Once we were under the shade of the trees, it was like a weight had lifted. The tension in my jaw relaxed. I was all too happy to be out of the prison for a while, where I didn't feel like all eyes were on me. They'd been watching my every move since I arrived. I scoffed lightly. I'd call them fools if they didn't.
"Somethin' funny," Dixon asked as he caught up to me.
I grimaced for a split second, and shook my head at him. He reminded me that I had company out here, not yet left to my own devices.
Stoically, Daryl looked ahead, and started walking onwards.
No one at the prison trusted me, and it took one hell of a conversation to get that admission out of Rick. I certainly wasn't offended. I wasn't easy to get along with, didn't even like people, and I guess it showed. They weren't the first group I met that were apprehensive around me, and they weren't going to be the last. Still, I would play by their rules, until it was time to leave. A price to pay for a safe place to rest.
Once again, I couldn't blame them. I kind of respected them for it. But god, they were getting on my nerves. They either bombarded me with questions wanting to get to know me, or they didn't take their eyes off me. Now was no exception.
We were on a run with a group, split up, each looking for our assigned task. Sasha and Glenn went looking for farming supplies in a small town not too far away. And Daryl and I had been asked to track wild pigs. The prison needed to do more farming with how large their population was. They had nothing more than a small vegetable garden, and a horse that Michonne frequently rode. They would need to expand soon, and livestock would help with that.
Since I knew how to hunt and track, I got paired with Daryl. If you ask me, "babysat" was a more accurate term. Made sense. Daryl wasn't just the hunter but also the muscle of the group. The protector. And he had yet to know if he needed to protect his people from me.
I shook my head as I strode to catch up to him. Fine, then. Let's play.
Daryl was quiet, even with his heavy boots. It made focusing so much easier. I casually adjusted my bow that was slung over my chest and allowed my senses to tune in to my surroundings. The scent of leaves and mud, the chattering of crows and songbirds, and the occasional cobweb that snared my legs became the world around me. Nothing else mattered.
Except for the eyes that I could still feel on me.
I looked sharply at Daryl. "What?"
He shrugged, expression unreadable behind his dark fringe. "Didn't know you were this quiet. You had one hell of a smart mouth back at the prison."
I shrugged as well. "There's no need to say anything right now. You can't track something if you keep scaring it away by talking."
"Naw, that ain't it," he shook his head. "You haven't been as cagey since we left. This is the first time I seen you relax."
I scowled. "I told you guys, I don't play well with others. The sooner I leave the prison, the better…For you."
He shook his head.
"What," I asked again, a defensive bite in my voice.
He waved his hand dismissively. "Nothin'," was all he said, cutting our talk short. I was a little irritated, but I suppose I had no room to talk. I wasn't one to hold a conversation either.
We kept our eyes on the ground as often as we could. Most of the tracks we'd found were dry and old, but we followed trails nonetheless. I kept Daryl in my peripheral, not only to make sure I was keeping pace with him, but also to observe him.
I could tell he was just as comfortable as I was out here. The way he positioned his footfalls a certain way, tilted his head instantly but confidently at a small sound, or how he would turn in a different direction as if he had a mental map. He was completely at home out here. Just like me.
And there it was again.
When Daryl and I had waited for Sasha and Glenn by the prison entrance to do this run, we sat patiently by the vehicles. We were both silent and calm, not bothering to speak. It was a tranquil silence I'd never shared with anyone before.
And here we were now, side by side, moving through the woods. Peacefully and effortlessly quiet.
The crackling fire mingled with the midnight air of the Georgia woodlands. I could hear owls calling, the breeze flitting through the trees, and the occasional rustle of an animal moving through the undergrowth.
I prodded the fire to give it more oxygen, not worried in the slightest. I had surrounded my camp with a string of tin can lids to work as a security system. Besides, I would hear any snarling long before the jangling.
I leaned backwards, placed my palms on the ground behind me, and stared up at the stars. For the first time in years, I didn't have people. During these last couple of weeks, I've had no one to hunt for, no one to protect, and no one to have a conversation with.
I hadn't felt this free in a long time.
I turned my attention to the fire where I had a squirrel on a spit, waiting for it to cook. Then, I couldn't help myself. I stole a glance at my bow.
I quickly looked away, inhaling sharply. How was it possible to feel so content yet…so dreadfully lonely at the same time?
I scoffed bitterly at myself. I didn't even know where he was right now. I wouldn't meet him for another year or two. Much as I wanted to, I couldn't go looking for him. I've watched enough sci-fi over the years to know that it wouldn't be wise meddling in things I shouldn't even be involved with. But there's the question.
Why did I come back? Why was I dropped here? Did I hotwire a DeLorean at some point?
With a perplexed huff, I snagged some supplies and got to work making more arrows. Right now, the corpses were primarily sticking to the cities. The amount of ammo I currently had would only suffice for so long. But not long enough, that much I knew. Fleetingly, I realized I ought to make a quiver at some point.
I plucked at the beautiful pheasant I'd shot. I preferred turkey feathers, but the more days I wasted tracking one, the more of a chance I had of running into corpses…walkers…whatever you wanted to call them. I had the revolver, but guns were noisy. These would have to do for now. As I trimmed until I had the desired fletching shape, I thought about my next move.
Going off of the campsite I had awakened in, I believe I had woken up about two months in to the apocalypse, give or take. By now, I should've been heading aimlessly east, like I originally did during my first go-round of all this. I wasn't even supposed to be in the Atlanta area right now.
My noisy brain was stopping me from making a solid choice. Somehow, I truly was here. Alive, brought back to the start. And I just kept asking myself questions over and over again. I also kept having the tiresome urge to check in with the group, to ask if anyone needed me to go hunting or go on supply runs.
I scowled at nothing in particular. That group might as well have domesticated me.
Despite not being everyone's number one fan, with some people still being jumpy by my presence, I had earned my place in that group, whether I originally wanted to or not.
Everyone had either tolerated me or learned to trust me over time. All except Rick. He and I could barely be called acquaintances, never fully seeing eye to eye and getting in our fair share of disagreements. Even so, he never doubted my ability to provide and keep everyone safe. Whenever something happened to him, Daryl and I would take over until he came back.
Rick often paired us up to go hunting or do some scouting. Daryl and I fell in to step with each other so quickly it still surprised me to this day. It didn't take long at all for us to have mutual respect and understanding. As weeks went on, we spent more and more time together. Until we figured out we actually wanted to spend time together.
I had meant to stay with Rick's group for only a week or two. Weeks turned into months. Months turned into years. Years that I wouldn't trade for the world.
...Years that were now brutally erased thanks to whatever the hell just happened to me!
I felt a pang in my chest as I moved on to the next arrow.
I missed him. I missed our conversations, both silent and verbal. I missed our long, peaceful hunting trips where no one bothered us. It wasn't normal for us to be separated for this long. I exhaled. Not that it matters now.
Suddenly having no motivation to continue, I tossed the current arrow aside.
I yanked the squirrel from the flames. I chewed and swallowed, too distracted to care about taste, just needing something in my belly. It was time to pick a goal for myself.
Tomorrow I would head east. Where? No clue. I planned to let my feet take me wherever. After all, I had no place to go. And that was definitely a familiar feeling to me. Might as well just…go.
Eventually, after done eating, I kicked dirt over the fire and let my body fall sideways onto the dirt. I adjusted my backpack beneath my head and clenched my eyes shut, trying to will myself to sleep. However, within minutes, everything caught up to me.
The pang in my chest was neither worse nor better. My jaw tensed as tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. Stubbornly, I refused to cry. Cry in frustration? Sadness? Confusion? This bizarre loneliness? I had no fucking clue.
The universe had seen me at my worst plenty of times throughout the years.
But I refused to let it see me like this.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the most headache-inducing racket. The banging of tin knocking loudly together. The noise was too frantic, which meant it wasn't a corpse.
"Oh for fuck's sake," I grumbled against my backpack.
In no hurry whatsoever, I rolled and propped myself up to face the direction of the disturbance. Squinting through the darkness, I could just make out a figure thrashing on the ground. It sounded like the lines had been wrapped around its body, creating a ruckus that I should probably put an end to. It was either that or lose sleep.
The figure spat curses. "Son of a goddamn…"
I rolled my eyes with an exasperated huff. I stood up and relit the fire to shine some light on things. After dusting my hands off, I walked away from the growing flames at my own pace.
I stopped next to the figure, my brow raised in amusement. The man had a really thin buzz cut and was wearing a filthy tank top. The tin and fishing line were wrapped tightly around him. He rolled and thrashed, but not really trying to get free. It was as if he was just trying to get a good look at what had snagged him. That, or he was just a dumbass.
"Walking comes naturally to the dead," I said, making him halt his movements. "But not to you, apparently. How may I help your sorry ass?"
The guy twisted to get a better look at me. After a second, he chuckled. "I was just wonderin' what a cute piece of tail like you was doin' all on her lonesome. Thought you could use some company," he said with a sneer. "Now, why don'tcha be a dear and help me get outta…" He started kicking wildly again, voice taking on a more irate edge. "The hell even is all this?!"
"Security system," I replied simply. "Nice to know it works on both walkers and dumbasses. And, yeah, sorry, but I don't see what's in it for me. Watching you flop around like a dying fish is way more hilarious."
The guy had now started grabbing randomly at the lines in an effort free himself. This time, his chuckle was dark, a warning. "Oh, just you wait 'til I get outta this, girl."
I rolled my eyes. "Spare me. I've taken on bigger fish than you."
I thought he was grabbing and yanking randomly, but I didn't see the knife until he deliberately brought it into view. As soon as the cans fell to the ground, he lunged for me. I sidestepped with relative ease. He straightened up, and surprised me when he pocketed the weapon.
He was still chuckling. "Look who's got moves!"
He paced in front of me, taunting, challenging, mainly for show. With every passing second, I could tell that he had been joking when he'd made that lewd comment. He kept shooting glances at my campsite, which told me this probably wasn't about sex. He paced in an arc, keeping me cutoff from my supplies. My stance was sturdy, but relaxed, arms loosely hanging from my sides.
I raised a brow at him. Daring him.
He snickered, and lunged again. I bent my knees, bracing for impact. My back slammed against the earth, knocking the wind out of me. His hand clasped tightly around my throat, but I still smirked up at him. For a second, his brows twitched in confusion before he immediately donned that twisted grin again.
"Well, look at that, girl," he crooned. "You're over here, and your weapons are way over there. Wasn't too smart of you. Anyone ever teach you stranger danger?"
I chuckled. "No, but apparently you think you're intimidating enough to teach me."
He rolled his eyes, hand tightening further. "Some mighty nice supplies you got, while we're on the subject. I might just wanna keep 'em. Now why don'tcha play nice and lie here while I take my pick." He leaned towards my ear, and I had to suppress a gag when I got a whiff of his breath. As he talked, I felt him take out his knife and press the flat of the blade against my stomach. "Be a shame to cut you up over some useless junk."
I chuckled again, shook my head, looked him in the eye, and said, "Dumbass."
Curling myself, I jabbed my knee upward against the knife. He immediately dropped it to avoid getting stabbed, but his own hand was shoved sharply against his upper body. As soon as I heard his pained gasp, I twisted, snapped a kick to his ribs, and watched him tumble right off of me.
I jumped to my feet, smirking at the fury growing in his eyes. "You think I need to waste ammo on you? How adorable. Now get outa my campsite." He held his side as he slowly got to his feet. I tsked mockingly. "Need a bandaid? I got some to spare. Didn't you want my supplies?"
He wasn't laughing or smiling anymore. But I was, which pissed him off. He started moving again.
I had to give this guy credit. I expected him to try and hit blindly with anger. Instead, he made a jerky fake-out motion that I couldn't dodge. I was thrown to the ground again, but he wasn't on me. When I looked up, I saw him searching the ground around the campsite, trying to find the knife he'd dropped. He almost tripped over my backpack. Realization seemed to hit him and he started tearing at the zippers.
I ran towards him. Dropping to my knees, I skidded, clutched his jeans at the ankles, and yanked his feet right out from under him. He had been too distracted pawing at my belongings, and he landed on his side with a startled shout.
Gripping one of his arms and one of his legs, I yanked both limbs until he was on his stomach. My grip was unyielding, keeping him in place as he spat out dirt and leaves.
I got close to his ear and spelled it out for him. "Get the fuck…out of my campsite."
The rustling of leaves beside me was such a soft sound, almost silent. But I definitely heard it. I snapped my gaze around, assuming this dumbass had reinforcements. My jaw dropped.
My campsite, the woods, the guy I was holding down…It all fell away.
The other man stood there, fierce blue eyes glinting off the firelight, boring into mine as he kept his crossbow aimed.
Aimed at me.