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Leave it By the Wayside

Chapter Text

 

Rick had Carl pressed in close against his one side, awake but exhausted and ‘Chonne dozing under his other arm restlessly, waking up every few seconds with a small start.

Across from him Harry was sitting in the centre of a fancy circle that covered the better part of the dining room floor, drawn onto the light hardwood in street chalk and walker guts, looking unsure. Hovering over his creation for a moment before settling back on his haunches.

“Is it done?”

Harry jerked a bit, “Yeah,” he croaked.

He shook his head and cleared his throat, before looking up and catching Rick’s eyes, letting him feel the weight of his gaze, “I don’t know if this is going to work, and if we do this it will take everything that I have. I won’t be able to do magic anymore—no more ward stones, no more scent masking spells, no more healing potions. You get that right? It’ll be—”

“It’ll be just the same as it was before you found us,” Rick interrupted, “We survived for years without magic, at the very least we could do it again. But we’re stronger now, we’ve been through it all before, we know what to expect and how to deal with it. I think it’s worth it for the chance to make everything right.”

“Okay, I just—I wanted to make sure.”

“You know it’s okay if you don’t want to do this, right?” Carl put in, “I mean, giving up your magic for us.”

 “Not to worry. I’m very sure about this. This group is—well, we’re a family. You are all I have in the world now,” Harry’s lips quirked up in a familiar, wry little smile. “Besides, I’ve been told before I’m pathologically unable to resist being the hero.”

“Let’s go over the plan one more time,” Daryl said, not looking up from where he’d been meticulously cleaning his crossbow and bolts all evening in the light of the flickering candles.

“Well, step one is the biggest one—I do the incredibly complex and virtually untested ritual and drag the lot of us as far back in time as I can manage,” Harry said flippantly, standing up to stretch.

“And we’ll all just, kind of, wake up?” asked Glenn, “In our younger bodies?”

“Hopefully,” shrugged Harry, “There weren’t too many experiments done with this magic that actually, well, worked but there was something about the possibility of ‘scars of the past carrying over’—whatever that actually means.”

“Nothing we can’t handle, even if it does end up happening,” Carol said, supremely unconcerned, “It’s not like we’re not already living with the scars.”

“What if we’re not together when we wake up?” asked Glenn, picking at the hem of his shirt.

“Then we look for each other. If we get as far back as before—before all this ever happened, we come together, organize, gather supplies, find someplace isolated to ride it out. Save who we can,” answered Rick, “Same as always.”

“Same as always,” agreed Glenn, with a sigh, “Looks like we haven’t stopped being dumbasses.”

“Looks like,” chuckled Rick.

“We gonna do this or just sit ‘round gabbin’ bout it?” asked Daryl.

“Harry?”

“Everything’s ready, all I need is the blood.”

“Alright then.”

According to the ritual Harry had described to them the blood needed to go into a cup, they’d found a dusty glass in the kitchen of the apartment down the hall, one of those fancy champagne flutes, real crystal, practically unused. Harry had said it would do in a pinch.

Carefully Carol brought it out and unwrapped it from the padding of her spare shirts, then she took her knife and slit the meat of her forearm, hissing as the blade dug in and trying to angle the sluggish drip of blood into the flute before passing it over to Daryl.

Once everyone had contributed Harry helped Carl to his feet and the two of them settled in the centre of the circle, cross-legged with the flute of blood between them.

Out in the hall a walker threw itself against the door, snarling.

“Alright?” Harry asked, holding out his hands for Carl’s.

“I’m good. Let’s just do this.”

Carl settled his hands into Harry’s grip and closed his eyes, his brow furrowing in concentration.

The circle lit up with a dull reddish light, and Harry started to chant, his voice sing-songing over unfamiliar liquid syllables, some of which sounded more like gibberish than actual words.

Rick let his hand drop to his gun as the snarling in the hallway grew louder. Michonne reached for his other hand tangling their fingers and bringing him closer to the circle.

“Come on,” she murmured, “We’re okay.”

Nodding he reached for Carol on his other side, stretching out his arms so that the five of them could encircle the whole ritual setup. Closing his eyes he tried to do what Harry had said and focus on his memories of before. But they seemed so far away—like they’d happened to someone else. Hell, they practically had.

He wasn’t the same man he’d been four years ago. Not even remotely. Still, he had to focus, had to try to feel a little like that man again as he concentrated on the little things, working his way backwards bit by bloody bit.

Harry laughing a bit and saying that seven was a magic number.

Harry showing him the ward stones.

Daryl shooting the walker that had Harry treed.

Losing Tara.

Losing Maggie.

Losing the Washington Trio all in one go when they blew up that department store.

Judith’s festering bite.

Beth. Gods, Beth.

Killing that dumb cop of Dawn’s.

Killing Gareth’s psycho crew.

Finding Bob with his leg so neatly amputated.

Reuniting with everyone.

Killing Joe. Carl’s crys.

Those days on the road, just him and Carl and Michonne, eating cheese from a can and feeling a little lighter when Carl laughed.

The prison.

The governor.

Carol’s exile.

The feeling of helplessness that welled up when the sickness started.

‘You don’t get to come back from things.’

His hands buried in soft earth.

The wink of Maggie’s wedding ring and Beth’s songbird voice and the burble of Judith’s laughter and Daryl’s irreverent snort and Glenn tripping over his own feet. Three questions and a slow drib and drab of people, of company—people he wanted to protect, wanted to help make a life with, no matter what it cost.

Andrea’s faint voice, ‘I know how the safety works.’

Those foggy red days where everything was a blur of red spray across his face and the backs of his hands and the flash of Lori’s white dress and cool eyes.

T-dog.

Those prisoners.

Hershel’s leg.

Carol’s elated voice, ‘We haven’t had this much space since we left the farm!’

The days before that, the ones that turned them hard as steel on the road, Lori’s accusing looks. Boiling toilet water they scooped out of the tanks and sinking as low as thinking dog food was appetizing.  Freezing nights spent awake and alone, because he was the leader, he wasn’t meant to need anyone.

Shane. Shane’s blood hot on his hands, his own tears hot on his face. Feeling like his heart was breaking.

He’s going to kill me.

I can’t leave him.

Dale with his gut’s spilling out. Daryl’s hand on his gun.

Sophia, poor little Sophia.

Lori’s pregnant. We can’t leave, Lori’s pregnant.

You’ve got the hard part.

I need a sign. Any sign’ll do.

We’re all infected.

You’re killing us.

Andrea and Amy.

The sharp urgent crack of gunfire and the screams in the night as the herd fell upon them.

Glenn looking down from the edge of a roof.

Merle’s severed hand and Daryl’s choked scream.

Carl running to him. Lori in his arms. Shane’s bewildered  grin.

Glenn’s voice over a radio calling him a dumbass.

Morgan and Duane.

The first walker he ever saw.

Waking up in that hospital.

Disorientation. Fear. Pain. Light.

There was a sharp crack like a shot ringing out, and then nothing.

Chapter Text

When Harry opened his eyes both of his hands were still clasped in Carl's and for a moment he thought that the ritual might not have worked. And since he pretty much felt like someone had been hollowing him out with a rusty spoon, that—that really would've sucked.

"Harry! Harry, come on, look at me!"

Carl took him by the shoulders and gave him a little shake.

"M'okay," Harry managed, batting his hands away.

Carl breathed a sigh of relief, and then laughed a little, "Well, you'll be happy to know that we went back in time."

Harry frowned, that wasn't right. Because if the spell had worked he shouldn't be with Carl, he should have been wherever his younger self was. Blinking a bit Harry cautiously opened his eyes a bit, just to make out the unfamiliar speckled linoleum floor.

The magic circle was burned into the floor around them, and the air smelled faintly of sulfur and ozone.

"Bloody hell," sighed Harry, rubbing at the circle with the pad of a finger, "Well, at least something happened for all that. You alright Carl?"

"I'm fine," said Carl, "And hey, I think you did a great job. We made it all the way back to when my dad was still in a coma."

"How do you know that?"

"Cause we, uh, landed, I guess, in his hospital room," said Carl, releasing one of Harry's hands to gesture around the room.

Harry's eyes popped open and he immediately winced at the shooting pain that stabbed through them. But craning his neck he could see Rick, looking small and pale and fragile in a way that Harry would never have thought to associate with Rick Grimes. He also smelled rather bad.

Harry frowned at their surroundings.

"This was not how that spell was meant to work," he said, mostly to himself.

"I'm not complaining," said Carl, getting to his feet, and peeking out the blinds covering the big windows, "I wasn't exactly looking forward to being a little kid again."

Harry made a grunt of agreement and thought about hauling himself up too, and after sitting up a bit straighter, decided it was too much effort and instead shifted to sit slumped against the wall.

"You sure you're okay?" Carl asked again, glancing over to him, his expression dubious.

Harry let his head fall back to thunk against the wall with a sigh, "I pretty much feel like shit. It'll get better, though. When I'm not quite so—"

Harry made an ambiguous gesture that did nothing to temper the worry on Carl's face but he did drop the subject, wandering around the room, fingering at the dead flowers and the rough coverlet, studiously ignoring his dad's prone figure.

"Well, we're here. Now what?" he asked.

"Well," drawled Harry, thinking, "We're not about to leave your dad and go look for the rest of them, right, so we should hunker down, gather supplies."

"Okay," agreed Carl, "I mean this is a hospital so there's probably plenty of stuff we can use."

"Wait. The world is still at an end out there, isn't it?" asked Harry, suddenly, "Only cause we can't realistically go 'round raiding an in-operation hospital."

"Yeah, looks pretty much like what you'd expect, there's a bunch of bodies and stuff and there's what looks like an abandoned military support station out there, didn't see any walkers but—"

Carl shrugged to indicate the futility of telling the dead-dead and the walking dead apart from such a vantage point if they weren't moving around.

Harry pulled a face.

"Well, that's unfortunate but it does make our lives easier."

"Yup," agreed Carl, wandering into the bathroom. There was the creak of a tap being turned and then the sound of running water.

"We've got water," he called back unnecessarily.

"Excellent," grinned Harry, "Maybe we can manage to actually get ourselves clean."

Carl flashed him and answering grin leaning around the doorway, "I'll get you a drink just gimme a sec."

Harry listened to the sounds of Carl puttering around the bathroom, splashing water on his face stripping out of his bloody flannel button down and grime-caked boots, and padding barefoot and hatless back into the hospital room.

He found an abandoned coffee mug behind the get well soon cards on the dresser by the door, and had it washed out and filled and in Harry's hands within the minute.

"We should boil it first," sighed Harry, his throat was dry as dust and the water looked clean and fresh.

"One cup isn't going to kill you," said Carl, dismissively, "Just have a couple of sips and you'll feel way better."

Harry sighed, hoped he wouldn't regret it later and took a few mouthfuls of water. It tasted a bit metallic, like it had been sitting in the pipes for a while, but Carl was right, he felt better as soon as he'd had some.

Carl shoved the dresser the three feet across the floor to have it effectively blocking the doorway. It wasn't likely that the precaution was necessary, given that Rick had remained undisturbed by either walkers or people all this time, but there was no sense up and inviting fate to kick them in the balls.

He then took a slower, more thorough, prowl around the room, looking for things they could use and lining them up against the wall. He also scrounged up a pen. Looking thoughtful he folded one of those get well soon cards in half to expose the blank inner face and dropped down next to Harry.

"Let's make a shopping list," he said.

Harry snorted a bit, amused.

"Well there's the usual and the obvious, food, water, meds, batteries. We should see if we can raid the dispensary while we're here."

"We'll need weapons, too, knives especially. Guns and bullets if we can get them. I know my Dad brought most of the stuff from the weapons locker at the Sheriff's station last time. So we should hit there. And I wanted to—" Carl cut himself off, taking a visible breath before continuing, "I wanted to go back to our old place. I mean, I know that besides clothes and stuff there's no real reason to go there but I just—"

"No worries, mate. I get it." Harry reached over and ruffled his overgrown mop of hair, "We might have better luck raiding houses then trying our hand at stores and shops anyway."

"Yeah," said Carl, his voice a bit rough. He cleared his throat. "There's a sporting goods store in town too, I think. We can get good tents and camp gear."

"The military is bound to have left some good gear just lying around out there too."

"We're gonna need, like, a truck or something to carry all the stuff we want to bring," chuckled Carl.

"I was thinking one of those ridiculous mini-vans you always see on the telly. You know the one with the annoying advertisements that are all, fuel efficient this, cargo space that. Less conspicuous."

"And if we've got a vehicle we're gonna need extra gas," Carl pointed out.

"And somewhere to put it," sighed Harry, "There's no telling how long your dad's going to be unconscious for and we don't want to attract the wrong kind of attention and have our loot stolen. And after all that we still need to find the others."

"Well, that's pretty easy," Carl said, shrugging, "Everyone except for Michonne will be at the quarry camp. We settled in there right after Atlanta got napalmed and just—stayed put. Camped out there right in the hot zone just outside the city like a bunch of dumbasses until my dad came and found us. That's about when the shit started hitting the fan, y'know? Walkers started pouring out of the cities, the herds started to build up, moving along the highways."

"Do you know where Michonne was when all of this was happening?"

"No, well-no, okay, kind of?" said Carl, shaking his head, "I mean she told me she was in one of the refugee camps for a while, but I've got no idea where, and then I know that she met Andrea right after Hershel's farm was overrun, but she's not meant to be around there til winter so—"

Carl shrugged again.

"Right," said Harry, scrubbing a hand over his face, "It'd probably be easier just to go that way, or maybe out to that prison you guys cleared and wait for her to find us there, but Rick can decide what he wants to do when he wakes up."

"He is gonna wake up still, isn't he?"

Harry glanced over at Carl, surprised by the note of honest fear in his voice. Sometimes he forgot that the teen wasn't as hardened as he seemed. Not when it came to their little makeshift family in any case.

"I don't see why he wouldn't," Harry admitted, after a long moment of thinking about it, "I mean, even if I didn't manage to pull his consciousness back with us like I was meant to, he woke up all on his own the first time, right? So there's no reason that he wouldn't this time around. And we can help with that, get some food and fluids into him with that IV. Clean him up a bit."

Carl slumped a bit in relief, some of the humming tension bleeding out of his skinny frame.

"Yeah," he agreed, "You're right."

"Of course I am," teased Harry, "I'm always right."

Carl huffed out a quiet laugh at that, "Oh yeah? The way I remember it, you were the one who said it would be a good idea to camp on the roof of that department store and nearly broke your leg."

"Ah yes, but we weren't eaten by walkers in our sleep now, were we?" Harry pointed out, with a reckless smile.

"Dad nearly killed the both of us for that stunt," Carl said, soft and fond as he glanced over at Rick, who hadn't so much as twitched this whole time except for the soft rise and fall of his chest.

"I got such a tongue-lashing," Harry admitted, "He was right pissed at me for keeping you out the whole night. Never mind that it would've been a special kind of suicidal to try and wade through all those walkers."

"He just gets scared. Especially after Judith. We're all we've got, you know?"

Harry did know. He knew all too well. And if anything had happened to Carl because of his decision that night he knew he'd feel more than deserving of whatever punishment Rick would have cared to mete out and worse.

"Come on," he said, "Let's try and get some sleep for now, it's been a bloody long few days. We can start going out on runs tomorrow, probably."

"I can go by myself even if you're not at one-hundred percent. Clear the hospital rooms at least," said Carl, getting the towels from the bathroom and the extra blanket from the dresser, his jaw set stubbornly. "If you're not up to it you should rest."

"You're not leaving me here by myself to sit on my arse like a lump and worry," Harry countered, helping to lay out their makeshift bed, "I'll be fine tomorrow."

"You know just because you say something doesn't make it true," Carl huffed, dropping onto the floor on top of the 'bed' in a careless, boneless sprawl that only a teenager could manage.

"I'll be fine tomorrow if you stop arguing about it and let me sleep," Harry grumbled, laying himself out more gingerly.

"Whatever, Harry."

Harry could practically hear him rolling his eyes. He toed off his boots and pointedly buried his face into the towel that was serving as his pillow.

"Night," said Carl after a long few minutes of just lying there staring up at the ceiling.

"Night Carl," murmured Harry. "See you in the morning."

Chapter Text

Waking up, it wasn't like waking up at all. More like finally getting some air after spending too long under water.

Daryl shot up, coughing and gasping, clutching at his head because somewhere in the back of his mind he was pretty damn sure that his skull was about to explode from the screaming horrific pain. It was like an ice pick digging in behind his eyes and twisting.

A few stuttering breaths saw that pain turn into an awful sort of pressure though, and Daryl slumped back down in relief. Still, it took him a good minute or two to feel up to sitting back up.

He was in a tent, he recognized. A proper tent, not the musty dead-water smelling tarps he'd sorta gotten used to over the past couple years. Place even had a sleeping bag and a fucking mattress pad.

And the super-luxurious tent was his, if the crossbow and the familiar shit-stomping boots were any indicator.

When he took a closer look actually he found that he recognized a good bit of the stuff in the tent, it was mostly all stuff from before. The tent set up that had spent many a year being carted around in the backseat of his truck for when Merle went off on his own, or was in prison, or his damn crack-dens weren't fit to live in.

For a moment he thought that maybe that's where he'd ended up on the other end of Harry's spell, sometime before. Like maybe he'd open that tent flap and he'd be in the middle of bumfuck nowhere like usual, but there just wouldn't be anyone there with him.

The thought wasn't a pleasant one, except for that it'd be before. It'd be easy to find a hot shower or some hot food or whatever. Hell, phones'd still be working he could just find everyone, call 'em up and—and hoped they remembered him, 'cause, fuck, Harry'd said that this magic stuff he'd been doing to send 'em all back was tough nuts and it might be that Daryl was the only one who made it through the trip.

Damn well felt like a rough enough ride, his head still throbbed with uncertain pressure. Like it was just waiting for a reason to turn into a full-blown ache.

Daryl took a breath, if he really was the only one who'd made it through he'd deal with it. Whatever the case was, he knew what needed to happen, and he'd do it all himself if he needed to. Finding them and making them believe him would just be one more damn thing on that list.

Fumbling with the zip he pushed open the tent flap, ready to see what he was working with at least, and getting a bit twitchy to do a sweep and check for walkers. Because, while it might be that there weren't any walkers for the time being, he'd rather be sure than dead.

It was just getting light, false dawn turning everything pale muted grey-green, and Daryl breathed a little sigh when he recognized the camp. Mostly cause Dale's RV was right there taking up space, with that stupid awning and that stupid folding chair.

Daryl let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

He stumbled out of the tent, pulling on his boots and not bothering with the laces. His crossbow fit snugly into the dip of his spine, the familiar weight a good solid constant when the whole world had literally shifted under him.

The camp was quiet, and he threw a glance up at the guy on watch. Just one guy. It was, what's his name—the bit one he'd nearly put a pickaxe to back in the day—Jim, that was it. Jim was zoned out and watching the sunrise more than watching the camp, his coveralls tied tight around his waist and Dale's shotgun lying across his lap.

"Damn reckless," Daryl muttered to himself, shaking his head.

They'd been so stupid, in the old days, thinking that the walkers wouldn't come up the mountain into the wilderness. So, so damn stupid.

A glance around showed Carol sitting at the communal fire pit, her bruised up face all ruddy, dirt-streaked and stained with tears and split with a broad white grin. She had Sophia all wrapped up in a blanket sleeping against her side in the grass.

"H-hey pookie," she greeted, dashing at her cheeks with the backs of her hands, "You make it all the way out here?"

And Daryl flashed her a small smile of his own.

"'Course," he said, "Wasn't about to leave y'all to fend for yourselves."

He dropped down next to her and slung an arm around her neck—careful to mind Sophia, girl would start something fierce if he woke her—and dropping a kiss on the top of her fuzzy, mottled-grey head.

She looked different, and it was weird seeing her, still a little pudgy in places dressed like—well, like someone's old lady, and it really didn't sit right with him, knowing that she hadn't earned the bruises fading on her arms and across her cheekbone defending the camp or going out on a run or anything.

But now wasn't the time to talk about that, probably.

"Isn't she just the most beautiful thing you ever saw?" she asked, blinking at him, tearful but still smiling down at the tow-headed little girl like she hung the moon or something.

"She's something," Daryl agreed.

Something precious, something they needed to protect and hone until she could stand on her own two feet just like her mama. They'd learned a thing or two about rearing kids in this fucked up new world. They wouldn't make the same mistakes they'd made before.

"I'll keep her safe. No matter what it takes."

"We all will," Daryl assured her, "You're one of ours. She's one of ours."

Carol laughed, watery and choked in the back of her throat.

"Thank the lord for Harry," she said, "I didn't believe it was possible, not even after everything I'd seen him do. This was—it was too much, you know? Too crazy to be real."

"Dead people walkin' around," Daryl reminded her, his face deadpan, "People who're dead, get back up and start walkin' 'round."

She punched him for that one, a good solid right in the arm. Hurt well-enough even without her usual strength behind it.

"Shut up. It's easy for you. You already believed in chupacabras and things."

"I just know what I saw," Daryl said, shrugging, "Lotta people try and take things, make 'em bigger or smaller than they actually are. Figure it don't matter what people believe, what matters is what is."

"That's deep," said Carol, after a minute, "You should write that one down."

"Shut up," said Daryl, smiling a bit, and giving her a gentle shove.

"What happens now?" she asked, "We've gotta find the others, right? See if they all—y'know, made it through."

"Glenn and Carl should be here already, right? What about Rick? 'Chonne? Harry?"

"Well, since you're here, in camp, Rick probably isn't here yet. If I'm remembering right you were gone the day Rick showed up here, and then after that we didn't spend a quiet night so…"

"Still, this is where he'll come lookin' for us. I know it."

"You think we should stay put?" asked Carol.

"Makes sense, don't it? Least 'til Rick gets here. We need to be somewhere he can find us."

"It's not safe here though, I mean," she gestured around at all the tents dotting the area, some hidden away in the brush for privacy, most well beyond anyone's help, and none of them decently covered by the single man on watch, no good sightlines neither even if these people could shoot for shit, "Look at this place. And you remember what happened when walkers tore through here, right? What happened to Amy?"

"'Course," snorted Daryl, "S'not something you just forget even if you wanna. But, we're stronger now. We know better. We can stay for a while and still protect our people."

Carol was quiet for a long while, just stroking a hand over Sophia's hair.

"Alright," she agreed finally, "We'll wait."

Daryl nodded, satisfied, and more than grateful. With Sophia in the picture, in the crossfire more like, Carol had to think about protecting her kid first.

"We're gonna need supplies," she said, tapping his knee with her pointer finger, her tone brisk and professional, "All the usual stuff and then some."

"Me'n Glenn can make the runs," shrugged Daryl.

Glenn had been making raids into Atlanta since the beginning, now that they knew better how to move, how to coordinate, what to expect, and some of the dangers lurking in the city proper— well, it wouldn't be easy, but it'd be easier most like.

"And we're gonna need to deal with Ed," she added.

She sounded calm enough at the prospect, but went rigid and still under his arm at the mention of her shitbag husband.

"What do you wanna do?"

Carol laughed, a hard bitter sound, "I don't care what we do to him, but I need him gone Daryl. He's not spending another night in the same tent as me and my child."

"Worse come to worse, the two of you can bunk down in my tent," he offered, nudging her with a hip.

This time her chuckle was more honest, "Can you imagine the fit he'd throw? And the talk in the camp?"

"Let 'em talk, they'll do it'n any case," snorted Daryl, "S'no hair off my ass."

"'Preciate it, but if it comes to that we'll bunk down with Andrea and Amy in the RV, I think, or Lori and Carl. No sense rocking the boat just this second."

Daryl grunted in reluctant agreement,"You tell me what you want. I'll get it done."

"And what about Merle?" she asked, businesslike.

"What about him?" said Daryl, his shoulders going tight.

"Daryl," she chided, "Don't be like that. I know Merle is your brother, but you know he doesn't do well in a group. And lord knows he's not good for you."

"So what? I should just kill him?" snapped Daryl, "I ain't a Judas."

"Never said you were," she said, squeezing his wrist, "He's your brother, it's your decision what you want to do. If you wanna give him another chance that's your business. But you have to know by now that if he threatens the group, Rick or I will kill him and there won't be any more second chances."

"He's my brother, my blood."

"And we're your family. But like I said, it's your call. I just don't want—"

Carol broke off at the sudden rustling noise, both she and Daryl tensing up. Daryl dropped a hand to the butt of his crossbow, but relaxed when a wild-eyed Glenn stumbled into view, looking about thirteen in sneakers, jeans and an oversized baseball jersey.

He tensed up again though when he saw that Shane was on his tail, all sleep mussed black curls and an expression full of blatant fear.

"Glenn man, talk to me, what's goin' on? Glenn!"

Daryl was on his feet in a second.

"Glenn? You alright?"

Glenn started like a skittish horse when Daryl called him name. When he saw them though, it was like letting air out of a balloon or something. He slumped suddenly, put his head between his knees, and stumbled til his ass hit the ground laughing a bit, crying a bit more.

Shane looked up from where Glenn had dropped over to Daryl, his eyes flicking past Carol and Sophia like they wasn't even there. Daryl snorted. The man looked damn confused, running a quick hand through his hair and making it stand on end.

Daryl knelt next to Glenn, squeezing his shoulder and knocking their foreheads together gently, unsurprised when he got a hard hug for his trouble.

"You alright?" he asked again, searching his liquidy black eyes, and wondering if he'd really looked this young back before.

"Yeah, I'm—my head just hurts, like a lot, but I'm good," Glenn managed wiping at his face with the edge of his sleeve.

"What the hell," muttered Shane, rocking back on the heels of his boots as if he couldn't quite decide whether to go to them and kneel down next to Glenn or to let them be and leave Glenn to Daryl.

Daryl couldn't help the wry twitch of his lips. Shane couldn't've looked more outta place if he'd tried. Wavering on the edge of the group his cop eyes sharp and assessing, trying to puzzle through the sudden change in their dynamic.

"What happened?" asked Carol, her arms around an awake and cringing Sophia.

"Nothing, something—damned if I know," answered Shane, "One minute he's talking to Carl, the next he's tearing through the camp like something's after him."

"I'm fine," Glenn insisted.

"You sure?" Daryl asked.

"Yeah," he huffed, smiling and shaking his head, "You guys made it," he said more softly.

"You doubtin' us or something?" teased Daryl, helping him to his feet.

"No, I just—it's Carl," Glenn took a deep breath, like he was stealing himself, and then continued in a low voice, "He didn't make it through. He doesn't remember."

Chapter Text

Harry hated to admit it but Carl had been right. Of course that didn't stop him from smacking the stubborn teen upside the head for being reckless and leaving the room without him.

He'd been asleep for three days, well, more or less. Apparently he'd been conscious enough to swallow water a few times and eat a piece of some nasty diet bar that Carl had found in the nurse's station.

Carl for his part explained that he hadn't gone far, mostly sticking to the upper floors. He'd cleared out oncology and the long-term care ward of bandages, blankets and squirrelled-away food items and then, in a more dangerous move, raided the dispensary a floor down for anything resembling an antibiotic or painkiller.

He'd also come up with a few bags of the same nutritive IV drip that was hanging empty alongside Rick's bed but admitted that he hadn't exactly known how to hang it and hadn't wanted to try in case he messed something up.

All in all it was quite the haul for three days, and Harry had been grateful to have food, some ibuprofen for his aching muscles and a cup to drink out of when he'd finally woke in the wee hours of the third morning.

"I did some scouting," Carl said grunting with effort as he pushed the stubborn rail down and manually lowered Rick's hospital bed to a full vertical. "It looks like someone shut up most of the walkers that were already in the hospital in the cafeteria, they're secure for now but if they got more riled up they could probably get out so I didn't get too close. The ground level is pretty well barricaded with tables and chairs and stuff. They must be what's keeping the people and walkers out, though I did take out a wanderer so there's got to be an unblocked entrance somewhere. Best bet for us is the fire exit, it leads out into the loading docks and the bodies there'll keep the walkers from following our smell back into this place."

Harry nodded in agreement stripping Rick's hospital gown off and cutting through the far edge of his dressing with surgical scissors. "It's early enough that people can still find most of what they need in abandoned stores or houses, no need to take the kind of risk that a hospital might represent."

The bandages were rank with dried blood that had started to rot in the summer heat and discharge from the still-healing mess of a gunshot wound and Carl pulled a face that was half sympathetic and half disgusted as they carefully peeled away the layers of gauze.

"This is so payback for all the years I was in diapers," Carl said with a grimace squirting the area liberally with rubbing alcohol and watching the encrustations start to run, revealing that the actual wound was smaller and better-healed then it looked.

"I hardly think one day makes up for four years," Harry teased as he carefully wiped away the mess leaving the skin clean and a bit pink he looked carefully but there didn't seem to be any signs of a serious infection like sepsis or gangrene, it was inflamed a bit, and irritated but it looked like the relatively sterile environment of the hospital room had done its job.

"Looks okay," said Carl not quite able to mask the hope on his face.

Harry flashed him a smile, "Most definitely," he agreed gently tilting Rick's unresponsive body up into a sitting position so that they could give the exit wound the same attention and have Carl carefully cover it with one of the big sterile bandage pads, "No bedsores either which is lucky for Rick. With some proper care he might wake up earlier or at least be in better shape."

Carl nodded, "I'd forgotten how skinny and pale he was when he found us," he said shaking his head a bit, "And now that I'm thinking about it it's probably kind of amazing that he made it, I mean just look at him."

Harry didn't look at Rick but at Carl who was scowling faintly at the hand he had wrapped around Rick's boney wrist.

"He's going be fine—hey, look at me, yeah?" Harry reached over and closed a hand over Carl's, "He is going to be just fine, there are plenty of things that would've killed a normal bloke twenty time over that Rick Grimes already survived."

"I know," sighed Carl, rubbing at his face, "I do know, I just get worried that one day his luck's gonna run dry."

"We don't have to do this today if you don't want to," Harry said after a long moment of making sure Rick's bandages were secure and tucking a clean blanket in around him and double-checking to make sure the IV was still dripping properly. "We're alright for a bit if you want to stay here with him. Or I could go by myself if—"

"No," Carl interrupted firmly, "No chance you're going on a run alone when you just passed out and slept for three days and don't have any mojo to protect you. Hell no."

"I'm fine," said Harry rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, okay, whatever, your definition of fine doesn't even resemble our earth definition of fine," said Carl with a snort striding over to where he'd left his gun and holster and belting it around his thigh, scooping up his battered hat and plunking it over his too-long hair. "Ready when you are."

And that was apparently that.

Shaking his head at Carl's expectant look Harry stomped into his boots and belted on his weapons. His wand holster lay empty, his wand sacrificed to the ritual but he still had his father's invisibility cloak folded into one pouch and the glock nine millimetre he favoured was a comforting weight against his hip.

His favourite weapon though was a makeshift Morningstar fashioned out of a heavy metal baseball bat, a few purloined pieces of rebar and magic back in the earliest days of the end of days. And there were more protection spells, anti-theft charms, and spells of unbreakability on the thing then went into the making of the average high-end broomstick.

"Alright, ready," said Harry, making doubly sure he had his knives and that his boots were tightly laced.

Carl looked up from where he was scribbling on yet another one of the get well soon cards, "In case Dad wakes up," he explained setting the note under Rick's slack hand.

"Dad," Harry read, tilting his head to make sense of Carl's abominable handwriting, "Me and Harry made it through. Been here four days. Gone on a run. I'm setting the stopwatch so you'll be able to tell how long we've been gone. Love you. Carl—where in Merlin's name did you find a stopwatch?"

"Nurses station," answered Carl with a shrug, setting the stopwatch with a soft beep and watching the numbers start running before tucking it alongside the note, "They've got all kinds of stuff stashed in there. Let's go."

Carefully they eased the door open a crack, checking that the coast was still clear of walkers and pushing aside the heavy wheeled gurney, and then putting it back into place when they were out. They hadn't had any problems with walkers so far but there was no sense pushing their luck, or Rick's.

The hospital outside of Rick's room was more what they were used to then the little slice of sterile Before they were staying in. Flickering lights draining the emergency generators, suspicious stains, bullet holes and casings peppering the halls like some sort of macabre garnish.

Harry followed Carl as quietly as possible and with a good grip on his weapon. This place felt like you could round the corner right into a milling horde. Too quiet and too filled with obvious signs of futile last-stands.

Carl whistled for him softly and Harry turned and watched him click on an electric torch and nod towards the fire exit stairwell. Harry gave a soft nod of acknowledgement and followed the teen into the yawning dark beyond the door.

It was only one flight of stairs that they had to move down but Harry kept his body between the inside rail and the light in case there were walkers from the first floor who'd wandered in, ears straining for any hint of a wheezing moan or a wet, hungry snarl.

There was none and that almost made the tension thrumming through him worse.

Still, in short order they were outside among the rows and rows of rotting stinking corpses of head-shot former patients making their way out of the loading area and into the military encampment posted up on the hill above them.

There was plenty that they could use there but they'd both agreed to try for a good vehicle before hauling around any of the serious equipment so they just searched it to make sure it was clear and put down a legless woman in a wine colored cardigan that disguised some of the bloodstains slopped down her front.

The sticky humidity of late summer in Georgia was like wading through molasses to Harry, who even after all these years was still more used to the comparably cool weather of the UK and before they'd gone more than a few blocks his t-shirt was damp all over with sweat and his hair was clinging to his neck and jaw uncomfortably.

Carl, the wanker, seemed used to it.

The silence stretched comfortably between them, humming with the natural tension of being out in the open, but the road leading away from the hospital was quiet and any walkers were hidden from view in the wooded area that separated the front of the hospital from the back parking lots and the abandoned encampment.

The houses of the subdivision start up about a block down that road, shut up and abandoned. Given that they're so close to the hospital it's likely that they're locked up and intact and Harry made a mental note of them for the return trip or a potential hideaway for their to-be-acquired vehicle.

Carl stalked forward along the asphalt in that peculiar way he'd learned from watching Daryl in the woods and Rick in the cities and towns, his boots hardly making a sound against the pavement even as he moved forward at a long-legged clip. He'd put the silencer on his gun and he had it held out in front of him now but with the safety on and the nose pointed at an angle towards the ground, the poster boy for gun safety.

It was kind of amazing how Carl had picked up habits and mannerisms from each of their group members and Harry wondered what, if anything, the teen had learned from him as he twirled his weapon keeping his wrist loose.

The sprawling subdivision with its weed choked overgrown lawns became less an idyllic little ghost town and more an urban battleground the further away from the hospital they got. Cars had been left in the middle of the road, suitcases with their contents strewn about sat rotting on the sidewalk and there were walkers in the streets meandering through the obstacle course at a shuffle that spoke volumes to Harry and Carl.

Harry let out a low whistle and nudged Carl's elbow as he took two long strides and drove the spikes of his pike into the back of an unsuspecting walker's head. Stepped over the fallen body and cracked the next one clear across the face before it could do much more that groan at them. That one was more rotten and rotting flesh and thick coagulated blood sprayed liberally over the pavement as it crumpled.

"Gross," Carl whispered pulling an exaggerated grimace as they moved past and Harry tried to shake some of the flesh off his weapon.

"Silent," countered Harry.

A worn out exchange in a long-running and only semi-serious debate about which was the better, Carl's gun or Harry's glorified bat.

It was cut short when Carl gave a whistling hiss and grabbed his wrist, his frame taut with excitement as he pointed.

Harry grinned a bit.

The Subaru was a long-bodied and boxy hatchback parked on a bad angle and written on the inside of the windshield in pink lipstick were the words: 'Got Bit, Dan. I'm sorry—Annick.'

The female walker inside the car had spotted them and was banging on the driver's side window. A lackluster thud that said she'd probably never fed once turned. She was strapped in and trapped by the seatbelt but the driver's side door was unlocked, the keys were in the ignition and it was easy to pike her and leave her lying on the grass.

Harry wondered if the rundown bungalow with the peeling siding belonged to 'Dan', a morbid curiosity that never quite left him no matter how long he continued on in the apocalypse. It would be easy to check, the mailbox was filled with letters all he had to do was jog up to the porch and check—he slipped into the passenger's seat and let Carl drive them away from the temptation. In the end it didn't really matter if Annick had made it to Dan or not, they didn't get a happy ending and knowing that she got so close would…well, it would suck.

"You still okay with going to the house first?" Carl asked drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and chewing his bottom lip to shreds without seeming to realize it.

"'Course," said Harry, "Even if it weren't important to you we still need the keys to get into the sheriff's station and get the guns and ammo there."

"We could always break in," Carl pointed out.

"But why the bloody hell would we when we know where the keys are?" Harry pointed out.

"Right," sighed Carl, "Sorry, I'm just—"

"S'alright," Harry said, "It's your home, but you haven't seen it since before all of this happened. It's bound to be nerve wracking."

"That's just it though, it's not—not home, not really, but it's where I grew up, maybe the last place I was really safe," said Carl, "Thing is…home isn't a place anymore, it's the group. Our people. The group's not there so it can't really be home. I just can't decide whether I'm more worried that it will feel like home or that it won't. It's stupid I know but…"

"It's not stupid," said Harry softly.

Harry understood the feeling better than Carl might have expected. He hadn't really explained about Voldemort because it was all so far it the past but after the final battle Hogwarts and the Burrow they were destroyed and tainted by dark memories. Harry'd never gone back to either of his former homes, not even after they were rebuilt and renewed and he was never quite sure if it was because he was scared that they would hold only bad memories for him or that they wouldn't hold any memories for him.

He'd never know either way now and he thought he might envy Carl the choice to go back and see what his former home held for him now but telling the teen any of that wouldn't be comforting just now so he shoved the feeling aside, glancing out the window in an effort to find something to say.

"What's that?" he blurted narrowing his eyes at a fenced in lot in the distance.

Carl slowed the car.

"Shit, it's a survivor," said teen craning his neck, "She's in trouble."

The survivor, a black woman with broad shoulder's was pelting across the parking lot, pursued by a small herd of about a dozen freshly turned walker, and there was a high chain link fence between her and her vehicle.

"We can help her," said Harry urgently, flinging himself out of the car before it had fully rolled to the stop and reaching for his glock, and running up to the fence letting out a piercing whistle to draw the woman's attention.

She veered towards them without much of a first glance let alone a second thought putting on another burst of speed. She had a gun in one hand and a bulging bag in the other.

Carl scrambled to put the car in park and join him at the fence, he shot a walker without taking the time to really aim but it fell just as easily as if he'd had all the time in the world to line up the shot, and the one behind it after that went down just as fast.

Harry wasn't nearly as good with a gun but he was a fair enough shot and the walkers were close enough that it was like shooting fish in a barrel the bark of his glock loud in the quiet of the street.

The woman tossed the bag over the fence with a grunt and it clattered onto the ground heavily as she hit the fence at a run and pulled herself up, cursing up a blue streak.

"Son of a bitch," she hissed as she took a careless tumble off the top of the fence and skinned her palms.

Once she was clear they stopped shooting even though the walkers were still pouring out into the parking lot and rattling on the fence hissing and clawing at them ineffectually.

There weren't any more in the street just yet so they were safe enough.

"Sheeee—iiiit," panted the woman, smiling up at them with toothpaste commercial teeth, straight and shockingly bright, "Thank you boys, that might've ended badly if you hadn't been around."

"Don't mention it," said Carl neutrally, his hand was hanging loose at his side but Harry knew he hadn't flicked his safety off.

"You're not bit?" said Harry, tucking his own gun away—clip was empty in any case—but keeping a tight grip on the handle of his pike.

"Not this time," said the woman, laughing a bit, "But it was closer than I mighta preferred."

"You got a group? People?" asked Carl.

"Yeah," she said without guile or any particular wariness, "There's my family, husband and son, and then those two strays in the backseat there. Found them just today bundled up inside the concession stand across the way there, eating their way through doritos and snickers."

"Miss Jenny," called a high voice.

It belonged to a young girl, willowy and tan with a raggedy sun-streaked blonde bob, about thirteen or so given how tall she was. She had a gun in one hand and the hand of a boy even younger than she was clutched in the other.

"It's okay Jamie, I'm alright," called the woman.

Carl darted a wary glance around, they were making an awful lot of noise.

"Poor things," sighed Jenny, bending to pick up her bag, a red and pink duffel bag with a gym logo on the side, "Their mama let herself get ripped apart to give them a chance to run, they've been alone, leastaways 'cept for each other, pretty much since the beginning. I'm Captain Jenny Jones by the way."

Harry and Carl shared a quick glance.

"You were in the army?" blurted Carl.

"Florida National Guard," answered Jenny, pulling a face, "Not that that means much of anything with my unit wandering dead around the most godforsaken patch of stinking swamp you can picture. What about you boys? You got names to go with those bright eyes and shiny weapons?"

"I'm Harry, Harry Potter, this is Carl Grimes," Harry answered for them, reaching out to shake hands with the woman.

"Miss Jenny!" repeated the girl more urgently.

A few walkers had staggered out of the surrounding houses and were shambling forward with mindless purpose.

"Damn and damn, but this is a mess," muttered Jenny.

Harry caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye but before he could do much more than whistle a warning Carl had put it down and was scanning the street. "Look boys, I'd really like to thank you, I got a good few cans of soup and beans and the like, I'll give you some if you want to follow me a ways."

She was off before Harry or Carl could respond, and with two kids in the back of her ancient powder blue jeep and walkers closing in they couldn't blame her for her hurry. They climbed back into the Subaru without much fuss and followed her down the street with walkers dragging their fingers along the car ineffectually.

"We should go," said Carl, "This could be a trap."

"It doesn't feel like a trap," countered Harry, "She's got people and supplies. We should offer her a chance to join us, ask her the three questions. It's dangerous, I know, but from what I've seen she's brave, friendly and generous, and that particular mix is hard to find nowadays."

"And how are we meant to explain Dad, or any of the rest of it?" snorted Carl, "Tell her you used to be a wizard and sent us all back in time? I don't want to be shot and robbed when she decides we're crazy, even if it's not a trap."

"You're too cynical," said Harry, "We need good people and she's got kids she's going to need to take care of. They all stand a better chance with us then practically anywhere else."

"You're too trusting," said Carl, shaking his head even as he turned to follow Jenny off the main street into another subdivision, this one even emptier then the last, "It's lucky you haven't been shot or eaten by cannibals."

"I know what evil and crazy both look like," said Harry, "And she's not either of those. There's no harm in offering. Besides, isn't it you who's always telling Rick that we're strong enough that we don't have to be afraid of helping people?"

Carl just rolled his eyes, "Fine, whatever, but don't say I didn't warn you."

"Should they turn out to be marauding cannibals you can say I told you so until you are blue in the face," Harry agreed.

Jenny Jones led them around another corner, plowing down a lone walker without concern and parked in front of a brown brick two-story with a wide porch and a big blue ball sitting in the front yard. Carl pulled up alongside her and rather than getting out of the car he just rolled down his window and waited for the ex-national guardsman to do the same.

"You even old enough to have a license?" she asked.

"Just barely," shrugged Carl, "I'm sixteen but I've been driving for a while now, my Dad taught me."

"Your Daddy the sheriff?" said Jenny, arching a brow.

"Sheriff's deputy," frowned Carl suspiciously, "How'd you—"

"That hat," said Jenny, "It may be beat to hell and back but it's still pretty distinctive, star or no."

"Sorry," offered the teen with a grimace, "I didn't mean to…y'know."

"It's alright," said Jenny, "I'm glad you're showing some wariness, not everyone out there is as willing to let people be or give them the benefit of the doubt as me. The world got real dangerous real quick but it seems to me like you boys got a good handle on things."

"We do," said Harry with a small smile of his own, "That's why we were wondering if you'd like to join up with us?"

"You together with other survivors?"

"Just my Dad for now," answered Carl, "He was hurt before all this but he's getting better now, we're gonna move out and join the rest of our group outside Atlanta as soon as he's able though. It's a pretty big group. Good people."

"Sounds like a good deal," said Jenny cautiously.

"It is," said Harry simply.

"What's the catch then?"

"We're a tight knit group, we take care of each other. But we don't want…" Harry trailed off with an ambiguous hand wave not quite knowing how to say, 'evil dictators, rapists, cannibals or otherwise seriously fucked up people' with any sort of tact.

"We've got rules," Carl interrupted, "To keep us safe. You seem like a good person, so if you and yours answer the three questions we'll let you come with us if you like."

"What kind of questions?" the young boy butted in, climbing up into the front seat.

"Billy!" hissed the girl.

"It's alright," said Jenny.

"How many walkers have you killed?" asked Carl by rote.

"Two," said Billy somewhat solemnly, "Jamie got more though on account of she has mama's gun."

Harry shot Jenny a questioning look, "I've put down a lot of them, more than I could count," she answered frankly, "It's been a long road."

"How many people have you killed?"

"Enough," said Jenny coolly, "Last question?"

"Why?" asked Harry.

Jenny glanced between them and seemed to understand something because some of the ice faded from her gaze, and after a moment she began to speak with a kind of aloof uncompromising dignity, "When I was with the guard I killed a number of men under orders, out here I've killed three men so far but I did it to protect my family, or others who couldn't protect themselves. As much as I don't like to admit it people are just animals when you get right down to it, and this whole situation has just brought out the worst in us far as I can tell. I did what I had to do to survive, to keep my family alive."

Harry and Carl shared a glance. Harry knew that Carl already knew what he thought but if he really didn't think that this was a good idea Harry would let it be. But Carl just sighed and gave a barely perceptible little nod, so Harry offered Jenny a grim sort of smile.

"Alright then," he said, "Welcome to the family."

Chapter Text

Rick woke up all at once, or, it felt like it anyway like one minute he'd been dreaming and the next—he though he remembered seeing people, Carl, Shane, Lori but that couldn't be right cause Shane and Lori were dead. Long long dead.

Unless…could it all have been some kind of nightmare? Some product of whatever caused his coma?

Experience told him he wasn't that lucky but it was hard to tell which parts had been real and which were just his imagination. Had Harry really sent them back in time?

"Carl?" he called out, his voice barely more than a rasping whisper, "Carl!"

There was no answer and Rick forced himself to sit up and open his eyes—assess the situation—a lump of cold fear settling somewhere in the region of his stomach. That was, until he noticed the stopwatch and bit of torn up card-paper tucked into his hand.

Not a dream, he thought to himself, reading over the note and checking the stopwatch, not sure whether or not he was relieved or disappointed. Carl and Harry had been gone for a little over two hours and there was plenty of evidence that they'd already been raiding in the hospital proper.

Rick couldn't decide if he was more proud or exasperated with the two of them.

He looped the cord of the stopwatch around his neck and instead focussed on getting up and out of the bed. The various wires and tubes made that enterprise both difficult and embarrassing and Rick was somewhat bemused to find that his memories of how he'd got himself disentangled and unattached the first time were more or less lost in a blur and haze of disorientation and unreality.

This time around he felt awake, clear-headed and fully conscious of both the situation and his own actions and he wondered if that was because of Harry's spell or the half-empty IV drip and fresh bandage on his torso.

Either way, he was grateful as he grabbed some water, washed up as best as he could and changed into the fresh boxers and a set of green surgical scrubs that Carl or Harry must have scrounged up for him. There was nothing that quite compared to the feeling of waking up lost and confused to find the world had gone to hell in a handbasket while he was unconscious, knowing exactly what the world was like out there was better somehow. Maybe it was just that there wasn't that fear of the unknown?

He knew what to expect from this place, this world, this whole situation. He knew what and how much he could handle and what had happened and what was going to happen, more or less, and that was a leg to stand on which was a good deal more then he'd had the first time.

He padded back out into the main room and bent to pick up one of the protein bars from the small pile of scavenged food, when a sudden scream made him jolt automatically reaching for a gun that wasn't there.

He cursed, glancing around and his eyes lit on the two fire axes propped up by the dresser, he grabbed one and rushed out into the hall.

A gunshot rang out—next hall over, Rick determined, trying to get his damn atrophied legs to move faster—

"Help!" screamed the woman, "Somebody help me!"

He rushed around the nurse's station and into the next hall just in time to see a tall wiry woman with short black hair, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a somewhat whimsical pink top plunge a scalpel into the top of the well-rotten skull of a walker.

Rick paused, axe dropping to the side, his arms too weak to keep it up without a compelling reason, and he quickly checked the halls for more walkers, either drawn by the noise or following the first one after it's prey.

There was nothing, the hospital was just as clear as he remembered from the first time. But there was this woman, this living woman—

"Are you a doctor?" asked another woman, he couldn't see her but Rick assumed she was the one who had screamed, her voice was steady and hopeful except for a slight quaver that could be passed over as a result of adrenaline.

Someone who was used to 'out there' then, Rick assumed.

"Yes, Dr. Macones," said the tall woman with the scalpel, moving further into the room, "Gale."

"Oh, thank God," breathed the other woman

For a long moment Rick considered creeping back into the hospital room, he was weak and alone and these two obviously had no reason to think he was there, it was probably the safer choice.

Instead he moved closer.

"Everything alright in there?" he called out.

Gale Macones was back out in the hall with perhaps not that surprising speed, scalpel clutched tight in her fist, "You—you're awake!" she said blinking at him like she expected him to disappear.

"You're alive," Rick retorted, letting some of his own incredulity show through.

"That we are," said the doctor, shaking her head and waving for the woman inside the supply room.

The survivor from outside, the one who screamed, was a skinny woman about Maggie's age with long sweat-damp hair hanging lank and greasy around a pretty face set with wide eyes. She had a gun in one hand but didn't seem to be paying it much mind except to carefully flick the safety on.

Rick suspected that it wasn't hers and that she was out of ammo.

"Please," she said, latching on to the doctor's arm like she was a lifeline, "Can you help us?"

Gale shook her head a bit but her eyes narrowed in assessment, "I can try," she offered, "Help me get him into a bed. He's not bit is he?"

"No," said the other woman quickly, tucking her small gun into her jeans pocket and disappearing back into the supply room, "He was cut deep though, on broken glass, last night."

She pulled out a wheelchair with a slumped over and pale younger blond man, he looked to be in better shape than her with a thick but well-cared for beard and overall cleanlier appearance and only a t-shirt soaked with blood both fresh and dried belied that impression.

"Come on, this way," Gale said leading them a few doors further down the hall and throwing one open, seemingly at random.

She turned down the hospital bed inside with brisk efficient motions, laying the bed flat and pulling away the blankets and lowering the rails.

"Help me get him up," she ordered pushing the chair right up to the side of the bed.

Rick and the survivor woman each took a leg while the doctor looped her arms underneath the man's torso and together they lifted him up and onto the bed without too much difficulty.

Immediately Gale began her work, taking just a moment to pull on a pair of gloves before cutting away the shirt and starting to examine the gash.

"I need some room to work," she said, "He's lost a lot of blood. Might need stitches."

"Come on," Rick said catching the other woman by the arm, "We'll be right outside," he told Gale who paid him no mind, engrossed as she was in her work.

The survivor was crying, though Rick didn't think she realized it as she seemed more concerned with chewing her nails down to stubs. Obviously this was the first time or one of the first few times that this had happened to her. She was distressed, maybe in some kind of shock, but she didn't have the look of someone who'd seen this happen too many times.

"Hey, it's going to be okay, Dr. Macones is gonna fix up your man there as best she can," Rick said in his best soothing voice, catching her wrist in a gentle hold and bringing her hand away from her mouth so that she would focus on him. "What's your name?"

"K-karina," she said, "Karina MacLeod. That's Paul in there."

"Karina," repeated Rick with a nod, "I'm Rick Grimes."

"Nice to meet you," she said automatically, and Rick favoured her with a slightly pitying glance.

"You too," he said after a moment.

"Are you a doctor too? Or a nurse?" she asked, "Should you go help her?"

Rick snorted a bit, giving the woman a wry smile that he knew was charming and keeping a firm hold on her hand, "No, I'm not a staff member," he told her, "I'm a patient. I was in a coma before all this happened. I woke up today."

"And Dr. Macones was looking after you?" she asked anxiously.

"Looks like it," agreed Rick trying to keep her from her panic, she didn't seem to realize that there was no way he could know about 'all this' if he'd been in a coma since before it all started, and that was probably for the best because he had no way of explaining time travel in a way that didn't sound crazy to the type of woman Harry would call a muggle. "What happened to you and Paul?"

Karina flinched slightly but took a deep breath, "We were part of a group, about twenty of us, me and my girlfriend joined up about a week ago and it was—perfect. I started to think about maybe calling it home…Then l-last night, a swarm of DKs ran right through our camp. They came at night, no one heard anything until Angelo started screaming but by then it was too late, they were on us, and my girlfriend, L-laney sh-sh-she—"

She broke off with a sob and Rick could easily imagine the rest.

"Paul found me, got me out of there," she choked, "We found a car by the side of the road and a map all marked with the med stations and drawings of where the big herds were, feels like we drove that thing half-way across the state looking for help—but every time I got to one of those med stations it was overrun!"

"Shhh, shhh," Rick hushed her, pulling her into an awkward one-armed hug while keeping his grip on the fire-axe, "You did everything you could have done. You survived. You made it here in time to help Paul."

"He's all I have left," she said, hot tears soaking through the thin material of his pilfered scrubs, "I don't want to be alone."

"You won't be," Rick said rubbing small circles into her back, "It's okay, you won't be alone Karina, I promise."

Gale found them still clinging to each other, Rick for stability, Karina for comfort, when she walked out of Paul's room a number of minutes later.

"How is he?" asked Rick.

"Stable for now," said the taller woman pushing her bangs back off her forehead, "I did what I could. Stitched and bandaged the wound, gave him the last of the tetanus shots and an IV and the cut isn't infected from what I could see which is lucky, but he's already lost too much blood and his vitals are slowing. He didn't rupture any major organs or arteries and there's no internal bleeding at least. He may make a full recovery, he may not, but these next twenty-four hours are critical. I've put him in restraints just in case. It varies how quickly people turn and I just want to be cautious."

Karina sniffled and pulled away from Rick, wiping her face on her sleeve absently, "Can I go in and see him?"

"Go right ahead," said Gale kindly, "I just need to have a quick look at Mr. Grimes here. You holler for me if it looks like he's waking up."

They both waited until Karina had disappeared into the room to give each other assessing glances, Rick kept a firm grip of his axe as she nodded him into the room opposite Paul's.

"I am sorry if I gave you a fright back there but, well, you Mr. Grimes, are practically a walking miracle," she said with a shake of her head.

"Rick, please. I take it I have you to thank for that," said Rick, "You stayed when all the rest left or were shot. Took care of me for a spell?"

She shrugged philosophically, "I noticed you about a week after the hospital was evacuated, someone had shoved a gurney in front of your room and the soldiers hadn't given you mercy, and I will say it's a miracle you survived all that. A miracle enough that I kept your bandage clean and changed your IV and catheter bags regularly. I was still getting supplies from the government then so it was no hardship to keep you alive but—"

"Things started to get worse," Rick said with grim understanding, "The supplies stopped coming?"

"Yes, they—patients still came here, they needed stitching and fluids and I thought, well, there was need to conserve supplies and you weren't waking up. It was only a matter of time before this place was overrun by walking bodies or former patients looking for drugs or supplies and so I just…I've been waiting for you to turn for about a week now, I thought that…"

"That it was a mercy, I know," said Rick.

Gale crossed her arms over her chest and peered at him as though if her eyes were narrow enough he might make some kind of sense, "You do seem to know, you seem…I've never seen a coma patient wake with this much coherency, motor control, sense of awareness. And you—you know what's going on, even though you couldn't possibly know, you were in a coma through the whole thing after all. Five months according to your charts."

Rick rubbed a hand over his mouth, wondering how much he should say, "I—I don't know how much of what I know is true, but I had a sort of dream about this, all of this, while I was asleep, and it was vivid…the most vivid dream I've ever had, I feel like I actually lived it, and waking up here, well, it was almost exactly how I remember it."

"But that's impossible," said Gale shaking her head at him slowly a reluctant smile on her lips.

"I know," agreed Rick with a shrug he'd perfected since Harry had joined their little group, "But that's how it is."

"Impossible," she repeated but it seemed she was willing to take Rick at his word, and that was more than he could have hoped for.

"Have you seen my son or his friend? They've been around for a few days now according to the note they left. There a young pair, a teenager in a hat and a short twenty-something with glasses."

Gale frowned, her lips pinching together, "No," she said, "I keep mostly to the staff wing on the third floor when I don't have patients, the damage isn't as bad there for the most part."

"I know they've been pretty quiet but my son, Carl, did some raiding, I think, gathering supplies. There's a lot of stuff all gathered up in my room. If some of your stuff's gone missing that's probably what happened."

She nodded looking troubled, "Yes, I thought the dispensary looked emptier but…I can't believe I didn't even—"

"Have you been alone a while?" asked Rick, careful to keep the wary note out of his voice.

"A bit," answered Gale with a long sigh, "A few months probably. There was another girl, young thing longest prettiest eyelashes you ever did see, she was my intern before…well, before some very bad things happened around here."

"What happened to her?"

Gale gave him a bitter look, "What do you think happened? A group came through all banged up and rough looking, seven young men, looking for medical attention—all my strong narcotics had been taken a while ago and I told them that but, I guess they weren't interested in drugs after seeing Kate. They came back here just two days later…we hid in a closet downstairs but they found us, dragged Kate away. Left me, too old I suppose, but—you know the people out there they're fighting each other, killing each other over canned peas and safe places to sleep?"

"I know."

"You know," scoffed Gale, "Cause you dreamed it, fine, but you haven't lived it like some of these people have. They think they've got no more choices, they come here looking for help but—" she cut herself off clapping a hand over her mouth, and taking a few long shaky breaths, "I can treat gunshots and stab wounds, I can fight normal infections and put down the reanimated but it's the fear that cuts the deepest, makes us turn on each other and spreads like a cancer and the only thing I can do for that is give mercy."

"Gale, shh, listen to me," said Rick firmly, "You've seen some things, the worst kinds of things, and maybe you've had to do things you weren't proud of to stay alive, to keep others from suffering. But I think, no, I know you've been alone here too long. With nothing to do but wander this place with all its bad memories. And I think that maybe you've forgotten that sometimes that fight, that struggle out there, is worth it when you've got people you want to keep safe."

"Just what are you trying to imply?"

"M'not implying nothing, I'm just easing into an offer, same offer I'm gonna make for Karina and Paul if he pulls through," said Rick.

"An offer of what?" asked Gale stiffly.

"A place. A group," said Rick simply, "Maybe you won't always be safe, maybe you'll see more horrible things, but these people make it worth it and I know, I know you'll be doing more good with those of us who fight to live, who fight so that our group can live, rather than staying here alone giving toxic mercy to people who've lost themselves in despair."

"You can't offer me that," she scoffed, hugging her arms around herself, "You don't know if any of these people even survived, you've no way of knowing where they are or what they're like now."

"Maybe not," agreed Rick easily, though he wanted to insist that he did know, "But I have faith in them, I have faith in me, and we're already a fair group without meeting up with the others—me, Karina, Paul, Carl and Harry."

"I can't, don't you see I can't" said Gale shaking her head, "I took an oath to help people, I need to stay here in case…in case people come looking for the help I can give them."

Rick shook his head, "Look Gale it's your choice, if you feel like staying here is what you've gotta do then that's your decision and I'll respect it, but think it over. This is the world now and maybe we're never gonna get things back to the way they used to be, but that doesn't mean we can try to make some kind of life. And as for helping people, I'll say that I think your skills as a doctor would be in higher demand with us on the road then shut away in here and that we're strong enough as a group to give you the choice of who can have access to your skills, let you treat others we may meet out there or not as you see fit."

Gale just shook her head and turned away, but Rick hoped that she might be considering his words. Having a doctor, a fully-trained doctor with experience working with human patients both before and after would be a huge asset even if she wasn't quite 'okay' or whatever passed for that in the world now. She would learn, though, and although his own motives were purely selfish-the chance to save Lori and still have Judith brought safe into this world was more than enough reason to offer her a place-he knew from experience that being around people, people who really needed her for her skills would be a better balm than anything she might find here alone.

Then, all of a sudden, the heavy silence that stretched between them as they lost themselves in their own thoughts was suddenly shattered, by Karina's sobbing, laughing shout, "Gale! Gale, Rick! He's waking up! Come quick, he's waking up!"

Gale blinked as if waking up from a trance and then rushed out of the room, her sneakers squeaking on the linoleum, Rick following after more slowly.

Chapter Text

The last four days had been enough to make Daryl want to tear his hair out with frustration. Just because he actually knew how to keep his damn mouth shut didn't mean he was cut out for this sneaking around. He wasn't like Carol who could zip into a role like it was a sweater. And if he was bad Glenn was worse. Might've been that he wouldn't have been so obvious if Carl had come through with them, but as it was people had noticed how close the two of them had gotten apparently overnight and were being pains in the asses on account of it.

Still, it wasn't all bad. Carol had gone to Lori and Shane about Ed and was holed up in the big tent during the night. During the day Shane was on Ed like a bulldog and Ed had finally shown that he had a bit of sense and hadn't put up a fuss after the first time the cop had sucker-punched him, just ran through cigs like they were dime-store socks and glared at everyone and everything.

Him, Dale and the mechanic, Jim, mostly pulled watch duties since whatever else Ed was he was a damn good shot, the ass.

Course just cause they had a watch set didn't mean jack shit, and if anyone thought it was weird him going out to the picket to help the women punch holes in cans and string 'em up they could just try and say something.

Just as he had the thought it was as if the big mouth himself was summoned. Merle was the same as Daryl remembered him from before Rick—cause nowadays there were two befores, Before, and Before Rick—two handed and careless, still working off the post-jail beer gut on day or two day long hunting trips and making no effort at true stealth around camp, tromping around like he was king of the damn hill half-way to high as a kite most days. Most days 'til Daryl had raided his stashes leastaways. He'd done it the second night dumped the coke and the crystal meth round the other side of the quarry and hid the oxy in RV up under the passenger side seat. That was risky but if someone needed an arm or a leg cut off they would be grateful for the painkillers and oxy was better than gold and only slightly less valuable then canned peaches for trading with if it came to that.

"Saw you gettin' all snuggly with the Chinese kid again," said Merle without preamble, dropping down on the log across from him, "Something you wanna be tellin' me Darylina?"

Daryl felt his shoulders grow tight with two warring instincts, the first was the automatic and acidic 'shut your damn mouth 'fore I shut it for you' that came when anyone talked shit about his people, the second the more deeply engrained but more shameful urge to assert that he wasn't whatever it was Merle was accusing him of being.

He took a breath, and didn't look up from where he was cleaning Carl's gun—his gun still but the gun that Carl had carried before, the gun he was gonna carry again soon as they could convince Lori to let him learnt to shoot—"His name is Glenn, an' he's Korean, for all that matters seein' as how he was born and raised in some dinky ass suburb in Michigan. We're gonna make a run into town today."

"Well now," drawled Merle, "Ain't that just peachy, you being all buddy-buddy with the locals. If I didn't know any better I'd say you'd forgotten that this whole set-up is just a temporary alignment of interests."

Daryl had to snort a bit at that.

"You think something's funny baby brother?" snarled Merle, grabbing for his shirt collar.

He was starting to detox Daryl noted feeling strangely removed from the whole situation as he kicked out with a leg and knocked his idiot brother on his idiot ass without trouble. It shouldn't have been as easy as all that, Merle was a better bruiser than him, but being on the come down made Merle moody, sloppy and stupid, and Daryl was sharp-eyed and wound tighter than a mattress coil nowadays.

"I think you're outta your goddamn mind if you think it's smart to try and go it alone out there. You don't know what it's like when you're on the road alone," he said, low-voiced and serious, "Maybe the two of us could manage, survive. But it wouldn't be livin'."

"And what in the hellfire would you know 'bout livin'," spat Merle, blue eyes flashing dangerously.

"I know it's more than fightin' for any chance at getting' lit or getting' high, which is a damn sight more than you," Daryl spat back, before he gathered himself, fighting with Merle wouldn't do anyone any good, not him and certainly not Merle, "Do what you want, Merle, hell I know you don't hear nothin' you don't wanna, but I'm stickin' with this group. They're good people."

"They're weak people," Merle said with a sneer, reclining back on the patch of grass where he'd fallen as if he'd always meant to end up there, "Bunch of pansies, niggers, spicks and a token chinaman. Half of 'em ain't ever put down a dog let alone a geek, and that tight-ass stuck up pig doesn't have the cajones to really cut it in charge, hell, even that kid of yours has bigger stones going out into the city with nothin' but that damn bat."

Daryl shrugged a bit, 'cause even if he was being an asshole Merle was right, most of the camp had all the survival skills of a brain dead lemming, "They'll learn fast or die."

"Learn fast or die," laughed Merle with black, jeering humour, "So that's it? You're gonna bet your life on that? You're gonna pick a beat up old woman and a skinny chink over your own brother? Your blood?"

"My blood ain't ever done as much for me as Carol and Glenn. You know you're my brother, and I'd die for you, but don't pretend like we're so close, like you ain't been up and leavin' me my whole life and like you ever gave a damn about how I was anytime it was inconvenient to think on me. So hells yeah, I'm gonna pick Carol, I'm gonna pick Glenn, I'm gonna pick the group of people I trust to actually have my damn back when I need 'em to," said Daryl simply, standing and picking up his crossbow.

Carl's gun got snapped back together in a few well-practiced movements, clip slammed home, safety on, and tucked into the small of his back, more a token than a weapon he intended to make use of, when he finally looked over at Merle his brother was sitting up, watching him, narrow-eyed, like he'd never bothered to see him before.

"You comin' or not?"

"On this little shopping run of yours?" Merle asked in a way that wasn't really a question.

Daryl gave him a hard look that was more of an answer then that question really deserved and started walking over to his truck, shouting—well, calling a little more loudly then he might've—for Glenn to get his ass in gear before it got too hot to spit in the city.


The back of Daryl's pickup was filled with cigarette smoke and a thick sullen silence that you could cut with a knife but that didn't seem to bother Glenn any. He was all folded up in the passenger seat like some sort of human pretzel, his sneakered feet braced against the dashboard as he checked his damn map for what had to be the nine thousandth time putting his tricky brain through its paces as he decided on their final route.

For Daryl's part he concentrated on the road, not sparing too much attention to the graveyard of cars stretching out for miles out of Atlanta. It was all too easy to imagine what'd happened to the owners and the torn up occupants and he had enough nightmares without giving them more fuel to burn through.

A couple of walkers staggered drunkenly through the rows but nothing serious, just one or two a mile, nothing that'd build into a herd anytime soon. Or at least, not that he could see. Herds were forming up though he knew, couldn't count on it being this quiet for too much longer. Once again he felt the itch under his skin for the time when everyone in camp had a hunting knife on their belt and knew how to use a gun.

Glenn tapped the back of his hand to call his full focus back to the road, pointing out the turnoff.

Daryl slowed a bit as they got within the city limits, letting himself observe the train tracks they were following and the burnt out shells of a napalmed warehouse district. He remembered the way from the turnoff more or less so Glenn left him to it shoving his map into his bag and checking that Dale's bolt cutters were secure.

The warehouse they did end up parking alongside had the derelict quality of a building that had been abandoned long before the Turn. The greenery creeping along it was starting to reclaim the area popping up thick and persistent between gravel and cracks in the concrete.

Daryl killed the engine and jangled his keys at Glenn in question.

Usually they'd leave the keys in the car on a run. That way if things went south and the person holding the keys ended up under or on the other side of a pile of walkers the rest didn't have to hoof it for their escape or get themselves killed trying to get the damn things. Of course that was when they could trust their group not to stab them in the back and steal their truck and supplies and leave them all for dead.

Glenn shrugged philosophically but nodded for Daryl to keep them so he slipped them into his front pocket and got out of the truck, leaving it unlocked. If worse came to worse Glenn or Merle could hotwire the damn thing.

"Okay," said Glenn quietly, "We're going for the hardware store and the department store, two stops means we can't afford to have any stupid mistakes, we're gonna be weighed down on the way back with a lot of stuff, we need to get in get out and get gone without riling anything up, so, ground rules."

"Who the hell said you were leading this chickenshit outfit?" demanded Ed tossing his cig on the ground and grinding it under his boot heel.

"You know the way to these places?" asked Daryl.

"No, but—"

"But nothin', shut your damn mouth!"

Merle seemed amused by the whole situation, "A'right kid, why don't you tell us about these oh-so-important rules of the road then, huh? We gonna hold hands like this is a fuckin' kindergarten?"

Glenn, luckily, was mostly over the fact that Merle had once beaten his face in, and was well used to dealing with assholes who thought that they knew better than him and forged ahead as if none of them had spoken.

"First rule is that I need you to do exactly as I say, we're not going to have time to stop and argue about every turn and every street crossing, I've planned our route out for pretty much any eventuality and besides that I just know the city better than you. We've got to be quick if we're going to make it through without being spotted."

"And rule number two?" asked Merle.

"Rule number two is to shut your damn mouth and keep it shut," growled Daryl, wondering if it would actually kill his brother to take this thing seriously.

Glenn nodded, "Daryl's right," he said, "The herds in the city are enormous, sneeze too loudly and you could bring one down on us, which is why if we do come across geeks we pike them. Quick and silent before they can draw more to us. I will tell you right now if you fire a gun in this city you had better be two seconds away from death, because it's as close to a death sentence for every living thing in a twelve block radius as you can get."

"Wait you brought us into a city packed with those things and we can't even use our guns now?" demanded Ed.

"It's not safe," Glenn said with a shrug, twirling his baseball bat in one hand, "Daryl and Merle have their knives so they'll cover me on point, you just make sure that nothing follows us, and if it does bash its head in. We do this right and maybe no one dies today."

And with that Glenn set off alongside the tracks at a jog, leaving the rest of them to follow him or not as they would.

"Regular ray of yellow sunshine, your pal Glenn," said Merle under his breath.

"Shut up Merle," sighed Daryl.

Let him mock all he wanted, he'd see soon enough. There was nobody in the whole of the dead damn world who moved through a city like Glenn Rhee and it would take a bigger dick than Merle not to be impressed by it.

The plan was to hit the hardware store first, partly because it was closer than the department store to their street-to-roof access site, but partly because they planned to kill Ed and were gonna be using the department store as a relay to get to the truck yard across the street. Something that neither Ed or Merle or even Shane—who'd made them go over the plan at least four hundred times with him before he'd let them 'risk the vehicle and the manpower' to put it in to action—were aware of.

Glenn led them through a twisting labyrinth of side streets and back alleys at a fair clip, taking sudden turns that led them past long rotten dumpsters and along narrow maintenance routes to avoid the bulk of the main streets.

When they did have to cross a thoroughfare he was even quicker, leading them in a game of post-apocalyptic leapfrog from car to car and then into yet another alleyway and leaving Daryl and Merle—who was more game for getting up close and personal with the walkers then Daryl would have thought—to deal with any of the rotting bodies lurching for them with outstretched arms and calling him up front with a soft not-quite-a-whistle when he needed Daryl to put down something with his arrows.

All in all it was a smooth approach, even Ed had done his part, caving a straggler's head in with the butt of his rifle like Glenn had instructed. Took him more than a few fumbled first blows but he managed it without drawing attention which was what mattered at the end of the day.

They had to make a detour because the fat bastard couldn't roll under the bus blocking the safe alleyway fast enough for anyone's liking but with a soft whistle Glenn led them around the side of the building to the unsecure alley on the other side of it.

There were six walkers, not a lot, but enough to make a fuss if they weren't quick about dropping them. Glenn whistled a question at him and Daryl shrugged. It wasn't a lot of them, they could try it and hope for the best.

So Glenn nodded and took a firmer stance with his bat in both hands and Daryl started shooting. He got three before the others noticed them and started snarling and stumbling along towards them too fast for Daryl to think of reloading. Merle was out and had his big buck knife in the forehead of the nearest one and Glenn slipped past him to crack the next one hard across the face.

It wasn't quite rotten enough for that to be enough to put it out of its misery but it did drop it, leaving Glenn to hold it by the neck with one sneakered foot while he brought the tip of the bat down on its ugly-ass face in a couple of quick blows that left his pant-legs spattered with gore. Daryl got the last one, knocking it over with a kick to the knee and then mashing its much more rotten temple in with the butt of his cross bow.

The whole thing took seconds, but left the whole group breathing hard from adrenaline.

Daryl nudged Glenn in thanks when he helped pluck his arrows out of walker skulls, no sense leaving them there when they had the time to grab them, and Glenn offered him a quick smile wiping some of the gore off his bat on the housecoat of one of the downed walkers.

After they took a moment to catch their breaths it was just a quick sprint across the open, but mainly empty main-street and a hop to haul down the edge of the fire-escape.

That was noisy in a way that only a rusty fire-escape can be and attracted a few geeks from the street but they were already on their way up the side of the building by the time they staggered into the alleyway and Daryl had hope that if they needed to come back that way they'd have wandered off by the time they got back.

They climbed over the lip of the roof and Glenn offered him a carefree grin the likes of which he hadn't seen since Maggie and an outstretched fist. Rolling his eyes Daryl bumped it. It was good to see Glenn happy for the first time in what seemed like so long.

"Padlock's good," Daryl commented as they crossed the sweltering rooftop of the hardware store, "Looks like no one beat us to it."

"That's cause you're fuckin' crazy," said Ed, panting heavily "Runnin' us through all them dead fucks just askin' to get bit."

"Yeah," agreed Glenn, "Maybe, but we're here which means we get first pick of the goods."

"What kinda goods we need from a damn hardware store," demanded Ed, "Ain't no guns in there, no food neither."

"Just shut up, Ed," said Daryl, "We know what we're doin' better'n you."

He banged hard on the metal of the door and let Glenn press his ear against it.

"If there's one in the stairwell it's not moving around," he said.

"Give it 'nother minute, just to be safe," Daryl said, double checking his crossbow and handing Glenn his big buck knife, "Leave the damn bat at home short round, Jesus."

Glenn, picture of maturity that he was stuck his tongue out and then grinned in a way that scrunched up his nose before reaching back for Dale's bolt cutters. Damn things worked a treat too, snipping through the padlock like it was some kinda soft cheese or something leaving the stairwell flooding with light all the way down.

The building itself was three floors and probably basement storage, but that wasn't accessible from the stairwell.

"S'clear," Daryl pointed out in a low voice.

"It's always clear, until it's not," Glenn said moving into the stairwell cautiously, "I wanna start on the third floor, if we need to go down further we can clear it first, have a secure retreat."

Daryl grunted in agreement and let Glenn take point. Feeling Merle's eyes on the two of them as he slid in to guard his back. Ed was following along a few steps behind Merle, his raspy breathing, the creak of his shotgun as he gripped it tight then loose shifting his hold and then the plod, plod, plod of his clumsy damn feet on the staircase too loud to make Daryl comfortable.

Well, he didn't know how comfortable he should be feeling anyway for all that this was a pretty well planned run, but it would be nice if he could let himself feel like he and Glenn had this, could handle anything the city could throw at them with their mix of experience. Instead it felt like they had a ticking time bomb tethered to them on invisible string.

They reached the door and Glenn tried the knob. Unlocked, excellent. Stairwell was too narrow to risk making noise for the walkers so with matched looks and a slow count to three, Daryl jerked the door open and Glenn slid inside, leaving Merle to follow, their knives high.

Daryl let Ed go through after that even though it went against all his instincts and then shut the door quietly behind them.

They were in the section of the store with all the little things, everyday items that anybody might've had rather than the heavy duty barbecuing and lawn maintenance equipment that was probably on the lower levels.

Glenn was eying the batteries and Daryl gave a short whistle to remind him to clear the room and then salivate over the supplies. They each took an aisle, with Daryl keeping Ed in his peripherals when he could manage it but the top floor was clear of walkers, the guy in the key cutting station having blown his brains out with a little revolver that Daryl was quick to pocket.

Glenn was quick to start filling their bags, holding up two of those hand crank generator things with a gleeful look, slipping the smaller one into his back pocket and then continuing to fill up his backpack.

"Okay," Daryl said to Merle and Ed, "Tire irons, hammers, and small crowbars for weapons, batteries, flashlights, thermal bags, straight nails, duct tape, rope or twine, those little jinglebells or other noisemakers as much as you feel like you can carry and still run for your life with and if you see anything that looks like it's got a medical use bag all of it."

"Who the hell put you in charge?" demanded Ed.

"I did," growled Daryl, "An' if you got a problem with that I can settle it with an arrow in your guts or you can shut the hell up and do as you're told."

Ed gave him a mean look, "I want one of them crank things," he said, "You best not be thinkin' on holdin' out on the good loot."

"Ain't no good loot and bad loot," snorted Daryl walking away, "There's what we need enough to bother carryin' and everything else."

"Amen to that little brother," said Merle tossing a powder pink safety hat across the room in an entirely unnecessary and slightly noisy display.

"You too, I said can it, so shut the hell up already. Good lord."

Didn't take too much time to clear the third floor, Daryl even found the stuff for siphoning gas and a few extra cans a and strung them over his back and chest on a loop of twine like they were squirrels. He and Glenn had three bags each, stuffed to bursting with just stuff. Tupperware, water bottles with those stupid bite sized Brita filter things, couple of small pans, some small Teflon coated multipurpose kitchen knives with brightly coloured handles and plastic sheathes that might do for Sophia. Glenn had more batteries then they could shake a stick at and they were really overloaded if they had planned to walk back to Daryl's truck.

Luckily that wasn't even remotely the plan. Course now they'd come to the down and dirty part of the day and a sick sort of resignation built up in his gut as he climbed the stairs back out into the bright Georgia sunshine, already sweating carrying around a rack of tire irons and framing hammers. He had to give himself a little headshake for that, 'cause though he wasn't out of shape by any stretch he wasn't in as good a shape as he'd been in.

They crossed the roof, slower and more careful now that they were overburdened and they let Merle, who had a much more reasonable amount of stuff crammed into his pack, take point leading the way down the fire-escape and stabbing the lone walker who'd wandered into the alley through the eye as they caught their breaths and then darted quickly across to the next alleyway attracting five or six walkers as they scrambled up the side of the office building where Merle had cauterized his stump back in the day.

The next building over was the damn rooftop of that damn department store. Daryl tried not to look at it, instead he glanced at Glenn, a silent question.

Glenn grimaced and nodded as an answer and slid his items to the ground.

"What we stopping for a rest break already?" drawled Merle, "You bite of more than you can chew with those bags china doll?"

"Shut up Merle," said Glenn, taking the revolver Daryl passed him and levelling it at Ed. "Ed, stop where you are, put down your bags."

Not that it was much of a haul, Ed Peletier didn't have the sense god gave a rock when it came to scavenging for survival.

Ed scowled at them, "What's this about?" he demanded, grip on his rifle tightening, "This is my stuff, I took it, it's mine!"

"Unless we take it from you, then by your definition we took it, so it's our stuff, innit?" said Merle, ever the asshole.

Still he had his own rifle raised and Ed in his sights, allowing Glenn to dart forward and snatch the rifle from Ed's hands while his attention was elsewhere.

"What the hell is this?" spat Ed, "You ain't got no right—"

"Nah, you shitbag, it's you who ain't got rights," snarled Daryl, "You gave up your right to live the second you raised a hand to Sophia, the second you even looked at her crossways. Now you can drop them bags an' die with some dignity 'cause the wife you put through hell loved you once upon a time or we can go with my first idea an' I can break all the bones in your hands and feet an' toss you to the walkers. Your choice."

"Fuck you, inbred hillbilly trash," sneered Ed, "You can't kill me, people will wonder, and there ain't no way that cop'll let a bunch of murderers stay in camp."

Merle cracked him across the face with the butt of his rifle, "You best watch your mouth son," he said, "Best to be polite to a man with a gun, only common sense."

"No one will care that you died here," Glenn said coolly, "It doesn't matter if they suspect, doesn't matter if they know we killed you, because no one in that camp thinks your life is worth a second thought. Especially not Shane."

"Hell," said Merle, flicking his safety off, "They might even throw us a party, huh? Whaddaya think?"

"I ain't about to die here," said Ed, and then he was pulling something out from the folds of his sleeve.

There was the glint off the chrome barrel of a gun and before Daryl could do more than twitch, a shot rang out—and a body hit the ground.

Chapter Text

“This was the Drakes’ place,” Carl commented as they parked the cars in front of a cute little house with a porch and a garden that, though completely overgrown now, had once been tended with care. “Cindy Drake was friends with my mom, they used to have dinner parties on the weekends dad had to work late.”

“Well we’ve been staying here the past two nights, stocking up on food and supplies,” said Jenny, “Haven’t seen hide or hair of the owners but it looks like they mighta gotten out early on. We found the spare key under the doormat and just let ourselves in.”

The doormat in question read ‘Not YOU Again’ but before they could all climb up the stairs and onto the porch the door was flung open and a boy of about fourteen flung himself at Jenny. Harry and Carl twitched instinctively towards their weapons, startled, but breathed a sharp sigh of relief when it was clear that this was Jenny’s son.

“We heard the gunfire,” said the man who had to have been the boy’s father, reaching over his son to drop an equally relieved kiss on his wife’s forehead, “Thought something might’ve happened.”

Carl sucked in a breath when he saw the man and Harry shot him a questioning look. Of course Carl just shook his head, silently telling Harry not to worry about it, and Harry knew he would just have to hope that Carl was feeling more forthcoming later.

“A lot happened,” said Jenny wryly, “This is Billy and that’s his big sister Jamie, I found them holed up in the concession stand, and then I wouldn’t have made it out of that supermarket if it weren’t for these two. Carl and Harry.”

“Morgan Jones, and this is Duane,” said the man holding out a hand to shake, “I can’t thank you enough.”

“It was nothing,” said Carl shaking his head a bit.

“No son, it’s everything in days like these, I don’t know what I would’ve done if anything’d happened to Jenny, why don’t y’all come on inside now and we can have a talk and a meal and pretend like we’re civilised folk for a while?”

Harry and Carl exchanged a quick look at that little comment but followed the Jones’ and the two kids into the Drake house, “I’m not gonna say no to free food,” Carl said.

“Spoken like a true teenager,” snorted Jenny, pulling the door shut behind her and flicking the lock.

That gave Harry a bit of pause and he glanced back to Carl, but he just gave him a tiny nod of his head, gesturing for Harry to proceed. So Harry did, though not without a return look that said they were going to talk about why the Jones’ had earned Carl’s instant trust when not five minutes previous the teen had been concerned that they were marauding cannibals.

The inside of the Drake place was pretty well ransacked if the piles of items along the wall of the living room were any indicator. Jenny and Morgan seemed to have a clear idea of what they needed to keep a stock of and what could be left alone as the stash consisted mostly of hygiene products, blankets, spare clothes, batteries, tools and camping gear and a huge first aid kit.

“I’ll throw an extra can of beans in,” said Morgan, wandering over to the large camp pot he had set up on the dining room table, “Hope y’all like chili.”

“Sounds great,” said Carl.

“Better than most everything else that’s tinned certainly,” agreed Harry.

“Billy, Jamie,” said Jenny, “We got some clothes that might fit you both, you wanna wash up and change?”

Taking a closer look at the siblings Harry noticed that they were pretty grimy and smelled like unwashed bodies and walker bits. It was a testament to how the apocalypse changed your perceptions that Harry and Carl—who didn’t exactly smell like roses themselves though they had cleaned up just that morning with antiseptic soap and water from the bathroom tap—had overlooked how ragged they both were, cause that was just how kids ended up nowadays, patchy faded and dirt encrusted clothes and skin, blood spattered, grime encrusted, skinny and grim-faced with weapons held close. Those were the kids who could make it in the new world order.

To Harry’s eyes it was Duane, still plump and relatively clean in a fresh red t-shirt and jeans that were still brightly blue that was weird looking. He was kind of hurting his eyes actually, or maybe it was just the instinctive flinch away from the obvious target.

“We got a rain bucket out the back if you want,” added Morgan, “There inn’t too much water but it’ll rise the sweat off your brow.”

“Thanks, that’d be great,” said Carl making a beeline for the back door.

The Drakes’ backyard was fenced in and mostly obscured by formerly neat shrubs and some sort of climbing plant, so Harry and Carl didn’t pay the walkers in the yard kiddie corner to them much mind. Just doing as Morgan had suggested and washing their hands and faces with the tepid rainwater and running damp fingers through the tangles in their overlong hair in an effort to make it presentable-ish.

He spotted Morgan keeping an eye on them from the kitchen windows, a sharp one, assessing, but that was hardly surprising. Not with a wife and kid to think of.

“So,” Harry said quietly, flashing Carl an arch look, “What do you know that I don’t?”

“You want me to make you a list?”

“Ha, bloody ha,” said Harry dryly, smacking him lightly on the shoulder, “Fess up, Grimes. Come on.”

“Alright, alright, jeez,” said Carl laughing softly, “Morgan was the one who found my dad the first time, when he woke up from a coma. He took him in gave him a place to stay, told him what was going on, basically saved his life,” Carl explained.

Harry hummed slightly in surprise.

“Yeah, it was more than most anyone else would’ve done. Anyway, Morgan had already lost his wife by the time Dad was with him, but he still had Duane then. He and Dad they separated when Dad left for Atlanta to try and find me and mom, they were supposed to meet up once Morgan had taken care of Jenny but, well—I met him once, after, when we were at the prison. After he’d lost his son and he was different then, crazy, mostly. But I recognized him right away.”

“Alright,” nodded Harry, pleased at this bit of good luck, “So, that’s good, we can be sure of them. We can trust them. They’ll be a good addition to the group and it’ll be easier to travel with more people.”

“S’what I’m thinking,” agreed Carl, splashing water down the ragged neck of his shirt, “Jenny’s kind of a surprise, but I know Morgan can hold his own, and Billy n’ Jamie too probably if they’ve been alone since the beginning. So it’s just Duane.”

“And he’ll learn,” added Harry.

Carl made a grunt of agreement sitting back heavily on the back step and tilting his face up to the sun.

“So, plan, do we even have one?”

“Eat, hit the house, see if we can convince them to come to the hospital with us tonight,” said Carl, ticking points off on his fingers, “I don’t wanna leave Dad alone for a full night if we don’t have to.”

“Okay,” agreed Harry, “It’s not far, right, your old place?”

“Just a few blocks over,” nodded Carl, “I only need a few things, if it takes a half hour I’d be shocked.”

“Hey, mate, you don’t need to convince me, we’ll go after lunch, no worries.”

“Go where?” Duane put in, too loud.

Harry and Carl both leapt to their feet, hissing like cats who’d had their tails trodden on. Across the yard there was a wet snarl and a pair of thumps as the walkers in the neighbours’ yard throw themselves, scrabbling against the fence.

“Sorry,” whispered Duane, contrite and frightened.

“It’s fine,” Harry soothed the younger boy, running a quick hand along the back of Carl’s arm, “Just, you’ve got to be quiet out here, yeah? The noise draws them in.”

“I’m sorry,” Duane said again in an impossibly small voice.

“Don’t worry about it, mate,” Harry said again, trying to be reassuring.

“Lunch ready?” added Carl, clapping Duane on the back.

Duane nodded and led them back inside to where Morgan was ladling chili that was more beans than anything into the Drake’s blue patterned china out of a camp pot. Billy and Jamie were freshly scrubbed and dressed in jeans and too big t-shirts, they’d both picked muted colours, not a drop of red between them, and Jamie had pulled her raggedy bob back into a short rat tail. The cleanliness of their faces made their freckles stand out starkly on their cheeks and across the bridge of their nose and they looked so young.

“Everything okay?” asked Morgan, pausing after giving Billy a second scoop, frowning at the subdued look on Duane’s face.

“There’re walkers in the back there,” the kid blurted, ducking under his father’s arm for comfort.

Jenny sat up a bit straighter and made to rise. Carl waved her back down.

“There’s only two, they’ll get bored before they get through the fence,” he assured her, “Just gotta be quiet when you’re back there. Food smells great, thanks.”

“It’s been awhile since we actually had a sit down meal, with dishes and chairs and the like,” added Harry, sitting gingerly, well aware that the grime of his jeans is going to rub off on the delicate looking fabric of the seat cushions. And that it seemed like a metaphor for his life.

“Thank you,” said Morgan, resuming his round of the table after a short moment, ushering Duane into a seat. “You boys seem to have it pretty well together.”

“We’ve been on the road awhile,” Carl said.

And even though his tone was light, the words ‘on the road’ have their own implication in this messed up world and it seemed like Jenny and Morgan were aware of it. Both of them sharing a little look. Communicating without words the way only people who have been partners for a long time could as they settled in around the table.

“Daddy, the blessing,” urged Duane, when it looked as though their guests were just going to dig into their food without ceremony.

“You wanna do the honours, baby?” suggested Jenny, running a hand over her son’s fuzzy head fondly.

Duane thought about it carefully for a second, and cleared his throat a bit, “Good Lord, thank you for this food, and for bringing these people into our lives to keep Mama safe. Amen.”

“Amen,” echoed Jenny and Morgan.

And with that as all the permission they needed the four strays at the table fell on their meals like they might never see food that good again. Mostly it was just habit, conditioning. First his time with the Dursleys, and then the war against Voldemort and now this apocalypse thing had made Harry very aware that you could never be one hundred percent certain of where your next meal was coming from. But Jenny and Morgan were giving them pitying looks so Harry made himself slow down a bit. No matter what his instincts said, in these circumstances the food was not about to disappear out from under him.

It wasn’t. Probably.

“So I guess we should talk,” said Jenny after a long stretch of just spoons scraping over dishes.

“Sure,” agreed Carl immediately, likely sensing the seriousness behind her easy words he offered her a grin that was all easy, lazy charm.

Harry didn’t know where he’d learned to smile like that but it was the best weapon in his arsenal for disarming suspicion, even though there wasn’t a drop of laziness or charm in Carl that Harry had ever borne witness to.  

“Jenny tells me you’ve got a group, that you’d like us to pool resources, join forces,” Morgan explained, stroking at his chin thoughtfully, “

“That’s right,” agreed Carl, “There’s strength in numbers, and we’ve got good people. Once we’re together again we talked about looking for a place. Something we can make permanent. Defensible.”

Carl never says anything about home, but Harry can taste the ambition, the chance for it on his tongue. Resting in the silence unsaid but still heavily implied.

He’d said that home for him was the group, all their people. And Harry felt the same, he really, really did. But sitting there in the spindly chair feeling Carl practically vibrating with anticipation. With hope. He was struck by a visceral knowledge of just why everyone had been so eager, so cooperative about his whacked out plan.

Everyone, all their people. Their home. Here it is still whole, alive and breathing the whole thing. And Carl, quite possibly for the first time in all the years Harry has known him, has some thin faith that they can get it. That they can keep it.

Not for the first time since they arrived in this time, the yawning enormity of the missing piece of his being makes itself known. The emptiness behind his chest cavity where his magic used to be aching faintly. But for the first time he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was worth it, worth it, worth it. Anything that lit that fire in Carl’s eyes had to be worth it.

It was a comforting bit of knowledge to have.

Morgan shook his head a bit, looking at them with something like wry wonder, “You sound so sure even though you’re so young…you got a plan, then?”

“Rather more of a plan than less,” Harry put in, “We’d actually like to move you all to the hospital where Rick is staying tonight.”

“Hospital,” mused Morgan, “Woulda thought it’d be overrun.”

“It probably was at some point, there’s certainly enough damage. But as for the moment it’s mostly cleared and defensible. And we were thinking about stripping the military encampment out front as well. But that’s for later,” said Harry shaking his head, “Carl and I have to make a stop at the Grimes’ house. We’ve got an opportunity to get at a cache of weapons as well, but we may save that for tomorrow. We had the thought that you might like to take the time to pack up your supplies while Carl and I hit this house and then we’d head to the hospital together.”

“This house is secure,” said Jenny, “Are you sure you don’t want to wait a night? We’d be cutting it close to sundown. The walkers are more active after dark we find.”

Harry hummed thoughtfully at this observation. It’d been a long time since either he or Carl has worried about finding a safe-haven before dark for reasons other than poor night vision. Then again it’s been awhile since they worried seriously about walkers in groups of less than a dozen, they’d simply become used to being cautious and vigilant all the time.

He glanced at Carl.

“I’ve gotta go back tonight,” he said apologetically, “I don’t want my Dad to worry.”

“We can come back for you tomorrow if you’d prefer,” offered Harry.

Splitting up was dangerous of course, there was always the chance that if you let a living person leave your sight it would be the last time you ever saw them. The apocalypse had a funny way of just washing people out to sea in its inevitable chaos.

Jenny and Morgan exchanged another long look, Jenny chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip while Morgan shrugged, as if he intended to defer to her judgement whatever it ended up being.

“Either option has its risks,” he offered.

“Better we stick together, I think,” said Jenny after a moment, chewing around a mouthful of their makeshift chili. “No telling what could happen if we lose track of each other in this mess. I wanna say we should wait and come with you to the house too, but that’ll really kill our daylight.”

“Times like these, it’s enough make me miss cellphones,” joked Morgan, “And to think I used to complain, worried about the state of our world with everyone permanently attached to a screen. Seems like a stupid thing to be concerned about now.”

“Working cellphones would be nice,” agreed Carl, “Useful. But we’ll work with what we can get our hands on.”

“Walkies,” agreed Jenny, “Good ones. There’s a sporting goods store in town but it’d have to be cleared. There was a group living in the camping section, they’re all turned now. Couldn’t do anything ‘bout it while it was just me but…”

“Right,” agreed Carl, “Definitely. The three of us could probably pull it off no problems.”

“One run at a time,” Harry chuckled, scooping up the last of his portion, and favouring the bottom of the bowl with a brief mournful look, “We don’t have enough room in the Subaru to strip the whole bloody town in any case.”

“Could get another vehicle,” Carl pointed out, a little starry-eyed at the thought, “Or two, we’ve got enough drivers. There’s still so much just lying around. If we had the gas…”

“Another day,” Harry reiterated, “Possibly even tomorrow. For now though we should just concentrate on the two houses. The last thing we need is to make sloppy mistakes because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.”

“Such a killjoy,” Carl sighed, sounding every bit the put upon teenager and offering Harry a slightly giddy grin and a nudge with his knee.

“Yes, yes, I’m terrible I’m sure,” said Harry, affecting his poshest accent and sniffing delicately the way he’d seen Pansy Parkinson do a time or twelve.

That wrung a laugh or a chuckle out of the assembled, and Harry couldn’t help the triumphant grin that stretched his face out of ‘snobby pureblood’ mode, not when Jenny was flashing him her toothpaste commercial smile and Carl had pressed himself up against his side in a brief silent embrace. Even the perpetually serious Jamie has snorted a bit into her chili. It was the best feeling.

“You’re such a nerd,” Carl accused once the laughter died down a bit.

“You like it,” Harry countered, reaching over to grab Carl’s dish and all but sauntering into the kitchen to set them in the sink with the rest of the dishes that they didn’t have the spare water to bother with cleaning.

“You sure you boys are okay to do this on your own?” asked Morgan, following him into the kitchen with his own small stack of dishes.

“Positive,” said Harry easily, “Even if everything goes completely sideways, which it shouldn’t, Carl and I can handle ourselves. We’ll be alright.”

“Alright,” sighed Morgan gustily, “Alright.”

“Don’t worry too much about us,” suggested Harry, “Just get yourself packed up and if something happens it happens.”

“Y’know son, that kinda talk inn’t as comforting as you might think,” drawled Morgan, “You’re the first decent folk we’ve come across in a long while, it’d be a cryin’ shame to see something happen to you now,” he added, clapping him on the shoulder.

Harry shrugged helplessly, accepting Morgan’s words for what they were, an admonishment not to overestimate themselves. To stay safe.

“We’re just going a few blocks,” said Carl, plopping his battered hat back onto his head, as he rose from the Drake’s dining table, “We’ll be back in an hour or you can assume something happened.”

“Be careful,” said Jenny sternly.

“Always are,” Carl replied his long-legged stride taking him across the house and out the door with little more than a backwards glance complete with casual wave.

“One hour,” Jenny admonished them, following them to the door to let them out and then presumably lock up behind then, “Then we come looking.”

“See you in a bit,” offered Harry with a grin of his own, not bothering to tell her not to bother.

Jenny was cut from the same cloth as him after all, she had that same sense of ‘hero complex’ about her. Got attached quickly and easily. She’d come looking even if all the evidence said that they were walker kibble. That was nice to know.

“I like them,” Harry said as he dropped into the passenger seat of the Subaru, “I wasn’t expecting that but they’re lovely.”

Carl offered him a flash off a grin for the admission as he started the car and pulled away from the curb.

“I like ‘em too,” he said, “I didn’t know what I was expecting but they’re just—”

“They’re just good people,” said Harry, “It’s been so long since we’ve had the luxury of just being good people, not putting up an intimidating front. It’s been so long since anybody’s had the option to be a good person. A truly good person. Bloody hell, I’d forgotten what this feels like.”

“It’s nice,” agreed Carl.

They fell into a rare smiley silence filled up with warm food and good company and a light that not even the looming uncertainty of the Grimes house and the future in the grim post-apocalyptic world could infringe on for the moment. It wouldn’t last of course. But for now it was more than enough to be getting on with.

Even preoccupied as he was with the somewhat foreign fuzzy feeling in his chest he noticed when Carl started to slow, counting the numbers on the houses under his breath before grinding to a halt in front of a small two-story with white siding and a front garden that looked as though it’d been comfortably overgrown long before the end of days had gotten revved up.

“Dad wasn’t much of a gardener, before,” Carl explained, seeing Harry’s sidelong glance.

“This is the place then?” said Harry, getting out of the car.

“Mmmm,” Carl hummed coming to join him on the front walk, nudging at a crack in the paving stone with the heel of his boot.

They stood there for a long moment. Just looking.

The front door had been left swinging open but unsurprisingly there was no sign of a struggle, no rotting bodies in the yard, no broken glass or bullet holes. Just an open door swaying slightly in the breeze.

“We going in?” Harry prodded after a bit.

“Yeah,” said Carl, shaking himself out of whatever stupor had come over him, snorting a bit at himself, “Yeah c’mon. I’ll show you my room.”

Carl slipped his gun out of its holster and strode up the walk and into the house without any of his earlier hesitation, but Harry couldn’t tell if that was actual unconcern or just bravado. Either way they cleared the house just like usual and only disturbed a family of squirrels for their trouble.

The Grimes house, it was hard to think of it that way because Harry didn’t see anything of the Rick or the Carl he knew in this place. The furniture matched even though some of it was clearly older than other bits, there were potted plants and vine-flower stenciling on the kitchen cabinets which were a cheery cream-yellow colour.

They cleaned out the pantry first and grabbed the keys to the sheriff’s station, Carl tucking them away in his front pants pocket before tugging him a bit hesitantly into the only room with a closed door.

It was a little boy’s room, blue walls and dark blue bedding the shelves filled with comic books and toys the closet filled with small clothes patterned after superheroes and cartoons.

Carl, long-limbed and lanky as he was, dropped down onto the bed with a huff and let his boots hang over the edge.

“I grew up here,” he said to the ceiling, shaking his head.

There’s a baseball mitt and a roughed up softball discarded in the corner behind the laundry hamper.

“It doesn’t even feel like it was ever mine.”

He sounded a bit relieved even as he said it.

Harry echoed his earlier move and flopped down next to, and halfway on top of Carl, letting the teen sputter and shove at him until they’re lying shoulder to shoulder on the bed. Knees knocking together. There are glow in the dark star stickers on the ceiling arranged into constellations that Harry vaguely remembers the names of thanks to years of Astronomy classes.

 “Least the bed’s comfy,” Harry offered.

Carl just snorted and hit him again, but some of the weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders which was all Harry had really wanted.

“Are you ready to go back?”

“Yeah,” he said after a long moment, and Harry had a moment to think that his eyes were very blue, “Yeah, I think I am.”