It's official…Merle won! Thank you to everyone who voted. I really appreciated all of your feedback and comments. Going forward, I will change things up and take more creative control but I plan to stick to the major events in canon for continuity.

Daryl gazed at me for a second before grabbing my wrist and telling me to run. We jumped from rock to rock until we hit land, then we ran hard and fast through the thickness of the woods. I was grateful that I was a seasoned runner as our pace was brutal with the need to help Merle.

I watched in amazement as Daryl glided through the trees like a natural woodland creature while I struggled to keep my footing without falling. Despite his advantage, we kept neck and neck as I was a seasoned runner and Daryl was not. Whatever lead he might have gotten from his agility, I made up with sheer speed and endurance. As we continued on, I noticed his breathing become more erratic from inexperience while mine remained consistent from years of training. Both of us were evenly matched as we sprinted between the trees, racing to rescue Merle.

About thirty feet before we entered the clearing, Daryl abruptly halted and pulled me to a stop behind him.

"Shhh," he directed. "Don' know what we're gettin' into. We go slow from here," he ordered.

I nodded in agreement. He began to move through the woods slowly, crouched low with his crossbow aimed in front of him. I followed his lead and crouched low behind him. We continued to creep through the woods, mindful of staying silent as we approached the clearing. Just before we exited the tree line, Daryl stopped.

He kept his crossbow aimed in front of him as he scanned the clearing, looking for any sign of danger. As far as I could see, our campsite looked exactly the same way we left it. I looked back to Daryl to see what he wanted to do, when suddenly, a bush across the clearing rustled with movement.

Daryl quickly aimed his crossbow at the bush just as Merle emerged from the thickness of the woods, carrying a rifle and two dead rabbits.

"What the fuck Bro?" Daryl growled as he stood up from his crouched position.

"Where the hell have y'all been?" Merle asked, completely oblivious to Daryl's irritation.

Daryl exhaled harshly and rubbed the back of his neck in relief. "Asshole. Thought somethin' was wrong," he said, shaking his head and walking over to Merle.

"Quit ya bitchin'. Got us some coneys for dinner," Merle said, holding up a pair of rabbits by their feet.

I couldn't believe him. What an idiot! I stomped my way over to Merle in a rage. "You do know walkers are attracted to sound, don't you?" I asked haughtily as I crossed my arms and gave him my most patronizing stare.

"Simmer down Sweet Cheeks," Merle ordered calmly, not the least bit worried. "Ain't no walker gonna be able to pinpoint those gunshots. Not with that quarry ricocheting the sound in every direction."

"That's still not a guarantee," I argued back, exasperated with his cavalier attitude. "Would it kill you to be more cautious? I thought you were pretty handy with your knives anyways."

Merle smirked before replying. "I'm handy wit a lot of things darlin'," he boasted in an insinuating manner.

I rolled my eyes as Merle walked over to the fire pit that had burned down to cold ashes and tossed the rabbits on the ground. He sat down on a large rock and leaned his rifle against it before he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pants pocket.

"Where the hell you two been anyways?" Merle questioned again, pulling out a cigarette from the pack. "It don' take that long to scout the perimeter."

My mind raced back to the moment at the creek and I felt my cheeks heat up as I blushed. I looked to Daryl to answer but I noticed he looked equally uncomfortable.

Merle looked at both of us before a large grin covered his face. "Well I'll be damn," he commented and whistled in surprise. "Didn't think ya had it in ya little brother. Good for you," he congratulated, clapping his hands in an over the top display.

Daryl frowned and spit on the ground. "Shut up Bro. Ya don' know what the hell ya talkin' 'bout."

"Ohhhh, I see," Merle began, looking between the both of us. "Did my gunshots stop the lovebirds from making love sweet love?" he asked with a teasing smile. "Don' stop your frolickin' on my account. As you can see, I'm just peachy. Y'all can go back and continue your little escapades," he ordered, waving us away like little children.

Daryl bristled next to me, clearly irritated with his brother's incessant teasing.

"Can you just drop it?" I asked Merle, giving him an annoyed look.

Merle looked like he was debating it over for a moment before he finally agreed. "Sure thing Princess."

I gave him a sarcastic smile full of derision. "Thanks."

"Well if ya really wanna thank me, why don' ya come, sit on my lap and dance for me," Merle purred, patting his thighs in encouragement.

"And that's my cue," I said, turning to Daryl. "I think I'm going to take a nap. There's nothing to do and I'd rather be unconscious than listen to Merle for another second," I added, giving Merle a look of disgust.

"Ouch. You wound me Princess," Merle claimed, clamping his hand over his heart in mockery. "Don' worry, I'll send my baby brother in there after you in a little while. Y'all can play doctor under the covers," he teased, lifting his eyebrows up and down for emphasis.

I hated Merle.

"You're a fuckin' asshole," Daryl mumbled, shaking his head in annoyance.

"It's my job, little brother," Merle claimed, smiling proudly. "Somebody's gotta bust ya chops. You sure as hell ain't gettin' laid by ya'self."

"Merle" Daryl growled in warning, giving Merle a death glare.

"Okay, okay," Merle acquiesced, holding up his hands in surrender. "No need to get all emotional baby brother. I'll leave you to fend for ya'self. Jus' remember, huntin' season is only so long," he advised, giving Daryl a pointed look.

And that was about as much as I could take.

"Riiight…well I'm going to take a nap," I said, pointing to the tent with my thumb. I had already reached my limit for embarrassment for one day. I don't think my cheeks could get any redder but I sure as hell wasn't staying around to find out.

"Go 'head and sleep," Daryl said, turning his attention back to me. "I'll be out here if ya need me," he added, reminding me that he wasn't going to leave me.

My heart warmed at his words, touched that he would even think to say that. I gave him a small smile of thanks then headed for the tent.

I entered the tent and rested on Daryl's sleeping bag as it provided a bit of padding compared to the ground. I laid on my back and looked up at the ceiling of the tent where the sun's rays streamed through the foliage above, creating an abstract image of shadow and light. I sighed in contentment as my mind drifted to the squinty-eyed hunter outside.

Of course, the memory of the creek came to mind and I couldn't help but analyze it. Did we really almost kiss? How did that even happen? A part of me cursed Merle as I wondered what kissing Daryl would be like. Probably mind blowing, I thought with a smile. A sensual swirl of want slithered down to my lower belly and settled there, begging to be stroked.

What was Daryl doing to me?

Sure, I'd had a couple of boyfriends and had my fair share of sex, but it was never anything that I would say I needed. In fact, I was beginning to think I was asexual as I was more interested in studying than I was in sex. The only thing that stopped me from truly believing that was how turned on I got during the sex scenes in True Blood.

Looking back, I supposed I just dated the wrong type of men. All my boyfriends had been clean-cut sophisticated men—the type a girl brought home to meet her parents. Apparently, all I needed was a rough and tough redneck with chiseled arms to rile me up. A naughty image of Daryl shirtless flashed in my mind and I imagined what it would be like to be underneath him as he pounded away on top of me. I felt a collection of warm liquid pool and moisten my bikini bottoms as my nipples started to harden. Damn, just thinking about Daryl was making me wet.

I let out a deep breath to calm myself down. Daryl had a way of causing my repressed urges to surge to the surface. He was provoking all sorts of feelings I never felt before. And I would be lying if I said I didn't want to explore what he had to offer. The truth was that squinty-eyed hunter was getting under my skin in the best sort of way. And it wasn't just his body. I genuinely liked his personality. I genuinely liked him.

That thought hit me rather strong. I liked Daryl. Just admitting it to myself made me feel giddy with joy. I sighed aloud and shook my head. What was I getting myself into? Now was not the time to start a romantic entanglement, I chided myself. I needed to be smart and sexing it up with Daryl in every imaginable position did not seem smart.

I was never the type of woman who got all stupid over a man. I was pragmatic; I thought with my head and not my hormones. The Dixon brothers were my only allies in this new world of horror. I had no one else. If I allowed myself to give into my wants, it could complicate things and I definitely did not need complications. I needed to be smart. I needed to survive.

Feeling horribly disappointed but justified in my conclusion, I decided I couldn't pursue this thing I had with Daryl. I needed to survive. I needed to find my family. And maybe when things got back to normal, I could find Daryl again and explore this passion between us. I frowned at the thought but accepted my fate nonetheless.

Feeling depressed, I pouted grumpily and turned over on my side. Immediately, Daryl's smell enveloped me, leaving me feeling intoxicated with his scent. I never thought the smell of grease, oil and whiskey would be such a turn on but I found myself smiling once again.

Apparently, suppressing my attraction to Daryl was going to be a lot harder than I thought.

I cleared my mind and closed my eyes. I could try to have more restraint when I woke up. For now, I would just enjoy his scent as I drifted off to sleep. After all, I was only human.


When I woke up, the sun was already making its descent in the sky, letting me know it was probably around three or four in the afternoon. I was surprised that I had slept so long but my body needed the rest. The past few days had been brutal with intense cardio and repeated adrenaline spikes. I felt like I had been put through the ringer. Having a few hours to nap and catch up on some much needed rest felt like an unexpected gift and I made sure to appreciate it. If the apocalypse had taught me anything, it was that I should take nothing for granted. Things could change at the drop of a hat.

I brought my gaze back down and spotted both Dixon brothers sitting near a newly created fire, stewing rabbit meat and conversing.

Daryl looked up and waved me over to join them. I walked over and sat on the ground next to him.

"Smell good, don't it?" Merle questioned, sniffing the air.

I grimaced. "Not really. It smells like you're stewing flesh…which you are," I commented dryly.

"You sound like som' pussy face tree hugger," Merle retorted as he stirred the pot.

Not wanting to argue, I ignored his comment. "What did you make the stew out of anyway?" I asked, looking inside the pot.

"Didn't have many choices," Merle bemoaned. "So I jus' put the meat in wit som' cans of chicken noodle soup," he explained with a shrug. "Pretty genius huh?"

That honestly sounded like the most redneck meal I'd ever heard of.

"It's…uhhh….very interesting," I conceded. "Hey can you toss me the radio?" I asked, turning to Daryl in an attempt to change the subject. "I want to see if there are any new updates."

Daryl dug through the bag next to him and handed me the portable radio. I turned it on, rotating the dial until I came upon a clear channel.

"Atlanta has lost two safe zones today. All residents in the remaining safe zones are being evacuated to the refugee center in North Druid Hills. Starting tomorrow, all refugees will be transferred to Fort Benning for security reasons. Any healthy persons seeking sanctuary should report to the refugee camp immediately.

Updates from other areas of the country have continued to be sparse. We have little to report. There has been radio silence from California since last night. New York has been confirmed lost and uninhabitable. Chicago is down to two safe zones and are currently evacuating all residents outside of city limits.

We will continue to report any new updates as we receive them. To ensure citizens obtain all information, this report will repeat until our next update."

With that, the report repeated but I couldn't move. I just stared down at the radio in my hands as different thoughts ran through my mind. California hadn't been on air for over twelve hours. That wasn't a good sign. But what did it mean? What happened to my family? Why hadn't any reports come out of California?

I felt my chest tighten in panic as a rush of worried thoughts tormented my mind. My hands began to shake uncontrollably as I fought the urge to vomit. I began breathing rapidly when I felt Daryl grab my shoulder gently. He allowed his thumb to graze the top of my shoulder softly in a comforting manner. The gesture interrupted my onslaught of thoughts and I looked up to see him gazing at me with compassionate eyes.

"They don' know anythin' for sure. Your family could be fine," he urged as he squeezed my shoulder. He continued to gaze at me with such intensity that I found myself wanting to believe his words.

I looked across the fire at Merle and noticed he was staring at Daryl's hand on my shoulder. He had a strange look on his face that I couldn't decipher the meaning of and I lacked the focus to analyze it.

"No sense in worrying 'bout somethin' ya don't know for sure," Daryl added, gaining my attention again.

I wanted to be strong and hold it together but my emotions felt like an exposed nerve ending, overwhelming me with pain. My heart clenched in my chest as I began to weep in earnest. My emotions were all over the place and I couldn't get a grip on myself. My shoulders jerked in sobs as the messaged replayed over in my head.

There has been radio silence from California since last night.

I got up and ran to the tent. I heard Daryl call after me but I didn't stop. I needed to be alone while I processed everything. I sat down on the sleeping bag and pulled my knees up to my chest as I sobbed uncontrollably. I felt physically sick to my stomach with fear. Was my father okay? Were my grandparents alive? Could they have gotten out? Where would they have gone? Would I ever be able to find them?

Thoughts rushed through my mind like rapid gunfire never ceasing. I couldn't stop the onslaught of questions plaguing my mind as I fought hard to come up with answers. I was smart. I looked at the details. I could figure out the answers I was seeking. And yet, there were too many variables that were unknown. I felt helpless and hopeless all at the same time and I couldn't help but sob harder.

I cried and cried until my tears finally subsided and I was emotionally drained. Time seemed irrelevant and incomprehensible as I stayed seated with my knees to my chest. My thoughts died down to a sluggish halt and I felt numb. I stared at the tent walls, incapable of moving.

I'm not sure how long I remained rooted in the same spot before Daryl came to retrieve me, but when I followed him out of the tent, it was already twilight. He led me to the fire pit where he resumed his cooking and motioned for me to sit down. I followed his orders and sat down next to Merle who was eating a bowl of rabbit stew.

"I got som' oxy if ya wanna feel better?" Merle whispered conspiratorially in my ear as Daryl continued cooking. In his own twisted way, I realized Merle was trying to help me.

I shook my head. It was a nice offer but I wasn't one to use drugs.

I sat in silence while Daryl finished cooking and tried not to let my thoughts wander. As much as I tried not to think the worst, I found myself speculating on the cause of the radio silence and what it could mean.

Daryl poured the contents of the pot into a bowl and handed it to me.

"I'm not hungry," I refused, pushing the bowl back to him.

Daryl shook his head. "Ya need to eat somethin'," he ordered, shoving the bowl back into my hands.

I didn't have the strength to argue with him so I accepted the bowl with a sigh. I was going to remind him that I was a vegetarian and wouldn't eat the rabbit stew anyways but when I looked down inside the bowl, I was surprised to see spaghettios. A small part of me was touched that he had cooked me something else, but my mind was still too consumed with grief to be very appreciative.

Daryl picked up his bowl of rabbit stew and began eating with gusto as I continued to avoid taking a bite of my meal.

"You should eat," Daryl ordered, looking at me pointedly.

He was giving me his hard stare which told me his order wasn't up for debate. He continued staring at me while I pushed the spaghettios around the bowl with my spoon until I finally forced myself to take a bite. He made sure to watch me chew and swallow before he felt satisfied enough to resume eating his own meal.

After dinner, I remained seated near the fire, staring into the flames as I allowed my thoughts to wander. What was happening out there? It didn't sound like the government had a handle on the situation. Was there any way to salvage this world or was it already past the point of return? My thoughts continued down a morose and disturbing train of thought until Daryl interrupted me.

"Getcha ass up," he ordered sternly. "We're goin' scoutin'" he declared and disappeared into the tent, leaving me confused in his wake.

When he came out, he walked over to me and tossed something onto my lap.

"Put it on," Daryl demanded. "It might get cold later."

It was a flannel button down shirt.

"You own a shirt with sleeves?" I asked with an arched eyebrow.

He smirked. "Shut up and put it on," he ordered and picked up his crossbow and a flashlight.

I stood up and put the shirt over my racerback top. Instantly, Daryl's smell surrounded me like a comforting blanket. I let a small smile appear.

"Well how do I look?" I asked jokingly.

"Like a redneck," Merle laughed.

"Shut up," Daryl grumbled at Merle. "C'mon," he grunted and started making his way out of the clearing.

I followed after him and we let the thickness of the woods swallow us up. Twilight was over and dusk was upon us as we walked through the trees. It was harder to navigate the woods in the limited light so Daryl stuck close to my side with the flashlight. I continued to stumble over roots and various woodland scenery but Daryl caught me whenever I tripped.

After a while, we emerged from the trees and I found that we were at the large clearing at the top of the quarry.

"What are we doing here?" I asked confused. "I thought we were scouting?"

Daryl shook his head. "Naw. Thought ya needed somethin' to brighten your mood. Noticed ya liked watchin' the sunset. Thought it might make ya smile," he finished in a low tone, unsure of himself.

My heart melted. "Thank you," I said in earnest as I leapt up to hug him. He instantly went rigid and awkwardly stood there as I continued to hug him. I don't think he could have possibly known how much I needed a pick-me-up.

I let go of him and smiled. "Shall we?" I asked, gesturing to the large boulder I previously sat on with Merle. He nodded in agreement and we made our way over. I got up first then scooted over to make room for him.

We sat silently as we looked out over the quarry with the Atlanta skyline in the distance. Dusk was in full swing, pushing the colors from the sunset low on the horizon. The sun had already disappeared but its light still peeked out from the abyss.

I felt small and insignificant looking at the great expanse above and I felt comfort in that. The world was bigger than me and my problems and despite the dreadful state of America, there was still beauty to be found.

Suddenly, all the horror from the past couple of days disappeared and I was just a woman enjoying the evening sky with a man she fancied. I turned my head and watched Daryl as my stomach filled with butterflies. Here was a man that literally went rigid every time I touched him and yet, he found it in himself to comfort me in my time of need. I smiled and laid my head on his shoulder. He stiffened at first but slowly eased himself into a relaxed posture and allowed me to remain in my new position.

I thought about Daryl and how awkward he was with any sort of physical touch. I couldn't figure out if he was frightened of intimacy or only the vulnerability that came with it. Either way, I was glad he was the one comforting me in my time of need.

Eventually, I felt Daryl slide his arm up my back until he slowly slid it around my shoulders, timidly and unsure of himself. I could tell he was inexperienced with such displays of affection so I sighed in contentment and nestled myself closer to him, warming myself with his body heat. Sensing my encouragement, Daryl pulled me closer to him until I was snug up against him.

"This is nice," I whispered, turning my head to look up at him.

Daryl grunted in agreement but kept his gaze ahead, refusing to look at me. Even in the dim lighting, I could see his cheeks flushed a deep crimson. I smiled and turned my gaze back to the view in front of us, pleased to know Daryl was enjoying this as much as I was.

We stayed like that as dusk disappeared, chased away by the night sky. Stars began appearing like shimmering lights, making the blanket of darkness sparkle like a lake. I was glad for the shirt Daryl lent me as it kept me warm and allowed me to be surrounded in the comfort of his scent.

"We should get goin'," Daryl said, interrupting the silence. "it's gonna be a bitch gettin' back to camp in the dark," he warned.

I nodded in agreement and watched as he slid off the boulder first before turning around to assist me. I smiled inwardly. He was such a gentleman.

After helping me off the rock, Daryl headed for the tree line while I stood where I was for a moment longer, wanting to watch the last remnants of dusk fall below the horizon.

Suddenly, a low thumping sound cut through the silence of the night.

"What's that noise?" I asked Daryl, who was now fifteen feet away. It was a curious sound that I couldn't quite place.

He turned around and stood still to listen. As we listened, the sound seemed to grow louder until it resembled a thunderstorm in the distance. Daryl's eyes widened as something registered in his head and he ran back to me just as the noise became monstrously loud. I grabbed Daryl's arm in fear and looked up in the night's sky as a squadron of military helicopters flew overhead.

"What's happening?" I yelled over the noise.

"Dunno," Daryl shouted back.

We watched as the helicopters flew closer to Atlanta before we saw the first explosion cause a burst of orange to invade the night's sky.

I screamed loudly as I watched in terror. More helicopters reached the city's limits and dropped identical bombs over various parts of Atlanta. Giant flames illuminated the city, swallowing up the scenery before us as downtown skyscrapers fell like dominos in the distance. After all the bombs had been dropped, the helicopters retreated away just as quickly as they had appeared, leaving us to watch in horror as the city burned before us.

I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing. They had bombed the streets of Atlanta—the streets that still had living people in it. Our government was killing its own citizens! If they had done this to Atlanta, they could have done it elsewhere. My stomach dropped as I came to the realization that the cause for the radio silence from California could have been a similar bombing mission.

"Daryl," I choked out.

I couldn't bring myself to say it out loud. My family and friends were most likely dead. I was alone in this world. I felt detached and isolated—an abnormality in a new reality. My heart ached with this new truth as tears silently trailed down my face.

I felt Daryl's hand slowly caress mine as he eased my hand within his. I looked up to see his eyes ablaze with a passion. "Ya ain't alone," he said, capturing me in his gaze. "You got me and Merle. Ya hear me?" he questioned. "Ya ain't alone," he repeated, staring into my eyes. He wanted me to know the truth behind those words.

I nodded numbly and hugged him, nuzzling my face against his chest as I cried. He would never know what those words meant to me in this moment. He grounded me. He gave me hope. He was all I had in this world. Him and Merle. I wasn't alone.

He wrapped his arms around me, loosely at first as if unsure of himself. Slowly his arms grew tighter until he held me in a close embrace. We stood like that for a long time, not ready to let go and face reality.

"Well I'm gonna get high as shit tonight," Merle said casually from behind us.

Daryl awkwardly let go of me and stepped away from me, embarrassed to be caught by Merle. He gave me an apologetic glance but remained rooted in his new position. I briefly wondered how long Merle had been standing there and how much he had already seen.

"Fuck man. They napalmed Atlanta," Merle stated, approaching us. "Place was a shit, but it was home," he finished with downturned lips.

He stayed for a bit longer, watching the fires rage on and devour the city. "Full disclosure," he said, turning to Daryl. "I stole the drugs from Lyle and Ima get shit faced tonight baby brother. Don't wanna hear no bitchin' and no complainin'. Not tonight," he instructed, poking Daryl in the chest with his index finger.

Daryl's eyes grew heated and hostile as he balled his hands into fists, ready to punch Merle in the face.

I quickly placed my hand on Daryl's arm. "Not tonight," I whispered with pleading eyes.

The world as we knew it had been destroyed. If Merle ever deserved a pass, it was now. And I didn't have it in me to deal with a massive argument right now. I was weighed down with enough grief already.

Daryl gave me a hard look before his eyes relaxed and he let out a deep breath. He gave me a curt nod, letting me know he was going to let it slide tonight but that there would be hell to pay later.

I nodded my head in understanding before I turned my attention to Merle. I gave him a small smile as I grabbed one of his hands with mine and squeezed it gently. I wanted him to know that he wasn't alone either. He had me and Daryl.

Merle looked mortified by the gesture and quickly snatched his hand away in discomfort. "What the hell you doin' girl? I don' need nobody holdin' my hand or swaddlin' me like a damn baby. Do I look like a faggot to you?" he asked, sneering at me.

I knew his harsh words were a defense mechanism but they still stung just the same. Merle appeared to be just as uncomfortable with physical touch as Daryl. Apparently, affection was not part of the Dixon family culture.

"We're all hurting Merle. There's no need to be nasty," I said softly, trying to hold my tears back. I had enough emotional upheaval without throwing Merle's asshole tendencies into the mix.

Merle's gaze softened slightly as he regarded me. He sucked his teeth then sighed loudly. "Sorry Princess," he offered with a somber look. "I ain't myself right now. It's best if I'm alone for a while."

He gave me an apologetic smile before he walked away, disappearing into the tree line.

A moment later, I felt Daryl's hand lightly nudge my back. "C'mon," Daryl urged. "We don' wanna be this exposed at night. Best to head back ta camp."

I nodded and allowed him to lead me into the woods once again. Daryl let me take my time as he guided us back to camp. We walked slowly through the dark woods as my mind continued to race with unending thoughts. We must've arrived back at camp quite a bit later than Merle because he was already gone when we got back.

"Will he be okay out there alone if he's high?" I asked as we walked to our tent.

"Don' worry bout Merle. He knows how to handle himself," Daryl assured me.

I nodded and we entered the tent. I went to the right side and sat on the sleeping bag as Daryl sat on the ground on the left side. It felt like entirely too much space—like the universe itself was between us. It made me feel alone again.

I let my hair out of the loose bun before I laid down on top of the sleeping bag and closed my eyes. Thoughts began to swarm in my mind at an alarming rate and I opened my eyes and exhaled loudly. I turned on my side and saw Daryl lying down with his arms folded behind his head. We were only two feet away from each other and yet it felt like a thousand miles.

"C'mere," Daryl demanded as he brought one arm down from behind his head.

I scooted over to Daryl and laid my head on his chest as I snuggled close to him for comfort. I could feel his heart beating within his chest as the sound resonated throughout my skull. It was relaxing and reassured me that I wasn't alone in this world. I closed my eyes and listened to his heartbeat for a long time before I felt his hand brush my hair, landing on the middle of my back. It was such a sweet gesture but my body still shuddered with excitement. He didn't seem to notice my reaction and instead played with the curls near his hand. I could feel him twirling a curl around his finger as I continued to listen to his heartbeat.

"They could've gotten out, ya know," he said, interrupting the silence. "Ya don' know anythin' for sure. You got out of Atlanta. You should be dead, but ya ain't. They could be alive too."

It was quiet again as I let his words sink in. I was a pragmatist. I looked at the facts—the details—as I came to a conclusion. My family should be dead but Daryl had a point. By all calculations, I should be dead too. Yet, here I was, alive and living in the woods. My family could still be alive too. I had to hold on to that hope. I had to believe they were alive. It was the only way I'd survive. Any doubt about my family's existence needed to be locked away in a compartment in my mind that I would never open.

"Yeah, your right," I finally agreed. I decided I would believe they were alive until I had cold hard facts that said otherwise.

"What's the plan?" I asked, looking up at him. "What should we do?"

"Why ya askin' me?" he questioned, looking at his hand play with my hair.

"What do you mean?" I asked confused.

He let his gaze roam around the tent before he looked at me. "Ain't nobody ever looked to me for nothin'" he admitted honestly.

I stared back into those beautiful ocean colored eyes of his. "I'm looking to you right now. For guidance, for protection...for comfort," I confessed. He looked uncomfortable but I continued. "I have no clue what to do. So I'm asking you."

He was silent for a minute as he contemplated our options. "We should stay here in the woods," he reasoned. "Ride it out for a couple of days until we get more info. No sense in runnin' 'round like a chicken wit a broken neck."

I nodded in agreement. "Alright, we'll stay here."

"Ya sure?" he questioned, giving me another opportunity to change my mind.

"I trust you," I said with complete honesty. "So yeah, I'm sure."

Daryl gave me a strange look that held a heftiness of meaning I couldn't quite place.

I laid my head back on Daryl's chest and let the rhythm of his heartbeat put me to sleep as he held me close.


I woke up the next morning in a cocoon of warmth. I snuggled my face closer to the heat and hit something solid. I slowly opened my heavy lidded eyes to see a man's chest mere inches from my face. Confused, I lifted my gaze to see Daryl's face in a deep sleep. I smiled and rested my head back on his chest as I tried to savor the moment.

Ten minutes later, I felt Daryl begin to stir. I remained still with my eyes closed as he awoke. I didn't want the moment to end. I felt Daryl's hand begin to twirl my curls as he lounged, in no rush to end our blissful embrace either. I smiled inwardly as I realized Daryl needed and wanted this as much as I did.

For the first time, I thought about how the apocalypse affected him too. Sure, he was better suited to live in this post-apocalyptic world, but it was still a hard adjustment for him as well. Everything he knew was now gone or in ruins. He watched his city burn last night, and yet, he still put my needs ahead of his own. My heart fluttered as I realized this and I lifted my head to regard him. His hand stilled in my hair once he realized I was awake. I gave him a wide smile as my heart continued to melt from his actions. I hoped my smile conveyed everything that I couldn't put into words. How much last night meant to me. How much he meant to me.

I squeezed him hard and nestled my head on his chest.

"I know," he mumbled as he resumed twirling my hair.

Only Daryl could understand everything I wanted to say without me having to say it.

We continued to lounge for some time before Daryl finally acknowledged that we needed to eat breakfast and scout the woods. We untangled ourselves from each other's embrace and got ready to exit the tent. I began to put my hair up into a ponytail when Daryl stopped me.

"Leave it down," he suggested with squinty eyes. "I like your curls."

It seemed like an explosion of pixie dust went off in my chest as he said those words. It was the simplest request and yet I couldn't help how giddy it made me feel. I nodded my head in agreement and let my hair cascade down my back.

We exited the tent and went to the fire pit. I began to look for food as Daryl searched the nearby woods for firewood. I dug through the various Rite Aid bags looking for expiration dates. Now that our situation seemed more permanent, we needed to be smart about what foods we ate first.

I decided on a large package of white powdered donuts as it had the nearest expiration date. Daryl entered the clearing shortly after with an armful of firewood. I showed him the package of donuts as he lit the campfire.

"Better than oatmeal," he commented as the fire began to pick up.

"Anything is better than oatmeal," I said chuckling.

Daryl came to sit next to me as the fire roared to life in front of us. I handed him the package of donuts which he opened. He offered me one as he took two.

"Where's Merle?" I questioned as I took a bite of the white powdered donut.

"Dunno. He'll show up though," he replied, taking a huge bite of his own donut. "He always does," he said with a mouth full of food.

As if on cue, Merle walked into the clearing looking no more worse for the wear than usual.

"See?" Daryl pointed out, gesturing his hand in Merle's direction.

Merle walked over and sat near us by the fire pit. Daryl tossed him the package of donuts which he caught with ease.

"Finally, somethin' I can eat 'round here," he commented and dug into the package. He pulled out a donut and began taking huge mouthfuls of it just as Daryl had. They really were brothers.

"You okay?" Daryl asked Merle as he continued eating.

Merle stopped chewing and swallowed before he sighed. "World's gone to shit," he shrugged. "Guess there ain't nothin' to do but do what we've always done…survive."

Daryl gave a humorless grunt in agreement.

"We gonna need to hit up som' more stores for supplies if we're stayin in these woods," Merle advised as he took another mouthful of donut.

"Yeah I know," Daryl agreed. "We can go out later today."

I groaned inwardly. I really didn't want to go out there again but I knew that they were right. We needed more supplies.

"C'mon," Daryl ordered me as he dusted off the white powder from his hands onto his workpants. "Best to start scoutin' now. Got a lot to do today," he said and stood up. He walked over to the tent and grabbed his crossbow before heading back to the fire pit.

I stood up and followed him out of the clearing and into the woods. We walked for a long time, scanning the area for walkers but finding none.

"Should I be worried about Merle's drug use?" I asked suddenly. If I was going to be stuck with Merle and Daryl for an indiscernible amount of time, I needed to know exactly what to expect.

Daryl turned to me and didn't answer for a moment. I thought I saw a look of worry pass his face but then it was gone so fast I couldn't be sure if I'd seen it in the first place.

"Naw," Daryl finally answered. "He'll be fine."

I gave him a disbelieving look.

"I'll talk to him when things calm down a bit," he promised, trying to ease my worry. "We got more important things to worry about first," he added as his eyes scanned the woods for walkers.

I nodded and we continued to walk in silence. We walked for another fifteen minutes when suddenly, Daryl grabbed me and threw me behind a tree as he covered my mouth with his hand. His chest rested on top of mine as he pinned me against the tree, listening intently.

My eyes widened as I realized something was wrong. I looked at Daryl's face but his eyes were busy scanning the woods for the threat. Fear coursed through my veins, causing my stomach to twist into knots as my heat beat wildly in my chest. Finally, Daryl's eyes returned to mine. He took his hand off my mouth and raised his index finger to his mouth to remind me to stay quiet. I nodded as he back away from me quietly. I started to move but he held his hand out to stop me.

He motioned for me to stay put before he raised his crossbow and waited.

I could hear the soft crunch of earth under shoes. Someone was coming our way and they were getting closer by the second. I waited with baited breath as the sound grew louder and the faceless danger grew closer.

Without warning, Daryl lunged around the tree with his crossbow raised.

"Don't shoot!" I heard a man yell in panic before a loud object hit the floor.

I ran around the tree and found a young Asian man in a baseball cap with his hands raised in surrender. A wooden baseball bat laid discarded on the ground before him.

"What's a Chinaman doin' in the woods?" Daryl asked harshly.

"I'm KKK-Korean," the guy stammered back in a panicked voice.

Yay! We finally met the first member of the quarry group! Are you guys excited or what? And what about Natasha and Daryl's budding romance? I love them together! Please leave a comment and let me know what you thought of this chapter. I love reading your comments and getting feedback! It helps motivate me to write more and make the story better. Thanks again!