Epilogue, Prologue…Same Thing
I awoke before my eyes even opened, just staring at the back of my eyelids while I gradually came to my senses. I knew I fell asleep on the table, but I now felt something soft beneath me. Two mattresses. And I could also feel the poncho draped over my body. With a content hum, I turned onto my side. That's when I felt weight on my ankles, of another set of legs tangled with my own. I adjusted the pillow beneath my head, and grimaced as my tangled hair scratched at the back of my neck. I jolted my head, trying to get it to stop.
Calloused fingers glided gently across my neck, shoving the strands aside. I covered my hand over his to keep it there. He paused when I did that, and then his thumb stroked the corner of my jaw for a few seconds. When he took his hand away, I was disappointed for only a second. His arm curled around my waist, bringing our bodies close together.
His forehead bumped mine, and I opened my eyes. He was staring back at me, a hint of laziness in that soft smile of his. I draped my arm around his neck, also smiling, like a love-struck idiot.
His head tilted, and his lips brushed mine. It wasn't quite a kiss, though. Just a touch. Our own personal brand of intimacy. We were perfectly content to take our time and close that distance at our own pace. And when we did, that invigorating shiver raced up and down my spine. Our lips worked together, a gentle pressure against each other.
When our lips separated, we both exhaled. We allowed ourselves to breathe, as if neither of us had actually done so in…
Perhaps the first sentence out of my mouth should've been something romantic or more specific to our current closeness in general. Instead, I asked, "How long was I gone for exactly?"
Daryl's thumb was back to stroking my jaw. It took him a moment to answer. "'Almost a week and a half since the formula run."
I blew out a puff of air. "You know," I muttered. "When I said I needed a break from all of you, this wasn't exactly what I meant."
He scowled. "Not funny."
"No," I shook my head. "It really fucking wasn't." When I noticed the bright afternoon sun casting shadows into our guard station, I asked another question. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Since yesterday evenin'."
"You had to carry me up here, huh?"
"No, you decided to take up sleep walkin'." He rolled his eyes. "How else?"
I groaned and buried my face in his chest. "Gonna have to bury my pride on that one, I guess."
He rested his chin on top of my head. "Ain't gotta be embarrassed. Everybody saw you pass out. Nearly knocked your chin off the table."
I groaned again, this time a little louder.
"They weren't laughin' or nothin', you're fine," he said. "Sure as hell worried us for a second, though. Hershel said it was just exhaustion." He paused. "Been nothin' but worried for days now." His arms tightened around me, and I felt him shaking his head slowly. "I can't do that again, Layla. You gettin' shot and disappearin' for a day was bad enough, but…Ain't fair of me to ask, I know, but-"
"I haven't seen you in days," I interrupted quietly. "I'll have to get back out there again soon, but no. Fuck no. Not that long, not ever. I can't do that again either."
His lips were back on mine, his jaw tense as our mouths moved. My arm tightened around his neck, letting him know that I felt the same desperation at us being separated for too long. We only pulled back from each other when we heard a low growling noise.
I grinned sheepishly at him. "Please tell me you saved me some of that stew. It smelled amazing."
"'Course," he said, smoothly getting to his feet, the poncho falling away from us in the process. He held his hand out to me, and his brows came together when I didn't immediately take it.
I was stuck in my thoughts. Realizing we were both getting up made me automatically want to do something. Normally, it was part of my job to wake up bright and early to start the day with the group. Now, after having been on the run for for so many days in a row, I was more than a little out of it in terms of routine and internal clock. Still, after I was done eating, I needed to start crossing things off my to-do list.
I hadn't realized I'd looked away until Daryl's fingers hooked under my chin to coax some eye contact from me. His brows were still scrunched together, and as soon as he got my attention, his eyes silently checked me over.
I laced our fingers together to convey to him I was alright. "I need to see the Governor's body," I explained.
He nodded once, gripped my hand a little tighter, and pulled me to my feet. I almost winced, feeling the jolt of dull pain in my heels and ankles. I couldn't wait to walk around and loosen my joints a little.
"Eat first," he said. "Then you see the body."
I nodded. Before we left our room, I noticed my iPod on the desk. It was hooked up to a car battery to charge. I smiled at that, and followed Daryl down the steps. He told me to sit down while he got us lunch out of a nearby cooler. He let it heat up on the hot plate while I waited. I asked Daryl if he wanted my help with anything, and he just scowled at me the same way he did yesterday.
I snickered. "You know what? Merle doesn't know what he's talking about. I could totally get used to you spoiling me."
The scowl remained.
"For like five minutes," I concluded.
"That's what I thought," he grumbled, grabbing some bowls.
He sat down across from me, both of us digging into the stew. It tasted amazing, and Daryl was already getting seconds for me.
"Speaking of Merle," I said in between bites. "I bet him being around is a real trip. For everyone."
He snorted. "It's fuckin' weird is what it is. The Woodbury people already know him, so that's one thing. And him hangin' out with the group?" His mouth curved in an odd sort of frown. Not a bad one, just confused-looking. "It's just weird."
"How so," I asked.
"He's still an asshole," he explained. "But just…different. Like he's a solider now, instead of a rebel. Takes orders from me and Rick. And you. He still torments the hell outa people, and he'll always be a jackass. But he hasn't started any fights or nothin'."
I gasped dramatically. "And he hasn't robbed anyone blind yet? Holly hell, that's character development right there."
Merle was due to be back any minute to get some blade-sharpening tools. We ate in silence, until he came through the door. Both him and Daryl wanted to be the ones to show me the Governor.
They led me down into Cell Block A. Otherwise known as Death Row. It was fitting, because there was a morgue down here. I knew that I currently had a harsh grimace on my face and a hunch in my shoulders. I remembered all too well when the majority of the prison fell ill and had to use this area as quarantine. Then, our gates were torn down, and my home and even some of my people were taken from me that day.
I inhaled sharply. That wouldn't happen. Not this time around. And as far as the illness goes, I made a mental note to come back to that later, and to organize that medicine run asap. For now, I had other things to focus on.
Through a door adjacent to the cell block was the morgue. We walked inside. On one side of the room, from floor to ceiling, was a mortuary fridge. Daryl took out his set of keys and unlocked one of the square doors. After I gave him a nod, he slid the body out.
I crossed my arms.
The Governor's corpse was pale as can be, with the stretcher beneath him covered in dried blood. The blood was from a slash wound on his throat, and also from a bullet wound. There was a hole where his right eye should've been, one that had been subject to a point blank shot.
Merle explained how it all went.
The Governor had survived this long for a reason. Though he was formidable on his own, he prided himself in being able to manipulate people with a silver tongue and sugary hope. The more loyal followers he gained, the more powerful he felt. By me taking away some of his guards, the Governor had already been feeling some pressure. There was also the issue with Michonne escaping the town before I did. Not to mention Merle conspiring with the remaining guards still in the town, right under the Governor's nose.
Merle and the other guards let slip to the townspeople that the Governor was losing his touch, and someone even mentioned that he kept severed heads in aquariums. Gossip spread like wildfire, causing the town to question everything the Governor did. All the while, Merle stayed by the Governor's side, acting as one of the few remaining loyal followers.
On the third day, the two of them had a private meeting to discuss the fact that the town was practically crumbling at their feet. And that's when Merle made his move.
Not so easy, though. The Governor might have been blindsided, and Merle might have been able to knock his gun away at the last second, but he was still quick and could fight like a demon. The other guards came into the room then, watching the fight from the sidelines, guns raised in their former leader's direction. When the Governor realized what was really happening, he faltered in the form of pure rage.
Merle had seen his fair share of brawls over his lifetime. He was no stranger to fighting against such anger, and he used it as leverage to exhaust the Governor and mentally knock him off balance. Merle took his opening, using the very blade the Governor had designed for his prosthetic.
In less than a week, the Governor's entire "kingdom" had been corrupted and toppled. All because of a Hail Mary plan that me and Merle had miraculously achieved.
I stared down at the corpse. The slash to the throat was what killed him. The bullet to the eye? Well, when they brought the body back, Michonne did the honors, ensuring we wouldn't have to deal with a walker inside our fences.
I knew the Governor would die eventually. Although, during my first go-round I never actually saw a body. This time, seeing his corpse for myself, and knowing we had prevented so many tragedies before they could even begin…
It was a hollow feeling.
This wasn't satisfying. This wasn't cause for celebration. This wasn't even a revenge mission, though it's understandable if others thought different. This was just business. A nasty task that needed to be done. I gripped the edge of the stretcher, and shoved the body back into the fridge.
"Up to you guys what we wanna do with his remains," I said. "Personally? I'd say we leave him down here. For now at least."
In a different timeline, the Governor had wanted to take this prison so badly. Now, he could lay in it.
Though Daryl would much rather I get some more rest, I really needed to walk around for a bit. I needed to see how the prison was doing since my absence. I was happy to find that things were going well.
I first noticed the multiple planter boxes with fresh soil in them, and a couple tanks of fresh water in the main courtyard. Then there were the small solar panels piled in a corner, ready to be hooked up. Other than for the fences, there wasn't a walker to be seen.
But there were people. Lots of them. All of which I had forced myself to not yet notice until now. The majority were ex-Woodbury residents, easily outnumbering the small numbers our group used to be. They bustled around the courtyard, everyone going about some task or other as if it were just the daily routine.
Daryl's arm, which had been around my shoulders, slid away to lace our fingers tightly together. He could feel my sudden apprehension from being around all these new faces, and he knew that currently having his arm around me might be more stifling than comforting. I smiled at his thoughtfulness. He did keep our hands clasped together, not wanting to let me go completely, and I didn't complain about that whatsoever.
Most of these people I didn't recognize, but, uh… They seemed to know me.
"Oh, hey, welcome back!"
"You're Layla, right?"
"So this must be Layla!"
And so on and so forth. I barely made a comment, just shaking hands as I went, with what was probably the most shell-shocked expression on my face. It made Daryl chuckle, an almost endearing sound.
Apparently, between the Dixons and the rest of the group, they had described me to the newer people. They let them know that I was out on a run, due back any day now, and that I was one of the people who helped run things here. I had no idea how I felt about any of it, so I just kept on walking.
Make no mistake, not everyone was thrilled to formally meet me. As soon as some people saw my scars or noticed the way I looked them in the eye when talking, they purposefully kept a few feet of distance, feeling the need for caution. I also walked around like I owned the place. Which I did, but that didn't really help my case.
Daryl bumped his shoulder against mine. "They had the same reaction to me. Hell, some of 'em still don't wanna look me in the eye yet. They'll get used to us and get over it."
I managed a grin. "I know. It's just weird coming home to…all of this."
It wasn't hard for Merle and the other guards to convince the residents to move to the prison. The rising tension in the town had been bad enough, but the tipping points were the severed heads and a walker who used to be a child locked up in a closet. Though the Governor was dead, the residents really didn't want to stay in that town any longer. The relocation went smooth enough, with the knowledge that the prison had better defenses than Woodbury.
As it turned out, Andrea had been one of those residents, even sleeping with the Governor. Though she'd had no idea just how psychotic her lover was, she still couldn't grasp what had happened. In her grief, she packed her things and left. Merle had put together some extra supplies for her in a show of good faith, and she disappeared down the road.
Preparations to continue making the prison more livable, before the residents could arrive, happened quickly. The group worked to patch up the remaining breaches in the tombs and cell blocks, with the added help of none other than Tyreese and Sasha. I'd have to go and visit them later.
I'd have to pay everyone an individual visit, at some point. I passed them all as I went. Glenn and Maggie were organizing a run with a few new people. Beth and Carl were hanging out with Judith at a picnic table. Hershel was swapping medical advice with the newly-arrived Doctor S. T-Dog was with Oscar and Axel down by the fences popping walkers through the chain link. Merle was having a beer and a laugh with some of the ex-Woodbury guards. And Daryl and I walked side by side, observing everything, and taking it all in.
We stopped near the main gates, looking out over the fields. Rick was down there, sowing the freshly-tilled garden. I could tell from here that he was working diligently, but he had a slight stutter to his step. Daryl explained just how tired Rick was, and that he even hallucinated Lori a few times last week. He snapped out of it with help from Hershel, but he was mentally exhausted. Up until this point, with me being gone, most of the leadership roles had fallen on Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, and Hershel.
I couldn't help but grin. "Kinda like a council."
He shrugged. "Guess so." He put his attention back on Rick. "Can't help but feel sympathy for the guy."
"Yeah," I nodded. Unlocking our fingers, I slowly dropped Daryl's hand. "I need to have a word with him in private."
After a moment of hesitation, he stroked a hand against my cheek, nodded once, and walked away.
I made my way through the courtyard, trying to not bump into anyone on accident. But it happened anyway.
Just as I was opening one of the gates, Michonne appeared. She stood there, deliberately getting in my way. She was also smiling at me, almost appraisingly. "So you're the mysterious Layla," she commented, and I could hear that her tone was good-natured.
I chuckled a little. "I guess I am."
She stuck out her hand, which I instantly and firmly shook. "Well, it's nice to finally meet you."
I smiled widely. "And it's nice that you're finally home. How you been?"
"Better," she answered. "Now that the Governor is in the past. How you and Merle came up with all that insanity is beyond me." She paused. "But I'm glad it all worked. He was deceiving and manipulating too many people."
"No problem," I said with a wry smirk. "It's kinda my job to raise hell on occasion."
She chuckled a little. She then gestured in the direction Daryl had disappeared to. "They've told me all about you. It's a wonder they can last a day without you."
"They're tough," I stated. "Every last one of 'em. They know how to take care of each other. I'm just the muscle."
For some reason, she was shaking her head slowly. "If you say so," she said.
There was a loud pop and a fizzing noise. We looked towards one of the picnic tables to see beer suds spraying everywhere. It looked liked Merle had given a shaken can to one of the guards as a prank.
Michonne scowled. "Still pissed at him for shooting me."
"Yeah, I would be, too," I said. "He give you anymore trouble?"
Her scowl faded. "Surprisingly…No. I don't exactly know how to feel about that."
"Don't worry," I assured. "If Merle is ever itching for a fight, he makes it obvious. If you and him keep having issues, you have my full permission to kick his ass."
She smiled. "Might do it just 'cause he's earned it."
"Well, let me know if you do," I smirked. "Just so I have enough time to grab some popcorn. Now, uh, if you'll excuse me."
I tried to step around her as politely as I could…only to see that Rick had mysteriously vanished from the field. Where had he gone off to?
"How do you know me?"
I spun to face Michonne again. "What," I asked.
"How do you know me," she repeated. "Because I have no idea who you are."
I shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm from the future."
She gave me a bizarre look, most likely questioning my sanity. "Seriously. How?"
I paused, and then shrugged again. "You're family. You belong with us. It's up to you what you wanna believe."
Her brows were knitted together as she analyzed me.
"I gotta go find Rick," I said. Before I left, I clapped her shoulder. "Welcome home."
Her smile came back, though she was still scrutinizing the hell out of me. "You, too."
I entered C Block, and it took some time to find him. He was up on a catwalk, staring out the barred window, looking in on the prison by his lonesome. I climbed the stairs to join him, and he looked at me.
"Heya, stranger," I greeted.
"Hey," he said, and I could hear the raspy fatigue in his voice. "I've been meanin' to welcome you back, but I knew you'd probably be bombarded by everyone else."
"I thought that mighta been your thought process." I noticed the bags underneath his eyes. "How's it going on your end?"
He exhaled through his nose. "Been better."
I rested my arms on the railing in front of us. "Some people have filled me in about you – In confidence, that is. It's none of my business at the end of the day."
We talked for a while. About Lori, about the sudden amount of people, about the Governor. I also filled him in about Carol, which he didn't have much to comment on, other than that he was happy she was alive and well. When the topic of conversation circled back to the prison, he perked up a little, but not by much.
"We made quick work of the breaches," he relayed. "Then the rest of the cell blocks came easy. We're still workin' hard to make this place a home, but…we're nearly there. I know we are." He grinned at me. "Even closer now that we have our jack-of-all-trades back. We'll need your input, especially with the fence walkers."
Something about his tone was very off to me, almost resigned. It wasn't as if he'd given up, but more like…he was accepting something. I hummed under my breath. "Well, I'm not surprised by any of that. Remember when I said you were a stubborn son of a bitch?"
"No," he shook his head slowly. "No, it was all them, Layla. Our people. They made sure to keep things together in your absence as best they could." He closed his eyes and ran a hand down his face. "I…I can't do it right now. Leading. And they know that. They make decisions together now. And I'm proud of every last one of 'em." He opened his eyes to look steadily at me. "Unless you wanna be leader."
My expression was neutral. "I'm not a babysitter."
He shrugged. "Coulda fooled me. You and Daryl kept things in tight order right after I lost Lori. Something I wasn't able to do."
"I won't be a leader," I told him firmly. "But make no mistake that I'll still be a voice. Who would I be if I didn't give verbal ass-kickings?"
He managed a chuckle. Suddenly, he sobered and stared out the window again. "I don't hate you, you know. You said durin' the winter that I did." He shook his head. "I don't know what the right word would be…other than for the fact that I rely on you. But I don't hate you."
My first reaction was to say 'Give it time', but I didn't, because…I had given him time to ruminate on that. And this was his response. I listened to his words, knowing that he wasn't lying or sparing my feelings.
We both stared out the window for a long while, watching the sun fade behind the trees beyond the fields and fences.
Eventually, I turned to face him. And I stuck my hand out. "You ready to start living, Rick?"
He looked down, then back up at me, and he gave me another smile. He grasped my hand with a firm shake. "Yes. I sure as hell am."
That night, up in the guard station, waiting on Daryl to come to bed, I laid down on the mattresses. I had ear-buds in, with the chord plugged into my beat-up little iPod. I stared up at the ceiling while I listened to my music, my smile relaxed and without worry, for the time being.
There were still things to think about, threats and obstacles that were bound to get in our way. However, none of those things were currently threatening my home or my people. We would deal with them as they happened, and plan for what we could in the meantime.
I didn't know why I had to relive the beginning of the apocalypse. I didn't know how I'd been brought back. All I knew was that I was ready to live, too.
I turned the volume up on my iPod.
Have a Drink on Me was the next song queued up on the screen.
Please read if you have the time:
When I posted the final chapter of 'The End...Sort Of', I told my editor that I had no idea if a sequel was going to happen, and I was honestly happy to end it there if need be. I did have some of it already planned out, and I knew that I would once again be changing a lot of canon, but I didn't have anything written yet. My editor told me that I deserved to take a break...and that break only lasted a week. LOL. And then, another week later, we had the entire sequel fleshed out and pretty much completed, aside from a ton of editing and polishing that needed to be done. I had no idea where that sudden burst of motivation came from, but I'm glad I got it.
Both of these stories have technically been in the works for quite a few years now, from daydreaming, to planning, and then to actually writing them (including the rewrite). This series, for some reason, means a lot to me. It's also wonderful that other people seemed to have enjoyed it as well.
Thank you so much for reading this series. Me and my editor have appreciated every single comment, kudos, subscription, favorite, alert, and bookmark. If you decide to leave a comment, please give a shout-out to my editor. He worked just as hard as I did on this series. Once again, thank you to all of you.