entirely who she was, he recognized that much but try as he might, he just could not dislike what he was seeing. For the first time in as far back as he could remember, he found his attraction was of more of a sexual nature than he had realized. Moreover, he was beginning to face the fact that a dark red, shapely dress was not where it had started at all.

“Excuse me, folks, I have serious business with this here woman” Abrahams voice interrupted Daryl’s admiring of his best friend and sent a stab of anger through him.

Jess spotted the big, red-headed man through the crowd and instantly went to him, allowing him a short hug that he quite obviously tried to prolong by clinging to her a little too tight. When she coaxed him away from her, she caught sight of Daryl just past his shoulder. He nudged his head up at her in acknowledgement and she gave him a small wave, conservative and simple. He mirrored her, surprised she was even there, despite her telling him she would be, and happy about it nevertheless.

Abraham gave Jess a once over, carefully taking in every bit of her and her outfit from head to toe.

“Well, ain’t you a peach?” He grinned “What do you say we uh, ditch this joint and make a little fun of our own?”

No matter how happy the sight of Jess made Daryl, Abraham’s shameless flirting managed to chip away at him. He hated the way she giggled and laughed at him, the playful way she slapped his arm and told him to stop. To the outsider, they looked like a new couple and that bothered Daryl. He moved closer, a morbid curiosity about what was being said. Aaron stood dutifully by Jess’s side and handed her a drink which looked like orange juice, but she looked down at the rippling, carroty liquid in the glass and sniffed it before she took a sip. A grimace spread across her face and she dipped her head, spitting the mouthful of drink back into the glass and quickly checking her surroundings for anyone that could be looking her way. She sneakily turned her body and then poured the rest of the drink into a plant pot behind her and clutched the empty glass as if she’d drank every last drop. Unbeknownst to her, Daryl was witness to it and it almost made him laugh out loud.

She’s adorable.

“You know she has a bow?” Abraham was rambling at Aaron and gesturing wildly at Jess.

“Uh, yes, I do know that.” Aaron replied.

“Ahh, a decent weapon of choice. You live by it; you die by it… and eat potato puffs by it. Pray to God you don’t have to use it again. Pray to God you don’t get used to not using it again. It’s on your back… even when it’s off your back. Hmm.”

Jess swapped an uneasy glance with Aaron. How could he be so drunk already? The party started less than an hour ago.

“Abe, how many drinks have you had?” she enquired.

“I am a very large man. I have had many beers to make up for that.” He slurred as he gave his stomach a rub and swallowed a burp. “What? I’m livin’, darlin’! You wanna live a little with me tonight?”

Jess rolled her eyes and giggled, along with Aaron, who was finding the whole exchange rather bizarre.

Daryl kept to the sidelines, next to Carol who wasn’t unaware of where his concentration was focused. She plucked a bottle of beer from the table beside her and handed it to him but he failed to notice while he was too busy glowering at Abraham belly laughing with Jess across the room. Carol nudged his arm and a restrained flinch told her he’d been snapped out of his thoughts. He peered down at the beverage in her hand and shook his head.

“Already told Glenn, I aint drinkin’.”

“Why?” She pressed.

“’Cause I’m a shitty drunk.” He grumbled.

“Daryl, take the beer and relax.” She scolded, extending her arm further.

“Can’t.” He grunted, lifting his eyes back to Jess and Abraham. Carol followed his vision and nodded. Now, it made sense.

“Because Jess looks very beautiful and you can’t stop staring at her.” She stated bravely, adopting a bright smile and a smug glint in her eye. It was likely that he would go from zero to a hundred on the bad temper scale in seconds, but his moody nature didn’t scare her, she probably knew him best out of everyone and at times, could read him like a book. On this occasion, she was seeing something she’d never seen before, but she knew exactly what it was; Daryl had a crush on Jess. He turned his head to her, blinked a couple of times and without a word, snatched the beer from her hand and took a gulp so big half of the liquid was gone in one mouthful.

“No.” He argued. “Just hate parties.”

“So, you don’t think she looks beautiful?” She continued; aware she was treading on thin ice but enjoying the risk anyway. She was bold enough to enjoy poking at Daryl’s temper, knowing he would always forgive her and usually took jest in his stride.

“Didn’t say that.” He muttered under his breath.

“Maybe you should go tell her.” She suggested.

“What are ya doin’, Carol?” he demanded, feeling his temper being tested.

“What? I see things.” She said innocently.

“You don’t see shit. We’re friends.”

Not only was Rick dropping hints, Carol was charging in with her two cents like a bull in a china shop. Daryl felt like everyone could read his mind, like his innermost thoughts were being sent out in a daily memo and it was getting tedious. He wouldn’t be pushed into anything by anyone, especially if it would jeopardize the most precious relationship that he’d ever had with anyone. He’d told Jess he didn’t want to lose her again and that was a good enough reason to keep his thoughts to himself.

“Oh, OK. I still think you should tell her she looks nice. Friends do that, you know.” Carol suggested before breezing through the crowd and cheering a polite greeting to a woman that lived in the house across the street from them.

Needing to be preoccupied away from the alluring curves of his friend and her drunken admirer, Daryl decided to see what the buffet table had to offer and stood before it, clueless when he scanned the many trays of apocalyptic canape’s. Shrugging, he selected one from the nearest tray, some kind of creamy substance wrapped in something green. He held it up between his thumb and forefinger and squinted at it.

The hell is that? Why don’t these people eat real food? Could have cooked up a stew or somethin’.

 

All too aware that she’d spent longer talking to Abraham than the one man she really did want to have a conversation with, Jess smiled when she spotted Daryl throwing random snacks into his mouth and appearing disgusted by every single one. She excused herself and took a quick walk past the drinks table. She selected a beer and set off in his direction with no idea what she was planning to say to him. Then, it didn’t even matter anymore, when she swerved to avoid another party goer and her heart jumped into her throat. Falling off her heels, she was plummeting backwards and the ceiling was in her field of vision, one of her legs raising up while the other lost it’s grip and all at once she’d accepted her fate; she was going to end up on the floor with her underwear on show, right in front of Daryl.

Abraham reacted extremely quickly for someone so full of beer and in seconds, his arms were under hers and he’d propped her back up on her feet, his hands still holding her waist.

“Easy! Looks like I get my consolation prize after all!” He roared with laughter. “Someone’s a cheap date.”

The smile plastered on Jess’s face couldn’t have been more fake. Her hands were shaking and her heart was pounding. She may not have hit the floor, but the scene was enough to draw the glances of almost half of the room.

Stupid fucking heels.

At that point, staying in the room was no longer an option. Jess needed an escape and raced through the house to the back door like a bat out of hell. Before he could even ask if she was alright, she thudded her beer on the buffet table and shot past Daryl, who had his mouth full with food he hated and had just had to endure Abraham catching the girl he liked as if it were something from a romantic comedy. He wished he was sat on the porch reading to Judith. He wished he was anywhere else but there, but Jess being with him would have been ideal.

 

Outside, the air was biting now night had fallen and Jess could see her breath but she cared very little if she died from hypothermia in that moment, in fact she welcomed the sweet release of death that would inevitably spare her from the scathing embarrassment she was experiencing. Aaron was hot on her heels the whole time and when she finally stopped pacing up and down the back porch, he held up his hands to halt her.

“Did you see that? I almost died.” She snapped.

“Well, that’s a little dramatic. You just fell.” He said, playing down the event.

“I can’t walk in these heels… they’re-they’re dangerous, who the hell even wears these death traps?! They’re like Stilts. Stilts! I was lucky, that could have been a whole lot worse. I mean, what if Abe didn’t catch me in time?” She rambled at a wide-eyed Aaron. “There would have been panties on show and everything! Maybe I should take the boots off”

She lifted a leg and attempted to maneuver around her foot to the zipper on her boot. Hopping around on the spot and swaying dangerously close to falling over again, Aaron took hold of both of her arms and steadied her.

“Leave the boots on, Jess” He instructed. “Chill. Everything’s fine.”

“My ass is cold.” She declared. “This dress is too short. I think I have a zit, too. Do I have a zit? Look, can you see it? It’s right there”

She jutted her chin out at him and pointed to an empty space that contained nothing but make-up and flawless skin.

“No. Will you relax? Please?” Aaron sighed. Her level of anxiety was now through the roof and no amount of soothing was going to help her. It was time to leave her to her own devices and hope she managed to calm herself. “Just, take a minute.”

“Let me stay here a while and people watch. I’ll come back in when I’ve gotten amnesia and the last few minutes have been wiped from my memory.” She pleaded. She was certain that some time without the pressures of a confined space and so much small talk would do her good.

“Ok, I’ll be just inside if you need me.” He assured her with a gentle squeeze of her arm.

 

Through the glass of the back door, Daryl could see Aaron’s failed efforts to quell Jess’s obvious discomfort. Once the coast was clear and he was sure she was alone, he set off in pursuit of her and discovered that she was slowly sashaying back and forth, nibbling on her thumbnail and shivering. When she turned to embark on another lap of the decking, she watched him step outside and slowly wander over to her. He looked apprehensive and held two beers in one hand with the other pushed into his jeans pocket. His hair looked slightly styled, straighter and neater than usual and she could clearly see his eyes, now not obscured by the usual messy waves of the front of his hair.

Oh shit. I don’t like him. I don’t like him. I don’t like him.

“Hi”

I like him.

“Hi. Welcome to the introvert side of the party.” She quipped sarcastically.

He lifted his shoulders, acknowledging the cold and how it nipped at his skin and held out the hand that contained the two, glass beer bottles laced between his fingers.

“Left it on the buffet table.” He reminded her, only receiving a lift of the corner of her mouth in thanks. She lifted it to her lips and swallowed a mouthful.

His breath billowed out in white clouds and he furrowed his brow. She had stopped walking around and was now stationary and trembling, hugging her torso. Daryl pulled his hand from his pocket, touching her arm with the back of his fingers.

“Fuck, Jess. Ya freezin’.” He remarked, seemingly shocked by her need to be outside in such cold temperatures because it was easier than being inside with other people who were all huddled in their groups, talking about the girl who forgot her mask and nearly ended up on the floor. He turned and vanished back through the door, returning seconds later holding a Navy-Blue coat. He took a step closer to her and she could feel his breath on the side of her face, he draped the coat over her shoulders and paused. Her gaze flickered to her left, where his eyes met hers and he could see their deep blue hue through her darkened eyelashes. Jess wasn’t sure how long he stood there with his line of vision darting from her eyes to her mouth but she did have the sight of his enthralled face imprinted into her memory. He licked his lips, cleared his throat and drew the lapels of the coat around her, crossing them at her front to keep her warm and finally, he moved back.

Ugh. Daryl! Stop being so perfect.

“Whose jacket is this?” she asked.

“I dunno.”

“Daryl!” She exclaimed “you just stole somebody’s jacket!”

“Aint like they’re usin’ it. Ya gonna freeze to death out here.” He argued.

She chuckled at him and he briefly checked inside to make sure no one was looking for the coat. Having to take it off her again wouldn’t have gone down well for him and his effort be chivalrous and protective.

“So, whatcha doin?” He questioned, already knowing the answer from having seen everything through the back door. But he wanted to be near her, to talk to her, she was the only reason he had turned up, after all. Rick’s disappointment at his absence, he could handle. But giving up an opportunity to see Jess just didn’t make sense and now he’d seen her in a dress, he was glad about the choice he’d made.

“Honestly? Hiding.” She admitted.

“Thought so. Kinda intense in there, huh?” he mused. It was something they both had in common, the dislike for big, social events and being made to attend when it provoked nothing but unease and resentment.

“Don’t know what to do with myself.”

“Yeah” He huffed “same. Glenn’s tryin’ to get me drunk. Say’s it’ll ‘wind me down’. I’ma wind him down if he keeps on.”

When they both released breathy laughs, there was an instant of pure peace around them which Daryl wished he could have prolonged before she placed a hand on the rail of the porch and they entered into a long and awkward silence. She deliberately kept her vision cast out to the back yard, where she could barely see anything but it was all she could do to avoid staring at him and his scrubbed-up appearance. Daryl dragged his eyes over her body, her shapely legs in heels, her long eyelashes and accentuated cheekbones.

Trouble never looked so damn fine. He thought.

“Well, here she is!” Came Abraham’s booming voice through the door “She’s wearin’ my jacket! If that aint a sign I don’t know what is!” He thudded over to Jess and hung a big arm around her shoulders. “You comin’ home with me, sweetheart?”

“Only to help Rosita kick your ass.” Jess laughed, noting Daryl’s stony face.

‘He’s a little drunk’ She mouthed to him.

“Can see that.” Daryl grumbled, stepping aside so Abraham could steer Jess back into the house, tucked under his arm like a prize.

 

Finding herself to be the topic of most conversations at the party, Jess was beginning to feel like a monkey in a zoo once all of the partygoers realized that she was the masked hunter of the town that never showed her face. To her annoyance, yet more people introduced themselves to her, shook her hand and spoke of how good it was to be able to see who she was. Jess couldn’t have disagreed more and in part, she regretted the decision to turn up in anything other than what she would normally wear. She could hide in her hood and behind her mask and still keep up the same façade that had protected her for so long. Now, she had to make small talk and mingle with the locals as if it came naturally, which it very much did not.

With Abraham in pursuit of more beer and Daryl apparently still skulking around outside on the back porch, Jess happened to end up alone. That was, until two well-presented brunettes and a blonde woman who Jess knew to have two young sons cornered her and set off on a rambling speech about how their kids had referred to Jess as ‘The lady’ since she arrived and she’d always been a mysterious figure to them that they swapped stories about and admired. She couldn’t think of the correct way to react and so spent a lot of time fake smiling and nodding until she spotted Carol walk past and hoped with everything that she had that she would save her from the nightmare that was chit chat with someone she hardly knew. When she didn’t, Jess was conscious of the fact that she’d been stood there for a good ten minutes and hadn’t spoken a single word. Worried she was coming across as ignorant, she was forced to come up with something herself and began to search her mind for a topic of interest when the atmosphere grew quiet and expectant.

“Did you know that the gestation period of Prion Disease, that’s what you get from eating human flesh, is ten years? I mean, that’s a long time when you consider that most diseases are only like 30 days. With the exception of some strains of Malaria that can incubate for up to a year. Then, there’s the side effects. Hooh! Not nice. Tremors, Dementia, hallucinations. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather starve!”

The blonde woman, whose name completely escaped Jess, blinked a couple of times and peered back at her with wide eyes while the two others looked away and pretended to find their drinks more interesting.

“Jess?” Carol cut in from behind her, having heard the tragic attempt at conversation. She cringed and just had to intervene to save Jess as well as the well-meaning woman and her friends that had just received and earful about the perils of eating other human beings.

“Hmm?” Jess hummed, oblivious to the fact that she’d just garnered herself a reputation as not only a little strange, but also as an expert on diseases.

“What are you doing?” Carol asked under her breath and away from any listening ears.

Jess sighed and pushed her lips into a thin line. “I’m really bad at small talk in social situations”

“I can see that. Let me handle this.” Carol offered, saving Jess the embarrassment of having to run through the gestation periods of any more diseases as gap fillers due to her lack of confidence with small talk.

Like a social butterfly, Carol adopted her best, polite voice and informed the small group that she would be borrowing Jess and apologized for interrupting them. Marching her out into the hallway, Carol asked if Jess was alright and was told that her time mingling with the locals had come to an end. She expressed her thanks for the much-needed rescue, retrieved a front door key from Eric and headed out of the house, turning in for the night and putting the party’s events behind her.


When she stopped at the bottom of the front porch steps and tugged off her heels, she heard footsteps on the decking but didn’t bother to turn around and check who they belonged to. By then, she’d had enough, her energy was sapped and she just wanted to crawl into a bed and sleep so she could wake up the next day and be herself again.

The dirt under her bare feet was ice cold and she rapidly tiptoed across to the grass verge that ran along the front of the houses. The footsteps were now following her and she had a pretty good idea of who they belonged to with even having to check.

“Why are you following me, Stinky?” She asked haughtily, taking a quick peek at him over her shoulder. He was strolling along, fingertips in his pockets and matching her pace.

“I aint. Just takin a walk.” He replied. Noticing the goose pimpled flesh of her forearms, he slid his leather vest off and tapped it on her shoulder. “Here”

She stopped and looked down at the garment in his hand, allowing him to reach around her and drop it onto her shoulders.

“Thanks. You’re quite the gentleman tonight.” She pointed out.

“Pfft. Hardly.” He mumbled.

She clutched onto the front of the vest with her hands and lowered her head, resuming walking and letting the leathery, smoky odor fill her head. The smell of Daryl. The journey was a short and wordless one with neither of them feeling the need to fill the quiet with wasted words. They’d both spend their time at the party doing just that and for both of them, it was a relief to finally just be around the one person that understood.

Stopping at the bottom of the steps at Aaron and Eric’s porch, Jess handed Daryl his vest back and evaluated his mood. For someone that had been trapped out of his comfort zone just like her, he seemed relaxed and reasonably content.

“So, you decided to take a walk at the exact moment I left. It’s a party, Daryl. People will think we’ve gone home together” She expressed

She didn’t know what she was saying or why, but it was, without a doubt bordering on flirtatious and it had been plucked from nowhere, like someone else was saying it and she was watching on in horror.

“Don’t give a shit what those people think.” He leaned on the pillar with his arm above him observing Jess settle on the top step of the porch and rub at the soles of her feet. “Hey” He said gently, causing her to glance up at him. “Thought ya said ya didn’t have no ties to nobody”

“I don’t.” She answered as coolly as possible

Except you.

“Seem pretty close to Abe. Throwin’ yaself into his arms like that”

She wasn’t sure if it was a dig, something that had bothered him so much that he felt the need to address, or simply a mocking observation which the half smile on his face alluded to. Wanting to avoid lowering the mood, she copied his expression and decided to take the less tedious option.

“I fell off my stupid shoes. I didn’t ‘throw myself’ at anyone.” She used her fingers to emphasize the quoting of his words as a message that she’d heard what he meant, loud and clear. “Why do you even care who’s arms I end up in?”

Daryl bit down on his lower lip to stop himself from speaking before thinking. Being comfortable in her presence meant he found it easier to talk to her and tell her things than anyone else. But there were some things that would have opened a can of worms.

Because it should have been me.

“No reason” He told her. “You enjoy the party?”

It was an odd question, and one that she thought had an obvious answer, but she suspected he’d asked it purely to detract from the previous subject.

“Let me see. I fell of my shoes, told three random women all about what happens if you eat too many humans and spent more time outside on the back porch freezing my half naked ass off than inside with everyone else. So, no. I hated it. Did you?”

His shoulders juddered slightly as his amusement at her run down of the night became apparent. With every passing moment that she witnessed his shy, half smile, she liked him that little bit more and crushed on him that little bit harder.

“Naw. Not my thing.”

“At least we have that in common.” She remarked.

He was still leaning on the post of the front porch with one arm raised above him, his defined muscles exposed by his lack of sleeves and a small, demon tattoo caught her interest in his inner bicep. He sighed and scanned the street, and Jess cringed when she noticed the blonde woman from the party ushering her two young boys into their house. She counted herself lucky that she was sitting in the darkness of the porch and Daryl standing in front of her obscured her from any passing eyes. She waited for the woman to vanish from view and looked back up at Daryl, catching him skimming his eyes over her bare legs and up to her face.

“Ya took of the mask.” He stated, catching her off guard with the subject. She knew he’d be pleased about her lack of disguise. He’d made it crystal clear that he was not a fan of her mask from the start.

“Yeah, I owed it to Aaron, Eric and Deanna” She disclosed.

Shifting his arm above him, he started to gently jab his forefinger into the wooden structure, an absent-minded motion that signified he was thinking something over, much like when he chewed his bottom lip.

“Can’t believe how different you look” He expressed.

Jess couldn’t believe it either, when she’d seen her reflection when Eric was done with her make-up, she could have sworn it was a different woman looking back at her.

“I know, right, Eric is great with Make-up!” She chirped.

“Naw, I mean in general. Compared to the quarry” He corrected, seeing her pause and nod knowingly to herself.

“That a good thing?” She wanted to know. There were various occasions that she would have given just about anything to be able to see into Daryl’s mind and find out what he was really thinking. How he really saw her. But having to rely on his heavily veiled words was all she had to go on.

“Nothin’ wrong with ya either way.” He told her. “Y’know, if ya hide behind a mask for so long, you forget who ya are underneath it.”

“I know who I am” She tried to convince him. In truth she was getting there, getting back to the old Jess and if all her recent, embarrassing misdemeanors were anything to go by, she was doing extremely well.

“Naw, you’re still figuring it out.” He said, aware of exactly what was happening with her sense of self her “But I know you”

He lowered his arm and crossed the steps, now leaning his side on the railing in front of her. Having climbed a couple of the steps, he was mere inches from her and his close proximity set her heart racing. What was he doing? Why was he so close, leaning over her and sucking his bottom lip into his mouth? The faint smell of leather wafted into her senses on the breeze and she took a deep breath and collected herself.

“You think you know me? You think you know what goes on in here?” She asked, tapping her temple. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of things we talkin’ bout here?” He enquired with what appeared to be great interest.

“Things I don’t give up easily” Jess admitted. There was, in fact, a lot he was still yet to find out. Holding back had come naturally to her after being hurt in the first place, she’d let out trickles of information, but not enough for anyone to take it and really know the real her.

Daryl was in dangerous territory and his jumbled thoughts and clammy palms were telling him as much. He was very close to her and so far, his restrained choice of phrases had kept him safely in the friendship zone. But in the last few days his feelings had grown and morphed into something he didn’t quite understand and that set him on edge, but standing over her while she wore her red dress with her loose curls and blushed pink lips, he was seeing her in a different light altogether. It wasn’t just her appearance, it was the conversations they’d had, the connection they’d forged and the trust they’d built. It was how she laughed with him and teased him and how she yielded and agreed to remove herself from the danger of long supply runs because he told her he cared about her. Then, there was how she was around him, her blushing at a compliment and him catching her checking him out. He didn’t like to assume, but he wouldn’t have been disappointed to know that she still had a crush on him.

“So, you gonna tell me what I gotta do to find out more ‘bout you?” He smirked at her.

Shit. I think… I’m flirting with her.

Jess had no idea what to say. Her mind went completely blank and she dragged a hand through her hair, pulling it back and letting it cascade in waves from the crown of her head. A curl lodged its self in the edge of her lip gloss, but she didn’t feel a thing.

“Um...I…don’t know the answer to that.” She admitted. She was nervous, flustered and surprised but still displayed a bashful and pleased smile on her lips.

Yes, it was all those things that were the reasons why his feelings were different. Those, and the big, blue eyes that were peering up at him expectantly, it gave him the self-assurance to proceed the way his heart was telling him to, but with a great deal of caution. He leaned down to her, using the back of a finger and tenderly removing the strands of hair from her lips and returning to his previous stance.

“Maybe you should think ‘bout it n’ let me know.”

She was frozen. Not just from the cold but from the altogether unexpected change in his behavior. She didn’t hate it. Far from it, she was enjoying every single second, if only she knew what to say. “Um. Okay. I will” She whispered.

Aware that any further flirtatious comments were likely to send her fleeing into the house in confusion, he backed up to the pathway and rubbed his chin.

“You uh…you look really nice tonight” he said.

Alright. That was good. I got this. I should have done this sooner.

It was a simple sentence, just a few words strung together and delivered with such sincerity that it was a massive deal to Jess and she was so busy trying to process it that she couldn’t control what her face was doing. Her mouth dropped open in bewilderment. Daryl would have been the first to admit that he didn’t know the first thing about complimenting women and had never done so in the past. However, his flicker of self-doubt was extinguished when he bore witness to the eventual, genuinely delighted grin on her face and the tuneful giggle that followed.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW, DIXON?! Where the hell did that come from?

“Thank you, Daryl.” She smiled sincerely from a deeply reddened face. “Before you point it out, because I know you want to, I already know that my face is as red as ketchup on fries.”

He laughed at her ability to poke fun at herself and Jess thought it was a genuine and relaxed sound and one she’d never seen him reveal with anyone else but her.

“G’night, Jess.” He rasped as he backed along the path and turned to walk away.

There was something she wanted to say. Something that would prove to him that she could take risks of her own. If he could dish out compliments to her, then she wanted to do the same. She quickly thought it over, deciding she would put it down to a joke if it tanked, and went for it.

“Goodnight, handsome.” She called out in the most confident voice she could manage. To her own ears, it was delivered well enough and in the split second after she’d said it, she found that she didn’t regret it, especially when she saw him look over his shoulder at her and shake his head, glancing back a couple of times with a grin.


 

Inside Aaron and Eric’s house, Jess flopped down on the couch. Her head was bustling with memories, thoughts and all sorts of ways she could possibly explain Daryl’s change in how he spoke to her. That, and the knowledge that her risk hadn’t blown up into a huge mistake for once. In fact, he took it well and she thought that he couldn’t have looked sexier as he walked away, trying and failing to hide his wide smile.

“That was…flirting.” She said to herself “He flirted with me.”

For the next hour, she tried to muster the motivation to move, to take herself to bed and let sleep clear her mind ready for the next day. But on the couch, she remained, chattering to herself inside her own head and asking questions that would go unanswered.