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Repair Broken Men

Chapter Text

July 20, 2010

~*~SW~*~

"Chokehold's illegal!"

The redneck's hoarse scream just makes Shane tighten his grip, genuinely afraid Dixon will actually kill Rick if let loose. The man is frightening in his grief. "File a complaint."

"How about I take that complaint and take Dixon off your hands?"

The combination of the unfamiliar voice and the redneck suddenly going limp makes Shane loosen his grip and drop Dixon to the ground. He turns to stare at the strange woman, who stands at the edge of the camp, hands on her hips. She is dressed in military gear, with her dark hair braided up tight. The only thing out of place is the bow sling around her chest in place of a rifle strap.

Before he can reply, Dixon is on his feet and has nearly tackled the woman, bringing her into a crushing bear hug. She returns the favor, keeping a wary eye on the crowd that gathered during the fight, murmuring softly to the redneck in some language that was neither English nor Spanish.

Nothing could surprise Shane more than Dixon replying fluently in the same language before finally giving her enough breathing room to wriggle within his grip to better face their audience. He notes she is careful to keep the arm she'd brought free of the hug near her right hip, not far from the pistol strapped to her thigh. The shift brings his attention to the name tape on her BDU shirt, and he glances to her shoulder for her rank, wishing the service branch tape wasn't obscured by the redneck.

"Staff Sergeant Dixon, if you can keep him that calm, by all means," he replies. It earns him an assessing look, although the expression turned absolutely artic when Rick moves to stand beside him. It makes him focus on the fact that while her hair and skin make her appear Latina, maybe Asian, her eyes are a vivid pale blue. A network of scars litters the left side of her neck and lower jaw.

"Officer... Friendly." The second word couldn't have been more inflected as an insult if she called Rick Officer Bastard instead. And the intake of breath from those who made the Atlanta run meant it is important. Shane might not have Rick's easy way with people, but he has an instinct for bad blood between people that rarely fails him. The woman now eyeing his partner is definitely carrying a grudge.

"Mrs. Dixon, I think we're off to a bad start," Rick begins, only to be cut off.

"Staff Sergeant Dixon." It is snapped out in a tone that left no room to imagine she is going to be placated. "We'll just be on our way, once Tihu gathers what belongings he doesn't want to leave."

That rouses Dixon and damned if Shane isn't going to confuse himself with the surname in a way that hadn't mattered between the brothers. Daryl then. "They left Merle behind in Atlanta," he growls.

"I know. That's what took me til this morning to come to find you. Had to snag Merle off that roof and help another group this asshole got stranded with his wild west show." She moves her free hand slowly to untie a mesh drawstring pouch from a strap on her uniform, tossing it at Rick's feet. It lands with a thud. "I'm afraid your handcuffs met with an accident, Officer."

Rick tries again. "Merle was out of control up there on that roof."

"He was higher than a kite, but that doesn't justify him being left to die of heatstroke or be eaten alive by those dead things."

T-Dog steps in, looking remarkably sheepish for such a large man. "It was my fault the key got dropped, but I locked the door with chains."

That only draws the chilly gaze to the big man. "There was more than one door on that roof. Do you think for an instant if it had been one of the rest of you that it'd be the goddamn next day and no one's mounted a rescue mission?"

Daryl snorts. "Not worth your time, Scout. These folks decided Merle and me were useless rednecks the second we hit camp, even if they did gobble up every bit of meat we brought in."

"Wait, Scout?" Glenn's voice startles Shane as he steps out from behind the Jeep to get a good look at the woman, who was on the other side of the vehicle when she approached the camp and the scene of the fight.

"Glenn?" A bright, genuine smile breaks out across her face.

The Korean nods, bouncing a little. "Does this mean Cricket made it okay too?" he asks.

"Yeah, and she's going to be over the moon that you're safe." She tugs gently out of the redneck's embrace and throws out an arm in an obvious offer of a hug. Surprising them all, Glenn accepts, before exclaiming, "Oh my God, Merle's your dad!" He then is overtaken by a spell of giggles, which earns him a tentative pat or two from the woman.

"First time anyone's ever laughed over stating my paternity," she says, glancing to Shane's group as if one of them had the answer to the boy's unexpected hilarity. Shane is still trying to wrap his mind around Merle having fathered a biracial child. He probably isn't the only one.

Glenn calms. "Um, not that. All this time, everyone has just been assuming, me included since we never met," he waves a hand at Daryl. "He's a cop too. No wonder he was yelling chokeholds are illegal."

Andrea scoffs. "No way Dixon's a cop. He's a dopehead just like his brother."

Normally, Shane is the one who rubs new people the wrong way. He acknowledges that facet of his personality, even used it to advantage while a cop, but apparently there is already enough asshole going around. He narrows his eyes, trying to remember if he's ever seen the younger Dixon brother acting strung out and drawing up a blank. Merle was high more than he was sober since they came to camp.

"Wow. That stick wedged up your ass so far it hinders your thinking?" The look of complete disdain from the woman, whose uniform displays she is a Marine now that Shane can see the other tape, is withering. "The state of Georgia sure as hell has employed him as a cop for damn near a decade."

This is going to get out of hand in a hurry if Shane judges Andrea's expression correctly, so he intervenes. "Ranger?" he queries, going with his best guess. Trooper or a GBI special agent wouldn't have let himself be part of the background like Daryl has, and the man definitely doesn't strike him as a university cop in the least.

It seems he startled Daryl with the question, but the man nods. "Sergeant in Region Three." He levels Andrea with his best glare. "And my brother ain't usually a dopehead. He went off the deep end when he thought his kids were all dead."

The blonde woman doesn't look convinced, but Staff Sergeant Dixon interrupts. "If I don't check in soon, they're going to think the worst." She unhooks a walkie talkie from her belt, waving it in Shane's general direction. With half the camp loosely circled behind him watching the spectacle, he supposes it could have been any of them, but he nods anyway.

Raising the walkie, she keys it on. "Mockingbird to Gator. Found our missing Ranger and tell Kersee I found that Kimchi Pizza she's been missing. All quiet down there?" Glenn sputters out another round of giggles.

The walkie crackles back in reply as a man replies. "Gator here. Seeing some shuffling activities from the city. Nothing we can't handle yet, but Revere and Badger have taken out four just in the last ten minutes. Might be building up a herd coming this way." It pauses and then crackles again. "Kersee wants to know if you're delivering that Pizza to her or just letting her know it didn't get eaten in Atlanta?"

"I'll get back to her on the delivery question. Hold the position for another ten minutes while we take care of business. Should give you a better bead on whether it's a herd or not."

"Gotcha. Report back in ten."

She returns the walkie to its place on her belt. "Tihu, why don't you go pack up yours and Merle's camp while I see if Glenn's agreeable to being delivered?" Daryl snorts and shrugs, walking off from the group as if the fight never happened and he has no more care about their opinions with his niece back. He probably doesn't.

Shane jumps in while he has the chance. "You got military, more than just you?"

Shaking her head, she sighs. "Wish I had even a full squad, but I can't even boast a full fireteam right now. Blount Island had already fallen when I reported in, and the naval installations at Jacksonville were gone too. Ran into a navy major there that had been bitten, lost most of his men as the city fell alongside the base. Last orders I got, of any type, were to take the few Marines left standing that didn't have families to return to and rescue any civilians I could and get my ass back to my family." She rubs at the back of her neck, surveying the crestfallen faces, obviously realizing they were hoping for something more. "Had three Marines coming out of Jacksonville and nine civilians, four of them under eighteen. One of those civilians is a wildlife officer and another's a firefighter, so not without skills, but there's worse out there than the dead walking. Lost a good Marine to an ambush and nearly another when we found out that you don't have to get bitten to turn into one of those things. We learned the hard way."

"I don't believe it. The news said it was all bites or scratches," Lori exclaims.

"Believe whatever you want, lady. I'm guessing y'all have been cozied up here in camp for the most part, but I know I watched a good kid bleed out from a bullet wound to the throat and then rise up two hours later and try to eat us before we could get her properly buried. I personally inspected every inch of her body and there was nothing but that first goddamn bullet wound and the one that put her to rest for good."

Rick twitches uneasily, and Shane glances his way, wondering what he's seen on his journey here that has him looking like he might halfway believe the story. He turns to Shane, urgency in his tone. "We need to go back and get that gun bag I dropped then."

Lori squawks a protest but is interrupted by Scout. "Big duffle dropped near that poor horse in Atlanta?" she asks. Rick nods. "Long as me and my uncle make it back to our people safe, it'll be tucked up in that brush pile by the boulder to turn off up here. Near two months traveling through Florida and Georgia has me a little paranoid about the goodwill of a group I don't know."

Shane feels his eyebrows raise as he looks at her in a little disbelief. "You're going to just give us a bunch of guns?"

She shrugs. "Guns are noisy and inefficient. More likely to draw in more dead or living with ill intent. More trouble than they're worth if you've got alternatives." She reaches back to swing the compound bow she wore in the bow sling from her back to hang at her side and pats it. "Much safer and quieter for ranged work. Blunt weapon or edged weapon for up close." That makes him note that she has something else still strapped to her back in addition to the quiver and a large knife sheathed on her combat vest.

A noisy thump accompanies Daryl tossing a duffel into the bed of his truck. "You want me to load the bike up or ride it?" he calls out to Scout.

"Load it up. Too noisy with the dead on the move today. Can't believe you two idiots brought that down with you. Shows neither of you does well without female supervision!"

"You don't say," Glenn mutters, then looks sheepish when Scout looks at him. Apparently, the young Korean is allowed the comment, because she just pats him on the shoulder.

"You coming or going, Glenn?" she asks.

He squirms, looking to the people grouped in front of the RV, then to where Daryl throws his bagged up tent into the back of his truck to join the duffel, then back to the group. "There are kids here, Scout. And without your dad and uncle, no one to hunt. So they need me to do supply runs. You know how it turned out when I took that group."

She fumbles in a pouch on her pants and pulls out a small notepad and pencil, scribbling something down before tearing off the page and giving it to him. "Memorize that address. There's a radio setup there if you don't have a CB handy if no one steals it. It's not where we're heading, exactly, but it's within radio range if that place has stayed safe and secure. Set it to the channel of your apartment number and call for Buffalo Bill. I can't make any long-term promises. If things are bad there, we might head into the mountains. Tihu worked that area pretty steady for years, so he knows the best bolt holes." Blue eyes meet Shane's, then sweep over the group, noting the women and children, then back to Shane. "We're going to be in the area for another two or three days, clearing a few places for supplies. Promised I'd help the other group out from the city, and they've got elderly depending on them. Need a good stock of meds. Figure I've got the manpower to share some up to y'all."

"You and your group could stay here, at least as long as you're in the city. Make it easier if you're willing to help out and maybe you could show some of us how," Shane offers, ignoring the outraged gasps from behind him. Lori, for sure, at least one more. He hasn't gone on any runs before, worried to leave the camp with so few able-bodied men. He was a dumbass for letting Merle go along on the Atlanta run as it was. Rick is going to shove in and take over the group, he figures. Best to have more skills on offer than his gun.

Scout at least does him the courtesy of thinking it over - and even Rick doesn't interrupt her thought process. She studies the camp, assessing the setup. "Not entirely sure there's enough room," she says at last.

"Just how big is your group?" Rick asks, incredulous.

"Adding in my two lost sheep and counting myself, thirty-five. Took that rescue civilians order from Major Ballard just a little bit seriously. Collected them up in twos and threes over half of Georgia."

Almost twice the size of their group, Shane realizes. "Bunch of civilians here."

"Yeah. But a large number of the adults here seem pretty happy to be rid of my dad. Didn't figure any of you were going to want to repeat the experience, and I'm not entirely sure everyone in my group would be entirely comfortable here either."

"We're good people here," Rick insists. "Your father was on drugs and beat up T-Dog. He had to be stopped."

"Didn't say he didn't deserve a good beating, Officer. But none of it was worth the death sentence your group tried to dole out."

T-Dog looks anguished, surprising Shane with the evidence of the beating Merle gave him still so obvious. "Um, is he going to be okay?" the black man ventures.

Scout looks surprised at the inquiry. "He's blistered to a dangerous level from the sun and was suffering from heatstroke when we got to the roof finally. The drugs in his system sure as hell didn't help his case there. But he'll live. Won't be happy for a week or two until the sun exposure heals and he gets through the worst of the withdrawals. We'll manage that. I should ask the same of you." She indicates the damage the man carries. "Got someone who can look you over if you'd like."

"You've got a doctor in your group?" Shane feels hopeful for the first time in a while. He ended up with a group with very few skills applicable to the disaster they are living in now.

"Veterinarian, actually. It'll be amusing to see his face when my daddy puts two and two together on that one. But checking for broken bones and such works much the same. Saved one of his daughters from some..." She glances to the children within earshot. "Really, really bad men. He decided being the only grown man looking after three females on a remote farm wasn't safe anymore, few towns back."

Rapists. Goddamnit, she has to be avoiding calling the men rapists with that look to the kids and the emphasis. That's all they need to have to worry about, Shane thinks as he meets Rick's worried gaze, then some of the other men's. He didn't miss her ambush talk earlier either. The dead didn't shoot guns.

Daryl approaches, reaching out to grip Scout's upper arm. It doesn't seem to be a grab, but more a reassurance that the woman is real. "M'ready when you are."

She tilts her chin toward Shane. "We've been invited to share camp for a few days, til we clear out of Atlanta"

He frowns and replies in the unknown language from before. Replying in kind, the discussion goes on for a couple of minutes in front of their increasingly baffled audience, including a couple of understanding glances to the children by Daryl, before the walkie crackles back to life.

"Gator to Mockingbird. It's a motherfucking herd."

Shane is pretty sure Scout cursed in at least three languages. He knew the Spanish, another sounded like maybe French, but he isn't sure if the rest was all the other language she's been speaking.

"Mockingbird here. How many?"

"At least forty. Still some movement in the distance though, so maybe more. We'd clear out and meet you at the checkpoint, but if they stay on this same path, they're headed right for your current location, next 24 hours or so."

"Load up for a pull-out, but get those capable to the high points and thin out as many as you can. Move out if you need to. I can clear this location if need be. No chances. No noise."

"Acknowledged. No chances on your end either." The walkie falls silent and Scout finally turns her attention back to the others.

"We still don't know why, but these things cluster up sometimes and move out in bigger groups from towns or cities, and they're more vicious than normal when they do. The population Atlanta has, with how close your camp is, an actual herd is a real possibility. If all that's broken off is forty or so, they can handle that, but I'm not taking risks on it being more than that. We had to route completely around Macon after we had over a hundred of them on the move south of the city. I know y'all haven't encountered them like that, since they haven't been leaving Atlanta in the same numbers, maybe because of the firebombing, but this camp is like a damned all-you-can-eat-buffet with everyone all spread out." She winces when one of the children began to cry, but doesn't apologize.

"We've made it just fine until now. How do we know that you didn't just lead them out of the city?" Lori demands, Carl clutched to her.

"Lady, if anything riled them up in this direction, it is your group. Officer Friendly here rode into town on a damned horse and firing off his gun like it was some sort of John Wayne film. That kinda racket is like throwing chum from a shark cage with these things. You want to hold on to your uppity pride and sit here waiting on the next herd to come rambling through, be my guest. You're not my family to look after."

"We can go help," Daryl offers as she begins to pace, obviously anxious that she is here rather than with her group.

"Wouldn't get there in time. Gator's good to lead without me there." Hooking the walkie back to her belt, she looks back to Shane. "I can't make you pull up stakes on the possibility they might have more than they can handle, and we'll have at least a couple hours warning if they do have to clear out, but can you please get the children out of the open? Things can be replaced."

Shane turns to Dale. "Dale, okay for the kids to go in the RV? Moms too." The older man nods, opening the door to usher first Miranda Morales and her children inside, then Carol and Sophia. Lori stays stubbornly in place until Rick moves to tug Carl from her arms and push the boy toward the RV. They have a heated, whispered argument that Shane tries desperately not to watch. His brother returned from the dead and coveting his wife is worse now than it was when they first fell into bed together in the camp after the Atlanta firebombing.

Scout stops pacing abruptly. "The duffle bag." That makes Rick and Lori's argument pause. "Faster down the hill and back if I have a ride," she says, turning expectantly to her uncle. Daryl fishes out his keys, heading for the truck. They are gone before Shane thought to suggest going along.

"Probably just an excuse to abandon us," Lori spits out. "I bet she's not even really in the military. Or deserted."

"She's on her third enlistment," Glenn interjects, surprising everyone. He normally avoids confrontation as if it were the plague, especially with the women. It reminds Shane that they have someone with personal insight to the Marine and getting Glenn to gossip is like taking candy from a baby.

"How do you know her?" he asks, interrupting whatever else Lori had been about to say.

The Korean shuffles a little. "My roommate in Atlanta is her younger sister. I never met her dad or uncle, so I never associated Merle and Daryl with the Daddy and Tihu that Cricket was always talking about. I mean, Dixon isn't exactly an uncommon last name, and they didn't talk about their family in camp, so..." He looks guilty that he didn't figure it out. "We've only been roommates since Thanksgiving or so, but Cricket talks on Skype almost nightly to her sister. But Scout? She enlisted out of high school, served in Iraq and Afghanistan both. Got really hurt last fall, purple heart and some other medal you get for rescuing another soldier. She's been at the VA hospital in Tampa doing outpatient rehab." He pauses, looking around earnestly. "She's the real deal. Her siblings were on an end of school trip down in Florida to see her when things got bad. I really thought they hadn't made it. Been checking our building on my runs to Atlanta, just in case. Even left a message for Cricket about how often I try to do runs so we could meet up if she did make it back to Atlanta."

"What the hell, Glenn? You left details about the camp?" Shane can't help himself from barking out the accusation.

"Well, unless someone's fluent in Korean and breaks into that particular apartment building, we're pretty safe." Glenn squares his shoulders.

"That language she and Daryl kept using... that Korean?" Rick asks.

"No. Um, Chamorro, I think. But I can't swear to it, because Scout speaks like five or six languages, and I honestly don't know how many Daryl might know too. But I know he speaks Chamorro because English isn't Scout's first language. Pretty sure Merle knows it too because I've heard Cricket on the phone to her dad and they don't speak English half the time. That name Scout was calling Daryl - Tihu - that's just the Chamorro word for uncle."

"Where's that from?" Dale asks, curious even as he eyes the road, where the rumble of Daryl's truck returning to camp can be heard.

"Guam. Their mom's from the island originally, met their dad when he was stationed over there in the Marines."

"Merle as a Marine. That's a bit of a scary thought," T-Dog mutters. "But I guess that explains the whole... racist with kids that aren't white. Lots of military guys like wives from overseas."

Any further gossip is interrupted by the truck coming back into camp. Scout hops out, dragging the duffle bag with her and dropping it at Rick's feet. "Can't hurt, even if gunfire's a bad idea normally. Better than nothing. Anybody other than you two cops and the guy with the rifle know how to even use a gun? Because if they don't, friendly fire risk is more dangerous than the damned dead things."

"Yeah, Ed can. He's got a rifle. Andrea's got a pistol. Morales can shoot too. We haven't had the ammo to spare for anyone else to learn," Shane replies as Rick sorts through the bag, fishing out ammo for Shane's gun and passing it to him.

"Best for them to opt for something with a blade or enough weight to crush a skull then. Baseball bat, machete, ax, hell, even a shovel works if you swing it right." She glances toward the road as if she can see all the way to wherever her people are engaging the walkers. "Don't think they'll let anything by unless it's more than they can handle, but just in case." She reaches behind her, unstrapping a heavy club the length of a cane from her quiver with practiced ease and tossing it to Glenn, who catches it after fumbling a bit. "Shillelagh. Works just like a baseball bat."

"I can't take your weapon," Glenn protests.

Scout only laughs and pats the knife strapped to her vest. "Even if something's too close for my bow, I still have a backup, plus my pistol. And I can replace that just as soon as I'm back with my group." She turns to Shane. "We've got enough extra of the quieter weapons that I can spare enough for everyone to have something if they're willing to learn how to use them without lopping off their own hand."

It is interesting, that she keeps referring to him instead of Rick, Shane thinks. Even as deputies, he noticed people tend to gravitate to talking to Rick first, probably the earnest trust-me expression he constantly wears. Shane never had his kind of optimism. He saw the writing on the wall last night, that Rick will take over, the returning hero who fought his way back to his family and is trying to resign himself to it. He left his brother behind, after all. But the Marine seems intent on treating him as the camp leader and it is a balm to his ego, especially since she seems to have little tolerance for Rick. If they stay a few days, it will be interesting to see how the two work things out.

"Guess that means you are going to bring your group here for a bit?" Ought to verify that, after all.

"Yeah. Talked it over with Tihu. He doesn't like leaving y'all without some improvements and said it's as good a base as any to finish up our errands here. I'd suggest enough supplies to be able to relocate to somewhere secure. Gated community, school, something with a good heavy fence. Those stupid old jokes people make about bears and campers? 'What's a camper in a sleeping bag to a grizzly bear?' 'A burrito' That's the reality now. Out in the open, in tents, people are just burritos waiting on the dead to arrive."

Surprisingly, Rick seems to agree. "We should check out the CDC. They'd be working on a cure for all this."

"You're welcome to go by and bang on those closed up shutters, but from the looks of it, the CDC went into lockdown. Protocol there isn't likely to allow civilians inside, no matter how bad things are outside. If it did, they'd have someone out gathering survivors in the city, and the other group we met, the one with the nursing home, says they've seen nothing from them at all. Just a lot of bodies outside where the troops protecting the facility got overwhelmed by the dead. They've been going by because they figured if anyone had meds, it'd be the CDC, but no luck. This whole thing is a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Everywhere we've been, there's no government presence at all. We took I-75 up into Georgia, worked around some of the biggest damned traffic pileups I've ever seen. Made it to Albany, figured we could try the Marine Logistics Base there, but they fell, just like Blount Island and the navy at Jacksonville did. We're on our own, best I can figure. Just clusters of survivors."

"What about Fort Benning?" Shane asks. It is a lot bigger than the bases she mentioned, a city unto itself really.

"Even if they managed to hold on, most of their troops would have been deployed as emergency measures. We've come across uniforms of all branches, hell, even Coast Guard, where they tried to protect towns and resources and were just spread too thin. Military installations are targets now, of the ones who've gone lawless. They know there are supplies, guns, ammo. Mostly the smaller ones like the Guard depots, but if there's not a good chunk of the military there at Benning, I'd be afraid to clear out a safe space there. Be like a sitting duck, just waiting to be raided and everyone knowing where the base is to come looking. Not to mention that Columbus was the third-largest city in the state even without Benning's population count. Some of the survivors I've picked up said they were setting up camps there like Atlanta. No city with evacuation camps seems to have held so far." There is hesitation for a moment as she seems to struggle with how to phrase something. "But if you folks really feel you need to make the attempt to go there, we'll help you get the supplies for the trip. My people... I'm taking them north."

The walkie squawks, and she unhooks it to exchange the same greeting as earlier with the man on the other end.

"Fifty-three dead put to rest," he reports. "Not counting the four that Revere and Badger took out beforehand that didn't seem to be part of the herd. Been clear for five minutes, so we're going to retrieve bolts and arrows and make sure they're all at peace."

"Stay safe," she acknowledges. "When you're done, we've been invited to the camp for while we're in Atlanta. Ranger and I accepted the invite."

"We'll check in when we head your way then. Give us about half an hour."

Scout acknowledges the request and put away the walkie. She looks around the campsite. "I need to park eight vehicles, most the size of the RV here, most pulling twenty foot or so trailers. Prefer to circle most of them up, like the old wagon trains. Gives a safer place for tents. Think I can get them over there away from y'all's RV. Provide another point of protection for your camp if we edge up to the trees since ours can be secured."

Shane doesn't even bother to look at the others. Her group has a doctor of sorts and is willing to help them out. "Sounds like a plan."

Chapter Text

July 20, 2010

~*~SW~*~

As Scout and Daryl step forward to the line of vehicles and begin speaking to the driver of the leading school bus whose bright orange had been obscured with a liberal helping of paint to appear camouflage, Shane uses the moment to step closer to the people gathered near Dale's RV. No one objected openly to the newcomers as Scout detailed a few ideas on areas to go for safety and shared a few stories of time on the road while they waited on the other group's arrival. Her attitude toward the group was brusque with everyone except Glenn and strangely enough, Shane himself. But he figures if objections are going to happen, now is the best time.

"Having them here's going to benefit us," he says, directing it at Rick mostly. Dale is too kind-hearted to refuse the other group, even if they don't actually need to be here. Glenn is a given, considering his personal connections. T-Dog's guilt over the key incident will keep him quiet. Most of the others don't care, too curious about this other group, but Rick has to be on board because he can already see the look in Lori's eye that she is going to raise hell for some reason he couldn't fathom, other than Scout calling her uppity. Andrea may follow suit since she obviously has taken Merle's asshole nature personally.

Rick runs a hand through his wild curls. "She seems like good people, but we'll have to see. No one here seems to like the Dixons."

"Apples don't fall far from the tree," Lori mutters. "Anyone raised by Merle Dixon is going to be as trashy as he is."

"Guess that makes me trash too," Shane says, crossing his arms defensively. He didn't come from the affluent side of town they grew up in like Rick and Lori did. He only managed college because of the football scholarship he landed. Maybe his daddy hadn't been a strung-out racist like Merle was acting in the camp, but he liked his liquor more than his wife and kid, leaving Shane's mother to work two jobs to put food on the table while his dad drank his paycheck.

Rick looks horrified. "Hell no, Shane. You're my brother."

"Cricket just finished her first post-grad year at Emory," Glenn adds. "Had a full ride to Georgia Tech before that." A stubborn look settles on his features. "Being her roommate was a sweet deal for me because her dad was paying the rent and we just had to split utilities and such."

"What was she going to Emory to study?" Dale asks, looking genuinely interested. Jacqui and T-Dog look thoughtful.

"She was going to medical school. Honestly, I don't think we know Merle. The man we saw here just doesn't fit all the stuff she told me about her dad. Guess he's a walking advertisement for all those 'don't do drugs' campaigns they shove at kids."

"Do you know where their mother is?" Rick asks, making Shane realize he should have wondered that himself.

Glenn shrugs, angling to watch where Scout and Daryl have the caravan of vehicles almost situated in a circle, except for a platform truck and a midsize SUV that is parking at an angle back toward the road. "Cricket said her parents divorced when she was pretty young, like kindergarten age. She didn't mention her mom at all other than to tell me that, so I don't think she's been around for a long time. Maybe she went back to Guam? I dunno."

Whatever else they are going to get out of Glenn is interrupted by someone bailing out of the second RV as soon as Scout finishes a conversation through the driver side window after it is parked. The tall brunette makes a beeline for Glenn, hugging the guy so hard Shane is afraid he'll end up with broken ribs. Glenn doesn't complain, grinning ear-to-ear and returning the hug. "I knew you'd be okay!" she exclaims. Her overwhelming enthusiasm is a bit contagious, especially with the smile that graces her features, more rounded than her sister's but with the same jet black hair and vivid blue eyes proclaiming their relation. There's been a lot of reunions of those thought dead or missing these last two days. "Oh God, I gotta get back to make sure Daddy doesn't barf up that last round of electrolytes or pull out his IV, but we so aren't leaving you behind again, pizza boy!" With another squeeze, she is gone before anyone got in a word of greeting, jogging back to the RV and disappearing inside.

"Is she always so..." T-Dog trails off, clearly a bit overwhelmed by the new arrival.

"Energetic?" Glenn finishes with a grin. "Yeah. I used to look for her stash of Red Bull until I realized that's just how she is."

More people began to venture out of the vehicles, but no one else approaches the quarry camp residents. They watch Daryl pair off with another brunette woman, who is geared up in a lighter version of Scout's outfit, looking more hunter than military, especially with the bow slung on her back. They head in one direction out from the circle of vehicles, while a young man in Marine gear and a different woman head in the opposite direction.

"A bit geared up to be hunting," Shane mutters, but before he can call out to Scout, she finishes an intense conversation with a tall black man in similar Marine gear. The man climbs up the ladder on the side of one of the buses, taking a stance to look out into the scraggle of trees, obviously keeping watch, a crossbow strapped to his back. A woman climbs one of the RVs, plopping down one of the stadium chairs used for back and butt support at ball games, and takes a seat with her legs dangling off the side, staring off down the approach road while she fiddles with the compound bow she carried up. A double watch. They are definitely taking security seriously. Two men and two women approach the deluxe livestock trailer one of the trucks is towing and begin tugging things off that remind Shane of a heavy-duty version of the temporary fencing used at big events, but no one else left the vehicles. Scout unslings her bow and hooks it onto the back of the trailer, shedding the combat vest and rolling up her sleeves on the BDU shirt. She leaves the vest and bow to head back their way.

"Alright. Got everyone underway to set up camp," Scout announces. "Hope you don't mind that I sent folks out to do a perimeter check. The girls are still learning the ropes on how to do one. This place will be good practice for them."

"You sent girls out into the woods?" Lori questions, tone full of censure.

The look Scout levels at her would make a lesser person cower away, but Lori always had more than her share of piss and vinegar to go around. "The lack of a penis doesn't make them incapable of securing a camp. Only advantage that damn appendage ever gives is the ability to piss on a tree outdoors instead of having to do a tripod squat."

Shane isn't sure who coughed out a laugh, but he actually suspects Andrea. Even her anti-Dixon sentiment can't override her blatant feminist ideals, apparently. "Not our business as long as her people are good with it," he states. He wondered if Lori realizes the irony of her objection, considering how much time they spent in the woods.

Scout meets his gaze assessingly and waves a hand toward the two people atop vehicles. "The two standing watches are Jamie and Karen. He's the one that was on the radio earlier, otherwise known as Corporal Nichols. If you can't find me for any reason, he's my second for our camp. The other guy on patrol is Danny, and he's our third Marine. Good kid, didn't even have a full year in the Marines under his belt before the world went to hell. The girl with him's Tara. She was a rookie officer down in Warner Robins. Literally still in her first ninety days on the job. The other girl's Maggie. She's one of the vet's daughters and was doing solo supply runs before we arrived at their farm." She slides those pale blue eyes back to stare at Lori. "Both of which are over twenty and plenty old enough to decide what roles they want to take on. I'd served in a war zone by the time I was their age."

Dale opts for peacemaker. "As Shane said, it's not our business as long as it's what they want."

"There are no idle hands in our camp, and even the kids keep pretty busy. Not going to send the actual kids on patrol though. Merle should be pretty much confined for the next day or two. The medically inclined folks have him on an IV and are getting electrolytes in him as they can, and I'm pretty sure they still have him on that muscle relaxer they started so he'd quit shivering so bad his teeth rattled. A couple folks have been taking turns keeping his skin wet. We've got the power from the solar panels to run fans, but not feasible to keep him in air conditioning." She indicates that the four largest vehicles all have a full array of solar panels. Even the school buses were modified with solar panels on the roofs. "I think they'll be happy enough once he stops looking like he's pissing tea, since they got his temp down from 106, but all that combined with the withdrawal means he's not going to be up and around right away."

"Oh my god. That fever is like coma level," mutters Jacqui, looking horrified.

"Yeah. Well, luckily, we've got plenty of saline, for now, to keep him hydrated. Being close to a water source was one of the reasons I accepted the offer to stay. Makes it easier to keep his temp down. Daryl's going to go through his things again to make sure he didn't miss anything the last time he destroyed his stash. How the hell he found more on that run, I'll never understand."

"Do you mind if I ask what they're doing?" Dale asks, motioning toward the quartet with the fencing pieces. Each piece is being hooked into clamps to the rear of one vehicle and the hood of the next. They dropped a panel on one of the buses that obscured the space below the vehicle between the front and rear tires and also pulled a heavy mesh screen between trailer and towing vehicle to cover the gap above the hitch.

"Fencing the camp. We have a couple of folks we rescued after one of the dead somehow managed to go under an RV and ended up biting someone on the ankle. So we don't leave any gaps. Watch standers can only keep their eyes peeled in so many directions at once."

"And if you had to leave in a hurry?"

"Everything can be released from inside if it's not safe to be on the ground. Better to lose the materials than get someone hurt. They'll leave the opening closest to this camp as an entry point, but everything else is sealed unless you can climb the fence panels. As far as we've encountered, climbing is something the dead can't do. Makes it reasonably safe for those who sleep in tents, because even with all that, there are not beds for everyone anymore, and we're already a bit longer of a caravan than I'm comfortable with. The rest will pop out when the fencing's done. Everyone's always a little jittery after a herd. I don't know if you noticed or not, but the drivers all stayed put except for the Subaru. Every vehicle has at least two people who can drive it, which is tricky with everything but the SUV. Even the two younger teenagers could manage that one, but I sure wouldn't want either of them attempting one of the buses."

"How many kids do you have in the group?" Rick asks, looking curious despite himself. Shane knows her lack of consideration toward him probably rankles with his partner.

"Six teenagers old enough to drive, two that aren't. Six kids that are twelve and under. Youngest is three, and you'll see him with a variety of guardians because we found him and another girl not far outside of Atlanta. Her mother got them out of Atlanta when the refugee center fell, but she got bit. If one of the kids is misbehaving, just snag whoever's on the RV watch to identify which adult to report them to."

"And the adults?" Shane asks. Fourteen kids was a lot, even if several seemed to be older teens.

"I don't know if you'll manage to memorize them all, but the ones you'll need to keep in mind I haven't already named are Patricia." She pointed toward one of the women helping fence the camp. "She serves pretty much as quartermaster for us. She'll put together some supplies to bring over as soon as she's done if someone can go let her know what's needed and useful. Bearded fella helping her is Ryan. He's the wildlife officer from Florida. He and Sam." Another gesture toward the blond man in the driver's seat of the truck pulling the livestock trailer. "They're good hunters, so they won't be in camp all the time. Then there's the medical personnel. Hershel's the white-haired fella driving the closest RV. He's the veterinarian. Lilly was an oncology nurse before. Zach just finished his paramedic certification but hadn't sat his state exam yet. Cricket's in med school if Glenn didn't share, and Jamie's got three years on a degree in kinesiology. Hershel's been working all three of them with what he is calling a medical apprenticeship. That's Zach and Lilly on the other fencing pair."

Her walkie chirrups, with a different male voice this time. "Revere to Mockingbird. We met at the central point and no sign of anything other than squirrels so far. Gonna switch off partners with Ranger and rotate back. Taser bagged her first rabbit too. Nailed it with the slingshot even."

"Give her my congratulations. See you in ten."

The quarry camp kids and mothers are back outside now, drawn by curiosity about the newcomers. It means Carl is no longer able to keep quiet. "Why do you call each other the code names?" he asks.

Unlike her cool or even antagonistic looks toward his parents, her attention to the boy was bright and smiling. "It's a privacy thing, in case anyone is on the same frequency. Most of them are pretty basic, like we call Jamie" - a hand waves toward the man on watch on the bus roof - "Gator because he grew up in Louisiana, and Revere on the radio just then, he grew up in Boston."

"And Ranger is Daryl? Because he's a wildlife cop, right? Taser... I bet that's the girl you said was a rookie cop."

"Got it perfectly."

Carl grins, happy with his deductive skills and the attention of a new adult. "Can't figure out Mockingbird though. Is it because they're really strong and fierce? The ones that nested by my school playground used to flog kids if they got too close to the nest, and they killed a crow one time."

"You know, I may borrow that for the next time someone asks me that question. But really, it's after a book. There's a book called To Kill a Mockingbird and the main character is called Scout. The guys in my unit weren't as creative as you."

"Is Glenn really going to be Kimchi Pizza then? And what's kimchi?"

Glenn sputters.

"Kimchi is a very distinctive Korean food, and Glenn was working for a pizza place in Atlanta. So it was a way to let my sister know who I found, without using his name over the air. We'll probably pick something nicer."

"Thank God," Glenn mutters.

"Just don't let the kids make suggestions. Cricket was nearly Doc McStuffins if they'd had their way. She's much happier that we ended up calling her Kersee instead."

Carl giggles. "Does she use a lot of bad language?"

That actually brings the adults back into the conversation. "Jackie Joyner-Kersee," T-Dog murmurs. "He's too young to know who she is, I bet." When Scout arches a brow in question, the man shrugs. "Glenn mentioned she ran track at college. It wasn't a big leap."

"Good guess. She just about cried watching the Atlanta Olympics when her hero couldn't complete the heptathlon." She turns her attention back to Carl. "Ask your dad to tell you more about her. But T-Dog's right. It's for the Olympic track star."

"Your sister do the heptathlon?" T-Dog asks.

"Used to. Dropped back to just hurdles this year. Never thought it'd turn out to be put to good use in a world like this, but makes me glad we all played sports and kept in shape. We were off on a backpacking trip of all things when things went sideways. Came back to civilization to all hell broken loose."

A clang draws her attention to where the fencing project is finished. People began to emerge from the vehicles now, and included among the people were something Shane hasn't seen since Atlanta was bombed... Dogs.

One or more of the kids makes an excited noise. Scout aims a fond smile in their direction before giving a low whistle. All three dogs go on alert. Shane knows one is a hound of some breed and another looks like a pit bull, but he is unfamiliar with the third, a big mottled dog with pale eyes. When Scout calls for Augustus, it is the unfamiliar one that responds, trotting forward obediently to sit next to her at a hand command. He wears what Shane realizes is canine armor and a thick neck guard, and a glance to the other two confirms they wear similar items.

"Big fella here is Augustus, but he'll answer to Augie just fine. He's a Catahoula, one of the best hog dogs you'll ever see. Turns out to be a pretty good breed to have at your side against the dead. He's also a big marshmallow when it comes to kids, so you're all welcome to pet him." Not one kid looks for parental permission before plopping next to the patient dog, exclaiming over his blue eyes. "Other two - Liberty is the hound and Maverick's the staffie. Liberty and Augustus have been in my family since they were pups. Maverick, we rescued out of an abandoned animal shelter around Valdosta and he chose to stick with us. We take one or both of the hunting dogs on supply runs, but Maverick's the camp guard."

"Why is he wearing this?" Carl asks, indicating the armor. "It looks like the vests the K9s wore at my dad's station."

"It's very similar, although his is a catch vest meant to protect him originally from the tusks of feral hogs. It gives him some extra protection when he goes on supply runs now. It's got Kevlar in it just like police dogs wear."

"Does he have to wear it all the time?" Sophia looks sad at the thought of the dog constantly in the vest.

"No, we'll take it off in camp. He was just geared up because we were in the vehicles and that usually mean's he's on guard. They'll all keep an eye on things since they can hear and smell things long before any of us people can, so if they tug at your clothes or get between you and the woods growling, then get to your parents right quick or wherever they want you to go for safety." The four kids all nod solemnly, and the dog is living up to the marshmallow claim, leaning into the affectionate petting with obvious joy. Shane notes he probably outweighs the Morales kids and came close on Carl and Sophia. He can see a definite advantage in having canines in the camp.

She turns her attention back to the adults. "Glenn, if you'll snag you a helper and meet up with Patricia at the bus closest to the livestock trailer, she'll get some things together. I'm guessing if you were doing supply runs, you know what's most needed."

The young man nods, glancing between Jacqui and Carol, before spotting Ed and then motioning to Jacqui. "Let's go have the world's easiest supply run," he jokes and the older woman laughs, following him agreeably.

Shane takes a look at the still too pale face of his best friend and sighed softly. Rick will never ask for himself. "You said your doc could look over T-Dog, right? Think he could give Rick a check-up? Your uncle wouldn't have known since he was out of camp, but he was in a coma recovering from a gunshot wound when all this went down, only been awake a week. Keeps favoring his left side where he got shot." Lori makes a disgruntled noise, as if she wants to object but knows it is petty.

"Sure. Since there's two of them, why don't I just sent Hershel over here?" She studies Rick, and her gaze is a little less cold than it has been in facing him. "Maybe Jamie too. Once upon a time, you'd have had a month or two of physical therapy just for the gunshot alone. Bet you've been running on nothing but adrenaline all this time. I was lucky when this one happened to be able to rotate out of the field for a couple of weeks." She taps a raised, twisted scar about two inches above her right elbow. The movement brings Shane's attention to several small scars - some that look like burns - that decorate what he could see of her left arm. Those look a lot newer, similar to the ones on her jaw and neck. "And that it was an AK-47 and not an M16."

Rick sighs softly, looking more tired than Shane has ever seen him. It is as if mentioning he'd pushed his body beyond all limits has made him realize he exceeded his limits. "I don't think we really have time for PT in all this"

"Consider it a daily exercise routine then, because keeping in shape now is more important than any yearly physical you had to pass for the sheriff's department. Jamie can pull off my plan from the burn center in San Antonio to start with. Everybody has a plan to follow with my people, even the children since not everyone was a cop or military or athlete. For example, everywhere we've camped, we've worked on the kiddos' climbing skills. Several just aren't big enough for it to be safe to take on a dead one on the ground, so they've all been taught that if they can't get to an adult or a vehicle, climb the nearest tall object - whether that's a tree or a fire escape or a gutter spout on a house - up they go. That buys time for adults to come to the rescue. The only one who can't manage is Andy, the three-year-old, which is why he is never away from an adult, although based on how we found him and Isabelle, she's capable of climbing a tree with him wrapped around her. I've seen a lot of bravery the last couple of months, but I'm not sure anything beats seeing a fourteen-year-old girl twenty feet up a tree with a toddler tied to the trunk by her shoelaces so he wouldn't fall to the half dozen dead swarming below the tree. Said she got the general idea from a video game."

"Sounds like you run a bit of a boot camp over there," T-Dog comments. His tone is respectful enough that Scout quirks an assessing look his way.

"I figured going into this that if I wanted to keep civilians reasonably safe, they had to have skills. I don't expect everyone to drop and give me forty push-ups, but upper body strength and endurance are both as important as teaching them weapon skills. Lady up there on watch, Karen? She was a school teacher before. Now she had a bit of a head start because she was taking those overpriced classes at her local gym. Nowadays, I think she'd stand a good chance on Parris Island." She flicks her gaze to the heavy-duty wristwatch she wears. "I need to rack out before my watch shift. Anything you need meantime, Jamie's your man."

She strides off without waiting on a reply, pausing only to collect her vest and bow before disappearing into the same RV her sister had.

Chapter Text

July 20, 2010

~*~CP~*~

Carol isn't entirely sure on believing her eyes when Glenn and Jacqui return, carefully navigating the less-than-level land with two dollies loaded with boxes. Three young men, who look to be still too young to shave regularly, follow with their arms loaded with boxes. A teenage girl trails after them with a big plastic department store bag, her expression exasperated as she followed the boys. The girl zeroes in on Carol for some reason out of the women, sliding around the others to bring the bag to her.

"The boys are being stupid and couldn't just loop this over one of their arms. It's so immature." That remark is definitely directed at the teenage boys, who all flush.

Already suspecting what the contents of the bag are, Carol gives the girl a relieved smile when looking inside confirmed a decent assortment of feminine hygiene products. Glenn has tried his best to look for them, but he has never been able to bring anything back in quantity, and while Carol doesn't need them anymore and Sophia doesn't need them yet, she knows the other women will be grateful not to have to improvise. "Thank you. Glenn will be grateful not to have to hunt for these for a while."

The girl beams proudly, flicking her blonde braid over her shoulder. "Glenn and the other lady were both concentrating on food, but the surplus of these were on the trailer behind the watch RV. The boys have the other hygiene stuff - toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, water tablets, and stuff like that. I put in a couple different types of deodorant because I wasn't sure what everyone liked and we have probably enough for our group for two or three years. My daddy will bring over some vitamins and first aid supplies when he comes over. He's in charge of those supplies. Oh! I'm Beth." She sticks out her hand.

Carol shakes it, amused at the girl's bubbly personality. "Carol. My daughter Sophia is the one over there with Glenn and Jacqui." Those two have given Sophia charge of the food inventory notebook, and her look of fierce concentration as they passed food to Dale in the RV is adorable. No point in telling this girl about Ed.

"The boys are Jimmy, Ben, and Billy. Jimmy was staying with our family on the farm when everything went bad because his foster family left town. Ben and Billy came up from Valdosta with their parents and the Dixon group. Patricia says if y'all need anything else, to let her know since we've got plenty of extras and Scout is going to do more supply runs here."

"We'll be sure to let her know." Carol glances uneasily to where Ed has wandered up to inspect the food arrival. He shouldn't be that upset about her talking to a girl not much older than Sophia, but he is unpredictable at the best of times. She doesn't want his attention on the kind teenager. "I'll go put these away. Thank you again."

Beth smiles, taking the soft dismissal in the spirit intended, ambling back toward her own camp and stopping to chat with the woman sitting watch on the RV. The three boys pass their boxes to Jim and Shane and scamper after her as if their protector abandoned them. Carol sidesteps carefully around Ed, offering the bag to Dale. The older man looks inside and smiles, looking a little relieved. Since he seems to have adopted Andrea and Amy, Carol figures he worries about such supplies more than any of the other men in camp do.

"Look, Mama. There's a whole bunch of SpaghettiOs with meatballs," Sophia announces. Carol gives her a gentle smile. Her daughter adores the canned pasta, one of the few 'luxuries' Ed allowed the girl because they were so blessedly cheap.

Glenn laughs. "Patricia pretty much begged us to take them. Some place they found had like twenty cases, and she wanted to make room for other things, so she gave us two cases. Both buses have been modified like rolling grocery stores, shelving and all. Apparently, the younger Marine was trained in logistics, so they've got some expertise in stocking up and traveling as a large group. Patricia said they can help us modify something like that for us, either a bus or a box van, since using Dale's RV is problematic for larger amounts of supplies."

"Hell, they even sent over toilet paper," Shane remarks, making several people laugh as he flourishes a package of Charmin from the box he has.

Jacqui pauses after handing Dale a couple bottles of olive oil. "This stuff is nothing compared to what's in that livestock trailer," she says with a grin. When that gets everyone's attention. "Chickens. Apparently, the front half has been modified to keep sound muffled and all, but they've got a dozen hens and two roosters in cages in there. Patricia says they have crow collars on the roosters, and that while there weren't usually enough eggs to really share out for the adults, she'd send some over for making cornbread and for the kids to have a bit of a fresh scramble tomorrow. They couldn't really transport the other livestock from Hershel's farm, but the chickens were small and simple enough."

"Good eating if something happened where you couldn't keep up with them too," Shane comments.

"What's good eating?" Rick asks. He has finally emerged from his tent, where he and Lori retreated when a discussion turned somewhat heated, leaving Carl with Carol and Sophia.

"They've got chickens, Dad. Can we go see, if it's okay with them?" Carl pipes up. Rick looks uneasy, but caves under his son's hopeful expression and nods. Sophia declines at first until Carol gently takes the inventory notebook and shoos her away to follow Carl.

Carol keeps her eyes on the children until Beth obviously volunteers, leading them into the livestock trailer to the less visible area at the front. Jacqui follows her gaze, pausing in handing over food. "It's like they just took the apocalypse and rolled with it," the older woman remarks.

"I wonder if that's a topic they cover in the Marines... 'what to do when the world goes to hell'?" Glenn adds.

"They are treating it as a warzone or maybe a humanitarian disaster like a hurricane," comes Morales' reply from above, where he is sitting watch. "No supply chain coming from higher up, so they are creating their own. They really don't expect any help to be coming, at least not for a while."

Rick turns to Glenn. "She was talking about taking her people north. Do you know what that's about?"

The Korean shrugs. "Her dad owns a big property up north of Atlanta. She must be thinking she can keep it secure. I don't know much about the place. Cricket said normally she'd invite me home for Christmas, but they spent last Christmas in San Antonio because Scout was still at the burn center then. She didn't transfer to Tampa for the rest of her rehab until February, around Valentine's."

"I know we shouldn't be nosy," Dale says softly, "but what happened?"

"It was the same week I moved into the apartment. IED explosion somewhere in Afghanistan. It was bad enough they couldn't treat it in Germany, so I guess San Antonio's like the only burn hospital for the military. I dropped Cricket off at the airport but didn't meet any of her family then. The whole family was out there about a week before she came home, once they knew Scout was going to make it. Then she went back as soon as the semester was up and stayed til it started again, so her dad could come home after Christmas. I know her uncle took leave to go out after that until Scout transferred to Tampa since it was the closest polytrauma center to Georgia. It was kind of a crazy shuffle to hear about. I don't even want to know what the airfare cost."

"Polytrauma?" Carol asks softly, hoping Ed will just chalk it up to his usual claims of her being stupid. He doesn't like her asking questions, even if he does quiz her on what she overhears by most of the others letting her fade into the background.

"Um... it's when there's more than one thing they are treating you for. Kind of hard to miss the burn scars." Glenn shivers. Carol wonders just how much he knew that he isn't sharing. Burns alone sound horrific enough, but to have the adult family members standing vigil for what sounds like months, it was bad. "If all this hadn't happened, she'd be back on active duty by now. The trip was because she was finally discharged and was taking leave before reporting back to North Carolina. Cricket was both cranky and admiring because she was pretty sure she'd be back in Afghanistan before the year was up."

"I wonder why they didn't let her have a medical discharge," says Dale.

It is Morales who answers. "Military will figure out a way to keep someone with the right skills if the person wants to stay. Didn't you mention languages, Glenn? A polyglot who doesn't mind deployment is worth keeping, especially if they don't have dependents. Air Force wasn't hurting for Spanish speakers by the time I got out in '06, so we lost our extra pay for it if it didn't directly impact our MOS. That was the year they raised the cap to a grand a month if you spoke two or more languages they thought necessary."

"I know she speaks fluent Arabic because Cricket called her a big nerd for giving up part of her summers in high school to take Arabic classes. Then Cricket ended up doing the same to pick up Korean in college because she kept seeing a need for it volunteering at the hospital. She spent four weeks in Korea last summer. They both speak Spanish too, probably the younger ones as well."

"That'd get her on their good books. Post 9/11, they were always looking for Middle Eastern language speakers. They have studies about people who are bilingual before school age being the best at picking up new languages. Sounds like she fit the profile." Morales looks thoughtful as he keeps watch.

They continue passing food to Dale as the men speak, and Carol is feeling a trickle of hope regarding food for the first time since they made camp here. If the other group can teach theirs how they do this, she'll worry less about Sophia going hungry. It isn't like Ed will prioritize their daughter over himself on his remaining stash of MREs. Just this load of food will feed them for two weeks with Carol and Jacqui's careful rationing - and full meals at that. What Carol is logging is a good variety too, not just random items Glenn has been able to collect. There's even sugar and powdered milk and eggs, along with boxes of tea bags and jars of instant coffee, things that are more luxury than necessity here.

The last of the non-food items is passed into Dale's care and Ed has gotten bored and gone back to their tent when more visitors approach, this time the white-haired man who was pointed out as Hershel the veterinarian and the younger Dixon girl that was Glenn's roommate. Hershel carries a large bag like Carol has seen EMS personnel carry, while Cricket has a reusable grocery bag laden with something and a large red duffle clearly labeled as 'emergency kit'.

The older man stops at the group, studying them for a moment. His gaze is assessing in a way that almost makes Carol uncomfortable, and perhaps she is sensitive to men's moods, but she gets the feeling he doesn't necessarily want to be here. It is the same feeling she got from nurses and doctors the few times she sought care and avoided their wishes to report Ed. He finally offers a hand to Shane, introducing himself. "Who are my two patients?"

T-Dog leaves off where he's been stacking firewood Shane had chopped earlier when the pair approaches. "Might as well look at me first. Should be a quick one. Think the worst of it is bruises and the cut on my face. Had broken ribs before when I played ball, but can't hurt to check."

Hershel indicates for him to take a seat on an upturned piece of unsplit firewood. "You can take your pick of me or my assistant. She's been shadowing a doctor at Good Samaritan, so she's a fair hand as an assistant so far."

The big man thinks about it just long enough for Carol to wonder if he is weighing the pros and cons of refusing the Dixon girl, all things considered. He finally huffs a sigh. "Might as well let you keep up the training, Miss Dixon."

She gives him a half-smile, putting down the items she carries to rummage in the kit Hershel offered for a stethoscope. "At least you're unlikely to vomit on me. I swear, I did more laundry last semester working at the clinic that I usually do in a year. Thank God for cheap scrubs. Off with the shirt, if you don't mind." As soon as he complied, she works through an exam with gentle commentary, ending with listening to him breathe, completely ignoring their audience.

"I'd be happier if we could X-ray you because the bruising indicates some pretty bad blows to the ribs, but if you've had broken ribs before, we'll just have to go with the educated guess of them being bruised. I saw you were able to stack firewood, so you've got that range of motion too." She reaches for the shopping bag, fishing out a bottle of ibuprofen. "Take these as you need to help the swelling go down and stay off any supply runs for at least another two or three days if you can so we can reassess. That'll give us more time to check if it's a fracture."

T-Dog takes the bottle and smiles at the young woman. "Not sure y'all are planning on being here that long, but I'll follow doctor's orders."

Cricket snorts. "Short of a herd coming through, there's no way my sister's pulling out of here before she knows you're cleared medically. It's a personal debt for us." She gently reaches for his jaw, turning his head to study the bandage over his eye. "I'm going to take the bandage off. I'm guessing y'all just taped it shut?"

"No one knew how to do stitches and we were afraid we'd do more harm than good," Jacqui says.

"Smart move. Still in the 24-hour window to get it stitched up, and while normally it might be better left open, we aren't exactly in the best environment to risk anything like that right at your eye." She peels the bandage off, then eases the butterfly strips off one by one. The wound starts a slow seep of blood, obviously too deep to have scabbed over properly. Another dip into Hershel's kit retrieves a suture kit and a bottle of disinfectant, which she places on the camp chair beside T-Dog. "Here comes the brave part. Do you want to be only the fifth person I've ever stitched up or do you prefer Hershel, who has long since lost count of the critters he's worked on?"

The big man laughs, seeming more at ease the longer he spends in the young woman's company. "I think I can handle being a practice dummy."

"Alright. Next question. Lidocaine or tough-guy approach?"

"No point using up pain killers that might be needed later."

That gets him a nod and Cricket disinfects and dries her hands, before tugging on gloves. Hershel passes her a bottle of saline eyewash to irrigate the wound and then the suture kit. T-Dog gives a soft grunt of pain with each stitch, earning him a sympathetic look from the brunette.

"All done. Three internal stitches, four external. The external ones will need to come out in about four to five days." She rips open a packet of antibiotic salve and applies it liberally, before covering the stitched wound with a clean bandage. "We'll pop this off tomorrow and take a look, but if anything burns or seems off, come snag someone sooner. Keep it covered and dry. Special question. When was your last tetanus shot?"

"I honestly don't remember. Probably the last time I had to have it as a kid. Don't tell me you've got vaccines stashed in that bag too?"

"Fridge in the RV actually. We found a health clinic that had a propane generator as backup power for the medication storage and lifted everything they had for the riskier ones like hepatitis and tetanus. When we get all done here, you can follow me over and I'll get you fixed up." She fishes into the kit again, pulling out a snack size ziplock bag and a bottle of pills, flipping it to Hershel to get a nod of approval. "You allergic to any antibiotics?" When he shakes his head, she begins counting out capsules. "It's clindamycin. Take it three times a day for ten days. Try to take it with water if you can." T-Dog nods and accepts the baggie, tucking it into a pocket as he tugs his shirt back on.

Hershel waves a hand at Rick. "I'm told you're a week out of a coma after a gunshot wound," he states as Rick switches places with T-Dog and Cricket steps away, appearing that she doesn't intend to work with Rick. The former deputy is already unbuttoning his shirt without further instruction, shrugging it off to reveal a frame that has definitely suffered from his time in the hospital. "Any idea of how you made it so long?"

"Not sure about that. But there was a nurse on the floor who'd been... attacked. I kind of wondered if she'd stuck around and took care of me. Maybe she hid from the soldiers or was gone and came back. I don't really know." He lifts his left arm obediently as Hershel urges him, letting the veterinarian peel away the bandaging on his side. "There was power here and there, but it was erratic. None in my room."

Hershel studies the mostly healed wound. "I'm guessing being bedridden slowed recovery. You were shot when?"

It's Shane that answers, his voice hoarse. "May 24th. The soldiers gave up on the hospital on June 5th, and the main power cut out then. I couldn't get any vitals."

"Understandable. Without any monitoring equipment, it could have been tricky for non-medical personnel, maybe even for them." Hershel begins listening to Rick's chest after taking his pulse. "But I agree someone was taking care of you since that leaves a month and a bit unaccounted for. If you woke up a week ago, someone had to be getting fluid and nutrients into you. Depending on the hospital set up, they may have had enough emergency generator power to keep a limited part of the hospital going, especially if everything unnecessary was turned off. The biggest challenge would be keeping you cool, but if the generators were natural gas, that might go longer and allow some air circulation if the gas pipeline held near the hospital. Did the hospital still have water?"

Rick nods. "Yeah. Made myself sick drinking too much too fast when I was still disoriented."

"Then there was an electrical source somewhere, more than one. Most municipal water systems are dependent on electricity to continue to provide water. It's possible that the electricity came back up after the evacuation if essential personnel stayed behind to get it back."

"We had that big hydro plant up the river." Shane looks thoughtful. "Buddy that worked up there used to brag that it could run for years as long as the dam didn't get clogged up. There was an explosion at the hospital when the power went out in Rick's room. Might have damaged the infrastructure there."

"Did you have a nasal feeding tube?" the vet asks. Rick shakes his head. Hershel hums softly, dropping his stethoscope back to his chest. "Breathing's clear. I'd feel better if I had your records, but from what I can see so far, you're undernourished and dehydrated, but otherwise as healthy as can be considered normal under the circumstances. I'm going to guess they had you on peripheral parenteral nutrition via IV, since there's no evidence of a PEG tube or central venous catheter and you didn't have a nasal cannula, probably without whoever was your caretaker being able to adjust the nutrients every few days. I'm going to recommend gradual exercises to rebuild lost muscle and extra protein intake on top of regular meals. Your immune system is at risk right now, and I'm surprised you didn't experience any refeeding syndrome after so long. My recommendations will act as if you are, simply because I don't have the medical setup to test your blood."

"I don't want to take extra food for myself," Rick protests.

Cricket levels a critical look at him as she extends a large can of powder. "You'd rather endanger everyone by being in poor shape or sick then?"

When Rick doesn't immediately take the can, looking offended at Cricket's words, Shane does. Carol peers around his arm to see for herself as he turns the label and laughs. "All these years you made fun of me for drinking this stuff, brother, and now you get the experience."

Rick still looks unconvinced but reaches out to take the vitamins Hershel offered. He does a doubletake and frowns. "I'm not over fifty."

That actually gets a chuckle out of the older man. "No, you aren't. But your body requires a larger dose of certain vitamins and minerals than a regular vitamin provides, especially the B vitamins. Since controlling your diet is problematic, these are better."

Shane hands the can of protein powder to Rick, who accepts it reluctantly. "At least it's vanilla."

"The best thing you can do for your family right now is to get better, deputy," Cricket says, looking grumpy. "And we aren't going to leave y'all where anyone's going hungry because you're drinking a couple of shakes a day. And you need to drink two a day because we aren't exactly sitting in the land of lots of dietary protein at the moment. When you look at my sister, do you see her as unhealthy?"

The former deputy shakes his head. "She looks in top condition, actually."

"That's because she's accepted that her system is still in recovery, regardless of finally being free of the medical scene. We've specifically collected the extras to make sure she stays in top shape, and since you pretty much need the same nutritional treatment, the only person you'd be taking anything from right now is her. We've got it to spare because we pretty much cleaned out a GNC inside a RiteAid north of Valdosta. That was the point where we added the first bus to our convoy and left all the cars behind but the Subaru." She grabs the shopping bag and passes it to Carol. "Enough vitamins for everyone for about two months, plus basic meds like Tylenol, antacids, Benedryl, antibiotic cream. Plus bandages and other extras from our medical supplies to supplement this." She hoists the red duffle and passes it to Shane. "That one is pretty much a decent first responder's kit, but most of the meds inside are for one use, thus the bag of the larger sizes."

Carol looks into the bag, seeing the wealth of over the counter medications that all of them had taken for granted just three months ago. There were even packages she could glimpse that were clearly children's meds. "This is so generous," she says softly.

The young woman just shrugs. "Just being decent human beings. And like I said, we cleared out a RiteAid. Plus a few more pharmacies, to be honest. Wish we'd had Hershel and Lilly when we first got started. It wasn't fun at all standing behind the counter with a giant PDR trying to make sure what we took was useful for the space it would take up. There's two pharmacy sized bottles of antibiotics in there. One is amoxicillin, the other tetracycline. Both are broad-spectrum, but I've written basic dosages on the bottles with a sharpie. There's also a couple of EpiPens. If anyone here has meds they need, we can see if we have them, or we'll try to find them on a run."

"If it isn't too much trouble, I'm out of my indapamide." Carol looks at Dale in alarm. The older man hasn't mentioned being out of medication.

"Blood pressure?" Cricket asks. "Were you also taking a potassium supplement? I know they usually prescribed those together at the clinic when I was there."

Dale nods. "I've got some of those left but could use more. Glenn hasn't really had the manpower to get into the pharmacies."

Cricket glances to Hershel. "Scout was thinking of seeing if we could access the pharmacy at the clinic I worked at. Shouldn't need as much clearing as a hospital or bigger pharmacy. I hadn't intended to go on tomorrow's run, but might be best since I've actually been in the building before."

The older man nods and then Cricket turns to Shane. Carol has noticed that both Dixon females seem to have identified Shane as the group leader without any input from anyone, other than possibly Daryl. "Would anyone here have any objections if I took the female half of our camp down to swim and bathe? We've got solar showers, but it'd be nice not to be trying to set a speed record in getting clean while we've got that kind of water handy."

"Can't think of any reason not to. Menfolk will keep themselves up here til y'all get back," Shane replies. She smiles at him, pats Hershel on the shoulder where he is situating his kit, and dashes off, calling out what she feels is good news to the others as soon as she is in earshot.

The white-haired vet refastens his bag, turning a cool, assessing gaze on the still lingering crowd as Rick buttons up his shirt. The feeling that he doesn't care for their group intensifies for Carol - and some of the others too by the way folks shift uneasily. Hershel shoulders his kit, obviously intending to return to his camp without anything further said until Rick speaks up.

"We didn't do anything wrong," the former deputy insists.

Carol can't help herself. The look of absolute judgment that settles onto Hershel's gaze makes her take a step back.

"I'd believe it of the others, but you can't have it both ways, wearing the uniform of a sworn officer of the law and acting the way you did. If you'd left a man behind to die in the old world, you'd have lost your badge and you know it. Accept that you made a mistake and perhaps the bad blood can pass, but keep saying things like that? It'll just be a matter of which person over there finally decides to take a swing at you."

"I don't know what Dixon's said to you," Andrea begins heatedly, only to be interrupted firmly.

"There are currently seven folks over there that consider themselves Dixons, young lady. If you're referring to Merle, he's not been coherent enough to say anything about anyone, and I've not had the pleasure of speaking to his brother yet. What I do know is what the other group y'all left trapped had to say. I know what that poor boy that scaled the side of the building said when they got Merle back to my care, and I promise you, I'd stay far clear of that young man, the youngest Marine. He came off that building with a lot of rage he's not had time to work off yet and he doesn't have the control that the Dixon girls do. Not many people would be generous with your group after all's said and done, but you're lucky Scout has decided there's enough fault to share around and that it should be let go."

"She gets to dictate to everyone?" Rick asks.

"Son, I shouldn't have to explain to an officer of the law about leadership and chain of command. I don't know if you're upset she's a woman or she's related to a man you barely met or whatever is wrong, but you might want to remember we don't have to be here and the only reason no one's kicking up a fuss is because we've all had our share of mistakes since the world fell. You're not going to find a friendly ear against a Dixon in our camp."

"Even if one's a drug addict?"

"Guess you'd best disregard me as well then, Deputy. My drug of choice was always alcohol, and this?" Hershel swings a hand at the world in general. "Sent me off the wagon so hard when my wife and son died and turned that it's God's own miracle I lived to tell the tale. I had a twenty-year chip from AA and I was a deacon at my church. Twenty years sober and my wife and my boy were gone, and I was too caught up in grief to remember that I still had two girls that needed me. Living proof right in front of me wasn't enough, so I can't even begin to crawl inside the head of a man who thought he'd lost every single one of his children and say I wouldn't have done just as bad. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

Carol grips the cross at her neck, shivering. Hershel skipped the first verse, going straight for the one about even standards. As much as she feels Rick's plight deeply, wanting to do absolutely anything to get back to his family, he was content to take someone else's family away and ignore their own desperation at a perceived loss. They made no effort to go back for Merle and she wonders if they would have had Scout not interrupted the brawl between Daryl and the two deputies. The pessimistic side of her doubts they would have seen any value in it. If they can abandon someone who could contribute food and defense so easily, how can she trust them with her daughter's safety? The Dixons didn't want to be here. You could see that in every line of Scout's body language. But they came here and shared their food and medicine because of the children. It is humbling.

Rick seems at a loss for words and even Andrea looks taken aback. Shane takes a step forward, offering a hand to the older man, his gaze steady and even. Carol isn't sure if it is Rick's return or the arrival of the other group, but the big deputy seems more settled than he's been since they'd come to the quarry. Perhaps it is the presence of hope.

"We'll do our best," he tells Hershel. "Be good neighbors, while it lasts."

The veterinarian shakes his hand. "See that you do." He makes his way back to his camp, leaving everyone in various states of thoughtfulness. Carol isn't sure it will play out nicely the way Shane wants to promise. She startles at the gentle touch on her elbow, meeting Jacqui's troubled gaze. At least she isn't alone in her worries.

Chapter Text

July 20, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Shane has just climbed to the top of the RV, letting Morales off watch duty when a stricken gasp from below catches his attention.

"Oh Mama, that must have hurt so bad," Sophia exclaims softly. She sounds like she is crying or about to cry.

Looking toward where the girl sits playing cards with the other children and most of their parents, Shane can't see anything immediately wrong. It is Carol's own pained gasp that makes him follow her gaze to see where the women of the other camp are returning in the light of the setting sun from their swim in the quarry lake. It takes him a minute to register what has the girl sounding so heartbroken.

Scout is returning up the path in civilian clothing, wearing dark-colored cargo pants and what looks like a heavy-duty sports bra. He had noticed the scarring on her neck, jaw, and forearm earlier, but now the true extent of the burn scars is revealed. Her left shoulder and most of her upper arm are completely scarred, a larger mass than the scattered scarring her uniform revealed. It makes him wince at how bad it would have started out, to leave that level of scarring, and he feels guilty to keep scanning her body, especially after he spots the healed gunshot wound on her left external oblique about an inch above her waistband. Unlike the scar on her arm she'd indicated, this one looks no older than the burn scars. A vertical scar starts about two inches below her navel and disappears under her cargo pants. He shifts uneasily, feeling like a voyeur, although obviously, the woman doesn't seem to mind her scars on display if she is walking openly with them exposed. She seems at ease, talking animatedly with a short-haired black woman as they trail behind the rest of the women.

"She should cover up." Lori's snotty remark draws the ire of Jacqui, who startles out of her own staring episode from where she is standing at the RV door talking to Dale.

"She's got nothing needing covering up," the older woman states firmly.

"She's in nothing but a bra," Lori hisses.

"You think having your bra hanging out of all your shirts is any better?" The retort nearly has Shane fall off his chair. Jacqui doesn't normally tangle with Lori. "Ain't a soul in this camp doesn't know the color of every bra you own. And that's a compression vest, not a bra."

While Lori sputters in outrage, Carol turns to Jacqui. "Like for breast cancer?"

Jacqui nodds. "Had a coworker wear something like that after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. But they work for any kind of surgery to the upper torso where you shouldn't wear a regular bra."

He knows it is rude, but Shane can't help looking again, aided by the fact that both Scout and the other woman stop to talk to the man sitting watch on the RV. The burn scar from her shoulder definitely extends under the strap. He feels a little sick to his stomach as he wonders just how far it went. At least there didn't seem to be burn scarring below the bottom of the vest on her rib cage.

"No wonder Glenn didn't want to gossip about it," Carol says softly. She cuddles Sophia close and kisses the top of the girl's head. "Glenn said she was better now, Sophia. It probably did hurt a lot, but you can see she's okay now."

The man who took over watch duty when the ladies went to the quarry lake slid to the ground, leaving Scout to climb the ladder. She pauses halfway up, looking back to reply to one of the children who ran up. Her left arm is extended above her, holding to the ladder rung, while she accepts a water bottle from the curly-haired boy, and she doesn't seem to be in any discomfort from the scarred limb.

"Are you sure, Mama?"

"Yes, sweetheart. When you were looking at the chickens, Glenn said she was better and ready to go back to work when everyone started getting sick. It happened last year and she's been working on getting better."

Carol's words soothes more than just her own daughter, with the Morales kids hugged up to their mother seeming to relax.

Carl looks anxiously at his father, no doubt remembering Rick's own brush with mortality. Rick notices, drawing his son in close for a hug. "Remember they've got medical people with them, son. They looked at me and T-Dog earlier and made sure we were doing okay."

"What?" Lori turns to look at Rick, frowning. "When was this?"

"When you were napping in the tent. The vet and the girl that's the medical student both came. She checked over T-Dog and stitched up above his eye. Hershel checked me over and they gave us some vitamins and medicines for the whole group."

"Don't forget that protein drink he prescribed," Shane adds, causing half the group to look up to where he sits. Rick still hasn't opened the can of powder yet that Shane has seen. "He told Rick he needed extra protein and calories because he's malnourished and still dehydrated." It earns him an exasperated look from his partner, but if making sure Rick follows doctor's orders meant turning Lori's ire on her husband, he'll do it.

"How are we supposed to do that?" The brunette looks actually distressed. "We don't have enough to be worrying about the food pyramid out here."

Rick reaches over to rub her shoulder, Carl still snuggled close where he sits between them. "They gave me the protein powder, and you saw some of the food at supper that they sent over with Jacqui and Glenn."

Carl perks up. "Like Shane's milkshakes, Dad?"

Shane laughs. "Exactly the same thing, buddy, except his is vanilla instead of chocolate."

The boy pats his dad's arm consolingly. He enjoyed the occasional "workout drink" Shane made him when he watched the boy to give his parents some time to themselves on Saturdays. "Chocolate's lots better than vanilla. Even the strawberry is better."

"I happen to like vanilla best," Rick replies. Lori seems to settle at that, although she spares a nasty look for Shane as if him being present for Hershel's visit when she wasn't is somehow his fault. It isn't different from any other look he's gotten from her since Rick returned yesterday. He just has to endure.

Full dark arrives along with the rise of the nearly full moon when a girl heads over with yet another box and one of the cheap festival-style string backpacks slung over her shoulders. Shane realizes he is seeing another Dixon daughter, based on her close resemblance to the two they've met so far. He wishes he'd thought to ask Glenn just how many there are. She sets the box down next to Carol and flutters a hand over it, her focus mostly on Carol and Sophia, but she flashes a smile toward the two Morales kids. The seeming avoidance of looking at the others concerns Shane that maybe not all the Dixons are as forgiving as the two older sisters would indicate. "Patricia saw y'all playing cards earlier and asked Tihu if you had other stuff for the kids. He said not that he'd seen, so here's some games and art supplies and stuff. There's a portable DVD player in there and a handful of movies, plus a solar battery charger for the rechargable batteries in it."

Carol looks into the box, fishing out decks of several card games. From his angle above everyone, Shane can see a boxed chess/checkers game and assumes there are others within the depth of the box. "I haven't thought of some of these in years. Are you certain they aren't needed? Especially the DVD player and charger?"

The teenager shrugs. "We had extras. It keeps the younger ones from being scared if there's dead around and from being bored when we're cooped up or on the road. Plus never know what will be useful as a trade later. Not everyone we met wanted to come with us."

"So you've seen more folks out there than just yours and us?" Rick asks. Shane's idea that she's avoiding the rest of his group solidifies when she deliberately turns away from Rick to direct her answer at Shane instead. Rick frowns, unsure whether or not to be offended, but seems to let it slide based on the apparent youth of the girl.

"Some good, some bad. Good ones were trying to travel to family like we were. Bad ones won't be bothering any more good ones." It's stated matter-of-factly as if the girl has accepted the state of the world and moved on. "You're Deputy Walsh, right?"

"That'd be me."

"Glenn says you're a good man. Tihu agreed." She slips the drawstring backpack off and reaches for the ladder, hauling herself up just high enough to drop it at his feet. It rattles a little, and curiosity makes him reach out to tug it open. He laughs as he sees the half dozen Crosman air pistols and enough BB ammo for a small army. She surprises him by grinning. "I know you were a shooting instructor, before. Figured these would help you teach accuracy here without all the big bangs and wasted ammo."

"I'm almost afraid to ask how you know I was a shooting instructor." He doesn't think it had come up in camp. Most of the inexperienced ones just assume he can teach because he was a deputy, not because he'd taken further training and actually taught.

"You compete sometimes at the IDPA matches. Competitors gossip worse than middle schoolers. Considering I was a middle schooler when I started, I should know." She pops up to the top of the RV, dangling her legs over the ladder, and twists to offer a hand to Shane. He shakes it, impressed with both her grip and manners. "I'm Hannah Dixon, by the way, but most everyone calls me Honey."

Shane laughs. "You might be right there about the gossiping." He wonders just how old the girl actually was, as she doesn't look much older than a middle schooler now. "You sure you can spare the supplies?"

"Yeah. Air gun supplies get overlooked when people are looking for guns and ammo, same for archery."

Apparently, the others have grown tired of staying out of the conversation. "Why did you bring them instead of an adult?" Dale asks.

The girl huffs a long-suffering sigh. "I may look like I'm a tall twelve-year-old, but I'm not. I was an apprentice instructor at my range. Couldn't be a full-fledged instructor til I turned twenty-one, not that it matters now. I can probably shoot better than anyone here except the cops and the Marines. I'm also a level two certified archery instructor. Besides..." She makes a show of looking at her digital wristwatch, and the movement dislodges the pocketed vest she wears over her T-shirt enough that Shane glimpses the butt of a pistol in a shoulder harness. "Not sure it'd be worth splitting the hairs over less than eight days. Can't say something magical is going to make me more or less adult in a week."

The response flusters Dale a bit, because truly how do you say a week makes a difference in the world they were in right now? But the old man perseveres in nosiness. "So were you planning to be a police officer or military like your sister?"

Honey shakes her head. "Nope. Was going to college and then work for my dad. Was going to leave all the world-saving to my siblings."

That is the opening that Shane should use to get an exact headcount on the Dixon children. He thinks Hershel mentioned seven Dixons, but a high-pitched whistle draws everyone's attention to where Scout has the hatch open on the other RV, motioning inside. The signal must make sense to her sister because Honey gives a happy cry of "Daddy's awake!" and is down the ladder and off like the hounds of hell were after her. As soon as her sister disappears back into their camp and another watchstander climbs the ladder, Scout disappears too, although she goes headfirst through the hatch, using her arms to execute a flip into the interior.

"I swear, every puzzle piece we get for that family gives me a bigger headache on figuring it out," T-Dog says. "Was it just me, or was she pretty damn cold to everyone but Carol and Shane and the kids?"

Dale manages his usual devil's advocate role. "If you think about it, she probably isn't comfortable with most of us. Right now, the most impression she has of us is what happened to her father, aside from somehow knowing of Shane as law enforcement from before and noting that both Glenn and her uncle vouched for Shane. Could be why she's comfortable with Carol too, or that she's a mother. Hard to know just yet. The impression Hershel gave was that they are attempting to understand the situation. And she's young enough to not know how to handle that. From the looks of it, there's an age gap between her and her sisters."

"Well, hopefully, that excitement just now is a good sign. Couldn't say anything positive towards Merle before now, but his girls make good impressions," Jacqui says. "Someone did something right."

"How was her being so rude to Rick a good impression?" Lori grumbles.

"Well, considering some of the things Merle spewed around camp, I'm guessing it could have been a lot worse than a cold shoulder," Jacqui says. "She was over here to share without being asked for anything. She seemed to have an interesting case of hero worship for a certain deputy though. What is IDPA?"

"International Defensive Pistol Association. They run competitions at various gun ranges around the country, geared toward self-defense and real-world scenarios, versus the Olympic type shooting competitions," Shane explained. "Most ranges have a weekly competition, and I rotated around a few in the areas around Atlanta depending on my work schedule. Guess that pinpoints them living somewhere reasonably close. I'm trying to remember if there were any teenagers competing regularly, but I'm drawing a blank. Most of the ones I do remember are either cops' kids or aspiring cops, so that could be how I missed her."

"Does her being an apprentice instructor mean anything?" Dale asks.

"Means she's passed a good chunk of classes to convince someone to take on teaching her that young. Could be a favor for her uncle. I've been asked before, but it's not something I wanted to take on while still working." He thought of the pistol he'd glimpsed, decided not to stir the pot if no one else had noticed.

"Do you really believe Daryl's a cop?" Rick asks. The man had made busy setting up the other camp and hadn't stepped foot back over, so Shane could understand Rick's question. His only impression of Daryl was the brawl.

"I'll take Glenn's word for it, yeah. There would have been no real reason for his roommate to lie to him that I could see. And he said he was in region three. Didn't Leon talk about helping out a Sergeant Dixon with a poacher that was taking game in Newton County and was using Lake Jackson to get back to King County?" Shane scans the area he is keeping watch over, enjoying the relief that it wasn't a full 360 degrees at present. Rick nods, obviously remembering the incident as well. "It did always seem like the Dixons were biding their time here, staying apart from everyone, when Merle wasn't trying to piss off everyone off."

"Wasn't acting like a cop when he attacked Rick," Lori input.

"'All I am anymore is a man looking for his wife and son. Anybody gets in the way of that, they're going to lose.'"

Everyone's attention jerks to T-Dog. From the reaction of the Atlanta group, Shane figures the man is quoting Rick. The big man just shrugs, tapping the bandage on his brow. "It's what Rick told Merle after he held the man's gun to his head and Merle said he wouldn't kill him because he was a cop. Merle was down and restrained by then. I'm not placing judgment on Rick for it, because I'm enjoying an unhealthy satisfaction after it being the gun held on me. But it's the same sentiment that had Daryl pulling that knife."

"Grief. Fear that you've lost the last thing worth living for in the world." Morales says softly, cuddling his drowsy son on his lap. His wife leans into him, taking a deep breath. "We have certainly seen our share of miracles these past days. Some are overwhelming." He tilts his chin towards the other camp. Scout has emerged from the RV and is standing at Daryl's Ford, using the bulk of the flatbed truck as a shield between herself and her camp. Her hands are braced against the fender, shoulders shaking.

Before Shane really has time to wonder if something has gone wrong, since Scout certainly seems to be crying, Daryl hops over the fencing behind the RV to call out to his niece. His voice carries, but the word doesn't translate for Shane.

"Che’lu."

She straightens slowly and turns, and with the bright moonlight from the waxing moon, there is little mistaking that she's definitely been crying, but the brilliant smile that spreads over her features means it isn't from grief. Relief perhaps. Daryl spreads his arms and she folds herself into them. The pair are both crying now, drawing comfort from each other in a way unique to close family, and Shane has to look away. Their emotions aren't meant for display. As he looks to Rick, he remembers how it felt when his brother emerged from the truck, and he can tell that Rick feels the same.

It's Amy who breaks through the suddenly somber mood. "Anyone notice that Glenn hasn't come back since he went over to visit?"

Shane can see Glenn if he turns to look into the other camp. The ball cap the young man wears is distinctive. "He was featuring as a pillow for his roommate. Looked pretty content."

"Makes you wonder if they were just roommates," T-Dog notes.

"Her name is kinda weird," Carl remarks. He has a rubix cube out of the game box, toying with it in the firelight.

"I suspect it is a nickname," Dale says. "The younger girl said her real name was Hannah. So I'd guess that Cricket has a more formal given name. Probably Scout as well, although since she mentioned the literary character, it could be her actual name."

"There was a soap opera my granny used to watch that had a girl called Cricket," T-Dog says. "Think she was actually named Christine though."

"Young and the Restless." Carol looks a bit startled as she draws everyone's attention. "My grandmother watched it too. Used to watch it with her in the summertime as a kid. And yes, her name was Christine."

"Hershel said there were seven Dixons, so there's two more, if he was counting Daryl and Merle, or four more if he wasn't," Rick says thoughtfully. "We need to remember to ask Glenn."

"Or be polite and just ask one of the Dixons," Dale suggests. Shane figures he's probably right.

"I really hope Merle doesn't have seven kids, even if the ones we've met have seemed nice enough," Amy says. It draws a little round of laughter from the group.

"Will you go out on the supply run tomorrow?" Rick asks, looking up at Shane.

"Intended to. Figure Jacqui ought to go along as well, depending on how many people she wants to take out."

"Why me?" Jacqui asks.

"T-Dog and Rick could use some rest days, plus I don't know they'd be welcome just yet. You were in Atlanta, but they seem inclined to ignore that there were others in the group. Even with another group here, I don't want to clear out all of the ones who know how to shoot either. Plus you're familiar with Atlanta, and that's just you, T-Dog, and Amy that really know the city well other than Glenn. Didn't figure Amy would want to go on a run."

"I wouldn't be as much help as the others from Atlanta," Amy answers before her sister can voice the objection she obviously has. "I've lived here for six years for college, but I really didn't explore like a native might. Most of the time I went anywhere, it was with someone else driving. I don't exactly have good skills for it either."

"I don't think any of us do, really." Dale pats her hand.

"Yeah, fighting those things out there is real different than anything I ever learned to do before," T-Dog says, shuddering a bit. "Not sure anyone could ever be prepared for the way they smell, either."

"I just hope they can set up a bus for us like theirs," Jacqui says. "Don't know if they have the equipment to do all the welding, although Patricia mentioned the trailers hold a lot of 'hodge podge' they've collected as possibly needed while traveling like tools."

"Every vehicle has spare tires strapped to the roof or trailer tops. Essential with no roadside assistant or tire shops around." It's unusual for Jim to speak up, so everyone looks at him. He shrinks back a bit, but continues. "There's a lot of custom work done on the vehicles and trailers if you know where to look, not just the obvious like the fencing stuff and the grill guards. Those two pickups and the flatbed truck both have big gas storage tanks in the beds. Probably hold 50-60 gallons if they're full. Saw one of the men pull a wheeled gas can, a big one, off a trailer earlier and go put gas in the flatbed, SUV, and the Ford when everyone was just sorting out supper."

Shane knows the man is - or was - a mechanic, since he tinkered with Dale's RV a bit, but he honestly didn't expect him to be so observant. Normally Jim was so distant that Shane had reluctantly trusted Ed over Jim for standing watch. It also gave Carol some free time away from her asshole husband. "Could you make a list of supplies you might need to make sure all our vehicles are road worthy?"

Jim looks around intently, as if he's making a mental tally of the vehicles they have. It's the most life Shane's ever seen out of the man. "Biggest thing will be oil changes to make sure everything's fresh in the systems. Wouldn't hurt if I could test batteries and do other tune-ups. I'll check all the vehicles, but a few of them might be better to replace or leave behind, like your Jeep and the Morales' Suzuki. Both are soft tops. Not a lot of protection to passengers. If we're going to have supply vehicles like theirs, maybe we should plan ones that can carry passengers too. I'm hoping they have welding supplies they're willing to share."

That makes Shane think about the significance that all the other camp's vehicles had modified, heavy-duty grill guards, even the small SUV. Glancing over at the ones he can see best in the moonlight, he realizes that both the SUV and flatbed's guards are dinged up. He bets he would see similar wear and tear on the other vehicle guards. "Guess that's one way to manuever cars out of the way in a jammed highway."

"Or ram through a bunch of walkers," T-Dog says.

"That too." Rick laughs quietly. "I sure wouldn't have minded being able to just run some over. Where would we find some of those big gas tanks? Gas was the biggest problem I had getting to Atlanta. It's why I was on the horse. If we take her advice on getting out of a heavily populated area, gas will be harder to find once we do, so we'd want to collect it up while we're still here around the big jams that probably have a bunch of tanks full of gas. Not that I'm looking forward to siphoning gas."

"Usually need a farm supply store for those, at least where I've seen them before, so we probably can't find any before we leave Atlanta. Those wheeled gas cans may be easier to find. They'll siphon gas too with the crank handle. We used them in the shop where I worked. Probably can find them at a hardware or industrial supply place like Grainger."

"There's a Grainger not too far from here," T-Dog says. "I've picked up orders there on an old job of mine."

"They'll have welders and supplies too. Solar panels, tools, a host of things we can use," Jim adds. "We should ask if they are willing to see if it can be accessed."

"Alright. What about ideas on where we should go? Rick's mentioned the CDC, and I know I've thought about Fort Benning, but with the new information we have, both make me nervous," Shane asks. "How did King County look, Rick? You said there was still some power. If it's still up, that could be helpful getting an area clear and safe."

"We could probably use the station as a base, but if military locations are a target, I'd guess law enforcement would be too. Can't think of anywhere with a strong fence already in place, but it's an idea. At least we know that area well."

"Could build a fence of sorts pretty quickly with those containers that transport on trucks and trains," Morales suggests. "We had a neighbor back home who built a workshop by putting a roof over two of them with a open space in the middle. It'd use a lot of gas, but would be stronger than any fence you could build."

"Rick, we're idiots," Shane calls down. His partner looks up, curious at the sudden declaration. "What about the group camp down at the state park? It'd be dorm living, but we could close off the ones on the peninsula pretty easy with Morales' idea. Double back later with time to fence in the other buildings. Remote enough that I doubt any looters would be interested. And it's not like King County had a huge population. I only left with Lori and Carl because we were told to evacuate to Atlanta."

Even Lori's looking like she's considering it positively.

"We'll put it down as an idea. Might consider other state parks too. They're usually set up with septic, even if we might not have electricity. Wonder how hard it is to do a solar setup like theirs?" Rick is looking towards the other camp.

"Can't hurt to ask if someone will show us how they did it," Jacqui says. "But for now, something tells me that supply run's going to be starting with the sunrise, so I'm going to opt for sleep. You sure someone else can't take your watch shift, Shane?"

"I'll be good. Off at midnight and that's plenty of sleep by sunrise." Shane smiles at her, glad that at least one person thought of the fact he might need to change out a watch shift with going to the city tomorrow. "Besides, doesn't look like I'm the only one standing watch." At the other camp, Scout has returned to her watch shift, and from what he can tell, they're running the same four hour rotations on watch, so she should serve the same tonight.

Jacqui takes note of it as Jim stands and offers her a hand up. "Fair enough. I'll see you in the morning then."

They are the first to leave the campfire, but it triggers an exodus as the others drift off to their tents. The other camp is doing similar. Glenn has disappeared out of sight and Shane figures there might be something to the "not just a roommate" gossip, but they'll find out eventually. If it's true, they can't keep Glenn here. Everyone deserves a bit of love in this world, even if his own has slipped through his fingers.

Chapter Text

July 21, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Shane steps out of his tent, feeling groggy from the lack of good sleep, which led to him sleeping an hour longer than normal. Sitting on watch after everyone drifted off to their tents isn't usually a hard thing before the last two nights, but having to listen to Rick and Lori's 'reunions' is making the disconnect from the woman desperately hard to do. His head feels tangled up in all the wrong ways and he can't blow off steam by going to a bar and picking up a woman for the night here like he'd have done before the rare few times he let a woman get under his skin.

Carol gives him a gentle smile as he sinks into a chair, offering him a cup of coffee. He takes a sip, throwing her an assessing glance when he tasted the sweetness to the brew. The older woman is more observant than anyone he's ever met, except maybe his late grandmother. He isn't sure even Lori paid attention to him liking a spoonful of sugar in his coffee, not that they had a lot to spare. It wasn't a priority on Glenn's trips into the city.

"You missed the show," she says, looking amused. "Apparently, they start out their day over there Marine style. Whole lot of exercising going on."

"Seriously?"

T-Dog laughs. "She ain't kidding. Looked like those boot camp videos, shy of everything but a drill sergeant yelling at 'em. Even the kids were doing parts of it, except the littlest one." He indicates a boy barely more than a toddler who was up on the top of the watch RV with a dark-haired woman. Shane feels a pang of alarm at a kid that small up that high until the boy moves and he realizes he is not only wearing a harness of some sort but is hooked to a big eyehook on top of the RV, making it impossible for him to fall.

"Where's everybody?" Their own camp is mostly deserted, with Glenn on watch and just Carol and T-Dog around the firepit where Carol is stirring a pot of fruity-scented oatmeal.

"Ours are still mostly sleeping, I guess. Morales took his family and Sophia down to the quarry to wash up," T-Dog says. "About six of theirs went out on a patrol. Rest of them are eating breakfast, far as I can tell. Nobody's ventured over yet either direction unless you count Glenn stumbling outta that tent over there to take his shift last night." He raises his voice where Glenn could overhear the last bit.

"I keep telling you, T-Dog, nothing happened like that," Glenn protests.

The big man gives Shane a knowing look. "He slept in a tent with a bunch of women. That roommate of his didn't let him come back to his own tent last night. What would you think?"

Glenn growls in frustration. "What kind of asshole would have sex in a tent with a woman's sisters sleeping there too? That's just gross, T-Dog. Besides, Cricket likes girls. She was sharing a sleeping bag with Tara, not me, dammit."

Shane raises a brow at T-Dog, both clearly wondering if Merle - who made a fair number of anti-lesbian slurs toward Andrea when they got into an argument - knew his daughter had a girlfriend. Deciding to let the mystery go for now in favor of teasing Glenn, Shane grins. "That still leaves two sisters for you to be interested in."

The guy actually facepalms. "No. Just no. Honey's a kid and Scout's just terrifying."

The age difference between Glenn and Honey isn't really all that much, but Shane knew guys who were never able to make the mental break from 'friend's kid sister' to 'potential girlfriend'. Apparently, it is how Glenn's thought process goes, although Shane figures it is also a lack of confidence. He is fairly sure Amy would share a tent with the Korean if nothing else because Glenn is the only male her age in their camp.

The reply definitely amuses T-Dog. "Glenn, if terrifying is a turn-off for you, you're never going to get laid."

"Why are we talking about Glenn getting laid?" Andrea asks as she steps out of the RV, blinking at the sunshine. She even glances behind her into the RV, as if she needs to reassure herself that Amy hasn't wandered off to hook up with Glenn.

T-Dog seems to enjoy making Glenn squirm. "Our little Glenn didn't come home last night."

Andrea's gaze sharpens with interest. New gossip for the camp has been in poor supply, Shane supposes. "Oh really? Just where did you 'sleep'?"

The Korean appears to be lost for words, flushed and sputtering, causing even Carol to join in the laughter. Dale and Amy follow Andrea to the firepit area, looking curious.

"Glenn had a Dixon sleepover," Shane volunteers. "T-Dog's giving him hell, but I'm inclined to believe him about it being platonic. He swears one's too young, one's taken, and he's terrified of the third. Does that cover all the Dixon sisters?"

"Thanks," the kid mutters. "And yeah, just three sisters. There's a brother too."

"He the pretty one at the Subaru?" Amy asks, causing everyone to turn to look at the dark-haired guy messing with something at the back of the SUV.

"Holy shit. Dude's bigger than Merle," T-Dog gripes. "Those shoulders... he play ball, Glenn?"

"Yeah. Football, wrestling... and that weird sport with the nets on sticks."

"Lacrosse." Amy supplies the answer. "Used to travel with my roommate to watch the lacrosse games at our sister campus in Savannah. She'd hooked up with a player on the team. It's popular at smaller colleges that don't want to field football teams and about as brutal as football. Her boyfriend managed two concussions last season." Andrea looks a little pissed off at her sister's admiring watchfulness toward the youngest Dixon male.

"Honey had a scholarship to play it at college," Glenn says. "Cricket had told me I was obligated to attend when the season started next spring since it wouldn't be over an hour's drive anymore to attend."

"Scout was talking about up north and gave you that address," Shane notes. Daryl mentioned Region Three and that was east of Atlanta, so he obviously hasn't been living wherever Scout is taking her people. "While I can understand her need for security, can you share a general idea of where that is?"

Glenn is thoughtful for a moment, watching as Carol distributes bowls of oatmeal, leaning over to accept his while still on watch. Shane is beginning to think he wouldn't answer when he finally does. "North of Lake Allatoona." He eats a few bites before continuing, not meeting anyone's gaze as he speaks. "I know you aren't going to want to hear it, but if it weren't for the kids, I'd go with them. We can't stay here forever, especially if the geeks are starting to move out of the city."

T-Dog grunts in agreement, passing his empty bowl to Carol. "I sure don't want to be in a tent come winter, geeks or no, but I don't think some of us would be welcome."

"I don't want to be obligated to any Dixon," Andrea adds. "There's got to be other safe places to go. She was giving us a whole list of ideas yesterday, and Rick and Shane were thinking about that state park."

"Glenn." Dale's voice is gentle enough that the Korean finally looks at him. "We appreciate all you've done for us here, but if where you need to go is with your friends, we'd be wrong to expect you to stay."

"Dale's right." Shane twists at Rick's voice to see that he and Carl have stepped out of their tent, Lori right behind them. He looks away before he can get a clear view of her expression, not wanting to sour his day with the inevitable blame he'll see there. "Maybe they aren't your family, but they sure seem to consider you part of their group."

T-Dog sighs. "I think we're going to have fewer mouths to feed either way. Morales and his wife were talking about going to find their family in Alabama even before the Atlanta trip. And Miranda seems to be studying the other camp pretty intently. I wouldn't be surprised to see her go check them out. I'd probably do the same if I had kids."

"If we can get in the supplies while we have the extra manpower, Glenn, I agree with Dale and Rick. We can't keep you. T-Dog and I might've been giving you a hard time about where you slept last night, but you don't get dragged off into a tent full of females like that if they aren't considering you family and trusting to behave yourself. I think you've been adopted, by the girls at least." Shane has to laugh as Glenn looks a bit floored at that realization after he points it out.

Carol is handing out bowls of oatmeal to the latecomers, including Jacqui and Jim as they joined them when T-Dog decides to tease Glenn again. "Look, Glenn. Your new big sister's on her way over." Glenn throws his empty bowl at the other man, missing by enough margin that Shane knows he isn't even trying to hit him. T-Dog just laughs and retrieves the bowl to add to the other dirties in the bin Carol is keeping.

Scout is back in uniform, with Daryl at her side briefly before splitting off to go to his truck. Shane thinks it might be the first time he's ever seen the man in sleeves. The Marine comes to a halt near the firepit, giving everyone an assessing gaze. He isn't sure what she was looking for, but based on the amount of skin Daryl now has covered, he's thinking it might be their clothing.

"I'm going to take a smaller group on the run today. Cricket says there's a food bank warehouse near here that Glenn confirmed he couldn't get into without more firepower than y'all could afford, which means it's likely untouched. It'll be a safer training ground than an actual grocery store and less rotten stuff to avoid or discard since they usually stick to non-perishables. We're also going to try to sweep the clinic Cricket worked at since they might have a good supply of basic meds in their pharmacy depending on how soon they shut down services."

"How are you going to clear it out?" Rick asks, looking genuinely curious as he ate. "You said guns were dangerous in the city."

"Same way you distracted the masses long enough to get your people out of that department store, except with less human bait." Scout turns to indicate where her brother is working under the hatch of the Subaru's cargo area, just as a radio-controlled drone rises into the air and flies a couple of passes. He is studying the drone, paying his audience no attention. "Jazz. Turn on the squaller."

He grins, pressing a switch to something he has attached to the side of the controller. The drone makes a godawful racket for about two seconds until he lets off the switch. He returns to the test flight, buzzing the woman and boy on the RV to the toddler's extreme delight.

She turns back to her audience. "The drone can stay out of reach and usually leads enough away that we can pick off the stragglers. Can't take on a big mass like at the department store, since getting the attention of that many really does require something big and repetitive like that crazy ass driving Glenn did."

Glenn groans. "You saw that?"

"Nah. But the Vatos did. They were happy to describe the jodido imbécil to us. They were raiding the shops along the street parallel. Had a lookout that got trapped up on that tall building across the street from y'all since he couldn't exactly risk going down the fire escape without anyone to cover for him. He's the one that we could see from the street when we got to the area. Made us get my father off the other roof first. Miguel's a good kid for a former gang member. Gave us a really good description of what went down."

T-Dog looks like he needs a rock to climb under. "How did...?" He doesn't seem like he can finish.

"Couldn't access the building from the inside and y'all were in the one damn building with no fire escape. One of my men has a juvie record for urban climbing. He scaled the outside of the building and dropped ropes down to the three of us on the ground. Radioed back to the group and two drove the flatbed up and we dropped him over the side while a couple of others used the squallers to provide a distraction so we didn't get overrun on the ground. Miguel kept a lookout for us, warned us when the door failed on the second roof access that wasn't padlocked. After, he just dropped off the fire escape into the back of the truck. It's pretty secure with the stake sides in place. We got his people off the other roof the same way."

"How did you even know to come?" Andrea asks. "We radioed, but no one responded."

Scout shrugs. "Y'all are using police radios. Our rigs are civilian, so different frequencies. Heard enough gunfire to figure someone was in a bad way. The four of us were on foot, intending to scope out Glenn's apartment to see if there was any sign of him or where he went, since he was the only reason we didn't bypass Atlanta entirely. By the time we got through, y'all were gone. Missed y'all by about an hour, based off the car alarm. Couldn't exactly get directions out of my father, but we found Glenn's information yesterday morning." Her expression isn't exactly a smile, but Shane thinks it might be close. "Watched y'all for two full hours from that tree over there seeing if my uncle was actually in camp."

"You could have just walked on up," Dale says, looking puzzled. Shane feeels a bit queasy that someone literally spied on camp for hours with no one aware and he can tell Rick feels similarly.

"When the only information I had on this camp was pretty damning from a terrified teenager who wasn't a part of it, it wasn't worth the risk. I didn't recognize Glenn from that distance, so I waited. Worked out in the end."

"Hershel mentioned we should stay clear of one of your Marines," Shane says. "He the one with you in Atlanta?"

"Danny? Yeah. That's him there." She gestures to where a guy that looks barely old enough for his uniform joined her brother and is testing out a second drone. "He'll leave y'all be as long as y'all leave him be. He's just still having a time reconciling what desperation will drive men to."

"I'm sorry," T-Dog begins, but she waves off the apology.

"That's a peace you gotta make with yourself, not me," she says, not unkindly. "But Danny climbed onto that roof just in time to stop a very desperate man from sawing off his own hand to get loose of those cuffs. It gave me fucking nightmares even after serving in a warzone, so I don't begin to know what it'd brew up for a kid who's barely nineteen."

T-Dog looks like he wants to vomit. He isn't the only one. Shane wonders how the hell she can stand there and speak to them so calmly. If it was his family up there, regardless of fault, he'd still be out for blood. If the other Dixons know, it would explain Honey's inability to even look at T-Dog and Rick.

"With that considered, I'd understand if you didn't want to help us," Rick says. He sat down heavily on one of the chairs, his breathing a little labored. Lori pets his shoulder, glaring accusingly at Scout for his reaction.

Scout sighs, shifting her weight. "He wasn't left there out of maliciousness. Piss poor planning, but not maliciousness. That said, even if either of you were at full health, I'd be disinclined to take you on the run today. I'd switch Danny out, but he and Jazz are the best with the electronics and I can't take Jazz today in case Hershel needs someone big enough to move our father around. I need Tyreese today and he's the only other one really stout enough."

"How is your father this morning?" Jacqui asks. We heard he woke up."

"Better than expected. Coherent, for sure, which was a worry after the fever. He'll be on bed rest for today, probably one more."

"That's good to hear.". She gives Shane a smile more polite than believing. "How many of us are you planning on taking?"

"Just two. That's already including my uncle and Glenn in the inexperienced part of the group. Glenn knows the area, but not our system, and Tihu hasn't gone on runs with a group. That'll pair my four experienced ones with four that aren't on a buddy system. I was thinking you and one other."

Shane looks over the group for a minute, thinking over what they discussed last night and deciding Jacqui is still the best choice. "Jacqui's from Atlanta, so she's a good choice for a first run."

"Alright. Glenn, I'm going to pair you off with Maggie, Jacqui with my sister. Shane with me. Those are your buddies. Don't get separated." Scout looks to Shane and Jacqui. "Can either of you drive stick?"

Shane and Jacqui both nod. "Good. The vehicles we're taking out are all stick shift, although if we're lucky, one or both of the box trucks Glenn noted at the food bank will have keys and run. More drivers who can drive anything, the better."

Cricket jogs over, BDU shirts and tactical vests to match the ones the Dixons indicated for the supply run were wearing. She offers them to Shane, who realizes Glenn is already wearing a set as he trades watch with Dale. It is an odd look for the young Korean, even more than Daryl in sleeves. Shane realizes that the two vests are different, one with filled magazine pouches the other didn't have. Both have a red molle pouch that indicate it is a small first aid kit and a hydration bladder in the back pouch as well as three other filled pouches. He passes the one without the magazine pouches to Jacqui along with the smaller shirt. A quick check of the other pouches reveal two contained food - one with two packs of 3-day rations he knew were popular with survivalist types and the other with the type of food bars he was more familiar with from the gym. One of the food pouches has a mylar emergency blanket tucked behind the food and the other has a rain poncho. The third has a flashlight, headlamp, a pack of batteries, water tablets, moist towelettes, a small folding knife, something silicone he couldn't identify until he fiddled with it and found it was a collapsible cup, and what he is pretty sure are tubes of sunscreen and chapstick.

"They're hot as hell, but the material is resistant to tearing, which means more protection from scratches and bites. There's a few emergency supplies in the vest pockets. Those are the smaller medkits. Cricket's is a bit better, and Zach will be carrying a full medic kit since he's on bodyguard duty for the run. Water's fresh, about three liters." Scout explains, then reaches out to nudge one of the three magazine pouches. "Your Glock is a 17, right?"

"Yeah, but didn't you say you wanted to avoid gunfire?" Three magazines plus the one he already had in his gun is a lot of backup, especially if he grabs the two from his tent that normally clipped with his belt holster.

"Avoid, yes. But I won't have us unarmed if need calls for it, and only half of us going can use a bow, unless one of you two has a surprise for me?" Shane and Jacqui both shake their heads. "Cricket, go snag one of the Marauders, a tank, and a pouch of the magazines for the deputy." The younger woman jogs off, but a thought seems to occur to Scout and she turns to yell at Daryl. "Tihu, take your personal weapon instead of your duty weapon." Daryl gives her a thumbs up from where he stands with a gun lockbox open on the hood of his truck. He closes it and returns it to the truck, switching it out with a different lockbox. She turns back to Shane. "That'll at least keep us all on 9mm and the same magazines. His service weapon is a Glock 22."

"Thought the Marines used the M9," Rick notes, watching curiously.

"They do if their MOS or rank requires a sidearm issued, but if I've got to draw my gun, I'd prefer two extra rounds, and I'm using a Glock since there aren't any regulations that cover this particular FUBAR situation. Handled a Glock for years before I enlisted thanks to my uncle. Call it sentiment, like you and that pretty piece of anachronism." She nods toward the Python revolver he has holstered and Rick actually laughs.

Shane and Jacqui both suit up during the gun talk. He flexes his shoulders to make sure the shirt won't restrict movement and finds it comfortable enough. Daryl approaches, holding out a wickedly long sheathed hunting knife to Shane and a camper's utility ax to Jacqui as he directs a snarky comment to his niece. "You make it sound like I'm closer to Merle's age than yours with comments like that."

"Aren't you?" Amy asks, emboldened by the curiosity she doesn't bother to try to hide, unlike the others.

"Jesus Christ, no. I just turned thirty in March. M'only three years older than her." The redneck jerks his thumb at Scout. "Merle was sixteen when I was born."

"Wow. And I thought I was a bit of a surprise for my parents when I arrived when Andrea was twelve."

Daryl gives one of his usual half shrugs. "Merle said it was a helluva shock for everyone, but I hafta take his word for it. Mama died when I was two and Merle raised me."

That probably explains the odd dynamic where Daryl is not as confrontational with Merle as brothers usually are and maybe the extreme reaction to him being left handcuffed. Shane has a hard enough time picturing Merle as an actual father, without considering him as a barely legal adult raising his toddler brother, plus he'd have still been a teenager when Scout was born. Shane finishes attaching the knife to his vest as Honey appears with an air rifle slung over her shoulder and the equipment Scout requested, while Cricket sidetracks with others dressed for the run to the vehicles, along with a gear bag she passes off to Daryl.

"Tank weighs about five pounds and has the straps to put across your belly on your vest," the teenager says, offering it over for him to heft it, then helping attach it, "but you can refill the gun at least five times. Sixteen shots per fill, eight per magazine since it's a 25 instead of a 22. 25 pellets will do a pretty effective splat in a deadhead. Extra magazines in the pouch. Try not to lose the empty ones. You know how to use an air rifle like this?" She passes over the rifle and Shane takes it, identifying it. Air guns hadn't really been enough of an interest to actually own one, but he messed around with them at ranges enough to not need a lesson.

"I'm good." He slides the air rifle into place with the strap, letting it lie against his back, testing how it felt against the water bladder in the vest.

"Do they not make noise?" Carl asks curiously.

Honey shrugs. "This one will make a bit of noise because it's got a good size pellet." She unfastens the ammo pouch she is still holding, showing Carl one of the circular magazines. "But it's not much louder than Tihu's crossbow. You've heard it fired, right?" Carl nods. The crossbow did make a distinctive sound. "Well, since the deputy here never took up archery as a hobby, this is the next best thing. He'll actually have more ammo than the archers do since our quivers only hold about 30 arrows, but he's got the added complication of refilling the air tank if he has to fire a lot of shots. People actually use these for hunting medium-sized animals, like if a coyote was trying to hurt housepets or sheep or something."

"And we are going to hope like hell that never becomes an issue," Scout adds. "Honey can demonstrate for y'all if you like, as long as the kids all remember the air rifles that look like this one are not to be handled without an adult." Shane figures the last bit was more for the growing scowl on Lori's face than any real need. Poor Carl was never allowed even a basic BB gun or airsoft pistol, but maybe Rick would let Honey demonstrate if nothing else because he seemed curious himself.

Daryl stands from where he was rummaging in the gear bag with a machete in a back sheath, which he offers to Jacqui, who already looped the camp ax onto her belt. "Hung you another blade on the truck mirror, Walsh," he notes as he hooks a length of lightweight climbing rope and a collapsible grappling hook on the area of Jacqui's vest where Shane's held magazines. Shane looks over to see a machete on the passenger mirror of the flatbed truck, with a compound bow and quiver of arrows laying on the hood. He supposes that meant he is riding with one of the archers, probably Scout herself.

"What's all the stuff for? Why're some of hers different?" T-Dog asks, peering where Daryl is now snapping a paracord bracelet with a compass onto Jacqui's wrist that matched the one that he and Scout already wear. When he hands one to Shane, he realizes it also has a miniature flashlight. That makes him fiddle with it, walking himself through as Daryl demonstrates with his own to their audience.

"Bracelet's made of paracord. Can be unraveled for just about anything you'd need cord or rope for. Light and compass, obvious enough. Mini tool kit and a firestarter. Even an emergency whistle, but obviously that's probably more harm than good these days." Daryl indicates the rope and grappling hook on Jacqui's vest. "She's not going with a gun, but that's a backup plan if we get cornered. Gives her the option to climb if she can. Ax since it's safer for her to have a swinging weapon if she hasn't worked with knives and she doesn't have to get as close. Most of the women carry them." He points to where a similar weapon hangs from Cricket's belt, the opposite side of the belt holster she wears for her gun. "Ax has a few tricks of its own, bit of a backup to the bracelet. Rest of the pouches are medical, food, and basic supplies."

T-Dog looks almost overwhelmed. "Y'all are just planning on a couple hours, right?"

"That's the plan," Scout says, "but as yesterday demonstrated for all of us here, plans go to hell quickly when variables change. Everyone goes on a run prepared for three days with no supplies, and if you can get access to rainwater, you could last longer. We've never had anyone stranded that long, but we did have a pair get stuck on a roof in Valdosta for two days because the herd was too damned big to take out safely to get to them. So we cleared out a camping goods store for supplies and added to it with abandoned military gear in Albany. You ever used one of these?" she asks, passing Shane a throat radio setup.

"Yeah, few times working off-duty security jobs," he says as she hands them to Jacqui and Glenn too, then flips her own in place.

"Good. Glenn and Jacqui will get the overview on how to work theirs when we're underway, but they're better and safer than the big walkies when we're out, although we take a couple of those along as well." At some of the questioning looks from the others, she explains. "A throat radio setup lets you whisper or talk really low and the ear piece keeps any unexpected noise from occuring when you're in a danger zone with the dead nearby." She tugs a scarf out of a pocket of her pants and proceeds to wrap it around her head and neck in a practiced technique that soon had everything but her eyes obscured. "We wear shemaghs too. Aside from sunburn protection, it makes everyone appear unisex from a distance."

"If you're worried about that, why take women along?" Dale asks, looking worried. Shane knows the comment made him recall her hedging around naming that her group dealt with as rapists on their journey here.

She tugs down the shemagh around her neck and starts to answer, eying Carl listening attentively, and very obviously changes whatever she'd been about to say. "Because they need skills as much as men."

Rick looks at Carl for a minute, then at Honey, obviously not satisfied entirely with the answer. "Would you mind taking him down to the water for a minute?"

The teenager nods, and when Carl looks like he was about to protest, Rick squeezes his shoulder. "I know you want to be part of everything, but I'll explain later, okay, son? The other kids need to come back up and eat, and you don't want Honey walking by herself." The appeal to his protective instinct is only partially successful, but Carl sighs and follows Honey toward the quarry lake.

The blue-eyed deputy squares his shoulders. "You keep avoiding saying it outright, but the only reason I could think of to make gender less obvious is rapists," he states, falling back into what Shane always thought of as his cop voice.

"Men crossed that line when there was a police force and the law to make them pay, Deputy Grimes. Take away any fear of punishment, and there are some that revert to animalistic behavior sooner than others. We spent about eight days in the Senoia area hunting down a group of men that wanted to prey on those weaker than them. Found a camp with a man tied to a tree, barely alive and completely out of his mind." Something absolutely haunted crosses her countenance and she swallows hard. "Group of ten men had overpowered him. Tied him up and made him watch while they raped his daughters. One of the girls was dead, so damaged that even when she turned she couldn't get to her family. The younger one was still alive, but all we could do was ease her pain. She was barely thirteen."

Shane flinches, trying to ignore the distressed sounds from the women. "Did you find them?"

"Yes." She isn't looking at anyone but Rick, blue gazes locked. "Four of them had one of Hershel's daughters cornered in a drugstore she'd gone into for supplies when a group of ours found them. One of them survived long enough to give up the rest of the group. We stayed on Hershel's farm while we tracked down the rest. All told, there are twenty-one fewer living in this world."

"You executed them all?" Dale asks, horrified.

Scout turns to look at the older man. "Would you have preferred I locked them in the county jail and left them to starve? Because I wasn't risking the safety of the children I had with me on trusting any one of those men. We found graves in their camp of other victims, ones they'd brought back for their perversions. If I'd left any alive, and they attacked more people, all that blood would be on my hands. Two of the graves held boys about the Grimes boy's age. Females aren't the only ones at risk." She looks back to Rick, who looks physically ill. Shane thinks he should feel conflicted, but he saw enough of the dark side of human nature as a deputy to not feel any real regret if what she said was true.

Everyone else looks at least briefly incapable of speaking up, so Shane does, drawing their attention. "She's right, and you know it. How many times did you open a paper or watch the news before to see how some rapist or murderer had gotten out of jail, just to repeat his crimes and go right back?"

"How did you see all of them as guilty?" Rick asks, voice cracking a bit.

"Even if they didn't all take part in the rape and torture and killings, they lived among the ones that did without trying to stop them. They didn't leave and they didn't die doing what was right. None of them even tried to claim innocence. That's all I needed to know, and they died a lot easier than any of their victims. You can accept what I ordered done and we can continue the partnership agreed upon, or my people can pack up and leave. There are other places we can base out of while we help the other group. Because as I see it, being offended about those animals dying at my hand and my orders after y'all were content to leave someone guilty of far less to be eaten alive is a hell of a lot worse. If there's ever a government again that wants me to stand trial for what I did, that's a jury I'll face with a clear conscience."

Shane finds himself of the same mindset, and surprisingly, it looks as if all of the women agree, with only Dale and Rick looking truly squeamish. The old man won't adapt well if the world stays as it is, and Rick doesn't have enough experience yet to shed his white knight morals. Daryl steps back to stand at her left side, watching their reactions with a calm sort of stillness Shane attributes to his hunting background. He either already knew or trusts her enough it doesn't matter.

It actually surprises him that the first to break the silence after her offer is Lori. The thin woman squares her shoulders and faces the Marine, fingernails digging into Rick's shoulder. "If they were pedophiles, they deserved what they got," she states, causing Rick to twist to look at her in shock. She narrows her eyes as if daring him to disagree.

"She didn't have to tell us, either," Jacqui says. "Could've spun it so that we knew there were rapists out there without knowing anything else." Andrea nods, an arm slung protectively around her sister's waist.

The old man sighs, apparently realizing he isn't going to win this one. Rick studies Scout for a moment before looking to Shane, obviously seeking his input.

"We ain't exactly in the land of law and order any more, brother. If anyone had tried to hurt Lori or Carl when I was getting them to safety, or come into this camp like that after, I'd have killed them without losing a second's sleep over it, and you know it. You would too."

The personal comparison seems to finally tip Rick's decision. "I guess you're right. No courts or jails anymore."

"I know y'all may see some of my insistence on running camp like downscaled military as odd or maybe even offensive. But I can't in good conscience not give them the best tools they have. It'd be far easier for me not to deal with the politics of this," she motions between herself and their group. "But doing the easy thing isn't the right thing, more so than ever nowadays. We'll be out of your hair in a few days."

"And if anyone wants to join you?" Jacqui asks. Shane startles. He didn't realize the other woman was considering the possibility. He knows he has if the group as a whole would go, but he is usually more pragmatic than most people found comfortable.

"I won't turn away good people. Surviving this is going to take all hands on deck because what technology we have now, what little is left, isn't going to be around forever. But neither will I bully anyone into accepting the protection I can offer... that my family will be offering."

That is the reminder everyone needs, he supposes. It isn't a decision of Scout's leadership or even her group, but the fact that they are moving to territory owned by the Dixons and she isn't willing to let her need to do good override her family's well being as a long-term goal.

She glances to her watch. "Today's going to be hot as hell. I'd like to get underway so that with luck, we're back before the worst of the afternoon heat. We radio in on the hour, so if you need updates, check-in with Jamie. He's in charge of camp while I'm gone." She strides off, leaving Daryl to pick up the equipment bag and handoff three shemaghs to those going along, before jerking his head for them to follow. Jacqui and Glenn do so immediately, but Shane lingers a second when Rick stands.

"Be careful out there, brother," the other man says softly. "Find out more about what makes them tick if you can."

He nods, feeling the shift of the unusual gear he wears when Rick ends the statement with a half-hug. It isn't anything he didn't already intend to do, if nothing else because he believed a larger group is safer. Rick might be back, but his family is still a priority for Shane and this is one more thing he could do to make them safe.

Chapter Text

July 21, 2010

~*~SW~*~

"This is almost too easy," Shane mutters softly. He and Scout are standing guard at the big rolling doors they had the trucks backed into, Liberty on alert at their feet while Augustus patrolled inside. Danny had climbed the building itself and thrown down a rope for Zach to follow once their part in drawing off the dead was done. They are perched above, keeping an eye to the north and south. He'd been worried about the potential they'd get cut off from the group in an emergency, but Scout assured him they were skilled enough to make it off the building and to safe haven points already pre-decided. One of those was the nearby student loft complex that Cricket and Glenn had lived in, which was why she'd separated the pair to give their partners a guide there if needed.

Scout snorts, giving him an amused look. "Let's be glad for easy. When they were saying 'food bank' I was kinda thinking like the ones that serve an individual community back home, not the distribution center for the whole region. Thought we might get at most one of the box trucks plus what we brought filled up."

"Area's a bit more deserted than I expected, based on what Glenn reported in." The younger man had pointed out where he'd completely cleared out the convenience store and food mart, as well as the liquor store he'd been unable to access due to the security features. There just wasn't a lot in the area to make it worth it for the supply requests he'd had to fulfill, not with the herd of fifteen or so that had been wandering the food bank grounds due to the open gate.

"It's also more isolated. They may have already wandered out of the area, and with fewer homes, maybe most evacuated. 78 isn't as blocked off as some of the interstate access is. Being over near the Georgia Power facility is part of why Cricket's loft was so affordable."

"Guess we should be grateful they shut this place down as part of the evacuation." There were only two dead walking inside the building they'd cleared. Scout led Jacqui and Shane to take them down to teach them to use their machetes. They wrapped the bodies into a makeshift cling wrap shroud and put them in an office, unwilling to have them on display while they worked. He understood why she wanted Daryl and Tyreese along when both men took over forklifts, running the already palleted items labeled as useful to the waiting trucks while the four on guard duty kept an eye out that the sound didn't carry enough to draw unwanted attention. The two men had one of the big box trucks fully loaded with what had been palletized and the second one halfway done. Now things slowed down while they worked with Maggie, Glenn, Jacqui, and Cricket to load and shrinkwrap what had been loose in what was labeled as the product sorting area. "We could make another trip or see if those couple of trucks at that place down the street still run."

She thinks on it for a minute. "Or we could get word to the Vatos that the area's secure and let them move what they need. No point in doing all the work for them. They'll be here longer too, since I'm hoping your people take my advice and get out of that camp with winter coming."

"It's hard to picture a nursing home still running in the city." That baffled him when she explained on the way from the quarry.

"Yeah, they don't have a lot of folks left there, but the ones that had family there are refusing to leave them. Wish I could figure out how to stabilize them enough to move them out with us, but I wouldn't even know how to house them. They were lucky they didn't have anyone die and turn in there."

"Get them enough supplies in, maybe come back once you've sorted something out," Shane suggests.

"Pray they hold out." She surprises him by leaning in enough to bump shoulders with him. "Want to go with me to take them meds if we get into the clinic? If y'all don't move on right away, might need to know where they are."

"Sounds like a good plan to me.

~*~SW~*~

They finish out the food bank so easily that Shane is still shaking his head. The system she uses doesn't seem all that foreign to his law enforcement trained brain. Clear the building, then load up. He wondered if Glenn's job would have been easier if it had been him going with him into Atlanta, or if Daryl had admitted to his own law enforcement background. They threw the boy to the wolves in being wrapped up in their personal issues.

The clinic is trickier. Tight hallways and walkers that aren't as attracted to the drone. There was more of a population too, considering it was a health care facility. He and Jacqui get a lot more hands-on experience with their machetes and knives, but the supplies are worth it. So is the haul from the other clinic nearby that Cricket remembered. The second clinic has more actual medical supplies, since it appears to have shut down sooner than the Samaritan one, if you trusted the desk calendars.

The others return to the quarry, driving Daryl's truck, the stake bed truck, and the two food bank trucks, all fully loaded. They end up finding the keys to one of the box trucks at a nearby business and loading it up as well. Even after Scout comments about not doing all the work for the Vatos, Shane is pretty sure that the delivery truck they are delivering carries enough food to cover the nursing home for a month, with at least another two months worth left behind at the food bank.

Scout is driving the small box truck, gaze intent on her route, trusting him to help her keep an eye out for trouble.

"How far is it?" he asks. They pass stray walkers here and there that make an effort to stumble after them, but nothing like the numbers Glenn and the Atlanta supply run group reported seeing. Shane figures if they are in Vatos territory, it makes sense the locals would pick off the walkers to make getting in and out safer. To his trained eye, some of the roads definitely appear to be more deliberately blocked by abandoned cars than randomly.

"About a mile, mostly because the train tracks cut off their location from direct access to where we were. We could walk there faster, but the truck has to take the main route." She downshifts to edge past a pair of wrecked vehicles. "They really need to fill in some of these gaps if they're staying. If I can fit this thing through, it'll allow for a herd if they get the notion to migrate this way."

"And can't hurt to slow down people either," Shane remarks.

She flashes him a knowing look, before reaching for the walkie and changing the setting to a different frequency and calling out a greeting. About two minutes pass before it's returned, the rapid fire Spanish at first indignant until the speaker changes.

"So the guardian angel returns."

Scout laughs before responding. "Delivery girl today, G. Coming in a beat-up furniture delivery truck we lifted off an auto-repair lot. We're about to turn off the main road into your area. Didn't want to alarm your boys by just driving up in an unknown vehicle."

"Good thing. You remember where the garage doors are?"

"Yeah. Have a couple of the boys ready to let me in. Haven't seen any dead close in but no sense having a running engine out here longer than necessary."

"Agreed."

The radio falls silent as Scout makes the turn onto a narrower street. "You're gonna see a bunch of gang members, Vatos, but keep in mind these are men who stay in the city where it isn't safe to look after a bunch of elderly," she cautions. "They give rough around the edges new meaning, but we'll deal with G and maybe Felipe, the nurse."

"Did G run the place before?" Shane takes the caution in stride. She's aware that his background could make him tense going into an unknown area.

"Not at all. He was the janitor. Rest of the staff all left for their families or just flat out left. Just him and Felipe stayed. Then the Vatos trickled in here and there to look after their grandparents there."

They reach a building with a pair of big garage doors. A glance upward shows him someone on the roof with a shotgun, but the lookout seems only mildly curious as one of the doors opens slowly. Scout pulls the truck in, rolling her window down and flashing a smile at the tattooed kid who hurries to her side of the truck while another Vato closes the door behind them, plunging the big open space into dim lighting from the high windows. Everything on the ground level is boarded over.

"Staff Sergeant!" The boy has hopped up on the running board to offer a high five to Scout through the truck window. "Didn't really believe you'd come back."

"Miguel, what kind of Marine would I be if I didn't keep my promises to the badass who helped me save my dad?"

The teen's smile is near blinding as he turns it toward Shane. Shane doesn't imagine he gets a lot of that kind of compliment from someone mainstream and 'respectable' like Scout. Probably doesn't hurt that she's a pretty woman either. "Who's your sidekick?"

"This is Shane. He's the leader of the group with the Korean who has been scavenging in the city. He helped us raid a couple of clinics today. Got some goodies for y'all if you'll let me out."

Miguel blushes at realizing he's effectively blocking the driver's door and hops down, opening the door for Scout. She grabs one of the gym bags they stuffed full of medications that have little use for a group like hers or Shane's, but valuable as gold to a community of elderly. Shane grabs the other two, slinging one over his shoulder by the strap as he exits the truck and rounds the front to join them. She may trust these folks, but he's not going to cut himself off from his gun even so.

Two men enter through a door on the farm side of the garage space, and the smaller one throws his arms wide, grinning. "The angel returns!"

"I told you I'd contribute to the cause," Scout replies. She holds her gym bag out toward the bald man. "This should help out a bit, eh, Felipe?"

Felipe unzips the bag. "Fuck yes. Did you even keep anything for your people?" he asks. Shane remembers that particular bag contained the high end painkillers, among other things, that Scout said they could spare.

"We didn't need much, but we kept enough to build a starter for his people." She tilts her head toward Shane. "I've recommended he take his people out of the city, but wanted you two to meet in case they stick around. May be able to help each other out."

"Long as he promises not to let that idiot that riled up all the walkers come back into the city," Miguel grumbles.

Shane shrugs. "Rick's not usually that stupid. He was in a coma til a week ago, so his mind ain't all there just yet."

"Seriously?" G asks. "How'd a man in a coma live this long?"

"He said there was a nurse he thinks was looking after him, but the dead got her so he couldn't ask," Shane explains. "They were supposed to be evacuating the hospital, but the military just started shooting everyone there, patients, staff. Couldn't get him out and figured he'd prefer I get his family to safety instead. He was my partner, shot in the line of duty back in May."

"So he's really a deputy, not just stealing a uniform?" G is assessing him, dark, intelligent eyes taking in his body language. Shane knows this man would have pegged him as a cop even if he hadn't said as much.

"Yeah, he really is."

"Well, keep him out of the city. We don't need that kind of ignorance of the dangers stirring up trouble here. The kid that does your other supply runs knows how to keep it safe. We've been seeing him here and there for weeks. Left him alone since he wasn't causing problems and obviously had a group so he didn't need us."

It's Scout that answers before he can. "I'll probably take him out with some of mine in a few days, after he's had more time for everything to sink in. But I'll make sure to route that trip well out of your area out of courtesy."

G smiles, content enough with that compromise. He motions towards the bags Shane has. "More medicines?"

Shane nods and hands off his bags to the silent Vato who approached at G's signal. "We kept a few things for my people, but there's a lot of this we don't need or don't want to transport. There's some boxes in the back of the truck with medical supplies. Bandages, disinfectants, some medical equipment your nurse should find useful."

Scout is moving toward the back of the box truck as he speaks, rolling the door up with a grin. G whistles softly. "That is a lot more than just a bit of medical equipment, Angel."

She shrugs. "We cleared out that food bank distribution center. Figured we had to make the trip over here anyway, so we might as well bring a load. There's probably two more loads this size left there if you send the Vatos back with the truck."

G pulls himself up into the back of the truck and laughs. "You even packed toilet paper." He tosses one of the packs of toilet paper they liberated from the clinic storeroom down to a waiting Vato. He looks at Shane and Scout. "You are certain you do not need it?"

"We're moving into other areas that should still have supplies, and we've got plenty to tide us over until we get settled. The clinic must have just reordered their hygiene supplies or someone there was terrified of running out of toilet paper. Figured y'all have more need of cleaners than we do at this point." Scout glances at Shane. "I figure on leaving them well stocked before we head out too. This is just our first run."

"There anything specific you need?" Shane asks. If they stay around Atlanta for long, a good relationship with this group would be beneficial.

G hops out of the truck and gives a brief order to the Vatos who haven't been introduced to unload the supplies. He motions for Shane and Scout to follow. Since she follows with easy, loose body language, Shane does as well. She doesn't seem surprised to be led further into a bit of a maze that connects the garage with what he realizes is the actual nursing home facility. The some of the elderly gathered in the big common area look up curiously. One elderly woman gets to her feet, coming forward to greet Scout warmly.

"The pretty soldier comes back for a visit," she says.

"I said I would, abuelita," Scout replies. She undoes one of the various pockets on her pants and pulls out a bag of chili-watermelon candies. The elderly Hispanic woman cackles in delight as she accepts the gift. "A present from one of the children in his group when she heard there were grandmothers here."

"Eliza?" Shane asks, receiving a nod in reply.

"You will thank her for me?" the woman asks. Shane notes the men escorting them are waiting patiently for the most part, except Felipe, who has the bags of medicine on a table, sorting through them intently.

"We will," Shane says. The woman darts off to the elderly man she was playing cards with, waving her bag of sweets.

"Thank you." Shane turns to G, who is watching the woman with a wistful smile on his face. "They don't have a lot of special things like that anymore. The Vatos bring what they can, but they have to focus on food so much that little treats get forgotten."

"We'll make sure to bring some extra things like that on another trip," Scout promises. "But in the meantime, what other needs besides food, hygiene, and medicine do you need?"

G leads them to a table near Felipe. He takes a seat with Scout. Shane elects to lean against the wall, watching as Scout pulls out a small notepad from one of her pockets, looking at G expectantly. The man turns to Felipe. "Do you have any special requests?"

The bald man pauses in his inventory, thinking before he answers. "Saline bags if you can find a facility with any. Anything to help with dehydration. Nutrition drinks for some of the ones that have more trouble with chewing. If you find any insulin that stayed refrigerated by some miracle. Adult diapers. IV supplies. Oxygen bottles."

Scout scribbles down each item he's listed off. "We've found some of the state health clinics had backup power, propane and solar. If your Vatos can get into those, their refrigerators might still be up. We cleared out a bunch of vaccines in South Georgia that way, but the ones we found didn't have insulin stocks. You got a way to keep them cold if we find any and can any of the diabetics use the medications instead?"

"We've just got the two. Mr. Alvarez is Type 2 and we can keep mostly under control without insulin. I've actually had him off it for a while and he's doing okay. I was saving what stock I had for Robyn. She's Type 1, so she has to have it. But I've only got a month's worth left, and anything unrefrigerated would be ruined by the summer heat."

"I'll get one of the bigger chain pharmacies on our clear list or maybe a Walmart or Sam's Club. See what we can find for your Type 2 guy for sure."

"When your vet was giving Rick his exam, Rick said the hospital back home still had power in some parts. It'd be a trip, but if some of the hallways had power, I'd think the pharmacy would, right? That'd be even more important to be on backup power. County went to propane generators a while back. Not sure if the hospital would be running off that or if the hydro-electric plant is still running."

"King County, right?" Scout is looking thoughtful as he nods. "I don't know that we can make the run just now, but it's definitely worth trying. I'd like to get the more vulnerable of my group settled before I spread out beyond the route home."

"We understand," G says. "It is a long shot to ask."

"Well, if King County's hospital stayed up and running, maybe Emory did. Midtown's not impossibly far away," Scout replies. She glances up at Shane. "Wanna scout it out today? We were headed that way when we got sidetracked by all the gunfire day before yesterday. I usually use a group of four for scouting, but that's with mostly civilians."

"There's a Piedmont Hospital north of 75," G adds. "But the Vatos have not been able to get in. They did get us some things from another pharmacy near it, but that place did not have backup power for their refrigerated medicines still running when they did."

"Have they tried Emory Midtown?" Scout asks.

G shakes his head. "It is too enclosed. We do not have enough men or ammo to risk it."

"You do have a month's supply for now, so we will keep looking. I'll radio you to let you know if we find anything, so you can send someone for pickup to keep it cold."

"She's one of the few who could probably travel easily," Felipe says. "She isn't actually a patient, but one of the Vatos brought her in after a run. She has been helping me out as a nursing assistant since then."

"Would any of the others who are mobile enough be willing to go? Like Abuelita?" Scout asks. "Or Miguel?"

The bald nurse stiffens a little, but nods. "Abuelita might go, if there are children she would be allowed to spoil. She is relatively healthy but was here because she had no family and qualified for the state to pay for her care. Mr. Reyes could travel. He was here recovering from open heart surgery. If he takes his meds and is careful, he should be okay."

"And Miguel?"

"He is my cousin. My responsibility," Felipe says. G looks like he wants to say something. Both men look to where Miguel is perched next to Abuelita, obviously lured to her side to enjoy one of the candies. "I will think about it."

"How old is he?" Shane asks. The teen looks young, despite the brash attitude he adopts to appear older.

"Fourteen."

Scout must decide to let the subject lie for now, because she turns to G. "What other supplies do you need?"

"Warm blankets and clothing. We can't guarantee heating in the winter. We have been stockpiling water and collecting rainwater, but if you have anything to help sterilize it, even bleach, we could use it. Batteries or solar powered lights."

"Those should be easy enough. If we can secure some food caches for the Vatos to pick up later like we did at the food bank, we will. There's a limit to the amount we can transport, and I'm concentrating on the areas less trained groups can't usually get into. That reminds me." She fishes into a pocket and hands G the keys she'd found on one of the dead in the food bank. "Locked it up, so shouldn't have any dead wandering in, but I'd clear it out as soon as possible in case we aren't the only groups around. Atlanta's a big city and lots of ways to spy without being seen."

G nods, slipping the keys into his own pocket. "I will send someone out this afternoon."

"We'd best get back on our way if we want to get any scouting done and still get back before dark," Shane suggests quietly. He isn't uneasy among these people, but his mental clock is ticking if she wants them to scout, and there's no guarantee they'll find a car.

"Are you certain you want to leave the truck?" G asks. "We don't have anything spare to offer you to drive at the moment."

"We're good. One thing I've found in traveling is that business are notorious at leaving keys where they can be found and the vehicles gassed up nicely." Scout rises, reaching out to shake the hand G offers. The man leads them in a different direction than they entered by, letting them exit through a door into a courtyard.

"Do you remember how to climb through it all?" the Hispanic man asks. Scout nods and he closes the door behind them. Shane hears the bolts slide home and waves a hand to indicate he'll follow Scout.

She grins. "Come along, pretty boy. I've got an idea of where to check for some wheels first."

~*~CP~*~

Carol sees the watch stander on the RV, Patricia, sit her walkie down and signal Rick at his own watch position, pointing down the road. She breathes a little sigh of relief, because everyone has been feeling a little tense since the supply runners returned without Shane and Scout. It overshadowed the joy of seeing two fully loaded food trucks, even with the casual explanation the others gave that the two leaders are making a delivery to the nursing home group and then doing some scouting for the next day's run. The fact that it's their habit to have a team of two to four people do so didn't reassure Rick at all. The man's unease is a bit contagious, and it is driving Carol a bit batty, because she wants to be happy that they now have enough food for probably two or three months.

That is in addition to the medicines Cricket generously added to their tally after using a sharpie to detail their essential details on each bottle or package. There are so many medical supplies and hygiene items like gallon jugs of soap that Patricia brought over a spare tent to stash them in until they get things organized on permanent storage or transport.

But maybe not all is well, because Cricket is now heading their way, while a few others are carrying bags over to the area where two solar showers are set up about twenty feet outside the vehicle circle. No one has used them yet, preferring the quarry lake to hauling water, so Carol figures it has something to do with the scouting pair's return. They're wheeling a big blue barrel off a trailer that looks like a compost bin too.

"Hey! Any of y'all know where a change of clothes for Shane might be?" Cricket asks, as soon as she reaches them. Without thinking about it, Carol points to the laundry basket she left outside the deputy's tent earlier.

"What's going on?" Rick asks, tone barely polite. The others are gathering.

"From what Patricia relayed, mostly a need to rinse shuffler muck off. We try to be real proactive about disinfecting clothing and gear. The supply runners who already came back didn't really have a lot of close contact with bodily fluids, so no one showered right away. We'll toss their clothing into the big blue barrel contraption to be cleaned and disinfected." As she explains, the young woman is flipping through Shane's clothing plucking out underwear, socks, pants, and a black T-shirt.

A big vehicle is crawling its way up the gravel road. Carol can't really tell what it is, but Rick's got the binoculars up and taking a closer look. He starts laughing, which is a welcome break from the tense behavior he's been exhibiting. Cricket jogs off with Shane's clothing without another word.

"What is it?" Lori demands. "What's so funny?"

"They've liberated a mobile clinic from one of the charity groups that goes around doing free health care," Rick explains. The others have a variety of reactions, from incredulous to amused as the big vehicle pulls in. Carol isn't sure where they're going to park it, but she supposes they'll figure it out.

The returning pair don't seem to be worrying about their vehicle just yet. Shane hops down out of the driver's seat and gives Rick a brief wave before following Scout toward the solar showers. Their clothing is gorier that Carol is comfortable with, but both are moving easily and don't seem to be hurt. She can't imagine getting that much walker blood on her. Maybe they can't either, because both of them hand off weaponry and strip down to underclothing before stepping behind the shower curtains pretty quickly. The final bits of clothing are passed around the curtain.

The half dozen or so folks from the Dixon camp go to work, emptying pockets of gear and stuffing the gory clothing into the big blue barrel. One of the men dumps a couple of large containers of water into the barrel along with the clothing, along with what seems like half a gallon of what Carol figures is disinfectant. Once all the clothing is in, he seals the barrel and starts turning the handle to make the barrel rotate. A teenager Carol hasn't met yet, a girl about Sophia's size, comes out of the camp carrying an armful of clothing and towels and a net bag that looks like it has toiletries. Another pair set to cleaning weapons. It is all done as if by long practice.

"They've got cleanup down to an artform," T-Dog comments.

"I can't believe they practically got naked in front of everyone like that," Lori grumbles.

Jacqui scoffs. "Nothing indecent about either of them. She was better covered than most swimwear in those boxer briefs and her vest. Noticed she was wearing a protective sleeve over her arm scars too."

"Is that what the weird one-sided sleeve was all about?" Amy asks.

"Yeah. I don't imagine she wears it all the time." Jacqui looks thoughtfully toward the vehicle, where two of the group near the showers have come forward carrying cleaning supplies. One goes to each side of the cab. They can see the one on the driver side begin to scrub at the seat and steering wheel. No one can say they aren't thorough. "I wonder if they got all covered in walker bits trying to get that clinic truck. I could see where that might be worth it, depending on what's inside equipment wise."

"Won't know til we look," Andrea says. Cricket is leaving the shower area and heading toward the truck with the look of a kid on Christmas morning. The veterinarian is also heading that way. Carol snags Sophia's hand and follows along with the others, leaving behind just Rick on watch and Ed smoking in front of their tent.

Cricket opens the door closest to cab and lowers the steps. She disappears inside with a happy exclamation before reappearing in the second doorway. "I wasn't expecting a mini lab in here, even an x-ray. Gonna check those ribs, T-Dog. Y'all do the tour after I get the expansion out." She pops back inside, and Carol can hear movement and thuds as the young woman explores before the vehicle side expands outward.

The vet is the next person inside, but then their group follows carefully for a look around. Carol and Sophia are the last to go inside, as the other group hasn't approached aside from the two medical folks.

Cricket wasn't kidding when she said it had a lab. Carol could see the room at the rear, past the exit door, where Hershel was examining the equipment. Cricket is perched on the only exam table, obviously waiting on everyone to enter.

"It's not quite a mobile ER, but it is a step up from a simple mobile clinic. It's an amazing find to locate it intact and stocked. And it can go with y'all."

"Your group is just going to give us a mobile medical unit?" Andrea asks, tone disbelieving.

"Technically, if you want to view it that way, both groups had a scout involved in liberating it." It's Hershel who answers, turning to face them from the tiny lab. "And my apprentices and I already have plans for a more permanent facility when we are settled. It'll be easy enough to clear out the nearby medical practices."

"We don't have any medical people," Dale notes.

"The someone gets to learn on the job. We'll raid for textbooks and manuals. Any of y'all ever get Red Cross certified?" Cricket's tone implies she thinks it is just that easy. Maybe for her it is.

Amy, T-Dog, and Jacqui all answer affirmatively. "Then you at least know first aid, which is a good start. I'm sure both deputies have training too." Hershel studies them for a moment. "I'll walk T-Dog through the x-ray machine when I check those ribs. The machinery and lab won't be a resource forever, but the unit itself gives you a good clean area with a power source to perform simple medical procedures. You can also catalog your medical supplies easier. Since you don't really need two exam areas, one can be used for storage."

Carol is still a bit disbelieving that they're leaving the medical unit for them. That kind of generosity seems unusual even for before the world ended. But as efficient as they seem to be, perhaps they really are confident they can set up their own permanent clinic later. It's the kind of confidence she wishes Sophia could grow up around, but there's no way Ed would go with the Dixons, especially not if Merle really did threaten him when the brothers first came to camp. It was only his basic laziness that made him tolerate Shane's leadership. Before Rick arrived, all he had to do was sit four hours on top of the RV in the afternoons, and in return, he got all his meals and no one harassed him about the other things the men did like firewood.

She likes the other camp's routine better. Nothing seems to be set to gender lines. She's seen grown men, not just the teenage boys, washing dishes, cooking, and looking after the little toddler. Perhaps being led by a woman helps, but she can't really blame Shane for their camp's chore setup. Lori was the one who spearheaded that, although Shane obviously preferred to leave most things outside of camp security to the women to sort out.

With a little sigh, she indicates to Sophia that they should go outside, but the girl looks anxious. "Can I stay and ask Cricket if she needs help with inventory, Mama?"

How can Carol resist that entreaty? Sophia likes being helpful, and she's fairly certain that the young medical student would be more than happy to share knowledge. So she nods, stepping down from the vehicle, which was making her feel claustrophobic with so many people checking out the space. Outside, she slips behind the truck, sitting on the bumper and taking a deep breath to center herself.

She notices that Shane and Scout are sitting on the lowered tailgate of Daryl's truck, both eating from plates brought to them by the other camp. They have a map between them, and Glenn is making notes between that and a composition book. She's glad for a moment that Lori is still inside the medical unit, because she can hear the complaint now that both of them are barefoot and shirtless as they eat, although Scout's ever-present compression vest and exposed scars make her heart ache a bit trying to imagine what the woman suffered.

"She's okay," a masculine voice says, causing her to jump and thump her head back against the vehicle. "Shit. Sorry. Didn't mean to scare ya."

When the worst of the startle reaction passes, she gives Daryl a weak smile. "No need to apologize. I was woolgathering."

"Could put it that way, but I'm thinking more you were feeling compassionate towards Scout." He gives her a crooked smile.

"Glenn said you weren't sure she would live at first," Carol manages, drawing confidence from somewhere. She isn't sure where the confidence to talk to him comes from now, other than seeing his obvious affection for his returned niece. She wishes Sophia had an uncle like that, any role model to counteract Ed's example.

"Her chances were pretty low that first week, but those were the ones the doctors had to give us. They didn't know just how damned stubborn she is. I was pretty sure she'd beat them, but yeah, it was outright terrifying for a while."

"I'm glad she did. She's so confident it's contagious just watching her."

Daryl laughs, leaning against the truck next to her. He has a stillness to his nature that none of the others do. It probably served him well working as a ranger. "Confident, stubborn, pissy as hell sometimes." He sighs softly. "She bitched me out pretty good late last night over you and Sophia. I wanna apologize that I didn't do more about Ed than let Merle kick his ass and threaten to feed him his balls."

"Did he really?" Carol can't quite imagine it, even with the contrasting information that has trickled in about Merle and hearing about it, but something changed with Ed after they came to the quarry camp. His tone is still ugly, as are his judging looks, but he hasn't attempted to lay a finger on her other than the one night Merle was missing. Even then, he only grabbed her arm tight enough to bruise and told her she ought to be glad there are two cops in camp now before turning her loose. If Merle really threatened him, she supposes he wasn't sure the man wouldn't return and carry out his threat.

"Yeah, he did. Walked up on the last of it, where he actually had the asshole by the balls. Surprised Ed could walk away after. Merle never could stand a man to beat on a woman. He grew up watching daddy beat our mama. S'why he joined the Marines soon as he turned eighteen. Said he was gonna kill the man if he didn't, but later on, figured me and mama would have been better off with the old man dead and Merle in prison than we were." Daryl fumbles in his pocket for a packet of cigarettes, stares at them, and grumbles before shoving them back in.

"You're going to ruin them that way," she cautions shyly. She hates hearing that another family grew up in the violence that plagues her life.

"Girls are going to shoot me if they catch me smoking. Was an old habit I picked back up." He glances at her. "I wanna make up for not doing the right thing before. We want you and Sophia to move into our camp."

"I don't want to be a burden," she says, the automatic answer coming out unbidden. "I've nothing to offer."

"Dammit, woman," Daryl grinds out. "It ain't about being a burden or what you got to offer, even though you're wrong about that part. It's about you being safe and the girl being safe."

"Ed's never hurt Sophia." She's made sure of that so far, even when it earned her more violent beatings by stoking his temper toward her.

"Men like that, it's always just a matter of time. I'm betting you've heard it before, from cops like me or medical staff or whatever, but there'll come a day where you ain't there or where she decides to defend you. Look at me, please. For just a minute." He reaches out and gently touches Carol's upper arm when she doesn't comply, so she finally turns, seeing only earnest sincerity on the man's face. "M'daddy, he was in jail a long time after he killed my mama. First thing he did when he got out was go after his family. He nearly killed me when Merle wasn't home, and Scout too, because she tried to save me. She was only nine. It was a goddamned miracle he stroked out before he found the littler ones."

"Oh my God," Carol breathes out. She's horrified at the idea of a child even younger than Sophia being beaten by a grown man. It is something that features in most of her nightmares, to be entirely honest. But fear of inciting Ed to even greater violence has always stayed her hand. The one time she left, he found them. Women's shelters aren't as secret as they like to think. If he had killed her like he threatened, it would have left Sophia alone with her father, so they went home. "Can your family keep Sophia safe?"

"We'll keep you both safe. Quit valuing yourself less than her. Girl needs her mama, when she's a good one like you are," Daryl says gruffly. He drops his hand away from her arm and shoves both his hands in his pockets. "Not all mamas are good ones."

Carol wonders if he refers to his own - or the seemingly absent sister-in-law. He appears to be in a sharing mood, so she asks. "Merle's wife?"

"Ex-wife and good damned riddance," the man mutters. "She was never much of a mama to any of her kids. Never was sure why she kept having them, at least after Scout. Wasn't like Merle had some hangup about a big family. She's been gone a long time. Least my ex-wife was a good mama, for all her other faults."

"You were married?"

She's actually a little surprised when he answers without any rancor. "For about five years, yeah. Only thing I miss about it is my daughter."

"Oh. You have a daughter?" One who wasn't present in camp. Carol wasn't sure she wanted to know, if the alternative was the girl not being alive.

"Well, state of Georgia says she's my stepdaughter, which is why I didn't get any custody or visitation. But I was there when she was born and raised her from a baby." He looks at Carol and gives her that same crooked smile. "I'm hoping she's alright. She was living up in Kentucky when this happened. Her grandma, Glynnis, has kept me updated for years. Gives me tons of pictures. Glynnis lives on our property, jokes she kept me in the divorce. She stayed to look after things, while Ethan, my girl's stepdad, was going to bring her down. I may not like Ethan all that much, but he's good to Abby and if he says he's bringing them down, they'll be there when we get home or soon after. He's a Fed so he won't be useless in protecting them."

She thinks it's the most words he's ever said in one sitting. "Abby's your daughter?"

"Yeah. Abigail Suzanne. She's ten now. Ain't seen her in three years though, outside of pictures. Her mama decided she can't bond with her new stepdad if the old stepdad's still in the picture. S'bullshit, but I ain't got a legal leg to stand on about it."

It explains some of the earnestness in his plea for her to change camps. Between his own experiences with a violent father and being separated from a girl he loves as his own, feeling like Sophia's in danger must needle at him. But is she certain enough of these people that she isn't going from frying pan to fire? "Do I have to decide now, about me and Sophia?"

He shakes his head. "Hell no. Just think real hard about it, because you'll be safe. Your girl will be safe."

"I'll think about it." She hears voices as others emerge from the medical vehicle and pushes herself off the bumper. The offer isn't something she wants to really discuss just yet.

"Alright. Can send one of the younger girls to ask if Sophia can stay the night tonight, if you want."

She considers whether or not that will piss off Ed and figures probably not. He really doesn't interfere much with her oversight of Sophia, treating her more like an unwanted pet than a daughter. With the second camp there, the man hasn't actually spoken more than two words to her. Plus it'll let her daughter be part of the decision to see if she's comfortable with the other children. "Sure. I'm sure she'll enjoy it."

As informational as the conversation has been, it's time she gets back before Ed does notice she's spending time alone with another man. She's not sure that wouldn't override his fear of Dixon reprisal. So she bids Daryl goodbye with a hesitant smile, which he returns, and slips back to join Lori and the other women who emerge from the vehicle. No one seems to notice she was missing briefly, or even that she's quiet.

Not that she minds. There are times that blending into the background is a good thing. She's got options to consider now.

Chapter Text

July 21, 2010

~*~SW~*~

He's only got half an hour before he takes over watch, but Shane is pleasantly tired in a way he hasn't felt since Atlanta was bombed. He realizes he is delaying the return, enjoying being part of making decisions for tomorrow's run. So he finally grabs the bottle of Gatorade he was given with dinner on top of the protein drink and heads back over to what he figures is going to be a mini-inquisition

"Was starting to think you were staying," Rick says as he takes a seat next to the man, and he notes that there's a serious note in his voice.

"Nah. Just had a lot of crap to make notes about while it was fresh. Y'all get that haul sorted into some sort of managed chaos?" he asks.

Jacqui snorts. "Managed chaos is right. We looked like a grocery store exploded for a little while. Unloaded everything, worked with Patricia to see what they might need out of it, and then reloaded the food bank trucks for lack of anywhere else to put most of it. Got the overflow tarped between them." She motions to where the two delivery trucks have been nosed right off into the underbrush, with the pallets from the original load used as a platform for the excess stored outside. "But now we can find food without having to eat green beans for a week just to find our way to the carrots."

"And Patricia loaned us a tent for medical supplies." Rick points towards an orange tent set up near the trucks. "It's mostly empty now. While you were still over there, we loaded up the med unit with supplies after T-Dog parked it." The big blue-green monstrosity he drove back to camp is now nudged in to provide a wall of sorts behind the tents, parked nose-to-tail with the RV. Neither vehicle has the extra protections of the Dixon vehicles, but it's better.

"Do we get to hear how y'all went from scouting to driving that back?" T-Dog asks, clearly amused. "Because something tells me that's gonna be a good story."

Shane laughs. "Not as interesting as it could be. We dropped the other truck off at the nursing home. Got a list of their serious needs and then snagged one of those little cars from a bank with the godawful wrap jobs that looks like a moving billboard. Much as I made fun of Priuses before, it was damn near silent. Skirted Georgia Tech and all the way down to Emory Midtown. We were headed back when I spotted the med unit. Lot was swarmed with walkers that had wandered into the fence and couldn't figure out how to get back out of the opening. So we just made noise and stood there at that little single person gate and got rid of them all. It would have been boring if it wasn't for getting the muck all over us."

"It was just sitting there with keys in it?" Rick asks. Not that he thinks his partner would actually be surprised. People were idiots about leaving keys in vehicles.

"Nah. We burglarized the place. From what we could tell, they closed down prior to the worst of things simply from lack of staff. We'll need to go back and clear it out, since it was getting dark. They didn't have a huge supply stock, being a non-profit, but there's enough to make it worth a stop with a supply team."

"And you left your Prius behind?" T-Dog is definitely teasing with that one.

"Yeah. Not like it's going to wander off, most likely, and if it does, it's a good sign there's another group or survivor we don't know about. With just two of us, we didn't shift the bodies out of sight."

"What'd you think of the other group?" Jacqui asks. "We didn't see anyone in Atlanta, so I guess they're good at staying hidden."

"From what their leader, G, says, they've been seeing Glenn in and out of the city for a while, but let him be because he obviously had a group and didn't make any trouble. It's a handful of ex-gang members, a couple of staff members who didn't abandon their jobs, and about two dozen elderly or infirm patients. She was arranging with G that they'll take a few of the more mobile folks with them when they leave. That reminds me." He flashes a grin at Eliza. "You are a very good girl, Eliza. You made an old lady very happy with those candies you gave Scout. She's one of the ladies who'll be going."

The girl returns the grin, looking quite proud of herself. He wonders when she met with the other group, but they aren't exactly segregated.

"Is she really that convinced that where they're going is safe?" Rick asks. "To keep adding to the group without knowing would worry me."

"From what I was told, Merle and Daryl didn't exactly leave their property abandoned. There's a woman Scout calls Grandma Glynnis, who doesn't appear to actually be related, who was overseeing the place. And Merle told several friends and neighbors to bring their families there, since it's fully fenced and has off-grid power and water."

"Why does it not surprise me that Merle would have a place off-grid and that secure?" T-Dog remarks. Shane has to agree that Merle definitely seems like the doomsday prepper type.

"That's one reason they're reasonably certain the property held, but one of the things we did on the way out to the food bank was to install a solar powered ham radio repeater on the top of the loft apartment building Glenn and Cricket lived in. They're already using ham radio for all their communications because it's steadier than regular CB, like us using the police radios. There's obviously some alternate powered police repeaters still running out there for ours to have the range it has."

"Dammit," Rick breathes out. "I was so distracted I forgot to try the radio to check in this morning with the man and his son that helped me after the hospital."

"I'll remind you tomorrow," Shane notes. "But while we were out, one of the Dixon kids got through to Glynnis once the repeater was in place. It's safe and while the news wasn't all good, they know they've got survivors coming."

"What was the bad news?" Jacqui asks.

"Mainly that they don't have as many survivors there as Scout was hoping. Between the virus itself, bites, those that felt like Atlanta was a safer bet than rural Georgia, and folks going to try to find or rescue family members like Merle and Daryl did, it's not a big population holding down the fort. The good news of that is that one group that moved onto the property is the next door neighbor who runs a huge organic farm that supplied restaurants wanting to brag about local produce. Since the walkers aren't interested in fruits and vegetables, they've been harvesting as things come into season. They don't have a big enough group to really be collecting supplies, not like we did today."

"And how many survivors are there?" Carol surprises him by being the one to ask, but then again, Sophia is staying overnight in the Dixon camp. Scout promised him that they were going to do their damndest to make sure the older woman left with them.

"Glynnis, plus the farmer's family of six, one of his farm worker's family of five, the mother of a local police officer, and the college aged daughter of another. So fourteen. Two over sixty and six under eighteen. The college girl's mother died of walker bites on the job. The officer who left his mother there is at least presumed still alive, but after the department fell, he and his brother went to find their sister and her family and haven't made it back. Town only had three officers plus the chief to begin with, though.

"Just how big is this place?" Rick's eyebrows are raised.

Shane figures he's about like he was at first, picturing some small farm place, so he grins as he answers. "Sixty-three acres enclosed. Two houses, three barns, three wells. There's a grandma's cottage and a cabin on the property too. One thing the folks there have managed was to bring in a couple of RVs from a dealership a bit to the south."

"How in the hell do you enclose sixty-three acres?" Andrea wonders.

"I didn't ask, to be honest. I mean, if we aren't going, that's the sort of details that aren't really our business."

"But we're invited?" T-Dog asks. Jacqui asked this morning, but Shane figures the other man isn't entirely sure how true it is.

It's Morales who answers, though. "Yes, we are. Some of the kids were at the lake this morning. The Marine they call Jamie escorted them down there to go fishing. He made a good case for my family to go with them, and Miranda and I have decided we will. I can always try to make a trip to Alabama another time, but this is a guarantee of a safe haven for our children."

"You aren't worried after the fight with Merle?" T-Dog asks. No one has seen Merle yet, who is still in one of the RVs recovering.

"If my children were missing, I think I would go just as crazy. When I think about how he was acting, I think he wanted to be put out of his misery," the Hispanic man admits. "Don't you? He taunted you, all of us, but especially you, the biggest one of us."

"You're thinking he was doing an apocalypse version of suicide by cop?" Funny thing is, Rick seems to be really mulling that thought over.

"Yes. The drugs weren't doing it, and I suppose basic survival instinct keeps you from throwing yourself to the walkers. It might be interesting to talk to the man, once his mind is clear, if he remembers it at all." Morales hugs his daughter close. Louis is asleep already, curled half-in, half-out of Miranda's lap. "But now he has his family back. I am reasonably certain that things will be better. And Jamie has known him for years. You may want to talk to him a bit. Get someone's opinion on the man that isn't related by blood."

Shane finishes off his Gatorade and toys with the bottle for a minute before offering his input. "It's worth considering."

~*~SW~*~

Shane shifts uncomfortably in the lawn chair atop Dale's RV, more than aware that the sounds coming from Lori and Rick's tent are intended by the woman as punishment to him for thinking Rick was dead. He wasn't even the one to initiate their initial sexual relationship, but the looks and small comments definitely indicated she is blaming him. Since he'd taken the first of the evening watches, she'd gone out of her way the past two nights to ensure he heard her enjoyment of Rick's return. The fact that the other camp absolutely refused so far to defer to Rick over him added fuel to the woman's spiteful fire.

Movement from the other watchpoint RV causes him to turn his head. Maggie is climbing the ladder, and as soon as she reaches the top, she and Scout both look at him for a moment before Scout rises from the stadium chair and cedes her watch post to Maggie early. She disappears into her camp, but then reappears at the entrance, striding towards Dale's RV.

"Evening, Deputy. Got room up there for a second set of eyes? With the noise level in your camp, can't hurt with those trying to attract the dead," she drawls, voice pitched loud enough Shane knows it can be heard in the tent nearest the RV. Her expression is set somewhere between mischievous and irritated. Her words have the effect she obviously intends, as Lori's vocalization stops abruptly.

He blinks, grateful for the intervention. He'd fucked up - God knows he knows that - but his own camp is somewhat judgmental about it. His and Lori's secret wasn't much of one in close quarters. Ironic that sympathy came from the other camp instead of the one he'd kept safe in his less-than-diplomatic fashion, as he realizes both people on watch there are glancing his way.

"Yeah. Company's always welcome," he replies finally. When she ascends the ladder, careful not to jostle the RV too much, he waits to see if Lori will remain quiet. He suspects she will. Torturing him solo on the roof of the RV is one thing. Knowing someone else is up here - especially a woman she clearly dislikes - is tantamount to public indecency for the woman.

Scout folds herself into a cross-legged sitting position next to him, then surprises him by leaning against his leg. Fingers curl around his calf, just above the top of his boot, thumb stroking gently as she tilts her head to look up at him. She doesn't speak further, just gives him a half-smile before looking out over the sleeping camp. Her own watch returns to their duties, seeming content with her being in the other camp.

"I can't say I'm not grateful for... that... but you didn't have to," he finally manages.

"Well, I was only halfway being pissy by mentioning it attracting unwelcome visitors. If I could hear..." She sighs and shakes her head.

"I'm guessing everyone over there knows too?" he mutters, staring off into the darkness.

"Not everyone, but yeah, Tihu did give those that needed to know a heads-up on the politics over here. And last night drove the point home. You gained some fans earlier today."

Dammit. She heard then too. Lori wasn't as bitchy though, or else Scout hadn't yet decided it worth her time. He guesses today's supply run went well enough for the more experienced folk to get a feel for his commitment levels. Before he could reply, her hand creeps higher, coming to rest at the back of his knee and her thumb's massage is now on his thigh. He tenses. Before the world had gone to hell, he knew exactly what a woman's hand sliding up his leg meant. He'd been enough of a womanizer. But now? "Scout?" he rumbles softly.

When she glances up, the pale blue eyes hold open invitation. "Watch's over in half an hour. The way I see it, if you aren't ready, I can return to my tent and no harm, no foul. Or I bunk with you and we feed the gossip mill something new to amuse them."

"Why?" If only anyone from before could see him now, questioning why a pretty woman wanted in his pants. At least he is fairly sure she isn't offering to just sleep in his tent.

"You're getting the bad end of the deal in a shitty situation. It's not pity." She sweeps her eyes along his body before meeting his gaze evenly. "Something tells me it won't be any hardship at all, and you and me? It won't be complicated between us. You get some distance from the last few months. I get time where I don't have to be responsible for anything but exploring if you're as pretty under those clothes as I suspect. You don't flinch away from these." She flicks the fingers of her free hand toward the scars above her collar.

"Not sure your daddy and uncle would appreciate you sleeping with me." Hell no, he can't imagine a scenario where Merle Dixon, especially a sober Merle Dixon, would appreciate him around one of his daughters. Her easy confidence that he was okay with her scars feels really good though.

She laughs softly, squeezing his knee. "Sweetie, I'm closer to thirty than twenty, and I promise you, none of my family would dream of thinking they have a say-so in who I get naked with."

He is honest enough to admit the extra thought that it would piss Lori off to no end is one of his private considerations as he thinks about her offer. He isn't entirely sure it isn't one of hers. The two women anywhere near each other make him want to tense for an impending fight, although he doesn't think Lori is bold enough to risk it against a trained soldier. Scout remains cool towards Rick, but polite. And she is correct that it is an agreement he doesn't think would be a hardship to either one of them. She is pretty, in the exotic way many biracial women are, and he has to admit he is curious to see how the intense focus she applied to everything translates into lust. So he nods and she grins.

"I do a wonderful walk of shame. More of a cocky strut," she offers and he coughs out a laugh. Yeah, this is definitely going to get interesting.

He spends the next half hour with his free hand slid gently into the hair at the nape of her neck, massaging her neck as she leans her head against his knee, calmly discussing the next few days' plans as a sense of anticipation builds between them both. He merely shrugs at T-Dog's questioning look as the man waits at the base of the ladder for them both to descend so the other man can take watch. As Scout twines her fingers in his to walk past Rick and Lori's tent to his own on the other side, he looks over to the changing of the watch in the other camp. Maggie, already on watch, gives him a double thumbs-up, and the other woman - Sasha - is definitely grinning as she replaces Hershel atop the bus.

Shane might have completely fucked up with Lori, but for some reason, these women seem to be on his team and not hers. It is a heady feeling. Then he is tugged into his own tent with feminine arms wrapped around him, and he puts Lori firmly out of mind in favor of a woman who does want him, even if it's with an expiration date.

Unlike any other encounter he's ever had, this one involves a lot of removal of weaponry, enough so that they both end up laughing. "It's like a damned action hero movie," he remarks, but pauses in undoing his boots to steal a kiss when she returns to the air mattress from dropping the last of her gear on the box that serves as his nightstand.

He lets her push him to his back, sensing a shift in her mood as she stands over him with her fingers hesitating at the hem of her T-shirt. It takes him a second to realize that despite her confident words on top of the RV about him not being bothered by her scars and the fact that she'd walked with them mostly on display, she's afraid now. He sits up and kisses her belly softly through the shirt, aiming for a patience he wouldn't normally have.

Whatever she sees in his expression settles the worst of her hesitation and she peels the shirt off to drop it beside the mattress. Her blue eyes are searching as scarred flesh is revealed, with the compression bra and her protective half-sleeve still in place. He reaches up to brush against the bullet wound, waiting for her nod before he draws his fingers softly across it, feeling the change in texture from smooth skin to rough and twisted scar. Up close, he can tell there are a lot of small scars scattered across her abdomen and figures they're probably from shrapnel. As his hand moves toward the surgical scar, she freezes, so he pulls them both downward.

"Is it okay if I touch the burn scars?" he asks softly. He has no idea how sensitive they might be.

She takes a deep breath and nods, actually guiding him to touch the ones along her neck first. "None of them will hurt. There's sensation there, but more pressure than what should be felt."

He tries to keep his touch gentle anyway, exploring along her neck and jawline, but keeping an eye on her expression for any sign that she wants him to stop. When she doesn't, he takes the chance to nuzzle at her throat, moving from the smooth flesh there to the ridged and twisted scars. Deciding to treat it the same way he would her uninjured shoulder, he nips lightly at her collarbone. At her sharp intake of breath, he stops to draw back and look at her. It isn't pain he sees or even the earlier hesitation. Her pupils have blown wide and he sees the confidence from earlier coming back as she releases the clasp on the protective sleeve and reaches up to peel it down and off.

From a distance, the damage to her shoulder had looked pretty graphic. Up close, he can see that viewing from a distance doesn't do the damage enough justice, but instead of it being the turn-off he'd have expected from his past self, he's hit with an intense wave of stronger attraction. He'd gotten a brief feel for what being trusted as a protective lover and not a short term one was like with Lori, but it was just a taste compared to what he thinks is happening now.

So he kisses along the scarred shoulder and arm, letting her push his unbuttoned shirt away to fall along his back. He can tell now that the scarring goes at least as far as her sternum, so he hesitates about the zip on the compression bra. She does stop him, one hand gently holding his still.

"It's bad," she says softly. "They were able to do some reconstructive surgery finally about ten weeks before the world went to hell. Before that, it was gone. But there's no sensation there other than pressure, so you don't have to..."

He stops her with a kiss, keeping her distracted long enough for him to undo the zip and slide a hand to gently feel along the scars, following with exploring kisses. The weird twists of the burn scars actually stop about halfway down the breast, at a scar line, so he realizes it's the different between the original injury and the rebuilt flesh. The pattern makes him dig in the back of his head to remember skin grafts. And for all her comment about no sensation, she's responding to him as if he were caressing the unharmed breast. Feeling a thrill shoot through him at the thought, he smiles against her skin and finds himself summarily flipped onto his back.

Later, when she's spooned against his back despite the heat, he debates confirming what he suspects. But she's entwined with him, relaxed in a way he suspects rarely happens for her, and he wants to know.

"Hey, Scout?" he asks softly.

She makes a sleepy noise from where she's got her face nuzzled into the tender spot behind his ear, one hand petting across his abs absently.

"Is this the first time you've been with someone since you were hurt?"

Her hand stills against him, but before he can damn his curiosity, she answers with a question. "Is that a problem?"

"No." To make up for causing the worried note in her voice and the tension in her previously relaxed body, he captures her hand and kisses the palm before tucking it against his chest. He can feel her relax as she makes a content sound he'd call a purr, and she's asleep within minutes.

It takes him a bit longer to follow, mind slowly turning over the trust he'd been handed without really proving himself worthy of it yet. It wasn't something he wanted from anyone before, but since Rick was shot, since he thought the man he loved as family was dead, he's felt empty in a way he never has.

As he finally relaxes into sleep, he realizes that Scout may have offered something that wasn't complicated, but he thinks complicated is exactly what this is going to be.

Chapter Text

July 22, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Shane follows Scout out of his tent into the early morning sunlight. It isn't quite seven, enough past sunrise that the camp is well lit. As he watches Scout strut her way across to the entrance to her own camp, he notes with amusement that she told the truth about her ability to take complete pride in a morning-after walk back to her own place. She actually pinned him for a good twenty minutes, talking softly again about today's plans, making sure there are several people awake and moving in his camp. The woman knows how to wait for - and play to - an audience. She popped up and began dressing the second she smelled breakfast cooking.

The true extent of the scars she carries from the IED explosion is humbling, even though his group saw the skin mostly exposed the first night in camp. He never thought of himself as the type of man to accept that sort of thing, but something about the flicker of hesitation the normally confident woman allowed when she tugged off her shirt to reveal the compression garments she still wears reached some reservoir of maturity he didn't possess prior to everything going to hell.

"Shane?" Rick's questioning tone cut into his thoughts of the night before, drawing his eyes away from where Scout disappeared into a tent after greeting her own watch shift, one of which is her sister.

He looks over to see most of his camp giving him incredulous looks, except for T-Dog, who is studying his breakfast as if it holds the secrets of the universe. Lori and Andrea look particularly scandalized. Carol is darting half-curious looks at him from where she is dishing out food, but obviously unwilling to appear openly interested.

"Rick?" He returns the questioning tone with a smirk, making sure to play his own part in Scout's little drama by nudging his unbuttoned shirt aside to scratch 'absently' at his chest, knowing it would expose the trail of small bruises Scout deliberately left along his breastbone. She took care to walk her fingers across them this morning, eyes full of mischief, to make sure he remembered they are there. Behind Rick, he watches Lori's gaze drop to the marks. The hurt part of him that she's been needling, that soft part that had begun to think he was in love with his partner's wife, felt a thrill of guilty satisfaction when she looks livid. What right did she have to be angry or jealous? You would think she would be happy he is distracted.

"Are you sure that's wise?" the curly-haired man asks.

"Consenting adults, Rick. That's all you need to know," he says, ducking back into the tent to finish buttoning his shirt, comb his hair, and check the magazine and spare for his pistol were loaded before slipping it into his holster. The knife he used on yesterday's run joins the gun holster on his belt in its own holster. He is used to equipment at his belt, but the openly carried knife still feels new and out of place, nothing he ever carried as a deputy. But it was a lifesaver yesterday, so he didn't intend to be without it. His pride had taken enough lumps from not having the camp secure as it could have been.

He leaves the tent to see Rick besieged by both Andrea and Lori, both of whom are hissing at him in whispers that leave their words obscure but the meaning obvious as they shoot dirty looks at Shane. He is distracted by Glenn's cheerful greeting to Honey as she approaches, clean BDU shirts and combat vests draped over her arm. They left the outerwear with the visiting camp yesterday to be cleaned and resupplied, as well as his own clothing, which is still hanging on a clothes line with his and Scout's BDUs. They assured him yesterday they had extras while those dried.

The girl returns Glenn's cheery good morning, then comes to a stop in front of Shane, holding her arms out so he can take the items. He thought she was the youngest Dixon, but Scout corrected him this morning that she is actually older than their only brother by a couple of years.

"Scout says she's going to aim for the Georgia Tech campus today since Glenn hasn't been able to access the health center or student center there by himself. Give everyone over here a bit more experience helping before y'all take on Emory Midtown," she announces to the others. Shane is aware of the restructured plan, since they scouted out Emory yesterday. Originally, they were going to try Emory today, but decided it seemed silly to drive right by the university campus.

Shane holds one shirt and vest up for Glenn to lean down and take. T-Dog is already up and coming to take his since he was cleared to go the night before after the x-ray lesson proved no broken ribs, which left Shane with his own and one extra. Andrea insisted she could follow directions from a Dixon last night after seeing the bounty they brought back, so he holds the extra out toward her. Might as well let Jacqui have a day off. "If you're up for it still," he says. She snatches the protective clothing, glaring at him.

"Might hit up the rec center there too," Glenn calls down. "They've got that camping gear rental place, but the lobby's got like a half dozen walkers in it, so I couldn't manage by myself. Maybe more since those are just the ones I could see through the glass."

"Sounds good. Supposed to be leaving after breakfast." Shane knows he doesn't have the final decision on that - something he conceded like Jacqui and Glenn before yesterday's run - but he'll back Glenn's suggestion at least. He drapes his shirt and vest over the lawn chair outside his tent since they are too hot to wear in camp until he has to. Carol is already holding out a bowl with a shy smile by the time he steps around Rick, Lori, and Andrea, so he nods in thanks, dropping into the chair T-Dog vacated between Dale and Amy. Carol has done wonders with the food, likely on her own since he doesn't see Jacqui up and around yet.

"Do you want to eat with us?" he hears Carol ask Honey, as the girl hasn't scampered back to her camp yet, but instead is standing where he left her. From the look of absolute innocence on her face, Shane wonders if she is lingering to annoy the women clustered around Rick. He knows she shares a tent with her sisters, so odds are, the teenager is well aware her sister slept elsewhere last night.

"Why thank you, Miz Carol!" she chirrups, taking the offered bowl and plopping herself onto the log next to Sophia, who apparently returned from her sleepover with the girls at the other camp already. "I was going to ask if Sophia could join us today? Tihu said there's some good foraging around, so I was going to take the older kiddies out. We won't go far, and Sam and Zach are going to go along, plus two of the dogs." At the blank look from the gray-haired woman, she bites her lip. "Sam, he's the guy with the blondish red hair. Not the redhead with the beard. That's Henry. And Zach's the guy that was on watch yesterday morning on the RV. He's got paramedic training, so no worries about anyone tripping on a log and knocking themselves out or something. Not that I don't know first aid, but yanno, college classes versus the Red Cross class to work at the 4-H camp is a difference. He was supposed to be on watch duty, but Allen swapped with him so he could go along with us."

"The other children are going out?" Carol asks kindly. She is looking at Sophia's excited expression, looking torn.

"Some, yes ma'am. Julie, Luke, and Lizzie don't want to go, so they're doing some lessons in camp with Lilly. And Meghan and Andre are too little really. So it'll be me, Molly, Mika, Isabelle, and Beth, and Molly and Mika are younger than Sophia. Ben and Billy will probably tag along, but my brother's got a watch shift, and Jimmy got busted for slacking on chores last night, so Hershel says he's on hard labor today." She nudges Sophia. "Laundry duty," she intones solemnly. Sophia giggles, and Shane could agree with the girls that a teenage boy probably does consider laundry duty - especially how it is done here - as hard labor. If he wasn't so focused on ignoring the others by watching Honey, he might have missed the moment her smile fades and she gives a hard glare toward the tent Ed has yet to emerge from. From Carol's expression, she doesn't miss it either, and with that, the teenager's argument is won.

"Alright. You'll be careful, right, Sophia, and mind the adults and older kids?" Carol asks. The girl bounces to her feet, giving her mother a hug as Honey makes short work of the bowl of food, handing it back to Carol with a polite smile that fades when Lori hisses Carol's name angrily. Seems she isn't going to be openly rude in front of the girl though.

"C'mon, Sophia, let's go snag some cargo pants and stuff outta Isabelle's duffle. Y'all are about the same height, and you need long pants if we're going after those blackberries. I can braid your hair back if you want." The young brunette has ahold of the younger girl and is towing her willing 'victim' off before anyone can try to convince Carol otherwise.

"Carol!" Lori protests once the girls are out of earshot. "It's bad enough she slept over there last night. You can't mean to let Sophia go off with those people!"

It surprises Shane when the older woman looks thoughtful, instead of chastened. "Those people have done nothing wrong other than a bunch of them be named Dixon," she replies. "Adults are going with them, and if Hershel trusts his daughter going, I think I might trust in that."

"Didn't think so badly of them she's not eating their food," Glenn mutters. "She sure wasn't worried about Carl and Sophia being off in the woods day before yesterday when that walker came up." That raises eyebrows all around, everyone looking to the Korean on watch atop the RV. He just looks back defiantly, obviously pushed beyond his tolerance for the anti-Dixon sentiment.

Shane stands, passing his empty bowl to Carol, and patting her forearm. He sends his own look toward the Ed-occupied tent, meeting Carol's sad gaze for the first time since he realized the man was abusive but not feeling he had recourse as long as Carol didn't complain. He fell back on the habits of the old world as a cop - waiting on a woman to speak up about an asshole she was married to. "They'll bring her back safely. Honey may look like she ought to be hopping around a Disney show, but she knows what she's doing. They'll be back by lunchtime too since I'm fairly sure that Honey's on the afternoon watch over there today."

"She's a child herself!" Lori exclaims. "Rick, tell them!"

Rick sighs deeply. "Lori, Carol's right. At least one adult is going with them, and Zach was in college, so he's an adult too. And obviously the other parents trust them to make the trip, so it's Carol's choice. And there's no reason that teenagers can't sit watch duty. All they need to do is be alert and yell for adults."

Surprised that Andrea stayed out of it, Shane looks over to see she's slipped on the loaned shirt and vest, while she studies the activity starting to spill out to the two external vehicles at the other camp to ready them for the day's supply run. The look she gives him when she realizes he is looking isn't pleasant, but he shrugs it off to walk past to retrieve his own shirt, vest, and the machete he was given yesterday that is hooked on the camp chair by its strap.

"C'mon as soon as Dale's ready to take watch. I'm going to go help load up," he calls up to Glenn, figuring the other two will scramble as soon as Glenn does. Rick can play top dog for the quarry camp folks, but if even mousy Carol is turning the tide, Shane's idea toward maybe seeing if Scout will adopt a few more civilians if they prove useful enough might pan out. If nothing else, at least they seem intent to take on the older woman and Sophia and get them far away from Ed as possible with no jail to put him in.

~*~CP~*~

"Mama! Look what I brought you!" Carol looks up from her mending to see Sophia jogging over from where the other children are returning from their trip into the woods. She sighs with relief, the tension at having her daughter out of sight leaving her at last. The girl is grinning ear-to-ear, no trace of the shyness of the past few months, a basket full of blackberries in her arms and a canvas bag dangling off one arm. One of the dogs from the other camp, a big hound with mournful eyes and huge ears, trots up behind Sophia. The girl plops the basket down by Carol's chair and pets the dog, rubbing at the velvety ears.

"I see you made a new friend," Carol remarks, causing Sophia to grin again.

"Isn't Liberty pretty, Mama? Honey says that she's a walker hound and she's a hunting dog, but she keeps us safe and not lost in the woods instead of hunting squirrels and rabbits and stuff."

"She is a beautiful dog." Carol glances around, making sure Ed is still in the tent. He was reading one of his beloved western paperbacks when she retrieved the laundry earlier. He was rude and insulting but made no move toward her. He hasn't since the night Merle had been out of the camp, where he spat vicious words about no damned redneck to threaten him over her now and left her with a painful bruise on her arm. Prior to the conversation with Daryl, she suspected someone had gotten to Ed the first time she showed bruises on her arms in camp, but she honestly thought it might was Shane or T-Dog, not the racist, drugged up redneck. Even Daryl would have been less surprising. But then again, Merle never made any of the rude comments towards her that he made towards the other women. She assumed that like Ed, he just found her too old and ugly to bother.

"Oh. I'm supposed to give you these too, and Honey says they're lambs quarters and fireweed and to just boil or saute them like spinach." Sophia plucks one of the harvested plants out to show it to her mother. "And there are some mushrooms in there. Hedgehogs, I think she called them."

"It sounds like you kids were really successful this morning," Jacqui compliments, motioning toward the canvas bag and Sophia hands it over happily.

Sophia nods vigorously. "I mean, the other kids are still learning too, so we have to really listen to Honey since she's been doing this kinda thing for years. She says her dad and uncle taught her, but she also took classes with 4-H and classes at this nature center place near where she grew up. And can I go back over? Honey has to go on watch, but they got some squirrels and a woodchuck, and she says Jazz will let me watch him skin them and even teach me how if it's okay with you. He took the same classes she did. And she said I could ask him for some books because even though he's a boy, he likes to read stuff about magic like Harry Potter."

It takes Carol a minute to absorb the delightful babble from her daughter. She is so used to Sophia being cautious at home that it is easy to forget that the girl's teachers said she was a chatterbox in the right situations where her imagination was engaged. She looks over to where the dark-haired young man who was on watch has climbed down, leaving Honey sitting on top with her bow resting lightly across her thighs. He is surrounded by children, all vying for his attention like some sort of pied piper. She doesn't know him, but if the other kids are that comfortable around him, she isn't going to disappoint Sophia.

"Sure. Just make sure you're careful and pay attention," she cautions. It earns her a squeezing hug from her daughter, who darts off to the other camp with the dog right at her heels.

"You sure that's a good idea?" Jacqui asks. "I don't mean anything bad, but a little girl skinning animals?" It's a task Carol and Jacqui have shared in camp, distasteful but necessary.

"She's almost thirteen, and I think I'm okay with her figuring out how her meat goes from furry to cooked. She's been helping me in the kitchen for years, so she knows how to be safe around knives." Carol is glad the others are still working on laundry down at the quarry, with Rick and Jim standing guard. She doesn't avoid the chore, unlike some of the other women, so she is never really behind, and she isn't helping out Daryl and Merle anymore as thanks for the meat they brought into camp or doing Lori and Shane's laundry so poor Carl has something to wear. It is funny how no one really noticed she did far more men's laundry than Ed could produce. She figures if they had, they'd have just been grateful not to have to deal with it themselves. Even better is that Lori is actually doing laundry with Rick back.

"Guess that makes sense. Kinda hope they don't bring that squirrel over here, but guess if Miss Sophia wants us to eat what she helped clean, I can handle more tree rat." Jacqui grimaces. None of the camp is really fond of the squirrels, but it definitely is better to have a full belly, and it is a guarantee that Merle and Daryl could find those even when other game was scarce. They are eating better, more "normal" foods since the others had shared their supplies, but it seems even hunting is still considered essential.

"I'm a bit afraid it'll be the woodchuck she brings over," Carol says, causing Jacqui to laugh. "Isn't that like a really big, tailless squirrel?" She looks to where Jazz has set up a small plastic folding table with a five-gallon bucket sitting below it. The mentioned rodents are laid out on one end, and he is explaining something to Sophia with a serious, intense expression, motioning with a knife tip along the animal he has in front of him. It doesn't take him long to start cleaning the little animal, movements as precise as she's seen the older Dixons use. Once he has it down to meat, he plops it into a dishpan on the table and slides the head, hide, and most of the insides into the bucket below. A few smaller items that Carol assumes are internal organs are tossed to the waiting dogs. He then flips the knife to offer the handle to Sophia, who takes it and reaches for a squirrel with a look of determination on her face.

The women are distracted from watching the impromptu squirrel cleaning session when one of the other kids emerges from the encircled camp with an actual sun-lounger and folds it out in the shade of the RV. The door to the other RV there opens, and for the first time in days, they get a glimpse of Merle Dixon on his feet. The man is relying heavily on the tall, dark-skinned Marine helping him down the steps, but brushes away the help once he is on the ground. The skin of his arms, face, and shoulders is blistered and peeling, slathered in some type of cream. He makes his way slowly toward the sun-lounger, a bottle of water in one hand and a book in the other. The Marine and Cricket follow after him, waiting for him to settle in his reclining seat before tucking a lightweight blanket around him to the chest and plopping a basket with bottles of Gatorade next to him. She plants a kiss on the side of his head, then leaves, but surprisingly, the Marine doesn't leave right away.

The two men have a quiet conversation that ends with the younger man smiling before moving in for a hug. Carol thinks her own shock at that can't top Jacqui's, not after Merle's openly racist attitude.

"That might have been one of the freakiest things I've ever seen," the older woman murmurs. "It's just hard to reconcile Merle the asshole with a guy whose kids seem pretty devoted, and that one seems like he knows Merle real well. Can't say I'd hug someone I barely knew, fellow Marine's dad or not."

"I don't know. I guess I'd go crazy too if I thought Sophia was lost or dead," Carol replies, feeling a tremor of terror through her at the mere thought.

"I'm pretty sure that's what's wrong with Jim," Jacqui says softly, drawing Carol's attention to her and away from the two men. "He keeps it pretty hidden, even when we're alone in our tent, but I think he lost his family coming out of Atlanta. Not sure if knowing or not knowing is worse really. One of my little brothers died before all this. Drunk driver. But the other was working out in California, and that might as well be the moon these days. I just keep hoping he's smart enough to keep himself alive. I mean, if I could make it, he could."

Carol pats her hand gently. "I'm sure he did." She wonders about Jim herself. He gets a kind of shell-shocked expression sometimes that Carol remembers seeing on TV on the faces of refugees from war-torn countries far away. But he seems a bit more connected the last couple of weeks since he gave up his tent to share with Jacqui. She doesn't begrudge either of them whatever comfort they are drawing from each other. It reminds her though. "How do you think Lori's going to manage Shane and his Marine?"

"Oh, honey, that's going to be a powder keg we're all sitting on for a while. I can't blame Shane and Lori if they really thought her husband was dead. You could tell that whole family was grieving hard, especially when we first got here. At least they knew each other before all this, not like me and Jim. But she sure didn't seem like she's let go of Shane now that her husband's back. She's greedy."

It is the most criticism Carol has heard Jacqui level at the woman who considers herself in charge of the camp. She rubs Carol the wrong way, like many of the self-righteous women from the PTA who lorded their better lives over women like her, but she wasn't going to rock the boat. Ed would kill her if she got them tossed out of the camp for not bowing to Lori's whims. They all really left the complaining to Andrea, who did it well and thoroughly. She speaks softly, guilty with the gossip. "I was out of my tent last night because Ed wanted something from the Cherokee when she came over. She stood right by Rick and Lori's tent and commented about the um... noise level... before climbing up to sit with Shane."

Jacqui chokes back a laugh. "Oh, to have been a fly on the wall inside that tent when she did. Bet Lori's expression was priceless. Maybe we won't have to know everything about her sex life anymore now that she's got someone willing to embarrass her on it. Rick strikes me as the gentlemanly type on that anyway."

"It was kind of sweet. Not what I'd have pictured from Staff Sergeant Dixon or Shane either one. She just climbed up there and leaned against his leg and they talked while she kept gently petting at his leg like she was soothing him. Were still talking quietly when I had to go back to my tent. She sure seemed proud of herself this morning."

"Well, not that he's my cup of tea even if he hadn't been chasing after Lori like she was the last woman on earth, but you do have to admit that Deputy Walsh looks like something out of Playgirl."

Carol gasps, giggling as she claps a hand across her mouth out of habit. "He does like leaving that shirt half-unbuttoned doesn't he?"

"Don't hear any of the women complaining about it either," Jacqui replies matter-of-factly.

Carol wonders if she should tell Jacqui about her conversation with Daryl, but she hesitates. While she wouldn't mind Jacqui's counsel, part of why she feels more and more confident about going with the Dixons is the man's willingness to share a painful part of his past, and that's not her business to spread around.

The sound of Shane's Jeep coming back from the quarry lake brings their attention to the other camp members' impending return, Amy at the wheel with the refilled water jugs loaded in the back and baskets of wet laundry in the backseat. "Suppose I could at least help hang that up," Carol says, tucking her mending in the bag by her chair. It feels lazy to sit, even with her hands busy with the mending.

Jacqui groans. "Too bad no one over here thought to make it a rotating chore so the men get the joy of laundry too," she remarked but stands alongside Carol to go help Amy. "Wonder if they'd teach me how to shoot a gun just so I can sit watch."

"You could always ask." Carol motions to where one of the guys from the other camp is headed their way, an odd tumbler looking device cradled in one arm and what Carol is pretty sure is an old-fashioned laundry wringer in the other hand.

"One of the ladies just pointed out y'all were still doing laundry down at the quarry a minute ago." He sits the odd item down on a table and then the wringer beside it. "This won't dry them for you, and you still have to bring up water from the quarry, but at least you won't be down there getting dirty while cleaning. And if someone wants to come over and borrow the spin dryer, it'll wring things out so they dry a lot faster on the lines than even this wringer, but it uses a bit of electricity from the solar batteries." He opens one end of the little barrel shape. "Clothes, water, and detergent in there, close it up, and spin in about um... fifty times or so. Just make sure you can feel the clothes kinda plopping back and forth so they're agitating. Then drain the soapy water, put in clean and repeat to rinse them out. The wringer has clamps so you can at least put it on the edge of the table."

Carol can't help but pick up the wringer and smile a little. Wringing clothes by hand is a thankless task - one the others rarely get done well, leaving her to redo anything she hangs to dry. At least her hands won't ache endlessly with this. Jacqui is tinkering with the little tumbling washer, grinning up at their visitor as Amy comes up looking curious.

"I think you're going to have a lot of fans over here, Mister..." Jacqui trails off, waiting on the introduction.

"Oh!" He chuckles, and Carol thought if he wasn't so dark-skinned, he'd probably be blushing too. "I'm Tyreese."

Voices of the others returning from the quarry lake has Amy calling out for Lori and Miranda to come to look at their new presents, so Tyreese goes through the explanation again, offering to show them how to make their own soap from supplies he has already. "I swear, I wish I'd known about how this stuff got out stains back when I played ball," he remarks.

And of course, Lori has to happen. Carol dislikes the uncharitable thought, but the woman just can't be grateful. "Why are you doing laundry? There's plenty of women over there to do women's work."

The big man's eyebrows nearly disappear into the cap he wore. "Lady, please don't ever let my sister hear you say something like that. She'd take it out on me even though I firmly disagree. I do my part wherever it's needed. If Scout wants me on a supply run, I go, but most times, I'm in camp. No such thing as women's work, just work that needs to be done and whether I'm capable of doing it."

Rick intervenes, a hand on Lori's shoulder, something Carol has noticed he seems to have to do a lot already. "We don't mean to seem ungrateful."

It seems to soothe the offense to Tyreese, who shrugs. "Not like I gotta live with her. Just if someone wants to get the soap supplies, come over and I'll show you how."

"I'm sure someone will." Rick watches as Jacqui gets the wringer fixed to the table, distracted for a moment. "How long have you been with your group?"

"Since Jacksonville. Pretty much the beginning. Me, my daughter Julie, and my sister Sasha were the first to join up with the Dixons and that bunch of Marines she had then. We helped get Ryan and his girls out of a traffic jam, but he'd already lost his wife by then. We all made it out of Jacksonville together, but lost Teresa - one of the Marines - just about the state border. We'd started to think there weren't any other survivors until we got attacked. Started finding other good folks once we crossed into Georgia."

"And you're staying with her group to go north?"

"Yeah. We've gathered up a lot of good people. You should consider it. Your boy would be safer than with a small group. Can't tell you how terrifying it was when it was just a small group and two of the kids we had were teenagers better trained to defend themselves than most adults we've found." He pulls off his cap, rubbing a hand across his short hair before replacing it. "I'd better get back. Karen was threatening to use me as a model for teaching the little ones all the important bones earlier."

"What is Merle doing outside?" Lori asks, a note of alarm in her voice. "And why is Sophia over there with him?"

Carol startles, looking with everyone else to where Sophia is standing with her back towards them. She has something cradled in one arm, but is motioning with the other, speaking animatedly. Whatever she's saying has both Merle and the Marine entertained, since both men are smiling at her. Before Carol can move or call out to her daughter, Sophia whirls, trotting toward them.

"Look, Mama!" Sophia is as energized and happy as she was earlier, this time with a big Tupperware container with a dark liquid sloshing about and two packages labeled as dehydrated vegetable soup mix. "We finished the squirrels, and Jazz says he's going to go back out, so we get to eat all the ones I helped clean." She gives the container a shake, holding it up to peer at the cut-up squirrel inside. "He showed me how to make the sauce and says these'll taste a lot better than just pan-fried. 'Sposed to put it in a pot and let it cook about half an hour til the meat just falls right off the bone, but the bags of veggies don't go in til the last ten minutes. Mister Merle said it won't taste as good as the stew you've been making for the camp, but Jazz is still learning how things go together."

"You got to clean squirrels?" Carl asks incredulously, looking a bit peeved. He was upset when Sophia was allowed to leave that morning and he wasn't. Carol imagines it isn't fun for a boy to be cooped up when a girl the same age got more freedom. She doesn't look much like the childishly dressed girl he's been playing with for two months now either. While she still has the same cartoon-logo T-shirt on, she wears well-fitting cargo pants with a belt and they even replaced her little canvas sneakers with a pair of hiking boots. Her hair is neatly braided into a double French braid, something Carol has never been quite able to sort out. She also has one of the snug fanny packs around her waist that Carol has seen the other children wear, with a pair of water bottles snuggled into it where it rests against the small of her back.

Sophia's grin is near blinding. "Yeah! I wasn't allowed to hunt when we were out, because I don't know how to use a slingshot yet and no one's allowed to teach me until Mama says it's okay. Which reminds me. Jazz says he's happy to teach me to use both the slingshot and bow or maybe his uncle if you wanted somebody older since Jazz isn't a certified archery instructor yet like his sister. But he's been learning since he was ten at the 4-H center where he grew up. Did you know they got to do 4-H club at school? And he was in orchestra band because the football coach's wife was the band director so he didn't mind if his players did band. I thought he was kinda teasing me about liking to cook, so he said I should just go ask his dad, so I did."

"Um, I think you broke them," comes a quiet male voice which has enough depth that Carol thinks he is probably a baritone. All the adults turn to see the young Dixon standing and watching. Carol hasn't realized just how tall he is until she sees him close to Rick and realizes he is taller than the former deputy by a couple of inches. The family resemblance to Merle is fairly strong. The Dixon blue eyes are as striking in him as his sisters. He wears what Carol was beginning to think is a standard outfit for the others, a T-shirt and cargo pants, with a bow slung across his back. The T-shirt is a well-worn Georgia Bulldogs shirt, reminding her Sophia and Glenn both mentioned football in regard to Jazz.

He shifts under their attention, offering a box of groceries to Rick. "Miz Patricia was going over the list of what she gave y'all the day we came and said these are some extras she could share while they're still getting all the random stuff from the city runs. There's a couple of cans of potatoes that would go with the squirrel too, and she'll send over some biscuits later from the solar oven." He focuses on Carol. "I was going to hunt this afternoon, but she says she's got chili already on for tonight and had meat in the cooler to use up first. So if she's got permission, I can set up to teach Sophia since Miz Lilly says Meghan can have lessons while we're camped and secure for a bit. You're welcome to watch, ma'am. Or learn?" He adds the last part a bit hesitantly. It makes her wonder just how old he is.

Sophia outright bounces as she watches her mother, still holding the Tupperware in her arms. The sloshing reminds her of its presence, and she holds it out for Carol to take. Both her daughter and the young man look actually hopeful of a yes, and Sophia already has had such a wonderful day under the guidance of the young Dixons. What does Carol have to offer but boredom and avoiding Ed and probably a sulking Carl? Even the Morales kids aren't in camp, having been invited to play with the younger kids when the foraging group returned. "Thank you for the offer, but I've got chores. But Sophia can go ahead."

"Thanks, Mama." Sophia whirls and grabs ahold of Jazz's wrist, tugging him away as if Carol might change her mind if she hesitates, a reverse of Honey snagging the younger girl this morning. She can hear him telling her to slow down there ain't no fire in a tone that sounds exactly like Daryl.

Amy looks to the laundry still in the Jeep and grimaces, looking like she wants to join the retreating pair. "Would you be terribly offended if I left you to it?" she asks Carol and Jacqui. "Seemed like he was kinda just offering to Carol for lessons, but I wouldn't mind watching to see how hard it is. My roommate's sister was in the archery club at her college and seemed to like it." When Carol shakes her head, she takes off at a jog, probably trying to avoid Lori from managing any objections.

Jacqui lifts the laundry spinner off the table and sits it down near her camp chair. "Jim, help me carry this over by the clotheslines so I can use the wringer. This thing's gonna make it go so much faster." Jim glances at the glowering expression on Lori's face and grabs his end of the table. That man avoids confrontation more than Carol does.

Seeing her daughter's happiness seems to restore a bit of Carol's backbone, maybe because now, there isn't only one safe choice. She squares her shoulders and forces herself to meet Lori head-on, especially once the brunette's eyes narrow. "You aren't Sophia's mother. You aren't Amy's mother." Deep breath. "So it's just a waste to complain to me."

Then she flees like the coward she usually is, taking the Tupperware inside the RV to keep it somewhere shady til closer to supper. Her luck holds and Lori doesn't follow, so she giggles nervously to herself. They aren't free of Ed yet, but Sophia is happy, and there's an offer that includes her too. Maybe her luck would keep changing.

~*~ MD ~*~

"That little girl sure was happy to see you," Jamie says, drawing Merle's attention away from where Sophia returned to her camp.

Merle turns back to the younger man. Jazz followed Sophia, and while yesterday was hazy as hell and he's not entirely sure of reality versus hallucination, he remembers being reassured that they were aware the girl needed protection. "She needed someone to keep her safe. No one else was gonna over there, other than her mama. Nobody ever wants to believe a daddy'll hurt his kid until it happens."

"How's your memory today? From the time here at the camp?"

Jamie doesn't hold his hand, not like the girls do and they've not left him alone, not any of his kids. There's always one with him or close by. But he's got an arm thrown across Merle's shins from where he's sitting on the ground near the sun-lounger. Merle can almost see the checklist the young man is going through. He isn't sure when the guilt will fade over seeing the tears on all their faces when he fought his way free of the nightmares and realized he wasn't hallucinating his family crowded in that tiny RV bedroom. He hasn't had to face Daryl yet, other than seeing him in the room, edging toward the door once he was sure Merle was alive.

"Better. Coming back like a jigsaw puzzle. Lot of Daryl, the girl, her mama. Flashes of the other kids. Not much of the adults. Remember beating on the asshole though." He knows they keep asking about his memory because he's probably got a lot to atone for. He channels Will Dixon when he's intoxicated.

"Yeah, Daryl said you worked him over pretty good to make sure he left his family alone. Although part of that was trying to get out of the ass chewing Scout was giving him for not stepping up himself."

"Can picture that." He closes his eyes, enjoying the feel of sunlight. He thinks vaguely that he shouldn't, not with the sunburn darkening his skin painfully, but all he remembers clearly of the roof is rage that yet another undeserving asshole was escaping the dead while his kids were gone. She hides it well, but he's seen the hurt flicker in Scout's expression that he doubted she'd burn the world to get his kids back to him. And his baby brother, who stood by him when he had his own reasons to go back home instead. He knows he'd be dead without that one last lifeline.

"Stop looking like that." Jamie grips his calf and squeezes, causing him to open his eyes. "Guilt ain't gonna get us anywhere, Pops. You made a mistake. Now we move on."

Merle's left arm and leg take that moment to tremor badly, waves of nausea rolling through his weakened body. It's the sun stroke, a focal seizure, not withdrawal, although that's a lingering nightmare that dulls his senses in between spikes of anxiety that make him feel like his heart is going to rupture. Withdrawal. He remembers it from his youth, the first time he battled this particular demon and won in favor of joining the Marines and escaping the hellhole he grew up in, when he'd decided he'd rather die than keep becoming his father.

Jamie grabs the trembling hand, holding it steady between both of his, a contrast of sunburnt and ebony skin tones. The tremor passes, and Jamie's still there, smiling softly, taking his pulse as his heart rate returns to normal. "I'm gonna go get another dose of the seizure med from Hershel. You okay for a few minutes?"

He looks completely confident in Merle's ability to move past this, to heal. His kids' faith in him is easier to understand than Jamie's, but Jamie's been a Dixon since that first time Scout dragged him home at Christmas from Lejeune with tales of survival together in a desert land. He'd done his time in Iraq too, knows the bonds it creates, and recognized the haunted look in the kid's eyes. This once-orphan from Louisiana slotted into his family like Merle raised him.

He manages to nod and closes his eyes, feeling the need to sleep but afraid to, afraid this will be another dream even if the rational part of his mind knows he isn't hallucinating. He isn't alone for long. The size of the hand in his makes him think of Honey at first, because both Scout and Cricket are out in the city, but his daughter's on watch, and she's not likely to shirk her duty.

Sophia smiles at him sweetly when he manages to fight away the drowsiness to see who has joined him. "Would you like me to read to you?" she asks.

He sees in her blue eyes the same innocent faith his own kids bear for him and he manages to smile for this child who saw the monster he's been with the drugs clouding his mind and still comes close and holds his hand.

"Sure, sweetheart. I'd like that a lot."

Chapter Text

July 22, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Shane's cleaning his gun after supper when they get a visitor and he wonders in amusement if the Dixons draw straws on who gets to bring things over to the camp. This time it's Cricket, carrying an office supply box that she sits down beside Rick, who hasn't returned to watch since Jim relieved him so he could eat dinner with his family.

His partner greets the young woman politely, looking curiously at the box. "Y'all sure have a lot of presents to share."

Cricket actually laughs, dragging the lid off the box. "This one is mostly for Carl," she says, but takes a box of something and a tube of cream out and hands them to Rick.

He frowns as he reads the box. "Scar sheeting?"

"Yeah. Stick one front and back. It'll help reduce the scar tissue. It's health grade silicone. Scout isn't using it anymore, since hers are pretty much as as healed as we can get them, but it'll be good for you to try. Wear the scar sheeting at night and just wash it with soap and water and reuse. During the day, rub in that cream to help your skin heal. It'll also act as a protective barrier. Jamie talked to you about the exercises earlier, right?"

"Gave me some notes, yeah," Rick acknowledges.

"You need to take them seriously. I know I was abrupt the other day, but you got a miracle going here and ought make sure it keeps going. In ordinary circumstances, the bullet wound would have been healed before you woke up, but Shane mentioned to Scout that they had to do some followup surgery to remove a fragment that was causing an infection."

It's Carl who replies before Shane could. "Three surgeries really," the boy says. "Did your sister have so many?"

"Not for the gunshot wounds, no." Cricket apparently decides to stay a bit, since she snags one of the chairs left empty because the Morales' family is actually over playing visitor. "The one on her arm, they just stitched that up and it was all healed within two weeks. Did you see the other one?"

Carl nods. "It's kinda like Dad's, but lower down. That was the one I was asking about, since it's like his."

"Well, it sorta is. Feel along your side there, where her scar is. No bones, right?" The boy agrees, and Shane is surprised that Lori hasn't interrupted, but a glance her way shows actual curiosity for once. "Now feel up where your dad was shot. That area's not just muscle. I'm betting the first surgery was to repair bleeding, the later ones to remove fragments that were left behind or maybe pieces of bone if his ribs were hit. Contrary to what TV always shows, they don't usually go digging around for bullets or fragments unless they're causing a problem, since you cause more damage that way. The more damage, especially repeated damage like your dad had due to the surgeries, the longer it takes to heal. My sister's bullet wound was actually the first thing that really healed up, because all it hit was muscle, like on her arm."

Carl absorbs what he's being told. "With what you said about those shakes, he'd be better by now if he'd been awake to eat, wouldn't he?"

"Maybe. It's hard to tell on medical, because everyone heals differently. But nutrition's a key part of that, and no matter how good we think the stuff we give someone through an IV or feeding tube is, it's not the same as having an alert patient eating on his own." She smiles gently at the boy.

"Second surgery, they put some supports in on his ribs," Lori says, fingers gripping at her pants as if the mere memory stresses her. "Those will be okay?"

"Rib plating? Yeah. Now I wasn't as far along in my training to get to really see specialized stuff like that yet. First year of medical school is a lot more exhausting studying than serious hands-on yet. But being a college athlete, you end up seeing folks end up with breaks bad enough for that level of care, especially the football players. Usually it means there were multiple breaks in multiple ribs, and stabilizing them with the plating allows for faster healing. It shouldn't be a problem going forward, any more than the surgical pins my younger sister has in her arm from repairing a sports injury."

"When we were in the ER, they said he had something called flail chest," Shane says, making fists reflexively as he remembers the terror of first holding pressure on the wound and then the ride itself to the hospital where there seemed more blood out of Rick than he could survive.

"Christ. Yeah, that'd explain the surgery on the ribs. Sometimes, if you get a high impact injury to multiple ribs, your chest will work backwards. It's called paradoxical breathing. So you try to suck air in, but the chest collapses instead of expands. He was on a ventilator between surgeries probably. Did they take him off after the rib one?"

Shane nods, as Rick reaches out and tugs one of Lori's hands off her pants to squeeze it gently. "He could breathe on his own after that one."

"I wish we had his records. There's different ways of putting it back together. Some of them are permanent, like what I mentioned Honey has. But I was reading this journal article a couple of months ago that says some of the plates dissolve over time. Are you having any issues with your ribs at all? Any unexplained pain? Might be a good idea to give you an x-ray lesson like we did T-Dog, just to get a general look on what they put in there."

Rick shakes his head. "Honestly, if they hadn't mentioned it, I wouldn't have really thought about my ribs, although considering where I was shot, I guess I should have."

"Alright. We'll do that x-ray tomorrow, just to have a lookabout. Should've done it sooner, but we didn't realize you'd had later surgery until Scout brought it up when she gave me the scar sheeting and cream to pass on. Carl can be my trainee for the day. Want to do a first aid course?"

The boy lights up like a Christmas tree. "Sure. A real one like the Red Cross?"

"Sure. Maybe T-Dog will be our guinea pig and I'll teach you how to take stitches out." She glances toward T-Dog, who shrugs, obviously unconcerned about being used as part of a lesson.

"Can I ask a personal question?" Amy says. Everyone rotates to look at her and she flushes a little.

"Can ask. I might answer, depending on what it is," Cricket replies.

"I didn't think women served in combat," the young woman says hesitantly. Shane is fairly sure they're about the same age, since Amy was in grad school here in Atlanta. But the confidence levels between them is a lot different. Part of him wonders how much is nature versus upbringing or even the extra push given to athletes by their coaches to stand out. Maybe all three, in Cricket Dixon's case.

"Officially, no, they don't. But that mostly means they aren't given weapons and sent trooping off at the front lines on the regular. My sister was just working a checkpoint, the first time she got shot, that one by her elbow. Right up in what was considered a safe zone. Lots of women there, even civilian employees."

"She a translator?" Rick asks.

"No. Those are usually locals hired on, or people who've picked up some language skills outside their general MOS." She sees the confused look on Carl's face. "MOS is a military term for Military Occupation Specialty code. It's a way of defining their career field for the military. Scout started out as an intelligence analyst. She went through over a year of schooling out in California for her language skills. Daddy really was hoping it'd keep her stateside, at a desk job, because he served too and knows what being out in the field can mean, and he was real happy that she got stationed in North Carolina instead of California. But her unit went to Iraq for a while, and they had this program where they let women volunteer to unofficial spots that got them out of the safe zones because the local women are afraid to speak to foreign men or won't due to cultural issues. But they'll talk to women, sometimes."

"The Lioness program," Dale says. He shrugs when it gains him everyone's attention. "There was a movie about two years ago. My wife liked it, said it showed how women were in combat even if they never got official recognition for it."

"Yeah, that's a good one. She always thought it kind of funny that she was just working a supposed safe checkpoint and got shot when she'd been out in the field in far more dangerous places."

"Was that what she was doing when she got hurt again?" Carl asks. "Talking to women?"

Cricket shakes her head. "Not really. She changed from analyst to counterintelligence when they started allowing women in the MOS. She doesn't talk about where she was or what she was doing. All they told us was Afghanistan and what we can puzzle out from the medals. That's how it is sometimes, with the military. Daddy has parts of his service he doesn't talk about either. Jamie too. I'm guessing it's like your dad and Shane. I bet they saw stuff at work they didn't want to talk about at home."

Carl looks to his dad and Rick nods, giving him a warm smile. The boy mulls it over for a minute, studying his mother with enough of a dawning realization that Shane worries he's going to say something about the conflict about Rick's job. He doesn't, finally shrugging it off in favor of remembering some of what Cricket said when she approached. "Did you say that the box was for me?"

She laughs and pushes the box toward the boy. "Sorry about that. I got to talking and forgot. These are yours to keep. Sophia's suggestion."

"Comic books!" he exclaims, dipping into the box to display two of his favored reading mediums. "Thanks. Are you sure?"

"Yeah. We got them in trade from another group, when they saw we had kids, but none of them are really into comics. I ended up with them because everyone knows I love the things, but I think you'll get more enjoyment out of them than I will in the long run. But I gotta ask, mister, Marvel or DC?"

That sets Carl off laughing, along with his dad and Shane. Shane and Rick had taken Carl to see the Iron Man 2 premiere not long before Rick was shot, and Shane can still remember how the boy practically vibrated in excitement all the way home telling them about how he couldn't wait for next year's movies. That was without mentioning the number of times he'd made them rewatch the X-Men movies with him. He'd been a Marvel character every year for Halloween since he was old enough to choose his own costumes. "Marvel, duh."

"You make good choices, my friend." She reaches out a closed fist and Carl bumps it.

"Thanks, Miss Dixon."

"Ugh, kiddo, don't make me feel old. Call me Cricket, or if that's too weird for you, I answer to Chris easily too. Athletics trained me to answer to Dixon pretty well, but that'd get confusing real fast here."

"Is that short for Christine? They were talking the other night that there used to be someone on TV named like you."

"Got it close. I'm officially Christina, but there was a girl named Christina and a boy named Chris in my kindergarten class, so my teacher suggested Cricket and it just stuck. Funny enough, none of us really use our given names, me and my siblings. I'll bet you wonder about the others."

Shane laughed, looking up from where he just finished reassembling his gun. "Well, your younger sister did introduce herself as Hannah, but followed it up to call her Honey right after."

"Well, considering it won't take her long to get into some sort of mischief that has someone yelling her full name around camp, she might as well. I can safely say that Jazz is short for Jasper. He honestly doesn't really care one way or another what he's called. Scout would drown me in the quarry lake if I told her real name, so we'll stick to the story that it's Scout."

"Is it really that bad?" Carl asks, looking astounded.

"She thinks so. I happen to think it's pretty, and at least she never had to change her name because of classmates with the same name."

"Or had to be known by an initial," Amy grumbles. "One year, there was Amy L, Amy H., and Amy B., all in the same room. You'd think schools could spread us around a bit. It wasn't like we only had a couple of classrooms, yet every single Amy in the grade was in the same fourth grade room."

"I've never really met another Carl," the boy admits.

"Well, see, that's where your parents did awesome. No need to share your name in class and I bet they spell it right too." Cricket tells him with a wink. She stands and stretches. "I'd best get back and make sure Daddy actually listens about going to bed early."

"How's he doing?" Rick asks, a little hesitantly.

"Better than expected, really, considering the shape he was in between the poison he put in his system and the heat stroke. If we're lucky, he won't have any major withdrawal issues, and I'm hopeful we treated the heat stroke before it did any lasting damage to his heart, liver, or kidneys. Honestly, the raging asshole mode he was in up there was probably the sun as much as the drugs, pretty much a six of one, half a dozen of the other situation. I did a test to see what we were dealing with and weird as it sounds, we're lucky it was stimulants, and not opioids or sedatives. Should be able to get him through a detox fairly quickly, and we've got him on meds to offset the dopamine crash, and some of the meds we used for the heat stroke were beneficial, especially the anti-convulsant. It's a recent habit and we've removed the primary psychological cause to him using, so now it's just a matter of waiting it all out."

Shane likes the level of detail she's put into the update. It's easy to just say her father won't do drugs anymore, but he's been a cop too long not to know that once the brain's hooked, getting clean isn't the easiest route. Scout has seemed pretty confident in her sister and Hershel's skills, and he's taken that into account, but these are the actual details. Merle's a stubborn bastard though, so they'll just have to wait and see if that force of will applies to staying off drugs the same way it did to finding the damned things in the middle of the apocalypse. He can't imagine the number of unguarded stashes there are out there right now.

"It sounds like you've got experience with this sort of thing," he ventures.

"Did volunteer work at one of the rehab clinics here in Atlanta, then did an internship as part of my pre-med program. Was thinking of specializing for a while, but it's a frustrating field, kind of like oncology. You're always going to rack up losses. I was figuring on rural health. Didn't exactly have this in mind, but I figure Hershel never thought he would be treating more people than cows either."

"You said you were giving Carl a first aid lesson, so I assume you aren't going out on tomorrow's run?" Jacqui asks. She partnered with Cricket that first joint supply run, and Shane was putting her and Andrea on alternate days for runs, so tomorrow was her turn.

"We've hit enough of the medical facilities that I'm actually familiar with that I'm not really needed. Scout will probably pair you off with Sasha, if you're going out again. Think she's taking Jazz out tomorrow too, and honestly, one sibling out in the field at a time is the most Scout likes to worry about." She glances back to the other camp and when Shane follows her line of sight, he can see that Merle is still up and about, although it's mostly sitting near the campfire with Honey nudged around his legs like a baby octopus from where she's sitting on the ground by his chair. She pauses for a smile at Carl. "I'll see you for your lesson tomorrow. Let's plan on after breakfast, soon as the supply runners head out, alright?"

The boy beams at her and nods. Shane is surprised that Lori didn't pitch a fit about him taking the lesson, but maybe because Rick's x-ray is involved, she finds it more appropriate. She also doesn't seem to get as worked up by Cricket as she does the other Dixons. Snobbery perhaps, since the young woman is a medical student. That would rank her up pretty high in Lori's deductions of the world.

Everyone's fairly quiet, watching her cross back over and drop her arms gently around her father's shoulders. Merle smiles up at his daughter, allowing himself to be herded upright and toward the RV, Honey following as Merle's steps are a little wobbly.

"They are very loving toward him, the two younger girls," Dale muses. "Every interaction I have seen since he came out of the RV has been very sweet, when I was on watch before Rick. He adores those two. I was surprised by Sophia reading to him, though."

"What about the other two?" Jacqui asks, obviously realizing that sitting watch gives Dale a viewpoint into the other camp most don't have. Shane's a little curious himself. He's spent two days on runs partnered with Scout, and last night was obviously an entirely different sort of time together, but he hasn't actually seen her interact with Merle yet.

"The son's quiet. Ate supper with his father, but he's off reading to the younger ones right now. Looks like a Harry Potter book." Jim answers instead of Dale, surprising them. He's been more interactive lately, volunteering for the watch substitution. Shane isn't sure whether to be hopeful or worried.

"Sophia did mention Harry Potter earlier. When she was telling us all about learning to clean squirrels and asking for archery lessons. How did that go?" Jacqui asks Amy. "Or did you spend all your time trying to flirt?"

Andrea looks angry. She apparently didn't realize Amy ventured out of camp while she was on today's run. "You shouldn't be flirting with a Dixon, not even the young one."

"Good grief, Andrea, it's harmless. Besides, I've never been so politely ignored in my entire life, and that includes when I was flirting with the gay guy from my economics class. Jim's right though. He's really quiet. Spoke to give instructions and encouragement, was more comfortable with Meghan and Sophia than me, though." She turns to Carol with a grin. "Your girl is a good shot. After she came back from that little jaunt reading to Merle, she was nailing that target like she's been drawing a bow for years, just on one lesson. He ended up leaving her to practice while he worked with the little girl more. Said he was going to ask you tomorrow if you were okay with her carrying a bow if she's allowed to forage again, since Honey will be along to supervise her trying for moving targets."

"She's really that good?" Carol asks, looking surprised.

"Yeah. Regular little Legolas. That's why he wanted Honey to start working with her, because his sister's better with the bow than he is. He said he's been focused more on ROTC than hunting this past year when Sophia asked why."

"Some people are better at teaching too," Shane adds. "If you're willing to let her learn more, Carol, I can't really vouch for the archery, but if the girl's been doing IDPA competitions, the moving target bit is probably legit. Although I'm hoping they practice on rabbit and not squirrel. Tonight's supper was nice enough, but I'm not the only one who might like a break."

"Well, since Andrea isn't going on tomorrow's run, maybe we could borrow Dale's canoe?" Amy suggests. "The kids that have been going down there have trailed out a few fish, but might get more if we could get off away from the bank."

Dale agrees easily, always happy for anything that amuses Andrea or Amy, and Andrea looks happy that Amy's wanting to spend time with her.

"You look exhausted, Shane," Rick says quietly, but it still draws attention from the others.

He shrugs. He is pretty damned tired, mostly because between yesterday and today, both supply run and scouting, he's realized he lost some of his athletic edge stuck in camp. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix." And then he freezes, because the sudden alert looks he gets from several of the others tells him that this morning's staged drama is about to be brought up.

"Maybe you should have gotten more sleep last night," Andrea says, tone biting.

"Not sure how that's any of your business," he replies. He considers a barb that he's not sleeping with her, so why does she care, but that might make her spiteful enough to open the can of worms that is him sleeping with Lori.

"This isn't like before, where you can have an easy one night stand," Rick ventures. He sounds more concerned than upset, and Shane supposes his track record does make Rick justifiably nervous. They're a little dependent on Scout's group at the moment, but today's partnership on the run hadn't been any different than yesterday's. He's never met a woman who can compartmentalize as well as the Marine on public versus private.

"They're going to be here three, maybe four, more days, Rick. I think it's exactly like that. Just ask T-Dog. You see any problems with us doing the run together today?" Because he's not stupid enough to ask Andrea's opinion, and Glenn, as always, is nestled among the other camp as if he has always been part of it.

The other man shrugs. "Not that I saw. Daryl didn't seem to care, and that's where I thought there would be a problem if we had one, honestly."

"Maybe he didn't realize," Andrea begins, only to be cut off by Jacqui scoffing.

"Not sure how you'd think Daryl misses anything, especially not where his family is concerned," the older woman says. "I may not have cared for either Dixon before, but observant is nearly that man's middle name."

"It just makes me uneasy," Rick says, expression set in what Shane always thinks of as 'earnest good guy'.

Before Shane can ask why, Jacqui does, and something about her posture makes Shane more alert, especially when she exchanges a look with Carol.

"I just don't want any bad blood," Rick manages finally, frowning.

"Wow, guess I know what kind of opinion you have of me," Shane says, honest hurt flickering past the guilt over Lori. He knows he should tell Rick, confess before it comes out in a way that hurts everyone worse than it already will, but this automatic assumption that he'll cause a problem hurts. He's never had an ex come causing problems. That's just not how he works. He pushes to his feet despite the exhaustion. "Gonna take a walk."

He hears Rick call after him, but since the man doesn't actually follow, he keeps on the trajectory toward the quarry lake. It's relatively safe, and he's armed, after all.

~*~CP~*~

Carol feels her anxiety level spike when the big deputy stalks off, every line of his body radiating hurt and anger. Rick's on his feet, but surprisingly, his way after Shane is blocked by Jacqui. The other woman has a hand out on Rick's chest and her expression is almost forbidding.

"Let me by."

"No. Because I don't know what your partnership was like before with him, but you sure aren't treating him like a friend now," Jacqui says. "Let him walk it off and talk to him when he gets back."

"Kinda glad you aren't my best friend," T-Dog states, before following after Shane. Jacqui makes no move to stop him from leaving.

"Dammit, I didn't mean to piss him off," Rick mutters, sitting back down. Jacqui returns to her seat after a moment, arching a brow disbelievingly.

"Shane's never had a relationship last longer than a month," Lori adds. "He's fickle. Look how he abandoned Rick!"

Carol's never been more grateful for her habit of looking down in her life, because she knows there's no way her expression wouldn't make Rick ask questions. She wonders if the others are equally incredulous. Fickle isn't exactly how she's seen Shane's devotion to Lori and Carl, to keeping them safe. And the man had outright cried when Rick reappeared. There's a coiled tenseness in the man that has always made her a little nervous, because she's wary of men that rely on their physicality the way Shane does, but she's never been actually afraid of him.

"If you think he was going to be able to carry a comatose man and his medical equipment to safety, you're crazy," Jacqui snaps. Whatever brought her to the breaking point, to defending Shane, Carol's glad. Her own brief rebellion toward Lori had been pleasant, to speak her mind. She imagines it's even more of a relief to someone used to doing that anyway, like Jacqui. "You weren't here when Hershel explained how much care he still needed. How was Shane supposed to do that and still get you and Carl safe? If you had a choice, Rick, which would you want him to do?"

Carl is looking almost frantically between his parents and Jacqui, trying to figure out the source of the conflict. Carol thinks the boy is one of the few people unaware of his mother's relationship with Shane. Even Sophia commented about how lucky Carl and Lori were to have Shane. She suspects her daughter envied Carl having a replacement paternal figure.

"He did the right thing," Rick says, looking drained. "Jacqui's right. There's no way he could have gotten me out of that place and kept me alive doing it."

"He said you were dead, Rick. Dead."

The curly-haired deputy sighs, reaching out to take his wife's hand. "I really believe he thought I was, Lori. And would you have left willingly if he said he wasn't sure?"

Carol doesn't think Lori would have. The woman's stubborn enough she might endanger herself and even Carl for some sort of 'stand by your man' moment.

It takes Lori a minute to finally shake her head, so she's at least being honest.

Rick notices Carl's distress and reels the boy into his lap for a hug. "I'm glad you thought I was gone and not sitting here worrying every day about me, or staying behind in King County. The man I left behind and his son, they're the only living souls anywhere in our town. If you stayed behind, that's a lot for Shane to take on, looking after you two and me, and whoever that poor nurse we think kept taking care of me was, if he could have found her."

Lori huffs, ducking her head to hide the guilty expression Carol's been seeing more often since Rick returned.

"If they want to be happy for a couple of days, or just work off stress, or whatever it is those two seem to have agreed to, it's not our place to be meddling," Jacqui says, her expression stern as she looks from Rick to Lori to Andrea. Her gaze lingers the longest on Andrea for some reason, and Carol reminds herself to ask sometime when they're alone.

Before Lori can utter whatever retort she's planning, Rick draws her into the hug with Carl. "She's right. I never tried to tell Shane what to do about women before. Like he said this morning, they're both consenting adults."

That seems to dismiss the issue, since Lori doesn't seem to want to continue, probably in case it does come round to someone spilling her secret, and no one else wants to keep it up either. Carol almost wishes it had come to a boil. The secret of Shane and Lori is something she hopes comes out soon, because the longer it goes, the more poison it will unleash. She also wonders what Andrea's problem is, if it's actually with Shane or Scout, since she wasn't as close to Lori as she made out to be lately.

~*~SW~*~

Shane makes it into his tent before Scout's even off watch tonight. He tosses his boots aside, flopping back on the air mattress, and closing his eyes. The pessimist in him wonders if last night was a fluke, but the sound of the tent zipper tells him he's not alone.

"Rough evening?" Scout asks softly.

The mattress shifts as she sits beside him. From the movements, he thinks she's unlacing her boots. A double thud confirms it. She moves away for a minute and then comes back, tugging at his belt. He doesn't open his eyes, still caught in the sour mood that's plagued him since the issue with Rick, but realizes she was just putting away his gun and knife when she moves away again after getting them and his belt free.

He opens his eyes finally when she returns and stretches out beside him on her side, not really touching, but close enough he can feel her body heat. He turns his head enough to look at her. "Not much company tonight," he says. He's had these moods before, times where he feels like his choices will never measure up to Rick's, and before, he would have avoided companionship entirely, or if cornered, gone through the motions and made sure he wasn't talked into spending the night. He doesn't want that kind of sex tonight, the mechanics of a physical release that doesn't settle the dark thoughts in his head.

"Not sure you should be alone either," she replies. She rolls into contact with him, but it's not the amorous advance he expects, not really. The kiss on his jawline is gentle before she raises up to an elbow. "Take off your shirt and roll over."

He frowns, but decides whatever she's planning can't be worse than being locked in his own head, so he complies, finishing undressing and rolling to his belly in just his boxer briefs. When her weight settles across the back of his thighs, he realizes she's going to give him a massage and relaxes. He's never had anyone do anything like this for him before and feels the ugly feelings drift away as her strong hands work their way up his back from the base of his spine.

By the time she signals for him to roll over, he's almost asleep, free of the tension that would have made for a restless night. She repeats the process with his chest and abs, with the difference now being that he can see her content expression as she works her way across his body. Although he understands now why people pay good money for a massage, he's not sure why it seems to be relaxing her as much as him. Part of him wants to return the favor. The rest of him wants to sleep, to fall into the warmth she's coaxed through his body.

Scout must understand what he's thinking without him articulating it, because she slides from where she's straddled him and tucks herself him across like a living blanket.

He gives up grasping for awareness and sleeps.

~*~MD~*~

Jerking awake, Merle rolls to his side and looks down the dim hallway of the RV, focusing on the visuals to distinguish nightmare from reality. He can see the little bunks on one side of the hall from here, the bottom one with two small sleeping children tucked together. In the top one, he recognizes Sophia, curled up on herself in sleep, back to the wall in a way that makes him angry at himself, the others in the camp, and at the world before that let the girl learn how to make herself as small a target as possible when she has to trade alertness for sleep. He knows that way of sleeping, lived it for eighteen years, and spent years making Daryl feel safe enough to sprawl out on his bed as he slept.

"You okay, Merle?"

When he rolls back onto his back, he can see Daryl in the dim light from the moon outside. He's settled into the narrow space next to the bed, propped against the wall more than he's actually using the sleeping bag under him.

"Yeah. I think."

But he's still disoriented and unfocused, which his brother must sense because he reassures him. "Everyone's good. Sleeping. Safe where they should be."

"Daryl?"

"Yeah?"

"How bad was I?" Daryl's been avoiding him since he woke. He knows his brother's gone on supply runs, but even when he's back in camp, he's the one family member who hasn't hovered in some way.

He isn't sure he needs a verbal answer when his brother won't meet his eyes. Cricket and Honey were too young when Will Dixon choked to death on his own fucking vomit to be tainted by his father's horror show. But Scout and Daryl didn't have that luxury.

"M'sorry, baby brother. Should have been stronger," he says softly.

Daryl raises his head, eyes shining in the dim light, and Merle realizes he's crying. He reaches out, and Daryl doesn't flinch away when he tugs his arm, pulling him onto the bed. He curls into Merle's bulk, allowing Merle to comfort him, and cries like he hasn't since he was a child. It doesn't matter that Daryl's a grown man now, a cop for years, a protective uncle, a father himself. Merle's mind brings back the frantic toddler who fought his way out of the social worker's arms, screaming for Merle and clinging to him like he'd die if Merle let go. Bruised. Scarred. Abandoned by the only person who ever protected him and terrified it would happen again. He'd promised the boy, vowed he'd never leave him again.

But he had, for months now. Become the demon of Daryl's worst nightmares. And yet his baby brother still trusts him somehow. Still loves him.

Merle's never hated himself before today.

Chapter Text

July 23, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Shane wakes to intense pleasure and damn near feeling like his bones are melting. Once he's recovered enough of his senses to open his eyes, he sees Scout looking rather proud of herself and reaches for her to return the favor.

The tent is still in dimmed darkness as he lays there watching as she finishes tugging on clothes from a duffle he didn't realize she brought with her due to his dark mood last night. She doesn't seem to expect conversation, her movements efficient in gearing up as he's come to expect from watching her.

But when she realizes he is watching, she smiles and crawls up to kiss him. "Got PT this morning, if you want to join in."

He chuckles softly. "Not sure I can feel my toes yet."

"Good." With a final kiss, more of a brushing of lips, she's on her feet, stuffing dirty clothes in the duffle. "See you in a bit." And then she's gone.

Her leaving for PT tells him it's not much past dawn, but he presses the button on his watch to activate the backlight. 6:50. He hadn't worn the watch in camp for months, but seeing that every one of the experienced supply team wore some sort of timepiece, he'd dug it out of his duffle. Knowing the time was a lot more important now than it had been.

He doesn't have to get up, although he really should at least go through a morning workout of some sort, even if he doesn't join the group PT, but it takes effort to finally roll himself off the mattress and begin the routine that was second nature before. Out of shape isn't an option.

~*~CP~*~

Carol and Jacqui have breakfast underway, with Carol frying up sweet potato pancakes, while Jacqui has thinly sliced Spam sizzling away. She figures at least half their camp would have turned up their nose at Spam before, but now, the scent of the cooking meat is drawing sleepy folks from their tents. Jacqui had sniffed at the breakfast already started in the other camp and made a beeline for the canned meat with a grin. They've got a container of the dehydrated eggs waiting, but since those just need hot water, they can wait.

She's cutting glances toward the other camp, where Sophia has joined in the PT, falling in among the line of kids as if she's been with them for months. Even Merle is out and about, although he's leaned against the RV with the toddler in his arms. The boy looks sulky, as if he wants to be part of the group movement.

"It is way too early in the morning to be that cheerful," T-Dog mutters, sinking into a chair.

Jacqui passes him a cup of coffee and laughs. "Us or them?"

"They're exercising before breakfast and smiling about it," he grumbles. "Makes me think of two-a-days, though that was after breakfast at least."

"Yeah, but you gotta wait an hour or so if you eat something big or end up puking," Shane says nonchalantly, watching the other group. He's dressed, but his skin has the sheen of recent exercise, and he's completely clean shaven for the first time she remembers. The way he rubs at his chin, he's gotten used to having the stubble. She pauses between pancakes to pass him a cup of coffee since Jacqui's busy slicing up a new block of Spam.

"To be fair, they did all look half asleep when Scout went trailing back over to get things started," Glenn says. "But it makes me kinda glad I'm on guard duty."

"Well, if you want to join in, I can take over for a few," Shane offers, laughing when Glenn shakes his head. He motions to the petite form of little Meghan among the children currently going through a modified version of the adult workout. "You saying a six year old can do more crunches than you?"

"I'm saying that toddler Merle's holding could do more," Glenn gripes.

Carol can't help but giggle when she looks to where Merle is somersaulting the boy from the ground to his chest and back again. The toddler's giggles are contagious.

"Why is he turning that baby upside down?" Andrea says, but it's more curious and less critical sounding than Carol actually expects.

"Carl used to love that shit when he was little. He'd put himself upside down if you wouldn't do it for him," Shane replies, looking back over his shoulder. "Remember that, Rick?"

"About made my arms fall off sometimes," the other deputy says. He looks relieved that the bad mood he'd sparked in Shane seems entirely gone. "Hey, Shane?"

The other deputy turns, looking at Rick with a raised eyebrow. Carol pauses with the plates she's just assembled for both of them, wondering if they realize they're everyone's center of attention at the moment.

"Sorry I was an ass last night."

Shane's smile is genuine and happy in response to the short apology. "S'alright, brother. We're good." He takes one of the plates from Carol and nudges Rick with his shoulder so that he takes the other.

"You're in an awful good mood for this early in the morning," Rick comments as they both take a seat to eat. Carol considers if she can get away with swatting the man, although he may honestly not know that Scout was in camp last night. She was up and back over early enough no one was up yet but Carol and Glenn.

For a minute, the mischievious expression on Shane's face leads her to think he's going to reply with something naughty, but then he shrugs and says something about getting a good night's sleep before stuffing a pancake in his mouth.

Rick looks like he might want to question that further, but to Carol's relief, just nods and takes a bite of his food, gaze going toward Scout's position among the exercising group thoughtfully. Shane doesn't seem to notice the assessing look, intent on his food. He really does look better, more relaxed than Carol's seen him ever be.

Hopefully, Rick won't rock the boat.

~*~SW~*~

Shane's about to give up his spot in the camp chair to get ready for today's supply run when T-Dog draws everyone's attention toward where Merle and Morales are having what seems to be a somber discussion. Morales is already fully dressed for the run, since Scout's added a few extra of her team for when they see if they can take on the hospital today. Whatever's said seems to go well, because Morales sticks a hand out toward Merle and the older man shakes it. As Morales returns to helping Daryl prep for the supply run, Merle heads toward Shane's group.

"Not sure if I should be thinking oh shit or not," T-Dog mutters.

"Doubt it. Whatever he said to Morales, man was smiling," Shane notes. He does share a quick glance with Rick, who looks equally apprehensive as T-Dog.

Merle looks better and steadier than he did yesterday, although the sunburn is still vicious enough to make Shane want to flinch. His skin has the sheen of freshly applied cream or moisturizer, but it's peeling now, especially the spots that are blistered rather than just burned.

"I owe some apologies," he begins as soon as he comes to a halt. "Don't remember probably two-thirds of the last coupla months, but there's enough here," he taps his temple, "to know I got a lot to make up for that don't even include Atlanta."

Dale, ever the peacemaker, just smiles. "I can't say you're wrong there, but I think we understand what was wrong at least."

Merle shifts his weight and drags a hand across his chest. He controls the wince when his fingers contact sunburned skin and sighs. "Even so, I still had Daryl and people back home that needed me. Just couldn't quite give up and go back there, cos I knew my girls would hit Atlanta to try to find Glenn, and here my dumbass was in camp with him all along and didn't realize. I been clean near thirty years, but it ain't been so long I don't remember what that shit does to my brain."

That puts Shane a little on alert. "You used, before?"

"As a little teenage asshole, yeah." Merle scoffs at his past self. "Got clean after a particularly rough round of juvie, enlisted, managed to stay sober a long time. Hell, I was even a sponsor, trying to help other vets break free too. Wasn't much for the religious aspect of it, but the brotherhood of it..." He cuts himself off. "Figure Hershel and me can lean on each other. Different poisons, same result. But in the end, it ain't a good excuse. Morales gave me a good account of what happened in Atlanta."

No one speaks, although Shane thinks Andrea wants to snark and can't quite bring herself to it as the man gathers his thoughts, finally focussing on T-Dog.

"What I did to you, the words, the fight, those are bad enough. But the gun... I'm not asking any forgiveness for that cos there is none for what I did there. I deserved far more than getting my ass knocked sideways by the deputy for it. I may not remember what happened, but I apologize for it."

T-Dog looks uncomfortable, and Shane's not sure if it's the apology or residual guilt for Merle being left behind, but the man stands and thrusts a hand out toward Merle. "We both got a little stupid up there. I'll take my share of the blame."

Merle doesn't hesitate to take the offered hand, and they linger, taking each other's measure in a way that makes Shane wonder how well they'd have gotten along if Merle was sober when he hit camp. Both give a nod as they part, and T-Dog smiles. The man's easy forgiveness seems to spur others forward.

"Don't want an apology, Mister Dixon, but I'll settle for just starting over," Jacqui says, holding out her hand. "Gonna trust you to do better. Set a good example." She tilts her head to Sophia, who stood not far behind Merle, listening intently to the adults exchange.

 

Merle took her hand for a moment, but then looked back over his shoulder at the girl.

Sophia smiles brightly. "I wasn't gonna interrupt when it's important, but Patricia sent me to fetch you. There's something wrong with the converter thing in the RV and she doesn't want it failing because of the medicines in the fridge, and Jazz says it's not the fan or the sensor, so he thinks it's the circuit board, and he's never replaced one before."

"Alrighty, Miss Phia. You can tell her I'll be right there."

The girl pauses long enough to hug her mother before dashing off.

"That something you'd be able to help Dale set up on his RV?" Shane asks, curious. They were going to do a run to that Grainger that T-Dog knew about today as well as the hospital, and he was hoping to lay hands on the right equipment.

Merle looks toward the old RV and rubs at the scruff on his chin. "Could, if I get the right parts. Might even get a kit in the church van there, to charge backup batteries. M'boy will know what to look for on today's run."

"Would you show us how it works?" Dale asks. "So we can maintain it? I looked into solar a while back, but it was just easier to use the gasoline generator or hookup at a campsite instead."

"Don't see it'd be a problem." Jazz appears in the camp entrance, looking anxious, so Merle bids them goodbye, passing Sophia on her way back.

She stops him. "Can we finish reading later? I wanna know what happens next."

He pats her on the shoulder with a "sure, sweetheart," and the girl returns to her mother's side, looking absolutely delighted.

Shane knows the incredulous looks on most the others' faces are mirrored on his, although after seeing the girl read to Merle yesterday, he supposes they shouldn't be surprised that Sophia's at ease around him.

"Whatcha reading with Merle?" he asks.

She plops into a seat with the plate Carol's given her and shrugs with one shoulder. "Right now, My Antonia. It was on my summer reading list to be ready for eighth grade."

Carol looks puzzled. "Where did you find the book?"

"Mister Daryl brought me a bunch of 'em, one time he said he was out hunting. They've all got library stamps on 'em, so I guess there's a library around somewhere close. I wrote down every title I could remember and he found all of them."

"I don't remember seeing you with any books," Carol says, looking sad and puzzled. Shane wracks his brain and can't really picture it either, but most of his memories of Sophia are when she was playing with Carl, and he's not much for sitting still and reading if it's not a comic book.

"I was afraid Dad might take them away. So Mister Merle kept them for me since nobody's ever gonna mess with his stuff. If you were busy and Carl didn't want to play, lots of times I just go over and read. Nobody ever said I couldn't." She looks guilty, obviously aware she wouldn't have gotten permission to spend time around the Dixons if she asked. "Mister Merle wasn't high all the time, you know. He always asked questions, like he wanted a book report. And Mister Daryl said some of the books were too easy for me, so he brought some more back that he remembered reading in college. There were some others he remembered his nieces reading too."

"Daryl went to college?" Andrea's disbelieving tone causes Sophia, normally respectful, to give her a dirty look.

"Yeah, he did. Can I go see what they're doing with the electric system? It'd be cool to see how they fix it."

Carol nods and takes the empty plate after Sophia slaps a piece of Spam in between two pancakes to take with her. "Did you know about Merle's family, Sophia?"

"Yes. He told me after I asked why he was so angry about Dad when everyone else acted like people always do about him, that if they ignore it enough, it ain't happening." Her expression turns sour, harder than Shane's ever seen, especially directed at her mother. "You know what happened to Mister Merle's mama, don't you?"

The intake of breath tells Shane that Carol does know. He has a strong feeling it's not good.

"They ain't gonna stop him, Mama. But Mister Merle did and would." The girl huffs and whirls, feet pounding across the dirt as she runs off toward the other camp.

"Daryl told me what his father did, that he killed his mama," Carol says softly, without being asked. "And that one day, it might not be just me, that she'd try to protect me and get hurt too."

Shane leans forward, his intensity almost frightening him. "You're a smart woman, Carol. I'll bet you know the statistics better than me and Rick do on domestic violence. There's even less oversight on a man like Ed now. You wouldn't have your daughter practically living over there already if the decision wasn't already made. We failed you here... I failed you. Let me make up for it."

Carol struggles to stop crying and find words. It is obvious that the door to escape is wide open for her and Sophia and it has been for days. "Ed will find us," she says at last. "He did, the one time I tried."

"Difference now, Carol, is that the law doesn't exactly tie our hands where ole Ed is concerned," Shane intones. "You gather your things and go into that camp and there ain't no way that man is crazy enough to cross that line. And he has no way to know where they're headed or how to find them."

"And if he did somehow, I'm pretty sure he'll be shot and fed to the walkers," Glenn says. "You realize the girls are about two steps off luring you in an RV and locking you in a bathroom when they leave? Because honestly, they aren't gonna leave Sophia here, and she's not leaving without you."

That startles Carol into laughing through her tears. Shane can exactly picture Honey, especially, locking her in an RV bathroom until she is too far away to do anything about it. He thinks he might help.

Surprisingly, Andrea advocates for the plan. "Carol." She stops, glancing toward the tent where Ed sits alone at a fire, smoking and deliberately ignoring everyone else. "We should've done more, but we didn't. If this helps you... helps Sophia... maybe you should."

Carol scrubs away the tears and squares her shoulders. "Okay. Okay. I'll do it."

Shane nods and sets his cup aside so he can stand. "How about we go get your things together and get you settled over there for the night then?" He glances to Rick, who rises and adjusts his holster. Glenn gets a determined look and comes down from his RV post, passing the rifle to Dale. The young man has always had more backbone than most of his elders in camp.

He surprises everyone when he fishes a set of heavy duty zip ties out of a pocket and passes them to Shane. "Since you don't have cuffs anymore," Glenn explains with a shrug. Shane laughs, twirling them for a minute before pocketing them.

"Alright. We'll try the nice way, just asking him to let you get yours and Sophia's things, Carol," he squares his shoulders and Carol seems to gather her own tattered courage and goes to approach her tent. Surprisingly, it's not just the two deputies who follow her, but Glenn too. Perhaps time with the Dixon camp is influencing him in boldness. But when Shane glances back, he realizes that the remaining men, plus Andrea and Jacqui, are on high alert, and the nearest person on watch for the Dixon camp has unexpectedly rotated to face their camp, and the weapon across her knees isn't the usual compound bow, but some sort of rifle.

Ed stands, obviously alert that something has changed in camp with Carol approaching with three men following. He looms over her, the creature out of all her nightmares, and Shane hopes she realizes that this is the last time she has to be afraid of him. "I'm here to get mine and Sophia's belongings, Ed," she announces. Her voice doesn't quaver once.

"I don't fucking think so. You ain't going anywhere," he spits out, making a move toward her. Rick and Shane cut him off easily, moving together like they always had in partnership.

"Well, Mister Peletier," Rick begins, "it's like this. None of us want a wife beater in camp. So if you want any hope of staying in a group, you're going to let Carol and Sophia go over to the Dixon camp peacefully."

"Or what? Ain't like you can throw me in jail."

"General theory is that if you get caught making a move toward a female in this camp again, we're actually to have a reward system for who shoots you first," Shane drawls. "Pretty sure the lady on watch over there is praying you make a move just so she can shoot you. I hear she's been practicing her groin shots just for you."

Shane expects more bluster or more threats, but Ed looks to the three men with her, then the rest of their camp and finds no sympathy. He deflates and steps away from the tent flap, allowing himself to be herded back a safe distance. She steps into the tent and Glenn follows. Shane hears him joke about being her pack mule.

~*~CP~*~

Carol was helping sort the goodies from the massive two-part run today, still a little unsettled at the huge decision she made to move to the Dixon camp despite Sophia's shift from displeasure to joy when she brought their things over.

It seems almost simple and straightforward, this massive change in her circumstances. Merle's morning apology went over well, even if it did lead to Carol leaving Ed's domain at last.

Everything seems settled until T-Dog decides he needs to personally apologize to the two younger Dixon children in camp. She knows Honey's avoidance of him bothers the man, who hasn't forgiven himself for his actions on that roof. Jazz considers his words for a minute before nodding acceptance. But Honey... she takes on a mulish expression, shakes her head, and starts to walk off without replying.

Glenn steps close enough to put an arm around her shoulders and whisper in her ear. No one, not even Lori and her normal need to rabble rouse, interrupts the soft conversation Glenn is having with the girl.

Honey steps away from Glenn finally. She hesitates before finally looking directly at T-Dog. Her voice is strained as she speaks, and the pain in the girl's expression rips at Carol's heart. "You asked me, Mister Douglas, if I could forgive what you'd done. And I can't. I know I'm supposed to. I know it's the right thing to do. I know it's what my daddy wants me to do."

"You don't have to," T-Dog says, tone soft, sweet. He looks like he wants to cry at the girl's obvious pain. "It's not how forgiveness works. I can ask, but if what I did isn't something you can forgive, that's okay. That's your right."

She bites her lip, looking almost frantic in a way that is worrying Carol. "He's my only parent. I've never had anyone but him. He's never missed a school event up until we all had so many sports ones going that he couldn't make them all. When he couldn't be there for something, he made sure someone else was. When I had appendicitis when I was eight, he was the one with me at the hospital the whole time. Same when I had to have a surgical repair on a broken arm in lacrosse sophomore year. He went to every appointment and drove the PT crazy making sure everything was perfect for me. He's all I have." She pauses, tears running down her face now.

"I understand," T-Dog says. "You love your daddy." The big man is crying too. Then again, so is Carol.

"You gotta understand," Honey says, barely audible. "Leaving was a mistake. Not going back was a choice."

"Hannah."

Her head swivels when her father calls her by name.

"That's a lot of blame to put on a single man's shoulders, especially him," Merle says.

"You think I just blame him?" She looks like she wants to scream. "I blame all of them on that truck. And then they're going out on runs with our people and I wonder every time of someone else I love will be left to die because of they run instead of fighting."

"Hannah." Scout reaches her sister and touches her arm, only to have her whirl furiously and shove Scout away hard.

"No! You don't get to Hannah me. You paired that coward with Jazz today. You put him at our brother's back. Ain't right." She points her finger at her sister. "Ain't happening again. Jazz doesn't go out without somebody standing with him that'll die before they let him get left behind."

"Honey..."

But the teenager's reached the end of her rope and stalks off, brushing past her father without stopping. Scout tries to follow, but Merle blocks her path.

"Take a walk, darlin'. All following her now is gonna do is stir up the hurt more. Take Daryl and go terrorize the squirrels."

It looks like she's going to argue, but she finally bends to the firm resolve in her father's expression and walks away. Daryl snags his crossbow off the hood of his truck and follows. Merle takes a deep breath and goes after his younger daughter.

It leaves everyone looking unsettled, to have the girl's raw emotions poured out like that. Carl can't quite bring herself to rejoin her new camp. Hopefully, they won't mind an extra for supper here again.

~*~ CP ~*~

"Something tells me that everyone over here needs a little of this." Scout Dixon is actually looking at them compassionately, a bottle of rum held in offering. When no one objects to the idea, she joins them. Those with cups to hold them out. No one wants to turn down the dose of liquid courage.

Scout makes a hip check into Shane's shoulder, and the deputy looks up from his cup. Whatever the signal is she gives, he nods and slides his feet apart. She drops gracefully to the ground to sit cross-legged between his feet. Carol sees her fingers curl up and behind Shane's knee, similar to the night on the RV roof, but she suspects Scout is the one wanting comfort tonight.

"I told y'all when we first arrived that we had part of a team get stuck on a roof for two days once," Scout begins. She's staring at the fire. "Honey was part of it. It was her mistake that led to the team being overrun. Just a freaky small moment of inattentiveness that happens to all of us, and they were all scrambling. Half the team made it to the stairs, but Honey and Danny got cut off, and Danny's walkie had gotten damaged, and that was before we had the throat radios. They made it to the roof access. Danny couldn't bar the door from the inside so he... shoved Honey up the staircase, jammed the door from his side, and had a succession of dumb luck end up covering him with so much walker muck they lost interest in eating him. It took them four hours to wander off so he could stop playing dead."

"That poor girl," T-Dog says softly. "She thought he was dead, didn't she?"

The marine nods, turning away from the fire to watch T-Dog thoughtfully. "She thought he died to save her, a boy who had known her less than a month. She was up there for hours, alone. The other two had cleared the building to go for help, but that herd was so fucking massive everything we tried didn't help for two whole days. We didn't know if we were retrieving bodies or people."

Scout's eyes slide closed and she leans heavily into Shane's thigh for a moment before looking up, focusing on T-Dog.

"She's still so fucking young," the marine says huskily. "She was too damned good for the world before it went to hell. She doesn't understand being so scared you'd leave someone behind and not go back at all. When Danny got to the roof, she'd spent the last hour testing ledges and edges to see how she could climb over to get back down so she could at least kill the walkers she thought had eaten him. He said he about pissed himself thinking of her doing a free climb down that building just to retrieve his remains."

"Do you think she would have if she'd had enough time?" Shane asks. Carol notices he has a big hand tucked into the nape of Scout's hair now. She wonders if these two realize that nothing about their body language indicates a casual relationship and far more intensity than two nights together should indicate.

"Honestly, yes, she probably would have. We'd have gotten back into that building to find her defending his dead body, I think." Scout sighs. "I don't think we're going to be here long enough for her to work through enough of it to really be able to talk to you, T-Dog. Hell, today's the first progress we've had in her forgiving herself for the disaster on the roof in Valdosta and that was weeks ago. She's refused to be on Danny's team since then, only goes out if she can be on mine or Jamie's teams."

"Maybe she's too young for going out?" Rick suggests, almost tentatively. Carol wants to say the same, but how did you decide that, in this hellish new world of theirs?

"If I could have wrapped her in bubble wrap and rolled her back to Georgia... hell, I wish I could do that to all of them. But this isn't going away. And there was no real way to keep them protected and move them along when we were in Florida. Christ, it was a nightmare just keeping Lizzie and Mika safe when the group was so small and I had an extra Marine then too." She rolls the bottle back and forth in her hands. "Arguing the seventeen-month difference of age between Honey and Danny seems pretty hypocritical. And the number of kids barely older than her that had boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan would make any sane person cry. The peace you have to make with yourself to survive a warzone... that's something you have to find yourself. She's getting there. This is just more complicated because it was Merle and because somewhere along the line, Honey absorbed the basic tenant of military brotherhood - no man left behind."

"Did she never know her mother?" Carol asks softly. She hopes it isn't intrusive, but the Dixons usually seem to like her.

"No." Scout goes so completely still and quiet that Carol thinks she's offended her. But then she speaks again. "Lilliana is a mother only in the sense that she gave birth to children. But Honey's had no contact with her since she was three weeks old. Not one birthday card, not one request for supervised visitation, not one Jerry Springer type visit demanding her babies, nothing. She's been living in Texas for the last six years. My birthday present for myself each year is hiring a PI to make sure she's maintaining the exact level of unmotherly care she always has."

Shane looks puzzled but doesn't speak, which makes Carol curious. But she feels she should soothe her intrusive question. "It sounds like she hasn't lacked for it," she ventures.

"I know y'all picturing Merle as a member of the PTA is a stretch, but he honest-to-God was. Those damn women know a sucker when they see one and it's always build this, haul that, oh so lovely Mister Dixon raising all those little ones alone."

T-Dog looks less stricken now, more thoughtful and concerned. "I'll leave Miss Honey be then. Figure she'll come to find me if she changes her mind anyway."

"I appreciate it." Scout tilts the still mostly full bottle out toward Dale. "You can hang on to this for the next time everyone needs a little extra."

The older man takes it. "You didn't have any?"

"I don't drink. Family proclivity toward addiction, you've probably noticed." She smiles slightly as she leans back, drawing a little pattern against Shane's leg. Carol notices he responds with a double tap of his index finger against her collarbone. A signal? The ones who went out had to recognize hand signals. Scout stands, the motion a smooth one from cross-legged to standing that Carol envies. "Gonna go rack out before watch. Y'all have a good night."

Several people murmur goodbyes and she makes her way not to camp, but to the flatbed truck, where she rummages a sleeping pad out of the toolbox, rolls it out, and stretches out to nap. Carol supposes she probably doesn't want to disturb her distressed sister, who was tucked off into their tent.

"What was that signal all about?" Jackie asks curiously.

Shane shrugs. "It's personal." He plays with his empty cup rather than keep speaking though.

"Y'all are real cozy. Bet she's trying to get you to leave us and take some of our help," Lori grumbles.

The big deputy snorts. "Lori, if you think someone could make me leave my family, you don't know me at all. And no way she'd ask, either."

"You sure?" Rick asks, looking desperate to play peacemaker between his wife and best friend, but Carol doesn't think that's the best way for it.

"Yeah. Real sure." Shane drops his cup in the dish pan and walks off toward the quarry lake again, posture not quite last night's angry defeat, but unhappy.

Rick looks upset, but doesn't attempt to follow. Something about his expression makes her wonder if he wants Shane to leave, but just isn't brave enough to voice it yet.

Carol bids them all goodnight while she's still willing to keep her mouth shut.

Chapter Text

July 24, 2010

~*~CP~*~

Carol lies in the tent listening to the quiet breathing of the girl beside her. She was offered several options to sleep, with everyone willing to shift a little to accommodate a new permanent member to their camp. Sophia was sleeping in one of the RVs for a few nights, sleepovers with Lizzie and Isabelle, but she didn't feel right either asking Ryan to give up sleeping in the RV as extra protection to the children or to ask Sophia to sleep outside in a tent. Honey's grin when she finally conceded to the girl's offer that there was an ongoing free spot in her tent made her feel a bit better at sleeping in what she knew was Scout Dixon's spot. It is obvious that the eldest Dixon daughter has full intentions of keeping up her overnights with Shane for now. Things might shift around when they get on the road, but for now, she has a spot to call her own, and to give a little joy to Honey Dixon after the evening's earlier distress feels good.

Glancing to the other side of the tent, she can see the sprawled form of Tara under a light sheet, left to finish out the night alone when Cricket went on watch around four in the morning. Glenn left then for his own shift, leaving his sleeping bag rolled up near the door. Tara and Cricket were both as welcoming as Honey to their new "roommate", and Glenn grinned as if he orchestrated it. Lying here feels almost decadent, after so many years of making absolutely sure to be awake and out of bed before Ed woke. Just waking up to the orange tent above her instead of the blue walls of Ed's tent is a reminder that she has escaped at last, that if Ed gathers up some courage and attempts to enter the camp, it won't be jail he'll be hauled off to, but likely an unmarked grave in the woods.

She has no doubt that every one of the watch standers for the night shift would follow through on the campwide order that he be shot on sight if he crosses the unofficial line between the camps. It worried her, Sophia hearing that, since Ed is her father after all. But her daughter hugged her tightly and muttered about keeping her safe, and Carol can't decide if she is relieved to actually feel safe for the first time in two decades or horrified that her daughter is willing to see her father dead to keep him away from them. She should have saved Sophia herself years ago, before it got to the point where an almost thirteen-year-old girl has that sort of thought going through her head.

Wriggling a little to free her arm from the sheet she slept under, she sees it was just after 6:30. She knows the camp in general is usually up by seven, but she isn't sure how light a sleeper either of her companions are if she goes ahead and gets up. Since her bladder is getting a bit impatient, she reluctantly guesses she is about to find out. Sure enough, as soon as she sat up, both girls wake just enough to ascertain what the movement is. Tara returns to sleep almost immediately, but she had watch until midnight. Honey smiles far too brightly for someone who just woke up, but surprises Carol by rolling over and appearing to be going back to sleep as well. Teenage snooze button ability, she supposes.

Slipping on her shoes, she leaves the tent and makes her way to the little tarped alcove that hides the camp toilet. Both watch standers glance her way, Cricket waving in greeting, but no one speaks in the early morning stillness. The just-rising sun gives her enough light to look around once her bladder's alert is negated, and she hesitates, unsure of what to do with herself. In the old camp, she'd start breakfast, but she doesn't want to tread on any toes. Yesterday, she finished out chores with the old camp. She was told last night that they'd sort out her place in the chore rotations over here today and to take advantage of the time to relax.

Before she can decide, movement from one of the men's tents draws her attention. Jazz emerges, the young man smiling shyly as soon as he spots her and heads her way, obviously in need of the camp toilet himself. "Mornin', Miz Carol. If you wanna go sit by the fire, I'll show you where the coffee is in a minute," he offers.

"Thanks." She makes her way to one of the camp chairs, having noticed the night before that they seem as much community property as the ones near the fire on the other side were. It doesn't take long for Jazz to reappear, going to fill a kettle from a nearby jug and then place it on a hook over the fire. He unbanks the fire and has it built up enough to heat water in a matter of minutes.

"We've been using these single use coffee packets, like tea bags, since there's less waste that way according to Miz Patricia," he explains. He hands her box with a variety of the coffee individual brew bags, multiple types of tea, and some other packets that she recognizes as speciality coffee powders like lattes. "They cleaned out a couple of coffee shops at different times. Plus Miz Patricia doesn't think this stuff'll last as long as the sealed cans so it needs to be used up."

Carol selects a packet of flavored coffee powder and one of the disposable bamboo stirrers. She always wanted to try the product, but Ed considered it a waste of money. Jazz pokes around in the box until he finds a packet of peppermint tea for himself. He returns the box to its spot under the table they used for serving meals and retrieves two mugs, passing one to Carol. He sits down to wait on the kettle, sending her another shy smile. It is interesting, the contrast between Jazz and his sisters, especially the hyperactive and talkative younger two. Up close, watching his mannerisms, she is beginning to think he is younger than her original estimation, maybe even enough that he should be referred to as boy and not young man. Despite his looks, he reminds her more of Daryl than Merle, at least the Merle she knew before the Atlanta run.

"Everything is so well organized," she says at last.

"Scout's good at this stuff. And good at finding people who know how to do what she doesn't." He turns the empty cup in his hands a few times. "She was away a lot when I was little. I'm glad she was with us when this happened."

"How much older is she than you?"

"A month short of twelve years. She left for boot camp the year I started kindergarten."

A quick calculation tells Carol that makes Jazz the baby of the family by a couple of years, since Daryl said he was thirty and Scout three years younger. So Jazz is fifteen or so? It explains Shane's puzzled look when Scout said their mother had been gone since Honey was a baby, since Jazz is obviously a few years younger than his sister. Then again, no one ever confirmed that the four siblings all have the same mother. Just because Jazz has the same dark hair and skin as his sisters didn't guarantee the same mother.

"You aren't that much older than Sophia then. She'll be thirteen the end of this month."

Again, a glimpse of the shy smile. "She likes having the same birthday as Harry Potter."

Ah. Well, at least the burgeoning crush she saw clearly from her daughter last night when Jazz was surrounded by the younger kids while he read from some book or another is possibly returned, and the worry she had about the potential age difference is gone knowing Jazz is closer to boy than man still in both age and personality. "She used to say it was the best reward for being one of the youngest in her class."

"Better than mine. I never caught up until after school started for the next year." At her questioning look, he continues. "My birthday's the end of August. That's when I turn fifteen. I've always been the youngest in my class, except for one year that there was a girl who skipped a grade, but she moved away."

The water starts boiling, and Jazz carefully pours some into both their mugs before rehanging the kettle and swinging the hook where the water stays warm but not boiling. Carol mixes her drink, watching as the sun rises further and others start to make their way sleepily from tents and RV toward the camp toilet. The strong scent of peppermint wafts over from Jazz's cup as she checks the time. About ten til seven. If the routine holds to what she's seen from the other camp, everyone will be rousted soon, although the exercise routine they do seems to be only an every other day thing and they did that yesterday. She has another day to figure out how she'll manage that, although Sophia was with them yesterday and seemed to be keeping up well enough.

"You're used to being busy," Jazz says. His smile doesn't disappear as quick this time, meant to reassure.

She laughs a little, wondering at being so transparent a boy his age can read it. Then again, he seems more observant than most teenage boys. "I always make breakfast over there, but I'm not sure of the routine or amounts or anything here to help get started. Just sitting to drink coffee feels a little odd."

"Well, if it's like the other times we've had new people, they'll let you try a few things and see where you fit. But mostly, it'll be learning defense stuff, I think, more than chores." He glances to where Patricia has bypassed the fire to one of the busses, obviously going for whatever breakfast supplies she wants to use. "I don't have watch today, and after yesterday, I don't wanna upset Honey by going on a run. Was going to do some more archery lessons for Meghan and Sophia. You could learn too, if you want. We might do a forage trip too, since we don't have to be so careful about stripping all the plants away here."

Carol thinks it over. It would be good to learn and taking the lessons alongside Sophia actually sounds like a good start to their life independent of Ed. She doesn't want to be a burden and that means learning more than cooking and cleaning. She isn't regulated to washing clothes here, after all. "That sounds good to me, as long as I'm not needed on camp chores."

Jazz smiles. It's brighter now. She realizes that every smile has gotten a little bigger, a little more assured. He's growing more comfortable in her presence. It distracts her enough that she doesn't notice Merle until he's actually lowering his bulk into the chair beside her, glancing between her and his son. She shrinks in a bit, out of habit more than worry about the big man, but he still frowns a little. He's dressed in cargo pants and a tank top that exposes his healing sunburn, and he pauses to take a drink out of a bottle of Gatorade as he looks from her to Jazz again. Carol reminds herself that this is the only man who threatened Ed before last night. Like most of the inhabitants of the camp, he's armed, although unlike Jazz, who just carries a knife at his belt, she gets a glimpse of a handgun holstered at his back waistband.

"You looking after the lady, son?" he says at last.

The boy nods as he reaches out to flick the kettle back over the fire. "Showed her the coffee and offered she could join the archery lessons today."

Others are approaching now. Carol is a little surprised at the soft greetings they're all three given, although Jazz's are more enthusiastic as the boy pulls the coffee box back out and holds it out for folks to rummage for favorites in.

Merle coughs softly, drawing her attention back to him. She avoided him so thoroughly before that she never really noticed he has the same pretty blue eyes as Daryl and the children. Although they do stand out a bit more due to the sunburn, so maybe that's part of it. He leans in, voice soft. "Jazz doesn't take to women much, aside from his sisters."

It surprises Carol to hear that, as Jazz never seemed standoffish to her, although this morning is the first time Sophia hasn't been there as a buffer. "He's been very good with Sophia. Honey too."

"Just glad m'girl didn't have to resort to her kidnapping plot," Merle replies, flashing her a grin. "Least there's no one to make it a felony on her now if she had."

Carol can't help but laugh a little, surprising herself. "She said last night that she and Sophia had a good plan. Glenn implied I was going to be locked in a bathroom."

The eldest Dixon's grin widens, but he takes a long drink of the Gatorade before replying. "She's already lured your daughter to the dark side. Guess you're next on the list."

"You sound like I'm going to have her robbing banks or something, Daddy," Honey says. She's obviously been through the drink queue her brother is holding, because she has a steaming mug that smells as minty as his had. She leans down to press a kiss to Merle's cheek, accepting the return affection with a cheery smile before parking herself to stand behind Merle's camp chair. But her expression is a little more serious than Carol's seen it outside of yesterday's confrontation with T-Dog. Carol notes that she isn't wearing a vest to cover her shoulder holster and gun, not this early and in camp. "I adopted Sophia as a sister, so her Mama is family too now. You be nice."

That startles Carol. Joining the camp was one thing, but being drawn into the Dixon clan itself seemed beyond what she thought was happening. Her bewilderment must show, because Merle sighs a little.

"It's a bit of a family inside joke," he explains. "After Scout brought Jamie home for the first time and we more or less adopted him into the family, the other girls said they each get to adopt in a new sibling too."

Honey nods. "Cricket's working on Glenn. I got Sophia. Jazz is just slow on the uptake." The boy either doesn't hear or ignores the drawled sisterly jab.

"Did you ask Sophia or just inform her you were adopting her?" Merle asks.

The teenager giggles. "Forgiveness is easier than permission?"

"Which explains why you've been grounded more than all your siblings total," Merle says, sending Carol the sort of exasperated glances parents often shared about naughty children.

Honey just shrugs, taking a big drink out of her mug of tea before offering it to Sophia as she approaches the growing crowd around the fire. "Try this before you go find a drink," she suggests.

Sophia takes the drink, smiling over the mug at Carol. It takes a minute for Carol to realize that the girls are dressed almost completely alike, only their boots differing in color. Even though she brought Sophia's clothing over last night, it seems her daughter's still adapting and borrowing. "It's good," the younger girl proclaims.

Honey motions for her to keep the mug and flips two folding camp stools out from behind Merle's chair. She sets up one for Sophia just forward of Carol's chair and puts her own in front of Merle's. Honey pops a bottle of water from her waist carrier and drinks, leaning her back against her father's knees. It makes it obvious the tea is really for Sophia and Carol feels a little ripple of affection for the older girl run through her. Sophia glances at Honey's relaxed posture against Merle and slowly slides back on her stool to lean against Carol similarly. Carol can't resist running a gentle hand over her daughter's complexly braided hair, which has four pretty braids. There are emerald green ribbons in her hair that match the T-shirt she is wearing. The ribbons weave along the side of her head, adding a splash of color between each pair of braids.

"Daddy? Think you can do my hair up like Sophia's?" Honey asks.

Merle shrugs. "You got ribbons and ties? And a comb?" The teenager hands him a pouch and Carol watches, a little astounded, as the man makes quick work of combing through his daughter's hair and doing up the braids themselves. He does fumble the ribbons a little, his fingers finding weaving the colored strips of fabric harder than braiding her dark hair itself, but the finished hairstyle is on par with Sophia's. She supposes a single father of three daughters knowing how to braid shouldn't really be surprising.

 

Curious, Carol taps her daughter's shoulder to draw her attention from where she's watching Merle braid Honey's hair. "Who did your hair this morning, sweetie?"

"Isabelle. She did mine and Lizzie's and Donna did Mika's and Isabelle's. All the same except for ribbon colors. Andy wanted ribbons too, but his hair is too short, so Isabelle talked him into a couple of red beads instead."

That's more names than Carol can really put to faces. She knows most of those are children who've been mentioned and somewhere in the mass of introductions she'd gotten last night, she remembered Donna as the woman who was half of the couple who served as "den parents" to the children who slept on the RV that Sophia had joined. But the toddler mentioned is easy enough to spot. The little box braids he usually wore now sported tiny, fire engine red beads to match the Iron Man T-shirt he wore. He is comfortably settled on Hershel's lap, eating dry cereal out of an individual serving box while breakfast is cooked. She remembers that both he and Isabelle are orphans and her heart constricts that the toddler will probably never remember his parents or even life before the dead rose.

The girls have leaned forward, talking over something from a book with occasional comments to Jazz now that everyone who wants a hot drink seems to have gotten one. Carol looks over to Merle. "What will happen to the kids like Andy?" she asked him.

Merle looks toward the boy thoughtfully. "Once we're settled, someone will take permanent responsibility. Isabelle's still young enough to need at least one parent, and Andy's probably best with one of the couples. Might find more survivors as we go too."

And potentially more orphans, Carol thinks. Parents will take more risks, especially if their kids are going hungry, and few people were trained or prepared for a world like this. "Will there be room for everyone?"

"Maybe not immediately, other than lumped up a bit like we are now, but there's room to build. Got three houses on the property already, plus a cabin and three barns, coupla outbuildings, critter pens."

"That's a lot more than we have here," she manages. She can't quite picture the size of the place.

"It's a remote place. Came with the first house and one of the barns. We built the rest over the years. One house is Daryl's, although it's been mostly unoccupied the last few years since he transferred over to Thomson. The other isn't much more than a cottage, but it's where the kids' adopted grandma lives. She helped me out a lot when they were little. Was my housekeeper, really, but loved the kids too much not to be family. Scout made building the cabin a hobby when she'd come home on leave."

"And the animals?" Might as well ask, since he seems open to chatter about it. If he has barns and pens, he has animals.

"When we took off for Atlanta, Glynnis was still there and she's capable of running the whole place herself even if she is pushing seventy now. Neighbor from down the road a ways is there too. Told them they could move onto the property if things got bad and bring any of his workers that needed it and bring the kids. Mine's more secure than theirs since he did farming that didn't need fencing. We've always been more hobby farm than anything else, more stuff to fit the kids' current 4H projects than anything else, but the previous owner liked privacy. Whole sixty-three acres is fenced pretty securely."

Honey was obviously listening in, because she snorts as she accepts two bowls of breakfast and passes one to Merle. Sophia does the same for Carol with a chipper thank you to Beth as she passes out food. "Previous owner was a privacy freak, Daddy. Be honest. Even the river bank isn't a way in."

When Carol looks to Merle for his reaction, he shrugs. "It's not so much fenced as a nightmare thicket all around. Crazy bastard planted honey and black locust with blackthorn, osage orange, and a few other thorny species, then ran concertina wire along the inside. We haven't maintained the concertina wire, because next to nothing can get through the thorn thicket, and that damned thing keeps trying to spread past the wire. Might reinforce with something more solid though."

"You think it'll keep the dead out?" Carol asks. She remembers what honey locust is like, a childhood memory of her grandfather saying the thorns could puncture tractor tires. The others she remembers aren't as bad, but still no fun to brush up against.

"The dead, yeah. The living are more why I want to reinforce it."

Carol nods. The living are more dangerous than the dead. At least the dead want only one thing from the living. Further conversation is interrupted by Patricia summarily dropping a can of Boost into Merle's lap as she smiles at Carol.

"If Jazz hasn't already invited you to join in his archery lesson today, Carol, I was going to suggest that or start some basic self-defense work whichever Marine doesn't go on today's run. Or both. We're not really hurting for the chore roster, so I'd rather see you skill building primarily. Use free time to shadow anyone you like and learn about how we do things. But a lot of what we do now is because we're on the road. It'll shift and change once we're not traveling all the time."

"That sounds fine." Actually, it sounds a little intimidating, but at least she is allowed to help out rather than be bored, because surely self-defense and archery lessons can't take up a whole day.

Patricia eyes Merle for a moment. "Maybe you can help keep this one in line. He keeps overexerting himself."

"Now, Miz Patricia, I don't exactly need a babysitter," Merle begins, but the woman arches a brow at him, and he sighs. "Fine. I'll shadow the ladies here so they can make sure I'm behaving m'self."

Carol's not really sure what she can do to keep Merle in line if the man doesn't want to rest as ordered, although it doesn't seem he wants to argue about it much. And she can't say having a man Ed is already afraid of underfoot isn't a good thing. He let her go far too easily yesterday.

~*~CP~*~

"Hot damn, woman, remind me not to piss you off," Merle exclaims, walking back toward her with the paper target he affixed to a tree when he offered an impromptu handgun lesson. The air pistol lessons aren't as good as the real thing, he explained, because they don't have the same recoil, but an actual firearm lesson would wait until they are at the Dixon homestead. He waves the paper at Sophia. "Check out what your mama did."

Sophia grins as she pokes at the target, one of the expensive ones from a sporting goods store that Honey and her compatriots liberated along with the air guns and ammunition. "You shoot like the cops on TV, Mama."

Carol squirms a little, unused to the positive attention, especially as Patricia, the watch stander closest to where Merle set them up for the lesson, motions for Sophia to bring the target over and gives Carol a thumbs-up. The audience from the original camp doesn't help, and it is a big one, considering the supply runners returned mid-afternoon. None of them crossed over yet, still wary of Merle, although Glenn is nowhere to be seen. She can tell that Carl definitely wants to, especially when Carol hands off the air pistol to Sophia. Sophia carefully loads a new magazine into the air pistol.

"Lessee if you can do as well as your mama," Merle encourages, tacking up a fresh target and coming back to Sophia. "You remember how I showed her?"

Sophia nods, expression serious as she carefully thumbs off the safety on the pistol. Merle makes a gentle correction in how she was holding her elbow before stepping back a little. She bites her bottom lip as she fires off seven shots and thumbs the safety back on. The big man heads down to retrieve the target, but Carol can already tell from the colorful splatters on the target that Sophia has done well for her first time shooting anything. She hasn't even owned a Nerf gun before, yet she's landed all seven shots within the target. Carol supposes three days worth of archery lessons probably helps her focus on the target.

This is the easy part of the day, though. The harder part was the self-defence lessons, especially with letting Sophia start them. Jamie, the Marine who pretty much stayed in camp since they arrived, was patient, bringing in some of the other girls to demonstrate what they were taught. Sophia took to it like a duck to water. Carol was more hesitant, even though the logical part of her brain told her that the odds of her hurting the six-foot-plus Marine are pretty slim. He and Merle both assured her it would just take time.

The most surprising part is Jamie's easy nature around Merle - even calling him Pops. Being told he was considered family due to Scout is different than seeing the affectionate relationship he has with Merle.

Carol's glance to the other camp drew Merle's attention as he replaces the target to let Sophia try again. "I'm thinking they're wanting to see how you survived your first full day over here," he suggests softly. "Especially with the looks they're giving me."

"Probably." She sighs, watching as Sophia fills another target with colorful splotches, the girl's expression as serious as if she holds a Glock instead of an air pistol.

"Go reassure them. Have a visit. Doubt the dead weight is going to make an appearance with two cops in camp."

"Alright." She leaves Sophia with Merle, who is already comparing the two targets to give her tips on making the third one even better. Their audience doesn't even attempt to look busy as she approaches.

"They're turning you into Annie Oakley over there," Jacqui quips, grinning. "Or Robin Hood, the way the mini-Merle had you going with the bow this morning."

"It was easier than I thought it would be," Carol responds. "Although he did admit the bow is intended as a youth bow." She'll have to build up some upper body strength to move to the type of bow Honey uses. "I suppose all those push-ups they do on exercise mornings have a payoff."

Apparently standing around has lost its appeal, as Carol finds herself ushered into a seat as the others sit too. From the looks on their faces, this is as much about information and gossip as following up that she feels she made the right decision. She braces herself for negativity from Lori and maybe Andrea, but the others' expressions all look mostly curious.

"How'd you end up with a Merle-sized shadow all day?" Andrea asks. "Can't imagine that'd be comfortable."

"Patricia actually proposed it more as me babysitting him. He's been pushing his recovery time too much for the medical folks' comfort." She hesitates. "And he was never ugly to me like he was to the other ladies, so I suppose it's easier for me."

"He seems downright calm," Dale observes. "If I saw him now, I'd think it was two different men entirely."

"He says the heat stroke probably made it easier to flush his system clean of everything he put in it." Carol doesn't feel like that was an overshare. Merle's recovery is pretty much an open book, with his own camp treating the drug-use factor as just a facet of the larger heat stroke issue.

"Sophia isn't afraid of him, that's for sure," T-Dog says, jerking his head towards where the girl has flung her arms around Merle's waist in an enthusiastic hug.

"Probably hard for her to be intimidated by a guy who braids his kid's hair before breakfast," Carol says absently, looking toward her happy daughter, who is following Merle's instructions to use the hand pump to refill the gun.

"Seriously?" Andrea asks, expression disbelieving. Carol can't blame her. She'd have felt the same way before she met the Dixon children.

"Yeah. One of the girls likes to braid hair and got it all started, but Honey doesn't bunk with the rest of the younger girls in the RVs, so she asked Merle to braid her hair like Sophia's while we were waiting on breakfast."

"Where'd you get bunked in?" Jacqui asks. "They seem a bit pressed for space. Not a lot of tents."

Carol glances toward Shane. "There was an empty sleeping bag over there with the Dixon girls." The others catch on and several laugh, while Shane only shrugs with a lazy smile. "A lot more restful even with two of the girls and Glenn on night watch."

"Two? Thought the youngest girl only did day watch?" Rick says, frowning.

"Well, officially, Tara's not a Dixon, but she and Cricket seemed pretty intent on each other. She had evening watch and Cricket had dawn."

"And no one has a problem with a lesbian couple there?" Andrea asks. She accepted Merle's apology yesterday, but it seems forgetting some of Merle's slurs is going to be a longer time actually coming.

"Not that I can see. And they were cuddled together sitting between Merle and Daryl before Tara had to go on watch."

"He was sitting on the RV on watch with Tara a while yesterday," Amy adds. "They were even laughing. It was weird to see, but he never really fussed at me either. Guess we know why now."

Considering Amy falls neatly in the age ranges of the girls, Carol can imagine. Even the drug haze didn't erase all of Merle's innate personality.

"Am I going to get to learn to shoot? Honey gave Shane those pistols." Carl asks, his attention more on where Sophia and Merle are intently walking through cleaning the air pistol, a lesson Carol will have to play catchup on.

"I don't think children should learn to shoot guns of any type," Lori says. Carol watches the long-suffering looks on both Shane and Rick's faces, as Carl's turns thunderous.

"I'm not a baby, Mom. I'm older than most of the kids that have gotten lessons over there. It's not like I'm asking to shoot an actual gun. They're just BB guns, right, Shane?"

The big deputy looks a bit cornered at being bought into the discussion. "The ones she gave me, yeah. The one Sophia's using is a bit more complicated than a BB gun."

"What do you mean?" Amy asks. "Aren't BB guns all the same?"

Shane shakes his head. "The ones Honey gave me are BB pistols, used for beginners more often. They're considered target shooters. Small ammo, little CO2 cartridges. Hurts to get shot with one, and they can kill squirrels, rats, and small birds, but shouldn't be used because they aren't humane since they might just wound. I'm guessing more what that one is, but it's a PCP pellet pistol. Instead of CO2 cartridges, it has a refillable tank, like that air rifle I carry on supply runs." Carl nods, more alert than Carol has ever seen him to an adult in lecture mode. Lori looks about to blow, but hasn't yet interrupted Shane, maybe because Amy asked the question. "If she could get close enough, Sophia could safely hunt squirrels with that and probably rabbits and woodchucks and so on."

"He said the pellets were 22s? The older kids that are hunting are using air rifles that are the same," Carol adds hesitantly. Merle explained the gun carefully to her and Sophia, but Shane obviously knows as much about them as Merle.

"Then yeah, it's a step up from the BB guns we were given. You can learn to target shoot with any of them, but that's one that can do a bit more damage than the target shooters." Shane gives Carl a look as serious as the one Merle gave Sophia in explaining the air pistol to her. "They aren't toys, not even the BB guns, Carl. Notice just how much time Sophia's spent learning about the gun versus shooting it."

And that is the end of Lori's silence. "He's not learning. Not any of them." She turns on Carol. "I can't believe you're letting him teach a little girl how to shoot a gun that can kill things!"

Carol stiffens, fighting off the instinctive reaction to bow down under a raised voice. "She isn't a little girl anymore. If she was in school still, her school even offered an archery club as young as fourth grade, but Ed wouldn't let her participate. Her middle school had a full-fledged archery team offered as one of the athletic options, and I'm pretty sure the high school had a riflery team like the Dixon kids' school did. As for whether or not the gun can kill things, a baseball bat can kill things just as easily, but kids even younger play baseball."

Lori's eyes narrow and her expression is pinched. "They aren't taught to hit anything other than a baseball with a baseball bat."

"Maybe you think there are going to be supermarkets and butchers to provide your food sometime soon, but I don't. I'll bet everyone who went into Atlanta will agree with what Scout is saying that the government is gone, Lori. You can make the choice to be an ostrich, to be afraid of everything like I did for so long, but I'm not going to do that anymore. Especially not where Sophia is concerned. She's almost thirteen and she has always been responsible. So every skill that anyone wants to teach her that means she's stronger for it, I'm going to be learning right with her. I'm done being poor, trapped Carol and dragging my daughter down with me." Her heart rate is higher than she thinks it has ever been, even in fear of Ed as the words she's saying sink in. It has been building for days, but today's lessons let it spill over. From the expressions of most of the group, she's stunned them by her vehemence.

Lori seems to be unable to find words, so Jacqui intervenes. "Saw the Marine doing self-defence class over there earlier. Sophia did really well for a beginner."

The compliment to her daughter makes Carol smile. "Yeah, she did. Jamie says she doesn't have any hesitation and listens well. He promised us jiu-jitsu and krav maga lessons once we're not traveling. Says he's going to teach all the kids and anyone else who hasn't learned. It's going to be a requirement for their group. And Scout's going to teach eskrima. That one uses weapons, and Jamie said it's really useful if you're stuck on the ground with walkers."

"And you're going to let Sophia learn that one too?" Amy asks. She looks genuinely curious.

"Of course. If she ever got separated from the adults, I want her to be able to do more than just climb to a high place and pray someone can find her. I'm going to learn it myself."

"Who is going to be doing all the regular work while all this training is happening?" Lori asks, tone snotty.

"You act like we were busy dawn to dusk with nothing but chores here, Lori," Carol says with a sigh. "Easy enough to share out the chores so everyone can work and train both, and not everyone needs to train or will have to take as long to learn. Plus if their place held out like they think, it's already off-grid because they were remote. Solar and generators for electric and well water with secure property lines already. It won't be like returning to life before, but it won't be making do like we have to do here in camp."

"They've got a lot of people already to house," Jacqui notes. "But it sounds like you're pitching for us go along."

Carol nods. "You'd be welcome. I don't think anyone's going to extend an engraved invitation, but the biggest reason you couldn't come would be if you couldn't deal with it being Merle's property. But he worked in construction, and even before they found Merle and Daryl again, they were sketching out ideas to expand housing fast. If nothing else, liberating a bunch of RVs would get everyone out of tents."

"And the place is big enough?" Dale looks genuinely curious, glancing between Amy and Andrea. It makes sense to Carol, that he wants someone safe for the ladies he's looking after. "Especially if the lady really has taken in other survivors? Shane reported more than a dozen, but mostly children."

"Yeah. It's got river access too, and not so far from several reservoirs, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Lanier, and Lake Altoona that a well armed group couldn't fish on day trips. Last night I saw Merle and Hershel with a couple of notebooks the others had started, planning out how to convert the property to make it self-sustaining as possible. They're trying to sort out skill gaps, since many of their group don't have applicable skills, but are willing to learn new ones if they can," Carol explains.

"Not many of us have skills to contribute," Jacqui notes. "Jim's a mechanic, and I guess the two deputies would obviously be a good resource."

"Well, on that basis, neither do I, but like I said when they asked me last night, I'm willing to try to learn whatever's needed. You've been on two supply runs with them so far, Jacqui, so you know they're willing to teach if you're willing to learn." Carol turns to T-Dog. "You know how to drive a big truck, right? Didn't you say you had a CDL one time?"

T-Dog nods. "Worked as a substitute bus driver sometimes."

"See? That's the kind of thing. You can drive - and you could teach others. Gathering supplies for the long-term for a bigger group is going to need that." Carol feels emboldened, as if she can contribute to their safety by convincing them to go with the Dixons. She's not sure how they'll be able to abandon Ed as easily then, but she can't let that factor in right now. She has gotten hints when so much information was dumped her way last night and over the course of the day that she is considered the go-between in a way that Glenn isn't.

Shane is looking at Rick thoughtfully, the two men's expressions making her think that their long friendship and work partnership lets them communicate without words better than most people. If she has to hazard a guess, Shane is willing to go, but Rick is unconvinced. Lori is probably the factor there. She can't imagine that Rick hasn't put two and two together about Lori's antagonism towards Shane yet.

She isn't the only one noticing their interaction and Dale speaks up. "What do the two of you think?"

Rick sighs. "I wish I knew. It's a big commitment to travel to an unknown location with people we've just met."

"Everybody here was new to the others at one point, for the most part," Shane says. He's turned away from Rick now, observing Merle and Sophia, who are working on another target. "I guess the question is, do we trust Glenn's judgment, who has known two of the girls for months, and what the rest of us have seen on runs and Carol's observations. There's the option of King County, but we'd be racing to get any livable areas fenced in."

"Do you think Scout would be willing to trade run partners tomorrow? Or at least for the ride into the city?" Andrea asks. She looks thoughtful, more like the attorney she says she was than Carol has ever seen before.

"Probably. I can pair up with one of the others well enough. You wanting to partner up with her tomorrow?" Shane asks. Andrea nods. "It's a good idea. Think you're feeling up to a run too, Rick? See how it works? I know they're starting to really get anxious to get back on the road."

"Sounds good. Might ask to be paired off with Daryl," Rick replies. Lori looks like she wants to argue, but surprisingly, doesn't. Carol supposes that even Lori realizes Rick's got to do supply runs sometimes, and at least the Dixon-led trips have returned everyone in one piece each time and relatively on schedule.

"I'm not sure Scout is the only one we need to check out," Dale says. "What about Merle himself? Hasn't Scout been away with the military for years?" Everyone turns to look at Shane, who has spent a large part of his days and all of his nights with the Marine.

He shrugs. "She enlisted as soon as she graduated high school, so she hasn't lived in Georgia for close to a decade. I get the general impression she sees her current position as more of a field commander type thing, not a permanent leadership spot. So Dale's right that Merle's a big factor. If you pay attention to how they interact in the camp itself, I'd say there's a small leadership group already. Hershel, Patricia, Tyreese, and Merle. That fit what you've seen, Carol?"

Carol nods. "Yeah. Hershel was the one in charge of all the planning notebooks, and he was taking input from the others if they offered, but those are the ones that were actively involved with talking everything over with Merle. Plus it might depend on who is actually on the property when they get there."

"What about Daryl?" Jacqui asks. "He seem interested? He's been pretty quiet on the two runs I've been on."

"No more than the more vocal ones. He's as quiet over there as he was over here, really." It's not like she's going to share about his stepdaughter. No one seems to mention Abby, almost if talking about the girl will jinx that her other stepfather will get her safely to Georgia. The morning check-ins with the homestead haven't had any news on her yet.

Jacqui hums, looking thoughtful. "You know, I've got a sudden need for a shooting lesson." She pats Jim on the hand before popping up and striding over to join Merle and Sophia. The big man looks surprised, but nods when Jacqui makes her request. He says something to Sophia, and the girl grins before jogging off into the camp.

"Well, that's one way to suss Merle out," Rick says, laughing softly. "Anyone want to get to know the others a bit better besides Carol? Which reminds me." He turns to Amy. "You didn't go out with the foraging group this morning. Any reason why?"

Carol is a little surprised with Amy flushes dark red, obviously embarrassed.

It alarms Andrea, however. "Did something happen? Somebody do something?" she demands of her younger sister.

Amy squirms. "Not like you're thinking, Andrea, other than I feel like the world's worst pervert."

It dawns on Carol then. Amy called Jazz pretty the first time she'd seen him, and most of her interactions with the younger members of that camp were when Jazz was involved. She can't help the nervous laugh that accompanies her, "Uh oh." That draws puzzled looks.

"What's going on?" Andrea demands, still agitated.

Amy doesn't seem to want to confess, so Carol ventures a guess. "I am just guessing here, but I think she found out how old Jazz is."

Shane can't seem to help laughing either. "Oh god. Tell me you didn't make a pass at the kid," he says.

"No, thank God," Amy says, hiding her face in her hands. Her voice is muffled as she continues. "He just turned to me and said he knew it wasn't usually polite to ask a girl how old she was, but that I might need to know he is only fourteen. Very carefully worded like he's had to say it before, too."

Andrea looks torn between disbelief and amusement herself. "Seriously?"

"No way he's only fourteen," Lori interjects, looking mulish.

Shane exchanges a look with T-Dog. "How tall were you at fourteen, T-Dog?"

"Not as tall as the Dixon boy, but close enough to six foot."

The deputy nods. "Me too. Remember that crazy growth spurt I had the summer before tenth grade, Rick?"

"Yeah. Made me feel like a damned midget for the two years it took me to catch up."

"With all those Georgia Bulldog shirts he wears, I just assumed he was in college," Amy says, finally uncovering her face. "Christ, I'm ten years older than he is."

"Didn't Scout say her mother had been gone since Honey was a baby though?" Dale asks.

"She did," Shane answers. "I asked last night because I knew Jazz was younger already. She just replied that men can be stupid about their exes sometimes, so he's got the same mother, just a few years after they divorced. Dropped him off like a puppy at the pound when he was a couple days old and disappeared again."

"That poor boy," Dale says softly, his expression heartworn for the abandoned child.

"If it is any consolation, he seems very sweet and well-adjusted," Carol says. "Although Merle says he is usually standoffish around adult women who aren't his sisters."

"It's not surprising with a mother like that," Amy says, frowning. "Or with looking older than he is. I really did get the impression that telling me wasn't the first time he's had to get an admirer to back off."

"Poor boy," Carol says. "Although I was a little grateful when he told me how old he was this morning, because Sophia's crush is obvious enough to be seen from space."

T-Dog laughs. "You've noticed that too? Not sure if that's better or worse, though. Crush with a big age difference is a safe one. Similar ages, might get her a bit of a heartache."

"I can't predict the future," Carol ventures. "But I'm about ninety percent certain that it is a mutual crush, and so's Merle. He made a point of telling me it wasn't anything to worry over, because his boy had his boundaries firmly set, especially with three older sisters."

That makes T-Dog look mournful in a way Carol's never seen before. "Yeah, he probably does. My older sister would have had me neutered if I'd been less than gentlemanly to a girl I was interested in at that age."

Dale looks sorrowful as he reaches over to pat T-Dog on the arm. "Did you lose her in all this?"

"No, she died when I was in college. Lost control of her car in the rain going home from work after working the graveyard shift at the hospital. It was just me and her by then. She was eight years older, so she made sure I finished out high school after our dad died."

"My wife passed away from cancer three years ago," Dale says softly. "We were never able to have children, so it's just me in my retirement."

"Until you adopted me and Andrea," Amy quips.

The older man gives her a kind, appreciative smile. "I am a poor replacement for your own parents."

"I don't know that we'll ever even know if they survived all this," Andrea says. "They wouldn't want me to risk Amy trying to get all the way to Miami to find out either."

"Probably not," Rick says. "Coming here from King County, it was pretty desolate. And you see how long it took their group to make it this far from north Florida. Even with going slower to help folks or hunt supplies, that's two months to make a trip that used to take five hours by car."

"To return to the subject of potentially joining the Dixons," Dale says, "we should also find out how quickly they plan to reach their property. I don't think my RV is up for any extended travel. Jim's tinkered with it, but he doesn't have all the parts he needs for a real overhaul. I would prefer, if possible, not to leave it behind though. Irma and I bought it intending to travel in our retirement. He'll still need to finish the safety modifications since we concentrated on the other vehicles first.

"We're actually set to hit up a couple of auto parts stores tomorrow," Shane says. "And they might have compatible parts already with the busses and RVs. They'd share those regardless of whether or not we join them, I think. Do you need us to go back to that Grainger we hit up yesterday, Jim? We didn't come close to clearing it out."

Jim thinks it over and then nods. "Worst case, if we can't use it all or transport it, we can leave it behind and tell the nursing home group it is here."

"I can ask Patricia about their parts stock," Carol offers. "She keeps all the inventories. And they'd probably loan Jim a helper if he wanted."

When Dale and Jim both agree, Carol leaves them to discuss things further without her input. She's biased, but she hopes they really do all come along, even if it does complicate things with abandoning Ed.

Chapter Text

July 25, 2010

~*~SW~*~

Supper is a somber affair, knowing it is time to make a final decision since the Dixon camp is heading north in two days. Dale is on watch, having waved away the offer Rick made to take over what is his normal shift anyway after Rick returned from the supply run. Scout decided it was the last run, to take tomorrow to make sure everything is sorted and road ready.

Andrea takes a plate from T-Dog, who helped Jacqui with supper. The blonde looks thoughtful as she takes a seat beside her sister, who is already eating. "I had a talk with Scout on the way back to camp. She invited us to go with them tomorrow, and I've talked to Dale about how grateful we both are for what he's done for us, but we're going to accept. I can't argue after the last few days and today's supply run that a bigger, more experienced group wouldn't be safer."

"What about Merle?" Rick asks.

"I think that I'm going to have to trust that there are a half dozen people over there that knew Merle before and that they all say the drugs were after the dead were walking. He's certainly been completely different to Jacqui and T-Dog." She looks at Shane. "That the impression you've gotten? You do have a bit more of an inside track into the family than the rest of us."

He turns the plate in his hands, debating on whether or not the one thing he knew that they didn't was truly important to share. "That's how it is according to her and Daryl both, no drugs or alcohol either. He did spend most of a year in prison about fifteen years ago for felony assault. Took a plea deal after they decided he'd used excessive force in interfering with a man beating on his girlfriend in a bar parking lot."

"Considering what we know of his past, I don't find that surprising," T-Dog says. "Ain't like all of us haven't wanted to do that sort of beat down on an asshole before. Gotta look at how he is now. And it's not like he ever actually got violent with anyone until he and I were yelling on that roof. Even then, I hit him first, and he apologized. I don't want to leave y'all hanging, but my vote is for going north. We already know that Morales and his family are going."

"Us too," Jacqui says, nudging Jim with her shoulder. Shane doesn't figure that Jim much cares, but he'll go where Jacqui goes. "And I really think that Dale wants to, but he's not willing to leave a family with a child behind."

"Shane?"

Shane meets Rick's eyes, keeping his expression neutral. This is probably a bad idea, but he can't let Rick decide thinking everything is like it always was. "I think there's a discussion you and I need to have before we decide anything."

That gets him semi-alarmed looks from everyone but Jim, and Lori looks furious, but he still passes his barely touched plate to Jacqui and stands. Rick follows as Shane leads him to the quarry lake. It is protected enough to be distracted down there, with all the watch posts manned in camp. If he is going to get his ass kicked, he prefers no witnesses.

"You gotta know before you place faith in me. We thought you were dead. We really did. And nothing ever happened before we ended up here and nothing's happened since you got back. And brother, you gotta believe it was grief and fear and just needing to know there was something left in all the crazy."

He struggles for the words, unable to say it outright.

"I know." Rick's voice is hoarse.

Shane tugs at his own hair in frustration. "She tell you?"

"No. But I know my wife and she's never treated you as badly as she has the last week, and she's never been jealous of any woman you were ever with." He sighs. "And you've had this air of about-to-be-kicked dog whenever I'm around. There were other signs, but those were the big ones that confirmed it. When it first hit me, that first night in camp, I wanted to knock your teeth down your throat. But I didn't because I get it. And you've done everything short of relocating to the other damned camp to leave us to settle things between us."

"If you hadn't made it back, I'd have looked after her and Carl to my dying day."

"I know." Rick sits on one of the big rocks and stares out over the water. "I gotta ask. Are you in love with Lori?"

Shane groans. "I could've been. Or convinced myself I was. But no, man, I'm not sure what being in love feels like, but I know I don't feel it for Lori."

Rick thinks on that for a while, and Shane lets him have the peace to do it, dropping down to sit on the rocky shore.

"This thing with you and Scout. That something you're going to continue? I worry about your track record, but seems you finally met the female version of you when it comes to relationships."

"We're just taking it as it goes. If we join up with them and it ends, we'll still get along. And I don't see any Dixons getting ugly about it unless I did something really stupid. I've never crossed that kinda line, so we're good."

"Gotta admit I'm surprised and proud of you."

"How's that?"

"Granted, she's pretty. Exactly your type, really. But before all this, I don't think I'd ever believed you could look past the scarring."

Shane decides to be honest. "Surprised myself a little. I thought it'd be hard to deal with, but I dunno. It shows she's pretty badass, I guess."

"Might have been your problem before. Most of the girls you dated for very long were pretty but not much in the personality department. Seemed like you got bored really quick."

"I did. Damn, some of them were poster children for dumb blonde jokes."

"I always figured it was how you made sure you didn't get in too deep," Rick notes. Shane is just glad he seems to be focusing on Shane's current love life and not the ill-advised affair with Lori, for now, at least. "I was afraid for a while you'd accidentally get one of them pregnant and end up married and unhappy."

He doesn't add 'like me', but Shane can hear it anyway. "Wouldn't have married just for that. That's one lesson I took from my parents."

"You aren't your dad, Shane," Rick says softly. "I've seen you with Carl for years. You'd make a good father and a good husband, with the right woman."

"How the hell did this turn into reassuring me, brother? I brought you out here thinking you'd end up kicking my ass."

Rick takes a deep breath. He catches Shane's gaze and sighs. "We'll be okay eventually."

Shane has to ask. "Even with the way Lori's acting? You know I ain't encouraging that and I won't."

"Yeah. I'm not sure what is wrong with her. Things were really bad before I got shot. You heard me bitch about it enough. We hadn't had a real conversation in at least six months, and I never said, but I'd been sleeping in the guest room for about six weeks. Pretty sure she'd started talking to a lawyer, but neither of us was willing to have that conversation yet. I think the only way I was going to save it was to quit the sheriff's office. She loathed me being a cop." He reaches down and picks up a flat rock, spinning it out across the water. "I honestly don't know if thinking I was dead jumpstarted her back to me and she's having trouble shifting gears to seeing me alive, or if she's just terrified of being alone."

"You might be on to something there. I mean, she doesn't really have any friends in the camp. Jacqui and Andrea were professional career women, never married, so they don't have a lot in common as a whole. Amy's too young, and Carol and Miranda might've been housewives like Lori was, but she's been so bossy toward both of them that I'm pretty sure Miranda's been faking difficulties with English to avoid her." Shane stands back up and rubs his jaw thoughtfully. "Being afraid you'll call it quits might be why she's trying to keep my attention too. Back up plan in a world she has no idea how to deal with."

"Shit, Shane. It's not like I'd abandon her even if I didn't want to be her husband anymore. You'd think she'd know that."

"She should. But I won't ever claim to be an expert on how a woman thinks through things. More than one reason why I ended up single and in my thirties."

"You say that as if married men have any more of a clue than single ones."

Shane laughs, feeling the pressure in his chest ease that has been there since he realized Rick was alive and one day he has to confess his sins. He doesn't like that probably part of Rick's ability to forgive has to do with the damage his marriage already endured before the dead rose up because that meant it is even more guaranteed to come to an ugly conclusion now. He isn't sure that Lori is capable of backpedaling enough - or changing enough - to fit with who Rick really is. They might not have a station to work at, but this world isn't one where a man - or woman - could turn away from being willing to fight for the betterment of the community, even more so than the civilized one before. He doesn't voice those thoughts, just moves forward and sighs with relief when he claps a hand on Rick's shoulder and squeezes, that his brother doesn't push him away.

"Shane?"

"Yeah?"

"You should take the chance." When Shane looks down at Rick, he sees nothing but sincerity in the other man's blue eyes as Rick continues. "With Scout. We'll go north with them. I think it's for the best for Carl, even if Lori will probably bitch all the way there and beyond. But I think maybe you should see things through with Scout. The kind of connection you two seem to have doesn't come along often."

"What do you mean?"

Rick's laugh is a little bitter and it puzzles Shane. "You've known the woman for what, five days? The vibe between you two is already strong enough that if I didn't know either of you, I'd peg you two as the married couple, not me and Lori. Hell, we've never had that kind of connection."

It makes Shane's heart hurt to hear Rick disparage his relationship, even as much as he knows Rick is being truthful about the state of it. Lori always wanted Rick to be different than he is, and Shane never quite understood why she dated his best friend in the first place. She came from an affluent enough family to have finished out college and been independent, but she latched onto Rick in high school through Rick's younger brother and never looked back. She even dropped out of college two years in to marry Rick after getting pregnant with Carl.

"It's too early to know," he says at last.

"Maybe. But tell me this. You've shared a tent for four nights. Is that really just about sex?"

Shane shifts his weight from one foot to another, looking away from Rick to the water. "We've only actually had sex twice," he admits at last. He isn't entirely sure why it seemed natural to just fall asleep together that second night without having sex, although Rick's barb about his dating history probably helped.

"Only twice?" Rick whistles softly. "Brother, I hate to tell you, if you're already that comfortable with each other, I don't think it's too early to know where it's going."

"It's too fast."

"We live in a world with dead walking around, Shane. I'm not saying you're madly in love already, but it sure sounds like the potential to fall in love is there, and I always wanted you to have that kind of happiness. We're staying with them, so you don't have to choose between us and her, you know."

"It may not be what she wants." Shane remembers that initial proposal, where she indicated part of his attraction was that he isn't someone she is responsible for. He explains as much to Rick.

His partner looks thoughtful for a few minutes. "The way she interacts with you isn't like you're an outsider. Maybe she started out wanting a bit of fun, but she treats you like an equal partner in the day-to-day stuff. Honestly, if I were a lesser man, I'd be jealous of the time she spends with you on that, from the prospective of a partner who is being replaced at least temporarily. She had me partnered with Daryl today, you know. I got nosy."

"Yeah?" Shane's not entirely sure he wants to know what Rick got nosy with Scout's uncle about.

"He said she's never focused on anyone the way she has you. He's worried about her if the groups split up, that she's too attached."

"She hasn't said anything like that. Dammit, Rick, it's only been five days." Four days where he's spent all his sleeping hours with her. Five days where he's spent at least six waking hours in her company, except for the third supply run they'd done, where she paired him with Daryl for the actual supply run part while she worked with Morales. She still singled him out to go scouting with her for the next day's locations, sending Morales back with Daryl. He chalked it up to a group leader passing on skills to another group leader or at least tried to. They certainly built up trust fast. He is as at ease with her at his back as he is with Rick, and he knew that sort of thing doesn't come easy.

"According to Daryl, the only five days part has her a bit spooked too."

"Fuck." Shane paces along the water's edge, shooting Rick looks. The other man sits patiently, used to Shane's need to move when he is emotional. "You're really choosing to join up with them because it's best for Carl? Not because of me, right?"

Rick sighs. "Shane, while Carl and Lori's safety is my first priority in the decision, I won't lie to you that you being happy isn't the second. I had my doubts, and part of me still worries that it's not going to be as easy as it seems. And before you worry yourself around to it, I'm not pushing this because of Lori either. Part of why I was so angry when I first realized you'd slept with her was that you two are worse in compatibility than she and I are. I know you said you'd have protected her to your dying day if I hadn't reappeared, but she'd have driven you crazy in the end."

That brings Shane's pacing to a halt, and he stares at Rick, stunned.

The blue-eyed man just meets his gaze calmly. "Lori is a good woman under that blanket of unhappiness she's been wearing for the last couple of years. You remember how she used to be. But what she needs to be happy isn't me, and as much as I know you would have tried, it isn't you either. But you and Scout... that I can see. Something in her settles that coiled tension you've carried around in you since we were kids. And you don't see it, but I think you do the same for her. Maybe it's a talk you should have with her, or you can wait and give it more time since you'll have that now."

"And what are you going to do about Lori?" He can't shake the feeling that he helped put the nails in their marriage's coffin.

"I'm going to keep my mouth shut until we're somewhere safe. And then once we are settled, I'll let her know it's the end of things for us as a couple. I'll still look after her as Carl's mother, but she and I both deserve to be happier than we've been. The irony is that this world will probably make it easier, splitting up and sharing Carl."

Shane nods, figuring he might be right on that. "Suppose we should get back before they start worrying we're killing each other down here."

Rick actually smiles at that, standing from his seat on the rock. He surprises Shane by reaching out to pull him into a tight hug. "We're still brothers, Shane," he says quietly. And if Shane blinks away tears, Rick isn't going to call him on it.

~*~SW~*~

Shane doesn't even get turned around from zipping the tent behind him before Scout's arms are around him, her hands tugging his shirt from his waistband. He stills as she slides her hands under the cloth and up his chest, pressing herself to his back. When she hooks her hands on his shoulders instead of continuing to caress his chest and presses her face to the back of his neck, he realizes the embrace is more of a hug than a seduction. He reaches a hand up and cups the back of her neck, squeezing gently.

She nuzzles at his skin for a moment, lips soft against him, before slowly sliding her arms from his shirt and letting him turn around to face her. Her eyes are intent as she undoes his belt and slides his gun holster and knife off to set them neatly next to where her own are already on the overturned box that serves as a nightstand of sorts next to the air mattress. He smiles as she steps back to him, enjoying that their nearly equal height makes it easy to lean in to kiss the scarring on her neck above the neckline of her T-shirt. Scout shivers, and as he raises his head to smile at her, her pupils are blown wide, only a thin rim of blue remaining as she pulls him in for a kiss that is an invitation all by itself.

It isn't until later, after they're cleaned up and back in clothing to sleep, that he wonders if they should talk. All they agreed from the beginning was a short fling. Her coming to his tent again, knowing both groups are going to stay together, emphasizes Rick's interpretation that she's interested in long-term. It's a conversation he's never really had, so he has no clue how to start it. She's spooned behind him, a habit he actually finds he likes and suspects she does because it makes her feel easier to have her previously injured side protected by his bulk.

"Scout?" he manages at last. She hums against his shoulder, but raises to one elbow to peer down at him when he doesn't continue right away. She only loosely rebraided her dark hair, so wisps of it frame her face as she waits for him to continue. He likes this unguarded look of hers that few others get to see. "Are we going to stick with this - with us?" His voice is huskier than he likes, a need for the answer to be yes, even when he isn't articulating it properly.

She blinks, looking uncertain for a moment, and he feels a flicker of worry that she's trying to figure out how to turn him down gently. But then her fingers slide to the pulse point in the crook of his elbow, a habit he's noticed she does when she wants reassurance. There's a story there, one he suspects may trace back to Will Dixon's attack on his family, but he won't ask just yet. "Is that what you want?" she asks.

It's not an answer, yet it is, but he presses for more. "Do you want me?"

Her fingers stroke along the skin of his pulse point and he has a brief moment where it hurts to breathe when she doesn't answer right away. But she drops her head to nuzzle at the base of his jaw. "Yeah," she murmurs against his skin. "Getting close to always."

He tries to imagine an always, like he did through his whole watch shift and realizes that he can. Even better, he wants to. "Me too."

Scout moves away from him enough to push at his shoulder, rolling him to his back. Her expression isn't as joyful as he expects, though. She rises to her knees and tugs his hand up to run his fingers over the vertical scar that starts below her navel. The raised tissue is left exposed since she sleeps in just the compression vest and pants. He never questioned her about the scar, assuming it part of the extensive recovery she experienced last year.

"Do you know what this is?" she asks. She keeps her hand over his against her scarred stomach. He can feel the rigid twist of one of the shrapnel wounds near it.

He shakes his head.

"A hysterectomy scar."

Oh. He supposes he always saw children in his future, eventually, if he ever met a woman he wanted for more than a week or two. Perhaps it is karma that he finally is starting to imagine that sort of commitment in a healthy way - not like with Lori - and it's the one thing they can't have. Scout's expression is solemn, too controlled for real emotion, and he realizes she's afraid of his response. "Then I guess we'll just get to spoil other people's children and send them back home," he says.

Her smile is blinding as she drops her weight across his body to give him a kiss that makes him forget his exhaustion and their earlier activities both.

~*~SW~*~

It's still dark when they're woken by the sound of a man cursing furiously, followed by the vicious snarl of at least one of the dogs. They're both at full alertness, shoving on boots and grabbing weapons so quickly that Shane doesn't think more than a minute has passed. But the source of the noise is Ed Peletier, flat on his back, pinned by the massive bulk of Augustus. The catahoula has his teeth on the man's throat, and Ed's made a wise decision for probably the first time in his life by going absolutely still. An arrow sticks out of his shoulder.

Shane shoves his gun in his waistband as he surveys the scene. T-Dog is tense from his spot atop the RV, and others have spilled out of their tents in both camps. Lights are on in the Dixon RVs, but no one's emerged. He figures the adults are assessing from inside, keeping watch over the children. Sasha, the firefighter from Florida, is looking both furious and proud of herself. He's guessing she's the one responsible for the arrow in the asshole.

"Sorry, Scout. I shot too soon," she calls out.

"I see that. Jackass is still breathing," Scout replies. "Should let Auggie finish the job, maybe."

Apparently, Ed takes the suggestion seriously, because the fabric of his pants blooms wetly from where he lies unmoving under the dog.

"We don't want to poison the poor dog," Shane drawls.

"He slipped out of his tent," T-Dog calls down. "I told him to get back inside, but he told me to fuck off and kept heading toward their camp. So Sasha shot him and Maggie sent the dog after." A glance towards the other watch stander shows the farmer's daughter looks mighty satisfied with sending the eighty pound dog onto the wounded man.

Shane steps close, confident that Augustus won't hurt him. He's worked with the dog enough on supply runs to trust his training. Nearby is a handgun that Ed obviously dropped, either when he was shot or when he was knocked down by the dog. He picks it up, clearing the chamber and releasing the magazine out of long habit, but confirming it is loaded tells Ed's intentions toward his ex-wife and child or at least their protectors. If he were a stranger invading their camp, Shane would shoot him with his own gun. He's still tempted, but he walks the gun back over to Scout and Rick.

"Guess he figured it was his last chance to force them back," he says. They still haven't fully determined what to do about Ed when they leave. No one is fully on board with killing the man, but now is probably a different story.

Scout's expression has taken on that remote, emotionless mask that he remembers from when she told them about the rapists near the Greene farm. He isn't sure anyone can stop the decision she's reached, not that he wants to. She studies the gun for a moment. "Get him loaded up in the Jeep," she states, before bending down to finish tying up her boots.

Shane shoves the loose bullet back in the magazine and hands everything off to Rick. Lori is standing behind him, deliberately blocking their tent exit from Carl's view. He doesn't blame her a bit for that. He goes back to Ed, giving the command to Augustus to release the man. The dog obeys willingly, although he doesn't back off far, his hackles still raised. Ed lays as if paralyzed for a moment, not immediately fighting as Shane binds his wrists together using the zip ties he was given the night Carol decided on a better life for herself and Sophia. The shock of the wound and the dog's attack wears off as Ed's shoulder is jostled and he tries to struggle, but it only makes the bleeding around the arrow worse. Shane isn't gentle as he drags him to his feet, shoving him toward the Jeep.

"What are you doing?" Ed finally demands.

"Removing you from camp," Shane replies. He can tell the man suspects what that might mean, so he's ready when Ed tries to run and snatches on the arm with the wounded shoulder. The man goes to his knees, in too much pain to even scream. Danny reaches them, assisting Shane in dragging Ed back to his feet. Between the two of them, they get him rolled into the back of Shane's Jeep, the one they decided to leave behind at the camp. With the back seat still removed for using as a laundry and water transport vehicle, the asshole just barely fits. Shane zip ties his bound hands to one of the roll bars, just in case he gets any more ideas about running.

Even though they aren't likely to be going far, not in the dark, he takes the time to tie up his boot laces just as Scout reaches him. She's carrying the BDU shirts pre-loaded with gear that they use for runs, along with his belt, knife, and holster he'd left behind in the tent. As they're settling equipment into place, Shane sees Dale approaching. The old man's expression is set in what Shane's come to think of as his "I'm the moral elder" face.

"You can't just abandon him out there, wounded, with no supplies," Dale says.

Scout doesn't answer immediately, taking a look around the camp at those who have emerged from their tents. From what Shane can see, Dale is the only objector to Ed being removed.

"You're welcome to take responsibility and go with him," she says at last. "But he was headed over there with the intent to harm or kill people I'm responsible for. He doesn't stay, and I'm not wasting supplies on him."

"It's not right," Dale protests. "You're sending to his death."

Shane realizes that Dale's too naive, too innocent in spite of his age, to realize that Scout has no intention of Ed having a lingering death. She isn't going to leave someone like Ed loose in the world anymore than Shane is, knowing what he likely intended tonight. Waiting until the end of a watch shift and picking the time when none of the cops or Marines were on duty had to have been planned. Unfortunately for him, where he was right that T-Dog would hesitate to shoot him, the young woman Scout trained didn't.

"There are no jails to hold him," Scout says plainly. "Can you honestly say you want him around the women and children here? What if it had been Andrea or Amy he'd been going after tonight with that gun?"

That makes Dale flinch. He looks over his shoulder where the blonde sisters are outside the RV, Amy held close to Andrea's chest. He hesitates in replying.

Something dark twists in Scout's expression, worrying Shane a little. "Or is that how it is? It's fine if a man like Ed beats on someone you don't care about? It's not your problem if it isn't your loved ones?" There's venom in her voice and Dale shrinks away as she steps closer to him. Shane can't see her face, but Dale looks almost afraid of what he's seeing. He suspects it's similar to the fury she turned on him and Daryl for not stepping in on Ed sooner. "You're just a self-centered coward, aren't you?"

This time Dale reacts as if she'd slapped him. He stumbles backwards several steps, still not speaking.

Shane steps up and slides a hand onto her shoulder, squeezing lightly. She relaxes into the touch.

"Anyone else object to Ed leaving?" he asks.

Dale looks around, obviously seeking any others who share his objections, but he gets nothing but silence and a few shaken heads. Carol comes forward slowly, causing Dale to begin to look hopeful, but she steps past him to stare at where Ed lies trussed to the Jeep. Shane expects Ed to curse at his ex-wife, but he lays there, managing an almost hopeful expression that the woman who he has spent years terrorizing is going to save him.

It's a vain hope.

"I hope you burn in hell," she says to the bleeding man. "I'm glad that every last minute of your time on Earth will be spent in pain and suffering."

And she walks away, head held high.

~*~CP~*~

Carol lies in her tent, curled around Sophia, who clings to her tightly, with Honey curled up to bracket the girl on the other side. She hears the Jeep pull away, and the darkest part of her thrills at the fact that Ed is gone. She's not stupid. She doesn't believe for a minute that Shane and Scout are going to set Ed free at some distance from the camp and hope for the best. He crossed the line tonight, bringing a gun like a coward in the dark. Her ex-husband's time left is numbered in mere hours now.

It's a sin to rejoice in a man's death, but she can't bring herself to repent.

Chapter Text

July 26, 2010

~*~CP~*~

"Pissy does not even begin to describe her mood," Jacqui bites out, shooting an annoyed glare toward Lori Grimes as she brings Carol another box of canned goods. Henry and Ben finished installing the shelving units to modify the church bus brought into camp yesterday just an hour ago, so Carol and Jacqui had volunteered to move the supplies set aside for the original quarry group to the larger vehicle. All of the box trucks won't be going north, and the bus will make things easier to find as needed. The shelving units are still a wonder to Carol, little cages meant for secure storage from the restaurant supply warehouse. Although the wheels are locked in place now, she knows each shelf can be literally rolled down a ramp from the back door of the bus when they reach a safe haven.

"Is she still sitting there watching everyone else work?" Carol asks. Everyone else was up by seven and part of what T-Dog quipped was "Drill Sergeant" Patricia's chore roster. The older woman sorted everyone into tasks with an efficiency that is intimidating. Even Carl is working - and quite happy about it - alongside his father in packing emergency supply bags for each vehicle. The Dixon camp won't have to do a lot to be road ready by morning, but the quarry folk are playing catchup. Lori spent the first two hours sulking in her tent, while Carol and Jacqui sorted the unloaded food with an eye for loading the bus instead of helping them as assigned. When no sympathy came her way, the thin woman moved to a camp chair so everyone got to experience her disapproving expression.

"She was." Jacqui watches as Carol slides the cans onto the shelves and marks the new inventory tally carefully. "Rick was just stupid enough to try to intervene when Maggie just came over and told her that if she didn't put in some work hours on getting ready to leave, she was going to tie her to the bumper and make her walk."

"So what's she doing now?"

"Laundry. Maggie decided her time is more useful elsewhere and at this point, I don't think anyone trusts Lori with anything more complicated. So Maggie is helping me shift things out of the U-Haul trucks." Jacqui collapses the box as soon as Carol removes the last can, shoving the cardboard into an overhead net for reuse later if needed.

"Poor Tyreese." The big man didn't seem to mind being asked to head up laundry duty to get plenty of clothing clean before they were on the road, but that was when Maggie was his assigned partner along with Isabelle, Lizzie, and Billy.

They both take a minute to peek out the windows near the front that aren't darkened. Either because Maggie made a scene or she's decided her protest methods aren't effective, Lori is surprisingly working. Every line of her body radiates how angry she is as she pins clothing up on the lines while Billy works on another line. Tyreese and the girls are tumbling the three little washers, and the little tabletop clothes drier is humming along thanks to an extension cord run to one of the Dixon RVs. Carol is still sort of glad her duty is keeping her in the bus, even if it is hotter here than outside.

Maggie appears in the opening with a box, which she passes to Jacqui with a grin. The farm girl's enthuasiasm is contagious, and both older women smile. "She's a bit of an idiot. I'd much rather be hauling and sorting food than hanging laundry, but it's her loss. I'll keep bringing boxes to the bus steps and let you pass things on to Carol."

"Sounds good. Are they done with the route planning yet?" Jacqui asks.

"Yeah, Scout and Merle rolled up the maps and said they'd go over those later. Merle took over welding on the med unit from Honey, so Honey is shadowing Jim as an extra set of hands on the final mechanical checks. Scout snagged her brother and they're loading up to refill the laundry water jugs so they don't keep emptying the water we're going to transport. She said she is going to send out two scout groups out to check out different route to 285 to see what the best route will be. I think they're looking at swinging out west of Marietta, maybe as far out as Powder Springs, before we go north."

"Guess that means they expect everything here to be done on time," Carol says.

"We're on track for it, yeah." Maggie disappears to fetch more boxes and ends up with a helper in the form of Jimmy on the way back. The boy looks really grateful to be toting boxes, so Carol assumes he's just glad to be out of Patricia's sight. She tends to oversee Jimmy more than any of the other youngsters, probably since she's known him half his life and feels responsible for him. He doesn't seem used to the mothering.

Having a human conveyor system of boxes makes the bus loading go faster than she expected after their sluggish start due to Lori not helping, and she's sweaty when she finally looks around at all the food. It looks like a paradise, compared to how they scrambled in the quarry camp on mostly what Glenn could carry in his regular trips to the city. While it seems like a lot, she knows that logically, with over fifty people, it's probably no more than a couple of months. She's glad that they have this surplus though. It seems a bit odd to modify a bus this close to the final destination, but she reminds herself that it isn't completely guaranteed the Dixon property is safe, or how long it may take to get there. Better to have three vehicles of well-organized, easily accessible food than having to dig through boxes in U-Hauls, plus she figures the buses can be converted to living quarters eventually, like that documentary she saw once.

"Here." Carol startles when Maggie passes her a water bottle and a scrap of cloth. The young woman smiles sheepishly. "You might want to cool off a little, plus rehydrate."

Since she did get dusty and sticky, she complies, using the dampened cloth to clean her face and hands at least. She's wearing clothing better suited for the work now, courtesy of half the female population on the Dixon camp side, who contributed various articles of clothing. It makes her feel a bit like a peacock, with her drab pastels replaced with the vivid or dark colors of the gifted clothing. But the sweet compliment Sophia gave her the first day she wore the red v-neck T-shirt and cargo pants chased away most of her lingering embarrassment. And she has to admit that the hiking boots Patricia found for her feel a hundred times better on her feet than the canvas shoes she wore before.

"Looks like lunch is corned beef hash," Maggie comments. "Donna snagged those giant cans from the restaurant supply warehouse we got yesterday plus some of carrots and potatoes to bulk it out. She said she figured everyone would be hungry after working all morning and not want to wait on food. It'll be the last hot lunch for a bit though. On the road, we usually stick to meal bars for lunch and breakfast. Patricia will have each vehicle stocked with a few days worth of meal bars and water bottles, plus dried fruit and snacks. Those are meant for daily eating and snacking, while the emergency packs that Rick's group are setting up are for if you have to abandon the vehicle for some reason and go on foot."

That did explain Patricia's army of small folk counting items off into drawstring backpacks that seemed a little out of place to Carol with the emergency bags also being prepared. "Y'all have everything down to an artform," she comments.

Maggie laughs. "I've heard some of the stories of them struggling a bit early on, although I suspect a lot of that was being in a low population area without a lot of large supply stocks. It's part of why they're paranoid now, I think.

"Can't say I blame them. And at least we aren't spending a week eating mostly beans and squirrel this way," Jacqui says with a grin.

"Yep! And when we get settled, we're going to use the same system, but to bring food and supplies back to base. Daddy says we gotta collect all that we can now, while we have access to gasoline and the supplies themselves. With no more factory and transport system, we need the surplus for safety while we figure out how to do it all ourselves."

"But won't the food expire?" Carol asks, looking at the canned goods worriedly.

"Ever noticed that most food says 'best used by'? It's not really an expiration date, but a guarantee of how the food will taste. Some foods are risky past a certain point, according to Daddy. But he remembers when they didn't bother and says there's tests been done where decades old canned goods were still safe, even if they probably taste like crap. The ones we use up first are the pop top type cans, because the seal isn't as secure, plus anything with meat, citrus, or dairy. Once we're settled, we'll do our own canning too."

"Eventually, won't we run out of that sort of supply? Unless people can learn glassmaking?" Carol asks. "Because jars break over time."

Maggie grins. "I forget that not everyone knows about the treasure trove stashed in the back seats of the pickups."

"Canning supplies?" Jacqui looks puzzled. The truck back seats aren't that big, to have a real treasure trove.

"Nope. Freeze dryers. Commercial grade even. They found them in a place down in south Georgia and Donna made them clear out the lot. The trailer behind the other pickup is nothing but supplies for the dryers. Says she looked into them once, because she thought it would be easier than canning, and found out they cost too much. So we can make that long-term freeze dried food as long as we can maintain electricity of some type."

"Okay, that is a treasure trove then," Carol acknowledges. "But I did see canning supplies in yesterday's run, right?"

Maggie and Jacqui both nod, and the younger woman points to where a trailer hitch is being attached to T-Dog's church van. "They're going to load those up in a trailer though, since we're starting to run shy on drivers for the bigger vehicles. Although at least now, driving a U-Haul, you don't have to worry about other drivers cutting you off, but I can see where one of those pulling a trailer is scary. And I know Scout is getting really anxious about just how large the group is. I think if she thought it was safe, she'd take us north in smaller groups."

"Is it that dangerous out there?"

"It could be, and she's always thinking on the worst case scenario. Most of these vehicles are big and slow. We've modified everything we can to make them quieter, but without all the human noise we used to have, they're still noticable. We're reasonably safe from a herd as long as we're moving, but human predators? That's a different story." Something dark moves across her normally cheerful expression, and Carol remembers that it was one of Hershel's daughters cornered by the group Scout had put down as rapists. "That's why there's always two per vehicle and preferred at least one can shoot. On the road's the time you'll see people with actual firearms too. You've both had lessons from Merle, so don't be surprised if you get issued one tonight."

Carol shivers a bit, wondering if she's up to their standards. She exchanges a look with Jacqui, who shrugs. Neither of them were prepared for this kind of life, but ironically, they're the ones adapting the fastest of the quarry camp women. She finishes off her water and looks over to where the laundry is ongoing. "Think Patricia will care if I go join the laundry brigade and save some of Tyreese's sanity?" she asks.

Maggie just laughs and waves her on, taking Jacqui with her to whatever task she's headed to next.

~*~SW~*~

Supper is a group affair for the first time, partly because word went around that Scout was going to hand out road assignments. Shane already knew what they would be, because she pulled him into the planning group that had usually primarily been just her and Jamie. They might be liberally including Tyreese, Hershel, Merle, and Patricia on the end of the road planning, but the on the road was chiefly the two experienced Marines' domain. He doesn't figure there will be many objections, so he stays relaxed as Scout gets to her feet with a composition book in hand after dishes are collected.

"Alright. Most of y'all are familiar with how we travel on the road, but since we are adding a large number of newbies, there's going to need to be a shuffle in our routine. For the newbies, on the road, we try to keep the number of tents set up to a minimum, both for convenience and safety. All the tents we use are six-person tents, and from what inventory I got from the quarry camp, we've got enough for three more that size in addition to our four. But as any of us who have stuffed five adults into one of these tents can attest, six person is a stretch on description."

There's some grumbles and laughter, especially from the four teenage boys who have been sharing a tent with Henry while in camp.

"All the smaller kids currently sleeping in our RVs will stay put. This includes the Morales kids, since Mika and Andy are fine to keep sharing a bunk." Scout continues, not detailing what she told Shane, that the toddler's nightmares were soothed in staying cuddled to one of the girls at night. "But since none of us are going to ask Abuelita or Abad to sleep on a tent pad, I'm evicting three of you lazy folk from the RVs."

Lilly grins at Sam. "I'll be happy to keep your girlfriend cozy for a while." The young man only laughs, cuddling Ana close. He's actually the only adult shifting out of the RVs, the other two being Sophia and Beth.

Scout looks toward Dale. "Your RV sleeps four or five. Andrea and Amy are willing to share a tent with Jim and Jacqui, so I'd like to keep the Grimes as a group to sleep in your RV. It'll keep with the policy that only the older teenagers are out in tents. That good with you three?" She turns her attention to Rick on watch atop Dale's RV with only a passing glance at Lori.

"Works for me," Rick answers and Dale agrees. Lori doesn't answer, but Shane thinks she might actually look a little relieved.

Scout hands out the assignments with practiced ease, with no one objecting but a few concerned expressions turn towards Carol when her tent assignment with Sophia includes Merle and his two youngest children, but the older woman doesn't seem to care.

"Now for the part that will take up most of our waking hours. Driving and passenger assignments. Every vehicle is assigned at least two people capable of driving it. If you get the shit shift on watch while we're on the road, make sure your driving partner drives first and get some extra sleep during the morning if you can. There are a few spare drivers in a pinch, but they're mostly spare because they aren't really qualified for the buses and RVs, especially the ones towing trailers. Keep your spot in line memorized and stick with it. We probably won't stay on the road for twelve full hours a day, but we'll aim for driving as many of the daylight hours as possible. Every vehicle has a map with various alternate routes marked to reach the town nearest the property. If you do get separated by some freak chance, make your way there. The rest of us will find you, and whatever you do, don't lose the damned radios. As long as that repeater stays up on the loft building, you should be able to contact the group or the property, but stay off the air if at all possible. So far we seem to be the only one's using the ham frequencies we do, but we don't know that for sure. And the handhelds aren't as good over distance as the dash mounts."

She rattles off the vehicle assignments. Except for the Grimes family in the Peletier's old Cherokee and the two U-Hauls, the rest of the quarry camp vehicles each have a Dixon as passenger or driver. Shane ended up with Daryl as his driving buddy, after Scout teasingly started to pair him with Merle in driving the converted church bus. He feels a pang of sympathy for Carl, as the only child or teenager not in a vehicle with someone at least near his own age. But the only boy his age is Jazz, and Shane isn't about to suggest that Jazz ride with Lori as long as her poor attitude persists. With any luck, Rick will have pity on his son and let him join Jazz and Julie in Dale's RV at least part of the time.

"How will watch work on the road?" Andrea asks.

"We're going to do our best to be off the road by seven each night. That'll give us an hour of fading sunlight to set up camp and get a hot supper in us. We'll use disposable dishes on the road as much as possible so we conserve water use. We'll pull out around sunrise each morning, with everyone eating breakfast and lunch from their goodie bags you all may have seen the kids packing earlier for each vehicle. We'll keep a three person watch with four hour shifts, just like here. Luckily we're moving into areas familiar to several of us, so that'll make finding safe and suitable camps a little easier. You up for watch roster?"

"Of course," Andrea replies. "How long do you think it'll take?"

"It used to be less than a two hour drive from Atlanta to our place without any serious traffic. Based on what the two scout groups reported back, we're hopeful for less than a week, but we're skirting well around Marietta because rural is safer with a caravan our size and after some of the herds in Macon and Atlanta, we don't think Marietta will be any better. We'll make our way back to 575 to continue going north. Based on what we saw in south Georgia, going away from Atlanta should be reasonably clear, with the real jams being on the southbound lanes."

"And if we hit a big jam?" Dale asks, looking worried.

"We've got non-freeway routes marked, but they'll be slower, more likely to be in areas where the bigger vehicles can't manuever as easily, and with less visual range. The freeway is risky, but it also provides a clear line of sight by its very nature when you're outside the bigger cities. Biggest city we plan on actually going through is Canton, though. Had about twenty thousand folks before. Right now, we aren't going to concentrate on gathering supplies so much as getting everyone to a safe, hopefully permanent location. Take note of anything you see as we travel and we'll send supply runners back at a later date."

Jamie speaks up to add to her instructions. "That said, if we are stuck at a jam that is easier to remove cars than go around, you'll see teams clear cars and siphon gas, as well as kill off any dead trapped in the vehicles. We try not to leave them behind in case we have to work past the jam again on a supply run. If you see living survivors while we're on the move, radio it in so we can assess if it is safe to stop and help or not. We'll also clear any houses or stores in the areas we camp each night. That's my area of command when we travel, so if you went on a supply run here and want to help out one of those teams, just let me know."

"Bathing will be baby wipe only and everyone should wear their outer clothing at least twice unless you absolutely have to change. If you don't have enough clean underclothing to last at least a week, see Patricia for some spares, especially socks. Change your socks every day. If something derails our plans and we're going to be on the road longer than planned, we'll find a safe campsite for a couple of days to rest and clean up. And never fear, while we won't stop for lunch, we do opt for regular breaks to allow for bathroom breaks and driver changes. One of the reasons we try to keep the children on the RVs is so they have easy bathroom access. Big group like this is vulnerable because we can't move fast, so our entire goal once we pull out is to get the kids and supplies safe as fast as possible, even if we all end up smelling like the Swamp Thing by the time we arrive."

Scout's comparison draws a lot of laughter. Shane hopes his people from the quarry can adapt to life on the road, but hopefully, with an end in sight, they'll be able to. At least it won't be for months, like the ones who started in Florida endured so far. He's tired from the lack of sleep last night due to Ed's idiocy. He's considering a nap when he sees Rick's signal, so instead, gets reluctantly to his feet to go climb the RV to join his partner.

"Do I have you to thank for my driving and sleeping assignments?" the other deputy jokes.

"Maybe. I figured Lori might make a fuss if she was separated from you or Carl, and she can't drive any of the bigger vehicles. But if Carl gets really antsy, you could pass him off to ride a bit with one of the others, or see if Carol will loan you Sophia for a bit. Kid's in a sucky age range for the group. Most of the boys are way older or younger."

"Well, thankfully he's got that box from the comic book store that Cricket gave him, so maybe that'll keep him occupied. Noticed that the Dixons are all spread out though."

"Yeah. Maps and radios are one thing, but if the group gets split up somehow, the odds are better if there's someone who actually lives in the area. Hopefully, it's a paranoid precaution we won't need. Scout and Jamie say finding the property without a guide is damn near impossible. Nearest town is Conns Creek**. Not too far north of Canton, just off the freeway enough you can't actually see the town til you're in it." As deputies, they probably knew their state's geography better than the average Georgian, but even so, towns as small as Conns Creek didn't always make the radar. "Merle says they had about 1,500 people last census."

"I'm still surprised they had a police department. Town that small, usually they just let the county oversee things."

"They sure did back home, but I guess they prided themselves on public safety. Had three officers, one for each shift, plus their chief."

"You said the other night they don't think any of them made it?"

"Only one unconfirmed as dead is the one guy who went to find his sister's family. Merle opened the property to all the local force. Apparently, his older kids went to school with the chief's youngest kids in the county school system."

"Smart move really. If everything's going to hell, having the local law survive and feel their family is safe increases everyone's chances."

"Would've been nice if King County had had some sort of backup plan. But all those drills we did were about terrorist attacks, not plagues, cannibals, and the damned government turning on us," Shane grumbles.

"Can't say I'm unhappy that you didn't stick around. Things were pretty desolate down there, and at least here you had backup and access to more supplies. Can't imagine it taking long to stockpile everything in King County."

"Yeah, and further to travel to get supplies elsewhere."

"With any luck, it won't take more than a week to get there. I'm hoping Lori's mood will improve by then. Right now she seems insistant that we're taking her to some hillbilly compound and Carl's going to be raised into some wild outlaw. I don't think I ever really paid attention to the level of prejudice she can cook up for herself."

"Easy enough to hide when your life is the PTA where most of the others are from similar nice families that can afford to be on a single income," Shane says softly. The Grimes family didn't live as your average single income cop family did. Rick's father invested wisely, so when he'd died within a year of his wife losing her battle with cancer three years ago, Rick was able to purchase the nice house Lori always wanted. None of the other deputies lived anywhere nearly as nice. Even the sheriff's place was a ramshackle old farmhouse on a couple acres outside town. Scout wasn't the first person to apply the word 'uppity' to Lori. It was a favorite of Shane's Grandma Jean up until her death last year too. "I was a little surprised when she didn't make you relocate to a bigger town when your dad passed."

"She never even asked. I think she had her heart set on that neighborhood we bought the house in since her teens." Rick falls silent, looking morose.

"Maybe once we get there she'll see it's better than sitting in a campground. We may not have all the modern conveniences when we get there, but running water sounds damned perfect."

"No kidding. I was never fond of camping. Shit. I still haven't been able contact my friend who helped me when I first woke up. He's got the other police radio, said he was going to come to Atlanta eventually."

"Well, we can ask to have King County put on a supply run once everyone's settled. Me, you, couple of the others. We can test out the hospital, see if there's goodies left behind. Medical supplies are gonna be worth their weight in gold, so I'll bet going to a known location, Scout'll be open to it. We even thought about it when we were worried about the diabetic girl, til we found that stash at Emory, since you said there was still some electric running."

"Still might be a good idea to clear it out, if we can. You really think she'd send a team that far?"

Shane laughed. "Brother, you haven't seen the plans they got laid out yet. I'm pretty sure they're intent on cleaning out every location in a hundred mile radius if they can, including prisons."

"Even if they have inmates?"

"Way I figure it, inmates have either starved to death in their cells or got turned loose by guards if any of them had a problem with the starvation part. Lot of supplies in installations like that, and ones that the folks stalking the military depots won't really think about, least not right away. And if there are any survivors, guess we take that case by case."

"Yeah, not all of them are beyond redemption. Can't see Scout aiming on rescuing any murderers or rapists though. Was worried when she said she left the invitation open for the Vatos."

"I don't think any of the ones who are willing to stick around the city to help out a bunch of old people are the gangbangers we wouldn't want around. Think most of them are like Miguel. Didn't have much other choice about joining up."

"Wonder if there's a way we can really transport the other old people."

"Might be. Can put our heads together about it once we've got all the vulnerable ones we've already got safe. G and Felipe have enough supplies to hold out for at least a couple of months now, and they'll be drawing less attention by being out in the city too. And those two are good men. Coulda walked away at any time and they didn't and still won't. We left them with a good radio setup, and G seems to understand how it works, so they won't be as isolated as they could be either. Safer too, now, that they know you can turn without a bite."

"Can't say I'd want to imagine the fate of that place if just one person died in their sleep and they didn't know." Rick shudders.

"Be a damned nightmare for sure."

They both fall silent as Scout approaches. "Either or both of y'all want to go along to pick up the four Vatos we're taking along?" she asks as soon as she's in range. "Can send someone over to cover your watch if you want to go, Rick."

Shane watches his partner consider what can only be an olive branch. He knows the trip down to pick up Miguel, Robyn, and the two elderly is something Scout considers an easy run, but she's obviously being careful with vulnerable ones on the move. Rick nods, and Scout whistles, motioning toward her group. Henry heads their way at her signal, waiting patiently for the two former deputies to make it to the ground before taking Rick's place.

She's borrowing T-Dog's church van for this trip, since it's the only smaller vehicle with enough passenger room. He's surprised when Jazz, Jamie, and Hershel join them. He hasn't seen the vet go out on a single run since they've been there, but he's geared up and looks comfortable enough with an air rifle like Shane's. Everyone checks over their gear as if they intend to be out for hours instead of two or three. With a pause for Rick to give Carl permission to go hang out with the older boys despite Lori's angry glare, they load up and head out.

As he catches Rick's gaze in the rearview mirror, Shane smiles. It feels far more like it should now, having his partner along.

~*~SW~*~

Shane curses himself for getting too comfortable due to the easy runs they've had. He and Scout had visited the Vatos twice more to drop off supplies after that first day, so by this fourth visit, he's welcomed by many of the residents. Even the Vatos have stopped giving him wary looks, especially after he's spent time among the ladies flirting in Spanish. Jazz is sweetly welcomed, although he blushes his way through soft-spoken Spanish at the elderly women's brash flirting. It's also why they're nowhere near the others when the shooting starts.

He disregards his air rifle immediately, tapping Jazz's wrist. "Glock, not the rifle," he orders the boy. The corridors are too narrow for a long range weapon to be safe. Wide-eyed, Jazz pushes his own air rifle to his back and unholsters a gun eerily similar to Shane's own. Shane's throat radio activates and he knows that Jazz hears the same order he does. Protect the elderly.

"Maria? Is there somewhere safe?" Shane asks.

The leader of the group nods, motioning toward a door at the back of the big room they're currently in. "Music room," she explains, hurrying those barely mobile toward it with all the skill of a bossy grandmother. Mr. Gilbert surprises Shane by managing to wobble along. Two of the more stable ladies push wheelchairs. Shane finds himself grateful Felipe has been returning some of the folks to individual rooms to rest.

Gunfire and screaming are ongoing down the corridor he knows leads out to the courtyard he and Scout exited through the one day they were on foot. Scout, Rick, Hershel, and Jamie were all in the garage, loading up personal belongings and the four refugees going with them. Shane and Jazz had lingered behind, entertaining the women.

The elderly are jammed into the music room now, but Shane is wary of lowering his gun to block the door, so he orders Jazz to drag one of the couches over. He considered making the boy join them, but he doesn't think he would leave Shane as sole guard. But he follows the order to crouch beyond the couch, half hidden. His hands are steady where he watches the corridor the noise is coming from.

"Where's my sister?" he says finally, the first words he's spoken.

"Securing the garage probably," Shane suggests. No one has come from that direction, and the radio's gone silent since that single three word order. "Maybe outside, coming on whoever this is from behind."

"Yeah, she'd do that." The quiet confidence in Jazz' voice reminds him that the teenager has been on the road a long time at his sister's side.

Nothing more is said, because then there are strangers emerging from the corridor, white men as opposite from the Vatos as it's possible to be. Shane doesn't hesitate, but fires, taking out two before they even realize he and Jazz are there. He hears the report of Jazz's Glock as well as the boy covers him. One intruder screams, rolling back into the hallway and out of Shane's range of sight, but he doesn't break away from guarding the door. As long as he and Jazz are here, no one can easily access the other corridors, either to the garage or down into the nursing home residential area. He prays there was only one group and only at the courtyard.

More gunfire erupts outside, further away than the first round. The street maybe? He wonders how many intruders there are. He shot three, and he thinks Jazz got at least two. Without knowing how many Vatos were guarding the courtyard entrance, he wonders if he and Jazz are the only defenders left this side of the nursing home.

Felipe slips into view from the residential corridor. The big gun he holds confidently clashes with the pastel scrubs he's wearing. He meets Shane's eyes and fades back at his signal, edging behind a wall in case anyone does come from the direction of the garage.

Another rush of men into sight, three this time. Shane fires. He hears Jazz make a pained sound as the last one drops to the floor and looks over to see the boy looking pale, gun laid down on the couch arm and his free hand clasped around his bicep. Blood seeps around his fingers and Shane feels incandescent with rage that he's been wounded. Felipe notices and starts to venture out, but stops when Shane motions for him to cover them. He's closer to Jazz and already mostly exposed. Keeping an eye on the bodies near the corridor, he jerks open the red pouch on his vest one-handed and gropes for the pressure bandage he knows is behind the hard case of the small kit inside.

He has to holster his gun in order to cut away the torn sleeve to slide the bandage in place. It's in this moment that one of the men on the floor rolls and aims. He doesn't even realize Jazz has his gun again until the Glock fires at the same time Felipe also shoots. The bearded behemoth of a man on the floor doesn't move again.

There's movement in the corridor again, the sound of someone being punched or kicked, but then the throat radio activates.

"Just cleared our way back up from the courtyard. You got the rec room, Shane?" Scout asks.

It takes him a second try to find his voice. "Yeah. Me, Felipe, Jazz." Fuck what he has to say next. "Jazz' got a graze to the bicep."

She doesn't step into view yet and he has to wonder where she finds the strength for that type of professionalism, but remembers shooting the man who shot Rick before he ever dropped to try to stop the bleeding. "Hershel, garage still secure?"

"No intruders at all here," the veterinarian reports back.

"I'm sending Jamie and Rick back to you, Hershel. They'll guard that entrance. Bring the Vatos this way. Some of their guys are wounded. Gonna need you and Felipe both on that."

He can see her now as she's slipping into the rec room. Rick is between her and Jamie, carrying G with an arm slung over one shoulder. The man's other arm dangles useless, blood running from a shoulder wound. A wounded Vato Shane hasn't met brings up the rear. From the limp and blood on his thigh, he's been shot as well. They deposit G on one of the vacant couches, leaving him to Felipe's care. The nurse curses as he accepts the emergency kit off Scout's vest.

Jamie hasn't quite left the room when Scout calls out to him. "Call the camp. Tell them to load up for pull out and take full precautions for human intruders. We don't know how these assholes found the Vatos. They may know where we are too. Shoot any strangers approaching on sight, especially if they look like Hell's Angels wannabes."

The other Marine nods, following Rick out of the room at a jog. Scout reaches them, fingers reaching out to grip Jazz's unwounded arm and one of Shanes. She gives them both a squeeze. "You good for a few, little brother?" she asks softly.

He can tell Jazz is in pain, probably starting to tip into shock, but the teenager nods and allows himself to be gently directed toward the couch they are using to guard the music room. Shane calls out to the elderly inside. "Is everyone okay?"

"We are fine," a woman's voice calls back. "Mr. Gilbert needed his inhaler, but we got it to work."

"I need a bigger kit," Felipe calls out. Scout finally lets go of his arm after another squeeze, although Hershel's reached the room with his EMS kit now. He takes over G's treatment, pushing Felipe toward the half-conscious Vato slumped in a folding chair.

Scout makes sure her brother has his gun and turns to Shane. "Two more wounded Vatos back in the room by the courtyard. We'll need to cover those boys while they fetch them."

He nods as she directs the gang members who arrived with Hershel to follow. They accept her direction better than he would have expected, but then again, even those who live outside the law understand there are times where military training should lead.

The room off the courtyard is a mess of blood and gore. The Vatos who were on duty down here didn't go down easily. Shane counts at least four bodies inside the room that aren't Vatos. As the four young Hispanics lift their still moving compatriots and head back toward the rec room, Scout draws her knife out of her vest. He covers her with his Glock as she makes absolutely sure none of the invaders will rise to come at their back. The old, law-abiding part of him wonders if he should be disturbed she didn't check for life signs on any of them, but when he remembers Jazz's pale face and the blood on the boy's arm, he can't bring himself to care. The two Vatos down, she does check, and she's much more gentle with ensuring they don't rise either.

Shane double checks that the door is bolted shut. "All this noise is going to draw walkers," he says, unnecessarily, perhaps, but she nods. "We gonna take them all with us?"

"I don't see that we have any choice," she replies, looking to him for backup of the decision.

He nods, reaching out to draw her to him for a brief press of bodies. "We'll figure it out. Better to maybe lose one or more to harder life on the road than to leave them here waiting to see if these guys have any friends."

As they head back down the hall, she repeats the process with the knife on the men that he and Jazz shot, until she reaches one that lets out pained "please!" before she thrusts the knife in place. He's surprised when she stops the movement, until she fumbles for a pocket on her pants and drags out zip ties like the ones he used on Ed. She restrains the guy at wrists and ankles.

"Drag him into the rec room, will you?" she asks.

The guy actually looks hopeful until Shane reaches down with a vicious grin and grabs his restrained wrists to drag him. He gives out a pained scream as his arms rotate and drag against the wound in his belly. He leaves the asshole bleeding far enough from any of the others that he shouldn't be any trouble and takes up guarding the corridor, just in case.

Hershel has the bleeding stopped on G, and Shane's amazed that the man is still conscious. But he's aware enough to see the man on the floor and realize the intent. The man smiles as viciously as Shane did.

Felipe's finished with one patient and moved on to another. Scout is with Jazz, speaking softly as she checks Shane's hurried bandaging. She kisses the boy on the forehead before going to help Felipe and Hershel. Shane feels a little helpless, just standing guard, until he meets Jazz' eyes from where the boy sits, Glock still in hand. He smiles reassuringly at the boy, who smiles back with more spirit than he'd expect through the ordeal. They'll stand guard while the others triage.

Chapter Text

July 26-27, 2010

~*~CP~*~

Carol takes a deep breath from where she's curled against the window in the driver's seat of Daryl's old Ford. Her daughter is sleeping soundly, curled between her and Honey and using the older girl as a pillow. She thinks Honey might be asleep, although she wouldn't swear to it. She should sleep herself. Merle passed the orders to everyone to get rest except for the ones he assigned watch. Every other vehicle has someone atop it, gun at hand regardless of the noise level. Hidden behind the middle school off the highway they were planning to use to leave Atlanta in the morning, they're not in the circled up mode to protect from walkers.

Everyone's on high alert for human predators now.

It's funny how when the radio came to life, the ugly news breaking of the attack on the Vatos' compound, that they realized it happened on the one time both of the older Marines were out of camp, along with both former deputies. But no one argued when Merle took charge, smoothly ordering the evacuation of the quarry camp as if he always led their groups. Surprising Carol, no one questioned him taking leadership, not even Lori. The normally argumentative woman allowed herself and Carl to be bundled into Ed's old Cherokee with Glenn reassigned as her co-driver.

They've been here for three hours now, waiting on their wayward souls to return. Merle's walked the line of vehicles, passing news, everyone on radio silence but the Subaru, 'just in case'. She suspects it's as much in case to keep any bad news from alarming civilians as to keep quiet on the airways.

She startles a little when he taps her window gently. He gives her a bland smile as she rolls it down. "They're on their way. Don't normally drive at night, but Scout wants distance between us and Atlanta in case those assholes' group comes looking for them. But we may need you and the girls to help when they get here. They're bringing the old folks along."

"I thought it wasn't safe for them to travel," she replies, but already knowing she'll go play nurse's assistant if that's where she's needed.

"It's not, but we can't leave them sitting there as easy prey. They got a Greyhound bus from that depot. Loaded up everything they could and are destroying the compound behind them. When they pull in, they'll bring the bus right up beside you, because it's going to drop into the middle of the caravan. You and the girls shift onto the Greyhound and I want you to hang on to the walkie." He passes her one of the small portable units, which she wasn't issued when they left because Daryl's truck is fitted with a dash-mount radio. "I'll drive the truck for now, gonna drop back and help keep an eye on the rear."

Carol nods. It sounds straight forward. Switch vehicles and help. She's a little glad that she isn't going to be driving in the dark, because getting this far with the order to use only the unfamiliar blackout lights was nerve-wracking.

"They're about twenty minutes out, so go ahead and wake the girls. You got your gun?"

His eyes scan to the shoulder holster Honey all but buckled on her forcefully. She nods again, afraid she's not good enough with just a few lessons with an air pistol, but she'll figure it out. Unlike walkers, people feel pain, so as long as she at least hits her target, it'll have an effect. He starts to walk away to the next vehicle in line and turns back to her. "Be safe, Mouse." And then he's gone.

The nickname bothers her. If it were anyone else, she'd know for sure if they're teasing. She thinks it might even be affectionate, but getting a true read on Merle isn't like keeping a wary eye on Ed. She's just getting to know the man without the influence of drugs on his personality and he's not as easy to read as his brother.

Mouse implies she needs protection.

She doesn't want to be a mouse anymore.

~*~SW~*~

He's a little more than a mile away, driving the bus full of nursing home residents and wounded Vatos, when the WHUMP of the explosion Scout and Jamie stayed behind to create shakes the bus. He grips the wheel, keeping the big vehicle on track, following the delivery truck Rick is driving. They'd concentrated on the medical supplies mostly, but the rest of the truck is full of the other supplies. A pair of Vatos is driving another box truck loaded with supplies, and Robyn is driving the church van stuffed to the gills with one of the elderly men riding shotgun - literally. He'd firmly stated that being minus two legs from the knee down didn't mean his arms and eyes wouldn't work. They'd still not managed everything that was collected for the nursing home, even stuffing all the overheads on the bus. No one had wanted to go find another vehicle, and not all of the Vatos had come with them, including one of the wounded, who'd shook his head and left with the others who feel like the elderly are safe without them now.

Jazz wobbles a bit as he comes and sits on the bus steps. His arm is bandaged, stitched back together by Hershel's steady hand. Rick had offered for the boy to ride with him, but Jazz refused, so Miguel did instead. Shane's confident that either boy makes a good enough guard for a driver, sad as the idea of fourteen year old boys being enlisted in the duty is. They both watch the walkie at Shane's waist, waiting for official word that the two Marines got free and clear of the building they destroyed to hide the trail of the vulnerable residents.

Hershel and Felipe are on alert too, dividing their attention between the residents on the bus and the road behind them.

The walkie crackles at last, and Jazz makes a strange, almost hiccuping sound as he reaches for it as they hear Scout read out, "All clear. Meet the others and pull out."

"Want me to answer?" Jazz asks. He nods. Rick may be in the lead vehicle, but Shane's primary for this part of the caravan. Scout and Jamie aren't going to hurry to catch up, but linger a little, to check they aren't followed. But they're in one of the Vatos' muscle cars, so it'll be easy enough for them to catch up at the meeting point. No way a caravan as large as theirs can move as fast as the car, and it's built like a tank without any extra modifications.

"See you at dawn," the boy replies. He looks to Shane, uncertainty flickering in his eyes, so Shane reaches down to squeeze his shoulder.

"We'll see her, Jazz. Be lucky if she and Jamie don't beat us there somehow."

He takes the reassurance in the faith only kids can muster so easily, but shifts his position to lean against Shane's seat and wraps his arms around his bent legs, staring out the bus doors into the night.

~*~CP~*~

Carol and the girls exit the truck as soon as the squeal of the brakes engaging sounds. Two vehicles had pulled in ahead of the bus, and Rick bails out of a delivery truck to switch seats with Glenn. She gets a glimpse of an unknown woman behind the wheel of the church van, but ignores the prickle of curiosity in favor of making sure the girls load up quickly. Merle's standing guard over the switch as those on guard drop back into vehicles to start moving out.

Shane's in the driver seat and shuts the doors as soon as she's clear of them. Jazz sits on the floor next to him, long legs moved just far enough out of the way to let the girls and Carol by. She sees the bandaging on his arm and feels a flash of anger that halts her progress to following the girls to sit while Shane takes back off, falling smoothly in line of the caravan as if they'd always planned on this big bus coming along.

"What happened, Jazz?" she asks, kneeling next to the boy. He shrugs, looking pale despite his darker complexion, so she looks up at Shane.

The deputy's concentrating, but he answers her. "Assholes came to take the old folks' supplies. Thought they'd be easy pickings. He got grazed. Hershel put in about eight stitches, gave him antibiotics, but he won't take the painkillers."

"You'd be more comfortable in a seat?" She glances back. The girls are sitting separately, each taking an empty aisle seat next to a nursing home resident. There are plenty of places open.

"No." There's something in Jazz's voice that alarms Carol. Shane responds too, one hand leaving the gear shift to brush across the boy's hair for a moment before returning to the task of driving. The adults' eyes meet over Jazz's head and Shane gives a discrete shake of the head. Whatever this is, the boy seems to need contact with Shane for now.

"Do you need anything?" she asks Shane.

He declines, then reconsiders. "Bottle of juice. There's supplies in the overhead bins. Need the sugar. He probably could too."

She gets to her feet and one of the older ladies points toward the bin above her seat. She smiles at Carol as she opens the bin, tugging free a bottle of grape and a bottle of orange juice, unsure what flavor Jazz might like and fairly sure that Shane'll drink whatever she hands him. Her guide grabs her wrist before she can go back to the front. "You the chiquito's mama?"

Carol shakes her head. The old woman sighs. "He kept us safe, with the officer. But he had to shoot too."

Dear God in Heaven, it sounds like Jazz had to kill someone. No wonder the boy's sticking close to Shane. She thanks the woman, who smiles and says to call her Abuelita, before returning to the driver's area. Jazz takes the grape juice, fumbling with it for a minute before managing to take a drink, while Carol cracks the seal on the orange and takes off the lid before handing it to Shane.

He thanks her in a softer voice than she's really ever heard out of the deputy and she goes to find Hershel to find out more of what happened on what was supposed to be an easy visit.

~*~MD~*~

It's half an hour after sunrise before they reach the meeting place Merle directed Cricket to drive to the high school in Powder Springs. The highway was clear to 285, but they left it at Mableton, using the smaller roads to weave their way here. The few jams they came across, they cleared just enough to get the caravan through. Then Merle, Tyreese, and Tara blocked the road again. He wanted to leave as little evidence they came this way as possible. There are no signs of any pursuit, so far, but instincts honed from his time in the military remind Merle it is possible they could miss something.

Without regular headlights, they have to go slow. At least now everyone from the quarry understands the blackout lights they thought were overkill on the vehicles Scout brought to camp. He is just damned glad that they'd gotten the new vehicles modified and the three drivers behind the each of the unmodified vehicles are attentive. Although he doesn't figure even in the moonlight someone in caravan formation could miss the big ass Greyhound bus.

But now, everyone's exhausted, and the drivers all continued without relief, keeping their backup driver (if they have one) on reserve. Merle knows he is being a paranoid bastard, but Scout didn't come up with these procedures for shits and giggles, so he follows them. He lifts the handset on his radio after surveying the vehicles parked in a horseshoe formation in the empty track complex parking lot. He is actually a little surprised that there is no sign of gatherings, evacuation, or even military here. Perhaps they used one of the other school campuses.

Everyone's waiting on his assessment of their location, so he keys the mike. "We layover for four hours. Everything seems clear so far. Scout and Jamie will be here in about half an hour. Hit the head if you need to, get some grub, and drivers get some sleep. Jimmy, Andrea, and Ana on watch, pick an RV."

He swings out of the driver's seat and circles the loop of cars, taking note of his brother crossing to check on Cricket. That reasonably covered, he makes his way to the Greyhound to check on the younger kids.

Shane has the doors open by the time he gets there. The deputy looks as exhausted as he feels. He shakes Jazz awake where the boy's asleep leaning against his seat.

"C'mon, Jasper. Need to let Shane up and stretch his legs." Merle reaches out to brace Jazz as he tries to rise but gets caught up in stiff muscles from his uncomfortable sleeping position. He takes his son's weight and gets him down the bus steps, hearing Shane follow with a groan.

The deputy doesn't go far, just goes through a series of stretches as he takes in their surroundings with the ease of long experience. Rick approaches, a half empty water bottle in one hand and a cereal bar in the other. His stride shows the long hours in the car too.

"I'd say good morning, brother, but think we need to sleep first," Rick quips.

Shane laughs, tilting his head to where Jazz is pretty much asleep standing up against Merle. "Ain't that young anymore, right?"

"He sleep much at all on the bus?" Merle asks. Jazz being asleep when he got there didn't mean much, and as much as he'd desperately wanted to check on his boy back at that middle school, he wasn't risking extra time stopped when Jazz was in good hands between Shane, Carol, and Hershel.

"Not really. Not til the last hour or so. Honey said he was the same way after the attack where they lost the other Marine. Couldn't sleep and hyperaware."

"I'd see if he'd ride in one of the RVs and bunk down, but I don't think it'll help." Merle takes the bottle of water from Carol as she exits the bus. "How're the girls?"

"Honey's sleeping, has been for the last couple of hours. She said she was going to do a driving shift when we leave, let one of the night drivers get some extra sleep. Sophia's helping Hershel with meds. Everyone is holding up better than expected, but Felipe wanted me to check in on Robyn and Mr. Diaz."

Merle nods. "Tell them to both come back to the bus to sleep. Be more comfortable than that church van. We'll shift drivers around anyway."

She agrees before heading off with other water bottles in the crook of her arm.

"Little jarring to see Carol with a gun," Rick mutters.

"I'm just glad your missus listened when we loaded up. Thought she was gonna deny she had a piece, but told her she wasn't riding with just Glenn if she couldn't help protect them."

"How'd you know she knew how to use a gun, much less had one?"

"I've yet to meet a cop's wife that didn't at least know the basics. If she'd been the first, I'd have stuffed her and your boy in Dale's RV and damn the consequences of her temper."

It surprises him when Rick laughs. "Can't take any of the credit there. Her uncle was a cop too. Used to take her to the range as a teenager. Was kinda glad to see she grabbed more than photo albums when I climbed in the Cherokee last night and saw her holster."

"Thought Carl was gonna pass out when she cracked open that case." Merle thinks the woman would have shocked the kid less if she streaked through camp.

Shane just laughs, the sound hoarse. "Let me grab Jazz and see if he'll let me put him in one of the empty rows if I stick with him."

Merle considers the offer a moment before nodding and shaking Jazz back awake enough to switch props. He watches them disappear back onto the bus before turning back to Rick. "You need something?"

"Just worried about Jazz. Not sure I understand how you can let him out of your sight."

"Ever shoot a man in the line of duty?"

"Yeah, twice before the shootout that put me in the hospital and that attack on the nursing home."

"They live?"

"Yeah."

"What about your partner?"

"Once. His didn't make it. Plus the shootout. Never did ask him how that ended."

"Something tells me a man who put a bullet in his partner didn't leave the scene in anything other than a body bag. Before, though, I'm betting that reconciling what happened worked a helluva lot better talking to the partner who was there than anybody else, right?"

"Yeah, it did." Realization hits the deputy. "You think when the shock wears off, he's going to need to talk to Shane."

"Exactly. Even someone who's taken a life before doesn't understand the same way as the man in the fight beside you. Why it was necessary right then and there. And it won't hurt getting to be riding along with the visual evidence of the innocents he helped save, either."

"Makes sense."

"Might want to see if you can get some sleep. Figure your wife can drive to the next camp, but I doubt you'll want to sleep then instead of riding shotgun."

"A'right."

The younger man makes his way back to Dale's RV, where his family was taking time for breakfast and a bathroom break. Most everyone is outside now, even the kids for what he thinks is a run around inside the protected shelter of the vehicles. He huffs, remembering the "Drill Sergeant" moniker that Patricia bore with pride. He's got no idea what that woman did before the end of the world, but if it didn't involve a lot of bossing folks around, she sure bloomed into it now.

Feeling the need for sleep himself, he heads for Cricket and the med unit. Bunking on the floor there means he can at least stretch out. He'll trust that Scout and Jamie can get themselves safely here.

~*~SW~*~

Shane could really use about twelve hours more sleep, but despite the lack of evidence of pursuit, he understands Scout's insistence that they at least get in the day's drive. His busload of nursing home residents can't spend long on the road, so they're going to push a lot harder than planned.

At least Jazz is actually in a seat for the moment, although that's more because he hasn't woken up yet than an active choice.

He leans on the bus' exterior, finished eating the pair of protein bars Patricia passed him when she came to check that they would be able to feed the elderly while underway. He straightens just in time to accept an embrace from Scout. She still smells like gunpowder and, more faintly, of the chemicals the Marines used to blow up the nursing home.

He can feel her breath against his neck as she speaks. "You good?"

"Yeah. Got new appreciation for bus drivers," he says to try to lighten her mood.

"I'd figure you'd be used to sitting til your butt goes numb, deputy." He can feel the grin against his skin.

"Well, yeah," he drawls, "but the lack of doughnuts is just miserable."

She draws back and kisses him, something they really haven't done in front of an audience yet. He enjoys the moment before they part.

"Got all the drivers shuffled? Gonna be interesting with Beth and Honey hauling trailers."

"King County's rural enough you've probably seen more that a few farm kids at the wheel like that."

"Not much. Mostly because the insurance would probably have a stroke about a kid that age driving something with a load behind it. What about the boys? Thought you were worried about the teens and the trailers."

"Jimmy's gonna drive Daryl's bus since it doesn't have a trailer, but the others are all city kids and none drive stick."

"More lessons for later."

"List just keeps growing. Got through to Glynnis. She's gonna keep everyone on alert. With luck, we'll make it to Kennesaw by tonight and past Canton by tomorrow."

"Good plan." He claims another kiss before reluctantly parting.

~*~CP~*~

"Mama?"

Carol glances away from the road to where Sophia is sitting on top of one of the truck cabs, making notes in her composition notebook. She took the suggestion to keep track of potential supplies seriously. Her expression is serious as she compiles a record of everything in sight.

They are clearing the vehicles faster than she expected, everyone too aware of the ticking time on the nursing home residents needing off the bus. The military checkpoint is too valuable to route around or leave unpilfered. She suspects they're about to be short another spare driver or two since Jim and Merle have the big transport vehicle hooked up to what Carol thinks is a trailer-based generator. Several of the original Dixon camp are hauling various gear out of the other vehicles and stacking it by the rear of the big truck for Tyreese to load up. Jim's been going under the hood of each vehicle and dragging away batteries or other parts, but she's not sure if he's actively salvaging or just disabling the military vehicles.

"Do you think people would have been safer if they didn't try to evacuate?"

Carol flinches, remembering navigating around a scene of absolute carnage at the first location on campus they tried. They hoped to use one of the athletic parking lots for a camp for the evening and get off the road two hours early to recover from the night on the road. But the first one was an overrun evacuation point, where based on the grim expression of the team that did investigate, the military turned on the populace the same way Shane reported.

"I don't know, sweetie. It does seem like large groups as a whole suffered more than small ones. But most people wouldn't have had enough food or water to last very long."

"Like after hurricanes? Our social studies teacher told us last year that grocery stores only have a couple days of food if you compare it to the population around."

"Like that, yeah. So maybe it would be safer from the dead or even other people, but in the end, people would have to come outside where it was dangerous."

"Would you be angry if I said I want to learn to do supply runs?"

Carol looks away from where she is keeping watch, but sees only curiosity on her daughter's expression. "I would hope that you would wait another year, but if Scout is willing to train you, it's okay."

"Are you gonna?"

"Yeah, I think I am. That okay with you?"

"Bad things can happen just sitting at home. I'd rather we do stuff rather than wait for stuff to happen."

"You aren't afraid, after what happened to Jazz?"

"No." The girl huffs a sigh. "I mean, I am, but I would rather be like Jazz than the people he was protecting. They were in a safe place and bad people still came."

Sadly, it is the truth of their world now. She doesn't want to see Sophia looking like Jazz did last night, knowing the boy killed at least one person. But she won't ever condemn Sophia back to hiding in a closet, hoping violence will sweep past her again.

"Mama? Jazz is going to be okay, right?"

"Yes, baby. What happened is hard to work through even for adults, and you know he'll have people who know how it feels."

"That's why he's riding with Shane on the bus, right? Because Shane was there?" Sophia didn't want to leave Jazz behind on the bus when they left Powder Springs, but the logic that putting another fully qualified nurse on the bus was better made sense, so Carol switched back to driving Daryl's truck. Julie joined them, and the teenager was nice enough, but Carol could tell Sophia far preferred either Honey or Jazz along.

"And because Shane was a deputy. They get training for dealing with things like that."

"Good." Sophia reaches for the set of binoculars that the younger Marine brought by shortly after they stopped and he noticed Sophia's task. "Got a walker coming, Mama. From the east."

Carol signals Daryl, who's closest of the trained archers. He looks in the direction she points and nods when she just shows one finger. After a word to Jamie, he slips beyond the protective line of vehicles and trots out carefully into range. A single shot takes down the wobbly walker, but he stands alert for a few minutes before going out to retrieve his bolt. When he returns, he comes by the truck and reaches up to high five Sophia.

"Little Eagle Eyes up there," he says with a grin before returning to his place in the loading.

Honestly, Carol thinks if they could harness Sophia's current grin for electricity, they'd have power til the next century.

~*~SW~*~

Shane's honestly surprised that it takes until nightfall for Jazz to finally crash back out of the numb state he's been in all day. The teenager shadowed him everywhere, and the few times someone less experienced sought to interact with him, they were smoothly intercepted by another of the Dixons or one of the non-Dixons Shane noted for being more aware of the true state of their world now. He was getting pretty tired of Dale's 'concerned looks' by the time Jazz abruptly stood from the circle where they were eating a dinner heated over propane. Shane passes his bowl off to Scout, grabs his water bottle, and follows as Jazz steps just outside the protective ring and out of sight from the others behind one of the buses. The big female hound trots after him on near-silent feet.

Shane catches up just as the boy vomits everything he'd eaten, sobbing quietly. He drops his palm against Jazz's back and rubs gently between his shoulder blades. When Jazz straightens, Shane passes him the water bottle so he can rinse his mouth.

"I feel kinda stupid, being this upset. He was going to shoot you in the back," Jazz says. Liberty winds around his feet, comforting him even as she keeps watch on their surroundings.

It doesn't surprise him that Jazz likely wounded or killed more than that last man, but in the heat of the fight, it probably didn't register the way firing that last shot did. "I'd be more worried if you weren't upset. It's the first thing out of the shrink's mouth after an officer involved shooting, and I guess after a while, they know how the mind processes it. Grief, fear, anger... S'all normal to feel, sometimes all at the same damn time. Might not be the only time you lose a meal over it. Might have some nightmares. But you got all of us to rely on."

Jazz leans into him a bit, processing what he said. It's an odd feeling, because the teenager is a few inches taller and probably weighs as much or more than Shane himself, and he's no lightweight. But despite all his maturity - both natural and forced by the disaster of a world around him - he's a boy at heart. Shane's not really, truly used to being the one trusted for reassurance and comfort for a child. Time with Carl was almost always as the fun uncle, up until Rick got shot. Then again, this really isn't that much different from Carl's grief months ago.

So he does what he did then, and wraps an arm around Jazz, knowing it'll probably trigger the same response. Words aren't what Jazz really needs right now, just an outlet for emotions.

When he looks back toward the opening, he sees Merle leaned against the nose of the bus, turned slightly away. He's keeping watch, but trusting Shane is capable of soothing his son. It's a heady feeling.

Chapter Text

July 28, 2010

~*~MD~"~

They were so close to home now that Merle couldn't quite dismiss the anxiety of stopping here for the night on the northern outskirts of Canton. But he knew everyone was exhausted from the level of alertness needed to navigate, especially the slow and careful crawl through Canton. Routing around would have taken just as long, and with this being the nearest decent sized town, it needed to be assessed.

It wasn't a pretty picture. The evidence seen elsewhere that at some point the military had given up on defending the public is here too, although one of the two military camps appeared overrun instead of turning on the populace. It was probably why the second had as many uninfected bodies as infected.

So they stop for the evening about five, in the industrial park near the electrical supply distributor he used for his company. After the college campus at Kennesaw, no one wants to know just yet if school campuses here were hit similarly. The industrial complex was isolated and didn't have any businesses that would attract looters.

It didn't mean they aren't clearing the buildings next to the electrical warehouse. Merle is only half-surprised when Glenn is assigned to his team to clear the little church in one end of the strip of warehouses. The young man forgave him his stupidity under the influence, probably too easily, but he isn't arguing. He suspects the pretty farm girl is part of Glenn's enthusiasm for Merle's team. Karen making up the fourth works for him, because he's learned to sense potential for ruthlessness, and the former school teacher has it in spades.

The alert nature Glenn developed on solo runs into Atlanta serves them well. "There's someone here," he whispers, backing up from where he took point on the hallway of offices while Merle eyes the classroom hallway opposite.

"Someone?" Maggie asks. "Not a walker?"

"Well, it's possible a geek managed to bump into a door and shut it, but I'm about ninety percent sure I saw the knob turning to try to keep it from clicking shut. Haven't seen a geek turn door knobs yet, thank God."

"Which of you two ladies is the best shot?" Merle asks.

"Maggie is."

"Alright. Maggie, you slip just inside that open office door and cover me. Glenn, you and Karen stay just out here in the sanctuary and be ready to go for help. Radio it in quietly," he orders, knowing the throat radio range probably won't reach the camp.

He eases his bulk down the hall, old military and hunter habits serving him well. Glancing back, he sees Maggie's calm stance and takes a spot near the door that would keep him more on the other office side than the one he's approaching.

"We aren't here to hurt anyone, just clearing out the dead if there are any," he calls out. "We can help, if you need it." After a moment, he repeats it in Spanish. Area had its share of Hispanic agricultural laborers before.

"Man I saw was wearing military fatigues," the voice is female, young, and terrified. It makes Merle's heart ache, and Maggie looks similar.

"I don't like that you're afraid of the military, but our group's mostly civilian. We've just found that the uniform material is harder for bites and scratches to get through.". There's no reply, so Merle figures what the hell. Girl in this area is likely a local, and he's put four kids through the school system. "My name's Merle Dixon. We're just passing through on our way home. My kids went to school down here."

Just when the continued silence begins to worry him, he hears a muffled sob. "What're your kids' names? The two who play the same sport. The senior and freshman."

Dammit, she is young. "Honey and Jazz. They both play lacrosse in the spring."

The door opens so quickly that Merle barely identifies the teenager before she's clinging to him, sobbing in earnest now. He hugs her tightly, scanning the room behind her and seeing nothing but a mostly empty food pantry with the girl's rucksack and a makeshift weapon on the floor.

The others approach as he tries to sooth the girl. "This is Jenny. She's one of Honey's lacrosse teammates."

The reminder that Merle isn't alone makes Jenny quieten down, although she doesn't let him go. He smooths her hair with one hand, noticing it shows a decided lack of regular care and is inexpertly cut short from the long tresses he remembers.

"Are you all alone?" he asks at last, not sure he wants the answer.

"It's just me and Mom. We tried to go to Atlanta, like we were supposed to. But we got stuck in traffic and Tyler got worried and turned back. He got bit about a month ago."

"How about we get you back to our group and we can go find your mama?" he suggests.

"You'll take us with you?" The wavering uncertainty in her voice makes him wince.

"Of course we will. There's plenty of room at our place."

She nods against his chest before moving away to retrieve the rucksack. "Churches have food banks. Safer and easier for me than everywhere else," she explains, looking haunted. She grabs a metal wrapped bat too, but follows Merle easily as they exit the building. He doesn't comment when he feels her fingers tangle into his belt.

Their incoming return is noticed by the watch. He didn't radio it in, not once he identified the girl. Another team can finish clearing the church, which is likely free of walkers if the girl regularly ventured inside.

Jenny is gripping his belt hard enough to twist it as they enter the circle of vehicles. He can damn near smell the anxiety wafting off the girl.

"Carol!"

His call alerts the grey haired woman, who looks up from where she's repacking the food bags for the vehicles with Sophia's help. She spots the girl and trots over.

He keeps his touch gentle as he untangles Jenny's fingers. "This is Carol. She's family, and you're gonna stay with her while I take some people to get your mama. She's at your house, right?"

"Yeah. Tyler got it all blocked off real well before..." Her voice wavers and Carol is quick to reach out. Just as she did with Merle, Jenny responds to the care of an adult with a hug. He eases the rucksack off her and passes it to Sophia, along with the bat.

"Ladies, this is Jenny. She went to school with Jazz and Honey. I'm going to take my team out to her house in the Subaru."

"Wait! Are Honey and Jazz okay?" Jenny calls out as he starts toward Patricia, who is running general comms for the group today.

"Yeah. They're just both out on a clearing team. Should be back before I am."

She gives him a watery smile and lets Carol lead her away.

Glenn is patient enough to wait until they're in the Subaru, headed away from camp. "Why would she be out alone?" he asks.

Merle sighs, wondering if this is another thing that might have gone better if he'd stayed in his right mind. "Amanda's in a wheelchair. Got hit by a drunk driver three years ago. Her ole man bailed right after, so it was just her and the two kids. She's got a modified van, but she couldn't always get to away games. The other girls' parents all took turns giving Jenny rides til she got her license last spring since her brother was at college."

"How far away?" Karen asks. She's intent on the clear road around them. Any bad events in Canton at least didn't happen around here.

"Subdivision the other side of the freeway. About three miles."

"Tyler the brother?"

"Yeah. Think he was twenty. Fell in the gap between two of the girls enough I don't know much about him. Jenny's enough younger that she wasn't part of Honey's little gaggle of athletes."

"I'm just glad she was out for supplies today. We'd have missed her otherwise." Glenn shudders and Merle doesn't blame him. They've got plans to clear Canton of supplies, but not on the door-to-door level.

Maybe guardian angels still existed.

~*~CP~*~

All the teams were back in camp, reporting no dead in any of the buildings. With the exception of maybe the church, Carol supposes none of them really had a reason for employees to be there when things started shutting down, and according to what she's been able to get out of their little refugee, the church has always been empty.

She got the girl showered in one of the RVs, figuring they're close enough to their destination to spare water for a kid who hasn't seen reliable running water in months and didn't have a lake nearby either. Now Jenny's tucked in a protective nest of teenagers and children, too alert for sleep until her mother is confirmed rescued. Patricia passed word that all is well on that front, so she wanders out and climbs up on the RV where Jacqui's taken over watch on the RV with the radio from Patricia.

"No sign of them yet?" she asks, sitting cross-legged next to Jacqui's chair with a glance to the radio setup on the other side.

"Nah. But I figure we've got five or ten, based on what time it took between here and there the first time. Supposed to have a maroon modified Chevy mini-van coming."

"That kid's been through hell and back. I can't even imagine being where I had to send Sophia out on her own."

"No kidding. How's she doing?"

"In a bit of shock, I think. Feeling better after getting cleaned up and Lori trimming up her hair. I don't think she thought anyone was left alive. She says her brother tried to get the last of the military to evacuate them when they finally abandoned Canton, but they weren't willing to take on a girl and a disabled woman."

"I can't imagine. Can you picture if our Marines got ahold of those men?"

"Wouldn't be pretty. But maybe it's easier, since they have a goal in mind."

Jacqui huffs and shifts in her seat. "From what I heard from Tyreese, they've had about six end goals in mind."

"Yeah, I've seen some of the notebooks here and there, before we left the quarry."

Movement on the road to the east catches their eye. Jacqui checks with the binoculars, and then signals down into the camp that all's clear. Carol watches the vehicles approach before telling Jacqui goodbye to go see if any help is needed.

The Subaru backs into the usual spot near the caravan while the Chevy mini-van pulls alongside the opening. Carol's a little surprised that Merle's in the passenger seat and the unknown woman driving, but she waits since Merle's hopping out and opening the sliding door. She watches as Merle enters the van to lift the driver into his arms, leaving the wheelchair behind the steering wheel. It occurs to her then that the wheelchair battery is probably dead, but they had to load it to easily drive the van. She doesn't envy Merle and Glenn loading it up.

The woman loops her arms around Merle's neck as he turns to face Carol. "My daughter?" she asks.

Carol can't blame her for that being her first concern. She points toward the huddled group of kids, who are moving aside to free Jenny up. The girl meets them before Merle's more than a few feet away from the van. They hug as best they can, before the woman shoos the girl away gently back to the other kids. "This feels more like a dream than reality," she says, looking around.

"It'll get even better. How would you like a shower?" Carol asks.

"I'd say you're crazy, except I just smelled soap and shampoo on Jenny instead of baby wipes."

Laughing, Carol motions Merle toward the RV where she and Lilly already set up one of the shower chairs Felipe remembered to stuff in the Vatos supply truck. Merle deposits her gently on the tiny RV toilet, backing off to leave Carol to assist her.

"I don't want to be rude, but how much help do you need or want?" she asks softly. "Oh, and I'm Carol."

"Amanda." She looks at the shower stall with undisguised envy. "Honestly, tiny as this bathroom is, I could probably manage it all myself, but I don't want to tempt fate or that stool tipping." She motions to herself. "It's an incomplete lower thoracic injury. I can use braces or a walker for short distances, but it takes a lot out of me and I've got the balance of a toddler."

Carol ends up letting Amanda guide her through what she needs for the bath, which mainly seems to be the shift from the toilet seat to the stool, where she strips off her clothing fairly easily. Carol wishes she had Amanda's confidence in being nude in front of someone else, but she supposes a paraplegic doesn't have a lot of choice in that matter. There's a knock on the door to the RV.

"That'll be my medical supplies," Amanda says. "The girl, Maggie, I think it was, said she'd bring over everything that was in the bathroom."

It's not actually Maggie at the door, but Lilly, which relieves Carol a little to have the nurse on hand. She introduces the women as Lilly sits the box down on the little toilet. "I'll let you get your shower, then help you with the rest of things. You've got a MACE and a Mitrofanoff?"

Amanda takes the bottle of body wash and cloth before pulling the curtain, answering as she gets the shower turned on. "Both, yeah. Once we realized we weren't going to get anywhere, and no one was going to arrest my son for looting, he cleared out all the medical supply places he could get to. Got enough catheters to last me three lifetimes. Merle said he'd take a group back later to get the surplus."

At Carol's puzzled look, Lilly explains. "Spinal cord injuries usually mean difficulties with voluntary bowel and bladder control. Amanda's had two procedures done so that she can take care of both herself via stomas on the abdomen."

"One of the best things about living so close to Atlanta. Lots of great resources for paraplegics," Amanda adds. "And that my asshole ex-husband was willing to shell out alimony to be allowed to run far away. Geez, you ladies, this is damn near heaven. We weren't exactly lacking for water at the house, but we didn't want to rely on it to actually shower or full on bathe. No telling when the water tower was gonna run out with no electricity for the pumps to refill it."

Carol giggles a little. "Part of the group was staying at a quarry, so I got used to bathing outdoors the past few months. With so many people, we'll probably still be limited at first at the Dixon property though."

"How many people are we talking? I saw a lot of vehicles, but I honestly was so damned relieved to see Merle's scruffy face at my door that I didn't ask a lot of questions." The water cuts off, and Amanda pulls the curtain back to reach for the towel that Carol hands her. She begins to vigorously dry her short, dark hair.

"About eighty, plus close to twenty already there."

"Holy crap, seriously?"

"Yeah. We helped evacuate a nursing home that got abandoned by everyone except for two staff and a few relatives."

"I guess two more and one of us gimped up won't be as much of a burden as I worried about then. I mean, I've known Merle for two years now, since Jenny started high school, but this is small community level stuff."

Carol wants to ask more, to get information from a non-family member's point of view, but it seems a little overbearing to interrogate a woman sitting naked on a shower stool. Amanda's passing the towel back, and Carol steps forward to offer herself as a brace for the move to the toilet.

"I'll take care of the rest, although I'd appreciate it if one of you ladies would stay nearby to fetch me a strapping fellow once I've finished up and gotten dressed."

Lilly offers to stay, so Carol heads back outside. Merle's waiting and leaning against the RV, although he's got a manual wheelchair by the door now. "Didn't figure she'd want to hole up on the bus with the elderly just yet, and we won't be able to charge her better chair til we get to my place. She said her son got this one when he raided the medical warehouse."

"Were you able to get enough of her supplies for now?"

"Should be about a month's worth, and we'll need plenty for our mini nursing home eventually anyway. Patricia's already reorganizing a couple of her supply requests."

"She's very pretty," Carol observes. "And more confident than I'd be, in her place."

"Nah, don't sell yourself short, Mouse. She's had years to come to terms with how her life is now. I'm fairly sure you'd be the same way, with your little gal to look after."

Maybe. Carol likes to think she could be that strong, and it's likely Ed would have fled just as Amanda's ex-husband did. But there's that nickname again.

"Merle?"

"Yeah?" He turns and looks at her, gaze going serious as he realizes she's upset. "What's wrong?"

"Why do you call me Mouse? It's not very flattering."

He's quiet for a minute, and she thinks maybe he's offended, until he sighs. "Daryl could probably tell you some pretty story, one of those Native legends he likes so much. But I'm more practical. Mice are survivors, Carol. They hide and gather and raise up little mice. You gotta work for one to trust you. It's not meant to be an insult, but I can stop if it bothers you."

She thinks about what he said, the positive spin on the nickname and slowly shakes her head. "It's okay. I just don't want to be fearful and meek anymore."

"S'alright. That life's all gone for you. Maybe the world's gone batshit, but as long as we're around, you and Miss Phia are safe. That's a promise."

Carol's pretty certain that's the first promise from a man she can rely on in a very long time.

~*~SW~*~

"All good on the home front?" Shane asks as Scout edges into what is becoming her usual spot leaning against his legs.

"All quiet. Lenore took a group down to the RV place today and brought four more back. We're still brainstorming about a permanent solution for the nursing home residents. Right now, the best space is off property in the nursing home in town, but the fence there was only designed to keep residents from wandering off, not walkers coming in. They've checked and everyone was evacuated, but it's a small facility, only about twenty beds and none private."

"It's a good short term solution though. How long would it take to get a building up on the property?" Dale asks. The groups have merged now, although smaller groups splintered off after supper to enjoy a little down time before sleeping.

"Need three days at least for a foundation to cure enough to start putting framing up. Had a contract to put up a steel building when it got delayed for everyone getting sick. Building's big enough we could modify it for residential and house everyone in singles for safety's sake." Merle rubs at his chin, frowning as he thinks it through. "Could get the building up in five days with my old crew. Seven to ten with training new help. Interior won't be as complicated as true residential before... another week at least though."

"Faster if we make off with the portable classrooms from the elementary school," Honey suggests. "And isn't the daycare in town a portable? We could go with a cinder block foundation that way, and you already leveled out that space by Glynnis' cottage to build for Cricket."

"Portables would have plumbing already, but let's go find Henry and see what he thinks." The two wander off as if they weren't part of a larger conversation, leaving behind incredulous looks and a few grins from those more familiar with them.

"They get like that when there's a project to plan," Scout explains. "He spent years trying to convince her to go to college for engineering or architecture, but she's stuck to her guns on the construction management."

"Not enough involvement in the actual building process in those fields," Shane suggests. Scout nods.

"Do you think they'd welcome input from an architectural student? I just finished my first post-grad year." Amy looks pretty hopeful for someone who used to avoid Merle.

"I think you'd be more than welcome," Scout replies, but she stiffens as Andrea makes a sound of objection. Amy takes advantage of the stare down between the two older women to escape to the small cluster of people around one of the ever present notebooks. Morales and one of the women Shane is less familiar with have joined them.

Dale reaches out and grips Andrea's shoulder gently. "You've got to let her make her own choices. And it sounds like she's got an expertise we sorely need."

Shane makes his soothing gesture less overt, simply pressing Scout's shoulders with his knees. She responds by stroking the back of his knee with her thumb, going with the idea to let Dale handle it.

"It's hard to see her as an adult. I missed so much."

Scout actually makes a soft sound of agreement, drawing Andrea's attention back to her. The Marine shrugs. "Jazz was in kindergarten when I enlisted. Most of watching him grow up, I did over pictures in emails until Skype came along. Honey was older, but not enough to really count."

"That was the military though. I just kept working for one more promotion."

"About half of my time away was voluntary, for about the same reasons. All we can do now is be get to know the more grown-up versions."

"Besides, the more she's involved in constructing our little village, the less you have to worry about her wanting to contribute out on supply runs," Shane adds, remembering how Andrea definitely hadn't like the idea of Amy joining any Atlanta runs.

"How is that going to work?" Rick asks. He isn't the only curious one.

Hershel ends up answering instead of Scout, which Shane thinks she's probably grateful for. She's admitted to being glad she won't be in charge of the entire settlement once they arrive. He thought it might bother him, to cede the leadership that seemed so important before, but when he thinks of the day-to-day details and how much he hated desk work back at the station, he supposes he agrees with her there.

"We've been logging everyone's existing expertise, even the newcomers," the veterinarian explains. "Anyone who has a skill that's already useful, like T-Dog's CDL or Henry's plumbing and welding experience, will be asked to put that to use right away. Anyone who doesn't have any immediately needed skills will be asked to pick a team and learn. While we can technically house all the able bodied in RVs through the winter if we find enough solar panels to keep heat in them, most aren't really meant for long-term living. So we'll start with the most vulnerable and build cottages or bunkhouses. It's going to mean a lot of folks needing to learn construction skills. But we also need to gather all the supplies we possibly can, so supply teams will be swinging out on a pre-set pattern to clear out nearby towns."

"Priority supply run is on King County first though, even though it's a trip," Shane adds, gaining a relieved look from Rick. "You haven't been able to get through to your friend, and we know the hospital's mostly accessible."

"Plus we don't want to leave military supplies just lying around like you described are there," Scout adds. "We should be able to move down there and back within a week, since we aren't having to allow for young and vulnerable."

"After the attack on the Vatos, I have to agree with you there." Rick glances to Lori, who looks resigned rather than angry. "By we, that mean you're going?"

Scout laughs. "Yeah. Jamie's more valuable on the construction team than on a supply run, since he worked construction in the summers while he was in college, before the Marines. Figure we'll take you, me, Shane, and T-Dog, if he's willing. You think there's enough to merit another four-person team? Keeping in mind paired drivers."

Rick thinks it over and then nods. "Things could have changed in a week, but from what I saw, there's been no serious looting or anything of the sort. There's several business, including one that sold generators and other farm and marine equipment."

"There a U-Haul place in town?" Scout looks thoughtful when Rick nods. "Good backup plan if the military vehicles aren't viable. It's a bit of a mixed issue. Gathering up military issue vehicles can make us a target, but they're usually diesel, which will stockpile longer. U-Hauls are generally easier to drive, but we've got a limited number of months for gasoline to last, even with additives. It's why we want to push hard for supply stockpiles now, while gas is still useful. Might be able to figure out some larger-scale bio-diesel eventually, but it's not a priority other than needing to make sure we keep vehicles capable of using it around. Dad said the neighbor next door converted and set up a system to fuel his farm equipment, but I doubt he produced enough to rely on for trips out into the state."

"How long will gas last?" Dale asks. "I must admit it isn't something I really thought about. I suppose I just figured things weren't as bad on a wider scale as it seemed or wanted to think that, anyway."

"For gas in vehicles and storage tanks, we're probably looking at six months, so we're a third of the way into that. When we siphon, we always pump it into a glass jar first, to check the color and odor. If it's not cloudy, dark, or smelly, we pump it and dump in additives. It's why you should never pump unknown gas into a container with existing gas. Granted, no one here's really got to worry about paying the repair bill if we run questionable gas, but I'm sure the mechanics would prefer not to be making repairs they don't have to, and no one wants to get stranded. The biggest problem we're going to start running into is that ethanol blended gas really only lasts about three months. So after that, it'll start drawing in water from the environment. We'll still collect it, but it won't go in anything that goes out on a supply run."

"And diesel?"

"Used to, it'd last for years." Hershel looks grumpy as he relates this. "Nowadays, the new blends in vehicles and fueling stations are as bad as gasoline and need additives to last. We keep an eye out for marine and off-road diesel storage, because that hasn't converted to the new type yet."

"Lots of lakes up here," Shane comments. "Might want to prioritize hitting up their gas storage."

"The logistics of this are a bit mind boggling." Dale looks a little overwhelmed.

"That's why we've been having multiple people on the planning," Hershel says. "So no one person is overwhelmed."

"Makes sense." Rick looks thoughtful and actually smiles sheepishly. "And some of us have skills that probably better serve outside the planning group."

Shane laughs. "You're just remembering how much you hate paperwork, brother, just like I did."

"Can't say I'd rather face the dead than report deadlines, but it definitely ranks pretty far up there on issues I like to avoid."

That invokes laughter from the rest of the group, and Shane notes how his people from the quarry are less tense around the Dixon group now. The separation is starting to blur as the two groups blend together and learn to rely on each other.

~*~CP~*~

Arriving in Conns Creek the next morning didn't take long. The freeway is almost completely clear between Canton and the small town's exit, although the southbound side has its share of abandoned vehicles like all routes leading to Atlanta. She wonders if they kept going further north, if they'd see similar patterns around Chattanooga. She helps with the temporary setup of the nursing home, working with the medical staff to offload everyone and enough supplies, while Scout and Jamie take teams to bring abandoned vehicles to reinforce the building's fence.

"You look tired, Mama," Sophia says, passing her a bottle of Gatorade. "Cricket said to make sure everyone that was offloading stuff drank at least a bottle. It's hot already."

Carol can agree there. She's sticky with sweat in places she's gotten used to after months of living outdoors, but it doesn't mean it's comfortable. "Are you excited to almost be there?" she asks her daughter.

Sophia grins. "Yeah. I always wanted to live on a farm, and even though they say theirs really wasn't a farm, not like Hershel's, they still have animals and all. Did you know that Jazz was raising sheep for his 4-H project this year?"

"I did hear something about that." It had actually been that Merle's property ended up with a herd of sheep because each kid chose sheep as their focus at least one year of their 4-H years, and eventually one sheep turned into two and so forth. Merle found them to be tidy little lawnmowers.

"Alright, everyone, listen up." Scout has climbed onto the top of one of the RVs to get everyone's attention. "We've done all we can and the longer we're here, the more likely we attract attention they don't need. Sasha, Allen, and Sam are going to stay to help out since they've still got wounded. So we're going to get underway, since the faster we get home, the sooner we can get those portables set up on property and get these folks behind good walls."

The words act as a catalyst for everyone to load back up. Carol knows she can't wait for the safety of walls around her and eventually, once priority goes to those in more need, maybe an actual bed to call her own. She can't imagine how it feels for those who've been on the move for months in full knowledge of the dangers they're travelling among. The quarry group at least pretended the world wasn't dead around them. And for the Dixons, it was home, with people they knew and cared for waiting on them.

Falling into her place in the caravan is becoming easy habit, although this time she's got Jazz along for the ride with Sophia. The boy's slowly easing away from his need to stay near Shane, although Merle warned Carol he could have flashbacks or panic attacks unexpectedly when Jazz asked to ride with them.

They're headed about thirteen miles out of town, and thanks to the group already on the property, they know it's clear at least. Carol half listens to the chatter as Jazz tells Sophia about the area, although he looks more sad than excited as he watches out his window. She figures it is bittersweet for the teenager. They may be home, but this is no longer the safe world he grew up in, and so many of the people that populated the places he remembers are gone. The road they're travelling on is officially a state highway, but it shows the same careworn tar and gravel that most county roads use, just with better shoulders.

She's watching the odometer closely, even though she knows it'll be hard to miss the line of vehicles in front of her start turning off, so she's ready when the slowdown begins.

"We'll turn off onto three different county roads before we get to ours. Two paved and one gravel," Jazz explains. "Ours is gravel and a private road. Dad and Mister Eldridge just kept it graded himself and added new gravel as needed."

"Just the two properties on that road then?" Carol asks.

"Yeah. We have the sixty-three acres against the river bend. Mister Eldridge has the forty acres we'll drive through to get to ours. The road kinda goes through the middle of his property, twenty acres on either side."

They've reached the first turn Jazz mentioned already, and Carol notices that unlike the first road, which seemed like a narrow version of the state highway, the paving here is a little more elderly and patched. She figures all these roads means it's harder to find the property by accident at least. The houses on the first road and here are spaced out, country lots with sprawling yards that Carol figures are a couple of acres instead of the tidy postage stamp size lots like where she and Sophia lived with Ed. Everything's deserted, yards overgrown as only a Georgia summer can do to runaway grass. It's sad in a way that the deserted houses in the towns they passed through wasn't.

By the third turn, they're two miles off the highway. There are no visible houses on this road, which is such narrow gravel stretch that Carol thinks it'd be a pinch to try to get two of the larger vehicles side by side without someone hitting a ditch. The only evidence that anyone lived on it at all is the occasional mailbox near a driveway that disappears into the treeline.

When they make it to the road Jazz says is officially their road, it's gated, although Maggie's standing near the open gate with the easy posture of a girl long used to farm gates. She waves as they pass, and Carol figures the final vehicle will pick her up after she shuts the gate. This road is as narrow as the other, but in better condition. With Merle working construction, she supposes they were better off than waiting on a county maintenance schedule.

"They've let everything grow up a lot," Jazz comments, looking around. "Normally we keep the trees and bushes and grass back from the road."

"I guess it helps it look deserted," Carol replies. "Although the road might be a giveaway if they keep it fixed up."

"Yeah. We're about to lose the trees for a bit anyway."

He barely finishes speaking when they leave the treeline. Open farmland is visible now, rows of greenery and vegetables in neat rows, broken up by the occasional line of boundary trees. In the distance to the right side of the road, Carol can see a big farmhouse, barn, and various outbuildings. The Eldridge farm, she assumes. Jazz lets out a little sigh of relief. Seeing the neighbor's farm intact probably is reassuring to the boy.

The road returns to being heavily wooded, and there are no more turns, because the gravel road passes through a set of massive stone pillars, with the wrought iron gates thrown open. Carol doesn't recognize either of the people watching them go by, so she figures they must be the locals. Jazz waves to the young man with flaming red hair, who flashes a thumbs up.

"That's Gage. He's Mister Eldridge's grandson, but he lived next door with his aunt and grandfather."

"What happened to his parents?" Sophia asks.

"Dunno about his mom. She lives out of state somewhere now. But his dad died in a car accident when he was like eleven, so he came to live here."

They leave the wooded area to another open area. It isn't cleared completely the way the Eldridge Farm is, with more trees. Jazz points toward a small ranch-style house and cottage that nestle together off a small driveway. "That's Tihu's house. Or was, before he got transferred. And then Glynnis' house next to it."

"And yours?" Sophia asks.

The road turned driveway makes a curve around a treeline that had blocked her view to the left and Carol can't imagine a prettier scenario. The big, sprawling house has the popular log-cabin look that is completely at odds with the sheer size of it. It looks like something out of the fancy real estate magazines at the doctor's office. She can't tell exactly as she pulls to the garage parking pad like Merle instructed when they left town, but she thinks it's either an L or a T shape, with a porch running the length of the house on the garage side. Jazz shifts anxiously at the sight of a woman on the porch, so she shoos him to go greet the elderly lady, giving she and Sophia a chance to adjust.

"This is a really big house, Mama," Sophia says softly, looking up at the two-story structure. "And did you see the barns out past it? So pretty."

Carol shakes her head. The size of the house caught her attention to completely to keep looking beyond it. Before she can begin the old pattern of worrying, she reminds herself that this is a new beginning for almost everyone. A tap on the passenger glass further distracts her, because Honey snags the door open and grins.

"C'mon, Sophia, you need to meet Grandma Glynnis. You too, Carol." Somewhere in the last few days, the "Miz" title the two younger Dixons tend to use with any of the women over thirty dropped off Carol's name and she isn't entirely sure why.

Others are out of their vehicles, parked here and there in a way that seems a bit random to Carol but makes sense to Patricia, so there's some pattern to it. Expressions vary from relief to admiring to disbelief, although the last is mostly from members of her old quarry camp. She lets herself be drawn up onto the porch to meet the white-haired woman who wears coveralls with the grace of a model.

"This is Sophia and Carol. We're keeping them, Ladies, this is Grandma Glynnis."

Glynnis laughs and offers a hand to Carol. "Hannah, I'm pretty sure we're keeping all of them, not just these two ladies."

Honey rolls her eyes. "Not like that. These two are family. We're keeping them."

The woman's brown eyes are assessing as she sweeps them over Carol and Sophia. "I see. Well then, I suppose that'll make sleeping arrangements a bit easier."

Before Carol can ask what that means, Daryl thuds up onto the porch and sweeps the woman into his arms for a hug so enthusiastic that he's got her lifted a foot off the ground. Since she returns it with equal enthusiasm, Carol decides to live in the moment and smile at the joy of two reunited family members. She knows it's bittersweet for both of them, as there's still no word of Abby's arrival.

But for now, the vast majority of the Dixon clan is home... and they've brought everyone to safety with them.

Chapter Text

July 28, 2010

~*~ MD ~*~

After all the greetings between his family and those that held down the fort here are past, Merle whistles loudly, drawing everyone close. "I know everyone's worn out and probably aching for a shower and time out of a vehicle, but I'm going to need to impose on a few of you to load up and go with me to start pulling those portables. We'll get quarters assigned to everyone first though, so those who aren't immediately needed can queue up and shower so they'll all be free when the moving crews get back."

That holds everyone's interest, so he takes the notebook Hershel hands him. He scaled out the living quarters plan before, although finding Amanda and Jenny changed it a bit. Amanda wasn't sure how comfortable Jenny would be sleeping separate from her, but she told him they'd try it out. They'd get the girl an air mattress for her mother's room if need be.

"Folks already here are going to stay where they are, between the two smaller houses and the two RVs already parked over there. Gonna add Amanda to Glynnis' spare room, since her place is better set up for a wheelchair than the others. Jenny, you're gonna bunk in the other house with the girls. You know Amalia and Leo and their kids already."

The girl glanced to Leo's oldest son and his nephew and nodded. No objections there.

"Gonna assign the RVs to family groups for the most part. Dale, you and the two ladies in yours, of course. Donna, your family can stick with the RV you've been using, and Tyreese's family will take the other. On the rest of the RVs, Morales, Grimes, Henry, Ryan, y'all each take your pick for your families. That leaves a few for couples. Sam and Ana, Jim and Jacqui. Zach, you're welcome to bunk with Jazz in the main house or take a spare bed in one of the RVs."

He consults the list again. "Glenn, there's an office in the big barn there. Got a set of decent bunks for needing to stay close to the animals at night and its own bathroom. If you and T-Dog don't mind being that close to the critters, that's all yours."

T-Dog laughs. "A real mattress and a bathroom with working plumbing has me sold. I'd just about share a stall with one of the horses at this point."

"Well, luckily we're better off than that," Merle says, giving the other man a smile. He had been uncertain that the two men might feel offended about the barn room. "Alrighty, for the main house, luckily my two youngest liked having sleepovers, so they can house a few. Honey, you're going to room with Sophia, Beth, Isabelle, and Andy. If he can't settle with one of you girls, we'll reassess. Jimmy, you're in with Jazz, and Danny, you get a choice between bunking with them or sharing with Jamie, but I'll warn you that his room doesn't have bunks."

The youngest Marine eyes Jamie with pretend wariness. "You don't sleep cuddle, do you, Jamie?" The other man just shrugs and winks. Merle will let them figure that out.

"Hershel, you'll get the guest room. It's the first one on the right up the stairs. That'll put you next door to Beth." The veterinarian is already aware and in agreement to the arrangement, although he offered to take an RV instead and let one of the couples have the guest room. Merle had reminded him they'd all prefer the couples to have a bit more privacy. "Cricket, you and Tara take your place with Meghan and Lilly. Shane, I'm pretty sure Scout remembers the way to her little cabin, even if it's been over a year since she slept there last. Carol, Patricia, and Maggie, you ladies are taking the master bedroom. That'll put one of you on the couch in there, but I can attest it's comfortable enough for someone my size, so it should do well for y'all."

Carol frowns. "We shouldn't put you out of your own room, Merle."

He waves her off. "I got an office with a good futon that I'm fine with until we get some better places settled for everyone."

"You forgot someone." Daryl is giving him an exasperated look, so he chuckles.

"Grab one of the good camping cots and stick it in the office. I already know you sleep cuddle." True enough, although the futon really wouldn't sleep two grown men comfortably. He knows Daryl will want to keep a close eye on him though, so what sounds like the short end of the stick for his brother is better than what he'll end up doing if Merle doesn't give in. He prefers not to trip over his brother in a sleeping bag on his floor.

"We good to use the RV bathrooms?" Dale asks. "My water tank is full, and we used that dumping station at the quarry camp, so I'm good for a little while."

"Plenty of water. When your tanks run low, pull over to the big barn and use the tap on the well shed next to it. Hopefully by the time anyone's ready to dump, we'll have something sorted out that doesn't involve filling the on-site septic tanks. Gonna take a bit more ingenuity there. If you need more water pressure than the RVs manage, there's three and a half bathrooms in the main house, two upstairs, the master, and a mudroom bath by the laundry room off the kitchen. If you sweet talk Cricket, her garage apartment has a shower too."

Glynnis steps forward. "After you stash your belongings and manage a shower, come see me in the kitchen in the main house. We'll get organized on what to do this afternoon with the supplies we brought and start figuring out what folks want to do in the long run."

Folks are looking anxious about the idea of those showers, so Merle puts them out of the misery of waiting. "For the team going out, I need T-Dog, Tyreese, all the cops and Marines. 'Cept Daryl. Need you to stay and get the backhoe out and prep a spot for a septic tank for the retirement home we're cobbling together. Go toss your stuff where you're gonna sleep and meet me over by the green barn. Take gear like a supply run, but it's probably going to be too hot to wear it." They call it a barn, because that's what it could be used for, but in reality, it's where Merle stores all the equipment for the property. He's going to want his work truck and the gooseneck trailer for this trip, rather than waiting to unload anything that came with them.

They're lucky that a guy out near 575 ran a house moving business, so they don't have to go far. Glynnis verified when they checked in this morning before leaving Canton that they cleared his property and his two semis and all equipment were there. No sign of him or his family, but Merle doesn't figure the man'll begrudge the borrowing of his equipment for the purpose they intend, if he did survive by some miracle.

Everyone scatters and he heads for the green barn, keying the smaller entry door open and being glad everything's off-grid here. It would have been a bitch to try to break into this particular barn if the electronic locks and automatic garage doors wouldn't work. He knows Daryl will shift his things out of the truck for him, so he might as well get everything else ready to go.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol grabs her duffle and passes Sophia hers, smiling at Daryl from where he's reaching for his and Merle's. She's still wary of the idea that she's literally taking Merle's bedroom away, but since Maggie and Patricia seem fine with the idea, she supposes she shouldn't upset the status quo.

"C'mon, ladies. We'll drop Sophia with the girls so Honey can go show off her domain, and I'll show you where to put your stuff." Daryl shoulders the two big duffles with ease, tipping his head toward the house. They follow, with Sophia splitting off near the front steps to join Honey where they're still waiting on Beth and Andy.

The foyer of the house definitely exceeds Carol's expectations from the outside already being so large and pretty. The area has soft blue painted walls and a shiny wood floor, with a nearly overloaded wall-mounted coat rack to one side sporting a variety of light jackets and a couple of backpacks that have seen hard wear. Boots and sneakers are stacked mostly neatly in a shelf below the coat rack. But it's beyond the foyer that's truly impressive. While the foyer's ceiling is normal height, the living room opens up into the upper story, with a gorgeous fireplace to the right and a kitchen/dining area to the left. The big room is cool, not A/C level cold, but cooler than the already stiffling morning heat outside by at least ten or fifteen degrees, and she can hear the gentle whir of some sort of fan in addition to the ceiling fans she can see running. An intricate wrought iron spiral staircase accesses an open 'hallway' that connects two areas upstairs.

The furniture looks comfortable and well-used, with a variety of mismatched throw pillows and small blankets tossed pell mell around the big sectional and separate recliner. It feels almost foreign to see the big flat screen television and all its various equipment settled between floor to ceiling windows that give an amazing view of the sparsely wooded land beyond the house. She thinks she can see some of the sheep she's heard about in the distance near a pond.

Before she can satisfy her curiousity about the kitchen, she startles when Daryl touches her elbow. She almost forgot he is guiding her, and those duffles he's carrying have to be heavy. "Sorry."

He shrugs it off. "No worries. You can poke around wherever you like once we drop off the stuff, if you want to let one of the others bathe first."

He leads her off to the right, to a hallway past the fireplace and away from the part of the house she knew the garage connected to. There's a door along the space, but he passes it in favor of another further down, where the hallway ends. It opens into a master suite of the type she's only seen in magazines or on TV. There's an alcove with the couch Merle mentioned facing a small flat-screen TV. Behind the alcove is a door that goes into a room that is back toward the living room, probably on the back side of the big fireplace. The king size bed dominates the room, with a fireplace beyond that she thinks is one of those double sided ones. There's a door on either side of the fireplace.

Daryl points toward the two doors by the fireplace. "The one toward the back side of the house is the bathroom. Other is the closet. Just drop your bag on the chest at the end of the bed if you want, for now. Merle might ask you to shift some of his things into boxes so you ladies can use the dresser though."

He's heading for the other door as he speaks, opening it and stepping far enough in to drop both duffles on the futon she can see to one side of the room. That must be the office then, and it's the room with the other hallway door. So at least they aren't evicting Merle very far from his usual space. The bedroom both does and doesn't fit her image of Merle. It's masculine, with every indication that no woman took part in decorating it, but more tasteful than she really expects from a single dad. Then again, she figures nothing about this house will fit with any notions anyone from the quarry formed about Merle.

"I'm gonna head back out and go see if the backhoe decided to be cranky after not being used a few months. You good if I leave you? If you need to find Sophia, just take the spiral stairs up and go toward the right. It'll be the third door, since the bathroom's between the guest room and Honey's room. End of that hallway, you can access Cricket's little apartment over the garage if you need too, and there's a set of stairs that go down to the garage level and up to the attic between Honey's room and Cricket's place. Other side of the spiral stairs is Jazz and Jamie's rooms, separated by a bathroom same way as the other side. So they're more or less right above us. Oh, and hot water for this bathroom has its own tank tied into the heat pump system for the house, eighty gallons, so you three ladies should be able to all shower before it needs a break."

She nods, absorbing the information and knowing she'll probably need to explore to really get it all memorized. He starts for the door and stops. "Almost forgot one little trick."

He surprises her by guiding her with a gentle hand at her back toward the door he said was the closet. He opens the door, revealing a nice-sized walk-in closet that would make most women envious, but it isn't the clothes or built in drawers he shows her. It's a set of stairs leading down at the back of the closet. "Basement access. There's another in the laundry room. When Patricia gets here, take her down and y'all explore." He flashes her that little crooked half-smile of his, and she wonders what surprise lies in wait below her feet that he's sweetly amused by her potential reaction.

Daryl really does leave this time, and since standing in the closet really does make her feel weird, she makes it back out into the bedroom just in time for Maggie and Patricia to pass Daryl in the hallway. Both women stop just inside the door, and Maggie gives a low whistle.

"I don't know what I did for Merle to hand me these digs, but I'm really glad that man likes me," she comments. She puts her bag on the big chest at the end of the bed too. "Mind if we share the bed? Patricia kicks like a mule, so I already told her she's getting the couch if you didn't mind sharing."

"I'm not that bad," the older woman protests.

Maggie puts her hands on her hips. "Otis outweighed you by fifty pounds and you managed to kick him out of bed more than once."

The blonde gives in and laughs, although her expression turns mournful as she walks over to plop her bag down by the couch. Carol figures Otis must have died, since Patricia still wears a wedding set.

"How far did you explore?" she asks Carol. "Because I'm dying to see what kind of bathroom there is, if the bedroom's this nice."

"I haven't made it to the bathroom yet. The office is through there and the closet's over there," she points to the open doors.

"So let's open magic door number three," Maggie says, crossing to open the door and disappearing with a muttered "Holy shit, this is nice. How the hell did this man stay single?"

That spurs even Carol's curiousity, so she and Patricia join Maggie. The bathroom takes up two thirds of the width of this part of the house. There's a pocket door that leads to the closet next to a gorgeous shower and little alcove that must contain the toilet. A large bathtub is freestanding near the fireplace, with a view through the literal wall of windows that look out over the back of the property like the living room ones do. She thinks she remembers similar in the bedroom, but those had blinds obscuring the view so they didn't draw her attention like this one. She'd missed the deck out back while in the living room, or else it was only down on the master suite end of the house. She doesn't think she's ever seen a bathroom with French doors leading out to a deck, but she's in love with this one. The only part of the back wall that isn't a window is a mirror over the vanity middle of a pair of sinks. There's no chair under the vanity like there might be if a woman used it for makeup, but instead a wicker hamper for laundry.

"Forget the bedroom, ladies, I think I'm going to bed down right here in the tub," Maggie exclaims. She's bolder than the other two women, moving to look over the personal items set around the sink closest to the door. "Wonder which of the colognes he actually wears and how many are daughter gifts." She sniffs one of the bottles and hums happily. "Daddy begged us not to buy anything but Old Spice for him, because it would be a waste, but Merle's got four different ones here."

"Guess you'll have to just sniff him after he's had a good scrub," Patricia suggests. "And hope it doesn't cause your father to have a stroke in the process."

Maggie giggles as she replaces another bottle she's opened to sniff. "Might give Merle a stroke too. I got the idea off his girls that he definitely doesn't rob any cradles."

"Well, then, if you want to chase any Dixons, you'll have to see if you can catch Daryl then, since girls aren't your cup of tea," Patricia advises. She's opening the cabinet behind the bathtub and looking at the towels. "So rock, paper, scissors for the first shower?"

"I've got no problem taking a bath while one of you showers," Maggie says.

"You go first, Patricia," Carol offers. "Daryl told me to have a look around, and I kind of want to see where Sophia will be."

"Makes sense. I'll try to make it reasonably quick, since I'm not sure what kind of hot water we're dealing with."

"Daryl says this bathroom has its own hot water heater with an eighty gallon tank."

"Guess Merle didn't like to share with a houseful of teenagers. Oh man, I'm going to enjoy this," Patricia says, setting out towels and washcloths. "Maggie, go get our toiletry bags and changes of clothes."

Carol leaves them to their happy chatter. It's clear the two women have known each other for years, although she isn't entirely sure if they're related or not. She closes the door to the office just because it feels better to have that part of Merle's space away from curious eyes. After the impressive bathroom, she looks around the room a little closer, noting it does have the big windows on either side of a set of French doors that look almost like windows themselves until you see the handles. She crosses over to inspect the blinds, realizing they're build into the glass, not hung against it. It takes her a minute to find the controls and she manages to open all the blinds and let sunlight in the room.

She can see from here that the deck does extend the length of the back of the house, the wood stained to match the deep color of the log exterior. The end down by the bathroom has a pergola overhang, with a porch swing hung, but outside the bedroom it's open air, with a set of pretty wrought iron patio furniture minus its cushions. Those are probably in the little storage chest she can see next to the outer rail. The house is so beautiful it almost makes her forget the ugly world outside the property boundaries.

Deciding to go find her daughter like she told the other women, she turns away from the view reluctantly. There'll be time to explore the outside later.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane wipes his forehead with the tail of his shirt before taking a drink of the water one of the kids brought over. His part is on hold for the moment, since they brought the two halves of one of the modular classrooms back. He'd helped detach everything that needed detaching - gutters, duct work, and so on - and driven Merle's big Dodge dually back with the small construction crane on the gooseneck trailer. Merle and T-Dog drove the semi trucks with the actual building, with Scout driving ahead in the flatbed truck to open gates. They'd squeezed through both gates on prayer and luck, but he figures that's by design. You didn't build a place like Merle's house without some big equipment having to come in. He wonders how long it'll take the old quarry camp members to put two and two together on all the equipment Merle wants brought back from his business just north of town that Merle owns it instead of salvaging it like the two semis and the setup underneath each building half that forms the 'trailer'.

Now he and the others from the building run are watching as Merle, Jamie, Daryl, and Tyreese use a weird little piece of equipment Merle called a Platypus to push the half on the Platypus into the other half where he backed the two semis together so close Shane thought they were certain to collide. Merle took them by to load up the crane before they got to the school and realized the buildings still had metal frames, so he could treat them like a doublewide mobile home instead of a full modular. Apparently, the other type would need a foundation set and a crane to lift them in place, but you couldn't use the crane to put stacked cinder blocks under safely since they weren't as stable. But they'll need the crane tomorrow anyway because Merle's sending a team after a septic tank.

"That'll never cease to be cool to watch," she says. "Much faster than the days of bottle jacks and a come-along to pull the two sides together."

"You go on the job site with your dad a lot?" Shane asks. The rest of the process seems to involve a lot of crawling under the building where the two parts meet now, along with the requisite cursing from the men as they manhandle things into place.

"Not as much as the younger ones did, but he was really just getting the custom home business started when I graduated. So I did get to see more of the odd job work like this one, more when he was part of another company's crew."

"That why you've got your own little place instead of in the main house?" Tara's question is one that Shane is curious about too, but figured against asking since he liked the privacy of the cabin being off away from the rest of the residences.

"Yeah. He actually finished the house near the end of Cricket's sophomore year of college, which is why she's got the garage apartment instead of just a room. I figured I wasn't going to be here much, but the cabin was a good project when I was home to work on with Daddy."

Rick glances back over his shoulder at the big house and nods. "I haven't even seen the inside and I'm impressed."

"It was a project with an architect out of Atlanta. She wanted to experiment to show that green technology would work well even in higher end homes for a doctoral thesis. She got her thesis and he got a lot of crazy clients and a shit ton of profit for his company. Any of you other than Danny and Tara go inside?"

They all shake their heads and Tara shrugs. "I didn't go into the main house, although Cricket showed me the door into the upstairs hallway."

"Well, it'll be an interesting tour then, since we'll likely use that kitchen for preparing meals unless people just want to cook for themselves."

"Yeah, I'll pass, thank you," Tara says with a smirk. "I'm spoiled to the delights of Patricia's kitchen witchcraft now. I've seen what she can do outdoors. Give that woman a kitchen and I think we'll all be in food heaven."

"Then you're really going to enjoy supper tonight, when you get to taste what happens when I have fresh veggies to work with." Shane turns to see Patricia and Glynnis have approached to look over the work site. "That's going faster than I really expected. I know he was worried he'd still have to set a foundation even with the modulars. Scout's right, though. Until building us a canteen with a kitchen fit for feeding everyone can be arranged, that kitchen is going to be my favorite place for a while."

"You got enough help for kitchen duty?" Scout asks. Shane really hopes they're not about to be volunteered, because once Merle gives the all clear they aren't needed, he wants to try out the shower in the cabin. Today's heat is not helping with the travel funk they all carry, and he can smell the scented soap or shampoo Patricia's indulged in, which makes a shower even more appealing.

"A whole little platoon of helpers actually. Never seen a bunch of boys happier to peel potatoes in my life. We're having potato salad, roasted corn, and stuffed bell peppers for supper tonight. I'm going to miss that glorious monster of a grill your daddy's got on the back deck when the propane runs out, Scout."

Scout laughs, slipping an arm around Shane's waist and leaning against him despite the heat. "I'm sure you can talk him into coming up with a wood burning alternative by the time we don't have any more propane stocks."

The description of the menu makes his mouth water. He wishes Merle could actually use the extra hands in his audience, but he prefers to stick to the three helpers who've done the process before since he wants the building off the trailers completely by nightfall. Everyone is watching in case he changes his mind, although at least they'll have the general idea how to help on the next building, since there were three at the school.

"I thin Maggie's plotting to be your future stepmama to keep access to that bathroom, Scout," Patricia remarks, drawing a lot of startled attention.

Scout laughs. "I'd wish her luck with that because if seventeen years was too much for him and that lady lawyer from Atlanta, I think twenty-one is really too far."

"Oh lord, you heard about Honey's matchmaking?" Glynnis grins. "Who complained, her or your daddy?"

"Both. He was disturbed that she thought he could just replace one lawyer girlfriend with another like tinkertoys. I think I was the only one who ever liked Evelyn anyway. He didn't want to remarry and she wasn't looking for that either. Worked out best for both."

"I didn't realize you ever met Evelyn," Glynnis says.

"She picked me up from the airport when I flew in on leave once and Daddy was delayed getting to Atlanta. We kept in touch after."

"Evelyn?" Tara asks. Shane's curious too.

"She was a partner in the firm that handled Daddy's business' legal needs. They were together, as much as you can call it that, for five or six years.... Huh."

Shane glances over at her and she laughs. "I just figured out why Andrea seems half familiar. She could be Evelyn's twin if she were twenty years older."

"That might explain the antagonism they had," Shane suggests.

"Maybe. Far as I know, they parted on good terms when she took a job in Seattle, but who knows where his mind wandered."

Shane files away the new pieces to the patchwork puzzle of the Dixons. Before anyone else can seek more, a spate of cursing erupts as Merle's climb from under the building snags his shirt on something. He frees himself, but the shirt is definitely worse for wear.

"A'right. Let's drop this baby off that Platypus and see what happens," he calls out to Jamie, who follows the order.

Shane finds himself holding his breath as the building half on that side drops onto the cinder block piers with a groan. Everything holds, so the process is repeated to drop the second side. There's still a lot of reattaching work to be done, but for now, they have the first new building successfully in place.

"Rest can be done by Henry and whoever he enlists tomorrow," Merle determines. "Let's all get cleaned up hefore Glynnis and Patricia refuse to serve us supper."

"Now, Merle, we wouldn't refuse to feed you. You'd just have to eat outside with the critters until you stopped smelling like one." Glynnis is grinning and Merle barks out a laugh.

"Those RV showers aren't really going to cut it. Glynnis, can you take Rick and Tyreese down to Daryl's old place and yours? That'll spread most everyone out to get a shower right away too."

Shane does the mental math when Glynnis agrees and leads the two men off. Other than he and Scout, that is everyone to a shower.

She grins at him. "C'mon, deputy. Let's see if the cabin shower can manage two."

Like he's going to turn down that offer. He follows her with a matching grin.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori startles when there's noise at the office door. She looks up from where she's working on Merle's laptop, expecting Patricia or Glynnis. She can't help the flinch when it's Merle instead.

He's shirtless and grubby from the work he was doing outside, and she knows, logically, that she can't begrudge the man in his own home. But she knows he saw her involuntary movement because he frowns.

"Occurs to me that I apologized to folks on the Atlanta run, but not anyone else personally," he says, voice softer than she's ever heard him speak. "So, while the nature of what I did to myself makes most of the last few months murky, I owe you an apology first for being an active addict around your kid and second for anything I did to you yourself."

He sounds sincere. She's not so sure. She knows from experience addicts aren't always to be trusted on the longevity of their regret. "You never bothered Carl," she manages.

"That's damning with faint praise, cos I'm betting I did bother you." As if to prove he's of clear mind, he looks thoughtful. "Who was the user that taught you to be careful?"

It's a little sad that the first person to ever catch that is a man she has detested for months. She shakes her head, not willing to open that can of worms yet.

"A'right. I can respect your privacy on it. I'll make you a deal though. You ever think I'm slipping, call me on it." He starts to offer her a hand and then thinks better of it as he sees the grime. "Glynnis said you offered to convert recipes for bigger groups. She show you where the extra paper and ink are?"

"No, she just booted up the computer and helped carry the cookbooks. You sure own a variety."

He chuckles. "About two of them are mine. But at various times over the years, one or another of the kids would get it in their heads they wanted to learn to cook something different and along came a new cookbook. 'Bout the only kid who ever stuck with cooking enough to get really good at it is Jazz."

He pushes away from the door frame and crosses the room to the cabinet by the desk and swings a door open. She completely misses what he says about the supplies because she cant take her eyes off his back.

She must make a sound of some sort because he turns and arches a brow.

"Your back..."

Merle shrugs. "Been a part of me so long, I tend to forget what it's like for a new person to see. My father was not a good man."

"That's a lot more than not a good man," she says softly. She's not sure there is an inch of his back without some sort of scar. If someone just showed her a picture, she would've guessed a torture victim or POW. But if his own father did that, she guesses he was a torture victim. She can't imagine a parent ever doing that to his own child.

"Carol said he killed your mother."

"Yeah, he did. And the assholes running the parole system let him out early by mistake. Only regret I have about that man dying is that he stroked out and choked to death instead of me ridding the world of him after he hurt my family again."

"I understand." And she does, surprisingly. If a man who hurt her like that showed up after Carl, she'd want to end him herself too. "That's why you were protecting Sophia, isn't it?"

"Ed never had to lay a finger on her to leave damage. I just made sure he was more afraid of me than anyone else in camp to add any more to it. That much I do remember."

"You were quite an asshole," she says. It's something that would earn her censure from most folks she knows, but Merle just laughs.

"Hopefully not to the point we can't see eye to eye going forward."

She manages a smile and she's not sure who's surprised more by it, him or her. "We'll see."

"I can live with that." He motions toward the cabinet to remind her of the supplies. "Was just coming for clothes originally. Figured everyone would appreciate it if I showered before supper."

She nods and gets up to check out the cabinet while he goes to rummage in his duffle and dump out a few items on the futon. Going back to the chair, she jostles the electronic photo frame and has to catch it.

He turns with clothes over one arm and a net bag of toiletries to see her still hilding the frame. "You're welcome to turn it on. That's all my favorites of the kids and Daryl."

She hesitates, although there's never been anything she enjoyed more on learning about someone than looking through their photos. Merle reaches out and flicks the switch on. The first image is of the kids much, much younger. Jazz is still in diapers, being held by a barely teenage Daryl. The girls are all making funny faces.

"Getting all five of them to smile for a photo was always worse than herding chickens." He sounds wistful as he flicks through to a new picture before moving away. She glances at the posed image, a father-daughter dance formal picture, and can't help smiling at the joy on Cricket's face in the image. When she looks up again, Merle's gone, although she can hear him humming from a distance away in the master suite.

With permission given, she scrolls through the pictures, feeling nostalgic for normal suburban life now gone. The contrast of the angry redneck with the rough but polite man she just spoke to is hard to reconcile. But the images of the smiling family tugs at her heartstrings. She doesn't think her own photos show this much consistent happiness, not in years. And Merle did it alone, something that always terrified her when she got to the point where she knew she was hanging on to a dead marriage.

It's a sobering thought, and she sits the frame back on the desk. The final image is one of Merle sound asleep in a living room different than the one she saw downstairs, surrounded by equally snoozing kids.

Maybe he made more of an effort than Rick because he is their only parent, but she can't help the surge of envy and regret that turns her stomach. She knows if she's honest with herself, her clinging to the ill-fated affair with Shane is as much because of his adoration of Carl as for her own sake. Rick is a good father, but he was never a hands-on one.

She bumps the screen as she goes to turn the frame off, and there's a new child, a beautiful little blonde with shiny curls and the biggest brown eyes she's ever seen, atop a shaggy little pony. She doesn't look like any of the Dixons, but she's important if Merle has her picture among his favorites in his office. Setting aside the mystery for now, she turns off the frame and returns to her project.

Feeling sorry for herself is what got her into this place where she's avoiding everyone and hiding out in an office rather than exploring their new home and getting to know the others. Finishing this project will show she's got something to contribute too.

Chapter Text

July 28, 2010

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane stretches out lazily on the bed, enjoying the sensation of bare skin against good sheets and one of the better mattresses he's ever stretched out on. The small cabin does merit the name, with just enough room for the queen size bed, a closet with built-in drawers, a kitchenette with a woodstove obviously designed to cook on as well as provide heat, and a loveseat. The bathroom is sectioned off, and that not truly a separate room, only a privacy wall that keeps anyone not on the bed from seeing in.

Which means he is enjoying the excellent view of Scout towelling off. She tosses her towel to join his on shower rod and joins him on the bed, laying on her back and wriggling her toes. "God, I've missed the chance to just feel nothing but air on my skin without worrying about what's outside."

He laughs. "Me too. I used to always sleep in the nude. After that damned cheap ass uniform all day, I couldn't stand anything on me."

"Can't say I did that all that much, but that's more to do with too many years of communal living. I'll have to try it out. It'll certainly teach everyone to knock."

"Something tells me they'll be careful about that anyway." No one wanted to walk in on a couple in the middle of sex after all, and the cabin wouldn't leave much to the imagination if someone opened the door.

"Probably." She rolls to her side to face him, expression serious. "You up for this? We've gone from introductions to essentially living together in less than a week, and I don't think either of us was ever up for that kind of commitment before. I'm not saying end what we have going, but we can..."

He stops the words by kissing her silent, smiling when the kiss finally ends and she looks less worried.

"We already know that what we have is different than what we looked for before. I want to give it a try. If we end up feeling like we're too much in each other's pockets, one of us can beg a temporary spare bed for the night elsewhere."

"Alright. We sure have a small space to get used to each other in."

"About the only thing that worries me is that woodstove in the kitchen."

She actually giggles, making him realize how little he's seen her truly carefree. "I was never here enough to really need to cook, so we decided it would be a good backup to the solar power in case the batteries couldn't get enough charge. The regular HVAC system is a heat pump of sorts that heats and cools. I'm guessing from how cool it is and the fresh sheets that Glynnis prepped the place."

"And cooking?"

"When I came home, it was never for more than a week at a time, so I devoured enough of Daddy's cooking to last me until the next time I was on leave. There's a toaster oven and a hot plate in one of the lower cabinets, which I think I used a total of twice in five years. The cabin is actually a few years older than the main house."

"Did y'all start out in the little ranch house?"

"Yeah. We moved here the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. Before that we were up in northeast Georgia a while after Daddy got out of the Marines."

"Where all did you live?" It's a little foreign to him, because he's lived all his life in Georgia.

"I was born in Guam, but we left there for 29 Palms, California when I was eight months old. We were only in California for a little over a year, then North Carolina until Daddy's final enlistment ended after Desert Storm in 1992. Not as crazy as some of the Army brat stories."

"I spent my entire life in King County except for college. College was in Statesboro, so not all that far."

She fiddles with his necklace. "You played football, right?"

"Yeah. Liked it enough to play as long as they'd scholarship me for it. Stumbled through a communications degree and when Rick changed his mind about being a history teacher to be an officer, I followed because I didn't have any better idea of what I wanted to do."

"I can't picture you as the PR guy for some corporation. Sheriff, maybe."

He snorted. "I came from the wrong side of the tracks for that, not in the county I grew up in. Just figured Rick would run one day, once our boss could be bothered to retire and stop being reelected."

"Daddy moved us all here to avoid that wrong side of the tracks issue. Did really well for the younger ones. Bet a lot of those biddies from where Daddy's from would shit themselves before the dead rose if they saw him now."

Shane figures she's right on that. He remembers the looks on the quarry camp people when they arrived, to seeing what Merle's built for his family here, which he's glad Scout missed in the middle of greeting the neighbors.

"I didn't get a chance to meet any of the neighbors. Glynnis lived here already, I remember you saying. They all seemed really happy to have your dad home."

"Glynnis has been part of the family since my parents divorced. She and her daughter, Carrie, lived up the road from us when we first moved back to Georgia. So she babysat a lot, became a surrogate grandma. When we moved here, she relocated too. Lived in town then in a little duplex. Dad built her the cottage when she retired."

"Where's her daughter?"

"As far as we know, on her way here. She was in Kentucky when this all hit. Her husband and some of his coworkers and their family were aiming for here since it's secure. That'll be a big can of worms, because Carrie is Tihu's ex-wife and she's been an utter bitch keeping my cousin from the family for years."

"How the hell did she manage that?" The kind of money Merle obviously has, combined with Glynnis' closeness, should have been in Daryl's favor, even if a law enforcement job wasn't.

"She's not his biological daughter. He married Carrie when she was a baby. Never did a formal adoption before Carrie played badge bunny and left."

"Damn. Poor Daryl. He must be out of his mind."

"It is contributing to his level of antisocial behavior." She sighs and rolls to snuggle against him, nuzzling at his throat.

He takes it for an invitation to provide a distraction. They've got time before they're missed at supper.

~*~ GR ~*~

Glenn thinks that being assigned to the barn room is definitely worth it. He ran back to his room to drop off a stack of clothing that already came back from the laundry team only to get volunteered by Maggie to help with the horses she is bringing into the barn.

"You've never ridden?" she asks, latching the stall next to the one where Glenn just filled the grain he mixed by the instructions near the feed bins.

"City boy, both when I lived in Michigan and in Georgia. Never even did a pony ride as a kid."

"Well, I'll teach you, when we're between supply runs. You're still going to do those, right?"

"Yeah, of course. But I'm supposed to get shooting lessons too. Scout doesn't want me just relying on a machete, even if Canton looked more luke a ghost town that anything else."

"I could teach you that too." She flashes him a smile, and he almost fumbles the can of feed for the horse she just stabled.

"That sounds great." He manages to tip the grain into the feeder although he has to negotiate with the horse to get his cap back.

Maggie giggles. They've been paired together on runs a lot, enough that he knows her well enough to know giggling isn't her norm. He doesn't want to get it wrong, but he thinks she's flirting.

"That one is a little too friendly," he grumbles.

"She thinks you're cute. She has good taste."

Well, even he isn't so inexperienced with girls as to miss that she's definitely flirting. This would normally be the point he'd ask for a date and pray for success, but dating is a bit difficult now. He thinks fast.

"Do you think anyone would be upset if we grabbed food and ate down by the pond?" he asks, giving her his best smile.

"Like a picnic?"

"Exactly."

"That sounds perfect. You snag a blanket out of your room, and I'll go talk Patricia out of our share of supper."

She leans in and kisses his cheek before jogging off.

He touches the spot and grins.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori watches as Carl treks back to the main house in the dimming light with a backpack with clothes and toiletries for overnight. It makes her beyond nervous to have him that far away, but she can't keep denying the evidence that he's safer than safe among the Dixons. So she sees no real reason to deny making him happy by letting him stay over with the two older boys and be able to spend more time around Sophia. He's missed his friend.

"I was surprised you said yes," Rick says from behind her in the RV.

She shuts the door, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before facing him. As much as she was horrified when Shane revealed the affair, she's now grateful he had the worst part of the reveal. She and Rick have barely spoken since, letting Carl carry all the conversation in the drive here.

Squaring her shoulders, she turns. "We need to talk, don't we?"

To his credit, he looks genuinely distressed. She always thought this conversation would make him happy, to be free of a woman he only proposed to because she was pregnant. Not that she can blame him. She didn't have to accept, and for the first five years, she couldn't complain about much.

But they already pushed this marriage eight years beyond its expiration date.

"I wanted you to feel like you were somewhere safe."

"But you made up your mind back at the quarry, didn't you? The night you and Shane talked." Because that's when he stopped reaching for her as soon as Carl was asleep.

Rick nods. She rubs at her bare arms, feeling suddenly cold.

"We'll tell Carl in the morning," she decides. She might as well have some part in the decision. "He would be happier rooming with some of the other boys. I'll see if I can bunk with one of the other women."

"Lori, no, I'll find another place to sleep."

"I've seen the quarters list, and it's not like you have Shane to bunk with now. It'll be easier for me to move around." She busies herself with repacking the few things she put out earlier when she showered.

"You know it's not because of Shane, right?"

She faces him again, sighing. "Yes, I know it's bigger than that. But it's not something we'd ever really get past either. And don't worry. I'm done being a bitch to him."

"And Scout?"

"And Scout." She sits on the bed, toying with a fold of the blanket. "It's funny. Before you were shot, I would have done my best to set them up."

She looks up to see a sad smile on Rick's face. "Me too."

"You never looked at me like he focuses on her." She reaches out to take his hand. "That's not meant to be a criticism, Rick. We dated because it was what everyone expected and neither of us was willing to buck the expectations. Not until you decided to be a cop."

"You were never happy about that."

"No, but I can't deny it was your calling. Maybe now is the time I find mine "

She doesn't turn away when he leans in for a kiss, but the intimacy is bittersweet. She strokes his cheek when he pulls away, earnest blue eyes reminding her just how beautiful she's always found him to be.

"Just think. Now you can grow that beard you always wanted." She pats his stubbly cheek.

Rick gives her a wan smile. "You sure you're okay with this?"

"I'll be fine, and so will you. Carl will be happier if we are." She stands and finishes tucking away her things. "I'll go talk to the ladies. I'll see you tomorrow."

He nods, looking sadder than she expected him to be. She leaves him sitting on the bed, resisting the urge to look back again. If she does, she might lose her resolve, and she suspects if she really presses, he'll back off and they'll start this cycle all over again.

She leaves her bag at the base of the stairs up to the deck, remembering she saw some of the women having drinks out there when she left with Carl earlier.

They're gone, but Merle's on the end nearer the stairs. He's got his feet propped on one of the patio chairs, holding a bottle he seems to be studying more than drinking.

"Sorry, I was looking for Alaina or Ana."

He gives her a slow half smile. "Ana headed to her RV and Alaina is inside fretting over her missing kids. Anything I can help with?"

"Um. I'm not sure."

He drops his feet to the deck and pushes the chair out for her. "Take a load off and we'll find out "

She sits, realizing as he sits the glass bottle down that he is drinking a cream soda, not a beer like she first thought.

He sees the glance to the bottle and shrugs. "Alcohol doesn't make me ugly me the way the other does, but it's a matter of resolve to stay clear headed."

"That sounds like a good plan."

"You want something to drink?"

She shakes her head. "I'm more in need of a new place to sleep."

"Huh. You sure on that? Splitting with the ole man? That's a tough road to take even before." She's surprised by the amount of concern on his face.

"Maybe it makes it more important not to keep making each other unhappy."

"True enough." He sighs and takes a deep swig of the cream soda. "Got plenty of company on the single parent thing here."

"How did you do it?"

"Didn't have much choice. Lilliana needed to be gone and my girls and Daryl needed me. World's most painful learning curve, I think. Didn't get it right for a while."

"You did a good job."

"I suppose I did. Hopefully still am." He finishes off the soda and stands. "Feel up to trusting me for a tour?"

Why the hell not. She's turning over a new leaf, right. She stands and follows his lead into the master suite. The closet makes her a little more wary, until he motions at the stairs hidden in the back.

"Did you see the basement door when you came around to the deck stairs?"

"Sorta." She wasn't really looking around.

"This'll come out right by that." He disappears down the stairs and she follows, now too curious not to.

The narrow stairway opens up into a basement that's been finished out nicely enough she wouldn't guess it was a basement except for the lack of windows. The room they're in is set up as a family room, with a pool table and two comfortable looking couches.

Unlike the upstairs living room, the TV here has at least two gaming systems she recognizes and one she doesn't.

He sees her looking and grins. "Keeps the noise and inevitable yelling downstairs instead of echoing around the whole place."

He leads her past a small kitchen with a fridge, sink, microwave, and two commercial freezers to a doorway that opens into a room with rustic bunk beds that remind her of the ones at Girl Scout camp.

"I didn't assign this space because the bunks aren't the most comfortable. They're more for the storm shelter side of things. But until we can get you an RV, it's a bit of privacy. Although I can probably ship a few boys down here and give you one of the upstairs rooms."

"I'm surprised they aren't down here. The other boys have got to be missing their game systems as bad as Carl."

"The girls tricked them into playing a board game after Beth found the game closet."

"I don't want to put anyone out." But being in the basement alone makes her skin crawl.

"I doubt any of the boys will be upset. Jazz's room isn't as scary as most teenagers', so we'll just send them down and they'll never notice the bunk beds are substandard."

"If you're sure." She notices the door on the other side of the bunk room, past another set of stairs. "There's more?"

"Yeah, but six months ago, you'd have called me a special kind of crazy." He uses a keypad for this door, waving forbher to com look.

Where she can estimate that the part of the basement she's seen already runs the length of the master and living room, the big room beyond might actually be bigger than the kitchen to garage section of the house.

"It looks like a warehouse. Is this all food?". He's right that six months ago, she would've considered him a bit unhinged. Now it feels a bit like he's Santa Claus leading her to the North Pole as she explores the row upon row of stored goods.

"Mostly. The Mormons have some real good deals and good ideas about being prepared for anything. There's a year's worth of food for fifty people. Drop in the bucket for our current numbers, but good for emergency backup. Plus some medical and hygiene supplies and the water tanks."

She picks up a giant jar of honey and marvels at what's all around her. "Why are you being so nice to me?" she asks softly.

"Because I can't ask for forgiveness for my behavior at the quarry if I'm not willing to give it. Maybe it is easier for me, because my memory's shot to hell about it, but that's how it is."

He takes the jar from her and puts it back on the shelf. He replaces it with a bag of mini Milky Ways he takes out of a sealed plastic tub hidden behind a bucket labeled freeze dried apricots.

"Safest place in the house from Honey's sweet tooth. l figure you're in need of a dose of comfort chocolate."

She accepts with a smile. "Only if you'll share."

Merle laughs and motions her back ahead of him through the locking door. "I never turn down Milky Ways."

~*~ SW ~*~

"If the apocalypse hadn't already happened, I'd say I just saw one of the signs of it." T-Dog is shaking his head as he and Amy pass drinks around.

Shane takes a beer, anticipating both the cold drink and not having to be on night watch. Between the existing security system Merle has, and a few creative improvements Glynnis' group arranged, watch is two people in a room with video screens who also monitor the radios. Everyone on Merle's building crew is considered exempt for now.

Scout stirs enough to take her soda. She's reclined against him, using one of the big pillow chairs someone retrieved from upstairs as his backrest on the floor while those interested in old world luxury are watching a movie.

"What's that worrisome?" she asks.

Amy plops down next to her sister. "Merle and Lori are out on the deck eating out of a bag of candy."

"Ah hell, I knew that man had chocolate stashed somewhere," Scout grumbled. "As long as no one's screaming, I say leave them be."

"Your brother mentioned the boys are all being evicted to the basement." T-Dog's voice drips with curiosity.

"I doubt they'll see it as punishment considering the game room is down there. Daddy doesn't like the sound of gunfire in games, so he makes the kids keep the video systems downstairs." Scout glances over at her sister, who is braiding and rebraiding Tara's hair.

"Yep. They're still all down there. I figure the girls are about to be abandoned as soon as they finish that round of Apples to Apples."

"Good luck on that. The girls can always put the gaming table top on the pool table and move their game down there."

Shane laughs at the looks the sisters are getting as they discuss an entire floor of the house the newcomers weren't aware of. But he also feels a bit concerned, since Rick indicated at supper he was going to break the news to Lori. He leans forward to murmur in Scout's ear that he's going to go check on Rick. She nods and scoots forward to let him up.

He routes through the kitchen to grab a second beer and makes his way to the RV assigned to Rick. Knocking gets him the direction that it's open.

At the sad and relieved look on his best friend's face, he's glad he came.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol rolls onto her stomach and experiences a guilty enjoyment of suddenly being able to solve the mystery of which of Merle's colognes he actually wears. Although the sheets have the clean scent of detergent, she obviously got Merle's favored side of the bed, since the pillow is embedded with a lovely scent.

She must have made some sort of noise, because Maggie giggles beside her. She raises up to stare at the younger woman, who grins unrepentantly.

"If I didn't know any better, that was a sound of a woman who would prefer an entirely different bed mate tonight."

Carol feels her face flush as the rush of embarrassment flows through her. She plops her face back into the pillow.

Maggie's voice is softer. "I didn't really mean to embarrass you. I tend not to have a filter."

Raising back up, Carol gives her a wavering smile. She's young, enthusiastic, and seems like she really wants to be friends. Trying to be a little bolder, she pushes the pillow toward Maggie.

The brunette takes the dare. "Oh, good choice. You'll have to take a sniff to see if he still wears it."

Carol just shakes her head as she tugs the pillow back into place. "I am not going to go sniff Merle. He just feels responsible for me."

"I think it's more than that, but if you aren't ready to think about it yet, that's fine. Can I ask you something?"

"As long as it's not about Merle."

"Nah. What do you think of Glenn?"

"He's a sweet guy. Awkward, but a good man." Carol watches as Maggie thinks that over.

"We had a picnic tonight. He was very sweet, but shy."

"I think you wouldn't find anyone here more devoted, if you can let him move at his own pace."

"I can do that." Maggie snuggles into her own pillow and yawns. "Goodnight, Carol."

"G'night, Maggie."

As the younger woman joins Patricia in sleep, Carol finds herself glancing toward the closed office door. As much as she's convinced there's no way a man like Merle would be interested in a woman like her, she can't help but yearn a little.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori closes the door gently behind the retreating boys, who are more than thrilled with their eviction. Normally, the idea of borrowing a teenage boy's room would be abhorrent, but Merle is right that the room is atypical from most.

She wishes Carl kept his room this clean and tidy. Everything is neatly in its place, and while she might normally think that Glynnis or someone cleaned the room, Merle assured her it's just Jazz.

The twin over full bunk is a built-in complete with shelving. As she puts her bag on the bed, she notices the intricate carving on the bed, all animals and forest. She wonders who did the work.

The books on the bed's shelf show a love of fantasy fiction and voracious reading. There are easily over a hundred books crammed into the shelves, and these aren't the only bookshelves in the room. The wall facing the front of the house has each of the windows framed with overstuffed bookshelves. Curious, she browses those to see a mixture of non-fiction books spanning everything from botany to military history. A few sports trophies are placed randomly in front of the books.

She's almost glad to see she's not the only parent who denied a TV in the bedroom. Jazz's desk is a neat and orderly setup with a powered down laptop tucked into a base station with a monitor and keyboard. It's possible he watches TV on the computer, but she senses not. Even the futon in the room has a few books sitting on one end. Everything about the room gives her the vibe of a kid who loves being lost in books. The only poster in the room is a Marine Corps one above the desk.

She changes into her sleeping clothes and taps at the bathroom door to make sure it isn't occupied before slipping inside. She latches the opposite door that leads into Jamie's room from the jack and jill bath. Like the boy's room, the bathroom is tidy and she's careful to leave it that way before returning to the bedroom.

She slips into the comfort of the bottom bunk and reminds herself that ending her marriage was a joint decision. The candy sharing conversation was surprisingly interesting as Merle easily shared some of the adventures of his early days of single parenthood. She can be grateful at least that she doesn't have four children and zero second parent input.

It doesn't stop her from feeling a rush of loneliness at being alone in a strange room in a strange house.

But at least in a weird twist of fate, she's made an unusual friend in Merle.

~*~ GR ~*~

"Did I or did I not see you coming back from the pond with Miss Maggie after supper?" T-Dog accompanies the question with a thump to the underside of Glenn's bunk. His tone is an echo of the teasing over him staying overnight in the Dixon girls' tent.

But this time the answer isn't a protest. "Yeah. We had a picnic."

"How'd that go? I see you're still bunking with me tonight."

"It was good." Glenn's glad his expression can't be seen, since he's grinning ear to ear.

"Hmm. Maybe I'll get a new roommate soon."

"I don't think I want to rush it like that. I'm not brave enough to casually face an ex over group breakfast if it doesn't work out like Shane."

"But if you don't take a leap of faith, man, you might miss out entirely. We aren't exactly in the land of plenty for partners anymore."

Glenn thinks the other man's tone sounds wistful and he wonders if his friend is lonely. "Maybe you're right."

"Can't go wrong with Maggie. Sweet and spirited."

"Should I be worried?"

T-Dog laughs. "No, man. She's a little young for my taste. But she's perfect for you."

"I hope so." He really does.

There's a yip from the bunk below and Glenn rolls to stare down where every single one of the eight puppy litter are curled up with his roommate. "Seriously?"

T-Dog just laughs and pets one of the fuzzy little heads. "Glynnis just said they had to be in the barn at night. She didn't specify the stall. I always wanted a dog, but kept putting it off "

"Well, keep that up and you'll end up with eight, and based on their parents, they're going to be huge." All the kids were thrilled to meet the Dixons other catahoula, a huge female named Livia, and her litter of seven week old puppies.

"I doubt Merle would let me have more than one."

Glenn lays back down, laughing at the image of the big man surrounded by content puppies. Maybe happiness isn't always found in romance.

~*~ DD ~*~

Daryl's already on his cot when Merle comes to bed.

"You sure that's wise?"

Merle looks his way after tossing his shirt in the laundry basket. He stretches lazily before answering. "Letting that particular storm keep brewing would just end up with someone hurt. Woman needs a friend who's been where she is, and I didn't figure you'd want to volunteer."

"Hell, no. Maybe you want to forgive and forget, but I don't want to be anywhere near her brand of bitchiness."

His brother sighs and sits on the end of the futon nearest Daryl. He reaches out and shakes his ankle gently like he used to when Daryl was a kid and worried about something.

"Tell me this... how long did it take me to offend the majority of that camp after we rolled in?"

Daryl considers lying, but Merle's got a virtual radar for his tells. "Less than a day."

"Just keep in mind that the woman you dealt with in camp thought she was a new widow in a world she wasn't equipped to deal with. Then this jacked up redneck blows into camp and they can't afford to do without our hunting... Blame her for anything she said, but you're gonna have to let me shoulder half the blame for how she reacted to us."

Daryl really doesn't want to accept the logic Merle proposes. He wants to forget his brother's ugly descent into addiction. It's easier to be pissed off at those who looked down on him and Merle than to process that the fear hasn't really left him that Merle's safe again.

When he doesn't answer, Merle sighs and moves away to keep getting ready for bed. He settles his bulk on the futon before he speaks again.

"She needs a friend as much as Carol, baby brother. Maybe her ole man didn't lay into her, but you and I both know that neglect can leave some pretty powerful scars too. And I don't think I've ever met anyone who reeks of pure loneliness more than Lori Grimes."

Daryl rolls to face the wall, hating that Merle is making him feel sympathy for Lori. The woman openly jerked her child away from him, as if he was going to contaminate the boy by being within three feet of him.

But Merle doesn't ask much of him.

"I'll be polite if need be," he offers at last.

"A'right. S'all I ask. Be nice if she had more than one friend though."

He hears the creaking of the futon's wooden frame as Merle rolls to sprawl in his belly as he likes to sleep. It doesn't take long before his brother's breathing settles into the rhythm of sleep.

Daryl just hopes this friendship doesn't come back to bite Merle in the ass. Not the first time Lori's been unable to stand on her own, and he doesn't want to see Merle as her next bedmate. Woman's got an eye for gravitating to power, and here, on Dixon land, Merle is the power.

After the devastation Lilliana left in her wake, Merle deserves someone loyal and sweet, like Carol. With that thought settling in his mind, he falls asleep too, avoiding thinking about his still missing daughter..

Chapter Text

July 31, 2010

~*~ MD ~*~

"Car with Kentucky plates just cruised by the retirement home."

Merle climbs out from under the daycare building where he just finished the trailer setup with Tyreese's help. "Which way are they headed?"

"Right toward us. Makes sense, considering.". Scout uses her binoculars to verify there is indeed an unfamiliar SUV headed toward them. She motions for him to step back and he does, trusting in her training. If these are the marshals, they'll respond to her uniform better than his work clothes.

Her stance is relaxed as she steps to where she can't be missed by the approaching SUV. It slows, and he has a moment where his stomach lurches and he hopes she's wearing her body armor with all the rest of her uniform trappings that the three Marines standing guard duty wear.

He doesn't recognize the man in the passenger seat when the window rolls down. "Good morning, Staff Sergeant."

"Good morning. If you're looking for the lady that lived in that duplex, she moved about a year ago."

"You know if she might still be alive? We've got a delivery for her."

"I might if that delivery is a package about this tall and blonde." Scout motions about midchest. Merle can hear the driver muffle a laugh, but the back passenger door opens despite the front seat passenger's hurried order to stay put.

And when he hears a little voice cry out, "Uncle Merle!", he's stepping forward into full view to accept the impact of Abigail throwing herself at him, sobbing. "I was worried you were all dead and I can't remember how to find your house."

Hugging the girl close, he reassures her that everything is going to be just fine. Jesus Christ, Daryl's going to be overjoyed, Glynnis too.

Scout's still speaking to the man in the car, and something sad passes over her face as she glances back to him. Ah, shit. Why else would it be important for Abby to remember where he lives when the adults should know.

"You invite these good people back to the homestead yet, Scout?" He crosses with his sweet burden to offer a hand to the man. "Merle Dixon."

"Former US Marshal Tim Gutterson. She was also a marshal, Rachel Brooks." Merle knows there's at least two others in the back, but based on the height of the one he can mostly glimpse, at least one's a child.

"Scout?" Abby raises her head, turning to stare at her cousin in wonder. Merle figures she didn't recognize Scout right away. His eldest spent most of Abby's lifetime away.

"Yeah, sweetheart. It's me." Scout breaks with the formal stance she adopted to greet the newcomers to reach out to take Abby's hand.

The girl's tone is heartbreaking as she asks hesitantly, "Daddy?"

"He's safe and sound at home, Sunshine," Merle tells her. "He's gonna be so happy to see you, just like your grandma." The girl beams at him.

"We got incoming friendlies,"Jamie calls out. "And based on the shitty driving of that semi behind the cars we sent out, they might want to get that SUV off the highway and in the parking lot."

The driver, Rachel, complies, turning the SUV so that it's parked to easily leave the daycare parking lot. The supply runners bring their caravan to a halt, the Subaru and modified bus they sent out giving the semi a wide berth as it lurches to a stop.

"Jesus H. Christ. Please tell me that's not Hannah Catherine driving a goddamn semi truck," he mutters. Scout snorts and mutters something he can't make out as his youngest daughter hops to the ground from the big Freightliner, grinning like a loon.

And that's the signal for Abby to hit the ground, near tackling her cousin. Honey absorbs the impact with ease and scoops the girl up. They twirl around chanting each other's names in a display of high spirits that almost makes Merle forget the wobbly driving of the semi.

He glances over at the two marshals to see the woman is grinning. "If you haven't figured it out, the illegal driver of the semi is my youngest daughter."

"I believe she and Abby may have missed each other."

"We've all been missing our Abigail." There's been a gaping Abigail sized hole in the Dixons for three years.

"If that was a serious offer, we'd sure like to take you up on it for however long we're welcome. We've been out on the road a long time."

"You got our baby girl back to us. You're welcome to stay permanently. Not going to turn away good people."

She smiles. "There's four of us. Me, Tim, two kids."

There's a noise of protest from the backseat, and Tim snorts. "The back seat wants us to clarify one kid and one teenager of legal adult age."

"Ah. Another one like her." He tilts his head toward Honey, who has finally stopped spinning her cousin before they fell over from dizziness. "Honey, we need to get these good folks back home. And don't think you're driving that semi all the way home without ever a real lesson on something that big."

"We were gonna park it at the Blackbird lot til someone else could get it. I'm not crazy enough to try to turn it off highway toward our place. But according to the manifest, it's a treasure trove of stuff we need, so we didn't want to risk it not being there when we got another team back."

"Scout, you think you can manage?"

"I've driven worse for the Corps."

"We'll be only about twenty minutes pulling out here, so y'all go on ahead."

"Abby's staying with me," Honey declares. "I'm sure y'all are nice people, but I've missed her."

Rachel waves a hand at the girls. "Go on. We can see she's safe."

Honey trots off, still carrying her cousin, and scrambles into the passenger seat of the Subaru. He ought to lecture her about safety and not having the girl on her lap, but for today he'll let it slide.

Scout signals to Jamie to take lead on the guards keeping lookout while they load up the daycare building and heads for the Freightliner.

He turns to the marshals. "Just follow them in. They'll radio ahead so Homestead knows to expect extras. They'll get you fixed up with some home cooking and hot showers."

"Hot showers sound like absolute heaven," Rachel replies with a smile.

"And food that isn't out of a can or wrapper," Tim mutters. The sentiment echoes from the back seat.

Merle laughs as he steps back to let the big SUV pull out to follow the semi down the highway.

"Alright, boys and girls, let's get this show on the road fast as we can. I got a family reunion to rejoin."

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol pulls the Polaris to a stop by the work crew doing the reassemble work on the modular buildings. It's slower going than it would be with an experienced crew, but Merle assured everyone that the newbies learning is just as valuable as speed.

They already have a table for the cooler of water, so she checks that it's near empty and moves it to the ground while she unloads the new cooler and packed lunches for everyone. The big wedding tent someone brought back from town along with tables and chairs will give everyone a temporary break from the sub while they eat.

Daryl and Sophia climb up from where he was teaching her how the piping hooks into the massive septic tank they're finishing up for the little nursing home. Carol's a little surprised, because she expected to see her daughter shadowing Jazz on the solar panel installation. Maybe Sophia's unending curiosity about how everything works led her to the new lesson.

She hands off a cup of water to each of them, giving them a look over for any signs of sunburn. Sophia shows signs of fresh sunscreen, so she accepts their thanks and sets the big tub under the table for used dishes.

"How close do you think it is to finished?"

Daryl gives one of his typical half-shrugs. "Henry's got the plumbing all hooked back up, and Jazz and Pipsqueak here finished the solar panels for the first building before he got borrowed for some of the interior work."

Sophia gives the man a grumpy look at the nickname and he laughs. "Hit your next growth spurt and I'll come up with something new."

She seems to accept that. "Daryl's teaching me how to lay field lines, Mama."

"You have an interesting skillset for an officer of the law."

He scoffs. "Had to be twenty-one to go to the GNR Academy, so I spent some time working for the state until then and after I finished up my associates. Worked for whatever crew Merle was running while I was in school too. Good money in septic tank work cos folks are grossed out by it."

"I don't think it's gross," Sophia announces.

"That's cos we're installing a new tank, Pipsqueak. Just wait til we gotta pump one, then we'll talk."

The girl wrinkles her nose, causing both adults to laugh. Carol feels a by now familiar surge of affection for Daryl's careful attention to Sophia the last few days as everyone gears into a steady plan of fetching buildings and supplies. She wants them both to be assets, but the urgency of getting the older folks a safe home has backburnered most training.

Then again, Sophia spending all the time she's allowed with the building crew is good training too. She's not the only teenager other than Jazz, since both Leo's son and nephew are shadowing adults, the nephew with a hollowed out look of pure grief haunting him. The boy lost his parents and siblings before his uncle got him to safety.

Amy's been coming into her own once Andrea came around to accepting that her baby sister on a building crew is better than joining Andrea on supply runs. Apparently, her architect training crosses over well to framing, as they convert the larger classrooms into smaller bedrooms.

Carol itches to join in herself and see if she can learn, but it didn't take long for praise for her cooking to reach Glynnis. She couldn't resist when she was asked to head up one of the three meal shifts. It's a job that will only get bigger when the nursing home is complete. At least running the breakfast shift will give her time for other training later.

"Whatcha bring us?"

She's learned that Daryl won't touch the food until the whole crew is ready to eat. It's a habit both Dixon men adopt. It contrasts with Ed, who came from a background where men ate first and the more important men were foremost. But his unending careful compliments of any food provided to him is sweetly done.

"Some of Patricia's chili and cornbread. Got three chilled watermelons on the Polaris still."

"Sounds perfect. Spicy food is good in the heat," he explains to Sophia. "Makes sure you're sweating off the heat proper."

The Polaris radio crackles with Ana looking for Carol. The young woman is on watch, an easy duty for a girl with a damaged leg, along with Alaina, who sits as many watch and radio shifts as allowed to be the first to hear word of her sons.

"Are you out with Daryl?"

"Yeah, he's right here."

"Tell him they found Abby and she's on her way to him."

Carol isn't entirely sure the man's breathing, although the look of absolute delight is one of the best things she's ever seen.

Sophia's looking confused though, so she explains. "Abby is Daryl's daughter. She was traveling down from Kentucky."

"Oh." Carol's a little shocked to see Sophia look sad instead of happy for Daryl. "Do you want to go down to the gate then?"

Daryl finds his voice at last. "No, gonna go wait with her grandma and Cricket." The two women are outside on the porch at the main house, hugging each other as they wait. Daryl stops long enough to yell for Jazz about the news.

Carol reaches out to put her arm around her daughter as they watch the two Dixon males jog over to the porch. "What's wrong, sweetie?"

"He's got his real daughter back now."

Oh. She squeezes the girl tight. "I don't think Daryl's going to stop spending time with you because Abby's back. I imagine it'll just mean a partner in anything he's promised to teach you. Look at Merle. He's got a lot of kids and still spends time with you."

The elder Dixon brother hasn't missed spending at least half an hour with Sophia every day, listening to the girl read from the novel she started at the quarry. Sometimes they have company, as several folks seem to enjoy Sophia reading aloud. But it's always Merle who reminds the girl they're due another chapter.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. How about we get everyone settled with their food and maybe Abby will be ready to meet you?"

She's glad of the confidence she has that she's telling Sophia the truth about the security she has in the Dixons. Carol may still be trying to figure out her own role, but Sophia's as an adopted child is clear. Even Scout, the least demonstrative Dixon, is openly fond of Sophia.

Reassured and with something to do, her daughter goes to yell about the waiting food, leaving Carol to gaze wistfully at the family on the porch eagerly waiting for their lost lamb to return.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori hefts the basket of laundry and smiles at the pair of teenage boys who lift their own loads. She was a little worried this morning when the twins were assigned to help her, since her experience isn't that boys are a lot of help with housework. But they easily went around and fetched everyone's clothes and everything came in marked with the owner's initials as she asked.

She doesn't mind the chore here, even if she avoided it as much as possible at the quarry. The Dixon house actually has two big frontload machines, which she thought was overkill until she saw one washer was clearly labeled "work clothes". With Merle working construction and the farm animals, she supposes it makes sense not to mix clothing when you've got the money to spare for two machines. But in order to make sure they get it all hung up in time to dry, she and the twins used the tumble washers to clean all the smaller items.

"I sure wish the dryer could keep up," Ben comments as he follows her through to the foyer to the front porch. The drying lines are out past the garage, and it's smoother footing to go out the front rather than down the deck stairs to go around from the mudroom door. She gets a cheery "hi mom" from Carl, who is unusually happy to be on dish drying duty, but that's probably due to the two pretty girls he's teamed with.

"Just be glad we don't have to hang it all up." There's only one dryer, and while Merle seems confident that the electrical system is capable of supporting a dryer running for hours, she figures why overwork it. So she declared the dryer for towels and heavy fabrics only yesterday when she volunteered for the laundry shift and Glynnis backed her.

"Still gotta handle all the underwear," Billy contributes.

"Well, you two are safe from that part." She has the basket of everyone's socks and underclothing. No sense in making two teenagers handle all those bras.

The way out of the house is somewhat blocked by several Dixons and Glynnis, but they step aside to let the laundry crew by. She catches the glare from Daryl and suppresses a sigh. Merle told her his brother would come around eventually, but it's obviously not going to be today. She does feel a little better when she sees Glynnis deliver a sharp jab to Daryl's ribs with her elbow as they pass.

They've just managed to sit their baskets down on the camp stools now doubling as basket rests when she hears the sound of engines. She and the twins look to see which crew made it back, as it's always a sight to watch the modular buildings roll in.

But it's the Canton supply runners, who were sent to scope out the Walmart and its outparcel buildings since they cleared the medical supply places down to dust bunnies yesterday. The garage is full to bursting and they've resorted to tents on the lawn for the excess.

Today's run seems especially successful, because there's an honest-to-God Walmart semi coming through the gates.

It's the Subaru that draws attention though, because a girl younger than Carl exits the SUV and runs toward the porch, yelling for her daddy. Daryl scoops her into his arms only to be immediately enveloped by the other Dixons in a group hug. The girl's blonde curls remind her of the little beauty in Merle's electronic frame.

She turns back to her task, blinking away tears at the reunion. No wonder Merle wanted her to give his brother time to get over his antisocial behavior. He must have been going out of his mind worrying over that little girl.

She'll have to find out what the girl's favorites are to see if they can shift the supper meal plan.

It's the least she can do.

~*~ GR ~*~

Glenn returns Maggie's grin over the Dixon reunion, but it fades quickly in a surge of homesickness. He'll never know his family's fate, since traveling to Michigan is next to impossible now. That's not the sort of reunion he can ever expect, and he misses his sisters. Sometimes the easy affections of the Dixon sisters helps and sometimes it makes it worse.

Maggie seems to sense his mood as she joins him at the Subaru hatch to unload the smaller items they loaded in there. They didn't even begin make a dent in the back storeroom of the Walmart, which is largely untouched.

"You okay?" she asks softly, taking his hand.

He shakes his head, which apparently means he needs a hug. It doesn't chase away the homesickness, but he appreciates the effort.

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Just missing my own family." She nods. He's mentioned them before on their picnic suppers, more his sisters than his parents. He never thought he could miss even his parents' staunch disapproval of his lack of life progress.

"Why don't you take a break and let someone else unload? Go visit the puppies, maybe."

He leans in to kiss Maggie's cheek, but she turns her head and he gets a real kiss instead. It's chaste and sweet like he always wants a first kiss to be, so he lingers a little before pulling away and heading for the barn.

Puppy cuddles sure seem to help T-Dog when his mood swings to sadness, so Glenn's open to trying.

~*~ DD ~*~

Daryl think the hardest thing he's done since the world ended might be letting Abby go up the stairs with her grandmother and cousin to get a bath. He wants her constantly in sight. Apparently, Carol understands his impulse and takes him by the elbow to the sink to wash up. She points out the cheese grater and blocks of cheese on the table.

"Lori changed part of the menu for tonight. Seems mac and cheese with bacon is someone's favorite. You can do your part."

Daryl's torn between gratitude for the skinny woman's decision to provide a comfort food to Abby and worry that the menu was originally set up as a birthday treat for Honey and Sophia.

Carol displays her growing ability to read his mind when she pats his hand as he sits down. He realizes they're alone in the kitchen, so she must have shooed the teenagers normally assigned as supper assistants away.

"I'm going to cover the supper shift tonight for Glynnis and I promise you that Sophia will be as happy with mac and cheese as she would've been with cheesy hash browns. We've still got a favorite for each of them on the menu. You work on that cheese while I get the cakes in the oven. By the time you get done, I'll bet Abby will be back downstairs."

He obeys, grating the cheese with efficiency despite his distraction. "Where's Pipsqueak?"

"She's playing hostess with Amanda and Jenny for the Kentucky folks." Carol points toward the back deck, where the foursome who got Abby here safely are enjoying cold drinks and the company of several of the dogs and what he thinks might be a baby goat fetched up from the little herd the Eldridges gathered up from neighbors who didn't make it. He supposes if you want to reassure law enforcement honed instincts, presenting them with happy teenagers and a wheelchair bound woman does make an impression.

"I haven't even thanked them."

"That's okay, Pookie. Patricia and I took care of them. You were where you needed to be."

"Pookie?"

She shrugs and smiles with a hint of mischief he's glad to see. "You gave Sophia a nickname, so I thought you needed one too."

"Ain't a teddy bear."

"You keep thinking that." She sets the mixer to whatever magic she's working in the big mixing bowl for a minute before continuing. "Merle sent a team down to the RV lot to bring back a couple more. He figures they'll feel better all in one place and with their own space."

"Not Abby."

"Well, of course not. But if she's prone to wanting to climb in bed with a parent, you need more than that cot. Lori already packed up to give you and Abby Jazz's room after Glynnis said she wanted her up here with you instead of down at her cottage."

"She's a bit old for sleeping with me, isn't she?" He can't remember when Merle's girls stopped running to him after a nightmare, and he usually slept on the floor next to Scout when she had nightmares after Will Dixon's attack.

"She might not, if she's just in the bunk above you. But she's lost her mother and her stepfather, so I don't want to predict what direction her grief will go. Rachel, the lady marshal, says she has been so stoic they're worried about her."

"I didn't want to ask Abby, but did they say what happened?" For all the dislike he built up for Carrie after she took his baby girl away, he never wished her gone like this.

"Carrie was sick coming out of Lexington. Not the flu, but something bad. She passed in the night just after they made it into Tennessee and they didn't know everyone turns." Carol pauses in her baking to turn to look at him. "Ethan got bitten putting himself between Abby and her mama."

"She saw?"

"Yeah. That and Tim having to shoot Carrie. Ethan helped them get back on the road, but they said he planned to end things before he turned, soon as Abby was gone and safe. They just kept on this way in hope there really was a safehaven."

Goddammit, his poor kid's not only lost her other parents, but gone through hell in the process. "They gonna stay?"

"I think so. Rachel's got her nephew she's been raising for years, and they don't have any reason to return to Kentucky. Tim mentioned a buddy in Florida, but I don't think he really wants to get back on the road again on just the possibility his friend survived."

"And the girl?"

"Former foster kid that his buddy down in Florida was keeping an eye on when he was in Lexington. Tim says her skillset is pure Kentucky redneck, so she'll fit in. She definitely is tired of traveling. Girl's Loretta and the little boy is Nick. He's the same age as Abby."

He finishes the cheese, mulling over the information. "This gonna be enough?"

She eyes the heaping mound of cheese and nods. "Gonna use Velveeta for the rest. I want to use it up while we have it."

"I'm going to go introduce myself. Tell Abby where I am when she comes back down?"

"Sure. Send the girls in to help me with getting supper in the ovens."

He surprises them both with the gentle hug he gives her on the way out.

~*~ SW ~*~

Scout passes the notebook to Patricia to file away after she details the information the newcomers gave about their trip down from Kentucky. It is not that different from Scout's up from Florida, although they trekked with much fewer people.

"I don't think we can ever repay you for getting Abby back to us," she says.

The female marshal smiles. "You already are with good food and a safe place to stay. I never thought I would see this many kids for Nick to play with again."

"Still, it's far beyond what most people would do for a coworker's child. I can't deny we can use your skills anyway."

"There any official chain of command here?" the other marshal asks. Something about the way he moves and observes reminds Shane of Scout. He's gotta be ex-military, definitely a combat vet.

"Official last word would lay with my father for most things. We've got a bit of an unofficial planning committee, so most of them are available to spin an idea by. Anything dealing with security goes through me and Shane. That includes the supply runs. Patricia tells us what she needs in what order and then Shane and I arrange the runs. We've been concentrating on getting the nursing home set up before we work on storage."

"Nursing home?"

"We came across a place in Atlanta where the elderly were abandoned. Had a few relatives, the janitor, and one nurse stick around. Intended for them to stay put until after we got a place set up for them, but they got targeted by a group of assholes. They're holed up off property for now since we didn't have any hope of housing them."

"Some would see them as a waste of resources," Rachel says carefully. She doesn't believe it, Shane thinks, but she's testing Scout's moral code to see if it aligns with hers. Something about the dynamic tells him that the other marshal will follow her lead.

"I was lucky enough not to experience any panic or orders to turn on the public I'm sworn to defend. I don't plan on deciding who I save based on how much work they are capable of."

"Semper Fi," Tim says. Scout nods. He exchanges a look with Rachel and she hums softly before turning back to Shane and Scout.

"Tim was a sniper in the Rangers. You got need of that?"

"Can you train others?" Shane asks. He's good, and so are the Dixons, but another person with sniper level skill who can pass that on would be a marvel.

The man thinks it over. "Never tried, to be honest. But I'm willing to give it a try."

"Good. We have a lot of folks who need lessons and not enough time for those of us who do teach to go around. Don't gotta turn out snipers, but making sure they know which end of the gun is which and missing out on friendly fire would be ideal." Shane makes a mental note to introduce the man to Honey, who could benefit from additional aspects of the guncraft she loves.

"Y'all have had a harder road getting here than we had, so I figure for the first week, relax and if you want to join supply runs after that, sure." Scout waves a hand at the sprawling property. "But I'm not going to assume that's where you want to fit in just because you were law enforcement."

"I don't mind a break, but I got no problem going out," Tim says. "And Loretta will probably want to. I'm guessing y'all are good with that since your sister seems about the same age."

"Yeah, even the teenagers can do runs, although that started out of necessity originally."

Shane shifts in his seat, realizing it's getting late and Rachel's nephew is sound asleep against Loretta in the group of kids playing Uno further down the deck. "We got an RV set up for y'all. Figured you'd prefer to stay together, but we can shift that if you don't."

Both marshals shake their head, and Rachel accepts. "Just show us the way."

Shane rises with them and Tim goes to pick up the sleeping boy. Shane leans in to brush a kiss across Scout's lips before leading the newbies to their new quarters.

He lets them explore a minute, grinning at Nick's excitement over the little bunk bed in the hall. "If you want more space later, we can sort it out. Merle's planning on more permanent quarters before winter hits."

"This is like a tiny slice of heaven after months in that SUV," Rachel says.

"Well, if you need anything in the night, me and Scout are in the cabin out at the woodline. Merle's bunking in his old office, so you can find him pretty easy if you tap on the one single door on the back deck. Got a deputy two RVs down that way, the one stenciled number five."

"Good to know." Rachel smiles at him as she leans in the doorway. "I'm sure you're anxious to get back to your wife."

Huh. Maybe Rick's comment about the appearance they give off is more accurate than he gave it credit. But he corrects the assumption anyway. "We're not married, but I think I'll add on a 'yet'."

"Then I wish you both all the luck with that. Precious little happiness in the world to let any escape you."

He just smiles and bids them good night. It definitely not a happiness he intends to let go.

~*~ MD ~*~

"Hey, Miss Phia, we skipping our book tonight cos of your birthday?" Merle's about ninety percent certain that's not it, since he tracked her down alone in the room she shares with the other girls

She shrugs, polite enough to pause in the careful inking she's doing with the art pens he scavenged out of that big semi for her along with several sketchpads and colored pencils. "I didn't want to interrupt your time with Abby."

Ah hell. Everything about the girl is screaming insecurity, and on her birthday, no less. He takes a seat beside her on the bottom bunk, mirroring probably a thousand other talks he's had with his girls.

"You should spend time with the family too."

She sighs and caps the pen, her expression solemn. "Honey's the only one who says I'm family."

"Oh, princess, I promise you that she may have been the first to say it, but we've all decided you belong with us."

"So I'm a Dixon too?"

"If that's what you want." He understands the need to shed the surname connecting you to a bad father. He might have taken his Mama's family name if he thought about it before his kids were used to Dixon. He decided then to just make it something they could be proud of. "Sophia Dixon sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"

She smiles hesitantly. "But if people ask how I'm a Dixon, what do I say?"

"Whatever you like. Can say you're mine or Daryl's or that Honey stole you outta the cabbage patch, long as it makes you happy."

She's quiet and thoughtful for long enough he starts to get concerned. "I think I'll say you're my dad. Daryl's a great uncle, and Abby kinda needs him all to herself right now."

Just like that, Merle's the father of six. He pulls her in for a hug and she snuggles close in a way she hasn't in previous hugs.

"I like it best when you call me princess," she murmurs against his chest.

"I'll keep that in mind." He spots the novel they've been reading on the nightstand and reaches for it. "How about I do the reading tonight?"

"Like a bedtime story? Only ever had Mama read those to me."

The yearning in her tone makes him hope Scout and Shane let that bastard Ed suffer before they ended him.

"Yeah, princess, like a bedtime story."

And if he reads himself hoarse, waiting until she falls asleep against him, while little peeping toms sit in the hallway listening, well, she's got years of missed bedtime stories to make up for.

~*~ DD ~*~

"Daddy?"

"Yeah, Abby?"

"Can I sleep with you?"

Daryl's glad Carol's motherly instinct led her to warn him. "Sure, Sunshine. Come on down here."

She scrambles down the bunk ladder and manages to knee him squarely in the gut in her goal to tuck in close to the wall. He cuddles her close, breathing in the scent of strawberry shampoo on her blonde curls.

He's not sure how or when to broach the subject of her mother's death or Ethan's. She didn't mention them to Glynnis or Merle or her cousins either. He doesn't remember losing his own mother, even if he knows intellectually that it was probably as traumatic as Abby's experience.

The closest he can think of is the months of grief and confusion Cricket experienced at her mother's disappearance. Scout's rage sustained her through those rough first months and Honey was just a baby, but damn Cricket cried. He thinks it was probably healthier, since she recovered from losing what little mothering Lilliana provided better than Daryl or Scout did.

"Daddy? It's safe here, right?"

"Yeah. We have fences and the river and a lot of people to look out for you."

"And Rachel and Tim are staying?"

"We invited them to. I think they will."

She wriggles up to kiss his cheek. "Mommy kept saying you weren't Daddy anymore and to call Ethan that. But he told her to hush and he wasn't replacing you."

"Ethan sounds like a good man."

"I wish they didn't die."

"I wish they didn't either." He hugs her close, expecting tears, but she just sighs softly.

"I love you, Daddy. You are my sunshine."

"Love you too, my little sunshine." His heart aches in a good way at the easy return to their bedtime goodnight.

Maybe they still need to face his daughter's grief and trauma, but for tonight, he'll just enjoy that she's home and safe and no court can ever take her from him again.

Chapter Text

August 6, 2010

~*~ SW ~*~

"I'm half wishing we brought a third team," Shane says as he finishes his final inspection of the big military truck he's driving back to the Homestead. His is full of every usable military supply they could scrounge from the abandoned military camp. The MREs alone add at least a month of insurance that they can feed their people in an emergency.

Rick laughs. "I think between you and Morgan, it would take an act of God to get into that old warehouse we stashed the overflow in. I'm counting our blessings that we found so much we had to prioritize."

"You still fretting over our abundance?" Scout asks, but her tone is less amused and more understanding. She went through lean times in the road like the quarry camp did. It's not really something Rick can comprehend.

"I know that only a King County native would think to look there, but I think Patricia's inventory notebooks crawled in my brain and spawned."

"Just think of how overjoyed she'll be when we pull in with all this."

"I'm just glad they reported in that they have plenty of trailers for storage." After Honey simply drove off with that first semi, it occurred to the planners that the semi trailers were a quick solution to keeping supplies out of the rain and weather.

"There's going to be some really confused groups one day when they find all those piles of reject goods lying around parking lots."

Rick's distracted during his exchange with Scout, so he nudges his best friend when the woman walks away to help Zach with a tie down strap.

It gets him a sheepish smile. "Was just thinking we're unusually blessed with being able to return home and clear out our things. Maybe we could suggest similar trips to check out other hometowns."

"It's a good thought. Give some closure to those who want it and have native knowledge of the area both. Some places would be too far, just yet." And some, like Allen and Donna's hometown of Valdosta, might never be on the list.

Although with good maps of which routes are clear, they made amazing time here, managing it in a single day, even with moving and replacing strategic 'traffic jams', which they agreed to after the Vatos attack. That group is still out there, because Scout can't spare enough fighters to take on a town the size their captive described. Not yet. He knows the existence of a place that preys on others eats at her, and the fellow that runs it just doesn't know his days are numbered yet.

It was the gathering of goods and fuel that kept them here three days. One of those was just clearing the hospital, especially the cafeteria. If that herd had ever gotten loose, it might have ended ugly for someone.

They have two of the military transports loaded just with hospital supplies, taking everything that isn't too bulky to transport so far when there are closer hospital facilities for taking equipment for their future infirmary.

Best part was that the generator waa still struggling along, so they were able to get the computer system on to retrieve Rick's hospital records, thanks to a nurse who taped her password under the keyboard. Cricket and Hershel didn't like mysteries in their patient's treatment.

"You ready to go?" Scout steps in close in the habit she's developed, accepting a kiss after he smiles sheepishly for being lost in thought.

"Yeah. Just be glad to sleep in our own bed tonight." He got spoiled at the Homestead, sleeping in the nude next to her, even if half the time they were too damn tired to take advantage of that nakedness. On the road like this, they've managed shared watch shifts again so they're always able to curl up together, but it isn't the same.

"Hopefully our travel luck will hold. I've got plans that involve you and our shower." She grinned and walked away to hustle the others into vehicles.

"Sometimes I'm a little jealous," Rick says, startling Shane as he watches Scout walk away.

Shane feels the heat of a flush but ignores it. "You aren't regretting ending things with Lori, are you?"

"No. We're both happier now. But I do miss knowing there's someone to come home to at night." Rick looks hesitant, the ghost of the affair between them and Lori's spiteful behavior in camp.

But their friendship can't heal past that if they avoid the easy crude jokes, so Shane makes it. "We gotta get you laid, man."

"Like who? Not exactly a one night stand world anymore."

"There's at least three women who wouldn't mind scratching an itch with you. Not sure I'd risk it with Andrea, too much of a black widow vibe, but Sasha or that pretty redhead farmer? You should think about it "

"Lenore? She's got kids though."

"Doesn't mean she's gotta be celibate or look for a stepdad for them. She's the type for casual, not like Lilly. That one I'd warn you off of. She's interested, but she's a forever kind of gal." At Rick's incredulous look, he grins. "I'm taken and happy, brother, not ignorant to all I learned about single women before. Never got to be your wingman."

"Alright. I'll think on it "

They part ways for Shane to head to the rear of the caravan and his truck, while Scout drives solo at the front. Everyone else is paired except Zach, but they decided in the end that taking the two extra truckloads was worth the risk of three drivers without anyone riding shotgun.

Time to go home.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle nods at the message the watch messenger brought that Scout's very successful caravan just hit the road down in King County. He knows his daughter is capable and her deputy would die to protect her, but having her so far away for four days now is driving him loopy. He wishes she had taken Jamie on the run too, but his construction skills are better suited here.

"It's all good, right, Dad? They'll be back soon." Sophia is looking at him with that expression of absolute faith she's been wearing ever since he reassured her about her place in his life. But the Dad name is new.

"It's all good, yeah. We'll have to keep working hard to keep ahead of them of they keep up runs like that."

She grins, but it fades. "It is okay to call you Dad, right?"

"If that's what feels right to you, princess, then it's good for me too." He throws an arm across her skinny shoulders and directs her toward the foundation they're building for Patricia and Glynnis' new cafeteria. Even those in temporary housing agreed that a decent place to feed everyone took priority now that the elderly are settled in.

She's putting in cinder blocks with all the serious concentration of a master mason when he sees Lori driving the Polaris with the water coolers on the back. They graduated to two and set water breaks after a close call two days ago with Leo's son Mateo and heat exhaustion.

He leaves Sophia to her masonry and goes to lift the coolers onto the table. He knows Lori is capable of lifting them, but it feels rude to watch. She settles the stacks of cups in a bin so they won't blow away, and tucks the usual bin for the dirties under the table.

"You heard they're on the way back, right?"

"Yeah. Watch sent one of the small fry down as a runner."

"Good. I'm wanting to talk to Rick about letting Carl join Honey's shooting lessons, before he drives me crazy about it. I know Rick's going to say yes, but...'

"You're trying not to leave him out of major changes. I get it."

"Especially since I spent so many years protesting Carl learning." She gives him a rueful smile. "I'd best get back to the house before today's helper crew turns everyone's underwear pink."

He laughs and helps himself to a cup of water as he watches the Polaris return to the main house.

When he returns to Sophia, she's frowning.

"Something wrong, princess?" The nickname is thus far a key to getting her to talk through any insecurity.

"Are you dating Lori?"

Dating sounds like something too frivolous for the world they're in now, and even so, he isn't interested in Lori. He knows a lesser man might take advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability right now, but he's never been the type. She's made no indication of interest, either, so he isn't sure what's making Sophia think about them like that.

"No, she's just a friend. Neither of us is interested in romancing the other."

"Some of the women think you're sleeping with her. They wonder how long til she's moved in with you."

"Which women?" He doesn't care if they gossip about him. He's ignored that shit for years, especially the speculation about his sex life as a single, eligible man. But he's always put his foot down anytime it affects one of the kids' happiness.

"Andrea started it, and she's the only one really rude sounding about it. But they're all crazy curious and think it's just a matter of time. Andrea calls Lori a golddigger. Mama told her to hush and not be so mean."

He feels disappointed to hear that Carol's involved in the gossip, although not surprised. The woman is getting bolder and more likely to stand up for herself, but she has years of habits to break of deferring to others. Andrea being the instigator doesn't surprise him. Out of the women at the quarry, she's the only one who still avoids him.

"I'll have a chat with the ladies about my private life staying private, but if they say anything to bother you in the future, you just let me know."

Sophia smiles and nods, returning to her work just long enough he thinks the subject is dropped.

"Would you ever think about my Mama like that?"

"Sophia." When she doesn't look up, he tugs off a work glove and gently grips her chin to turn her to look at him.

"Your mama just spent a long time in a bad situation. She deserves to spread her wings, and me starting anything like that would be taking advantage of the situation. And you don't need to matchmake me and Carol. She could up and marry Hershel or T-Dog tomorrow and I'll still be your daddy as long as you want me to be "

"So you're saying not yet, not a not ever?" There's a spark of mischief among the wistfulness in her expression and he tweaks her nose before getting his glove back on.

"I'm saying you quit your worrying about who partners who and get back to work, missy."

She giggles and returns to her task. They work in a contented silence, which leaves Merle to consider the situation.

He meant what he said about Carol being vulnerable. He came near to warning Daryl off, since the amount of time his brother spends with the grey haired woman makes him think his baby brother might have finally found a woman worth taking a risk on after all the damage Carrie inflicted. But he let it be because it isn't really his place to interfere. Daryl's not going to push Carol past any comfort zone she sets. He raised him better than that.

He's never really considered her in light of his own interest. It's there, and if he'd met her when she wasn't wasn't less than a month out of an abusive relationship, he can admit he's attracted enough to her warm personally to consider breaking his near two decade personal ban on serious interest in a woman.

But there's Daryl already there, and Carol is still learning not to hide in the shadows.

But the gossip, that he can put a stop to before it hurts more than Sophia.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane halts as the caravan does, and the radio crackles to life.

"Two survivors penned by at least twenty dead. Hit the roofs and let's extract these guys."

His truck is too far to use as a firing platform and so is the one ahead of his. He hits the ground running, with Glenn and Maggie on his heels. They each comply with the order by climbing onto a different vehicle close in. Karen glances at him, but goes back to taking aim with the air rifle.

Everyone on this run is a skilled shot, so they fell the last walker within five minutes of Scout sounding the alarm. Shane estimates the fallen to be closer to thirty, since some lurched from out of visual range toward the noise of the air rifles. They were quieter than conventional firearms, but still loud enough if the dead were close by.

She gives the hand signal to clear the ground after five minutes pass without any new walkers. She thumps to the ground, and Glenn, Karen, and Sasha follow. He hates the separation of not being her partner on the ground. But keeping the best shots other than Scout herself on potential sniper duty is more important.

He keeps an eagle eye on the four moving on the ground. The people trapped on top of the abandoned city bus are following the command to stay put. The two look exhausted and he wonders how long they've been trapped on top of the bus.

It doesn't take long for them to ensure all the dead are permanently so, and Scout gets the two survivors to slide down after she slides a dumpster up to the bus. One stumbles and the other catches him. Scout points toward the vehicles.

As soon as they're in range to avoid shouting, she calls out to Zach to grab his medic kit. The young man slides down the hood of his truck and has the kit open in the floorboard before his patient is lifted into the passenger seat.

Shane signals for Rick and Maggie to hold position. "He bit?" he calls down to Scout.

"No, looks like an infected cut. His boy says he caught his arm on a jagged fire escape when they got cornered about a week ago. Zach's going to start him on an IV for the dehydration and we'll snag some of the IV antibiotics from the hospital. I'm going to go radio in to get the dosage from Hershel."

He nods, keeping half his attention on watch and half on her journey up to the lead truck.

Movement in the distance catches his attention and he lifts his binoculars. The car is approaching slowly and carefully. It looks to be Atlanta PD, but that's no guarantee any officers survived to be driving it. They certainly saw no sign in the months at the quarry.

He sounds the alert, a long, low whistle that has every head turning his way. "Cop car coming from the east."

"Maggie and Sasha, my truck. Zach with our foundlings. Morgan, you follow. Stop at the middle school we used to leave the first time. Maggie's in charge."

The vehicles pull out so quickly that the slowly approaching car isn't even halfway to them. Shane hopes the fact that it isn't speeding up with three vehicles leaving is a good sign. Rick is on the ground now, since Morgan's driving off with his perch, but Shane stretches out to make himself less of a target.

As Scout moves to stand point with Glenn, Karen, and Rick behind her, he's glad they all dress like military on these runs. If these are cops, they'll respond to the uniforms better than civilian attire.

He has to grin when she makes sure her stripes are unable to be missed when the two officers step out of the car.

"Officers Shepherd and Licari," the female says. She's alert, but her posture is carefully 'good cop'. Her partner isn't as much at ease, but Shane doesn't think he's a threat at the moment.

"Staff Sergeant Dixon. Can I help you?"

"We were patrolling and saw movement. Thought we might be needed."

"We cleared out the little herd and rescued the survivors. One is in need of medical attention, but we'll provide it."

"I wasn't aware there was a military presence in Atlanta anymore."

"We were here a few weeks ago, and no sign of a police presence. None of the survivors we rescued mention any assistance at all before we arrived."

The two officers exchange a look and Licari shrugs. Shepherd sighs. "The officer in charge of what's left of us doesn't exactly like taking people in. Not unless she can obligate them by offering medical care." She shifts her weight and exchanges another look with Licari.

He speaks next. "We don't have the support to change things, but what she's doing is wrong. She's even letting some of the men make rescued women work off their debt in ways that would be illegal if there was still any higher authority."

"And you two are just sitting back and letting it happen?" Her voice has a dangerous note Shane recognizes. So do both officers.

"We've been sheltering them as best we can, but we aren't there all the time. Everyone is too afraid of the bully boys after previous dissenters met with 'accidents' out on runs. Even if we arrange accidents ourselves, we aren't enough to keep the people under our care safe. There's no guarantee the neutrals will back our play." Shepherd seems to be telling the truth.

"So why trust me with this?"

"You're the first organized group we've come across. And when you thought we might be a threat, you protected the rescued at the cost of having a smaller squad face us. That's not the sign of a corrupt leader."

Scout looks over her shoulder, catching his eye. He gives a nod. They'll help the officers, although the extent of that is yet to be seen. He sits up and shoulders the air rifle so he can join her.

"How many civilians are we talking about?" he asks as soon as he's at her side.

"About thirty."

"And officers?"

"Twelve. Three unredeemable, plus the lieutenant. Officers do all the runs and patrols."

"You'll need to train your civilians if you want a chance at long term survival."

"They aren't capable of facing this!" Licari's tone is disbelieving.

Scout laughs. "Glenn, what did you do before?"

"Pizza delivery."

"Karen?"

"Taught third grade."

Scout turns back to the officers. "Not every civilian is capable, but if you're got eight good cops, you're already double the capable adults I started out with. Place in the city is only viable for as long as the canned goods and medical supplies hold out. You're already set up to fail."

"But you'll still help?" Shepherd is near pleading.

Shane nods again when Scout looks his way. "Go radio to tell the others to proceed home. Need to get the man to better medical care than we can give him on the road."

He nods. "Want anyone sent out to join us?"

She thinks it over. "Where are y'all based?"

"Grady Memorial." Shepherd looks like she's seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in months. He remembers the feeling of his first encounter with Scout well.

"Old hospital, gonna make Emory Midtown look like a kiddie maze," Glenn adds.

"Have Jamie bring out two teams, three if possible."

He heads for a radio as Scout turns to the officers and tells them to start sketching a map for Glenn.

~*~ DD ~*~

Daryl follows Hershel as he leaves the spare RV where they've set up the father and son. The vet's expression is grave as he walks out of hearing range of his patients. Patricia and Glynnis are waiting on the front porch.

"I'm guessing it isn't good news," Patricia says.

"The boy just needs rest, hydration, and good nutrition. His father has tetanus, and if that refrigerated medication from the King County hospital has the immune globulin, we can feasibly treat it with the other meds we already have. But his condition is already close to critical on breathing and we don't have a mechanical ventilator."

"Hospital in Canton looked accessible. Would they have a ventilator on the first floor?" Daryl asks.

"In the ER, sure."

"We'll put together a team then. You'll need a bigger space though." Daryl looks toward the garage, currently still doubling as a medical supply warehouse. "Need to clear out one of the garage bays. Can stick it down in the big barn temporarily. Make the garage the infirmary."

The others nod and the two women hustle off to collect a moving crew. With Scout, Merle, and Shane out, there's no one to plan a run, not really, so he supposes it falls to him.

Worry over the people out to take care of the predator problem in Atlanta sets low in his gut. He should lead the crew to the hospital, but he isn't sure he should leave Abby either, not yet.

"You look like you're thinking hard enough for ten people." He turns to see the female marshal smiling at him.

"Gotta organize a hospital equipment run. Was debating if I should go."

Rachel thinks about it. "I'm guessing Abby's the concern. I think she'll be just fine between her grandmother and your girlfriend."

"Carol's not my girlfriend."

"My apologies. I just assumed since you two seem to spend a lot of your downtime together. She's been keeping Abby occupied when you aren't available, too."

"She's family." He shrugs it off, deciding he'll figure out how he gave off the impression of pursuing Carol later. "You up for a run?"

"Might as well start pulling my weight. I'm sure your not-girlfriend will keep an eye on Nick for me."

"A'right. I'll grab Tyreese and Cricket. Meet me at the big Dodge hooked up to the gooseneck trailer in fifteen minutes?" That'll give him time to explain to Abby and Carol too.

At least the run will give him time to figure out how to ask Carol if she thinks they're a couple, too.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori is closing the tailgate after the last truckload of supply relocation when she overhears Andrea remark to Amy about the fact that they have two cases of pregnancy tests. She freezes, doing the mental calculation and coming up with a really bad answer.

But before the panic can set in, Andrea keeps talking. "Wonder how long til Lori's needing these and who is she going to claim for the daddy."

"Andrea, if you get any bitchier about Lori, I'm going to think you want Merle for yourself."

"Please. Not even a pretty house would make that man appealing to get naked with. How Lori can go from someone smart as Rick to two different jocks, I'll never know."

"I think you're just being a complete bitch, and I feel sorry for Amy being your sister."

Lori wishes she could see Andrea's face now. The blonde dropped her antagonism in a fake show of support at the quarry over the affair mess, but she knew even then that it wasn't true friendship. She's probably even well aware Lori's in earshot of her unkind words.

But apparently she didn't realize that they weren't alone at the barn, and now she's been overheard by one of the Dixon kids.

"You shouldn't be talking to an adult like that."

"I was taught to give respect where it is earned and to call a spade a spade."

"About what I'd expect from someone like you."

"Jazz could start kicking puppies and he's still a nicer person than you."

Oh, shit. As bad as it is that she didn't react right away when Jazz spoke up, that's Sophia, and God only knows how many other kids might be present due to puppies in the barn.

She steps into the opening. "Kids, I think it's best if y'all head back to the house."

Jazz normally reminds her more of Daryl in his mannerisms despite looking like Merle, but the belligerent expression he has now is all Merle. He's ready to dig in and fight what he sees as an injustice, even when she's fairly sure the boy dislikes her.

"Jazz, I thank you for speaking up, but this is a battle I want to fight myself. Why don't you take Daryl's truck up to the house with Sophia?"

The teenager finally gives in, but not without a look toward Andrea that promises he won't be forgetting the interaction anytime soon. If looks could kill, Sophia's would send Andrea into an early grave. Amy escapes with them, looking like she's fleeing a bomb threat.

"I may have made my share of mistakes for the next thirty or so years, but there's nothing that gives you the right to talk about me like that."

"You've slept with three different men inside a month!"

"No, I slept with two, and the only people who need to be concerned with that are me, Rick, and Shane. I didn't handle anything at the quarry well, but unlike you, I'm working on redeeming myself."

"You're trying to claim you aren't screwing Merle?"

"Exactly. As long as he's sober, he's a damn good source of what it's like being a single parent. I burned all my bridges being friends with the women we knew at the quarry, so it's nice to speak to someone who understands."

"And that's all it is? Hardly."

"Believe whatever you like, but if you keep dragging his name in the mud, you're going to regret it. Personally, the second he hears about what you said to Jazz, I hope he sticks you in a tent out in the sheep pen. Even Dale won't defend you if you're going after the kids."

"He called me a bitch!"

"No, he said you were acting like one, but the shoe fits. Andrea, if you don't stop being a complete bitch, you're going to end up lonely and ostracized. Even your sister couldn't stand being around just then. Take it from someone who towed that same line really close."

She leaves the blonde sputtering and begins the trek back to the house.

She curls a hand against her belly. She can't worry about what Andrea thinks of her right now.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane holds his place with his team, knowing his job, just like Merle's and Rick's in their own teams, is to just look as intimidating as possible.

Jamie brought enough people for four four-man teams. It ended up being overkill, because in a stroke of luck, six of the officers were playing a poker game in a staff lounge. Shane simply locked the inattentive morons in by shoving a disassembled IV pole through the door handle.

Once the remaining four realized Shepherd and Licari were siding with the intruders, all but one dropped their weapons and surrendered. The one who refused is ziptied and cursing in the floor after he pissed himself when Tara tased him.

Faced with similar treatment with the taser, the only two armed in the staff lounge also surrendered. So now they have ten officers cuffed or zip tied in the big cafeteria while Scout questions the civilians about the story Shepherd gave her.

His throat radio activates. "Ask which one is Gorman."

He clears his throat. "Which one of these assholes is Gorman?"

Shepherd and Licari both point to the tased asshole. Shane rolls him off his belly with a booted foot to confirm his uniform bears the name.

"Confirmed as the leader of the little group of rapists by everyone I've spoken to," she continues.

"You the leader of the rapists here?" he asks.

"We kept those bitches safe. It's the least they could do for us."

He meets her gaze across the room and she nods. He takes a single shot with his Glock.

Their teams and the officers who led them here are expecting the execution, but the rest aren't. It's a testiment to how bad life was in this place that he sees more relief and even joy versus horror when he scans the civilians' faces.

"You confirm the other names?"

"O'Donnell and Alvarado."

"Which one is Alvarado?"

Shepherd points out the kneeling man, who faces him stoically. He offers him the same chance to speak. "You rape those women?"

He sees the resolve in Shane's eyes that death is coming, but he nods and bows his head. A stray moment of conscience at the end, maybe.

Everyone's expecting the shot this time.

"O'Donnell?"

Shepherd's hand shakes this time, and the woman he knows to be the lieutenant actually struggles at her restraints. She doesn't speak. None of them have since surrendering.

"Same question. You rape those women?"

"Yes." Whatever humanity the man possessed before the world ended is long gone. Shane's seen more regret in the face of a death row inmate.

His body hits the floor with a thud and Shane holsters his Glock. This is as much a gruesome ceremony as justice.

The lieutenant is crying as she looks at the blood pooling on the floor. Her officers' expressions range from scared to stoic. The civilians look vindicated.

Scout crosses the room and crouches to the leader's level. "When did you abandon your duty to keep these people safe?"

"You don't know what it's like!"

"Oh, but I do. Except I didn't have the luxury of four walls to keep them safe for several months. And I promise you, there's not a man or woman in my group that would consider rape a right for protecting anyone else in it."

"So easy to say when you've got someone that loyal to do your dirty work for you."

Scout reaches in her vest, bypassing the big knife she carries openly for the karambit she conceals. "Do you know why he's so loyal?"

Lerner's gaze can't seem to leave the wickedly curved knife. "No."

"Because a man in our group tried to murder a woman and child. I don't ask anyone to carry out any order I'm not willing to do myself. I executed that justice myself with this little knife. So today, he offered to administer justice in my place."

"This isn't justice."

"I'm sure your victims will disagree. You're just as guilty as every rapist under your command. You have the command and you failed rather than put a bullet through their heads."

"You think these people are going to be assets to you, be loyal because of this?"

"I don't require them to be loyal to me. I just require them to be good people."

She stands and studies the civilians. "Does anyone object that she's responsible for their crimes?"

Shepherd and Licari look shaken, but don't disagree. None of the other officers speak up, and the civilians still have that eerie calm of a people seeing an end to their suffering in sight.

Scout draws her Glock and fires.

Chapter Text

August 7, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

"You look exhausted, Hershel. Need some coffee?" Carol asks as she enters the kitchen to start breakfast. She's ahead of her helpers, but that's to be expected since she's about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule this morning.

The veterinarian is sitting at the kitchen table in a bit of a doze, but he straightens and yawns. "No, just enjoying a cup of tea before getting some sleep. I took the night shift and Cricket will cover the day shift in the infirmary with Lilly to help."

"How's our patient?"

"Sedated but stable. He's tolerating the tracheotomy and ventilator and we were able to debride the infected tissue, so we just have to hope he responds to the antibiotics and the immune globulin before he develops pneumonia or nutrition issues. I don't want to attempt a gastric feeding tube, and it's still nothing short of a miracle that Rick survived without one for so long. He's lucky to be treated by a veterinarian."

"Why's that?" Carol is rolling out biscuit dough with practiced ease. She likes the easy rhythm of working with dough.

"It's virtually irradicated for humans, a few handful of cases a year usually in adults who didn't get a tetanus booster. Horses are as susceptible to tetanus as humans, so I've treated a few cases in my career."

"How did those turn out?"

He sighs, emptying his cup. "It's considered a 50-75% fatality rate in equines, which is why horses are supposed to be vaccinated."

"I remember Cricket gave T-Dog a booster shot at the quarry. Maybe we need a vaccine clinic just in case for everyone?"

"That would be a really good idea. Probably a general health review. Dale needs to be monitored for his cholesterol, and no telling how many of the ladies need birth control assessed since the stock for that may last longer than the condom supply. I'm not feeling up to becoming a midwife at my age."

Carol pauses with her biscuits, turning to look at him. "Would that be really complicated to train for? Because I'm guessing it's a matter of time before we either rescue a pregnant woman or end up with one."

He studies her thoughtfully. "That something that interests you?"

"I did a year in an LPN program before I had to drop out to take care of my mother. I don't know that I want to be a full time nurse like Lilly or Felipe, but it couldn't hurt to learn, right?"

"I would encourage you to do so, especially since you aren't starting from scratch. And there are enough animals here that I could get you some veterinary birth experience, although those are usually nothing but observation. Lilly and Felipe would have both had maternity rotations, and I'll just about bet all of our law enforcement types went through an emergency course. So you have a lot of sources to learn from."

Carol smiles, imagining asking Daryl to walk her through what he learned. "I'll put it on my to-do list."

"Something tells me your to-do list is longer than my own, most days." He brings the mug to the sink and washes it before sitting it in the drain rack. "I'm going to get some sleep. If I'm not up by lunch, make sure someone wakes me. Sooner if our patient takes a turn for the worse."

She nods, sliding the first trays of biscuits in the oven as he heads for the stairs.

"Knock, knock," Jacqui calls out as she closes the front door behind her. "We doing hashbrowns this morning?"

"Yeah. Lenore and Arthur say it was a spectacular yield this year and they'll only store about six, maybe eight, months. If you want to start chopping peppers, I'll put the boys on shredding the potatoes." Since today's breakfast crew is the trio of boys housed downstairs, Carol goes over and buzzes the intercom just as a reminder. At least one of them isn't down there, though, because she can see Jazz down by the chicken pen with a basket, Abby at his heels. She wonders if the little girl woke him to go feed the chickens and gather eggs, which is technically not his chore today, but she doesn't see Beth objecting. She makes the change on the chore roster so that Jazz gets the work credit in Patricia's system. It would be too easy for him to be taken advantage of, since he likes to keep busy.

"We getting some of your sausage gravy with those biscuits?"

"Of course. I'm not yet brave enough to try the canned sausage all on it's own, are you?"

"Nope." Jacqui grins. "But it smells better than squirrel, so maybe we should."

Jimmy and Carl appear, both looking half asleep, but they know the procedure well enough by now to take a seat and start shredding the potatoes, which gives Carol time to check the supply of milk in the fridge and relax with a cup of coffee since Jacqui will handle the hashbrowns. She's glad the Dixon kitchen is so spacious, because she can't imagine cooking for more than fifty people in her cramped kitchen back home. At least the nursing home has its own kitchen, since they'd deemed it smarter to leave the old daycare's kitchen in place to handle the special menus of the residents rather than transport from the main house.

She shuffles for another cup of coffee when she sees Daryl coming down the stairs, dressed in what she recognizes as his hunting gear for the first time since they left the quarry. "Getting restless working the building crew, Pookie?"

He drinks half the cup of coffee before replying. "Nah. But the farm crew is having a rabbit problem, so I'm going to take some of the kids down there. You good with Sophia going? Gonna take Abby and Ryan's girls since their chores can be rotated to later. Jimmy and Jazz too, since they'll be free."

Carol knows that means that Sophia will be outside the extremely secure part of the Homestead onto the Eldridge property, but there's game cams at all the weak points that would have alerted the watch detail here if anything crossed over, so she nods. Sophia specifically asked to be able to learn skills like this. She sees Carl looking disappointed to not be included - again - and nudges Daryl toward the boy.

He studies him for a minute. "When your mama comes for breakfast, you ask her if you can go. She might be waiting to talk to your dad about you learning to shoot, but doesn't mean you can pick up a few skills before that."

The boy's grin could light up the room.

Daryl finishes his coffee, and like Hershel, washes his mug. "Gonna go make sure we got day packs ready."

He's standoffish this morning, Carol notes as he leaves. Normally, he doesn't take such care to stay out of her personal space. Part of her wonders if she's done something wrong, but he was flustered last night about something. It's easier to wait and let him percolate through whatever's concerning him, so she files it away for later.

Jacqui spreads peppers into the five waiting cast iron pans. "Everytime I come in here to cook, I'm glad of whoever convinced that man to splurge on this induction cooktop." Carol laughs, because the five burners really do make work go faster. Even so, Jacqui will end up doing at least three more pans of hashbrowns while Carol does the gravy. The other woman pitches her voice lower than the boys' conversation at the table. "Something up with you and 'Pookie'? He wasn't near as chatty with you as he normally is."

"I'm not sure. Something's bothering him, but I'm not going to pry. He was fine yesterday morning, but not after the hospital run, so maybe he's just worried about the folks in Atlanta."

"Possible." Jacqui quiets for long enough to take the two bowls of shredded potatoes from Carl and return them empty so the boys can continue. "Ignoring all the gossip going on, I do want to ask, as your friend and not just to be nosy... you interested in him? He's a decent man, after Ed. Wouldn't blame you if you snatched him right up, especially the way he looks after Sophia and that precious girl of his."

It's only the boys in the room that keeps Carol's voice low like Jacqui's. "Daryl? No." She hesitates, because it's gossip at its purest, but she trusts Jacqui. "I'm not entirely sure he even likes women."

That gets her a startled look from Jacqui. "Man was married for a number of years, but wouldn't be the first time, especially in Georgia. You sure about that?"

Carol feels like squirming as she shares her observation. "Well, I can't say he likes men either, but you know how even happily married men's eyes will track a pretty woman? It's not that they're gonna stray, but they still look."

Jacqui nods, flipping the potatoes and waiting for Carol to continue.

"I've never seen him even glance toward a woman. Like when we were down at the pond and most everyone was swimming the other evening, he never even took so much as a peek."

"Huh." Before Carol can hope the subject's dropped, the other woman continues. "But if you knew he'd return the interest? You've said a lot about him, but nothing about you."

"No, not Daryl."

Jacqui nearly drops the spatula when she laughs. She waits until the boys dismiss it as something silly the women are up to. "So Merle's your cup of tea, then?"

Carol wonders what possessed her to answer in a way that triggered Jacqui's guess. But in the interest of keeping her vow to be less mousy, she nods, busying herself with opening the cans of sausage so Jacqui can't see the flush heating up her fair skin.

"Oh, honey, don't be embarrassed. Ain't nothing wrong with taking interest in the man. I guess the big question is, are you going to do something about it?" But when Carol can't manage an answer, she doesn't press further.

That is the question, isn't it?

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane's thinking if he keeps driving Greyhounds across parts of Georgia, he's going to think he missed out on his true career. He's still only half onboard with taking on the Grady residents, but he understands why in the end everyone voted to allow it when Merle summoned a radio meeting to include Hershel, Tyreese, Patricia, and Glynnis in the preliminary idea he discussed with Scout and Shane. Merle even put the Grady civilians to an anonymous paper vote on the inclusion of the semi-disgraced officers. Taking the civilians along when they petitioned was a foregone conclusion. Surprisingly, there were no dissenting votes on allowing the officers to join from their former wards.

So now he's driving another bus loaded with dependent folks toward a Homestead that hasn't caught up with the last influx yet. At least even with his misgivings about the situation, he likes the idea of more hands for the manual labor needed. Merle's plan of bringing in cargo containers to reinforce the fenceline was backburnered in favor of housing, but with the addition of four more people capable of driving bigger vehicles from the Grady group, that's more viable earlier on now. Merle's been mingling among the passengers, taking down information in his notebook as he visits with each person.

The man comes up and props against the guard, swapping easily to Spanish when he speaks to Shane. He's guessing that means that none of the passengers are bilingual, or at least none close enough to overhear. "You still uneasy about the cops?"

"No one seems scared of them, but it's just the thought that they were too weak to get rid of the filth among them. I try to remind myself that I allowed Ed to stay, but he was smart enough not to cross any lines I could call him on before you put the fear of dying in him."

"If I didn't think they'd suffocate, I'd consider making them all sleep in the equipment barn where we could lock them in at night," Merle offers. "But honestly, I think we've probably got eight of the most straight-laced officers on the planet in those back seats now. You and Scout really put the fear of God into them with how you took out the bad apples." He scratches at his jawline, where he's getting scruffy around his goatee. "You doing okay about that? It was a lot to ask of you."

He takes his eyes off the truck ahead of him long enough to look at Merle. All he sees is genuine concern. "Can't say I'm gonna stand beside her if she's the only one with blood on her hands when it's necessary. Or let you do it to spare me."

Merle shifts and Shane realizes the man's smiling at him. Less than a month ago, that smile would worry him about just what the man was about to do, but now he just enjoys realizing Scout's father approves of him. It's a bit of a weird feeling for someone who never met a woman's parents once he graduated high school. There's not enough of an age difference between them to have a fatherly vibe off the man, but to know he fits into the Dixons still feels good.

They can figure out how they're going to house nearly forty more people when they get there. He can handle going from sole leader of a scrabble camp of less than twenty to a co-leader among a community of 150 as long as he's not alone in it.

~*~ MD ~*~

"Since when did we put a bus stop out here?" Shane says with a laugh.

Merle stands from his seat in the front row and laughs himself. Four little girls are standing at the end of one of the Eldridge access roads, looking expectantly at the approaching bus. They aren't alone, but Daryl and the boys are further back and only glance at the bus as it comes to a halt.

He steps to the door and eyes the girls. "You kids got bus fare?"

They all present a string of rabbits with big grins, and that's when he realizes the boys and Daryl were inattentive because they're behind the joke. All four are laughing like loons.

"Alright, you little imps, find a seat." He turns sideways to let them all tramp by. Abby sits carefully at the window in the empty first row, but the other three are bolder. Mika and Lizzie sit in the empty row behind Abby that puts them in front of a pair of women who can't seem to decide how to react to girls carrying air rifles and dead bunnies. Sophia leans against the back edge of Shane's seat and studies the passengers in open curiosity.

"You keeping the boys?" he calls out to Daryl.

His brother salutes him and heads deeper into the fields with his trio of followers.

Shane closes the doors and gets back underway, still chuckling about the girls' bus fare offer.

"Looks like you kids rained terror on the rabbit population," he says to Sophia.

"Yep. We defended the veggies. Uncle Daryl and the boys are going to join the farm crew in putting out netting."

Merle studies their audience for a minute. "As you can see, everyone contributes, and anyone can learn to shoot. Mika, how old are you?"

"I turned ten in June."

"How many of the rabbits are yours?"

"Two. Sophia got the most, four. We got nine total."

Merle uses it to further his example. "Now hunting is never a guarantee and they took advantage of the lure of bean seedlings as bunny catnip, but nine rabbits is the equivalent of nine whole chickens. They'd feed almost thirty of you roasted and all of you as a stew."

"How big is this farm?" one of the older ones, Percy, asks.

"Forty acres. It was already running as a produce provider for restaurants serving locally grown, so they just kept on going. What you're seeing now is what's been planted for fall harvest. Spring crops are already harvested and put away."

"We haven't had fresh fruit or vegetables in months," the doctor says.

"We didn't either," Mika says, turning around in her seat. Either by instinct or natural gregariousness, she's helping him make his case. "My family lived in Jacksonville before. We came all the way up from Florida with Scout. So we were real happy to get here."

He doesn't have to consult his notes to remember which of the Grady folk were safe in the hospital the longest. They're the ones that look the most shocked that a ten year old is this far from Florida and still alive. Then again, maybe the officers look the most impressed. He's not entirely sure they believed him and Scout about surviving on the road.

They pass through the gates onto his part of the property and Shane slows to a stop.

"Sophia, go close the gate," he instructs.

"Sure, Dad. Y'all gonna wait or should I jog up?"

"We'll wait." While she's out at the gate, he continues. "It might not be a big hospital, but the property is secure. Y'all bear with us for a week and pretend it's a camping trip and we'll get better caught up with living quarters."

Sophia hops back onto the steps so Shane can deliver their passengers a little closer to the RV park they're developing. She loops an arm around his waist, careful to keep her string of rabbits away from being squished. He returns the impromptu hug with a smile.

"Oh, looks like they're gearing up to go right back out," Sophia says.

Merle twists to look as Shane nears the RVs to see she's right. They've got Merle's work truck, both of the modified pickups, and Merle's SUV all lined up and doing a gear check.

"Guess we'll find out when we get stopped."

Shane maneuvers the bus so he's not blocking the driveway. The deputy's not even to his feet when Honey trots up and yells, "shake the lead out, che'lu, we got RVs to fetch."

The summoned man just laughs. "Guess I'll be leaving you to be tour guide," he says, flashing a grin as he thumps down the steps in pursuit of Merle's youngest.

"Think she'll bring back another semi instead?" Sophia asks.

"Knowing your sister, she'll manage to find and capture an escaped zoo animal."

"Oooh. I vote for a lion. C'mon, girls, we got rabbits to prep and we can go spoil Livia with all the hearts and livers."

Merle lets the girls exit before turning back to his passengers, seeing Cricket crossing to the bus. "Looks like they're gonna see about keeping y'all out of tents tonight, so we'll sort out who goes where when we have a better bed count. Dr. Edwards, you feeling up to a consultation on our fellow with tetanus?"

"I've never treated a case, but I'm happy to assist."

"Looks like your escort just arrived."

Cricket comes up the steps and gives folks a cheery smile. "Hey, Daddy, I see we have a few extras for supper. Gonna end up an outdoor picnic with this many. I'm Cricket, med student at Emory before. I know you've got a doctor with you, but if anyone feels more comfortable with a woman for medical, you can come to me or our nurse, Lilly."

Merle is rather proud of her polite hedging of an offer to abused women that might not want to rely on a male for their medical needs. He introduces Dr. Edwards and the man follows her with only one or two uncertain glances back.

"Percy, you and Natha have a choice staying with your compatriots or taking a bed in our little retirement community. You both said you didn't have any major health needs, but we've got a nurse living in house there."

"How many medical people do you have?". Shepherd speaks for the first time outside of answering his basic questions about background and skills. He thinks she still hasn't completely come to terms with what she set in motion. It's gotta be hard to see your fellow officers go down even if they're corrupt.

"Five right now, six in a pinch. Two RNs, the med student you just met, a paramedic, and a veterinarian who's a pretty good people doctor when he puts his mind to it. Sixth is one of the Marines got three years finished on a kinesiology degree. Anyone who wants to put in for some training, from basic CPR to actual nursing is welcome to sign up with Patricia for it."

"Patricia is one of the leaders?"

He nods. "Otherwise known as Drill Sergeant Patricia. She's quartermaster and keeps us organized so our ducks stay in a row instead of all over Georgia. She's the blonde lady with the notebook headed this way, probably with at least four plans to keep things interesting."

"I see you're telling tales about me, Mister Dixon," the blonde says as she joins him.

"Only good ones, I promise. I'll leave these newest recruits in your capable hands."

"Shoo, shoo. Go see Carol and let her see you're in one piece. I swear that woman spent most of the night fretting over you and Honey being gone overnight."

Merle's boots have hit the ground before he really registers what she said, and he frowns up at her. Surely, level headed Patricia isn't joining the matchmaking hints Sophia started. When the damn woman just smirks at him, he sighs and continues on his way.

~*~ CP ~*~

Daryl rubs at his full belly before taking a seat beside Carol in the swing of the back deck. "I know you don't want to end up a full time cook, but I kinda hope you keep a supper shift once a week when you move on to greater things."

She laughs and pats his arm, glad to see he seems more settled around her now. Whatever was bothering him must have worked out over the day spent on the farm side of things.

They sway on the swing in comfortable quiet for a while before he shifts his weight, picking at the seam of his cargo pants.

"What's on your mind, Pookie?"

He glances at her through bangs that are starting to get in his eyes. "One of the marshals thought we were a couple."

"Oh. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" It's not that she wants him interested in her, but she's hoping it isn't a horrifying thought at least.

"Only a bad thing because it would feel like dating my sister." It's accompanied by a shy smile.

She smiles, relieved it's something innocent disturbing him about the couple assumption. "You like me that much?"

"Just about."

"The feeling's mutual. I always wanted a baby brother growing up, but got stuck as an only child. Guess it's better this way. No diapers to change."

Daryl half-chokes at the teasing. "Jesus, woman."

She shrugs, leaning back in the swing, and bumping shoulders with him.

"Could be officially my sister." There's a quality to his voice that alerts her he's up to something.

"Bit late for adoption."

"Not that way."

She sighs. "Daryl, your brother has a lot of choices if he decides he doesn't want to be single. I don't think he'll settle for me."

"Dammit, Carol, it wouldn't be settling. He'd be damned lucky if you even looked his way. But he's not going to make the first move."

"Then how are you sure he's even considering me at all then?" She wants it to be true, but can't set hope for it.

"I can't explain it. Just a feeling. Do me a favor?"

She nods.

"Go talk to him tonight. You'll see what I mean. If he's got your permission, you'll find out."

"Alright." She supposes the worst thing that can happen is that she can settle the issue. "But Daryl, as a matchmaker, you suck."

He laughs, looking relieved.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle comes to a halt when he sees Carol perched in his office chair, but shuts the door behind him when she motions for it.

"Everything okay?"

"Yes. Just needed to clear something up."

He takes a seat on the futon so he can see her face. "That doesn't sound like everything is okay."

She sighs. "Daryl thinks you're interested in me."

Ah, hell. Even staying out of it, he's managed to muck things up. "Carol, if you and Daryl want to be together, I'm all for it."

"Daryl thinks of me as his sister, and honestly, it was a relief to hear because I feel the same way."

"And that led to him trying to fix you up with me?" He feels a little thrill that he's misjudged his brother's interest.

"I told him you had too many choices to settle for me."

He reaches out to take both her hands. She gazes at him with that uncertainty he hates seeing in her, so he takes the plunge. "Carol, I wouldn't be settling if you wanted me. But I don't want you to be rushed into anything."

She smiles, squeezing his hands before releasing them. "Maybe I want to rush and take a risk for once."

Before he formulates a reply, she's out of the chair and into his lap. He isn't expecting the bold move, so she's cupping his face and kissing him hesitantly before he can react.

But his shock throws a wrench in the works because she pulls away. "I'm sorry."

He manages to catch her before she's out of his lap. "Stay."

She nods, blinking away the start of tears, and he kisses her, leading her past her initial hesitance until the kiss feels like they've been doing it for years.

But they need to breathe eventually.

"This goes at your pace," he says softly.

"And if I wanted it all tonight?"

He groans at the temptation. He's years past the urgency of youth, but he's also two years celebate. It's an offer he really wants to accept, and not just for tonight, but he'll never pressure her into that commitment.

Rather than let any hesitation make her believe his interest isn't genuine, he smiles and strokes his hands down her arms. "Then you lead where you want me to follow.”

She leads them both to almost full nudity over the next half hour and he's happy to follow except for one little detail. "Carol, darlin', hold up a minute."

Carol makes a sound of protest where he's caught her wrist before she can rid him of his last bit of clothing.

"Don't have any condoms around."

Once she realizes he's not stopping her progress permanently, she smiles. "We're good." She extends her arm to show the small bump of a birth control implant.

So he releases her wrist and enjoys where she leads.

Much later, he's half asleep when he feels her sitting up. "Where ya goin'?"

"I wasn't sure..."

"Lay back down." He realizes it sounds a little rough and smooths a hand down her bare back. "If you don't want to stay, you don't have to. But I prefer to wake up beside you."

She settles back beside him, but seems uncertain about how to do it. He tugs her over to use him as a pillow, kissing her on the top of her head.

"Fit just like we were made for it." He settles a hand at her hip.

She surprises him with a gentle kiss along the thick scar on his collarbone before settling to sleep. His scars aren't pretty, and they're one of the reasons he's fallen more and more into celibacy as he grows older. Explaining them for a momentary partner just isn't worth it.

But she's already aware that Will Dixon was a monster, and he's hoping that this path they're taking means never explaining them again.

Chapter Text

August 8, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol wakes to the very unfamiliar experience of being draped against Merle's naked form. He's on his stomach, having shifted in the night, but she's managed to end up with a leg over the back of his, her foot tucked between his calves. When she lifts her arm from across his back to check the time on her watch, he stirs until she runs her hand along his spine. She marvels that the touch soothes him back into sleep. With the ruin of his back from the long-ago acquired scars, she would have thought someone touching his back while he is sleeping and vulnerable would disturb him.

She hasn't even really seen the majority of the damage, since he was on his back for almost all of her explorations and teasing last night. She got the feeling he had been trying not to box her in so it would be easier for her to call a halt if she changed her mind. Taking charge of sex was a novelty for certain. It had been good the first few years with Ed, but even then he had to be the one directing everything. Then it went bad for several, leaving her grateful and relieved when he lost interest four years ago around the time he got a new secretary at work. Most wives might be upset about the affair, but she ended up just happy the other woman was stupid enough to trade blowjobs for job security.

"You should get more sleep," Merle mumbles into the pillow. "Even the birdies aren't awake yet."

Crap. Apparently she did wake him. "Sorry. I'm not used to..."

He raises up and taps the lamp by the futon, rolling enough to jostle her leg off his. His expression is concerned, and it digs hooks even deeper into her heart. "You okay? Not regretting last night?"

"No." She smiles to reassure him. "It's just been a long time since I slept with anyone."

"Literally sleep or..."

"Both actually. Sharing a tent at the quarry was the first time I slept in something resembling the same room as Ed in about six years."

"And the other?"

"He got a big breasted blonde secretary too stupid to work a computer four years ago and decided he wasn't interested in a wife on the wrong side of thirty anymore except to have a maid and housekeeper." And someone to slap around when he was drunk or something went wrong at work, but she doesn't really want to think about that, not here next to a man she knows would never lay a finger on her.

"Knew the man was stupid. Now I'm thinking he was blind too." He's gentle in the touch as he runs a hand from her hip to her ribs, stopping his hand with his thumb just under her left breast. She's not sure he intends it to be erotic, but it is.

"Merle, I am over thirty and I'm not pretty like Maggie or..." She touches a hand involuntarily to her short cropped grey hair as she speaks, but she doesn't get to finish expressing the insecurity, because he silences her with the easiness of a kiss.

Just when she's starting to understand the term kissed senseless, he pulls away. She thinks how most would call Merle rugged or handsome, but up close like this, with that gentle expression, she thinks beautiful might fit.

"Darlin', those things you're thinking about yourself? They could apply to me more than you. I'm on the downhill slide to fifty with four grown children and two teenagers. Probably just dumb luck I'm not a grandfather by now. And the only thing I'd change about your hair is if you wanted to grow it out just a little." He gives her a mischievous grin. "If you didn't pay close attention, even my chest hair's going grey, and honestly I wish that was all."

She giggles and reaches up to run her fingers through the offending chest hair. There's another of those tugs at her heart with the easy inclusion of Sophia in counting his children. "I don't know. That might be more blond than grey."

"Well, if you want to pander to my poor ego, I'll take your word for it."

She's the one to start the kiss this time, and she uses his shoulders as leverage to wiggle close. He gets the idea pretty quickly when she slides her hand down to explore the other area of complaint about grey and starts to roll her atop him like he did last night.

She pulls away. "No. Your lead this time." She both needs and wants to know what it's like to have all the sheer power of him, that she's not broken and fragile.

"You sure, darlin'?"

And she knows he wants it, because his entire body is poised and waiting, but if she says no, even put a halt to sex entirely despite the unmistakable evidence she's garnered his full interest, then he'll stop.

That just makes her want it more. She smiles and presses her lips to his throat. "Please."

Reassured, that's all it takes for her to be flipped under him, his caresses nowhere near as restrained as last night as he explores and kisses every inch of bare skin.

She'll figure out how to deal with beard burn on her thighs later.

~*~ GR ~*~

Glenn glances at Maggie as she giggles and points toward the kitchen, where if someone else doesn't appear soon, breakfast may end up delayed since Merle is distracting their biscuit maker.

"When did that happen?" he asks. Maggie's still sharing a room with Carol and Patricia.

"Last night. She never came to bed, and let's just say the office wasn't designed to be soundproof from the master bedroom either."

"Oh God. Don't tell Carol that."

"Of course not. It would embarrass the hell outta her, and she definitely deserves what I heard last night and again this morning." The brunette grins at him.

"Who deserves what, and are you two lovebirds sneaking in from wherever or out to wherever?" Jacqui asks as she crosses the deck toward them.

"Take a peek." Maggie indicates the kitchen and Glenn looks too. It's sweet, because Merle's actually standing behind Carol and helping her knead the biscuit dough now, instead of luring her away from it with kisses to the back of her neck.

"Hot damn. Not sure I want to interrupt them. Wonder who finally got around to making the first move," Jacqui says. "Was starting to think we were going to have months of will-they-won't-they like a TV drama."

"You didn't think he was gonna shack up with Lori?" Glenn asks. He's made himself scarce when that branch of gossip starts up, but he's still aware of it.

"Despite Andrea seeming to think Lori's a professional bed hopper, anyone can see the woman's gun shy of men at the moment. Think she spent so much time with Merle just because he was safe company."

Maggie seems to be thinking it over, and she eventually nods, accepting the assessment, so Glenn will take their word for it. He's still rather happy he correctly gauged Maggie's interest in him, so he's not really going to worry about figuring everyone else out.

"Might be time for everyone from the quarry to give the woman a break," Jacqui continues.

Glenn grimaces. He doesn't really dislike Lori, but even on her happier days he hadn't wanted to spend time around her, because she tends to treat him as if he's still a teenager. But Jacqui's right that Lori's isolated herself other than while actively doing chores. She's even loosened the reins on Carl, so long as he stays with the various groups of kids and teenagers in work or lessons. He doesn't think she's reached out to any of the non-quarry women either, probably since most of them aside from the locals that kept up the Homestead know about her behavior at the quarry.

"I'll volunteer you for that," he tells Jacqui. "Not because I think she shouldn't have friends, but I'm just not real sure I can manage enough in common for a two-minute conversation."

Maggie shrugs. "I'm up for it. Might as well follow Merle's lead, as long as she's trying to improve and do better."

"We'll catch her at breakfast then." Jacqui looks back toward the kitchen. "Well, we're about to get invaded by the egg gathering kiddos, so I'll go tease the lovebirds a bit as a warning of the incoming small fry."

Glenn doesn't hear whatever joke the woman makes when she steps through the French doors into the kitchen, but it makes Merle laugh and Carol blush, but Carol's smiling, so it's all good.

Maggie surprises him with a kiss.

"What was that for?"

"I just liked how happy you looked for our friends being happy."

She flounces toward the kitchen herself, leaving him standing there grinning and realizing that neither of them answered Jacqui's question about why they were outside so early. They really need to get some of the housing situation settled, because these hidden make out sessions in little niches are driving him crazy.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori is starting to think someone's a mind reader here, because she hasn't worked up the courage to commandeer a pregnancy test yet, and then at breakfast the announcement went around that everyone is due a physical over the next few days. Even better, her name is among the first group to report in to Cricket at the med unit, which is now designated for women's health care. Of all the medical professionals now available, the med student is probably the one she's most comfortable with discussing her suspicions.

She steps into the med unit as soon as the woman before her, Lenore, from the farm crew, steps out. The redhead smiles as they pass, and she hopes her attempt at a return smile actually looks genuine, because her nerves are killing her.

"Hey!" Cricket smiles in welcome. "Latch the door behind you. Might as well act like it's a real doctor's office."

Lori flips the lock and ventures further in. Cricket's doing a wipe down of the exam seat with a disinfectant wipe, so she isn't sure what to do just yet. The room they put extra med supplies in for transport is cleared out now, but she thinks it's now an expansion of the lab based on what little she can see and understand from here.

"Guess we start with the basics. We'll do as full a physical as needed. We debated some of the tests that we really can't do any treatment for if they're positive, but we're hoping there aren't any serious objections because knowing's better than not in our limited treatment environment." She tosses the used wipes and grabs one of the ever present composition notebooks from a stack and scribbles Lori's name on it with a sharpie before trading the marker for a pen.

"Did y'all empty a warehouse of those?" she asks, feeling amusement push away some of her nerves.

Cricket laughs. "Guess I could have asked if you had a preference between plain black, colored, or designer, huh?" She shows Lori a printed checklist taped inside. We'll go over everything and get you sorted. Going to draw blood, update your tetanus vaccine, and depending on your last pap smear, that's today too. Plus if you aren't on birth control, we can get that started after you pee in a cup for me."

"Well, that would be the problem," Lori begins, and the other woman's expression turns concerned. "I think we might want to start with the pregnancy test."

"Oh. Well, that definitely might change our routine a bit." But she shows no signs of judgement, just reaches for the specimen cup on the little counter and presents it to Lori. "Since I'll need to test a few things, we'll opt for this rather than you aiming for a stick." As Lori heads for the tiny bathroom, she calls out. "You want anyone here for this?"

Lori considers and shakes her head. If it's a false alarm, she honestly prefers she and Cricket are the only ones to know it was a possibility. When she returns with the cup, Cricket opens a test box and offers her the stick. "Want to do the honors? I understand it's a bit of a rite of passage."

She takes the test stick from the younger woman and follows instructions, leaving it capped on the counter while Cricket reseals the specimen cup for whatever other tests she has to run. "I've used this brand before. Three minutes is too long sometimes."

Cricket pats her shoulder in reassurance and directs her toward the exam seat. "How about I distract you with any number of invasive health questions that make my job fun? I'll even throw in some blood draws to make it really fun."

Despite her worries, the cheerful joke makes her laugh, and the blood work and basic health history does provide enough of a distraction that she is almost surprised with the timer on Cricket's watch beeps. Cricket puts the vials of blood on a tray on the counter and palms the test without looking at it, handing it to Lori to read first.

The stick displays two very bold, dark pink lines, and her distress must be visible, because there's a hand in hers, and kind blue eyes looking at her when she finally looks up. Cricket tips the test to look and taps her finger next to the lines. "This is a blessing."

"I want it to be." She can't stop the tears that start now. She hoped for another baby after Carl but there was nothing for so many years she wondered if she or Rick should have gone to Atlanta for testing. He'd refused to think about infertility as a possibility, not with the easy and accidental conception of Carl, and she hadn't been brave enough to go alone.

"Then we'll make it so." Cricket exchanges the test for tissues and goes to tug the ultrasound machine out of the exam-turned-lab room. "This might not work since I just unwisely had you empty your bladder, but we'll give it a try. If nothing else, we'll pick up a heartbeat if you're far enough along."

"I don't know for sure on that. My last period was in May, but they were erratic before that. It isn't unusual for me to miss a month here and there."

"And were you on any birth control?"

"No, not in years. I always wanted another baby, but it just didn't happen." She fidgets as Cricket sets the machine up. "Based on that, it's doubtful the baby's Rick's." Ten years without a bit of birth control and nothing, but six weeks with Shane and now this, when she's single and mostly happy about it. Single mom to Carl is one thing, but to an infant, it's daunting.

"Well, we're in luck about the empty bladder, if you don't mind an internal ultrasound."

Lori shrugs and takes the hospital gown she's offered and treks back to the bathroom. Cricket's sliding a DVD into the ultrasound machine. She offers Lori another reassuring smile. "I'm going to record it so if there's anything I need an opinion from one of the fully qualified doctors on, you don't have to do it all over again."

She thinks of the fact that if she's right about the paternity, Shane's missing out on the first ultrasound. There are plenty of functional TVs around, after all. "Can I get a copy?"

"Sure. Might have to take it up to the house to burn it for you, but it's doable. There's paper, so we'll get some printouts too."

The exam proceeds much as both of the ones she had with Carl, and she misses having someone to hold her hand with Cricket busy with the machine.

"Ah ha." With the flick of a switch, the rapid thump of a fetal heartbeat fills the med unit and Lori starts to cry in earnest. It's relief, happiness, stress, all rolled into one, but there's a heartbeat.

"Best thing ever to hear, I bet," Cricket says softly. She's not looking at Lori, but rather the screen, her expression a little wistful. It reminds Lori that Cricket's chosen partner is a woman. This isn't a world with IVF anymore. But the younger woman shakes off the melancholy and gives Lori a smile. "Let's take a look now."

The baby's head is clearly defined on the screen, and she can make out little arms and legs where the baby's facing the ultrasound. Cricket's busy taking measurements and printing off a couple of ultrasounds she knows will probably be kept for the medical record with the measurements on screen, but Lori can't take her eyes off the precious little miracle before her in black and white.

"Baby measure at nine weeks. That sound right? First of June?"

Lori nods. It also completely eliminates any possibility the baby is Rick's. Cricket's aware of this, and she reaches out with the hand she's been tapping buttons and switches with to take Lori's and squeeze gently. "This is a good thing, Lori. Let's finish this up so we can talk."

She finishes taking the keepsake stills with easy efficiency and follows the end of the ultrasound with the physical part of the pregnancy exam before sending Lori off to redress while she makes notes. Lori leans against the inside of the tiny bathroom cubicle, letting fear and joy war with her before finally going out to face the decisions she's got to make now.

"I don't have any prenatal vitamins down here, which is probably an oversight, but I'll get you some out of the med lockup when we go copy the DVD. Your pregnancy with Carl was normal, except for the c-section delivery, and you're healthy and in good shape. Unless something turns up on the lab work unexpectedly, we'll treat it like any other pregnancy before. You just have a shorter trip to the doctor's office. We'll even try for a VBAC if we can, but I think we'll be able to safely do a c-section if we absolutely have to." She scoots to where Lori's sat in one of the waiting chairs instead of on the exam table, and takes both of Lori's hands in hers. "I can keep following the pregnancy and consult with those who've done it before, or you can have Hershel or Edwards oversee it. Personally, I'd opt for the vet for the better bedside manner."

Lori shakes her head. "If it's not weird for you, I'd rather you do it."

"Why would it be weird for me? Because of Shane and my sister?"

She nods and Cricket sighs. "Unless you're about to go on some hormone rampage through the place and carry Shane off to a dark lair somewhere, we're good on that."

Despite herself, Lori laughs at that image. She's more than a bit terrified of going through a pregnancy alone, but she isn't going to mess with Shane's happiness in that respect. "I can't see this being good news for everyone."

"Honest opinion? If you go to Shane and have an open conversation about the baby, I think it'll be fine. If you're really feeling brave, tackle Scout at the same time and then you get to only have the conversation once."

Considering how she's behaved around the woman, she isn't sure that showing up on the cabin's doorstep with this news will be welcomed. Her doubt must show on her face because Cricket lets her hands go and reaches for the printed images in her lab coat pocket. She hands them over, two of each one. "Take these. You show up with these, and promise you won't keep that baby from Shane in any way and that Scout can spoil it rotten, and there won't be a person more devoted to the baby's future and your health and comfort in the entire state of Georgia than my sister."

Lori looks at the best image, the tiny arms and legs so visible. "Why would she go that far?"

"Because Scout can't have children at all."

Oh, God. Lori can't imagine. Even in all the years of failing to conceive again, she at least had Carl. She wonders if it's due to the same explosion that caused all the Marine's burn injuries, but doesn't ask. It doesn't matter how, just that she can't.

"This won't make her feel worse?" It's a little bit of a foreign feeling, having concern for Scout's feelings, but Merle was kind to her when she absolutely didn't deserve it. She owes it to his faith in her, if not for Scout and Shane's sake, to not ruin Merle's daughter's happiness.

"No. They may not exchange all the flowery words and sentiments around others that some couples might, but Scout loves Shane and she'll love the baby, too."

The intercom buzzes and Cricket scoots over to answer what turns out to be a call asking if she wants lunch brought to her or if she's joining the rest. She tells them she'll be up in a bit and to save her a plate. "How about we take the DVD up to my apartment and get you a copy before we show our faces for whatever deliciousness Patricia's magicked up for us today? You can hide out up there if you like for a while."

She nods agreement and Cricket tidies up the med unit before locking first the lab door and then the med unit behind her. The keys go back around her neck and she smiles. "We're trying to keep what privacy we can, even if HIPAA law is defunct. I'll share with Hershel and Edwards as needed, but until you tell me otherwise, your news is yours to share, at least for now. Even the nurses won't go through the records unless asked to. I'll have to share pregnancies with the planning council eventually, because you'll need priority on private housing versus whatever barracks plan they were cooking up last night for the unmarried adults."

Lori follows her to the exterior stairs that lead up to the apartment over the garage. "You can go ahead and tell the council if you need to, as long as they know it may take me a few hours to break the news to Shane." She stops short just inside the door. "God. I need to tell Rick and Carl too. Nine weeks is safe enough to tell him, right?"

"All signs point to a healthy pregnancy, so I'd say yes on telling Carl. It's better he hears from you and not through the rumor mill, especially considering the paternity." Cricket has the DVD in her laptop already.

All Lori can think about that is "no fucking kidding" because the last thing she wants is her son finding out via Andrea 'accidentally' spilling the beans.

She leaves the little apartment at Cricket's heels as soon as the two DVDs are ready, because there's no point in hiding. It'll probably be after supper before she can track down Shane and Scout at the same time anyway.

She feels a smile bloom across her face.

She's going to have a baby.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane's already tossed his T-shirt into the laundry basket when he hears the knock at the door of the cabin. Scout's in the bathroom cubicle, muttering something about dropping the toothpaste cap in the sink, so he goes and opens the door. Finding Lori standing there, with laptop carry bag over her shoulder, is definitely not what he expected.

"Can I help you, Lori?" he asks, alerting Scout to who is at the door.

"Can I come in? I need to talk to both of you." The thin woman is pale and looks like she's about to face a firing squad instead of Scout and Shane, so he's a little worried. He steps back to let her in and goes and retrieves his shirt to pull it back on.

Scout peers around the bathroom privacy wall with toothbrush still in her mouth and waves acknowledgement that she knows Lori's there. He and Lori stare at each other in awkward silence while Scout finishes her teeth and joins them.

Lori's gripping the handle of the laptop bag like it's a lifeline and she's drowning. She takes a deep breath. "I had my physical today."

Shane isn't sure where that's something they should share in, but he nods. Scout's expression shifts from curiosity to something guarded when he glances at her. She suspects something about Lori's visit.

The older brunette reaches into the bag and draws out a few slips of paper that it takes Shane a moment to recognize from seeing around the office. When Carl was born, ultrasound photos were on film, not paper. He hesitates to reach for them as his brain catches up to what Scout's already realized, but she doesn't, so Shane finds himself standing next to his girlfriend while she looks at the very real evidence that his affair with Lori is not going to end up a distant memory for everyone.

Scout's hands shake when she hands him them to him.

"How far along?" she asks. He's never, ever heard her sound like that, and he can't quite identify the emotion changing her voice.

Lori's back to gripping the laptop strap. "Nine weeks. Cricket thinks end of February for a due date."

That excludes Rick entirely. Shane reaches out for Scout with his free hand. She's trembling, enough now that Lori's caught on. It unleashes a wave of babbling.

"Cricket said I should tell you both at the same time, and there's a video too, for you to keep. I'm not here to mess things up for you two. God no. It's just it's bad enough I've been suspecting for a couple of days without saying anything and then the ultrasound without telling anyone, and oh, don't. Please don't cry."

Scout's crying, not the big heavy tears he expects from a woman, but a gentle trickle. When Lori turns pleading, the Marine roughly swipes at her face. "S'okay, Lori."

Jesus Christ, now he has two crying women and the evidence that he's going to be a father right in his hand. He pulls Scout in close and she accepts the embrace as he looks back to Lori. She speaks again before he can, and the words are so far beyond what he has experienced of her character lately that he thinks miracles do exist.

"We are having a baby," Lori says. "All three of us."

~*~ MD ~*~

"Hey, big guy."

Merle arches a brow when he sees Maggie in the office doorway. She smirks at him. "Patricia and I had a little chat, and I was going to bunk downstairs with the boys, but Jamie overhead and kicked himself and Danny down there. So Patricia and I are going to take over Jamie's room. That gives you back your own space finally."

He glances toward the futon and can't deny he really would prefer sharing his own bed with Carol. "One of y'all can take over the office, if you like."

"Well, just between you, me, and the fence post, there's not exactly enough sound insulation between this room and that one."

Christ. He hopes Carol doesn't figure that out and get embarrassed as hell about it.

Maggie just laughs at him and shakes her head. "I'm grabbing our bags, so we'll be out of your hair. Consider it a gift for you finally realizing Carol's a keeper."

"Realized that before last night," he mutters.

"Long as you keep realizing it. I'd hate to have to demonstrate how daddy taught me to castrate pigs."

He sputters into laughter. "No need for that, girl. But if I did hurt Carol, you'd have to stand in line behind my own family on that."

She grins and mimes two fingers at him that she's keeping an eye on him before sashaying off. He shakes his head, wondering if Glenn's bitten off more than he can chew with his farm girl.

~*~ DD ~*~

"Hey, Uncle Daryl? You still up?"

Daryl is awake, although Abby's snoring against him in footie pajamas he had no idea came in her size until someone produced them for her. He closes his book and waves for Sophia to step inside the room.

She plops down next to the bunk bed and grins up at him. "They didn't say anything to me yet, but I caught Dad stealing a kiss from Mama a few minutes ago, after I finished reading with him."

"Really?" That's got his interest. He knows he told Carol she should make a move on Merle, but he figured it would take her longer. He'd been gone all day with a team to the lake, pilfering fuel and bringing in enough fish to feed the excessive numbers of mouths to feed they had now. Sophia went with him, while Abby stayed with Carol, and his daughter didn't bring up seeing anything new.

"So now I don't have to lock them in a bathroom or something until they figure out they're perfect for each other."

"Pipsqueak, you're spending entirely too much time with Honey if that's where you start your plots."

She giggles. "I do sleep on the same bunk bed."

"Maybe you need to be separated a while. Next thing I know you'll be stealing semi trucks and driving without any lessons."

She glances up at the bunk Abby refuses to sleep in so far. "There is a vacancy. And Honey snores worse than Abby."

Daryl's aware of that habit. Merle took the girl to a sleep specialist and an ENT, but even removing her adenoids and tonsils didn't solve the problem completely.

"Might as well," he decides. Sophia flashes him a happy smile before going off to raid Jazz's bookshelves for something to read. It takes him a minute to return to his own book. He smiles at the idea of Merle finally with someone who'll give a damn about him. It's what his brother deserves.

~*~ SW ~*~

"Hey. You sure you're okay?" Shane slides into bed next to Scout, who's half propped on the pillows and has one of the ultrasounds in her hand. The other's on the fridge with the USMC magnet holding it in place.

She smiles at him and hands him the image, which he tucks into the drawer of the nightstand until he can find something to keep it in. Lori took the laptop with her, saying she needed to return it to Cricket, but they watched the video together first. The shock of the unexpected news is still lingering, but he can see the replay of the tiny baby on screen every time he closes his eyes for a minute, and there's a DVD on the counter for if they get something to play it in out here.

"Yeah, I'm good." She tugs him close, wrapping around him like a human blanket and he can feel her smiling against his shoulder. "You're gonna be a daddy," she says softly.

Wow. He's gonna be a dad.

"Scout?"

"Yeah?"

"You're gonna be a mama."

She raises up and looks at him now. Earlier, he'd seen her cry for the first time, but now tears glitter again. "Do you think she even begins to know what it means to me?"

"Maybe." Lori loved being a full time mom to Carl. He suspects she knows about Scout from her sister, because she went out of her way to repeat that Scout was to be part of raising the baby. "What's the word for mother in Chamorro?"

"Nåna. But maybe godmother is more appropriate. In Chamorro culture, children have their parents and godparents, who are considered co-parents of a child. Lori and I would be kumaire, co-mothers. The baby would call me Nina."

"If you like that better." He pulls her in for a kiss, cupping her face and using his thumbs to brush away the evidence of tears. "I love you."

Her response isn't verbal to the first time he's said those words to her, but later, when they're both sated and sweaty and he tries to roll his weight off her, she resists by holding him close and repeating his words against his lips. "I love you. I guinaiya-ku."

"What does that one mean?" He's heard it before from her, and while he suspects what it might be, he isn't certain.

"My love."

He smiles down at her, stealing little, repeated kisses as he tries to master the phrase himself and she laughs at his pronunciation.

He knows right now that he's going to marry this woman and raise his child with her, because he's not giving this precious family up for anything.

Chapter Text

August 9, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol hands Daryl the drawstring bag of peaches to add to the lake crew's lunch offering. Everything else is meal bars and other travel food, but she figures while they have the immense number of peaches coming in from the Eldridge farm, they might as well get some fresh fruit too.

"You remember the rules, right, Sophia?"

Her daughter gives her a cheeky "yes, mama". She's still fascinated with the building process, but equally so with Daryl's hunting and fishing expertise, so she's switched teams for a few days. Carol gives her a kiss on the forehead and then crooks a finger at Daryl, who shakes his head initially, but then tips down enough she can kiss his forehead too.

"Gonna drive me crazy," he mutters, but he's sort of smiling. Better yet, the reason she's teasing Daryl is smiling. Abby's at her side, not interested in going on the trip after the long months on the road. "You gonna be good for Auntie Carol, Sunshine?"

Abby nods. She doesn't talk much outside of Daryl and occasionally Jazz or Honey, something that has everyone still a little on edge since the marshals reported it started after the death of her mother and stepfather. The entire trip here, she reserved almost all of her limited speech for the two youngsters instead of the adults. If yesterday starts a pattern, Abby will be her silent little shadow, helping when she can, but speaking very little. She joined Jazz yesterday for a couple of chores, simply because Carol wanted to see if she'd speak around her cousin. She did, so Carol will have her shadow Jazz once he switches off the building crew after lunch to farm chores.

They watch the trio of trucks pull out, all with trailers. They'll use the boats already at the marina they're targeting for fuel today to go out fishing, but Daryl's going to have the team clear the property of anything useful too. All three truck beds have the big fuel transport tanks installed, too. The marinas are turning out to be a treasure trove for both gasoline and diesel, and Daryl's years as a ranger in the area mean he remembers where they all are without a map.

"Let's go check on the Grady folks, Miss Abby," she tells the girl, who nods and takes her hand when offered, with Carol keeping her other on the handle of the big wagon she's towing with supplies.

She's heading for the small cluster of RVs housing the Grady folks when Merle's long strides catch up. She's still getting used to the open affection he bestows freely, but it gives her a thrill when his arm goes across her shoulders so he can steal a brief kiss. The big catahoula male is at his heels, but switches off to Abby's side almost immediately.

"You ladies gonna ride herd on the newbies today?"

"That's the plan. They'll start their rounds through the physicals today, since Hershel thought the women would respond better if they saw our people doing it first. Felipe's offered to teach a first aid and CPR course this morning for everyone interested, and I'm going to hand out their work rosters for starting tomorrow." The council decided on letting the newcomers have a few days of adjustment first, but now it was time to start integrating them.

"If you need me for anything, we're starting on the drywall in the cafeteria today. Finished the electrical tests yesterday, and the crew should be back by supper that Scout led to Buford after the appliances."

"So two or three more days?"

"Probably three, but yeah. Soon as we finish the walls and floors, gonna send a smaller team to clear out those folding cafeteria tables from the elementary school."

Carol nods in understanding. With the cafeteria likely doubling as a community center of sorts, the ability to just fold up the tables and roll them out of the way would be handy. "Everybody running meal shifts will be your biggest fan when we aren't having to feed people outdoors anymore."

With about 150 people on the homestead now, meals were held under the big event tents a team cleared out of a local wedding event venue. The weather held so far, but all it would take is a big series of summer thunderstorms and feeding people outside would be impossible til the storms passed. The cafeteria technically wouldn't seat everyone at once if the community grew too much bigger, but she's grateful now that Merle and Amy planned ahead when they laid out the design. The big building is already 3,000 square feet as it is. Instead of cooking meals in a trio of kitchens, they'll have a big work area styled after a school system cafeteria.

"You still gonna cut back on your meal shifts?"

"I want to. Patricia thinks it shouldn't be a problem, since she doesn't want anyone pulling seven days a week anyway. I'll be the relief shift for breakfast."

"A'right. Just make sure you're choosing as much what you want to do as what you think people need you to do, Mouse. You have that luxury now." He steals a kiss before letting her go to make his way to the construction crew still enjoying steaming coffee from thermoses that Glynnis took over.

It's almost eerie how alert most of the Grady folks are when anyone approaches, but Carol can't blame them. She lived with that kind of hyper awareness for years around Ed, and after months under the evil the dead officers committed, true trust will come hard. Even the officers themselves are wary, and Carol takes note that they do take casual, but protective stances of their charges.

"Good morning, everyone," she greets cheerfully. Breakfast was brought to the group earlier when everyone else ate, but Abby and Carol have a treat in the form of fresh peach coffee cake to sweeten the deal of putting everyone to work. One of the officers takes the Tupperware containers from the wagon and another switches out the earlier coffee urns for the cold drink urns she's brought along. The ladies asked for and received a table to set up for washing dishes outside the cramped RV quarters, so at least Carol won't have to tow those back to the house for dish duty.

She lets everyone take their selection from the containers before she pulls out her notebook with a reassuring smile. "I know Merle and Scout probably filled all of you in on the process to get settled in, but as you probably noticed by now, they're beyond busy. I'll be your primary person for finishing settling in." She volunteered after Merle mentioned he suspected the abused women wanted to be okay around him, but it was a struggle for them, and Scout is honest enough to admit she's not the best choice either. It was a woman who allowed the abuses after all. Carol's lack of military or law enforcement background is a plus in this situation.

"They'll start physicals today, correct?" That's Dr. Edwards, who Carol's met several times as he passes through to take shifts looking after Michael Fisher, the tetanus patient. He'll actually be on duty in the little garage infirmary so Hershel can do the men's physicals.

"Yes. Ladies will go to the big med unit truck and men to RV number five." Rick volunteered his RV for the men's physicals, since he was going out on the appliance run.

One of the women shifts nervously. "It'll be the Dixon woman doing ours, right? I saw she worked yesterday for your people."

Carol smiles warmly. "You're our people too now. But yes, Cricket's in charge of the women's physicals. She was a med student at Emory before. But if you prefer a nurse instead, we can borrow Lilly for a bit, but she's really more needed for the infirmary." The nurse's years of experience with oncology patients is actually proving greatly useful in treating the elder Fisher male. "You can go on the buddy system if you want to and don't mind a friend present for exams, but it's essential after Mr. Fisher's tetanus that we get a measure of everyone's current health."

The objection fades with the reassurance of how it'll be handled, so Carol passes over a list of patients to the woman who asked. "It's planned to take two days, half an hour each, but if need be, we'll roll to a third day for the women. Men's physicals won't take as long, and there are fewer men, so they should be done today." The roster from the hospital is still a little disturbing. None of the male civilians from Grady are under sixty or over twenty. Scout's inquiry with the officer contingent confirmed they weren't allowed to rescue adult males at all. The eight officers are first on each list, since Merle wants them on the work crews as soon as possible.

"For those of you who do complete your physical today, as long as there's nothing precluding you working, you'll start in on a crew like everyone else. Morning work is non-optional for everyone, unless their non-optional shift ends up being cafeteria duty once the building's complete. In those cases, that'll cover any need for the morning work. Afternoon work shifts are voluntary, aside from supply run teams, as those can take all day or even multiple days, but you'll be credited for the extra time as voluntary shifts. Everyone works here."

"Including the children?" One of the women looks wary. The boy at her side is a burn survivor, one noted for being rescued after the napalming of Atlanta. She's not related, but she's obviously adopted the boy as her own. Carol remembers her name as Rebecca from Merle's details.

"Until the community center is complete, children under thirteen shadow a parent or someone the parent designates. If you're doing work that you feel isn't safe for a child to be part of, you can drop children off at the main house and there will be someone on childcare duty. They be able to read, watch television, do artwork... just like a daycare before. Once the community center is finished, we'll have all the kids under thirteen in lessons in the morning, which is actually a discussion I'll need to have with the school teacher in your midst."

The woman mentioned, Gail, acknowledges the request with a smile, looking grateful for what probably feels like a return to normalcy for her. Carol has her listed as a first grade teacher, but she shouldn't have any problem with their small elementary age population, especially with Alaina assisting. The former librarian leapt at the idea to have something constructive to do when Merle convinced her that taking all the watch shifts waiting on word of her sons was unhealthy. Gail's probably equally happy that it puts her eight year old daughter along with her. They decided against formal schooling for the teenagers, letting the kids go through self-study and informal apprenticeships. At this point, lessons in analyzing literature weren't exactly a priority, and math and science they'd pick up through hands-on experience.

"I saw the little girl going out with one of the supply teams," Rebecca brings up.

"Sophia? Yes. She's thirteen, and that is an option if parents and the team leader agree for teenagers only. They're going to the lake to retrieve fuel and go fishing, like they did yesterday, and you see she returned safely. Her uncle was a conservation ranger with the state before. He's qualified to keep her safe, and you met her on the way in, so you know she's been trained for the reality of the world outside as well. Kids under thirteen can help on the farm with parental permission, since walkers gaining access there is difficult and it's monitored."

"Do all the kids have to learn to shoot?"

"Over thirteen, yes. Firearms training with the air rifles is required, as well as self-defense classes." She passes over the second notebook from the wagon, which details out everything, and Rebecca steps forward to take it. "That'll detail everything I'm telling you now, the community rules and expectations as they stand now. I understand there are four children with no permanent guardian?"

It's the officer who's taken charge of the remaining officers who answers. "Alvin, Jerry, Troy, and Carmen. Al's thirteen, Jerry's five, Troy's seventeen, and Carmen's fourteen."

"Is there anyone they prefer to have as a guardian?" she asks. "We have people available, if that's not possible."

Gail moves forward. "Jerry can stay with me and my daughter. That'll work out best since he'll be in the classroom most of the day anyway."

The only girl mentioned shrugs. "Maria's been taking care of me all this time. I'll stay with her and Yolanda." The woman mentioned agrees with a soft smile.

"Do I really need a guardian? I'll be eighteen in January," Troy asks. He's a clean cut kid, thin and wiry like Glenn.

"I can put you down as one of the young adults on a trial run," she offers. "You can stay on with the folks here until we get better housing built, same as the other adults." He agrees, looking both happy and a bit surprised at the agreement. She's operating on the logic that Honey gave back at the quarry. Sometimes in this new world, splitting hairs over exactly when a birthday passes is overkill, especially with older orphans who might resist the idea of being supervised by someone other than their lost parents.

The younger teenage boy just looks tired. "Been looking after myself in Grady the same as foster care before."

Carol straightens, feeling sad for the youngster. "Well, we have someone here who has another boy who was a foster child before and she's got a foster daughter now as well. We'll start you out with Patricia and see if that works for you. If it doesn't, we'll keep trying til you find it." Of their own orphans, Patricia was in charge of Jimmy and Isabelle, with little Andy being absorbed into the Morales family.

"Does that mean I gotta leave over here?"

She can't tell if the boy's wary or hopeful with that. "That's up to you. Patricia's up in the main house. She's our quartermaster - in charge of the supplies and most of the work shift organization. Jimmy's been staying with some of the other young men in the basement, where the house has a bunk room meant for a storm shelter. You'd be rooming with three other teenagers and the two male Marines."

"And they won't have a problem with me being mixed?"

Carol decides then and there if it's any of the Grady people still living that added to the boy's worry over being biracial, she's going to make sure they draw every last disliked duty possible from here until the boy's thirty. "No, sweetie. I'm guessing they didn't really introduce how anyone is related in all the rush to get folks settled here, did they?"

She gets a lot of shaken heads, and Amanda Shepherd speaks. "We know Dixon's in charge and there's a council of some sort and that anything security goes through the female Marine and her husband."

She'll leave the idea of Shane and Scout's relationship alone for now, but she can explain the rest and set the boy at ease at the same time. "Scout? The female Marine? She's Merle's oldest daughter."

The boy makes the connection and manages a cautious smile. "She's what, part Latina?"

"Her mother was from Guam, which probably makes her closer to part Indonesian, as I understand it. One of the boys you'd be rooming with is the youngest Dixon boy. He's biracial too. You might have seen him working on the solar panel system on the community center roof yesterday." He nods. "Cricket, the med student, she's another Dixon daughter, and she was part of the team in Atlanta, so you may have met Honey as well. She alternates between the building crew and the supply crew, but she's on property today if you wanted to meet her and her brother today before you decide."

"Is that all the Dixons? The girl who went on the fishing trip called Mr. Dixon her father the other day," Amanda Shepherd asks.

"That's Sophia, and she'd be the youngest for Merle's children. But Jamie, the older of the two male Marines, he's Dixon family too." She smiles and places a gentle hand on Abby's blonde curls. "And this little miss is a Dixon as well. Her dad's the one leading the fishing team, Merle's brother, Daryl."

"Don't forget Grandma Glynnis and Shane and Tara and you," Abby prompts. It gets some amused smiles from the Grady folks, and Carol's glad to see she's speaking up to make sure all the extended family get noted.

"Oh, most certainly we can't forget. You all met Glynnis a few times already. She'll be the boss lady of all things at the community center. Shane's the security co-leader you've already met, and Tara is Cricket's partner."

"So it's safe here, for women like them?"

Carol tries to memorize the speaker, a thin woman in her early twenties, just to make sure she's okay later. She looks fearful, but hopeful. "I assure you any problems with orientation won't be tolerated at all here. Are you on the list for physicals today?"

The woman steps up and scans the list where another woman is holding it and nods. "Yeah. I'm Nicole, fifth on the list."

"That'll give you the opportunity to talk to Cricket in person if you want to. Do you remember where Tara is today, Miss Abby?"

She knows exactly where Tara is, but she's hoping it'll encourage Abby to speak up if she's talking about her extended family. The girl nods, but doesn't smile. "She's on Scout's team today cos she's a cop like Daddy and Shane."

"Exactly right. That leads us to work rosters. All the former officers have been out and understand supply runs, so you'll likely find yourself assigned to various runs in pairs with another partnered team. We usually send out groups of eight to twelve, depending on how big the run's supposed to be, although a team can be as small as four if they're just scouting a location. We're on a plan to clear out all the surrounding small towns systematically, and then work into the larger towns as they can be done safely. Canned goods won't last forever, but leaving them out there to potentially be lost to weather and exposure isn't going to happen."

"And what about the rest of us?" Nicole asks.

"While you are required to learn firearm safety and self-defense, you aren't required to go on supply runs. If that's something you want to do, you'll need to submit your name and you'll get a bit more training. That actually applies to the officers too. If any of you would rather retire back to the building crew or farm crew, we'll take that into account. I'm hopeful that all of you that have CDL training will be willing to at least be drivers on supply runs, or if not, to train a number of folks who are interested."

One of the older men steps forward. "I don't think I'm up to doing the runs at my age, but I'm happy to teach."

"Oliver, right?"

"Yeah. Was forty years as a long-haul driver before."

"Driving lessons might require you to leave the property, but the town nearby has stayed clear since the unfortunate locals were laid to rest, so if you're willing, I'll put you down for an instructor." He nods and she gifts him a grateful smile. The other three drivers, all women, put their names down as willing to join the supply runs, and two officers acknowledge they can at least drive a bus like Shane can. A third wants to learn, but grew up on a farm, so is used to hauling trailers.

"See? We're already making a good progress. Tomorrow morning I'll have your actual assignments, so take today to take turns reading through the guidelines and settle in as best you can. If anyone's just tired of resting up, they're welcome to volunteer for the building crew if they think they're up for it. Doesn't matter if you don't know which end of the hammer to swing. They'll train you."

She bids them farewell, but pauses. "Al? You want to go with me and meet Patricia before you decide?"

The boy glances to Gail, who nods. She's glad to see he does have at least someone on his side in the Grady people, although that may be the woman's school teacher side at play. He joins her and Abby, offering to pull the wagon, so she turns the handle over to him. He's more talkative the further they get away, so she thinks he'll be okay in the end. He just needs a safe place, like they all do.

~*~ GR ~*~

"Holy shit, this gonna make Merle's week," Glenn exclaims. The others with him - Maggie, Tara, and Danny - agree. Their four person team split off from the other two teams who were loading up everything they thought they could use and could fit on the semi-truck brought for the trip. The area had a lot of new development and when Tara spotted what looked like a lot of cargo containers, Scout sent them to explore since Merle wanted containers to reinforce the boundaries.

But instead of beat up old shipping containers used for shipping between semis and trains, they found a business that apparently created mobile shelters using converted shipping containers. The frantic construction would be much less frantic if they just needed foundations and to haul these babies into place. Glenn didn't know enough about construction to really assess, but he suspected these might be even easier than that modular maze they created for the nursing home.

He radios it in first to Scout, then to Homestead, and they explore while they wait on the watch folks to summon Merle.

"Is it just me are these like legos, sorta?" Maggie asks. She's studying a catalog in the sales office they've broken into. "I mean, they're like amped up versions of the RVs, with more elbow room and privacy, depending on the model, but from the looks of this, they can be stacked?"

Glenn looks over her shoulder. "Yeah, they can, I think. I think I know what the next supply run will be, don't you?"

"Next?" Tara snorts as she sticks a large, glossy brochure into a carry bag to take back to Merle. "I'm betting the second Merle hears, we're going to be hauling a few of these babies back this trip. Think about it. We've got the semi that'll need a driver, plus shotgun. Then four people gotta take the flatbed truck and Subaru back, plus whatever they're pulling. But these can't be that complicated to pull, if we go slow. If Honey can make off with a fully loaded Freightliner and not crash it, these look like they're barely longer than the buses or RVs and we've all driven those except Glenn, so far. And there's that Chevy dealership down the road, so we just nab the keys to a few of those heavier duty trucks and load these babies up. That's three buildings, just this trip."

Maggie goes to the office door and studies the big lot. "It looks like they were putting together a big order for someone. Brochures talk about disaster relief and migrant worker housing, so guess they got an order in from somewhere. If they can be anchored down so they don't blow around in a storm, they'll be a lot better than the RVs and faster than the building crew can put them up."

"And privacy for those who want it?" Danny asks, winking at Glenn, who rolls his eyes at the younger man but then grins.

They follow Maggie out to make notes on what's actually available versus what's in the catalog. He can't help but be drawn to the sway of her hips even in the less-than-flattering cargo pants.

Yeah, privacy would be really nice.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle sends the message through the cheap walkies worn by each of the folks informally designated as the council to alert them for a planning meeting before supper tonight.

The news called in by Glenn's team is more than welcome, as he was estimating a close shave with winter on building housing unless he resorted to large bunkhouses. Depending on what the final count was from the container conversion company, they might get everyone housed and only have to do foundations and hookups. Right now one of his bigger fears was a tornado, or worse, a hurricane blowing in off the coast. They weren't so far inland not to have problems if one did hit. Before the Grady group, he could get everyone in the shelters on site, since both the original house and his own have basements and there's an independent shelter out by the farthest barn if anyone got caught on the further side of the property unexpectedly.

But with more than a hundred people, they'd be worse than sardines right now. The RVs would be worse than matchsticks, plus the men in the barn office aren't the safest either. Prebuilt containers properly anchored and secured would at least mean a fighting chance if a tornado arrived without good warning, and time to put in another shelter or two. They don't have emergency services to come save them anymore.

Some of the stress taking residence in the back of his brain lessens its grip and he feels he can breathe just a bit easier. Taking in the Grady folks was an undertaking they weren't truly prepared for, and now karma's blessed them. He smiles and goes to give the good news to the rest of his building crew.

~*~ LG ~*~

"Abby?" Lori twists in the office chair, where she's been using Merle's laptop to update their inventory again. She's still not entirely sure how she got the job of computerizing it all, but she's not going to complain. All those years of chairing PTA meetings and fundraisers ought to pay off somehow.

The little girl peeks around the corner from where Lori thinks she's been watching her work from just out of sight. She can hear voices down in the main part of the house, and assumes that Carol's somewhere since it's just past lunch and Abby's normally with either Carol or Jazz if Daryl's gone. But caught in her peeking, she comes into the office, coming to stand beside Lori hesitantly.

"Is Carl right? Are you having a baby?" The timid question worries Lori, but everyone's been worried in their own way about Abby's quiet behavior. It's apparently at odds with her normal personality. The Dixons may have been cut off from the girl for a few years, but Glynnis visited regularly. The girl is taking her mother and stepfather's deaths hard.

"Yes. I just found out." She gathered up Carl and went to Rick after she left Scout and Shane, figuring she might as well while she still had the borrowed laptop in case Carl wanted to see more than the print outs. Her son is overjoyed about a sibling, although she thinks the news of her relationship with Shane may take time to fully process. He really did miss out that they were together at the quarry camp. It probably helps that she and Rick already talked him through their ending of the marriage, and he has always loved Shane. A new sibling isn't upsetting his world much at this point.

Rick, though. Her ex-husband is hiding it well, but he's taking it hard, and she recognizes the haunted look he gets when he's blaming himself for something. She knows if she thought about his refusal for fertility testing, he probably has too. He asked her for space to process and even dropped off the supply run crew to work with the builders for a few days, uncomfortable around Shane. Shane bore the request stoically, so she hopes Rick wraps his mind around it before anything festers to hurt the two men's friendship again.

"Is the baby okay?"

It's kind of an odd question for a ten-year-old, but Abby's world's been upside down for a while. "Very okay. Cricket checked everything out yesterday and even did an ultrasound."

"And you heard the heart beat." Abby tilts her head and tries to imitate the rapid pattern of a fetal heart beat. Lori nods and the girls fingers flex. Lori thinks she wants to touch her belly, but she's not sure. She's starting to have a horrible feeling about the distinctive knowledge the girl has for an only child.

"Abby, sweetie? Have you been around a pregnant lady before?" Please, please let it be a schoolmate's parent.

"Mama." She makes a hiccuping sound like she's about to cry, so Lori takes the chance and pulls the girl into her lap. "Mama's baby was sick. That's why she got sick when we were travelling. There was blood and she was crying the night before she died and hurt Ethan."

"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry." What do you say to that? The marshals didn't mention a miscarriage or even a pregnancy, so apparently it wasn't common knowledge.

Abigail begins to cry in earnest now, big, body-shaking sobs that nearly rock even Lori's form as she holds her. She fumbles across the desk for the intercom, calling for Carol. But even with the older woman arrives, the little girl won't turn loose of Lori, so the two women just bracket the girl as she grieves until she falls asleep in exhaustion.

"Will you help me move her over to the futon?" she asks Carol when it seems Abby's deep asleep. Between them, they get the girl stretched out, but any move Lori makes away from her rouses her to distressed cries, so Lori lays down beside her.

"I'll go get Glynnis if you're okay to stay," Carol says.

Like Lori could leave right now even if the girl did let her go. Her pregnancy might be the catalyst that opened the floodgates on the little girl's grief, and nothing else about Lori herself, but what she knows is that there's a motherless child desperately wanting her comfort.

She's not going anywhere at all.

Chapter Text

August 9, 2010

~*~ DD ~*~

Today's run ended up being one where Daryl is completely grateful there's plenty of willing hands to take over and unload both the fish they caught and the fuel and supplies. He's exhausted as he pulls the truck to a halt, and Sophia's been asleep on Zach's shoulder for the past half hour. They were cut off from an easy return by a herd moving northwest, thankfully well out of range of the Homestead, but he made the decision to lead the dead on a chase around to the west side of the damned lake rather than risk they might somehow shift and follow the noise. They weren't in any danger from the shuffling mass, but instead of arriving back just before supper, it was now getting closer to dusk.

His first sign that something's off kilter here is when Patricia is herding the rest of his crew away toward one of the tents for their supper, her expression solemn as she even tugs Sophia away. "Merle needs to talk to you up at the house. Everything's okay, but it's a family matter." She catches his glance toward Sophia. "Adults. You can fill her in later about what you think she needs to know."

Sophia looks worried, so he musses her hair. "Go on, Pipsqueak. If it's not okay, we'll make it so."

She looks uncertain, but follows Patricia obediently as he heads for where his brother is standing on the front porch and waiting.

"What happened, Merle?" This careful shit is worrying him, especially after the extra time on the road today.

Merle clears his throat. "Abby finally talked about her mama dying. It was pretty rough."

"Thought she might eventually talk to Carol if no one else." Carol certainly always managed to make him feel a little pocket of calm safety anytime he was around her.

"It wasn't Carol." Merle glances back toward the house. "Was Lori."

"What's she doing hanging around Abby? She's supposed to be with family if I'm not here." Lori Grimes is too lackluster in looking after her own kid, in his eyes, to be responsible for Daryl's.

"She heard something from Carl when she was playing a game with Jazz and some of the other kids this afternoon. She came upstairs to get a snack and went off to find Lori instead when she realized Lori was working in my office."

He starts to go past his brother to find his daughter, frustrated with the conversation, but finds himself halted by Merle's hand on his bicep. "Daryl, her mama had some sort of miscarriage and it's most likely why she was sick and died like she did. From what Carol and Lori could suss out, she was still first trimester, so Ethan's coworkers didn't know yet, but Abby did, apparently."

"So why all the fuss keeping me out here to tell me?" It's horrific, and despite all the bad blood between him and Carrie, he would never want her to die like that. He can't imagine how much grief Abby's been keeping locked up. She always wanted a sibling, but it never happened in the five years he was married to her mother.

"Because you haven't made your distaste for Lori any secret, baby brother, and your little duckling is imprinted on her right now something fierce because she found out Lori's pregnant. They're sitting inside watching a movie, and if you're gonna be pissed about the fact that I think you need to let her spend time with Lori, neither of them are up to witnessing it."

"What the hell, Merle? The woman can barely keep up with her own kid. I'm not putting mine off on her. And pregnant? That's just another mess at her feet, ain't it?"

"Daryl." It's not often he hears that sort of bite in Merle's tone, not toward him, and he stiffens, still held in place by the hand on his bicep when he starts forward. "Whatever the grudge you're nursing toward the woman, let it go. Can't have family tearing at each other. Not before, not now."

"Lori ain't family."

"Consider her however you like, but, her baby will be."

"And Scout's happy about that?" He can still remember when the reality kicked in for Scout of the extent of her injuries and just what was taken from her that wouldn't heal. It was after everyone else had returned back to Georgia, just him and her in San Antonio before she was discharged from the burn unit. He couldn't even hold her through it, the burned skin still too painful.

"Scout's the one that decided that." He finally lets Daryl go, and he moves away, feeling desperate to see with his own eyes that Abby's okay.

She blinks at him sleepily from where she's tucked in between Lori and Jazz on the sectional, watching The Incredibles. He drops down to crouch directly in front of her. "Hey, Sunshine."

"Hi, Daddy." She gives him a hesitant smile. "Did Uncle Merle talk to you?"

"Yes, baby girl, he did. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you needed to talk finally."

"It's okay. Auntie Carol and Miss Lori took care of me." He glances to where his daughter has firm possession of one of Lori's hands, as if the skinny woman will escape if she doesn't hold on.

"Is that so? I'm glad they did."

She reaches out to pet his cheek and he catches her hand and holds it in contact with him. "I'm gonna be Cricket's helper when she takes care of Miss Lori's baby," she says softly.

It takes every ounce of self-control he has not to react, to stiffen up, because he knows his fragile little daughter is one of the smartest kids he knows. Even without Merle's cautionary order, he knows he can't take this from Abby. It isn't his happiness or comfort that's important here.

"I'm sure you'll be a proper little doctor then. Maybe we'll find you a lab coat and some scrubs so you'll look the part," he offers. She giggles and frees her hands from both adults, pushing around him to pull something off the coffee table behind him. It's a little photo album, a cheap one meant to keep pictures in a purse, and she opens it to show him an ultrasound.

"See, the baby's just right and happy. There's its head and arms and legs. Cricket showed me how to listen to the heartbeat too. It's a special machine and she and Miss Lori say I can keep it so I can do the checkups. I have a stethoscope too, but you can't hear the baby yet with that because it's way too little."

It sounds like a hell of a lot of decisions made before he even has the chance to be involved, but he knows everyone's been worried about Abby. The second they had an inkling of how to help her, the family probably burst into action like a kicked over ant hill to provide fixes to her problem. He's just going to have to roll with it for now, until Abby's had more time to heal.

He kisses her forehead and gives her the best smile he can manage. "It sounds like you have it all planned out. How about I go take a shower so I don't smell like a fish bucket anymore and come back to watch your movie with you?"

She nods, her attention already drifting back to the movie over his shoulder as soon as he mentioned it.

He avoids looking at Lori at all when he stands and walks away.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane's settled into the spot he and Scout usually use for movies in the Dixon living room when she pauses short of him, handing off their drinks. "I'm gonna go check on Tihu."

She makes her way up the stairs, where Daryl disappeared as soon as Abby decided she was happy enough with Carol overseeing her bath if she got to borrow the big bathtub in the master suite. Everyone else is settling in comfortably while the teenagers bicker over the movie choice. Most here are the residents of the house, but Lori's here tonight, which is new. Rick declined the invitation, but Shane expected that. His best friend assures him he isn't angry about the baby, just adjusting, but it still weighs on him.

From the sound of it, everyone's about to get an earful, because Daryl's very clear "what the fuck do you think's gonna happen?" echoes down the hallway and into the open air of the living room in the weird acoustic trick he's noticed about any of the upstairs rooms if the doors are open. Raised voices carry like an echo chamber. Merle gets to his feet, but Cricket stops him, shaking her head.

"You know something's been festering there, brewing since San Antonio. Best to let it out."

No one looks comfortable at the idea of hearing whatever this is going to be and Cricket just gives a forced smile. "TV downstairs works just as well for movies."

Shane notices Merle's gripped the railing for the spiral stairs, obviously uncertain about Cricket's request he stay out of it. The kids are gone, but not everyone has cleared the room when it's Scout he hears now.

"You say something that stupid again, and I'm going to smack you so hard Abby'll be a grandmother when you wake up."

Daryl's reply isn't loud enough to carry, or he's far enough away from the door to muffle it, so the next thing they hear is Scout again. They're down to Merle, Shane, Lori, and Cricket.

"You can't think Lori's anything like our mother, Daryl. Lilliana wasn't capable of loving anyone, but even a blind person can see Lori loves her kid."

Lori freezes in place, her progress halted by hearing her name, and he thinks she's actually considering leaving entirely by her anxious look toward the door.

Merle looks suckerpunched, reliving some past pain maybe, and Cricket steps in to wrap her arms around her father's waist. He folds her in his arms in reflex.

"It's my choice, dammit! Mine! If I get hurt, that's my choice too." Shane understands Merle's wish to intervene. Scout's distress, the words obviously do to with him and Lori and probably the baby, makes him feel sick to his stomach. Earlier, everyone seemed to take the news in stride about the pregnancy, bustling around as if it were all planned to happen exactly so. He still remembers the thrill of hearing the baby's heartbeat with the little dopplar Cricket brought to test out and then demonstrated to Abby once they knew for sure it would work so early along. The little girl's joy was infectious.

Daryl's moved back in range to be heard again. "And when she finds her someone new and decides sharing the baby's a bad idea, how're you gonna live with that?"

"She's not Carrie either." The rest of what Scout says isn't audible.

"Rather be alone by my choice. Everybody leaves. Even you did. Needed my sister and you weren't here!"

Their voices both drop again, almost muffled. He hopes it's because they're trying to comfort each other.

Cricket curses against her father's chest. "Stupid fucking therapist. Never should have listened to her saying we had to acknowledge Daryl wasn't actually our brother."

It's not the first time Shane's heard Daryl or Scout slip out from uncle/niece to siblings terminology. Daryl does it more than Scout does, using that Chamorro term for sibling like an affectionate nickname. He can only imagine how complicated it is, with Merle raising Daryl right alongside his own children, to sort out the relationship to fit society's expectations.

Merle smooths his daughter's hair. He speaks softly, explaining for Shane and Lori, since the upstairs argument seems to have subsided. "Daryl didn't know he was my brother until he was twelve. I got our father's rights terminated when I was stationed in California and adopted him. Thought him thinking I was a dumb sixteen year old father was better than telling him our father beat our mama to death and left him abandoned with her body. If I'd never come back to Georgia and put him in range of the old man again, maybe I would have never had to tell him."

Lori's got her mouth covered with one hand in a way Shane knows means she's trying not to cry.

Cricket lets Merle go and goes to wrap Lori in her arms. "This isn't on you, Lori. Daryl's been hurting a long time and just when we thought he was getting over losing Abby, Scout got hurt. I don't even think Daddy was as terrified as Daryl when we saw what she survived. The scars are so bad, but the burns... I was afraid then, if we lost Scout, we were gonna lose Daryl too."

"They're close, but that close?" Shane says. Thinking Rick was dead gutted him, but he grabbed his lifeline by focusing on Lori and Carl.

"She nearly died to protect him once, Shane. I don't think he'll ever see that as repaid. And that thing she does, where she touches along a pulse point when she's being affectionate? She thought he was dead and was too young to know how to check. It's been a nervous habit of hers about people she loves ever since."

Merle sighs. "Spent enough on that expert therapist to put her kid through college. All she could do was keep repeating to set boundaries and acknowledge the past. They got worse, not better. Took all the kids to Guam for a year and stayed with their extended family. Nobody there knew what happened, and the culture there is changing and Westernizing, but they still value the relationship between siblings, especially a brother and sister. Might have been best to stay on the island, but I got a job offer back home and was still naive enough then to think their mother might wake up one day and want her kids again. There was no way she was ever going back to Guam once she left it."

Scout appears in the open part of the hallway. She looks haunted and lost and doesn't acknowledge anyone before escaping down the stairs out the front door.

Shane follows.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol shuts off the bathroom light and crosses to the bed. Merle's already lying down, sheet pulled to his waist and one arm behind his head. He's so lost in his thoughts he doesn't acknowledge her right away and actually seems startled when she brushes against him by accident.

She gives him a soft smile. "Penny for your thoughts?"

His eyes slide closed for a minute, and she aches for him after the upheaval of earlier. She missed what actually happened, being in the bathroom with Abby, who at ten was too old to need supervision but still too rattled by her losses to want to be left alone in any room. They returned to the living room to find everyone scattered and Merle looking like the walking wounded. She accepted his request to wait to explain, but she's not sure he can yet.

His voice is husky, low-pitched with emotion when he does speak, eyes still closed. "Every time I think they've healed past Lil's neglect, I find out something's just ripped right past the scars and wounded them again."

"Scout and Daryl?" Cricket seemed distressed, but more of a reaction to Merle's emotions than anything of her own. But then, the bits she's pieced together of the checkered history show the younger three kids led relatively normal, stable lives.

"I never realized he was angry at her. He always seemed so proud of what she was doing, serving her country." He opens his eyes, rolling to face her. "We were all terrified when we went to San Antonio. The odds were so low on survival at first. I even called her mother. Lil lives two hours from the burn center and wouldn't come even when I told her our girl might be dying. That's who I married, and it took me years to realize the damage she was doing to them. I sometimes wonder if I ever would have woken up if my father hadn't got out of prison and forced me to learn exactly what went on in my own home when I wasn't there."

Carol feels sick. With Ed, as terrifying as it was, there was never a time when she didn't know every interaction he had with Sophia. She reaches out in comfort, cupping his face between her hands and resting her forehead against his.

"Assholes always want to act like beating on a kid is the only way to damage one, and Lil put up one hell of a front when I was there. Daryl was her precious boy, always praised for how sweet he was to his sisters. Didn't have the first clue she started leaving Daryl to watch the girls as young as seven, best he can remember, anytime I wasn't home. Did the bare minimum to keep CPS out of the picture when I was deployed. I left them alone with her for fucking months at a time when I was in the Marines."

There's nothing really to say to that, so she just caresses his hair, letting him vent.

"I was out of town for work when the police tracked me down. Daryl was critical, Scout not a lot better, but she was alert at least. Will Dixon dead in my own kitchen floor. Lil was in goddamned Savannah, hours away. Left a twelve year old alone with an infant and two little girls. She almost did time for it too, but her public defender managed a post-partum depression defense. I caved to it long as she gave up her rights."

"Do you think it really was post-partum?" She's horrified for poor, young Daryl. No wonder he's hardwired as a protector of children.

"I don't think Lil is capable of loving anyone, despite years of convincing myself otherwise."

"I'm sorry." She kisses him gently and he allows it, drawing her in close. She's avoided asking in the past, since they both share the barest minimum of their particular demons in regards to their exes, but he's already hurting. "How did Jazz happen?"

"Jazz is an undeserved blessing for me being too stupid acknowledge that Lil was lying the one time she sought contact with the kids again when we came back from Guam. She did the whole song and dance. She had therapy. She was willing to have supervised visitation. All the right words, even the right actions. Only smart thing I did was not let her see the kids right away. She just found life on her own too hard. Thank God she never could handle her alcohol and didn't realize I'd grown up past the idiot eighteen year old kid she married. Maybe I'm a good father now, Carol, but it took me years to get here."

"She was older than you?"

"Six years older, yeah. She was a waitress at one of the cafes popular for the servicemen on the island. Exotic as hell for a Georgia boy looking to forget where he came from. Only half Chamorro. Her mama was half-Chinese, half-Chamorro and her daddy's father was an American. When the state of Georgia wouldn't give custody of Daryl to me as a single man, she offered to marry me as the solution. She wanted off the island."

Carol strokes his shoulders and kisses him again, letting it linger. "I guess I know why you've stayed unmarried so long then."

His smile is slow in coming, and bittersweet, but it's there. "I did get a really good payoff for the wait. Don't look so worried for me, Mouse. I survived it, just like you survived yours. Matching pair."

She can't help a small laugh at the image of them as a matched pair, but at the same time it's true.

Tonight's emotions are just one little bump in the road to fitting all the Dixon pieces back together properly.

~*~ LG ~*~

"Quit acting like I'm going to bite you, woman." Daryl huffs as he finishes putting bedding on the futon in Jazz's room.

Lori's still baffled by the fact that she's let herself be convinced to stay with Abby, after the little girl panicked when she realized Lori was leaving the house to sleep 'outside'. But it seems that Daryl cracking enough to ask her to stay in the house is as far as he can manage to go tonight. Leaving her alone in the room with Abby isn't on the agenda.

She doesn't think she's ever seen a man so brittle or wary of another human being who hasn't actually harmed them. His daughter is curled at her back, contentedly asleep, but she's not sure sleep's on the agenda tonight for her despite knowing she needs it.

She shouldn't start any serious discussion with the girl asleep in the room, but then again, maybe it's the best time to address what she overheard. "I'm not going to hurt Scout."

He drops his pillow with a thump and turns to face her. She thought she's seen him angry at the quarry, when everything in the world seemed to irritate him except the four children, but it's nothing to now. He's so tense she thinks he'd break a bone if someone pushed right now. "Ain't like you'll plan it, but you will. Won't just be Scout who'll get hurt. You don't have the ability to be alone. You ever even been?"

She has to shake her head in order to be honest. "Rick and I grew up together, dated in high school, got married when he graduated college."

"And just as soon as you though he was gone, you couldn't stay alone then either."

"It wasn't like that. Haven't you ever just needed to let someone make you feel something other than grief?"

It's like she flicked a switch. The angry stance disappears and he closes off so fast there's no emotion at all she can determine. She doesn't think he's stopped being angry at her very existence on the planet, but she's still not sure what she's said to cause the change. He's about the same age she is and was married for a number of years too. Surely he understands.

"No."

He turns away, lowering himself onto the futon with his back turned toward her.

She tries again. thinking about what he said about not just Scout getting hurt. "Daryl, I won't hurt her. Not Scout, and certainly not Abby."

Just when she thinks he's going to ignore her entirely, he speaks. "We'll see."

Deciding she's gotten as far as she can, she settles in herself, trying to will herself to this being no worse than sharing quarters on the road.

It still takes her hours to fall asleep, and she's fairly certain Daryl's awake just as long.

~*~ SW ~*~

"Scout?" Shane calls out softly when he wakes up alone in the bed. She's hard to spot in the darkened cabin at first, she's curled up in such a tight little ball.

When he first got to the cabin, she hadn't wanted to talk at all. She turned the maelstrom of emotion into intense sex that would leave them both carrying marks of fingers grasping a little too hard and his back scored with nail marks. But it seemed to work to bring her out of the state she worked into due to the old memories. It took her two hours to stumble through what she needed to say about her mother. They'd fallen asleep with him wrapped around her for once.

She doesn't answer right away and he leaves the bed to go to her. She's trembling, skin clammy, and it takes him a few seconds to realize her lack of response isn't intentional.

"Scout. It's Shane. I'm going to pick you up." He reaches for the fleece blanket on the back of the couch and wraps her in it, hauling her into his arms, trying to remember all she told him to do if she dissociated. He wishes he knew where her mind is, the flashback more real right now than he is.

Keep her warm and talk. She likes touch. He can do that. He tells her all about his Grandma Jean, about the time he stole the principal's car, about the time he and Rick got busted with a purloined six pack by Lori's uncle the cop when they were thirteen. It feels like hours, but he thinks it's really only about fifteen minutes when she finally makes a small movement and turns her face toward him.

"Shane?" Her voice is slurred, as if her tongue can't quite manage the single syllable of his name.

"Yeah, baby, I'm right here. I gotcha."

"Okay." She lets him carry her to the bed and he puts her down gently. "Don't leave," she mumbles.

"I'm not. Not ever." He gets them both prone in the bed, not sure how she'll want to lay, but she actually manages to solve that for him by curling against his chest, her face pressed against his throat.

"I'm afraid I'll be like my mother."

Fuck. He just can't imagine Scout ever being so disconnected from any child she couldn't stand to look at them. "You won't be. You're Merle's daughter. You won't know how to do anything but love that baby."

She's quiet, but awake, her breath against his throat even and steady but too heavy for sleep.

"I love you."

"I love you too. Try to sleep, please?"

He's not sure how much time passes but she eventually sleeps. He stays awake, standing guard in case any more demons visit her nightmares tonight.

Chapter Text

August 16, 2010

~*~ MD ~*~

It took a week to transport and install the containers from the company's site to the Homestead. Drivers made two trips a day to load and reload, each of their shotgun riders able to run the equipment on the other to load the containers onto the trailers. In all, they had 46 units, most residential in some format, but a handful of extras for hygiene facilities and finally a building set up as a command center to move the security room out of the office at the equipment barn. The paperwork Glenn discovered showed they were prepping for two separate orders - one a migrant farm camp and another a disaster relief effort going overseas.

It was the second order that delighted the medical personnel. The company was halfway through completing a modular hospital on larger semi-truck trailers. The radiology unit was built but lacking equipment, as were the inpatient and outpatient units. But since the surgical unit was completed, everyone was considering it a score. They could pilfer the equipment from local clinics and hospitals. The new 'infirmary' is now set up next to the nursing home to share the septic and water system. With any luck, they wouldn't use it much at all.

They now have an entire container village, stacked in four container stacks, secure on foundations and could conceivably sleep almost the entire population in the Village without assigning every bunk in the four ten-bed bunkhouses as well as the other units. Luckily, they didn't need to, and the ones in those units didn't seem to resent some folks got private bathroom facilities and even tiny galley kitchens.

It probably helped that no one's showers were usable yet, not even the shared washrooms for the non-bathroom units. The wells on the property couldn't sustain this level of water use until they finished upgrading the system. He was just grateful the toilets were all composting units, although that was going to cause a lot of the residents some adjustments. Showering in the RVs for a few more days wouldn't bother anyone.

Most of units were in various stages of furnishing with only the kitchen and bathrooms complete, but Glenn's teams solved that problem with runs to furniture stores. Today was move-in day, so the open area next to the Village looked like an explosion of furniture as Patricia and Carol allotted what each place needed.

"Surveying your kingdom, oh Mufasa?"

He snorts and accepts the hug in greeting from Cricket. "No more than you've been drooling over having an actual infirmary. You gonna be able to share with Edwards?"

"Yeah. Didn't make it far enough in med school to have my bedside manner permanently removed, but he's not bad if you remember it's not weird for doctors to develop God complexes. I think he's just so glad to answer to Hershel and not an uninformed cop that we could probably make him live in the infirmary staff room 24/7 and he wouldn't object."

"I think your younger siblings ended up with as much paint on them as the buildings when they put up the addresses." To save on everyone's sanity, they debated on some sort of labeling or addressing system for the Village. In the end, since there were twelve of the four container clusters, they were all named after the signs of the zodiac, narrowly beating out the twelve Olympians. Sophia, Honey, and Jazz volunteered to stencil the buildings and finished up just before move-in, looking like graffiti artists gone bad.

"I'm not entirely sure Jazz ending up with purple hair isn't on purpose from either one of the girls, you know. You think Carol's going to have a fit that Sophia's is about half blue?"

"I doubt it. She's usually just happy Sophia's getting to have small bouts of mischief still."

"You've been a lot happier lately, other than the hiccup with Scout and Daryl."

Calling it a hiccup was an understatement, considering Scout ended up off duty on doctor's orders for two full days. Shane didn't leave her side, but Jamie and Glenn stepped in nicely, proving they could safely rotate their outside crews to allow down time without exhausting Scout and Shane.

"I am happy." He meets her searching look and smiles.

"Carol's so much better than Evelyn, you know."

"Never intended to marry Evelyn any more than she intended to marry me. You kids worried a lot for nothing."

"Well, I'm glad you decided to take a chance finally. This definitely isn't a world to be alone in."

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane follows Scout's move instinctively, just like the other six on their team. Under the awnings of the shopping center, she tracks the flight of the helicopter with her binoculars.

"Looks like Guard, although there's no guarantee it's still in military hands, or that they haven't gone rogue."

She lowers the binoculars to exchange a look with Tim, who was assessing with his own binoculars. The former Ranger shrugs.

"Want to go find out?" she asks, turning to Shane.

"Might as well. If they're rogue, we don't want them finding the Homestead."

They set off back to their vehicles. Today's trip is primarily about the propane supplier here in Ackworth, but the untouched pharmacy took as much priority. Unfortunately, it didn't have back up power, so all the refrigerated medication was a loss, even if the rest is a good haul.

Shane slides into the driver seat of the truck, with Scout beside him and Gage and T-Dog behind them in the crew cab. Tim follows with Karen, Bello, and McGinley in their own truck.

"There's an old campground out this way," Scout explains. "Angle's right for where it disappeared. Gonna radio it in. Tihu's crew is too close for my comfort."

Shane agrees. Daryl's systematic stripping of marina resources is bringinging his two teams to Lake Allatoona every day. He listens in as she alerts Homestead, leaving it to them to relay the message.

T-Dog chuckles from the backseat. "You know, we thought Rick was crazy when he talked about seeing a helicopter in Atlanta. But now I'm thinking maybe it was whoever this is."

"Always possible," Shane notes.

Scout motions for him to pull over. "Gonna take Tim for a little recon."

He doesn't like separating from her, but he can't argue that she and the former Ranger are best suited for this. "Giving you half an hour, like always."

He watches the minutes track slowly by, glancing occasionally to the truck parked behind his. At the wheel, Karen is equally alert. He's glad neither of his companions feel the need to babble to fill the silence.

Radio on the dash sounds at last. "Follow the signs in to the campground. Got ten stray Guardsmen."

He puts the truck in gear and follows the instructions, but keeping alert. Scout's message didn't contain any codewords for duress, but it pays to be wary these days.

Her posture is loose and relaxed when he pulls up. Tim is at her left, hyper alert like he usually is outside their safe haven. Facing them is a weary looking man wearing Lieutenant rank, with a Sergeant close by. The others of their little unit aren't even standing, except for two doing checks on a trailered helicopter. With luck, they've found friendlies.

Shane joins her while the rest of their people stay in the trucks.

"This is my second-in-command, former deputy Shane Walsh," she begins. "Walsh, this is former Lieutenant Thomas Welles. He and his men were part of a refugee camp up at Rome before it fell after walkers got inside."

"Former?"

The older man sighs. "Resigned my commission and was out couple months before this started. Reported in to see if I could help my old unit. Never had any paperwork done in the chaos and not retired so..." He shrugs

"Kept us going," the sergeant says. "Paperwork don't matter."

Shane exchanges a look with both his own people, realizing he's in some grey area about military service. Using his own surname is far more formal than they ever are, but then again, her only two active military members she considers family.

"Was thinking there's no point in these Guardsmen living in a campground."

"Some might consider us deserters," Welles days.

"Not sure the military regs ever mentioned procedures for dead people cannibalizing the public. You kill civilians to get this far?"

Welles looks horrified. "Of course not! We tried to gather people to come with us, but it was chaos. Regrouped and went back to look for survivors and there were none. So I took my men and kept them safe. We take the bird up to look for survivors but you're the first we've seen."

"Nature of the beast is most are keeping well hidden." Scout signals for his opinion and he taps back the yes on his thigh. They could use the manpower and they've got the space. Nothing about either man close enough to observe closely triggers his instincts.

"Got a safe haven I can offer, if you're tired of being a nomad. Plenty of civilians collected up."

"And if someone turns in a big group?"

"We've got our precautions in place. Haven't lost anyone since assholes ambushed us a few months back."

Welles and the sergeant exchange a look. The enlisted man nods and smiles, the first change in his solemn expression Shane's seen.

"And if any of my people do want to be free of military obligation, Staff Sergeant?"

"Don't exactly have a higher authority to process a discharge, but for my purposes, if they want to be civilians, that's how we'll treat them."

"Including myself?"

"Got no pressing need for an officer when we run things by civilian rules where we're from now."

"Good. I was always more committed to being a teacher than an officer. It paid for college and I honored my commitment, but I never made above lieutenant for a reason."

"We could probably use a teacher more anyway," Shane acknowledges. "Ever work with elementary kids?"

"Occasionally, to introduce then to the potential of the middle school band program."

"If you survived middle schoolers, our kids should be a walk in the park," Tim says, making everyone chuckle.

"You can really take in ten more?" the corporal asks.

"We've had a remarkable string of luck. Ten more able-bodied people is an easy addition. If you're coming, get loaded up. We have a supply run to finish out on the way back."

It takes them less than half an hour to strike camp. Shane thinks they're just grateful there's proof they aren't the last handful of people among the dead.

He has to say that bringing a helicopter back isn't among the expectations he had for today. He's doubtful of the long term usefulness of it, but better secure with them than potentially with a violent group.

~*~ GR ~*~

Glenn flops onto the full size bed with a grin. The container housing ranks among his favorite finds ever, especially since it means precious privacy with Maggie. He isn't sure her father is all that happy with them living together, but he didn't object.

They ended up with an upper unit in one of the duplex containers, one with a galley kitchen and eventually their own bathroom. There's no one next door yet on this side, with Rick and Morgan each having one of the two bedroom family units below them. T-Dog has the unit on the other side of little building, with the last also open.

"I can't believe how many people took the triplexes with no bathrooms,' he says to Maggie, who is still unpacking her things. Their run went smoothly, leaving them time to settle in before supper and the community wide meeting in the community center after.

"Less obligation to look after a composting toilet or afraid it'll stink despite ours being essentially the same as a regular toilet."

He supposes that makes sense. He didn't know exactly how all the system worked with talk of composting and leachfields and didn't really care. When his turn came round to empty the composting bins, he'll grin and bear it. Wasn't like it's a daily chore.

Although it shows how weird life has become now that he's thinking about toilet function while alone in the first home he's ever shared with a woman. But after Maggie laughed so hard she fell over at his horrified reaction to his best friend and former roommate describing cholera and dysentery in graphic terms. He was surrounding himself by women who delighted in torturing him.

But when Maggie finishes her unpacking and joins him on the bed, he thinks that's a good thing.

Of course, that's when they get interrupted by the squawk of the cheap radios that serve for communication until a better system can be sorted out.

"Scout's teams are incoming with ten newbies. She's got the council meeting and wants you and Maggie to settle in the newbies."

He sighs and acknowledges, giving Maggie a rueful smile. She just pops up in her usual cheer, leaving him to take the few minutes he needs post-interruption.

"She's been giving you more responsibility lately."

He sits up and neatens clothing and hair. "I'm just glad she trusts me this much."

Maggie comes back to plant a tender kiss on him. "You've more than earned it."

They get downstairs in time to see the convoy pulling through the gates.

"Is that a helicopter?"

"Yeah."

"This ought to be an interesting orientation."

The four new military vehicles pull to park near their previously appropriated military gear. They still tend to stick to civilian vehicles for runs to draw less attention if spotted. Scout's vehicles hauling propane and related supplies pull further down to be unloaded.

She spots him and angles to cross paths, waving a summoning had toward the ten people dressed in military gear. They come forward, looking around in open curiosity.

"When you said you had a safe haven, Dixon, I was thinking a little walled off community, not this." Glenn catches the lieutenant rank on his fatigues and wonders if having an officer here is going to be a problem. But Scout only smiles, so maybe not.

"Glenn, Maggie, meet our National Guardsmen. I'm going to need you to get them settled in so I can clean up before the meeting." She turns back to the Lieutenant. "Glenn kept a group of just over a dozen people fed and supplied with solo runs into the Atlanta hot zone for nearly two months. He's the authority beyond myself and Shane Walsh on supply runs. Maggie's his partner. They led the team that discovered the building blocks of our little village."

The Guardsmen nod as Scout is summoned away. Once she's gone, Glenn turns to his new charges.

"You're in luck that we just finished most of the housing today as far as being able to move in. Only downside is that the showers aren't working yet while they amp up the water system. I hope you don't mind a bit of a dorm situation for now. Carol will ask some folks to double up if you want more individual housing, but she's going to be in the council meeting so it'll be tomorrow before that can happen."

"We've been sleeping in tents and you're apologizing for beds, electricity, and plumbing?" The man laughs and extends a hand to first Glenn, then Maggie. "I'm guessing you go for informal address here. I'm Thomas Welles."

Glenn shakes his hand. "Yelling Dixon around here will get about ten different people summoned, so first names do tend to be best. It's their family property. Follow me and I'll show you the bunkhouse so you can get your things and settle in. The RVs over there are all vacant, so you can shower there."

"How many people are there here?" Welles asks. Glenn looks to where a few of the nursing home residents are out enjoying the sunshine and overseeing a handful of kids playing soccer in the grassy space between the nursing home and infirmary.

"About 150, before your group," Maggie answers. "Up until today, we were crammed into RVs and doubled or tripled up in the houses, except for the elderly. Their residence was completed first out of necessity, then the community center to feed everyone. Finding these housing containers meant for some migrant farm was a blessing."

They've reached the building designated for the men's bunkhouses and Glenn hesitates. "With three women among you, they have the option for other housing, but we understand if your group prefers not to be split up just yet."

"How far away would we be?" One of the women asks, glancing at the little twelve building village curiously.

"This building is dubbed Pisces. Upstairs are two ten-person bunkhouses and downstairs is a men's washroom with six toilets and six showers. The other unit is a triplex of rooms with no bathrooms or kitchens. All three of those rooms are occupied. The men can take one bunkhouse and the women the other, but the ladies would need to go two buildings down to Scorpio for the closest washroom. Although honestly, no one's going to really kick up a fuss if you all share the washroom here. There aren't any kids in the building, and two of the men are Marines used to close quarters."

"If there's a men's bunkhouse, I'm guessing there's a women's?" Welles asks.

"Yes. It's the Taurus building at the far end of this row. Both of those are empty now because we still had space to spread out when Carol assigned rooms yesterday."

Maggie glances toward the other buildings. "One of the two-person dorm rooms is still open on the ground floor in Scorpio. Joan and Michaela decided to room together."

The two women were the ones that Glenn knew suffered the most under the executed assholes at Grady, so he understands their wish to stay together.

"That'll give two of you a bathroom and galley kitchen. You don't have to cook for yourselves, but it'd leave the option open. The other building residents were all sequestered at a hospital in Atlanta by suriving members of the police department. The former officers are all actually in the building in between here and Scorpio."

Two women exchange a look and grin. "We'll take the dorm room. These are good guys, but we've lived with their B.O. long enough."

"Not sure how to break it to you that you aren't smelling like roses, either, Miriam," one of the men snarks, but it's friendly.

"What about couples?" the third woman asks. She glances toward one of the men, who also seems interested in the answer.

"Ah. That's easier. This row is meant for singles. Everything is set up with bunks with a few exceptions. But the other row is for families and couples. You get a room pretty much identical to the dorm the two ladies are getting, but with a full size bed. The one next to mine and Maggie's is free."

Maggie helpfully points to the upper level of the Aquarius building right across from Pisces. "Number four. There are two single fathers with teenagers downstairs, so you won't have to sidestep the really small kiddos."

It's the male half of the couple who speaks up to accept, so Glenn motions at the stairs on the Pisces building. "There's five sets of bunks in each, so if you six want to split up for more elbow room, feel free. We could get new residents at any time, or not ever again, so might as well spread out while you can."

Welles directs everyone to grab their gear, and when they meet back where Glenn and Maggie are waiting, Glenn smiles at the anticipation on their tired faces.

"Drop off your stuff and aim for the RVs to shower. There are towels and soap available. You can leave your dirty clothes in the baskets, since they'll know it's your group's since it won't be tagged yet. Supper will start in the community center at seven, but if you're hungry before that, there's usually someone in there who can help you rummage in the leftovers."

The men head up the stairs, splitting off in four and two between the bunkhouses. Maggie leads the two women off to their building while Glenn just waves the couple on their way. He's pretty sure two military trained adults can figure out how to get to a home they can see from here.

The man does pause to introduce himself while his girlfriend heads upstairs. "William Brady, but I prefer Brady. She's Denova. Carlisle for now, until I can convince there's enough of a future in front of us to finally accept my proposal."

"Good luck with that, man."

He grins and trots up the stairs after Denova, leaving Glenn waiting as Maggie comes back down the little roadway between the buildings. From the look on her face, they're about to return to their interrupted christening of their new bed.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol smiles warmly as she takes a seat at one if the empty spots with their newest residents. "I hear that Glenn and Maggie got you all settled in."

The older man pointed out to her as the former lieutenant nods. "They did. And everyone we've encountered has been so friendly. Your family is putting together an amazing community here."

"It has been the effort of many." She slides her notebook on the table. They're trying to develop a process for newcomers, and while she's still reeling a little at her inclusion in the expanded and now formalized council, she intends to do her part. "Everyone has their roles to play."

"And ours?"

"That's what we're about to find out." She clicks her pen and begins her gentle interrogation.

It takes about an hour, and the community center is mostly empty when the Guardsmen leave her sitting thoughfully at the table. Even the cleaning crew is finished, although Alaina is leading a team to prep for tomorrow's breakfast now that they have room to plan ahead. Carol's really looking forward to the berry French toast bake, especially when she didn't cook it.

Cricket settles into the empty seat opposite her with two mugs and pushes one toward Carol. It smells of rich cocoa and she marvels at how closely all Merle's children notice her preferences, like cocoa instead of the peppermint tea they all seem to adore.

"So what sort of newbies are we breaking in this time? At least they won't be afraid of weapons."

"A fairly diverse bunch. One couple for certain that took the place next to Glenn and Maggie. He was a web developer and she's a mechanic. He says he knows enough to get us a working network too."

"It would be nice if we didn't have to do everything on paper for the most part. Glenn will be over the moon to clear out a Best Buy."

"As for the others, their leader was a band director also qualified to teach science, so Gail will have company and that'll let Alaina move on to something else. I think she enjoys children in smaller doses than daily for four hours."

Cricket laughs. "I'm surprised she volunteered at all. She might have been a librarian, but she worked at a college library. Small children have never been her forte."

"On the other two women, one is a fitness trainer and the other a CNA. After they get a couple days off and you clear them medically, I'm going to have them rotate in the nursing home staff so G's crew gets some downtime. Miriam speaks Spanish, so that'll help with the residents who aren't bilingual."

"Scout will probably talk the trainer into taking over some of the beginner classes for self defense. She should be capable with her military background."

"I'll go ahead and do that. What about the other five?"

"Paralegal, special ed paraprofessional, locksmith, security guard, and city parks worker. I'm also about eighty percent certain the security guard and the locksmith are a couple and not admitting it because they're concerned about the reception. They're rooming separately from the other single men, too, but everyone is friendly."

"I'll make sure to drop by with Tara and suss them out. Don't Ask, Don't Tell can be considered obsolete, I think, so they shouldn't feel like they need to keep private if they are a couple. Our world is too risky for that crap."

She fiddles with her mug and Carol figures the conversation she's had with exactly none of Merle's children is about to happen.

"I told Daddy this morning he looks happier than I've seen him in a long time."

Carol smiles, some of her nerves dispensed by the fond tone Cricket uses.

"My only worry is that it's so soon for you, and all the experts before would say you should wait a lot longer. But I've seen a lot of evidence in my lifetime that expertise that works for one person can flop for the next."

She gives Carol a bashful look. "And I know that Tara and I definitely make me a little hypocritical here. It's just that Daddy's been alone for such a long time because he didn't trust a woman around us as much as himself. So if it doesn't work for you and you need out, just please remember the kids love you too, and they've never had a mama to care for them like you do."

Carol feels tears well up, happy and bittersweet, but blinks them away. No one can miss the easy affection Honey dispenses like sunshine to everyone she cares for, so Carol's never needed a conversation to understand the girl. But Jazz? He's a mystery most days on what he's feeling. It's a serious conversation she needs to have with him.

"I wouldn't walk away from them any more than your father would Sophia," she promises. She wonders it it's overstepping to tell the young woman she feels equally fond of the grown children as well. Maybe that's a conversation for another time.

The brunette finishes off her tea and stands, but pauses before she walks away. "Carol? Ask Daddy about the books on the bottom shelf in his office."

Carol watches her go, trying to remember if she's ever looked at the office bookshelf. Before her new council duties in charge of work roster, housing, and social planning, she didn't have any need to use Merle's laptop, although he suggested she do so tomorrow. She'll have to take a peek on the way to bed tonight.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle stops short of the bed when he sees Carol's apprehensive expression and the book in her hands. He reminds himself that she's one of the most tender hearted women he's ever met and goes to sit on the bed so he's facing her.

He reaches out to take the book. "You picked a good one to start with."

"It seemed the most expedient. There's time to read the more technical ones later, if I need to."

"He was ten before he was diagnosed. I think most of his teachers were just glad to have a boy who was quiet and read a lot that they overlooked things, and I certainly didn't have to background to know. Only thing I knew of autism was the severe non-verbal kind that got people sent away for care."

"Sophia had a classmate with Asperger's last year. I never read anything about it until now, though."

"His is mild to moderate, depending on which aspect you're looking at. Most people don't even realize it." He gives her the book back. "I should have said something sooner, so you would be aware, but you sorta just did everything right by instinct."

"Like what?"

"You don't insist on eye contact, louder speech, or physical contact he hasn't initiated. He's better with kids, mostly because they don't take offense as easily as adults. But being a big, athletic kid helps. Had a school counselor try to keep him to non-team sports, which didn't work. She never made the connection that his issues with physical contact in social situations don't apply on the team where there are strict rules and procedures. Boy was a holy terror on the wrestling team, and half the theory says he should abhor a sport that involves grappling strangers when he's got a touch aversion."

"So I should just treat him as I already do?"

"You're already doing it exactly right." He smiles and leans in for a kiss, grateful her innate nature made her easy for his teenage son to be around.

"I just realized today we never really talked to any of the kids about us."

"About the only one I think might need a conversation would be Jazz, of the three younger ones." He settles into bed. "Honey and Sophia are obviously delighted."

"You took Honey wanting her little place down in the Village well."

"Just had to remind myself we'd have been moving her into the athletic dorms at college this month if the world hadn't turned upside down." He's also really sure that putting her in that particular building will give her several folks to rely on while feeling independent.

She sets the book aside and switches off the lamp, moving close to curl against him. "If we met under different circumstances, do you think you would have trusted me to meet your kids?"

"I like to think I'm smart enough to snap you up under any meeting, but I might have avoided you. Kids love too easily, and you're so easy to fall for," he admits. "I always figured there was plenty of time left once they were all grown."

When she stills, but before he can ask, he realizes what he said and continues. "Think I fell for you at the quarry and was just too thickheaded to realize it til later "

"I'm glad you figured it out because I love you, Merle."

He knew that without the words, because she shows him every day in her sweet care for him and the children and the friends that make up their extended family.

Merle smiles and repeats his own love declaration against her lips.

~*~ TD ~*~

T-Dog answers the knock on his door to find Honey Dixon waiting with one of the barn puppies in her arms. She hands him the dog with a lopsided smile.

"You shouldn't have to give up all your roommates. She's yours to keep. I know housewarming gifts are usually food or plants, but I figured you'd enjoy a dog more."

He's a bit overwhelmed by the unexpected gift. Although he did want one of the puppies, once he learned they were Honey's, he didn't ask. "Thank you. How did you know she's my favorite?"

"Glenn told me. She's not named yet, so you'll need to settle that and get her fully housebroken."

She starts to walk away, not toward the stairs down, but to the place next door.

"This mean we're okay now?"

"Yeah, been better about it for a while and thought I'd let you know, especially since we're neighbors." With a cheery smile, she disappears through her door.

He takes the puppy inside, feeling lighter hearted than he has in a long, long while.

Chapter Text

August 24, 2010

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane glances up at Zach, who is on rooftop guard duty with Danny, plus two of the Grady women. The difference of a month since his first run with the younger man is amazing, because now he truly leads instead of making due. Zach signals all is clear, so Shane returns to helping strap down the load of lumber Merle needs.

The size of their supply teams is larger now, between Grady folks catching up and thr influx of the Guardsmen. Only three of the new military asked to take on on-property duty versus off. So today they have seven teams of four, each with a different focus in the big Home Depot, like Danny's lookout team on the roof.

It's also the first time he's been on a separate team from Scout since they arrived at Homestead, but with Rick as his partner and Jamie as hers, they're both good. He's got two teams down here loading lumber, while Scout has on the opposite side loading all the garden supplies. Arthur and Lenore Eldridge want greenhouses built.

The third set of teams is under Rachel's leadership, which surprised Shane, since he initially expected Scout to select the military trained marshal. But he has to admit that the woman is far more comfortable leading than Tim will ever be. The former sniper is on Glenn's separate run today, back to the area they found the containers to clear out more of the restaurant supply store.

Rick wipes sweat away from his face with a bandana and grimaces as they wait on T-Dog to pull the now fully loaded flatbed semi away so that Maria can pull the next one up near the contractor entrance.

"Maybe you should shave that mess off, brother. August in Georgia ain't the best time for facial hair."

His best friend makes a face, but shrugs. They both take time in the short break to drink. It's only nine in the morning, and the heat is already enough to bake them. "Wanted one for years and couldn't for regulations sake. Not gonna give up because of a little heat. Besides, it isn't unpopular with the ladies."

"They just like that it makes you look like a grown man instead of a college kid like you do clean shaven." Shane's grateful they still have this ability to tease, because waiting on Rick to settle his mind and come back to their friendship is second only to the coma for worrying about his best friend.

At least Rick took his advice about playing the field a little. The other man isn't accepting the all the offers that come his way, but he's admitted to two separate no-strings encounters so far. Sasha didn't surprise him because he suggested it himself, but Katherine from the Grady group did. Woman does look good for her age, but she has eighteen years on Rick.

Rick laughs. "Looking my age is a good thing nowadays."

Shane glances back into the building, where their secondary team is loading two forklifts, glad the area has stayed relatively free of walkers so far. They haven't seen any large herds other than the one Daryl's teams encountered. Maybe their systematic methods of clearing areas they are harvesting supplies in is paying off.

"Hey, Rick, can I ask you a real serious question?"

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol slides her hands across the surface of the desk and smiles.

"You like it?" Merle sounds almost hesitant, and that's enough to make her look up. He's leaned against the door frame, and it looks casual, but he isn't as relaxed as he appears.

"It's perfect. I only objected because I didn't think an office should take priority, not that I didn't want you to provide one."

He relaxes and comes over to lean against the desk after claiming a kiss. "No sense in you having to dash back and forth between the main house and community center, plus you've got assistants now."

When she initially gave in to the idea, Merle had the three office trailers his company owned hauled on property. One is parked down with the military vehicles pending some future use. Another is set up near the equipment barn to host a combo of the construction and supply run planning.

But the third is now installed to one side of the main entry to the community center, with a bathroom facility brought from the container company installed to provide men and women's restrooms for the center on the other side. While she initially thought she would use it as it came from being used on Merle's larger construction projects, she found herself locked out for two days while it was redone in what should have been evening downtime for Merle and several of the kids.

Now it looks like any regular three-person office, except for the cheery paint job throughout that includes a mural dominating one wall of her private office space. The other two desks are in a shared space, and although four people will share the area, Carol doesn't expect they'll run into too much overlap.

"It still feels like I'm taking over Patricia's place."

"I think you should consider yourself her successor, not her replacement. And she stepped back for happy reasons."

Carol has to agree they are happy reasons. Lori's pregnancy news had held the potential for drama. Patricia's, when she finally announced it three days later, is bittersweet. Her husband, Otis, died back on the Greene Farm. In twenty-one years of marriage, they remained childless. Now at forty-three, Patricia is going to be a first time mother. Combined with her three fosterlings, she decided less stress was for the best.

He reaches out to cup her cheek, and she can't resist leaning into the touch as he speaks again. "Darlin', people are going to look up to you here with what we're building here. Just think of yourself as a mama with an insane level of ducklings. Just because we all enjoyed Drill Sergeant Patricia doesn't mean you have to emulate her."

"I suppose you're right." The job needs to be done, and few others have the personality for it.

"Besides, the way our smart ass family keeps calling me Mufasa, that makes you Sarabi."

She laughs. Cricket started it, but it caught on with all the other Dixons, who found it hilarious. Sophia and Honey even taught little Andy to call Merle that. He responded by digging some of his kids' old toys out of the attic and gifting the toddler with a full set of Lion King plushes.

"I'm just glad Daryl has no ambitions to become Scar then."

That earns her an amused kiss as he bids her farewell to return back to overseeing the foundation work for their first actual warehouse.

She looks around the office again. The desk is from the mobile office, but she's pretty sure Honey cleared out most of Merle's permanent office at the construction company and relocated it here. The kids decorating explains the giant dark red bean bags set up as visitor chairs. There are at least a half dozen of them in the house that usually migrate to the living room for movies.

"They really went all out in here for you," Jacqui says, stepping inside and turning to inspect the wall above the bean bags. "Who did the photos?"

"The kids did the frames. Jazz did the photos."

The photo frames are why the adults were banned from the basement last night. She hasn't spent a lot of time down there, so she didn't realize there was a fairly stocked craft closet that Merle waved off as the girls' various hobbies collecting up. The rustic recycled wood is actually scraps collected up from building projects.

But the black and white photos make her want to sit down with Jazz for the significance. Some are obviously new, like the shot of Carol and Merle laughing while they tidy up the dishes after supper. There's one of Sophia leaning against Daryl on the back deck swing, the girl watching intently as Daryl fletches bolts. But a few of the shots are older, ones Jazz probably didn't take himself, but chose from his collection of negatives. Honey can't be more than ten in hers, long hair braided while she draws her bow.

"They're wonderful. I guess I thought film photography was a dying art for his generation. Makes me miss my old photography class from high school. And the mural?"

"I'm not sure who all painted it, but the chibi animals make me think Sophia came up with it."

"It's adorable. Plenty of visual stress relief if you need it. But I came by to ask if you can rotate me and Jim off duty for a day or two. He's having a rough patch, bad enough I sent Hershel to him."

Hershel would have let her know tonight, so Jacqui must need to talk. She gets up to hug her friend. "Is there anything I can do?"

Jacqui is quiet in her arms for a bit. "Just cross your fingers he follows through on taking the meds Hershel gave him. I think he's finally grieving, now that he's in a safe place to do it. He confirmed to me last night that the walkers got his wife and both boys. Hershel says it's grief combined with a lot of survivor's guilt."

"If there's anything he wants or needs and we can provide it, let me know."

Jacqui agrees as she pulls away, brushing away tears. "Can you slot him in for teaching some mechanics classes? He had more life to him when he was teaching the teenagers how do redo that vehicle wiring at the quarry."

"I can do that. Should have plenty of apprentices for it too."

"Thank you. I'm going to go grab some drinks for our fridge and head back to sit with him."

She gives Carol a hug before leaving, passing Lori and Abby on the way out. As Lori gravitates to the desk on the far side of the main office, Abby trots into Carol's area and drops her backpack between the desk and bean bags before flopping face first onto one and sighing happily.

"You having a good day, Miss Abby?"

"Yup. Gonna do my science workbook in a minute. Miz Lori says if I don't do it before lunch, no sweets."

Abby is doing better, but still unwilling to attend the morning school session, so Carol and Lori are just having her do the lessons as she spends time with either of them. Maybe she'll see about a little desk for Abby.

Caril turns to the computer and the stack of handwritten notes she needs to organize, but her eyes are drawn to the photos one last time.

She reminds herself to spend some time with their selector, because the sole photo with Jazz is one where he's sitting in the floor during a movie, back pressed to Merle and Carol's legs. He has his long legs stretched out in front of him and Abby's sprawled across his lap. Honey's legs are alongside his at enough of an angle she has her ankles laid atop his shins, and Sophia is sound asleep using Honey's thigh as a pillow. Carol isn't sure who took the picture, but she's glad they caught such a large chunk of their family together.

He might not express his feelings verbally, shrugging off the conversation and just accepting her place in his father's life, but she suspects the image of what's most certainly his way of cuddling says all that she needs to hear.

~*~ SW ~*~

They've loaded all they can for this trip, and Shane thinks there'll be two more trips just for lumber. Scout's teams cleared out ehat is salvageable from the garden center, though, thanks to two fully loaded semi trailers. They've even used the sleeper units of the truck cabs of both his four trucks and her four to transport the trees and plants that managed to survive thanks to an automated irrigation system.

Everyone is loading up under the early afternoon sun when a terrified acream rings out. The watch group on the roof responds by jogging to the far side of the roof, since the scream came from somewhere near the Target that shares the property.

The three team leaders teams assemble around Shane, Scout, and Rachel. The others meld up into the driver's seats, ready to pull out if it's a herd instead of humans.

Danny's voice comes over the throat radios. "Human assholes, not dead ones. They got some folks cornered near the far corner of the Target. I can make the shot from here, but there's seven of them against a group of five and none look like fighters."

"You and Zach keep them covered while we work our way around," Scout orders.

"There's a big delivery truck that'll cover most of your approach. You can probably make the closer side of the building and circle behind them."

"Rachel? I want your team to stay on this side of things. Make your way as close as you can under cover."

The marshal nods and splits off her people when the rest of them jog around the huge building. Halfway down the back, she stops by the cardboard compactor's dumpster and turns to Jamie.

"Take the two Atlanta cops and Brady and cover from the roof." The tall Marine nods, climbing the dumpster and using a grapple hook to reach the roof. His team follows, leaving the two of them, Rick, and T-Dog to continue.

Scout slows them as they reach the rear corner that's completely blind to Danny. She checks the corner before signalling everyone forward again.

These assholes are stupid. Shane can see three with their backs to the strip of side parking lot that now holds Shane's group. He can only see one other from here, and the man's turned away. He's older, bearded with long grey hair.

One of the idiots has the only woman in the group held tight against him, ill intent obvious from her ripped shirt. The two others have ahold of teenagers, one kid weeping openly. The other men Danny mentioned are kneeling, their postures signalling they are probably at gunpoint from the unseen men.

Shane hates how exposed they are, but it's not the first time he's had to do something like this. At least it's not just him and Rick outnumbered against meth heads like that one time. The unseen trio will be easy pickings from the roof.

He figures out why the long haired man is distracted when he hears a shopping cart go careening across the parking lot and Rachel call out, "Oops, how clumsy of me," in a singsong voice.

She steps out into view from behind a pickup, and all eyes are on her, even the hostages. She's stripped down to a plain white tank top over her cargo pants, no weapons in sight, the image of a helpless female.

Too bad for these assholes she's likely as vicious and deadly as Scout when need be.

As if they rehearsed it, he, Scout, and Rick each step forward to put a gun to the hostage holders heads, and Rachel draws her gun from the back of her waistband.

"Might want to let these good people go, assholes." They all stiffen at his words, and Shane's target seems to have some inkling of self preservation because he actually releases the crying boy immediately and shoves him away. T-Dog snatches the boy back and behind them.

"Well, seems like we got a case of the stupids going on. I told you to let these people go."

Rick's target releases the other boy after a tap of his brother's gun to the back of the skull. The boy scrambles to safety behind them without prompting.

"Which of you assholes is in charge?" Scout asks. He wonders if the man in front of her realizes he's only escalating his punishment.

The long haired man answers. "Me. This don't hafta come to blows. Plenty to go around, for those who know how to claim it."

Shane refrains from laughing. Idiot hasn't seemed to cotton to Scout being a woman, between the lower pitch of her voice and the fact that she's actually at least two inches taller than the man under her gun. The head wraps are showing their value.

"I think you might want to have your men lower their guns before mine on the roof here and at the Depot decide to make them."

The self-declared leader glances upward and definitely loses some of his swagger. He orders his men to drop their guns. "These ones ain't worth dying for."

As soon as the guns are down, the two kneeling men ease to their feet. T-Dog draws them away, which leaves just the woman in danger.

Apparently, the man holding her isn't entirely braindead. "Soon as I let her go, we're dead men. Can't risk bullet might go through me."

He must think he's won when Scout's gun leaves the back of his head.

One of the rescued men mutters, "They were going to rape them and torture us for fun."

"That true?" Shane asks.

The leader shrugs. "World's survival of the fittest now."

"I suppose it is," Scout replies. "But our definitions of who's fit to live are wildly different."

Then she demonstrates why she lowered the gun when she slits the hostage taker's throat. Shane fires as soon as he sees the knife move. Rick's split second of hesitation means the guy gets an elbow to Rick's cheekbone. Rick goes down, but T-Dog puts a bullet in the man before he can do any further damage or run.

Other shots have rung out, and Scout's standing over the leader with knife in hand as he bleeds out. None of the others are standing, and Shane makes sure the first man to get his throat slit isn't able to turn. One of the men coaxes their blood covered female companion away from the bodies.

"Good thinking on the distraction," Shane calls out to Rachel, whose team is out in the open now. Rick's back on his feet, but he's going to have a hell of a shiner.

She shrugs. "Working the marshal service in Kentucky teaches you to think fast on your feet."

"Why don't you and your team help these folks get sorted out while we clear out the trash. No sense leaving them blocking the store entrance," Scout suggests. She taps her radio. "Rooftops, keep an eye out in case the gunfore attracts the dead or more of these jackals. Once we move the dead, we need to grab her some clothes if we can access the Target."

Rachel rounds up her new charges, who allow themselves to be herded away and questioned gently.

They're joking around while using the beat up delivery van as a body mover and just loading the last body when Rick's got his gun in his hand, calling out, "Movement in the entrance. Opening the doors, so not a walker."

Everyone falls back to partial cover and waits on the person to emerge.

She's highly unlikely to be part of the group they just got rid of, since he can't see a woman fitting in. She's tall and appears unarmed until he spots the sword hilt.

"One of you named Dixon?" she calls out, voice sounding of it's been unused a long time.

Scout looks curious and steps forward to get a clear view. "Michonne? Holy shit."

The woman who Scout obviously recognizes takes a few steps closer. "Your family?"

"All good. Yours?"

Michonne gives a short jerk of her head, looking grief stricken.

"Oh hell, I'm so sorry."

"Was just wandering. Kept heading north, but couldn't bring myself to find out for sure. He tried to get me to come to your place, but I let Terry talk me into the refugee center."

"Well, Daddy will never forgive me if I don't being you home."

Michonne nods slowly.

Shane is starting to think they're going to need an even bigger property if they keep finding lost sheep, but he's not complaining.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle's waiting when Scout's run returns. She slides from the cab of the truck and steps away to let Michonne exit behind her. His daughter already radioed ahead about the horrific news that his friend's lost her family.

He holds his arms wide and hopes she'll accept the comfort.

She hesitates and he drops his arms, not wanting to push. But when Honey yells her name, the woman allows the weeping embrace, petting at his girl's hair.

Once Honey has control of herself again, she tugs Michonne toward the house. Maybe the best balm for the woman's wounded soul is the affection of another child she loves. It doesn't replace her lost boy, but any anchor helps.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol puts the plate of food in front of their newest resident, who looks at the scrambled eggs and toast along with a bottle of Boost with more than a little disbelief. Cricket sent word on her physical that Michonne is near dangerously malnourished, so they're starting slow and small.

"Trust that crazy old redneck to still have eggs and bread in the damned apocalypse."

Merle laughs from where he's leaned against the counter. "All the eggs you can enjoy, my Nubian Queen."

Michonne points her fork at him. "Don't make me stab you, old man."

But she smiles just a little, which Carol thinks is the point of the comment.

Still unsure of how the two know each other, other than that she also knows Honey, at least, Carol busies herself by washing the egg pan.

"You've been busy here."

"Had to. Should be further along, but I spent about two months outta my head on coke til the kids wandered up out of Florida and knocked sense into me."

"That was one reason I was afraid to come here. Didn't want to know if they never made it home."

"I'm glad you recognized Scout then."

"I don't know that I can stay behind walls again."

"Then join a run team. Plenty of time on the road. You crossed paths with Scout today for a reason."

She's silent for a moment, eating listlessly on her eggs. "When did the thing start with her and the cop? Figured she'd end up a lifelong bachelorette."

"Guess the apocalypse shifted her gears. He's a good man. Rounds out her rough edges, same as she does for him."

"Like you and the lady there?"

Carol startles at the assessment and turns as she dries her hands. Neither she nor Merle have even interacted in front of her.

Michonne shrugs and takes a bite of toast.

Merle reaches out to tug Carol to him with a grin. "Never underestimate Michonne's powers of observation. Many an opponent came to regret that in her days as a lawyer."

"You just say that because I made that subcontractor who sabotaged your project cry on the stand when you sued him."

"Hell, woman, that jackass sobbing was almost better than the restitution he had to pay."

"You going to introduce her or do I need to keep thinking of her as the woman too good for my hillbilly friend and help her wise up?"

Merle guffaws. "Carol, this is Michonne, who wrested my account from those older and lazier about six years ago back when she was a first year associate and proceeded to assist me in many wealthy endeavors. Michonne, this is Carol, Mama Bear for the whole shebang here now."

Michonne actually offers a hand, which Carol shakes, feeling a little off kilter. So this is the woman Honey once wanted for Merle...

"You're good for him," she says at last. "His grin isn't so full of bullshit anymore."

Carol smiles as Merle kisses her temple, still keeping her tucked close.

The front door slams and toddler feet pound across the living room. "Mufasa, I wanna go see the goats."

Andy stumbles to halt, gaping at Michonne.

"Mommy?"

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane leads Scout down the incline past the pond. They've technically invaded the sheep pen, but the docile animals paid them little attention. The big Anatolian dog barely notices them, too used to people in her pasture by now. He doesn't see the male, which is probably how the dogs are trained.

"Where are we going?" Scout asks. "We're going to get eaten by mosquitoes down here."

"You'll see." He grins at her, near vibrating from excitement and nerves. They pass through the gate into the unused field closest to the river.

He knows when she's spotted the little tent lit with solar powered fairy lights. He owes Cricket and Tara big time for their help. He came up with the idea, but they implemented it for him.

When he unzips the tent, he realizes they really went all out. His tent doesn't look much like it did at the quarry, cluttered and careworn. The air mattress is piled high with soft bedding, and the floor level table is covered in a variety of finger foods that they both enjoy.

Scout arches a brow, but looks pleased at the unexpected romantic gesture. "I see why you weren't worried about mosquitoes bow."

She tugs him in for a kiss before leading him to the table. She samples a few of the blackberries and offers him a piece of melon before curiosity wins out.

"Is this a special occasion? It's not my birthday for another month."

He nips at her fingers playfully before finishing his bit of melon. He shushes his nerves, remembering this morning's reassurance from Rick.

"I know it's been barely a month, but I've never been sure of or wanted someone more in my entire life. And I know in our world, formality may mean less than it did before, but I want it. I dream of it."

He takes both her hands, taking time to kiss each palm tenderly.

"Formality?"

She knows now. He can see it in her eyes, and she's smiling.

"Wanna make me the happiest formerly romance challenged man in the world?"

His answer nearly upsets the table, as she's astride him and kissing him so thoroughly he completely forgets he has something to give her. She finally lets them breathe, kissing along his throat and cheeks.

"That a yes?" he drawls softly.

She laughs and sits up to look down at him. "It's a yes."

He reaches under his shirt collar, where he's had the necklace on all day alongside his own. When it's laying against his shirt, he releases the clasp while she studies it and reaches out with an unsteady hand. She holds it cupped in her hand for so long he thinks he miscalculated and she really expected a ring.

"It's beautiful," she manages at last. "How did you manage this? It's custom work."

"Found the bobcat bones hunting rabbits with Daryl about a week ago. I gave him the bone and he had the beads and he etched the the bone."

She dangles the necklace in front of her, touching first the beads worked into the cord and then the bone pendant with the words etched in reddish orange to match the spiny oyster beads.

She reaches for his hands and directs him to help her put it on. It falls just below her collarbones, words he practiced with Cricket and Daryl across it.

"Tåya’ yo’ sin hågu."

She smiles at his words, and he glories in bringing that much joy to the woman he loves as he strips them both bare. The tent that housed their first explorations now hosts them as he kisses across her skin as if for the first time. When he kisses around the pendant, he finds himself rolled as she rises above him, and he delights in this view as well, that flicker of ivory and ochre above her breasts as she moves against him reminding him she's pledging him this forever.

~*~ DD ~*~

The Dixon brothers sit in the living room, hearing Carol and Michonne's voices as they ready the office futon for Andre and his mother to sleep on.

"Can't believe we had 'Chonne's boy with us all this time and didn't know it," Daryl says. "Been nearly two years since I saw him last, but you had them up here at Honey's graduation." Which Daryl missed providing backup to some clueless feds chasing drugs that came in off the coast through the backwoods.

Merle shakes his head. "He wasn't with her that trip. Off at his grandma's. So I hadn't seen him since Christmas, and even then wasn't for long. His daddy was never that fond of me hanging around. I knew the boy was getting attached to me, but I thought it was wishful thinking and the name wasn't quite right. I couldn't imagine Michonne dead, which is the only way I could have imagined her separate from her baby."

"Well, if I didn't believe in guardian angels before, I do now," Daryl mutters.

Merle agrees and bids him good night.

He makes his way up to the room he's still sharing with Lori and Abby, hoping the woman's asleep, but knowing she won't be. She seems to have to see him settle in before she does for the night. He isn't finding it as irritating as he once did, when he always bit his tongue not to exchange harsh words with a pregnant woman.

He's right that she's awake, although he's amazed to see that Abby's in the top bunk for the first time. Lori lets her book rest on her chest and gives him a faint smile.

"She asked to try the bunk tonight. I don't figure she'll stay all night, but it's progress toward you shaking free of me, I suppose."

"Ain't like it's a hardship," he says, going through his bedtime routine. He realizes she's watching him through the open bathroom door as he brushes his teeth and stops to quirk an eyebrow at her.

"Sorry. Your tattoos just caught my attention."

He touches his fingers to his chest, where Abigail is scrawled across his heart. He got it when she was taken away from him, needing the daily reminder. The devils on his back... well, those weren't up for discussion with her.

But she returns to her book and he finishes up in peace.

He's almost asleep when she taps the lamp off.

"Thank you for teaching Carl," she says softly once they're in the dark. "Seems he's spending more time with you and Shane than his dad. He couldn't tell me enough about fishing and learning to drive the boat."

"He's a curious kid. Liked hearing about me making arrests on the water a little too much. Don't think he realized rangers gotta patrol the lakes and the woods."

"Which part did you like more, the woods or the water?"

"I had five counties plus Lake Oconee and five rangers to cover them in, one of them greener than spring grass. I wish someone told me if they tell you to attend Command College, be afraid. They're going to promote you. Although at least as a ranger, you ain't gotta keep your butt parked behind a desk all the time.". He thinks over her question. "Never thought I'd say it, but I think I did like the water better. More helping people there, stranded boaters and such."

She's quiet long enough he thinks she fell asleep until she laughs. It lacks the tension of the almost forced laugh she had at the quarry, and the part of him that's starting to believe she cares for Abby is glad.

"What's so funny?"

"Just thinking that's the most I've ever heard you say at once."

He snorts. "Go to sleep, woman."

She laughs again and settles, leaving him to ponder the oddity of what he thinks might be friendship growing between them.

Chapter Text

August 29, 2010

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori covers her yawn, but Abby sees it and giggles. They're trundling down to the sheep pasture in the dawn light in the Polaris, along with Jazz, Carl, Beth, and Sophia, who all look in various stage of awake. She could point out the farm girl easily, since Beth is the only one as alert as Jazz and Abby. Jazz is driving down the narrow gravel road slowly so the pair of blue heelers following can keep up.

Her morning jaunt to observe with the sheep is due to a combination of actual curiosity and wishing to make some sort of connection with the still-aloof Jazz. He's fast becoming her son's best friend on the property, and Abby adores the boy maybe even more than her own father. When Carol asked Jazz yesterday what he wanted for supper on his birthday today, he asked for moussaka and bourekia before digging out a cookbook and locating a container each of anari and halloumi cheese from the basement fridge with shy smile.

Hearing a teenager explain he made the cheese and can make plenty more if Carol uses it up made Lori curious about the process. She's made homemade mozzarella before, so she asked if it was similar. Thus today's field trip, where apparently Jazz's little "hobby farm" of sheep, as Merle termed them, is actually a flock of seventy ewes, their lambs, and three rams. The boy's always up so early in the morning because he comes down every day to milk the ewes. By himself.

"Why such a big group today if you normally do the milking yourself?" she asks.

He shrugs a little, unlatching the gate to let them in the small pasture that holds the sheep barn. "We have to get the ram lambs separated today, because they're getting too old to stay with their mamas. They start to try to cross breed after three months, and these lambs were born in June while I was gone. Gage looked after them for me, but he didn't milk them, just let the babies have it all, which was fine."

The two dogs dart forward to the next gate, waiting patiently. Lori's still not sure how many dogs are actually on the two properties, other than they're all friendly enough. These two, if she heard Jazz correctly, are Betty and Wilma. They lope out into the field, rounding up the sheep with careful precision, helped along as Beth shakes a can of feed at the far end of the little alley between the paddocks.

"We helped him move the other sheep to the new pastures yesterday and put up the electric netting between the mamas and babies," Carl explains as Sophia and Jazz remove the netting Carl mentioned to let the lambs access the full pasture again. "So it's just the ones with lambs that are ready to leave their mamas in there right now."

The scene of organized chaos slowly sorts itself out, with about two dozen ewes ending up in a paddock that borders one side of the barn.

"Now comes the fun part," Jazz says. "Remember, the boys are the ones with the blue numbers sprayed on their back. Make the girls stay behind and we'll let them join the others tomorrow."

Lori makes sure she stays out of her way, but really wishes she had a camera or video of the entertainment that follows. Beth and Jazz manage to capture their little ram lambs with the ease of practice, but Sophia and Carl have a few mishaps with errant, confused lambs. But soon enough thirty lambs are in the paddock that borders the one they were already in, while only twelve female lambs remain behind. All the lambs are complaining at the fence about their missing mothers.

"This is a lot of sheep," Lori remarks. She leans over the paddock fence and grins when one of the little males is perfectly happy to get a head scratch, while Beth is urging half the sheep into one side of the barn with Carl and Sophia's help.

"Katahdin ewes have twins and triplets. I've even had quadruplets, but it starts risking bottle feeding or passing off a lamb to a ewe with fewer babies at that point. The ram lambs will stay in pastures bordering their mamas for about a week before I move them elsewhere. Makes weaning easier on them."

"And the females?"

"Those will stay in with their mamas for another two months. Normally, these ewes would be bred again next, but since I wasn't here in June, I've got a different flock that I'll breed now that missed their normal breeding point and let these spend a little more time raising their ewe lambs since I'm going to keep all the ewe lambs this time. Normally I would sell all but maybe two.

"They aren't very wooly?"

"When I wanted my first sheep for a 4H project, Dad said I had to use hair sheep, because he wasn't shearing a bunch of smelly critters for wool I wouldn't really want to market anyway. Plus most wool sheep don't do well in humid climates like Georgia. These come from a breed that's from the tropics."

"How old were you?" She's guessing young, if Merle's concerned about needing to help when Jazz seems fully independent with his sheep.

"Ten. It was when we came back from visiting Scout in Cyprus. We liked the lamb dishes and Dad figured at least I wasn't asking for calves like Honey did for her project at the same age. Each of those little miniature Jerseys cost as much as an entire flock of my sheep."

She follows him as he heads for the barn. She realizes the part they've entered is separate from the rest of the barn and realizes it's the milking parlor when she sees the other three kids setting up sheep with the simple lure of dumping food in to the feeding mangers and letting each ewe hop up. There's six little stalls on either side, so she figures that's why some of the ewes were gated off from entering. They're obviously used to the process, as a couple of those have their head over the half-door to baa about being outside still.

He's very patiently explaining to Sophia and Carl how to clean their sheep's udders and hook up the milking machine. When Lori steps forward to help, the teenager actually makes eye contact for a brief moment when he smiles and steps over to hook up the next ewe while Lori slowly works her way through the process. All in all, in the time that Lori, Carl, and Sophia have six sheep ready, Jazz and Beth have finished the other six and are readying the equipment. Each helper is handed a milking bucket contraption and Jazz demonstrates how to hook up the equipment.

"You can milk by hand, but since it's just me, this is just a lot faster."

It takes about two minutes each sheep to be milked. As they unhook the sheep, Jazz explains to his three newbie helpers that it would take a little longer with goats or even a dairy sheep breed, but the katahdins are more known for having lots of lambs than producing a lot of milk. But as he empties out what the six sheep produced into the machine that looks like it refrigerates the milk somehow, Lori sees that Sophia has noted a little over two gallons of milk on the clipboard. It seems like a lot of work for what she knows will only produce just over a two pounds of cheese, but perhaps as a byproduct it makes sense.

The six sheep are released, and Beth lures in the other twelve, although Jazz calls out a reminder not to milk three of them.

"Is there a reason?" Lori asks.

"One of them lost their only lamb and another didn't conceive, so they don't have any milk. But I always let the ones without lambs come up and share in the snack." He reaches out to fondly rub at the cheeks of one spotted ewe. "And McGonagall here, she's old enough that I don't breed her more than once a year. She's just the boss of the bunch for now."

She thinks it's rather sweet and wonders how she ever thought the boy is older than he is. The remaining nine sheep go equally as well, adding another two full gallons to the tally. Everyone scrubs up at the sink.

"You do this every morning?" Carl asks, sounding a little incredulous at the idea of getting up every day for this.

"Well, I could miss a day if I wanted to, since the lambs will just drink the extra milk. I usually keep it staggered though, so normally I'd have lambs almost year round. You'll get to help me oversee the lambing later next month for the ones that are pregnant right now. But we'll have a gap in babies. Normally, I would have bred the third flock in July."

"And you have forty or fifty lambs each time?" The number is a little staggering to Lori.

"Thereabouts. They usually have twins, sometimes triplets. I don't milk the triplet mamas, and sometimes we lose lambs. There were forty-five born in this flock in June while I was gone, so we lost three. The young one lost hers, and we lost one each out of sets of twins. On the lambs I had before school ended, there are thirty-four left from the April-born lambs and ten from last August. Those are the ones you see up in the pastures by the house with the horses and mini-cows. And we have lambs due next month."

They're back outside, with Jazz carrying the box with the quarts of yesterday's milk and sitting it in the back of the Polaris. They put the mother ewes back in the pasture with the female lambs. The poor males bleat anxiously in their paddock.

"What will happen to the ram lambs?" Carl asks.

Jazz gives him the sort of sideways glance that tells Lori he's not entirely sure Carl will like the answer. "Well, I won't risk this many non-castrated rams on the property with so many kids around, since I'm going to have to start using mobile paddocks to avoid overgrazing. So these will be castrated this week, and then I'm going to start using them as lawnmowers round the property until they're old enough to be butchered."

Carl grimaces a little, but probably not as much as he would have months ago when all he really knew about the meat on the table was that she bought it at the supermarket and that he preferred pork to chicken.

"And the older lambs?" Lori asks, curious.

"They're six months old and almost nine months now. Normally, a portion of any flock ends up in our own freezers. You've seen those downstairs right?" Everyone nods, and Lori understands the reasoning for commercial level freezers in the basement a bit better now. "I used to split it with the Eldridges, and we get pork from their pigs in exchange, just like I traded milk and cheese for veggies. I used to sell them at market for ethnic and religious holidays. I would probably have sold almost all my lambs in September for the end of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah."

"Does that mean we're going to eat them all right now?" Sophia asks, looking mildly disturbed. Lori can relate, just a little. She's not much better than Carl, in the reality of where her meat came from. She enjoyed lamb chops before... when she didn't think about the fuzzy faces like she could now.

"No, just the older ten, which are what I have left from what sold for Easter and Passover dinners. While there's a market for sixty pound lambs normally because of the holidays, I rather wait until they're closer to a hundred pounds, so the other twenty four will be in December and the ones from today in February, most likely. Today's probably would have ended up Christmas lambs before, though."

"How much meat per lamb?" Beth asks. She's been so self assured about helping Jazz with the animals that Lori forgot that Hershel raised cattle, so sheep might be mostly new to her as well.

"If you wait until they're about a hundred pounds, about forty-five pounds of meat. That's usually around nine months for a Katahdin ram lamb, maybe a little older for a wether or ewe lamb. There are sheep that get bigger faster, because they're bigger when full-grown, but those breeds don't do well at all here in the heat and humidity due to parasites. It's not a lot of meat, compared to cattle, but a lot easier to raise and on less land. And we'll be able to tan the hides too. Arthur and Lenore have a little building down on their farm for it. People used to bring all sorts of hides to them."

"I do have one weird question," Sophia says. "What is with the weird triangles in between all the paddocks?"

Jazz laughs so softly Lori isn't sure it's laughter at first. "Dog jump gates. The sheep can't usually make it through because their legs don't maneuver correctly to step through the vee part. But the guardian dogs can. Dad got tired of the dogs scaling the fences when they were patrolling. But that's why I closed off the one between the ram lamb paddock and their mamas, because lambs are more likely to figure it out." He glances at his watch. "If we don't get back soon, they're going to run out of breakfast."

That gets everyone loaded up and Lori is thoughtful on the way back. She knows Jazz also helps with the other animals, many in makeshift corrals, that Arthur and Lenore collected from lost neighbors so they wouldn't starve. Right now the property has everything short of cattle and pigs, she thinks, of the common farm animals, and the Eldridges already raised a good number of pigs as part of their farm. There's a truly impressive amount of poultry that roam inside the two larger pastures during the day and the coop's been expanded twice that Lori's seen, because somehow out of all the farm animals in Georgia, poultry seems to survive best and longest without human help. The supply run groups just keep collapsible dog crates in their trucks now.

She doesn't think Jazz has left the property since they arrived. For the first time she wonders if that's because he wants to stay behind from the supply runs he was part of in Atlanta, or if everyone's just left him with too much responsibility to feel like he can leave.

When they arrive back at the main house, she decides maybe it's time to ask a few more questions of Carol than she has about work schedules.

~*~ MD ~*~

"If we don't stop having these emergency builds, I'm going to yank out what hair I got left."

Carol just laughs at him from where she's exchanging the water cooler at their latest build. "At least this one doesn't have to have a foundation?"

"Trust Glenn to find an actual rabbit farm still up and running and people willing to relocate only if the bunnies do too." Merle and Hershel both were fetched when that alert came in on the radio. The vet only asked if Merle thought they could spare time from the warehouse to build a barn for the rabbits, then offered to go out with the other teams sent to provide more haulage and extra hands for dissembling a rabbitry with nearly 700 rabbits. Luckily it was an off day for Scout and Shane's teams, so in addition to Glenn's two already on the farm, they now sent seven more teams of four, plus Hershel.

So now Merle's building a rabbit barn, grateful these folks at least had stacking cages so he's not needing two of the damned things, and they're going to have a lot of bunnies out in the weather for the better part of the week. He briefly considered just converting the warehouse, but the place is going to end up enough of a chaotic hodgepodge without dumping farm animals all over the place, and might as well keep the rabbit barn near the other barn, supply wise.

"Be nice to have all the rabbit meat that no one has to chase through the woods though, and Lenore looked about deliriously happy talking about rabbit manure at lunch."

"That woman's obsession with manure is a little off-putting." Not that Merle blamed her really, since it was part of her livelihood. "Just wait til she has to truck in the manure Jazz composts for her from his sheep and the other critters."

Carol's expression shifts to worried as soon as he mentions his son, and Merle glances down to where Jazz is talking rather animatedly with Miguel as they work together to set one of the support poles. The young Vato has spent all his extra time not needed to help his cousin in the nursing home on Merle's building projects. He thinks it's the first time the teenager has ever been able to work with his hands on something other than a car, and the boy's good at it, just like Jazz.

"Something up with Jasper?" he asks softly, concerned about that little furrow in Carol's brow.

She sighs a little. "Lori came to me with some concerns about him being overworked. She thinks we need to set a more formal schedule for the teenagers than just letting them volunteer for whatever crew and rotating a few through kitchen and laundry duty. I asked around, after she talked to me, and I guess I thought the other kids were helping him a lot more than they are, but apparently he's doing the majority of the animal care on this side of things himself. Normally, that might not be terrible, but he's on your building crews as often as he can be too, and Lori says he's helped her hang laundry twice this week and he has done breakfast prep at least twice too. Carl and Sophia both say that in the evenings, when I thought he was playing games with the other kids, he's sitting with them, but usually with a textbook making notes."

Merle rubs at his chin, studying Jazz for a moment. The teenager doesn't look overly tired, as Merle's seen him get sometimes when he's been burning the candle at both ends, especially during football season. But he also knows if they don't keep an eye on it, Jazz has a hard time setting limits for himself if he thinks someone needs his help. "I'll have a talk with him soon as he and Miguel finish that post."

"And I'm going to set a work schedule for each of the teenagers to rotate through the chores, so that the less appealing ones don't get skimped on by letting the softer hearted kids take on extra days on them."

He reaches out to draw her in for a half hug and kiss, smiling when she doesn't draw away from the fact that he's dusty and sweaty in the late August heat. "Him working on his birthday didn't strike me as much different than his norm. Glad he's got a lot more people keeping an eye out for him now. Speaking of kids, where are Sophia and Abby?" Normally a new project like this, Sophia would be in the thick of things, and with Daryl and Jazz here helping posts, it's doubly odd that Sophia's out of sight.

"Honey borrowed both girls for a project, which I suspect involves something for Jazz's birthday later."

"Hopefully it won't involve glitter. I like to think I banned all the glitter from the house, but I wouldn't put it past her to have a stash somewhere."

"He already told me what he wanted for family supper, so I let Katherine know to expect about two dozen less for the main supper tonight."

"You up for cooking for that many? It can be smaller."

"I'll be fine. Patricia and Glynnis will be around if I need them, and Beth's already offered extra help. The moussaka is oven baked anyway, and you have enough gadgets stashed around that kitchen to stock a TV chef show. It doesn't look much harder than a vegetarian lasagna, so it'll be fine. I've never worked with phyllo dough before, but Patricia has, so we'll get that sorted. At least now I know why you have so many odd bits and bobs ingredient wise, if Jazz likes Greek and Turkish food so much. I wasn't sure what some of them were for, until I read through a few recipes. We'll make a sweet and a savory on the bourekia."

He lures her in for another kiss, glad that she took the unusual request and rolled with it. Jazz would have happily eaten whatever she suggested as an alternative, but this will be the best present she can make the boy. "I'm guessing the supplies didn't make much of a dent in the credits toward personal food supplies in that system Patricia set up?"

"Not in the least. I think we're all working way too much, and I don't think Patricia counted anything already in the house as part of the larger inventory anyway. It feels a bit selfish, til I realize that no one who lives there with us ever seems to take any time off. Even Patricia's been sitting and sewing or knitting."

"If you want to expand out the meal, he's never met zucchini he wouldn't eat about his weight in, and if you check his stash in the basement freezer, there's probably enough milk frozen to make some ice cream for everyone. His favorite's peppermint. Should be a handwritten recipe in the big purple binder in with the cookbooks. Those are Jazz's adaptations, if you can muddle through his handwriting."

"I'd almost feel decadent having ice cream when everyone else is."

Merle shrugs. "So make a bunch of fruit sorbet for everyone else tomorrow. Might take some relief off the canning crew on playing catch up with all the melons, peaches, and berries Lenore's people been hauling up." He's actually glad that doing a special dinner for Jazz has her off the canning crew for the day at least. She's about as bad as Jazz for fluttering around from project to project, keeping all the ducks lined up. He can already see the logistics of sorbet for 200 spinning in her head, so he finishes his drink and gets one last kiss before going to kidnap his boy off the work crew for a break.

~*~ SW ~*~

There are a lot of things he's done in his life - before and after the apocalypse - but Shane thinks figuring out how to load up and haul several hundred rabbits in cages is one he is lucky to be unlikely to repeat. In the end, they disassembled some of the cage systems and loaded the parts onto the trucks, with some strapped fully assembled onto two flatbeds. The bunnies themselves are getting to ride in a chicken hauler appropriated from a chicken processing plant in a nearby town. By contrast, rounding up the handful of other animals deemed fit for transport was easy, including a jenny who really didn't care for the idea of going on the livestock trailer at all.

The family that ran the farm is doing a final load up of what they're taking with them. Scout's with them, gently reminding them that their property isn't so far away they can't come back for anything forgotten by joining a supply run going that way. Which reminds him that Hershel's along for this trip.

The older man is doing final checks on the animals, and Shane knows he worries about the chicken transport because even sanitizing it isn't a full guarantee the poultry didn't leave something nasty behind the rabbits might catch. But he can't imagine that seeing the bulk of this farm going on the road isn't a heartache when most of his farm was left behind.

When he steps up to look into the livestock trailer and pet the jenny, who is perfectly happy now that she's actually in the trailer with her buddies, Hershel chuckles. "Keep that up and you'll have a new best friend. She's a healthy little thing."

"Last time I patted a donkey was some petting zoo thing for Carl's school, I think." Shane fumbles in his pocket and shows Hershel the granola bar and the vet nods, so he unwraps it for his new pal. "You wanna try a trip down to your farm? See what else can be brought up?"

Hershel takes a minute to reply, and Shane lets him mull it over. "Even between the two properties, there's no real space for my cattle, even if we brought them all. We could try to transport them to that old horse farm in the other river bend, but I don't know that the fences there would stand up to walkers if they came in. Afraid we'd just be adding a lot of smell and movement to attract herds without a good enough payoff. And there might not be any left. All it would take is one herd finding the place and they'd be mostly defenseless, even if we did leave the gates open so they could go free."

"You had horses though. Think they'd be around still? Might not be able to take all the cattle, but could find spots for a few more horses and maybe a few of the cows. Cars won't last forever, and as much as I would like to unlearn that supper discussion about insemination y'all had the other night, you do have those frozen tanks we've been gathering from vet offices and farms." And isn't that a weird thing to know is in the barn loft now... about a dozen tanks of frozen farm genetics that Hershel says will last indefinitely as long as they can keep liquid nitrogen supplies. "Damned walkers can't be around forever, right?"

"I wouldn't think so. Even if the virus keeps them protected from decay, in the end, their bodies can't renew and repair. It's why we find immobile or trapped ones looking like they're starved and they can't really move fast enough to attack. Eventually the large herds of them wouldn't be around, but I suspect we're looking at a few years, maybe as long as a decade."

"So is it feasible to keep a few regular sized cattle in the secure areas for that long?"

"Maybe not that long, but long enough that we could get the horse farm secure in a year or two."

"Yeah, because let's face it, after a year or two, we're unlikely to be finding groups to take in. They're going to have their own settlements. Eventually we can expand instead of coping to keep up."

"It's a decent area to expand, like the castles in Europe. They just added new layers to protect, although we have the advantage that we can probably enclose areas by years rather than by decades. I'll talk it over with Merle. See how feasible a timeline there would be to add the horse farm property, especially since we haven't begun reinforcing either the Dixon or Eldridge property fully yet."

The shipping container idea Merle originally thought of for the main Dixon acreage ended up being how they reinforced any weak points on the Eldridge one, since it was the weak point and too many people had to be exposed in the fields. It wasn't solidly enclosed, not like the nightmare thicket around the Homestead itself, but it didn't give Shane security nightmares either. Walkers wouldn't make it on the property at all, and humans, well, they wouldn't get on property without triggering a lot of alerts they were there. All the military or former military had tested for lapses and so far none. Thank God they lived in the era of solar powered security systems and people bright enough to cobble them together.

"Best be getting on the road, I think," Hershel says, looking where the remnants of the Brasfield family is loading up at last. Of the multi-generation family of nine, only five survived both virus and aftermath of family member attack, plus one poor exchange student whose year abroad turned permanent residency when she wasn't allowed to fly home at the end of the school year. Lydia Teoh Jia would never see her home again.

He smiles as Scout swings into the cab of the truck he's driving. They've enough drivers today that she rode with him out and back. He's enjoying the throwback to their early days together, before being able to move the most number of vehicles each trip and to have the most experienced team leads split them up most days.

"Glad the road's reasonably clear between here and home," he says after she leans in for a kiss. He shifts to lead the line of vehicles off the now-abandoned fifty acre farm and she nods.

"Gonna have to set up some sort of obstacles. I figure it's that clear because no one wanted to try crossing through the lake area when the government was saying head south, but I wouldn't mind ways of knowing if other groups have been through. Just because that asshole down in the southwest hasn't shown up anywhere yet doesn't mean he doesn't have teams out as far as us yet. I'm hoping that man we interrogated was truthful that the man was obsessed with Atlanta and part south."

"We're going to have to go scout him out eventually."

"Yeah, but I prefer it to be after we aren't trying to figure out where to cram too many living beings in too little space first. Can you imagine if we end up with another Grady and the people don't want to stay in that town he's walled off? No way we can handle another fifty now."

"Maybe once winter's underway. Be a good time for a small team and a long drive then."

She nods and glances at her watch. "I was starting to think we wouldn't make it back by supper time and end up with bare leftovers of Jazz's birthday supper. You know Carol's going to go all out and spoil him."

"I sure won't mind eating something cooked by Carol solo again. The ladies running the kitchen are putting out good food, but it's not up to our ladies' standards."

"Glynnis is still overseeing breakfast and lunch," Scout says, but grins. "And you know she'll lecture you about how quantity cooking can't be as complex as family sized meals. Might find yourself on kitchen duty if she hears you talking like that."

"Better veggies than laundry. I prefer it left to my imagination whose underwear is whose."

"Still traumatized by helping fold and sort and now knowing what underclothing every female family member wears?"

"Hell yes." But he's joking and she knows it. He can't let it be like the quarry, where he didn't lead by example on helping with chores. He knows the younger men, especially the teenagers, are definitely paying attention when he and the other men seen as leaders are part of some chore that traditional Southern machismo might see as too girly. Scout may be conflicted about being part of the council, staying on when Patricia shifted off only because she did know she was considered in authority for both her road crew and the Grady civilians. But Shane really would like to stay a part of it longer term than Scout wants to. He enjoys being part of planning for not just the day-to-day safety of the community, but their futures as well.

The trip passes in close to what would be normal time before - just under two hours for a formerly hour trip isn't bad now. But unlike most supply runs, this ones going to be a doozy, he thinks as they pull in, knowing that time is ticking to get the delicate rabbits out of the chicken transport cages before they overheat once the truck's not underway creating a breeze.

He and Scout are both halfway to one of the trucks with the equipment on flatbeds, knowing those cages are at least still assembled and should go first, when he hears a name he knows, but also knows Scout never wants used.

"Salome!"

He pauses and turns faster than she does, seeing an exhausted looking blond man striding toward them at speed. As soon as Scout turns, she takes off and meets him halfway. Shane isn't sure who is trying to crush who more in the enthusiastic hug, but the man's tall enough to actually lift Scout off the ground a few inches. When he finally puts her down, she turns with one arm still around the newcomer's waist and motions him forward. He doesn't think he's seen her so overjoyed since Merle woke up back at quarry camp.

"Shane, this is Christopher," she says. He offers a hand in greeting as she continues. "Christopher, this is my fiance, Shane."

That term is definitely surprising to the man, who Shane knows is one of Alaina's missing sons now that he has his name. He hopes for the older woman's sake that more than just Christopher made it back. It also makes Christopher notice the necklace, hanging loose after Scout stripped down to a T-shirt when the trip went easily and the August heat got to be too much. He lifts it and rubs a thumb across the inscription. "Without you, I am nothing. In Chamorro, no less. It sounds like you've finally found the right one."

The fact that Christopher can clearly read Chamorro is a little disgruntling, except that Scout's face damn near glows at the compliment. He reminds himself that for all the history between these two, it's only been friendship for nearly a decade. He's her best friend, and that's far more important than the ex-boyfriend label.

"I certainly have. Where's the others?" She looks hopeful now, but guarded, like they all are when discussing potential for loss.

Christopher's happiness fades. "Just me, Bryce, and Audrey. Amber, Dylan, and Chase were gone before we got there. Audrey survived by locking herself in the attic and climbing in and out a window for supplies. Couldn't bring herself to put them to rest."

"Oh, hell, Kit, I'm so sorry."

So's Shane. Out of Christopher and Bryce's sister's family, only his thirteen year old niece survived and Chase was only eleven. Scout used to babysit both kids in high school, so worry over the missing Roberts' clan has featured in a few of Scout's nightmares. He reaches out to brush the back of Scout's hand to draw her attention quietly.

"You stay with him. Go see Bryce and Audrey. I'll lead the rabbit wrangling."

The smile it earns him is well worth the next few hours of rabbit poop and sweat.

Chapter Text

August 29, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol lets herself be tugged onto Merle's lap now that everyone's eaten. Jazz's birthday supper luckily had enough surplus to add in four new guests. She knew the second she saw Jazz wrapped in Christopher's hug that the guest list was expanding. The five minute hug where Jazz seemed lost for words at seeing just how much Carol and the other ladies did for his birthday supper was worth the worry over creating so many unfamiliar dishes. She added a couple of extra things as side dishes plus his requests.

"Dishes can wait and someone other than the cooks and birthday boy will do them," he says softly.

Everyone seems pretty happy, even if the living room and dining area are fairly crowded to the point where her seat in Merle's lap is as much necessity as closeness.

She wouldn't have pictured Michonne as the beanbag type, but she's curled up on one with Andre and Honey. The girl hasn't let up much on shadowing the lawyer since she arrived. They're so close, in a way that reminds Carol that this is the woman Honey once tried matchmaking to her father. Merle and Michonne seem to have a unique relationship, more sibling in nature than anyone who knew Merle back at the quarry would have understood.

With Jazz tucked on Christopher's right side with the man's niece between him and Scout, Carol is feeling a little lonely for the closeness of Merle's two youngest. Sophia is relaxed against Merle's legs, but it's not the same as their sprawl a week ago.

Cricket stands, waving a DVD. Jazz must know what it is, because he groans and hides his face. "Since our family is a lot bigger this year, y'all don't all know about the tradition we girls have about Jazz's birthdays. I started it because Scout was always so far away, but even now that she's home, I think the annual sharing of our baby brother's life must continue."

"Don't see your baby pictures getting shared," Jazz grumbles, but he's smiling.

"Oh, the world wouldn't survive that level of cuteness." Cricket sets up the DVD to play and rejoins Tara with the remote.

The first image might have Carol arguing about surviving the cuteness. The Dixon children's dark hair, caramel skin, and beight blue eyes are striking enough in the adult and near adult forms. A six month old Jazz in the lap of three year old Honey is a heart achingly adorable combination of black curls and blue eyes.

The photos progress through Jazz's life, sometimes also gifting the audience with youthful images of his various family members. Based on the photos taken at celebrations, the Roberts boys have been satellite Dixons a long time. Christopher is in every single one of the group photos, well past the end of high school timeline Carol knows of his relationship with Scout. There's a young woman with Bryce who also has two individual shots with Jazz at school functions relating to music, and Carol assumes she's a wife or girlfriend who was gone before the outbreak, because she's not in the group shot of everyone surrounding Jazz while still in his lacrosse goalie gear from this year.

The part that makes her smile is that despite the apocalypse, they're still adding pictures. Somehow, there's pictures of Jazz with most of the new family as well: cooking with Carol and Patricia, on the building crew with Carl and Sophia, and so on. There's even a shot of him and Lori from what looks to be this afternoon, both going over those flock spreadsheets at the table with a degree of animated expression not often seen on either of them.

It ends not with a still photo, but with a video clip. Merle's distinctive voice at a prior party, based on the wrapping paper debris. Jazz, maybe six or seven, is surrounded by Legos. "Hey, Jasper Benjamin, whatcha gonna be when you grow up?"

The boy pauses in studying the instructions for the Lego set and looks toward the camera. "Everything." It ends with Merle laughing.

"Started real young on that ambition, didn't you, baby brother?" Scout calls out. Jazz just grins and shrugs.

"Hey, birthday boy! Wanna play a little music?" Christopher nudges the teenager.

Jazz looks torn. "Will you play with me?"

"Of course."

The teenager heads upstairs, returning a few minutes later with a guitar case and a smaller instrument case. He hands the guitar to Christopher, who moves to an ottoman and gives Cricket's feet a push to vacate another. She grins and loops her legs up closer to Tara's.

While Christopher tunes the guitar, Jazz assembles what Carol thinks is an oboe, although it might be one of the clarinets, since she knows Jazz had a clarinet in one of the photos earlier. It's been a lot of years since high school and Sophia took an art elective instead of band.

Jazz's quick tuning leads Christopher's further, but then there's a small consultation before they play.

The music is beautiful, almost haunting. The instrument combination isn't one she's ever heard, but it works. It's obvious they've played together before, and she wonders at just how close Scout's ex-boyfriend remains with the family.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane is enjoying the instrumental music more than he thought he would when Bryce scoots into the spot Christopher vacated.

The other man leans in to ask softly, "just how well is Jasper doing?"

"Better than I ever would have expected," Scout replied. "But then he's always done best with a set of goals ahead of him. Had a bit of a bump coming out of Atlanta when he had to help save the elderly from human predators, but Shane helped him through it."

Bryce glances at Shane, in his usual position as Scout's backrest. "Good that he had you to lean on."

"Bryce's wife was Jazz's fifth grade teacher. She's the one who recognized the Asperger's."

"And started his music lessons," the other cop says softly. His expression holds enough grief as he turns back to watch the musicians to make Shane tighten his arm around Scout in reflex.

She looks over her shoulder and then follows his gaze to Bryce. The signal comes for 'later' and he nods.

As the song ends, Bryce joins in everyone's applause, but after a glance to Audrey confirms the girl is sound asleep against Scout, he rises and exits out onto the back deck.

Scout starts to slide out from under Audrey, but Daryl's hand lands on her shoulder. "Best not be you just now, che'lu. Your happy is just beginning. I'll go."

Christopher and Daryl exchange a look and the younger man encourages Jazz to begin a new song. Daryl leans close to Lori to say something Shane can't hear and she nods. Daryl's exit from the room includes a stop to rustle a bottle of liquor out of an upper cabinet before he disappears into the dark as well.

Under the cover of the music, Scout explains. "His wife died of cancer last November."

That explains the difficulty with music that is already hauntingly sad, if his wife initially taught Jazz to play. She must be the woman he hasn't met from the photo montage.

The thought of that loss brings him to lean forward to kiss the side of Scout's neck gently. She reaches down to lace their fingers together and squeezes in response.

~*~ MD ~*~

"You're looking mighty pensive for that bath," Merle says. Carol is immersed in the water, a scent of jasmine wafting off the steamy water. He's glad to see her using some of the luxuries available to her for once.

She doesn't answer, so he kneels by the tub and braces his arms on the side, brushing the knuckles of one hand against her shoulder. "Tell me what's bothering you, Mouse."

"I'm just... adjusting," she says at last. The uncertainty in her voice bothers him.

"Adjusting to what, darlin'?"

"I got a little spoiled. The older ones have their own lives and paths, but Jazz and Honey and Sophia..."

Ah. While there is no mistaking Sophia's love for him, he can understand the uncertainty Carol still bears. He knows his kids, knows they all love Carol, even though the older ones aren't looking for a mama. But he's certain by now that the younger two still need one.

He reaches out to cup the back of her neck, urging her to look at him.

"Right before supper, I said 'go tell your mama' to send you the message the trucks were returning. Boy didn't even hesitate, Carol, just trotted right off. He might not be ready to call you mama directly, but that's who you are in his mind. And you saw his face at supper tonight. I think if you asked the moon of him, he'd be out back building a rocket ship the next hour."

Her smile is tremulous, but it's there.

"It'll take him a bit to reorient with Christopher back. In his own way, Christopher's been more part of Jazz's life growing up than Scout, because he only left long enough for nursing school. Even then he didn't go far, just to Atlanta. And Bryce and his late wife stepped up a lot once Daryl transferred for work. He'll circle back to us."

"And Honey?"

"She's at that selfish stage Sophia hasn't introduced you to yet. She's not thinking about how her abandoning everyone for Michonne is making anyone feel. Give Michonne a few more days to talk her round."

"They are very close and she wanted you to date Michonne, didn't she?"

"She did, but as much as I love 'Chonne, it was never a glimmer of a possibility. She's a good friend, better than I deserved at times. Honey... she's had a case of hero worship on Michonne since she was just younger than Sophia. But it's easy to idolize someone you only see a few times a year."

"I always thought Honey hero worshipped you."

"Might be true on some things, but when Honey was twelve, some dipshit teacher had the balls to call her a half-breed right in class one day. I was telling my lawyer about it on a trip to the city, thinking there wasn't much beyond the school's inadequate discipline offer. Michonne overheard. She was a year out of law school and she slaughtered the district. Not sure the woman kept her teaching license by the time it was all done."

"So Honey sees her as the warrior who saved her from that teacher."

"Exactly. She toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer for a while before Michonne convinced her she lacks the vicious streak needed. I could have pulled my kids out and put them in private school. But the way it went, it protected kids who didn't have that option."

"So things will probably cycle back around once she realizes Michonne's safe and sound?"

"Most likely. But if they don't, based on prior teenage behavior, we'll rise in importance to her once she's gotten enough of Independence to appreciate parental pampering again." He leans in to kiss her, hoping she's reassured. "Budge up and I'll join you."

She giggles. "You're going to smell like flowers tomorrow."

"Something tells me my crew will appreciate that more than what we smell like by the end of the day."

But she moves and he strips out of his boxers in order to slip in behind her. Once she's settled against his chest, he reaches for the body wash. Maybe he can't entirely promise her security in his daughter's eyes, but he can make sure she knows how much he appreciates her.

As his fingers brush against thr small bump under the skin on her arm, he pauses and runs his thumb along it. He's never considered another child, especially with his youngest being such a surprise. But Carol's ten years younger than him and she's such a good mama.

She turns to look at him, then down to the thumb against her arm.

"I know I made sure you were covered when we started down this path, but that's not a no."

She covers his hand with hers. "Maybe later, once the other babies are safely here."

That's an answer he can be happy about.

~*~ SW ~*~

There's something that's innately wrong with Shane getting stuck in his own head so quickly after the euphoria of sex fades. Scout hasn't even moved away from him yet, instead nuzzling at his throat with a series of small nips like she often does after taking the lead in the bedroom.

Having any sort of doubt about her devotion when he's still surrounded by her warmth is a sign his mind needs a serious readjustment.

And she's sensitive to the mood swing like she always is. "Where'd you go?" she asks softly, raising up on her forearms to look at him.

"Just something someone said tonight." Something he doesn't want to consider makes sense, but it does.

She frowns and shifts her weight, causing the pendant to thump against his own chest. "I'm not going to make you tell me, but if something has you worried, I'd like to know."

He reaches out to rub his thumb over the surface of the pendant, not meeting her eyes. "Did you ever date Bryce?" He knew about Christopher in detail, but she never mentioned any interest in his older brother at all.

"Alaina's bitchy side is showing, I see." She kisses him gently, devoting enough time to it that he's starting to forget the uncertainty that snuck up to plague him. "I've never dated Bryce. Before he married Nora three years ago, Alaina had her heart set on fixing the two of us up. So maybe in her mind, the fact that we didn't pitch a fit and leave dinners where Christopher and his partner were conveniently unable to attend whenever I was home on leave meant we dated, but it was just humoring her."

"She seems to be still aiming for it."

"And that regardless of my own engagement or the fact that nine months later Bryce is still grieving doesn't hit her radar."

She slides away, padding to the bathroom for a minute before returning and taking her time running the damp cloth across his skin too. Shane relaxes under the attention, pushing away the hooks of doubt Alaina set when she caught him alone on the porch for a few minutes.

"Shane? I don't know who taught you to think you're the consolation prize, but you're my first choice. If I had ever had a glimmer of interest in Bryce, I would have told you about it when I told you about Christopher. What I feel for you is so intense it scares me sometimes, because if I ever lost you I'd be as much of a walking wound as Bryce is."

"Not sure I'd have his strength to go on at all."

She curls up against him. "That's what I want you to promise me. Anything happens, you take care of my family and let them take care of you. You wouldn't be alone. Not ever again."

The thought of her dying and leaving him behind hurts as badly as if he's been stabbed. Surviving that in reality isn't something he thinks possible. "I'll do my best, long as you promise to do your best that it never happens."

He knows they're both always going to be at high risk, as badly as they would've been in the world before with their careers. But they can at least minimize the risk.

"Promise." She's quiet for a minute, fingers curled into the pulse point at his elbow. "I know we talked about waiting until winter to hold a ceremony, but I know what I want for my birthday now."

He feels a thrill at the idea of moving things up. It's the final promise to each other he anticipates. "Gonna wrap me in paper and ribbon?"

"Maybe, but I suspect as a celebration, folks will prefer something along the lines of clothing. But as my gift, yeah, you're exactly what I want."

"I'll talk to your dad and Carol tomorrow. See if Hershel might want to be a formal officiant."

The slow, lingering kisses that lead into them finally dozing off are some of the best he's ever experienced.

~*~ DD ~*~

Daryl's as quiet as he can be, slipping up the stairs into his room. He asked Lori to watch Abby for the night, figuring getting Bryce drunk enough to forget his grief for a while would take most of the night. But the man folded half a bottle in, probably due to the stress of the road. He passed him off to a sleepy Christopher, glad the two men were in a ground level apartment with Audrey and Alaina next door.

But despite his care to be quiet, Lori stirs, and he's reminded she was a cop's wife for more than a decade. She'll probably never lose that extra awareness of movement in the night.

"Abby asked to bunk with Sophia tonight," she says sleepily. "Offered Sophia to sleep here, but I'm thinking it was a sleepover since Sophia went and fetched Molly, Mika, and Lizzie too."

She sounds uncertain that she's given permission. Daryl lets her off the hook quickly. "Glad they're on Hershel's side of the house then."

She giggles and he smiles a little to himself as he fumbles for his toothbrush in the dim light of the nightlight in the bathroom. He didn't drink enough to be more than buzzed, but he preferred not to go to sleep with the lingering taste.

She's definitely looking at him as he goes to the futon, her outline barely lit by the other nightlight they put in for Abby. "Need something?" he asks.

"What happened to Bryce's wife? She's the woman from the pictures, right?"

"She died of ovarian cancer last November. Went undetected a long time cos she was so young. By the time they found it, it spread so far nothing they did seemed to touch it, bones, liver, eventually her brain. Fought for two damned years before it got so far in her brain she refused more treatment."

He was sheltered from Nora's battle in some ways by living in Thomson. But it also meant the contrast in her health was more obvious each time he visited. It remains one of the worst things he ever stood witness to, second only to Scout's burns.

"That poor man. I was thinking maybe it was recent, since he still wears his wedding band."

"Happened the week before Scout got hurt. We had Nora's funeral the day before we got the call to go to San Antonio."

It had been a double gut punch. He'd been hungover as hell when Merle called, having spent the night with Christopher and every off duty cop in the area getting Bryce too drunk to remember his grief for a few hours.

"They're family?"

He actually finds himself taking a seat at the foot of her bed. She sits up, pulling her knees up best she can with her now visible baby bump.

"Scout and Christopher were thick as thieves all through high school, dated three years. Bryce came home from the Marines their junior year and just kept getting dragged along to any family event Christopher did. Think Merle helped him adjust to being out of the Corps. Their daddy died before we ever moved here, and he and Alaina have always had a bit of a bumpy relationship after she married his daddy."

"That explains Christopher knowing Scout's given name."

Daryl snorts. "Man's lucky she loves him, calling her that."

"It's a very pretty name, but I can see why she'd be unhappy with it in Georgia."

"It's not unusual back on Guam, where a lot of folks have Spanish names, but yeah, stateside, kids called her salami. Merle already called her Scout, so she's used that since kindergarten."

"I'm surprised she didn't use a middle name, like I do."

"So is Lori your actual middle name or short for something else?"

"It's Lorraine. Sarah Lorraine, actually. It's not that I don't like Sarah, but it's my mother and grandmother's name."

"Too many Sarahs." He laughs. "Her middle name is Camarin, after the patron saint of Guam. By then, she preferred the name her daddy gave her to her mama's."

Lori smiles a little sadly. "I'm familiar with children being more fatherly inclined."

"Your boy still needs his mama. He's just not very good at expressing it at this age." He never thought he would find himself reassuring Lori, but the longer she makes an effort to be a decent person, the more his resolve to keep her at arm's length crumbles. He can't deny the woman's a friend now.

"He's actually better here, maybe because he's not always seeking out Rick's approval over mine. He might actually spend more of his free time with you and your family than Rick."

"Ever think about the fact that where we are, you are? Might not just be us."

She stares at her hands for a minute, twisting them so much he's tempted to grab them to stop her. "And when Abby doesn't need me anymore?"

"Ain't kicking you out just cos Abby's got her independence back, woman. Might get some personal space back without me stuck in it."

She looks up finally. "You don't have to do that. It's been fine, sharing."

He arches a brow and she shrugs. "Pretty sure you take more time to talk to me in the evening than Rick did the last two years we were married. I didn't help matters, but it's nice not to feel like part of the furniture."

"Can understand that." He's not yet willing to share with her just how familiar he is with that feeling. He decides to let her get some rest and rises. "You should get some sleep. Been restless last few nights."

She surprises him by groaning as she wiggles back down under her sheet. He doesn't think she means to him to hear the "not much chance of that."

"Lori? Everything okay?"

"It's not something you can help with."

"If it's something due to the baby, I can try. Got you those clothes, didn't I?" He doesn't really blame the others, but close quarters led him to clue in her need for maternity clothes when he realized how much skin he was starting to glimpse. Patricia's baggier clothing lasted longer.

"This is way more personal than clothes, Daryl. I can deal with it "

"Lori."

She's angry when she sits back up. "Unless you're willing to further my reputation as a slut, no, you can't help."

Oh, hell. He'd missed that part of Carrie's pregnancy with Abby, since she came to stay with Glynnis later on. But he remembers her telling him how much she hated being a single woman through the extra libido pregnancy gave her before bulky discomfort took it away.

And he's probably insane and maybe a little further into the bottle than he thought because he's speaking before he can stop himself. "Could help."

Hell, the look of complete shock on her face might be worth what he's said.

"Daryl, you can't be serious about offering to sleep with me just because being pregnant has me missing it."

"Well, technically, I don't have to sleep with you to help out with that."

He watches her process that, figuring she's smart enough to figure it out.

"So you're offering a helping hand?"

He laughs at the suspicious tone of the phrasing. "If that's what you want, yeah."

"And what does that do for you, if you don't want sex?" She frowns, then looks a little hurt. "You shouldn't offer if you don't find me attractive at all."

"Ain't that." He sighs and sits down on her bed again, closer this time. He does capture those twisting hands this time. "Damn, your hands are cold."

She lets him warm up her hands by rubbing them gently between his. It gives him a chance to gather his thoughts for a conversation he's never actually had to have.

"It's not a matter of finding you attractive or not. Anybody with eyes and a brain can see that much about you. It's more that I'm not wired to have sex easy as most folks."

"Like being asexual?"

Huh. He's surprised she knows that term. "Close. Never had a name for it til last year or two when Cricket sent me a bunch of web links after some med school discussion. Never had a good idea before that. Most people just think I'm still hung up on my ex-wife or that it's something to do with being raised Catholic."

"A friend gave me a book after the Kinsey movie came out. She thought maybe some of the issues Rick and I had were because we married too young before he could figure out he was gay. He isn't, and the book didn't help in the long term, but I remember that term."

"Well, then you got the general idea, probably."

"I can't ask that of you, if sex isn't something you like."

He realizes he still has her hands and lets them go. "Not that I don't like it. Just need more than just a pretty woman for it. Never actually slept with anyone but my ex-wife."

"No one would ever understand."

"Ain't no one's business but ours."

He thinks she looks more afraid than interested when she finally leans toward him, her hands rubbing his shoulders nervously. "We'll try kissing," she suggests.

Daryl closes the gap for a kiss, knowing she's too nervous. He's always liked kissing and touching, part of what puzzled him when the rest didn't follow easier. It takes her a minute to get past the worry, but once she does, it's just a matter of learning what she likes.

It takes about half an hour of making out like teenagers before either of them speak again. She's gasping softly, fingers scrabbling against his shoulders where she's gotten under the button up he unbuttoned but hadn't taken off yet to sleep.

He's about to ask her if she's okay, when she beats him to it, looking a bit worried about the fact she's explored his chest and shoulders.

"That's good," he tells her softly. "I like being touched." He twitches the end of the tank top she's wearing and she moves to help him tug the garment off. She's not wearing a bra to bed, so she's fully exposed. Keeping his eyes on her expression, he sheds his own shirt and takes his kisses to her chest. She arches against him and rocks against the ball of his hand when he slides his palm against her through her pajama pants.

Her libido must be really driving her crazy, because she cries out, muffling herself with her own hand. She shudders, making a soft mewling sound as he rolls her against his chest.

Actual sex may not appeal as much, but this he does enjoy, having someone fall apart against him.

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori's a little embarrassed to realize she fell asleep after unexpectedly climaxing without even getting all her clothes off, like a teenager.

She's even more embarrassed to realize Daryl didn't just tuck her in and leave for his own bed. Her top is back on, and she's pulled against his chest. One of his big hands is cupped against her lower belly.

"Can go back to my bed if you want me to. Didn't want you to wake and think something was wrong."

She thinks about what will be said if this ever gets out. Daryl's family is protective of him, although she suspects after earlier that they may be worrying too much. But she is growing to depend on his quiet company and right now she thinks she might cry if he did leave the bed.

"Stay." She's weak, and maybe it means she really can't stand on her own like Daryl himself accused, but she needs this.

"This okay?" He twitches his hand against her belly.

"Yeah." Everyone is so polite about her pregnancy that Daryl's only the third person to touch it, and that's if she includes the medical checkups. "Daryl? What if Abby comes in?"

"You gonna run off from her if you decide you want more than just this?"

"No. I'll be part of her life long as you'll let me."

"Then it won't matter if Abby sees us. But she'll tell Carl."

"I don't think he will care. He shrugged off that the baby's Shane's, and other than checking to make sure it didn't bother me if he mentioned it, he knows his dad's moved on in a casual sense."

"Then we covered the only two that you need to worry about." He readjusts the sheet over them. "Get some sleep. Baby's gonna steal that from you soon enough."

She yawns, feeling him laughing silently against her back, and does just that.

Chapter Text

September 24, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

"Go back to sleep," Carol says, rubbing her hand along Merle's spine. Just as she discovered that first night together, he loves her touch along that part of his back.

"Sun ain't even up."

She laughs. "No, it's not, but there's things that need to be overseen and you didn't get back from raiding those solar warehouses in Atlanta til late. Sleep."

Merle didn't go out on raids often, too busy with the daisy chain of construction projects, but sometimes they needed him on-site to sort through necessary from not. The loft areas of the two warehouses now complete both held enough solar panels and supplies to last them for years. The two day trip marked the only night they've spent apart so far.

She's in jeans and a tank top for now, figuring she'll change into the beautiful dress she has for today later. She isn't alone in the kitchen, as it seems Beth and Lori both are ready to head down and help the cooking crew. The teenager looks too chipper for five a.m., but Lori looks like Carol feels, and at sixteen weeks pregnant, can't even get much of a caffeine boost.

They made everything ahead that could be possibly made ahead. The two massive commercial refrigerators are crowded, and tidbits like mini-quiches that can be frozen are in the freezers to be heated closer to time. This morning is for the things that couldn't, like vegetables for the lamb kebabs and potato salad. And most especially, the wedding cake Scout finally conceded to when the women baking it begged that it was their gift to the couple.

The lane cakes for the groom's cake came from a recipe card Shane handed off to Carol, bashfully asking that they use his Grandma Jean's recipe. Carol handled the handwritten card like the treasure it is. There were three made and 'marinating' in the fridge. The fun part will be watching the children sneaking bites, since the lane cakes are positively oozing bourbon.

The mint and chocolate three tier wedding cake is something Carol and Glynnis are looking forward to making. Chocolate will be a forgotten treat one day, when the cocoa stocks run out or expire, so while they have it, they'll indulge.

Outside the community center, Arthur and Lenore have the two big smokers brought in from the restaurant in town up and running, two hogs ready to go for an all day smoking. Lenore assures her there will likely be leftovers of the pulled pork, which tomorrow's lunch will easily take care of.

The sheer mass of food steps outside their usual conservative use, but as hard as everyone has worked, along with the reality of why their little patchwork community exists, a celebration of something so normal as a wedding is exactly what as needed. The fact that it is Scout and Shane just makes it even better.

They're met by a mixed group of cooking volunteers who range from as sleepy as Lori to as perky as Beth. Lori moves off toward the heaping mound of potatoes with a shrug, joining the guardsmen couple from Jamie's team who volunteered since there were no supply runs today. The two men joked that peeling potatoes was something any military were expert at.

Beth gets drawn in by the team prepping ice cream from the various fresh milk they've saved the last three days. The habit of clearing out small appliances they may or may not use is paying off with the small army of ice cream makers spread over one table. Not all of them are electric, so they'll recruit in the kids as the youngsters wake for the day.

As Carol joins Glynnis, she just smiles, thinking that Carol from six months ago would never imagined that she'd be baking a wedding cake for her stepdaughter today.

~*~ DD ~*~

Daryl should have known slipping in to leave his present for Scout wouldn't happen. She's awake the second he enters Merle's office, where she's stayed the night to humor the ladies who were making the wedding a community celebration. She blinks once, realizes it's him, and sits up. Her hair is escaping the long braid, and he notices how long it's gotten since the damaged parts were trimmed away after her injury.

He sits down and hands her the carved box, studying his hands instead of her reaction. He knows she's not quite lost the faith Lilliana raised them in, that their family on Guam reinforced, but it's close enough that giving her items meant for a religious wedding might not go well.

She gasps. "Daryl, did Aunt Julia give this to you?" She's touching the crucifix on the wedding rosary gently with her fingers, looking at the metal inlaid onto the carved wood.

"Yes, last trip I made out. She swore she had a dream I'd need them."

She lifts out the rosary, letting the beads slide through her fingers. He's unsure what she's thinking, as she reaches in to tentatively touch the belu with it's delicate embroidery. He nudges the small carved box that holds the arras coins.

"These were Nana's."

He reminded their aunt, who also stood as godmother to them both, that he wasn't likely to remarry in the Church, and she scoffed, telling him that getting an annulment from 'that woman' ought to be the easiest petition the diocese ever had. "She thought that they should go to you anyway, since Lilliana was older." And that Aunt Julia would never have biological grandchildren to pass them on to. Her only child, Rosa, died in a car accident when she was in college.

She's quiet for a moment. "Part of me thinks using them as a lapsed Catholic isn't appropriate."

"Not sure anything about the world fits what we were taught when we were young. Pretty sure they grabbed the practice from something older than the Catholics anyway." He leans forward and kisses her temple, hugging her to him. "She didn't use these, che'lu. Only Aunt Julia and Nana. And maybe there's no church or priest or even a civil authority, but I think would be a good thing to continue."

"Who do I ask to stand? We're awfully lacking in aunts and uncles here."

Considering what little extended family they had was on Guam and hopefully isolated enough not to have the world go to hell quite in the same fashion, he understands. "Well, technically, I'm your uncle, remember?"

Scout laughs. "I suppose you are, Tihu."

"Supposed to be someone who you'd go to for advice. And I've been to a wedding or two that had the bridesmaids and groomsmen do it when it wasn't part of the Church. Deputy buddy married a Filipina lady a few years ago. Pretty much the same ceremony, close as I can remember anyway." He hasn't managed to be on Guam when a wedding was underway since before his own.

"What are you two up to this early?" Merle asks from the open doorway. He steps inside enough to see what's spread across his daughter's lap and actually smiles as he reaches out to lift the belu. "I remember getting to do this for Julia. She was such a pretty little thing that day."

"Scout thinks she shouldn't use them."

Merle replaces the belu carefully in the box. "I'm thinking that your aunt and your Nana would be honored despite no priest and no church. Gotta remember that Nana converted to marry your grandfather anyway. Could probably remember enough to write down some wording for each part, if you use them."

As Scout's fingers absently move across the beads in a way that tells him she probably hasn't forgotten years of a rosary in her hand, Daryl thinks she's going to accept.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane realizes just how used he's gotten to waking up to Scout when he automatically reaches out to find nothing but cool sheets beside him. They decided against any old world bachelor party traditions, but in the end, he and Rick were up pretty late with a half bottle between them, just reconnecting their friendship after the past few months of distance. His brother is stretched out on a camp cot, joking someone had to stand guard lest he get cold feet in the night.

"We are getting too damned old for drinking and staying up half the night," he mutters. Maverick, who after weeks of being the dog-on-roam for the property, decided to adopt Shane as his person, raises his head but relaxes when he realizes it's not him Shane is talking to.

Rick's apparently awake, because he laughs. "What time is it?"

"About nine. Not supposed to be ready until one." He sits up and stretches. "Not sure sitting around doing nothing all day works for me."

"Well, I'm sure if we poke our noses out toward the community center, someone will put us to work, but I actually know that we're supposed to let Amalia cut our hair this morning. I don't know if you've really looked in the mirror lately, brother, but we both are taking shaggy to a new level."

Shane laughs, realizing that yeah, if his curls are anything like Rick's this morning, a trim probably wouldn't hurt. "You gonna shave that mess off your face?"

"Nope. But I'll trim it up nicely. How's that?"

"Better." He knows other family members have already gotten bullied into haircuts, because they didn't escape Lori's grasp after she cut Carl's yesterday. But having her cut his and Rick's would probably edge into awkwardness neither of them want for his wedding day, so Amalia it is.

He's just sorting out a shirt when Maverick goes on alert, going to nose at the door. He loves the early warning system, because it's fun to tug the door open before the person actually knocks.

Cricket's fallen victim to that before, so she just grins. "There's been a slight change to the wedding ceremony. Ever been to a wedding that used a cord, veil, and coins ceremony?"

He nods. "Didn't think Scout wanted to do anything extra like that. She didn't even want the whole groomsmen and bridesmaid parts." He honestly didn't care, so long as Rick got to stand witness. He honestly expected her to choose Christopher or Daryl for her side rather than choose between her sisters, but in the end, she selected Cricket.

"Seems Daryl had a few family heirlooms he waited til the last minute to talk to her about. They were our Nana's." She passes him and Rick each a photocopied sheet of paper. "Daddy wrote down what he remembers from Aunt Julia's wedding, and then I quizzed a few people to avoid any gaps. Probably a mish-mash of cultures at this point, but isn't that what we really are here now?"

He glances at Rick, who's mumbling a bit as he reads over the page. Everything looks in place to him, although with the religious aspects no longer present.

"It looks good to me." Honestly, she could probably tell him her sister wanted a nude wedding spoken in Klingon and he'd spend the day memorizing lines. "Anyone told Carol yet?"

Cricket laughs. "Daddy's job. I've got to go find my other half and tell her she doesn't get to lurk in the crowd, which means finding a different dress instead of that lovely mint green she picked out." She leans in to kiss his cheek and throws in a quick hug before leaving.

"I wish your grandma and mama could be here to see this," Rick says, laying his copy safely on the counter. "Grandma Jean thought you'd never marry, you know."

"Wish I'd met her back when Grandma Jean was still alive. Although that probably wouldn't have gone over well with the sheriff, considering she'd have been seventeen or younger."

"Yeah, don't figure he'd have cared for a deputy dating a high school student."

Shane reaches out to run his fingers along the sleeve of the dress shirt he selected out of the two separate bridal stores Glenn's teams cleared out. The fancy clothing wasn't a necessity, but things for morale rarely were. A few of the RVs now serve as fancy clothing shops, and everyone in the community got a nice outfit for today. The folks who could sew were mighty busy making alterations the last few weeks.

"Gonna be the first orange themed wedding I've ever seen. Glad she opted just for vests and ties and not a jacket as warm as it still is." Shane likes the option, not the least of which that he knows Scout chose the color to match the necklace he gave her for their engagement.

"It's cheerful. How many pink, purple, or blue weddings, all pastels, have we seen over the years? Nice to be bright."

"Be better if we don't make Amalia come looking for us," Shane jokes. It's time to get the day under way.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle catches Carol around the waist as soon as she's safely closed the oven door. "Need to talk to you for a moment, Mouse."

She smiles and lets him lead her away from Glynnis, who looks curious but smiles when he just grins at her. They sit at one of the unused tables and he takes her hands.

"I'm hoping you got the general idea of your role today when the girls made sure your dress matched theirs in the color scheme," he starts out. "But there's been a change in how the ceremony's going to be run, and we want you to take part."

"I thought they only wanted one witness each?" She's looking puzzled, remembering some of the debate over how crazy things might get if they included every sibling, which had surprised Glenn when he got counted. Merle would figure by now the young man would understand that adoption by one Dixon meant adoption by all.

"That was the intent. But Daryl's trip over to Thomson was to retrieve a treasure box of sorts. Family on Guam, they're pretty inclusive. When I came back from leave with custody of Daryl, Lil's family just absorbed him right in. Didn't matter he was a haloe boy. He was Lil's son by intent and her family went head over heels for that little lost lamb. Even insisted I have him baptised properly in the Catholic Church, with Lil's sister Julia and her uncle Gio standing as godparents. Julia's Scout's godmother too, but by the time she was born, Julia was married, so her husband's her godfather. By the time the younger kids came along, it should have been one of the signs Lil lost her way when she stopped taking the kids to Mass every Sunday no matter where we lived. So the younger kids, they were never really part of the faith, and they know the traditions, but it's not something they've grown up among like Scout and Daryl did, between Lil and then the year we spent on Guam after Lil was gone."

"I didn't realize Daryl and Scout were religious," Carol says. Her own faith is something quiet and tender that she rarely speaks about, even to Merle. He's not even entirely sure if she has a particular Protestant faith or just follows Christianity in general, just that after years of a Catholic wife, that's not Carol's path.

"Not much anymore. Guess they're both officially lapsed in the eyes of the Church, although I figure on different reasons for each of them. Daryl stayed with it longer, but he had more good years he can actually remember with Lil than Scout. She's always associated it with her mother too much, I suspect." He sighs, not really wanting to think of his ex-wife on today of all days. He hopes she's alive and safe down in Texas, but he's also glad she wasn't close enough for him to feel like he should go fetch her. "But Julia's nothing like Lil. She loves all those kids so deeply, you'd think she gave birth to each and every one of them."

"You mentioned once that you should have stayed on Guam, with the family. Who all is still there - or was, before the world changed?"

"It would have been a different life, maybe a better one, but I didn't. Julia's always stayed in touch. Lost her only daughter about four years ago. Car accident while she was attending college in North Carolina, not even twenty years old. Josefa and Robert only had the two girls, but there's still a pretty big extended family between them both. Lots of aunties and uncles, between their siblings and those siblings' children. Josefa's 75 this year, still the family matriarch enough that she racks up the phone calls to remind me that she never gave me permission not to be family."

"I'm glad they stayed in touch for more than just the children then." Carol squeezes his hands.

"Yeah, me too. The point of the impromptu family history is that Daryl's gone to Guam at least every other year to visit Julia, every year since Rosa died. Julia gave him a box of family heirlooms last trip. Said she had a dream he'd need them. Ever been to a Catholic wedding, especially a Mexican or Filipino one?"

She shakes her head and he smiles as he begins to explain. She worries still about her place in the girls' lives, and he's about to hand her a sign of exactly how important Scout sees her right now.

~*~ SW ~*~

"Feeling nervous, son?" Hershel asks. His smile is kind, but a little mischievous as Shane and Rick wait for the signal that everything is about to begin. Everyone is seated, and Christopher has just taken his seat with his guitar, joining the motley group of musicians who wanted to play today. If Christopher is ready, so is Scout.

"A little, but more that I don't screw up the ceremony. I've never been more sure of anything in my life than marrying her." He expected to have an attack of nerves, maybe even a bout of hyperventilating like Rick had before his wedding, but nothing but a deep seated assurance that this is what his future holds happened all day.

Hershel's dressed much as they are, black slacks and crisp white shirt, but where their vests and ties are a bronzy orange, his are black. Although not a religious ceremony, the man has his well-worn Bible in his hands, his cues tucked within.

"Having done this twice myself to two very different, but very wonderful women, I can only say that neither of you will ever be perfect, but committing to each other this way? Being together is as close to perfection as you'll ever find on this Earth."

Shane smiles, seeing the sadness on the older man's face as he's reminded that Hershel lost the second of those two women just months ago. Before he can reply, the musicians start playing.

Cricket and Tara make their way down the aisle they've set up in the open area next to the community center, holding hands. For a wedding, the colors are reversed, because it's the female attendants who are wearing white, although both have orange scarves tied gypsy style around the waists of their simple white gowns and the same gauzy material has been layered over the top of the gown.

Carol and Daryl are next, with Shane semi-impressed that they found a vest and tie to match his in the bridal store loot. Carol's dress was already in theme, although instead of a scarf, her dress actually has splashes of orange all over as if the dress is painted with watercolors.

The music changes to the familiar bridal march and Merle and Scout emerge from the community center. He only has eyes for Scout at first, her vivid orange dress contrasting against her dark coloring and the dark colors her father wears. Merle's dress shirt is black, his vest black, with only his tie a nod to the orange color theme. He glances to Merle as they come to a halt at Shane's side, and the older man's smile is welcoming.

Hershel's voice rings out, following the script they liked best in all the ones they had to choose from. "Today is a celebration. A celebration of love, of commitment, of friendship, of family, and of two people who are in it for forever. You don’t have to have a ceremony to have a marriage. We marry, because despite all of our differences, love is what we all share. It’s the great unifier – our one universal truth. That no matter who we are, where we’ve come from, what we believe, we know this one thing: love is what we’re doing right.

"That’s why you are both standing here. And that’s why you all are here to watch them stand up here. We have all loved in our lifetimes, and in this moment, we’re reminded that the ability to love is the very best part of our humanity. All of us here today have our own love stories. Some are short, others long. Some are yet unwritten, while others are just getting to the good part. There are chapters in all of our stories that are sad or disappointing – and others that are exciting and full of adventure.

"We’re all here – because we want those moments for you. We’re here to hope with you, to support you, to be proud of you, and to remind you that love isn’t happily ever after, love is the experience of writing your story. It’s not one moment – not even this moment. It’s every moment. Big ones like saying “I love you,” getting engaged – but mostly a million little ones that come in between the big moments.

"We use the words we have to write stories, poems, and songs about love. And even though we describe love in different ways – and even though love can look different from one person to the next – we all know it when we see it. And we see it here."

Hershel turns to Merle, a wistful but happy smile on his face. "I’ve never met a father who was willing to give up his daughter, so instead I ask, do we have your blessing for this marriage?"

"You do." Merle's voice is rough, huskier than normal, and he kisses Scout's forehead before turning to envelop Shane into a hug between the three of them. He says, "First time I saw you with my daughter was the first time I knew she'd never be alone again." He steps away, leaving Scout's hand tucked in Shane's.

The vows they exchange are more poignant than he thinks anyone expected from two fairly pragmatic personalities. But after a lot of suggestions, they'd gone with one they found in one of the various books supply runners 'helpfully' brought back once they announced their intent to marry.

"My promise to you is but a simple one. I will love you today and every day that follows until the end of time. With the passing of every minute, my love grows stronger and my devotion grows deeper. I will love and cherish you until my eyes can no longer see your gentle smile, my ears can no longer hear your loving words, and my hands can no longer feel your tender caress. From this moment until my dying breath, you are my love–you are my life."

Hershel is downright beaming by now, and Shane's glad they chose him to officiate the ceremony. "This is a new beginning for both of you and I’d like to offer some gentle reminders to ease your life-long task of living and growing together. Be kind to each other. Be gentle and forgiving with each other. Communicate with each other. Share the joy that’s in your heart and the sorrow that burdens your soul.

"Do you, Shane Griffin Walsh, welcome Salome Camarin Dixon as your wife, offering her your love and encouragement, your trust and respect, as together you create your future?"

They wanted to combine vows and rings, so the durable copper-colored silicone rings popular among married law enforcement are placed in his hand by Rick. He feels no hesitation as he slides the ring onto her finger. Nothing in his entire life felt more certain than this. "I do."

"Do you, Salome, welcome Shane as your husband, offering him your love and encouragement, your trust and respect, as together you create your future?"

Scout's reply is as fast and firm as his, her hands steady as he feels the unfamiliar weight of the ring against his finger. "I do."

"Our world has changed so much in the last handful of months that none of us truly recognize what lays outside this haven we have been led to. I was no holy man before, not a pastor, and not a priest. But the needs of our people to endure and rebuild mean that we also need someone to minister to us. I am honored that I was asked to do so today. There's no higher authorities to govern us but our own free will.

"Today, Scout and Shane declare before all of us that they shall live together in marriage. In the traditional way, they entered into their marriage with the making of vows and promises and the giving and receiving of rings, an outward symbol of their voluntary commitment to one another. Therefore, it is my pleasure, that I now pronounce them husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride!"

The catcalls and cheers from their audience are not unexpected, especially considering Honey's in the audience, but Shane lingers over the kiss, knowing this is a moment that only happens once for them. They're both smiling and a little breathless when they finally part.

Hershel raises a hand to let their audience know the ceremony's been changed a little. "Our couple has a tradition from the bride's side. The heirlooms used today, you may have seen as part of a Catholic ceremony, or even just a cultural one, but they hold sentimental value to our bride as they graced the wedding of both her grandmother and aunt. They've asked several members of their family to act as sponsors for their union.

"Scout and Shane, I ask Daryl and Carol to join us and to lay a veil, a belu, over you to clothe you together. Let this be a symbol of the faithful love you have for each other. Through the passing of the years, let the belu remind you that you belong to each other and to no one else."

Carol's hands are shaking and she's starting to cry, but she gets the belu across Scout's hair with a bright smile, pinning it into place as Daryl draws it across Shane's shoulder. The younger man gives Shane that little half-smile of his and squeezes, both a comfort and a warning, as he steps back.

"Scout and Shane, I invite Christina and Tara to place a lazo over you. This lazo symbolizes an infinite bond of love you share that keeps your relationship strong in the face of adversity, as well as that you both are no longer two, but one in marriage. May this lazo remind you to face your life together courageously and to be mutual in support of each other in carrying out your duties and responsibilities as a couple."

Cricket's grin is absolute mischief and joy as she helps her partner raise the rosary over their heads and rest its figure eight shape along their shoulders.

Shane feels Scout's hands flex in his and he squeezes back, wondering which of them will give in to emotion first.

Hershel smiles at them both. "May your love grow stronger and bind you closer together through the years. I now ask the sponsors to remove the lazo and belu." Their family members step forward and remove the rosary and belu, which Cricket holding the aged silver while Carol keeps the belu.

"Once, coins were given and received not in a spirit of reciprocity but in a give and take relationship. Today, the coins are a reminder of good stewardship for all couples; that they will mutually support each other, their family, and the world around them. There's not a person here today who hasn't born witness to their dedication to the community."

Rick steps forward and lets the silver coins flow from his hands to Shane's. Shane knows usually a priest would hold them and bless them, but this was the only change he made to the patchwork ceremony. It doesn't matter that Rick's marriage didn't work out. Shane knows his brother will always be here to remind him of the promises he makes today.

"Scout, I give you these coins as a pledge of my dedication to you, our community, and our family." He says the words with feeling, catching on those a little more than he did his vows.

"I accept them and in the same way pledge my dedication to you, the care of our community, and the welfare of our family." Her hands shake but firm as the coins slide from his hands to hers. She holds them for a moment, and he thinks she is going to improvise, but then she pours them back into his hands so he can return them to Rick for safekeeping.

"And now, to all the friends and family who have come to celebrate this union, it is my pleasure to present the newly united couple, Scout and Shane."

Instead of a dash for an exit, they are instead passed along the tide of family and friends for hugs, kisses, and congratulations. By the time they reach the open area where Carol's army of helpers set up tables outdoors, that same army has begun to shift food onto the buffet tables and for the first time, Shane understands the sheer mass of what their community is presenting for them.

He escorts Scout to their table, smiling as Merle's escort of Carol follows and the man coaxes her to sit next to Shane. He doesn't think anyone warned her she would be treated fully as mother of the bride today. Merle takes his own seat, Tara to his left, and Rick to hers, while Daryl ends up at Carol's right and Cricket past him.

Jamie and the younger siblings begged off sitting at the head table, Jazz grumbling about not wanting to be stared at, so they're among the helpers as Glynnis and Katherine sweep along gathering plates for those seated before the buffet opens for everyone. It doesn't take as long as you'd think to seat nearly two hundred people, but Shane's still amused by the fact that Honey brought a single plate for he and Scout to share. Even the elderly are out in the sunshine, plates brought to them by a swarm of helpful children.

Merle gives everyone a few minutes to settle in before he rises. It draws attention as it always does. He wonders if he should be worried about the speech, considering Merle's quirky sense of humor.

"I hope everyone enjoys the significance of today, that it's a sign that we're going to endure what's happened to our world and keep going." He turns to look at Scout, who reaches up to take his hand. He faces the crowd again. "Ten months ago, I got that bone-chilling call every family member of someone serving in the military dreads. 'Mister Dixon, you need to get on the first plane to San Antonio, now.' When we got there, the odds my baby girl was going to survive were so low the doctors wouldn't even give them. But they didn't know Scout. Every day she got stronger. But it reminded me of the ultimate blessing each day with your child is, especially when I knew as soon as she healed, she was going right back out to serve her country.

"The world had a different plan for that, and instead, she's serving her people here. Just about every one of us owes our safety here to Scout - and to the man who was the missing piece to her heart all these years. I look at her and can't believe that the tiny baby I could almost hold in one hand is now a woman grown. I'm a blessed man, surrounded by beautiful daughters, handsome sons, and a beautiful partner, so I know that Shane understands how hard today is." He brushes a kiss across the back of Scout's knuckles before releasing her hand.

"Met Shane a few months back in a camp of survivors. A lesser man wouldn't have dealt with how I handled the grief of thinking my family was gone, but thankfully, he gave me a purpose even if he didn't realize it at the time. That bought me time, time for my family to return, bringing so many of you along to become part of our community here. Today just a formality about his place in our family, because he's been part of us since the day he first stood at Scout's side against the evils of the world."

Merle turns back to Scout and Shane. "Twenty-seven years ago today, I welcomed you into this world and bringing up a girl terrified me. But today, I look at you, with the man by your side, and I know every minute of those years in between led to this. You and your siblings will always be the best things I've ever managed in my life, and each time any of your bring a new person into the family will always be as equally terrifying and rewarding as each child being born was.

"There's always been just a little something missing in my daughter's smile for so many years, and Shane, I can attest that you being part of her life remedied that. If I could have been a fairy godfather and conjured a man suited to the complexity of my daughter's heart, I don't think I could have done better than you. Keep your promises to each other, love as fiercely as you both do everything else in life, and take care of each other as completely in fifty years as you do today." He reaches for his cup, filled with juice just like Scout's, and raises it to the crowd. "Join me in wishing them both all the happiness they so richly deserve."

As Merle returns to his seat, Scout leans in to kiss his cheek. "Hu guaiya hao, Daddy."

He smiles at them both. "Just remember my speech was the nice one after your sister gets done." Scout groans and looks down at Cricket in what might not be mock alarm.

Before Shane can ask, Rick's standing, and his blue eyes are damn near twinkling as he does. "I honestly was starting to think I'd never get to give a speech on Shane's behalf. After thirty-five years of waiting, maybe I'll be kind today." That draws enough laughs. "Shane and I have been attached at the hip since our diaper days. His Grandma Jean lived next door to my family, so just about every milestone we've had in life, the other's been witness to. College, my own wedding, the birth of my son, years of partnership in the sheriff's department. A few months back, it was Shane whose hands kept pressure on a wound that nearly killed me in the line of duty. So he's not just my best friend, or my partner, but my brother in all the ways that count.

"But the stories I could tell of the things he's pulled over the years of a long and glorious bachelorhood probably aren't entirely appropriate for today, even if Scout would be amused. His sermons on the glories of staying single are some of my favorite moments from our police partnership. I've always known there was something in my brother that was missing, something that wound him too tight to make up for its lack.

"When I first met Scout, those of you not witness to that might be amused to know that I'm still surprised to this day she didn't add to my bullet wound collection. I was a week out of a coma and disoriented, but thankfully, she was inclined to ask questions first. I never dreamed she'd be what was missing from Shane's life, and it took me a bit to see it, but when I did, I've never been more grateful to anyone other than the mother of my child for the gift of new love in the world.

"I know our world is darker and chaotic now, but I want you to each remember that you're each other's light in any darkness and what all those years without that light felt like. May you both always walk in happiness together." Rick raises his glass as he finishes the words directed to the wedding couple, and Shane follows, choked with emotion. To have Rick brush away the rough points, to remember that horrific day as an honor between brothers, means more than he can express.

They decided on only three speeches aside from their own, but as Cricket stands, Shane wonders if this'll end up more of a roast than Rick aimed for.

"The best thing about having a determined, independent older sister is that she usually shocks your father so much that your own antics seem much less shocking in comparison. For example, most of you know my lovely partner, Tara. Coming out in Georgia is easier these days than it was ten years ago, but it's still sometimes a tangled situation to unravel. For me, it was made as easy as a breakfast conversation with my father, who quietly thanked me for not being escorted home by an off-duty police officer with a confiscated fake ID to reveal boys weren't my cup of tea. Thankfully for Shane, my sister's days of sneaking into the gay clubs in the city were more of a wingman duty than a love of the fairer sex."

Shane turns to Scout, arching a brow. That is not a story he's heard yet, although it makes sense that if Christopher was trying out clubs, his best friend would be along for the ride. Scout shrugs while Merle laughs.

"We met Shane just a handful of months ago. He had a handful of untrained civilians and suddenly he's got this bossy broad marching in with her staff sergeant stripes. A lesser man might have been insulted. Shane, well, he just ended up looking like a man who'd been handed the keys to heaven without even knowing he wanted them first. Took him a little bit to realize what a few of us saw that first day, so I'm glad he wised up quickly.

"My sister's life for the last nine years has often been spent far away from home. She's seen lands even more exotic than the island she was born on or our lovely state of Georgia... Tanzania, Cyprus, the Philippines and jaunts to their neighbors. Our family always hoped that somewhere she'd find someone to make her happy, and it's funny how it ends up being a Georgia boy in the end anyway. Guess there's something about we Dixon girls and Georgia cops." She flashes Tara a smile as her partner laughs. "And protect and serve is definitely in Shane's DNA. No one here can be surprised that my sister brought more than physical scars out of her years of service. I already knew he was good for her, but I knew he was her forever when I saw how he treated her when a flashback brought her down. I can only wish that sort of devotion on all of you who haven't found your own forever yet.

"Scout, there will never be a day I don't consider one of my greatest blessings being your first little treasure. Shane, having you as a big brother is my newest blessing, and I don't have the words for how much I love you both." She doesn't toast right away, slipping from her spot to hug them both, but everyone else knows the moment's there. Her voice doesn't carry beyond their table while in the embrace. "Please be happy, be safe, be forever."

The roles they play are dangerous, but Shane hopes that the promise he makes her then will hold true, especially when she cups his face to kiss his forehead. Merle nudges her with a grin, offering her his seat next to Tara, along with a long, comforting hug. It's unsurprising that Daryl shifts down without being asked to let Merle sit next to Carol.

It takes Cricket's elbow to his ribs to remind him that technically, he and Scout should speak. It's the part he fumbled the most, because despite his gift with words, exposing how he feels about her to others is harder. It's a private thing, a gift between them, and he knows she feels as equally reticent. But he stands.

"When I met my first Dixon, let's just say the impression was more Hell's Angel than family man. But whatever instinct told me the man who called me Deputy Dawg within ten minutes of meeting me was someone who needed to stick around is one I'm always going to be grateful for. Six weeks after that day, this tall Amazon of a Marine walks into camp and proceeds to tell me just how much danger I've left my people in. Maybe I should have been offended, but I was just glad to have someone else that realized what needed to be done that I think I fell in love on the spot.

"Rick and I were talking just this morning how we wished Scout could have met my Grandma Jean, who did more of my raising than my parents did, or even my poor mama. They both would have adored Scout, and this big family I've found my way in. Not sure the world would survive Grandma Jean and Scout teaming up, but man, it's a sight I wish I could have seen. My only family for a long time has been Rick and Carl and Lori, and they did their best, but now I know what I've been missing out on not having a sister, or little brothers, or the weirdness of an uncle five years younger than I am." Daryl snorts from his spot down the table. "Not to mention Carol, who never seems to let the little problem of being the same age stop her from mothering me as much as she does the rest of the Dixons. And that rough redneck who worried the hell outta me a few months ago, I'm glad we're family now."

"Always will be," Merle interjects. Shane smiles, drawing Scout up to stand with him, so she can take over. He slides his arm around her, fingers brushing against the scarred skin she left on full display with the beautiful dress.

"I know we tossed a wedding in the middle of all the other things we're trying to do to make our community safe and well provided for, and we can't thank everyone enough for the extra work they took on to make this happen today. Shane and I probably would have been okay just saying a few words together, in front of the immediate family, but I'm glad everyone here wanted to share in our day instead.

"I was married to my military career before, and while I can honestly say I was happy with that, the last few months have taught me what having a safe haven in the world really does. What happened to me, nearly dying, it changes how you view the world, and while I know everyone here knows as intimately as I do how fleeting and precious life and happiness are now, meeting Shane made me realize that there's happiness - and then there's joy. I see that same joy on my dad's face when he looks at Carol, and on my sister's face when she looks at Tara. With luck, I'll see it one day for the rest of my siblings and for each of you who hasn't yet found it.

"The island I was born on has a concept called inafa’ maolek, which translates literally as 'to make good'. It's about restoring harmony. We are doing that here. So many have lost loved ones, and we have children who lost parents. Like any community - any family - we will always have those who are closer than others, but the basic tenant here is that we will support each other, our children, and our elderly. Today is the first wedding here at Homestead, our first celebration. It won't be our last." She raises her glass and Shane and everyone else follows. "Let's keep enjoying this wonderful food, and then move inside for music, celebration, and dessert!"

Shane takes the time when they're reseated to kiss his bride, marveling at that unfamiliar term and knowing it will never get old.

Chapter Text

September 24, 2010

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane takes the moment where they're waiting on everyone to file in to cup Scout's face, stealing little kisses as she laughs between them. No one seems to mind, everyone admiring the smooth lines of the white cake and the dozens of orange and yellow hibiscus flowers that have been crafted for it. Everyone's excited for dessert, and he figures that the dozen flavors of ice cream might prove more popular than either wedding or groom cake, but they gamely cut the cake.

To the cries of "you gotta smear it on her face," he grins and reminds everyone she carries a knife and gun on far too regular a basis. Of course that response time just means she gets him first.

When things turned more formal than words between them in front of family and friends, Scout didn't really want a solo dance, until the wedding addicts convinced her to do it during dessert, moving to the other dances as a solo. They intended for all the songs to be from the collection of music that had gathered in the community center over the past months, but after they did pick their song, all it took was Jazz's quiet request for the first song, at least, to become a live version.

He's not sure if the musicians around the Homestead recorded the music that starts, or if they somehow found one meant for live singing since he's seen Carol's note for future music nights, but it's just Jazz and Beth without the musicians from earlier. He leads Scout into the half of the community center cleared for dancing, stepping close to her just as the duo bring their own flair to "When You Say Nothing at All." He's heard the blended version before mixing the original and the tribute, but the two teenagers just might have that one beat.

But that might be the fact that practical, rational Scout is singing the words softly too. He doesn't think she remembers any of her misgivings about the solo first dance now. He certainly doesn't, and he regrets when it does come to an end, other than they take the opportunity for another lingering kiss in front of everyone.

Jazz is switching the music over to the recorded CD now, each song spaced with a gap between songs so it doesn't have to be babysat quite as much, so he takes the tap on his shoulder with grace and lets Merle step in.

Carol's smile is a little shy, and he wonders when the last time she danced with someone is. But her step is confident enough when he leads her out, maybe helped along by the fact that there's no shyness among the others joining them as the country theme continues with Heartland's "I Loved Her First."

"You look so happy," Carol says softly. "It's a good look on you."

"It is on you too, Carol," he replies. It really is. They've both changed in different ways from the people they were when they met by the side of the highway in a world gone mad. It's still the same crazy place outside this cocoon of safety they've created here, but maybe a cocoon is right for the both of them.

He follows Carol's look toward Merle and Scout, noticing his wife... his wife... has her head on her father's shoulder as they sway more than dance. He thinks Merle's singing the words. He and Carol are silent as they dance, and they aren't the only couple with attention more on father and daughter than their own footwork.

As the song's last note fades, Carol kisses his cheek. "Take care of her, of you both, Shane. Hers is not the only heart you'd break if you don't."

It settles deep in his gut just how right she is with that, as he steps aside once again to let Merle claim his dance partner.

Thankfully, the songs from here on out aren't personal, just a mix of slow and upbeat love songs. It gives him time for his emotions to settle, especially when Cricket simply starts their dance with a kiss to the cheek Carol didn't kiss.

He's loved.

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol sinks into the seat between Jacqui and Michonne with her cup of very much non-alcoholic punch. The two cups of the other stuff, in addition to the wine from the toasts, was already far beyond her usual want for alcohol and she wanted to remember everything about this day.

The other woman smiles at her. "How's the mother of the bride doing?"

"Still being amazed at being the mother of the bride. I think I've danced more tonight than ever in my life." She's danced with Shane, Merle, Daryl, Jamie, and a very bashful Jazz so far. She begged off a dance with Christopher, needing a drink and a break for her feet. "Feels a bit like a twist on Cinderella."

"Something tells me there are no pumpkins in your future at midnight," Jacqui says. "It's good to see you so happy. You're damn near glowing as much as the bride."

"I never expected her to include me in the ceremony today, not over Glynnis or Christopher or one of the other siblings."

"I suspect she wants to acknowledge how much you mean to the family. Merle's been alone a long time," Michonne adds. "I know I love seeing him so happy. As his attorney, I've had the unfortunate privilege of meeting the former Mrs. Dixon a few times. You are so much better suited to him."

Carol stills, looking to the younger woman, who smiles solemnly. "She stays in touch?"

"Only through me, and only then in regards to paperwork and alimony issues. He had to call me for her contact information when Scout was hurt."

"He paid her alimony? But with the legal charges, I wouldn't think a judge would order that?"

"Judge didn't. State calls it alimony because bribery to stay away seems illegal. She remarried two years ago, so at least that stopped."

"I have to ask, what is she like?" Jacqui's expression is pure curiosity.

"In appearance, much like Honey. More Chinese than Chamorro, very pretty still even in her early fifties. In personality, very remote and closed off. I suspect she does care for her children in some way, because she's requested and received yearly updates on them. I know she has been in contact with Cricket for a few years."

Carol fumbles her cup at that. "Does Merle know that?"

Michonne nods. "She's an adult. Their non-contact agreement only covered minor children, and she wasn't the one to contact Cricket first. As to the state of that relationship, you'll have to ask Cricket herself."

"But she didn't come to the hospital to see Scout?"

"Best guess? She isn't capable of facing the two children she hurt the most. I don't think Scout or Daryl has spoken to her since the divorce. Cricket's a neutral party, too young when her mother left to harbor the same level of hurt."

"I can't imagine not coming regardless if my daughter was critically injured." Jacqui nods agreement with Carol's words.

"Me either, especially now that I'm a mother. But she's a mystery to me, other than to say that mental illness defense she used against the neglect charges is likely true. Just not the postpartum depression part." Michonne slides her empty cup into the stack of discards on the table and smiles. "Enough dour talk for today. I'm going to go dance with your man."

She weaves her way through to capture Merle's attention as the songs change, taking Tara's place as his partner. Carol's not sure any of the Dixon males have missed a dance yet. Jazz is actually with someone his own age for the new song, dancing with Beth, which reminds Carol she hasn't seen Sophia in a while. As she scans the crowd, Jacqui nudges her.

"Sophia's over there with the other teenagers. She seemed to run out of steam about the same time you did with the dancing. She's pretty good for her age. I think Leo's two boys are trying to work up the courage to ask her to dance, though." Jacqui waves her hand toward Mateo and Sebastian, who seem to be huddled in the age-old format of boys unsure a girl will accept an invitation.

"Honey's been giving her lessons. I know she danced with most of the family tonight." Keeping track was easy on the dance floor, especially with the orange ribbons woven as streamers into her daughter's steadily lengthening blonde locks.

"Hmm-hmm, she did. Even Jazz. Didn't look like she wanted to switch off to Shane at all. Luckily, the groom hid his amusement well at that."

Carol figures Sophia's crush on Jazz definitely did add to her not enjoying a switch to another dance partner. That little tidbit is going to keep things interesting in a family where Sophia sees the rest as siblings. "Have you danced at all?"

"Twice. Once with Jim, once with Jorge. Boy's light on his feet for an ex-gang member. Plotting on a turn with your man before the night's out, maybe his little brother too."

"And not the groom?" Carol teases.

"I think that man's going to last about as long as the females considered relatives before he sneaks off with his wife and we don't see them again til Sunday morning's run. Which reminds me. I got Scout's surprise for Shane smuggled into their cabin once Rick guaranteed he was clear of the cabin for good."

"That'll be interesting. I don't think he expects it at all. She was so careful for the ceremony to not give it away, too." Carol smiles. Finding the embroidery machine wasn't hard at all, but the blank name tapes a little more so, until one of the guardsmen caught on and recommended an alteration shop near the air base outside Atlanta.

The song's ending and Carol smiles softly. "Well, that's sweet of him."

Beth's been whisked away by one of the other teenage boys, but Jazz has sought out Lori, coaxing the pregnant woman onto the dance floor probably by virtue of Lori being hard pressed to tell the boy no about anything.

"She's been doing her best to fade into the background since we came inside. He's not the first one to go over to her. Scout sat out a dance earlier with her. About gave Andrea a damn stroke to watch too."

"Where is our resident grouch?"

"Disappeared with the pretty blond cop off Karen's team about ten minutes ago after a dance. Doubt we'll see them back. Fairly sure he was the consolation prize because she's been trying for Rick's attention since the dancing opened for everyone."

"And Rick?"

"Has been as busy as possible dancing with everyone but Andrea. She still isn't in his good books after he caught on to the gossip about Lori she started before the baby news. I think she got the point when he danced with Amy after turning her down."

Carol looks around for the best man, who seems to be upholding best man duties by staying on the dance floor. His current partner is Lenore, and the pretty redhead seems fairly entertained by whatever's being said during the slow song. "He's still on the roam?"

"Far as I've seen or heard, although Shane's probably the only one who knows the full details. Seems like he's enjoying being an eligible bachelor, and the ladies don't seem to mind taking him out for a spin."

It makes Carol look around for the rest of the 'quarry folk' and she's happy to see that Dale's settled in nicely with the two older men from Grady and a few of the more spry nursing home residents. The card game they've got going might be out of place at a normal wedding, but she's just happy to see everyone enjoying themselves. Amy's on the dance floor, looking happy enough to be partnered with Jamie, and T-Dog's sitting with Amanda Wakefield looking happy enough for the wheelchair bound woman's company. Glenn's in Honey's clutches on the dance floor, looking a bit panicked while Honey looks about to burst out laughing, so there's no telling what the girl said to the poor guy. But that leaves one rather obvious absence.

"How's Jim doing?"

"Better lately. Sending the interested kids down for lessons in the afternoons is really helping him rebuild himself, I think. Today's just a little more than he's good to handle, so he went down to the shop to tinker a bit. Couple of the Vatos weren't much interested in dancing went down with him, so at least he's not by himself."

"That's good to hear. Can't do much but give him time and space." Once, her world was so narrow one loss would have killed her, she thinks. Now, looking around at her various family members enjoying the post-wedding celebration, she tries to imagine losing multiples. It doesn't bear imagining. Whatever Jim needs to put one day in front of another, they'll provide.

Merle's approaching as soon as the song ends, passing school teacher Gail off to her grinning co-teacher, who seems happy with the new dance partner. "Now, darlin', are you bored with the dance floor already?" he asks, sitting beside her and greeting Jacqui.

"Just needed to give my feet a break. The sandals are very pretty to look at, not so kind to the feet." She motions to Jacqui. "If you're looking to dance again, Jacqui's been tapping her feet along the last two songs, and no nice gentlemen in sight."

He laughs and stands after a kiss to her temple. "Can take a hint. Wanna show me your footwork, Miss Jacqui?"

The other woman laughs and accepts the offered hand, following Merle out as dance partners shuffle and reassemble under the opening notes of the next song. Carol watches as they both start laughing when the old school country song starts playing, but it doesn't deter either of them from a pretty good two-step. Enjoying how far they've come from the jumbled group of survivors in the quarry, Carol goes off to see if there's any ice cream left before she sees if her feet are up to a little more.

~*~ SW ~*~

Shane's debating the logistics of not even making it to the bed with Scout's hand already in the open waistband of his slacks before they even got the cabin's door open. But he's going to manage this one last tradition, even if it kills him to grab her wrist.

"Scout, baby, just a few more feet."

She laughs and releases him, sliding her arms over his shoulders as he lifts her and nudges the door open. Besides, carrying her over the threshold means a fast trip to the bed in the small interior of the cabin.

He's stumbling through the kiss she initiates as he crosses the threshold, and he does manage to kick the door closed. But before he can drop her to the bed, he spots something out of place.

"Why's one of your uniforms on the bed?" He knows it's hers, because while many of the teams wear military gear while on runs, none of the civilians wear anything displaying rank. Scout would probably personally build a pillory to confine them in if they did.

She stills, smiling at him. "Why don't you put me down and take a look."

Puzzled, he does that, not noticing as she wriggles up the bed to stretch out because his attention is now on what the carefully positioned sleeve hid... her changed name tape. He picks up the uniform shirt and runs his fingers across the raised letters of his own last name.

"Scout, you don't have to..." They didn't even discuss it. He just assumed with her family ties and long treasured independence, she wouldn't change her surname. Walsh is his father's name, not something he attaches pride to, but it is also Grandma Jean's, which he does.

"I want to. Lots of Dixons in our little world, not so many Walshes."

He's speechless for a moment, laying the shirt carefully on the chest at the foot of the bed and crawling up the bed to hover over her. "Every time I think I've got you all figured out, you surprise me again," he says.

"Gotta keep it interesting," she says, and movement distracts him from the intensity of emotion the name change evokes. Her hand is resuming its earlier path and he helps her push his clothing down his hips as he lowers his body to hers. She scrabbles at his buttons, getting his chest exposed to her touch, while he ducks his head to her throat, remembering their first night as he slides down the straps of her dress. The skirt flows around them as she guides him to her, the scrap of cloth under the skirt no real barrier to their equal determination for now.

It's not sweet or leisurely, and if his "I love yous" lose more and more coherency each time their hips meet, hers do to.

He loves this woman so damn much, whose sweat slick skin slides against his own, and who matches his intensity with fire of her own.

It takes them a while, after, to detangle from formal clothing not really meant to be worn through making love, no matter what the movies portray. But the kisses they exchange during the process are worth every minute of that part too.

~*~ LG ~*~

"Abby asleep?" Lori asks as Daryl shuts the door behind him.

"Yeah. Curled up with Isabelle in her bunk. Looks like they fell asleep watching The Little Mermaid." The kids under sixteen all were sent on their way as darkness fell, but Daryl and Lori both stayed longer. With Patricia back at the house, the younger kids were well supervised, and it proved again that Abby is slowly regaining her independence when she left with Isabelle, Sophia, Al, Jazz, and Carl without a protest. "Still kinda weird to not have Andre in the puppy pile of kids."

Michonne took a few weeks to just revel in her son being alive and stayed in the house, but having her own space soon became a priority. Since Carl rarely stayed with Rick, he moved out of the family unit he was assigned and into one of the duplex units so Michonne could have a ground floor place for her and Andre.

Three out of the five prior nights, Abby slept in the girls' room instead of with Daryl and Lori. During those nights, Lori discovered Daryl's likely to join her even if it's not part of their little benefits arrangement. He likes to tuck against her back and sleep with a hand curled under the curve of her belly. She's afraid to talk about the change, that he might get embarrassed and call it off entirely.

He looks at the book in her hands and sits down to peer at the page. "What's she up to this week then?"

His level of interest in a baby not his is appealing in a way she's not sure she should admit to, considering the checkered path that led to this baby's existence and his original objections that Scout might get hurt. "Why are you so sure it's a girl?"

He shrugs. "Always guessed right with Merle's kids and with Abby. Was running about 75% right on my coworkers over the years. Seems I'm better when I guess girl. Besides, you got a boy already, so a girl would be nice, right?"

There's that little ache, a twinge. Abby's a girl, and Lori's definitely fallen for the little girl. "Yes, it would be nice."

Daryl stretches a little, running his finger down the page. "Says she's the size of an avocado."

"If an avocado could dance. She was excited by all the music in the party. Or maybe the orange juice I drank, but I'm going to pretend it was the music."

"You can feel her already?" It's a testament to their level of comfort that he doesn't ask before he touches, sliding his hand under the edge of her shirt to rest against the swell of her belly. He's still the only person other than Cricket and Abby to rub a hand across the baby bump. She's showing more than she did with Carl, but the book says that's normal for a second pregnancy. "She's going to be a lil asskicker then, already romping around."

"It started today, actually. I wasn't entirely sure until I was back here and in the quiet, but yeah, she's definitely on the move. You probably won't be able to feel it for a few more weeks at least, though. It's earlier than with Carl, but the book says that happens on later pregnancies especially if you're slender."

"Cricket's doing your ultrasound next month, right?"

"Yeah. She's going to teach Carol how as part of the training she's been doing when she lets the medical staff have an off shift. Abby's got it marked on the calendar." She hesitates, knowing it's going to be a crowded session because she's already told Shane and Scout they should be there during the ultrasound, rather than getting the video after. "You should be there too. With Abby." She adds the last part, just in case.

"A'right. If you're okay with me being there." He isn't looking at her as he says it, more at the book, but he tenses enough that she knows her reply is important to him.

"Of course I am." She yawns hard enough her jaw nearly locks and then giggles tiredly.

"You need to get some sleep." He takes his hand off her belly to tug the book away, placing her bookmark before putting it in its usual spot on the built-in bookshelf. "You were up before the chickens this morning."

"So were you," she grumbles, but she slides down in bed while he goes to shed his wedding clothes. He glances back at her when he's changed his slacks for a pair of drawstring pajama pants. She sleepily pats the bed beside her and he nods, but detours to the bathroom. She's happy for Shane and Scout, glad she was part of making sure their day went well, but she's glad they don't have parties like that very often.

She is just about asleep when he spoons himself behind her, hand against her belly as he relaxes quickly into sleep. She marvels at the ability, but not for long. It was a long, eventful day. The baby flutters gently, butterfly movements within her just under Daryl's hand, and she smiles. Lil Asskicker. Why does she just know that's the name this baby's going to end up with regardless of what she calls her?

~*~ SW ~*~

"We should shower," Scout says.

He agrees, but getting out of their wedding clothes led to a leisurely exploration of each others' bodies that ended with Scout leading them both to completion a second time, arched above him with that pendant the only 'clothing' she wore this time. He doesn't think he'll ever get tired of seeing her skin shine in the dim moonlight from their window, long black hair flowing around her shoulders, knowing he's the reason she's lost all control of English and reverted to her native tongue that he's learning more and more of every day.

He's pretty sure a lot of them aren't words for public use.

He's also pretty sure his brain isn't functioning yet. He marvels that she's even remembering they have a shower already.

"An' change' tha sheets," he drawls at last.

She hums, walking her fingers up his sternum to stroke along his jawline. She stretches a little, causing her body to move against him, and he really wishes for the stamina of his college days. Then again, this is something that isn't going to last a fleeting night or weekend. He musters up the energy to capture the hand and bring it up to kiss against her ring, glad they did opt for some outward sign. Although they don't seem to need it. Both the Grady people and the rabbit farm folks referred to them as married without any introduction.

She's the first to manage to move, kneeling beside him and smiling. "C'mon, Mister Walsh. I'll scrub your back if you scrub mine."

"Well, if you put it that way, Mrs. Walsh..." He's pretty sure that phrase is going to take a few years for the new and happy to wear off.

~*~ GR ~*~

Glenn marvels at the changes in his life that led to him being considered an appropriate chaperone to the older teenagers who have permission to continue the dancing and entertainment until midnight. The newly married couple didn't make it past what would normally be supper time, the younger kids were gone by dark, and the adults over twenty-five didn't last past ten. There were enough odd pairs drifting out that Glenn wondered if there were going to be a lot of interesting mornings after. He's tired, no more dancing left in him, and Maggie doesn't seem to be as perky as normal either. They've retired to a corner table with Cricket, Tara, Carlos, Sam, and Ana.

The oldest of the Vatos is probably the oldest in the community center right now, and he stuck around to make sure his 'boys' behaved themselves around the ladies, or so he initially said. From the needling Cricket and Tara have going, they suspect he's gone sweet on one of the young women and isn't wanting to acknowledge it yet.

"You could just go ask her to dance," he finally interjects. "Then you'll know if she thinks you're too old for her, and these two will have to suck it up if she does."

Carlos looks like he's considering it and finally rises. Glenn isn't even sure what girl is being discussed until the Vato comes to a stop next to Zoe, originally from the National Guard group and now on Glenn's secondary team that Jacqui leads. The man doesn't even have to ask the question for his observers to have the answer, because the young fitness trainer's entire face lights up the second she sees him.

"Told you," Tara tells the rest of the table, as if they argued it. "He shows up for every single one of her classes when Scout's team's in camp. Give it a month and they'll be asking for a housing change. There's no way he was doing yoga just for personal fitness."

"Give it an hour and they'll be glad he doesn't have a roommate, even if she does," Maggie adds. Glenn has to agree. He knows the look on the older man's face, because he saw it in the mirror when he realized Maggie's flirting was serious.

That resolved, he scans the room, trying to remember that although they were told to mainly make sure no one overindulges in alcohol with no reason to truly enforce the old world drinking age, he does have big brother duties of a sort. Beth's not dancing or even sipping on one of the cups of the bright blue punch that signifies something alcoholic. Instead, she's actually in the middle of a card game with a hodgepodge of older teens - Patrick, Zach, Julie, and Alejandro. Trust Beth to entice boys into playing Uno at a party.

But his other little sister is nowhere in sight.

"Anyone seen Honey?"

"She was dancing with Rafael last I saw her," Ana says. "He's over there eavesdropping on Carlos and Zoe though."

Cricket looks around and shakes her head. While they all know the younger girl is an adult, he still feels like he should follow up. "I'll be right back."

Asking the Vato-turned-construction-worker gives him the information that Honey stepped out to the bathroom, but that it was close to ten minutes ago. So Glenn goes outside and knocks at the ladies' room door. No answer, but before he decide if he should press the issue or not, he realizes that from the little porch built for access to the bathroom unit outside the community center, he can see his building.

Merle's crew is slowly replacing the metal access ladders and narrow upper level walkways with wider, wooden platforms that the upper floor residents use as porches to enjoy the evenings as the months grow cooler and the mosquitoes are no longer such pests. The angle from here allows him to see the back side of his building - and to locate Honey, who is sitting near the top of the steps to her level, back against the building and feet against the railing. She's relaxed and smiling at whatever T-Dog's just said from where the man's sitting in a chair up on the main level. It's not an unusual sight in the late evenings before everyone calls it a night, even after Honey brought in the exchange student from the rabbit farm as a roommate. Lydia sometimes joins them, but not often.

Domino, the lanky pup she gave T-Dog, is sprawled across the top step to get her head in Honey's lap. He's not surprised to see Augustus lounging at the bottom of the stairs. The big catahoula male isn't usually far from wherever Honey is, except when he accompanies Daryl's teams out on runs. It makes Maggie happy to have the big dog around, so Glenn's made a point of befriending the dog.

Deciding that Honey's safe enough for the night as far as any brotherly oversight is needed, he heads back inside for one last hour of chaperoning before everyone's hustled off to bed with the reminder that it's a work day for many of them. That includes him and Maggie, who laughs at him when he fails to hide his yawn as he sits back down.

"Find her?"

"Yeah. She apparently decided to wander off home without coming back in."

"Alone?" Tara asks, arching a brow.

"Considering she's sitting on the steps shooting the breeze with T-Dog, it seems so."

Mystery solved, he, Maggie, and Tara turn to debating the order of tomorrow's run. They've pretty much turned Canton and the small towns around it into ghost towns in the two months they've been here. There were other runs for essentials like the solar panels, but while Carol may not have earned Patricia's 'drill sergeant' moniker, she has a different sort of logic to the runs she asks Scout to arrange. Scout and Shane's team finished securing the larger locales in Cumming, so now it's Glenn's turn to make sure all the goodies land in their warehouses.

He kind of wishes they could come across another cluster of survivors, good people like the rabbit farm, but as he looks around at the children and young adults enjoying the wind down of today's wedding, he's happy with what they have so far.

Maggie smiles up at him and reaches out to take the hand he's not using to make planning notes and he wonders for the first time how soon is too soon to go browse through the jewelry that's made it into their stores.

Chapter Text

September 30, 2010

~*~ CP ~*~

Carol startles at the unexpected noise from the door being shoved open too hard. Even more odd is that it's Jazz behind the noise and not one of the younger kids. He gets the door closed, but his movements are jerky and he doesn't acknowledge Lori at all.

He stumbles into Carol's office and curls up on the beanbag. That's when she realizes he's crying. She rounds the desk and drops to her knees to rub tentatively at his back. When he flings arms around her middle and bury his face in her stomach as he cries, she maneuvers to sit on the beanbag too.

Lori's at the door, hovering, as worried about the boy as Carol is. Jazz is so even keeled that this outburst of emotion is unusual and alarming.

The door opens again, but it's Abby who enters this time. She spots Jazz in Carol's lap and wraps her own arms around Lori as best she can.

"Sophia is mean," the girl declares. "She yelled at Jazz and made him cry."

Lori and Carol exchange looks, figuring something's come to a head with their mutual crush.

Lori pats Abby's head. "Let's go find your Uncle Merle. We'll send him to talk to Sophia." She leads the upset child out of the office and Carol hears the lock slide into place on the outer door after she leaves.

"Jasper?" she says softly, petting his silky dark hair. He soothes at the touch.

"She doesn't believe me that I don't want to date Beth," he mumbles.

Ah. Jazz's popularity with the young ladies of Homestead is equalled only to his complete lack of return interest. He's polite, friendly, and at the wedding, danced with several of the girls near his age after the family dances.

She's also fairly sure, thanks to Maggie, that Beth's interest in the young man is entirely friendly. She's almost seventeen, and currently seems to have her eye on Gage Eldridge. The twenty-year-old farm kid doesn't seem all that uninterested either.

"Do you want me to talk to her?"

"Maybe she'll listen to you." His voice is muffled because he's making no move away from being held by her.

"You know she has a crush on you?" She's fairly certain he does, but she should verify.

He finally moves away, but stays close, trying to curl his tall frame into hers. She takes the hint and drapes her arms across his broad shoulders.

"She's only thirteen."

"Thirteen and aware that a lot of the girls want your attention."

"Beth isn't one of them or I wouldn't have made her a birthday present."

It's sweet and sad that he's so very aware of how the females around him work. "What did you make her?"

"Molasses cookies. Patricia says they're her favorite, but Maggie's are butter pecan."

"And Patricia's?" Carol has a feeling he knows everyone's, but the point now is to distract him.

"Shortbread. But it's Beth's birthday tomorrow."

Carol's helping Maggie and Patricia with the supper, which expanded to include all the Dixons at Beth's request. She can also see why the youngest Greene gets along so well with Jazz.

Whereas Sophia's interests, much like Carol's, are wide and varied, it's becoming more and more obvious that Jazz is going to apprentice to Hershel. Sophia spends her downtime bouncing from the building crew to Daryl's supply runs that double as hunting and fishing training to firearms lessons with anyone willing to train her.

Jazz, once things were settled so he wasn't at risk of being overworked, still spends his time between the animals and building crew. The studying he's been doing turned out to be veterinary textbooks, so Hershel is spending an hour each day with him and Beth, who has decided to learn enough to be an assistant.

Maybe staggering Sophia's and Jazz's duty schedule and off days so that they spend a little time with others isn't the best scenario. But she is trying to avoid Sophia overwhelming the boy. That plan's officially failed.

She fluffs his hair a little and presses a kiss to his temple. "Sophia is still learning about having freedom to do whatever she likes, and you've been absolutely wonderful with that, sweetheart, but what she did today isn't acceptable. I'll talk to her and your father will talk to her, and if that doesn't work, I'll set the girls on her."

"That's kinda mean," he says. He picks at the seam of his cargo pants. "I do like Sophia, but I know what it would look like. Everyone here knows how old I am, but..."

"I wish you hadn't learned to worry about that. But that's what you need to remember now. Everyone here knows you. No one's going to be upset that you like Sophia." Because Carol can't imagine a better first returned crush for her daughter.

"You wouldn't be? She's supposed to be my sister now."

"Honey, I love you as much as if you were mine from birth, but I think you liking Sophia actually has precedence over me being with your father."

He stiffens a little and she worries stating her affection might be more than he's ready to hear. But then he moves to hug her, mumbling, "Love you, too, mama."

Carol isn't happy that Sophia upset Jazz enough for him to cry, but she is happy that he chose her as his safe place to go to. Since he's making no move to leave, she's just going to sit here and enjoy time with her son.

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle steps into the big barn and sees Beth lingering outside one of the stalls. She looks relieved to see him and he shoos her away with a soft thank you for not leaving Sophia to her temper and hurt feelings. The blonde teenager gives him a sweet smile as she leaves.

He eases the door open to the empty stall to find his own blonde teenager curled up in a little ball of weeping misery. He slides down to sit beside her, reaching out to shake her ankle gently.

"Need to talk about it, princess?"

She shakes her head, but he ends up with his arms full and his shirt growing damp. Funny how even the apocalypse doesn't change a daughter's need for comfort. So he rubs her back, mulling over Abby's angry assessment of Sophia's tantrum. He's kind of glad that Lori netted that particular child to calm down.

"Phia... I can't fix it if you don't talk to me."

"I wish I was older."

"I can't help with that, but I'm glad you aren't. I figure on having a few more years being the most important guy in your life."

As expected, it makes her giggle a little. "Jazz is older."

"Yes, he is, sweetheart, but you can't rush things. If he likes you too, either he'll wait for you to catch up or he won't, and if he doesn't, that'll be his loss. Being jealous of his friendships is probably a way to guarantee it's your loss, though." Jazz is loyal and he likes Sophia, but if she keeps this up, he'll lose that affection he holds for her.

"Beth's always with him. She's older and doesn't look like a little kid. And her dad likes him too."

Well, that explains probably most of the issue, the comment about Beth's looks. Sophia has her mother's delicate build, and Carol once bemoaned she was nearly twenty before she stopped looking twelve. Honey made similar complaints at Sophia's age, especially in contrast to her sisters, who despite the Chamorro dominance of their coloring, remind Merle of his own mother more than their own.

"Maybe you need to ask Jazz how he feels about Beth instead of assuming he likes her as more than a friend." He smoothes her hair, which is escaping braids, and she raises up finally to look at him.

"But she's so pretty and older, and he spends a lot of his time with her."

He smiles at the sweet description of what makes a potential 'couple' to her and is glad for the experience of older daughters. "I spend a lot of time with Amy and she's a pretty woman, but that doesn't mean I ever would see her like I do your mother."

He knows he could solve half of this by the revelation that Hershel told him Gage is sweet on Beth and it's mutual, but she needs to sort it out without that sort of outside fix.

She looks suddenly ashamed of herself. "I made him cry."

"Guess that means you owe him an apology before your explanation then. But he's going to need some time first, so you're going to go help me do the composting toilet round."

She wrinkles her nose, but accepts what is certainly a punishment duty for a teen already done with their work day. It'll give her time to think over what she needs to say, and Jazz time under Carol's gentle care to feel up to hearing it.

~*~ DD ~*~

Merle drops into the seat across from Daryl and grins. "Trust you to make us iron out a new set of credit for our folks, Daryl. But needed to be done. You still sure about this?"

Daryl nods. "Can't stay cooped up forever. Want to get this done for her before the baby comes."

"Well, priority on independent housing is for larger families, two kids or more, so you're covered there if you're determined to see this out. What's she think?"

"Wanted to get it approved first. No point in getting her hopes up. Cabin kit will make enough room for us. Carl too, if he gets tired of the boys' bunkhouse in your basement." He doesn't want to predict the near teenager's intent once Lori's no longer in the main house. He doesn't stay overnight with his father at all, part of why Rick moved to a smaller unit.

"Well, priority is going to you two and Morales due to impending stork arrivals. There's three Grady mamas that'll appreciate more space eventually. Lenore is happy as is. Figure eventually we'll be secure enough for her to move back home, so she's not wanting to hold up the queue. Think Arthur likes having his grandson with him anyway."

"How's the credit work?" Like most Dixons and supply runners, Daryl's got so many non-obligatory hours logged he may not ever use them up.

"Foundation work will be laid by the building crew for both cabins this week. They'll pull the crew's hours out of your reserve, since I'm going to run them past their usual six for it. Any extra help on putting your cabin kit together, you donate hours to their reserve, unless you make another arrangement. Every family is eligible for one kit or similar without a hit to their reserve."

"Sounds fair." Daryl's supply team found the first half dozen kits at a marina that was planning a campground expansion on yesterday's run. Glenn's team was rerouted today to follow the address the kits came from. While the big 2,500 square foot models wouldn't work, they found another dozen in inventory of the smaller kits. The materials from the larger models might be repurposed, too.

"Haven't done an actual log kit before, but I reckon we can get yours done in a month, if the family takes turns pitching in. Probably give Morales a few free hours too. Carol wants to learn a bit."

"Woman wants her fingers in all the pies, don't she?" Daryl smiles, though. Carol's busy schedule just solidifies her status in the Homestead. She covers an off day for two of the medical staff to spend time learn from the doctor on duty in addition to her regular duties.

"She's still spreading her wings." Merle's content smile fades a little. "You do aim for challenges, don't you?"

Daryl stiffens, until Merle's hand lands on his forearm in a comforting squeeze.

"Not saying there's anything wrong with where you're headed. Might not look it to the general observer. But you two fit, and I think a bit of privacy is probably what you both need."

"We're not... together."

"Yet. Woman's just waiting on you to catch up to where she already is. Might want to think on it before she decides you don't want her."

"Ain't that. It's just complicated."

"Now that sounds like where I nearly talked myself outta being with Carol. It's only complicated if you let it be. Simple question is do you want her and does she want you, because the usual parent bits don't apply. Both your kids already adore you both."

"Think you can keep Abby busy this evening?"

"Figure I might be able to. Got those kittens Glenn brought back."

"Man's a critter magnet. Best that he's hooked up with a vet's girl."

"Shane's wanting to make a run down to the Greene farm, see what's salvageable. Hershel agreed since we got that high security mesh up around the horse farm last week. Might have to add some border patrol to the work rosters, but we approved the trip for next week."

"A'right. Need my teams on it?"

"No. Best keeping your teams on the lakes. Might see if you can boost some actual tanks too. Carol says we filled everything from the farm store. She moved another up the list since you've brought in fuel faster than it's being used."

~*~ LG ~*~

Lori takes advantage of the distraction of everyone finishing supper to slip outside. Merle has Abby, Daryl's meeting with Morales and a few others about cabin construction, and Carl's got a firearms lesson with Shane.

So for the first time in a while, she's at loose ends and she finds herself wandering down to the first pasture, where the little cows share space with various foundlings and a small flock of Jazz's ram lambs.

A nudge at her knee makes her look down to find the scruffy little Aussie that Daryl brought home yesterday and dubbed Bandit. She scratches the little guy's ears, glad he got a clean bill of health. Hershel thinks he was born in early summer and lost his family, since he's too people friendly to have never had contact.

She manages to lower herself down on the warm grass, which prompts Bandit to claim her lap. The baby thumps against the little dog's movements, startling him. It would figure that the first outside proof of movement is in reaction to an animal. This little one is aiming for farm kid already.

The pup yawns and nibbles at her fingers. She kicks off her shoes and socks and wriggles her toes in the grass, trying to keep sadness at bay. The petitions for private housing were announced during the meal. She missed most of the details when Abby spilled her drink. By the time she got it sorted, Hershel moved on to announce a couple of supply run changes.

So depending on how long it takes to build from those kits everyone is excited about, her time with Daryl is limited. She knows the truth that he won't limit her time with Abby. The little girl called her Mama at breakfast and he never batted an eye. But all the little things - the weekly checks of the baby's progress, the random night time conversations, and him sleeping wrapped around her - those are as much a product of close quarters as actual affection.

She knows he likes her and even considers them friends. Their little benefits arrangement is proof of that. She doesn't even think he's going to stop that when he moves out, if she still wants it.

But she's been foolish and wants more.

Splitting with Rick hurt but the vivid parts of the emotions were long gone. They let go of a ghost of a marriage. She's not sure she has the strength to let the man go who spent the last few days talking to her belly before sleep each night.

Bandit twitches and scrambles down to lope across the grass toward Daryl, whose long strides bring him to her quickly. He plops down beside her with that damned crooked smile.

"Needed some peace and quiet?" She notices he checks for her weapons. As secure as the property is, no one goes without at least a belt knife. Hers is in place, a dark contrast against the pastel of her maternity blouse in the shoulder holster setup he got her since belts are no longer part of her clothing.

"A little. Figured pretty days like this should be enjoyed without hanging laundry."

He laughs a little and she feels the baby thump. Curious if he'll feel the movement like the dog did, she tugs his hand to her belly. The look of absolute wonder makes it hard to breathe as the baby responds to the warm weight of his hand the same way she did to the pressure from Bandit.

"She's strong." He's smiling and she's hit with a surge of want that isn't just about sex. She's never initiated a kiss, and they've never crossed any lines outside the privacy of their bedroom. So his initial reaction is a little delayed when she leans forward to brush her lips against his. On the second small, chaste kiss, he catches up, kissing her with the usual throughness that she's come to expect.

It's not until the first shuddering wave of pleasure rolls through her from his fingers under her skirt that she realizes she isn't the only one aroused this time. She isn't sure what to do about it, since he's ignoring it in favor of trying to coax her into a second orgasm.

"Daryl."

He stills, raising his head from her throat.

"Do you want to..." She brushes her fingers against him through his pants.

He groans and she thinks how beautiful he is.

"Do you want me?"

There's something off, a little lost, that doesn't mesh with the normal confidence he touches her with. She pushes him to his back and glances toward the upper property. They could potentially be seen, she knows, but there was a movie planned for tonight and Jazz won't be down to check on the animals until after. Bandit's disappeared through a gap into the horse pasture.

"Yes." She needs to see him, though, even if other positions would be better with the girth of her pregnancy between them. So she makes short work of his clothing, exposing his chest to kiss and caress across the skin. This may be the first time they've gone this far, but she's given him a massage before and noted the reaction is similar to orgasm for him.

There's an inherent rush in how much control he gives over. He is begging beneath her by the end. She wishes she could collapse against him, but settles for laying down beside him and using the length of her skirt to keep him from remaining exposed.

"You okay?" she asks. His eyes are closed and he's not breathing normally yet. His hand tangles in her skirt.

"Yeah." He opens his eyes and she admires the color as it returns slowly. "Just been a long time." He reaches out to brush fingers against her cheek. "You okay? Didn't hurt you?"

She's not sure how he could have, considering, but it's sweet he asks. "I'm fine."

"Needed to talk to you today, but I'm thinking maybe I already know what your answer might be." He shifts and spasms a little, but the noise he makes is happy. "Is that something we're going to do again?"

The hesitation in his voice is something she's never really heard.

"I hope so." Her own worry shows and he turns, tugging clothing enough into place to pull her close.

"Lori? What's wrong?"

"You got the okay on the cabin," she says, hating the hitch in her voice.

He goes so still she gets worried until he kisses her. It's a long time before they come up for air. He smiles. "Got it for us. As a family. Me, you, Abby, Carl, and Asskicker. Was going to ask you tonight. It's why Merle lured Abby off with kittens."

"Us?"

"Yeah. Us. I'm not saying you gotta promise forever, but I like where we're going. Obviously." He readjusts clothing a little more. "Sorry. Zipper."

"That's the first time you've wanted to..."

He brushes her hair back from her face. "Not just a question of want. It's happened a few times lately, but not enough for you to notice."

"You didn't say anything."

"Wanted to be sure. Didn't want to disappoint you."

It clicks for her then, a reminder that he said he's only ever had sex with his ex-wife. "It's only disappointing if you don't want to have sex and do it anyway."

He laughs, the sound a little bitter. "That's probably not possible."

"Daryl?" She waits for him to look at her. "I was out here trying to work up the courage to tell you I wanted more. I already know things might be different, but you've never left me feeling disappointed. Not now or on the nights all we do is fall asleep together."

"Merle says you're just waiting on me to play catch-up to the fact we're not just friends."

She smiles and stretches languidly. "I was too scared to ask, once I realized. Figured what we had was better than nothing."

He looks horrified. "Lori, please don't settle. You did that before. I did, too. We both need more than that."

The earnest worry in his expression just begs she kiss it away, so she does. "I think we stumbled into more already."

"Gotta ask one thing of you, before the kids know anything."

She curls her legs under her to rise as he sits up. His chest is still bare, shirt hanging unbuttoned. He takes her hands in his, a habit he seems to like, calloused fingers sliding across her skin as if memorizing the shape of them.

"If you change your mind, tell me. Please don't move on without letting me go."

"Daryl, I never cheated on Rick, no matter how unhappy we were. With Shane, I thought he was gone."

He's hanging his head. "Carrie only married me to have a father for Abby. I'm not sure when she started cheating, but I let her make me think it was my fault for a long time when I did find out."

She does the math and thinks that at twenty-two, she thought Rick unprepared to be a father. What woman looked at a nineteen-year-old and thought him the best option? He was, but it was a hell of a gamble.

"I can promise I would never do that to you. If I feel like I can't continue, I'll talk to you the same way I did Rick."

He leans in for a lingering kiss. "Will promise you the same."

~*~ MD ~*~

Merle's walkie alerts him he's needed at the watch room. He kisses Abby on the top of her head and leaves her content next to Carol watching the group movie. Shane and Scout follow.

In the watch room, Jorge queues up footage while Oliver keeps an eye on the other cameras.

"We activated the cameras at the Eldridge gate when the game cams on the road started going off. Got this. Survivors who knew about the property, but once they realized the gate was locked and it was impassible, they loaded back up. Out of camera range since the outer gate cameras are stationary. But they didn't leave because the game cams further down are quiet."

"Need to upgrade those cameras," Shane mutters, and Merle agrees.

Jorge gets the visual running and Merle starts laughing when he recognizes the man who checked the gates. "Well, I'll be damned. Ready to have at least one more cop to look after?"

Shane shrugs, relaxing when Merle seems to recognize the man. "Thought all the locals were accounted for."

"This one's one of Daryl's. Met him a time or three when I visited, and he came here last year to pick up a pup from Livia's last litter. He said he looked for his rangers but didn't find any when he took his teams to Thomson the other day."

"Guess we ought to load up and go see who he brought with him."

Scout finishes looking through the game cam footage. "Six vehicles, definitely came supplied. This is Quinton, right? His corporal?"

"Yeah. Tall fella with a wife and three kids. Hoping like hell all of 'em made it."

Shane's sent an alert out, and both his and Scout's personal teams have responded. Everyone is armed, but that's just the norm, and no heavier gear. It's not quite dark, so they're going to respond as friendlies. Daryl's arrival triggers them to load up for the quarter mile trek to the outer gate.

But they aren't entirely w