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The Deal

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The day after my dad returned from being “dead”, I was coming out of the forest with one of the few people in our survivors camp that I didn’t find myself screaming with annoyance at daily. Him, my little brother, and sometimes my stepmom. It was a weird day for all of us-not just the part about daddy returning or even the part about me being on a hunting trip-nah, the entire fucking world was upside down.

Here’s How the World Went to Shit by Jessica Grimes

My dad, Rick Grimes met my runaway mother in high school. During what would be the first of many “act before you think” moments, mommy dearest was knocked up with lil ole me. Now, I’m more than certain that if abortions had been easily obtained at that time, I’d have been on the receiving end of that early death. Dad wouldn’t hear of it. He and my grandma and granddaddy bribed the use of the womb in which I grew to birthing maturity in and once I pooped out into existence? That womb and the holy unprepared and unmaternal genetic markers that created me ran the fuck away. Her parents weren’t any more accepting of my appearance than she was, so my 16 year old Dad became both of my parents. Strange isn’t it? That a teenage boy had more maternal instincts than the chick I grew inside of.

Dad didn’t go far for college, but my grandparents wanted him to have a regular experience, so he commuted, then he visited a lot. First it was every weekend, then every single Sunday. Since he was still a teenager, it made sense, plus he never stopped being available for me. If I was sick, he was there. If I had a preschool concert, there he was in the front row. My dad is my hero, and he will be forever. When he met Lori in college, he made it plain who I was and how important I was to him. She took it in stride, and while I never called her “mom”, she became a good one. I was the practice she needed for when my baby brother was born when I was six years old. Carl made us a foursome, and we reveled in our family. Every single activity that first me, then Carl participated in, our parents were right there, front row. In fact, when I wanted to go to summer camp Lori and Dad tried to convince me otherwise. It was the one place they couldn’t visit daily. Luckily I won that round, because it would come in handy later.

By the time the shit started hitting the fan around the world, I was a freshman at Agnes Scott. While sitting in my creative writing class, I felt the coldest chill I ever had. My grandma would have called it “someone walking across my grave”. I left the class and walked over to the administration building. I told the secretary that I had to request some time off, and as I was handed the forms, my cell phone rang. Lori told me that Dad had been shot, he’d need surgery, and he was unconscious. I knew before she’d called that something bad had happened.

That’s why, when the world truly went to shit days later, I had a hard time believing Shane when he told us that Dad was dead. If my dad had died, I would know, but how do you convince your stepmother that you’d FEEL it? I also knew that my dad would be pissed if I didn’t follow Lori and keep Carl in my sights. Besides, everyone knew that any relationship I’d had with Shane had gone sour after I graduated, no one knew WHY, they just knew it did. Telling Lori, when she was clearly distressed about the reports of people being bitten and going crazy that I didn’t believe a word coming out of his monstrous head wouldn’t be taken seriously.

When I looked at Carl, I knew what I had to do. Keeping my baby brother safe, that was all my dad would want me to worry about, well keeping myself safe as well, of course. Sadly, my dad couldn’t imagine that keeping Carl safe, meant that I had to witness Lori fall under the spell of Shane.

It’s why, once we’d found the others and made the camp on the outskirts of the city beside the clearest quarry pool I’d ever seen, I had to find better sleeping arrangements. While Carl sleeps like the dead, I hear every bump and groan. Ignoring Shane and Lori banging beside or God-forbid inside the tent would be impossible. That’s how I came to know the Dixon brothers.

Merle wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. Daryl, however, wasn’t nearly as horrifying. Once he learned of my proficiency with a bow, he was more than happy to show me how to help him hunt. He even started teaching me how to track. Of course, they both laughed themselves silly when Daryl attempted to show me how to use his crossbow and I gave myself a black eye. It was the two of them who realized that I’d started sleeping under the stars in my sleeping bag, because I was too selfless to ask Glenn to find me my own tent on one of his runs. Since they had their own spot away from the others with two tents, they offered me a spot inside one of them. A choice had to be made, and it wasn’t difficult, I started bunking with Daryl. I had a feeling if I chose Merle, he might get grabby hands inside that tent of his, and it might sour my friendship with Daryl if I crushed his brother’s balls.

Soon my days grew into a routine. I’d wake up in Daryl’s tent, we’d decide if it was a hunting day or foraging day, I’d drop off our laundry to the lady-folk, then go off to do whatever the chore was for that day, eat, bed, rinse, and repeat. It was an added bonus that Shane hated that I got out of the “lady” chores of laundry and dinner prep.

I’d keep my eye on Carl, feeling powerless at the hero worship I could see growing in him over Shane. I tried to teach him archery, but guns were more interesting to him. Shane carried a gun after all. I watched as Shane worked to take my dad’s place, and I wanted to vomit.

As I was preparing for another hunting trip with Daryl, one alone as Merle had chosen to go on a run with the others, Shane cornered me. “Jessica,” he said through gritted teeth. “You know your daddy wouldn’t want you keeping company with the likes of-”

I rolled my eyes and stopped him in his bullshit authority role. “I wouldn’t know that, Shane, since my daddy isn’t here, is he?” I glared up at him and crossed my arms over my chest. “If my daddy were here, I think he’d more than likely want me to be the most productive person I could be. Of course, he’d be VERY interested in how productive you and his WIFE are being.” With a parting shot that I hoped would scorch the earth beneath him, “Just be happy I didn’t tell Dad about your interest in me before I left for school.” I turned and ran to meet Daryl.

No one had witnessed that tense conversation. No one ever did. Shane was quite careful about that, about who could witness the true douche baggery that he was capable of wielding. Lucky me, I thought, witness to every bit of it. After saying goodbye to both of our brothers, and me stopping to hug Lori and promise her I’d be careful, off we went into the glorious silence of the forest.

We’d gone about a mile in before Daryl broke the silence. “Ya alright?” We kept moving and his voice was low enough to not scare any game we might come across.

I snorted lightly and kept my eyes peeled for any tracks or signs of bigger game than squirrels or rabbits. “Great, why do you ask?” I could hear the sarcasm dripping from the words, but I wasn’t feeling up to being sociable after dealing with Shane.

Daryl stopped and I followed suit. The man could scent an animal before anyone, so I thought that’s why we were at a standstill. Looking around I realized there wasn’t anything, other than a fallen tree and a cluster of wildflowers. “Stand down,” he chuckled, taking note of my bow at shooting level with an arrow notched. “We’re far enough from camp that ya can tell me what’s got that stick up your ass.”

I rolled my eyes and lowered my bow. He sat on the tree trunk and patted the place beside him. I sat and considered what he wanted to know. “Maybe I’m just becoming a product of the times.” I shrugged, and thought that the words weren’t lies. This world would change us all.

Daryl shook his head. “Naw, ya only get this uptight after talkin’ to Shane.”

Shit, I kept forgetting how observant the Dixons could be, the one beside me the most of the two. “You know me that well, huh?” He nodded. I watched the bees flit from wildflower to wildflower. “He insinuated that my dad wouldn’t approve of my friendship with you and Merle.” I kept my eyes on the bees.

“Shit, girl, that’s what the whole camp thinks.” He saw, but didn’t fully understand.

“My dad?” I started, needed to tell SOMEONE. “Shane told Lori, Carl, and me that he’s dead. I don’t believe it.” I turned to face him and realized he’d been watching me the entire time. “My dad’s in a coma. When he was shot, I felt it. Not the pain, but I KNEW something bad had happened.” I groaned and ran my hand across my face. “I’d know, Daryl, I’d FEEL it if my dad died.” I felt a tear of frustration roll down my cheek. “We left because Shane convinced Lori. I left because I know Dad would be pissed if I didn’t stay with Carl. He’s trapped back there, completely at the mercy of those undead dickheads, all because of Shane.”

Daryl swiped my tear away with his thumb. “That’s not the only reason ya don’t like him though, is it?”

I shook my head. “Shane’s not the hero everyone wants him to be.” That was all I was willing to say. “We should check those traps you laid last time.” I stood up and brushed off my jeans. Wiping my face clear of the angst that I let out, I started off toward where we had been heading to begin with.

TWO DAYS LATER

“Damn it, Daryl.” I groaned quietly. “That deer is fucking gone.”

He glared back at me and pointed down at the tracks he was following, and had been for MILES. “It ain’t gone, Jess.” His words came out through gritted teeth.

Guess our honeymoon phase was over, I nearly giggled at the thought. The only thing stopping the laughter was a pissed off redneck with a loaded crossbow. “Tree line’s thinning,” I offered quietly. I saw him nod. I was certain we were nearly back at camp. I truly hoped that damn deer was waiting for us.

Daryl crossed into the open first, me being several feet behind him. From his tone, I could tell that sunshine and daisies didn’t await us. I heard fussing and kicking, then I was briefly blinded by the full sunlight as I crossed over from the trees to the clearing.

“It’s gotta be the brain. Don’t y’all know nothing?” He was griping. “Lost the damn deer to this piece of shit, Jess. Can ya believe that?”

I shook my head, trying to blink out the bright light and let my eyes readjust. Then I was engulfed in familiar strong arms and I gasped. “Dad?” I asked, pulling back to look up at him. “Daddy?” I launched myself back against his chest, feeling all of my pent up fear and guilt surrounding his fate go.

“Jessi.” He sighed into my hair. “Oh, baby girl, I got so worried when I got here yesterday and you weren’t here.” He pulled back to run his hands over my sweaty face. “Thank God.” He kissed my forehead. “Thank God you’re all OK.”

I heard Daryl stomping back toward camp, reassuring everyone that even without the deer we’d managed to get a dozen squirrels. He was shouting for Merle when I felt Dad tense up. “What’s wrong, Dad?” I asked, seeing guilt flash across his face. “Dad, did something happen to Merle?”

He sighed and pulled me along with the rest back to camp. The fallout came when they told Daryl. Dad’s decision to handcuff Merle to a roof, then T-Dog losing the key to the cuffs, leaving him behind with a horde running loose was barbaric even for Merle. Soon Daryl was demanding to be let to go find his brother, and my dad, T-Dog, and Glenn were planning a return trip.

Dad came to me to try to explain. He’d noticed my sleeping arrangements, and unlike Shane, he didn’t seem to give much of a damn. He was curious, clearly, but we had plenty more worries that were more demanding. Such as Merle’s condition.

“Dad,” I stopped him before he tried to give his reasoning. “ I know that you had a reason, I do. You need to understand that Daryl ONLY has Merle. While Merle can be TOO much for everyone else, Daryl needs him. Hell, the two of them adopted me while you were-” I stopped and gulped for air at the memory. “Promise me something?”

“Anything, baby girl.” He answered without hesitation.

“Keep him safe.” I saw his eyebrow raise. “Daryl, Dad, the others don’t see it, but he’s a good one.”

Hugging me again, he whispered his promise against my temple as he kissed me goodbye.

“Keep yourself safe, too, Dad. I just got you back.” I felt him chuckle as he released me.

“I’ll do my best, Jessi.” He smiled and we walked back to the truck where the others were waiting. Dad was kissing and assuring Lori and Carl about this dangerous new mission.

Daryl was pacing like a caged animal. “Hey.” I called to him, he glared down at me, but I took no offense. He was glaring at EVERYONE. “Don’t do anything stupid.” I forced him to stop moving by grabbing his hand. Startled by the contact, he stilled. “I mean it, Dixon. Come back safe. Find Merle, give him an ass chewing, and come back safe.” I was glaring up at him. He gave a curt nod and I felt my chest untighten. “Good. Glenn, T-Dog? Stay safe.” They smiled at me, but my hand was still holding Daryl’s. I gave it a squeeze then released him.

The truck had barely left when Shane confronted me by the Dixons’ tents. “You going to tell him?” He asked, hovering over me where I sat checking my arrows’ conditions. “About-”

“About you and Lori?” I asked, ignoring his oppressive presence. “Or about my graduation party?” I glanced up at him and was gratified to see him growing pale. “You and Lori can decide whether or not to tell him. As for the party? TBD.”

He stomped away and I hoped that would be the end of our cozy little chats for a while.

 

JUNE 2009~ JESSICA’S GRADUATION PARTY

I’d been so excited for the party to celebrate my graduation. Dad was beaming, telling anyone who’d listen about his Valedictorian daughter who got a full ride to college. Lori, who might not be the world’s greatest cook, was a damn fine party planner. And Carl was so excited to see me get my diploma, followed by an abundance of food and cake, plus he was telling everyone how much he was looking forward to visiting me at Agnes Scott. An ALL GIRL’S school he kept telling everyone, like I was going to magic school.

Yet, after the cake and presents, I had started to feel a little let down. It wasn’t my family, our house, or even the guests. I was just getting worried that maybe I’d peaked. Being at the top of the food chain in high school was one thing, but college? I’d never been the new girl before. I was feeling vulnerable and took myself inside to sit at the top of the stairway.

Shane, like a shark can scent blood in the water, picked up on my vulnerability. As the 18 year old daughter of his oldest friend, I should have been an obvious off limits choice. Yet, that night, he’d found me and decided to make a move.

“This is your party, sweetheart.” He had said, as he sat down beside me too close. His jean clad leg rubbing against my bare leg and knee where my dress didn’t cover. “You look insecure up here, that isn’t the Jessica Grimes I know.” His hand moved to cup my knee.

I shifted, trying to dislodge his hold, but he wasn’t taking the hint. “I’m fine.” I answered, thinking that rejoining the party was the best idea I could have. “I needed a break, I should be heading back.” His hand moved up to my neck from my knee.

“Why don’t you let me help you relax a little bit, Jessi.” My family called me Jessi, it felt dirty on his lips. He moved his head forward as he turned my face to his, and I was so shocked I couldn’t stop him. His mouth attacked mine and I moved my hands to push on his chest, trying to get him to release me. He laughed, the bastard, and breathed against my lips, “I like a little fight in a girl.” So I gave him one. Taking a hand away from his chest as his mouth attacked mine again, I punched him in the crotch. I felt him groan and yank away from me. “You little bitch.”

“Fucking pig,” I whispered, only just stopping myself from spitting the taste of him back at him. “I should tell Dad.” I saw him flinch through the pain of his battered manhood to the thought of my dad knowing. “And I will, but not tonight. Stay the fuck away from me, Shane!” I bit out, rushing down the stairs to find something to wash the vile taste of him from my mouth.

Chapter Text

Shane the hero strikes again, I scoffed to myself. He had pounded our resident asshole Ed to a bloody pulp. No one likes Ed, hell I’m not entirely sure his wife and daughter like the man, so none of us were surprised that SOMEONE finally gave in to the urge to make his lights go out. All the fat dickhead did was bitch and moan, boss his wife and daughter around, and sit on his lazy ass. Perhaps if anyone else had done it, but no, it was Shane.

I’d witnessed the tense conversation between Lori and him. I knew personally how well Shane took rejection. My only wonder was whether Ed was surrogate for Lori, or my dad.

Carol took the beaten and cowering Ed away to deal with his mess of a face. I was certain she had more personal knowledge of how to deal with a beating than any of us, and it sickened me. Carol was a good person, one that didn’t get added to my least annoying list only because she wasn’t allowed to interact with me, or any of us outside of chores. It’s somewhat hard to get a good handle on a person if they can’t seem to make eye contact with you. I’d done some volunteer work at a women’s shelter while at school. I’d seen the same haunted look in most of the women and children’s eyes that I could see in Carol’s. I could tell that her hair was buzzed off because it gave him less chance to grab her hair and yank her to him when he was pissed. I knew, because I’d seen other women do the same. And I watched them, impotent to stop them, go right back to the Eds in their lives.

While all the excitement was happening beside the quarry, Amy and Andrea were on Dale’s boat fishing. Color me shocked when they decided to do it, since I hadn’t seen that either of them were proficient in more than laundry and passable at dinner prep. Hell, Andrea kept a gun on her that her dad had given her and she didn’t seem to realize that every time she acted like she’d use it the damn safety was still on. My dad always told Carl and me that anyone who hadn’t been properly trained in the use of a gun, shouldn’t have access to one. While I didn’t take it from her, I also didn’t tell her that she couldn’t shoot it with the safety on. I kept Carl from being helpful, too. And Amy, well we were close in age, but that’s where the similarities ended. She was blonde and a bit too sweet for our new reality.

I was truly surprised when the two of them came back with a cache of fish. Wow, I thought, who knew that the two of them would prove useful. I knew that Andrea had gone with the others on that horrible supply run that ended up bringing my dad back while leaving Merle to die, but from what I could gather, the only help she gave came after Dad showed her how to turn the safety off. Honestly, Dad, don’t you ever remember the lessons you taught your own children?

While they prepped the fish, I went back to the Dixon tents and tidied up. I didn’t even notice the hysteria that Jim’s hole digging caused. I guess Shane didn’t want to have another conversation with me about any danger.

That night, with Dad and the others still away, all hell broke loose. By the time Dad, Daryl, Glenn, and T-Dog arrived, the worst of it had happened. Not the killing of the dead, but the attack that left three of ours dead or with dead looming ever closer. Ed died almost immediately, though his screams will stay with me forever. Amy was attacked and held on, Andrea clutching her even with her knowing the inevitable. Jim, however, came as a shock. He hadn’t made a sound, so finding out he’d been bitten was horrifying. Dad and Daryl nearly came to blows over what to do, and then we started to pack up camp.

It was a whirlwind. Burning the dead, burying our loved ones, and finding out that part of our group was leaving the rest of us. We headed to the CDC. Daryl was getting into his truck when I was faced with another choice. Easy, just like the choice of whose tent to stay in. I could ride with Shane, since he was alone in the jeep, or ask Daryl to let me ride with him. Dad and Lori were packed in with Carl, Carol, and Sofia. I could have fit, but that was cramped and I didn’t like the chances that it wouldn’t get a little miserable. Daryl it was.

“Hey.” I said, walking up to him. “Mind if I ride with you?” I could see him weighing his options, something he’d never really done with me before. “It’s you or Shane.” I said, pleading with him silently.

“Sure.” He grunted, opening the door and gesturing for me to climb in. I tossed my bags in the back, but kept my bow with me. We got into the line of vehicles leaving and I settled in for a quiet ride. A short way out, he spoke again. “I don’t blame ya for what your dad did.”

I looked over at his profile, he was still tense, but I knew that him and my dad would have quite a while before this blew over. “Thanks, I guess.” I answered, turning to watch out the windshield as he drove. “You don’t know him, but my dad, he does what he thinks is best. Always. He’s one of those overly moral people, I think.”

Daryl snorted, and I understood. What kind of man is so moral he leaves another trapped on a roof with no water or food? One who thought the others were in danger from that man, I answered myself. Dad didn’t know Merle. He didn’t know the type of man he really was, and while I didn’t approve of his ideals, or his bigotry, I knew that he loved to read. When he’d seen the books I’d brought, he’d asked if he could borrow one. He ran through them faster than even I did. And the things he knew, like really knew, would have shocked everyone in camp. Everyone except me and Daryl, actually. Was he an asshole? Yes. Was he hateful and mean? Sure, sometimes. It doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything to offer, but why would that matter when people like Andrea “I don’t know what the safety on the gun is” are around and don’t like him?

“Do you think going to the CDC is a good idea?” I asked, figuring Daryl would have an opinion at least. “Or is it a wild goose chase?”

He studied the road, the skyline, seeing more than I ever would. “I think we should have a go and see approach.” His blue eyes wandered back to mine, and he gave a half smile. “Beats being back there waitin’ for them to come to us.”

I chuckled and we rode on in silence until our caravan stopped. Jim wasn’t doing well, he knew he was dying. Having the RV steaming hot, gave him the time he needed to ask to be left behind. Dad, always thinking of the person inside of the dying, tried to give him a gun. Ending his own suffering, that sounds lovely, I thought. Jim, being the considerate man who had dug all those grave-like holes back at camp, declined. And so we left him in the shade, to die, but not really die. I shivered, after saying goodbye, knowing what Jim was in for. Would we see him again? Part of the ever growing hordes, coming closer and closer, trying to bite and kill us for our sympathy?

Daryl and I climbed back in the truck. Dad asked if I was sure I didn’t want to get in the RV with Jacqui and the others, but I shook my head. “I’m good, Dad.” I said, smiling at him through the open window. “We’ll be right behind you.”

The weirdest parade I’d ever been a part of restarted and we headed back into the city. To the CDC, for a cure that I’m not sure any of us really believe existed.

 

HOURS LATER

Dad managed to convince the only remaining doctor at the CDC to give us refuge. Dr. Jenner, there was something a little off about the man, but I figured hot showers, real food, and sleep in a bed were worth giving him a pass for being an odd duck all alone in this massive building.

Taking my first shower in what felt like years, but apparently was only two months, was like heaven on earth. And then dinner, with wine? Seriously, is this even reality? Before I could head to my room, Daryl stopped me.

“Hey, Jess?” He wasn’t looking at me, but he was gnawing on the side of his thumb. That was the tell for him being nervous and uncertain. “Look, I know we got our own rooms and all, but-”

I understood. He was used to sharing space with me, and this was the strangest day we’d had so far. “Sure, let me grab my pillow.” I smiled, and ducked into the room I had been offered. Grabbing the pillow off the small bed, I wondered how we’d manage to make it work in his room. I shrugged and came out to meet him in the hallway. “Where did you pick?”

Daryl had picked the room farthest from everyone. Of course, it was a Dixon trait after all. I followed him inside and saw that he’d picked a double room. I didn’t actually need the pillow, but was happy to have it anyway. “Figured,” his voice would always sound rough, I knew, because he barely used it, “if you’d agree, you’d want your own bed.”

I smiled up at him. “We would have figured it out, Daryl, one way or another.” I reached for his hand and felt his fingers link with mine. I wondered if he felt that weird tingle like I did anytime one of us touched the other. Well, anytime I touched him. He’d only done it once, in the woods when he brushed my tears away. I bit my lip and realized neither of us was moving. “Should we-” I gestured to the beds.

I saw him swallow hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Then I was reaching up and he was bending down and his lips brushed mine. I felt fire rush through me. I was hot all over, and he was barely even kissing me. My hand released his and then both of mine found his head, holding him to me. I deepened the kiss, needing him more than I could articulate. I felt his hands fall to the small of my back and he pulled my body flush against his. If I had expected Daryl to fight against what I was feeling, it was a foolish expectation.

Our lips pulled apart only when breathing became necessary. His eyes locked on mine, and I saw how dark they’d grown. How had I never seen it? Never realized how he felt, how I felt? Daryl Dixon would always see everything and I’d always be playing catch up.

“Damn, girl, that was a long time comin’.” He whispered, his breath fanning across my swollen lips. His hands were rubbing my lower back, still keeping a respectable distance from anything too forward.

“Worth the wait?” I asked, licking my bottom lip.

He chuckled and swayed with me in his arms. “Yeah, worth the wait.” He was smiling and I would kill to see it more often. “We don’t have to-” he stopped, and glanced at the beds.

“I know we don’t have to, Daryl,” I whispered. “We haven’t even though we’ve been sharing space for what, two months now?” I smiled up at him. “That was the longest courting ritual I’ve ever heard about.”

His smile held. “Courtin’? Nah, I just figured that you wouldn’t want me to try nothin’. After all, you’re a college girl.”

I rolled my eyes. “What made you decide to take the chance, Dixon?” I asked, running my fingers through his short hair.

“You picked riding with me, even after your dad asked if you wanted to ride with Dale.” He said, pulling a hand away from my back and running it along my cheek. “I can understand ya not wantin’ to ride with Shane, but Dale? Hell, he ain’t so bad.”

“Picking you made you take a shot, huh?” I cupped his cheek in my own hand. “Well, thank God I decided to ride with you instead of squeezing in with Dad and the family.”

We pulled apart and sat down on the closest bed. He pulled my back against his chest and just held me. “Mean it though, we don’t gotta do nothin’. Not tonight, not until you’re sure.” I smiled at the sensitivity that the man everyone saw as a ruffnut redneck was showing me. “Now that I know ya want me, I can wait forever if I have to.”

I turned my head so I could listen to the steady beat of his heart. Steady and sure, just like the man it belonged to. “We could force these two small beds together and sleep together. Really sleep, for now.” I offered, and felt him tighten his grip around me. “Unless you don’t want to.”

He nearly groaned. “Course I want to.” He let me go so we could stand up and get to work. “Don’t think these are bolted down,” He said, looking at the legs of the small bed. “Let’s slide this one over to that one,” he was pointing at the one we’d sat on. “Further from the door, so we can see anyone comin’ inside.” Ever vigilant, I thought.

We worked quickly, pulling the beds together and working so the sheets and blankets over lapped. I tossed the extra pillow in the middle and we had a pretty decent sized bed. I smiled up at him and pulled down my jeans. My boyshort panties and tank would have to do for pajamas, since I didn’t plan on searching for any others. I watched as he tugged his own off, leaving just a t-shirt and his briefs. “You want inside or outside?” I asked, since part of our bed was against the wall.

“You take the wall, and I’ll be on the edge.” He answered, just like I figured he would. He’d stand against the world for people he cared about.

I crawled into the bed, lifting our combined covers up and sliding inside. I rolled over and watched him lay down beside me. He rolled to face me, and we laid together for a beat, just taking in this new evolution to our relationship. My hand came up first, brushing the few strands of hair away from his forehead, so I could get a better view. My fingertips traced the planes of his face, touching his lips. Why didn’t anyone SEE Daryl? This Daryl. The softness of him, the beauty.

I felt his hand copy mine. It was like we’d never taken the time to appreciate one another, and I guess we hadn’t. “How old are you, Daryl?” I asked, because to me his face was timeless.

His chuckle vibrated against my fingertips. “Probably closer to your dad’s age than yours.” He nearly pulled away, breaking the spell we’d fallen into. I wouldn’t let him.

“I only asked because I can’t tell.” I said, holding onto his hand in mine. Keeping it on my face. “Sometimes it’s like you're older, and sometimes it’s like you’re my age.” My hand on top of his was feeling the strength, the calluses of his fingers were more proof. “You know I don’t have daddy issues, Daryl, so age doesn’t make a difference to me.”

“Bet your dad won’t agree on that one.” He replied, but didn’t try to fight against his urge to touch me. “Bet the whole damn group won’t like this one little bit.”

I scoffed. “Since when do we care about the group and what they think?” I did have a pang at the thought that my dad wouldn’t like this. I loved my dad and I craved his approval, which came so easily, but would he be angry about us? Would he hurt Daryl? I shook off the worry. “Don’t talk yourself out of this, Daryl, you just talked yourself into.” I smiled at him and moved the hand holding his to run down his arm. “You are one of my favorite people in this world, Dixon. You have been since the very first time you spoke to me, and spoke up for me.”

His smile had me knowing that he remembered the time as well as I did. “Had to,” he answered, following my lead to touch my bare arm. “Just cause you only had archery during summer camp didn’t mean ya didn’t know nothin’. And Merle was outta line when he called ya that.” I felt his fingertips run up my arm and across my collarbone. “Your skin is so fuckin’ soft.”

And hot, I thought, feeling the heat building with his touch. “And yours is,” I tested his skin, tracing the tattoos I found along my way. “Pretty damn amazing, taunt and strong.” I bit my lip, and saw his attention focus on my mouth again. “Gonna make me beg, Daryl?” I breathed, and then his lips met mine. Searing hot, as his tongue slid inside for a taste. My hands forgot their route, and clutched at his head again, rolling myself onto my back and pulling him along with me. Feeling his weight fall over me, I arched up into him. I could feel how aroused he was, and I hoped he knew that I was too. I rocked against his hardness, and felt my dampness grow.

“We shouldn’t,” he whispered against my mouth, even as he dived in again. I nipped his bottom lip and he fed me his moan. My tongue flicked against his, begging without words for us to keep going. He pulled back, keeping our foreheads together, but letting us catch our breath. “Not tonight, Jess.” He rolled over while I stared at the ceiling for a moment.

I moved over to rest my head on his chest. His heart was beating as fast as mine, and I knew he was being noble, because I knew he wanted me as much as I wanted him. I felt his arm wrap around me, holding me to him, and his lips kissed my forehead. “You’re more moral and protective than most of our group, Daryl Dixon.” I giggled, feeling his arm clutch against me. “And I think I may be in love with you.”

I felt the breath leave him. “You think you are?” He whispered and I nodded. “Jessica I’m already there. I love you.” I moved to hold his hand, feeling his fingers automatically link with mine. “Think I’ve been in love with ya since the first time I seen ya.” He chuckled and I felt the rumble through my place on his chest. “Merle knew, hell he teased me somethin’ terrible. Just didn’t think you’d feel the same.”

“For a guy who sees so damn much, I’m pretty sure you’re blind.” I said, voice muffled against his shirt. “Pretty sure I feel the same, I’ve just never felt this way before.” I shrugged. “And what girl wouldn’t fall for someone like you? You’re amazing, Daryl.” I propped my chin up on his chest to look up at him. “Loving you is going to be as simple for me as breathing. That’s something Dad told Lori when they got married,” I smiled at the memory. “I never understood it until you.”

“Jess, I want ya to know that you can tell me anythin’.” Daryl said, caressing my face with his hand that I’d been holding. “Anythin’. And I plan on telling ya everythin’. No matter how painful.”

I nodded, knowing what he meant. He wanted to know what happened with Shane. “Not tonight?” I pleaded, thinking we needed one night to get used to being together. “Let’s just sleep and then we’ll share everything, OK?”

“It’s a deal.” He said, kissing my head again. He turned off the lights and held me as we fell into the first real sleep either of us had had since this nightmare began.

 

TWO MONTHS EARLIER~ GIVE OR TAKE

I stomped away from the others, bow in my hand feeling like kicking something or someone. Shane’s smug face came to mind. As I neared the forest, I felt the tickle against my skin that told me I wasn’t alone. I turned, ready to smack the asshole’s face finally, when I was confronted by the two loners of our group. Dixon brothers, rough around the edges and everywhere in between.

“Heard what you said back there, little girl.” The oldest, Merle said, nodding back toward camp. “What’s a hot piece of coed ass like you know about bows and arrows? Did ya play a lot of cowboys and indians when ya were growing up? Wouldn’t mind a round of cowboy and cowgirl with you, myself.”

“Damn it, Merle, stop your shit.” The other one, Daryl growled, glaring at his brother. “Let’s see what ya can do.” He motioned toward a target I had been approaching.

Shrugging and not fearing turning my back to the two of them, I was armed after all, I notched an arrow and let it fly. Dead center, right where it was supposed to go. I turned back and saw Daryl’s first half grin. And my only thought at that moment was that he was going to ruin my world. Because Daryl Dixon was beautiful, he was my light in the darkness. And I was fairly certain, as he looked at his brother and told him I could be an asset to their hunting party, he only saw me as a little girl who could shoot a bow.

Chapter Text

Waking up in Daryl’s arms made the rest of the shitstorm of our day almost worth it. Almost because that was the day we all nearly REALLY died. We should have LISTENED to Dr. Jenner when he said the doors wouldn’t reopen. We should have listened to the tiny little voice in all our heads screaming that this was too easy, too safe, too good to be true. We didn’t, which is how we all nearly blew the hell up.

Thank God Dad had that fucking granade. Thank God that Daryl can scare damn near anyone into opening most things up. And thank God that I wasn’t as stupid as Jacqui and Andrea. I think Dale’s made a horrible mistake saving Andrea. She wanted to die? Then let her. I don’t care what he sees in her. I see a problem that’s going to bite us all in the ass sooner or later.

After Dr. Jenner did a little audio visual of the virus that creates walkers, he basically tossed out the fact that the entire building was set to self destruct. The asshole did warn us not to come in, but still, my baby brother and Sofia shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of fucking fear. Wasn’t the fear of dying by a walker bad enough? Now they wouldn’t trust anyone. Asshole. Luckily we made it. With one that didn’t want to live, and a shit ton of us that did.

Daryl decided to ditch the truck, so it was the choice between curling my body tight against his on the bike, or the RV with whiny Andrea and Shane. Difficult choices. Riding away from the wreckage of the CDC, I clutched at Daryl’s hard abdomen and felt him twitch under my touch. “Does this bother you?” I asked in loud enough for him to hear me. My fingers tightened against him and I felt him inhale deeply. “Should I stop?”

“Only if you don’t want me to wreck us.” He laughed back at me. “Feels amazin’, Jess, but dying before we get to experience the entire thing might suck.”

I grinned into the wings on his vest. “I love you, Daryl Dixon.” I shouted, not caring if anyone heard, because we survived and had another day together.

“I love ya, too, baby girl.” He said back, weaving through the roads as we headed for whatever we’d come to next.

 

HOURS LATER~ CAR CLOGGED FREEWAY

What we came to next was a clogged highway with too many cars and not enough space for the RV to find a path. Daryl and I scouted ahead, must to my dad’s worry, but finding that we could move further was at least worth it.

We came back to relay the information and the decision was made to raid the cars for supplies before moving them out of the way. Of course a horde of the creepy crawlies found us. Carl, being sensible for his age, stayed put under the car Lori hid him under. Sofia, didn’t. Well, shit.

T-Dog had a horrible cut. Daryl was pissed off at the entire situation, and now Dad had run off to find Sofia. Daryl looked at me and I rushed to his side. “Should I go after them?” He whispered when I got close.

I shook my head. “No, Dad will come ask if he can’t find her.” I was sure of it. He’d been right behind her, so he should have found her and be out in minutes. The time ticked by and I was growing worried. I was about to tell Daryl that we should go in, when Dad came out-alone.

“Daryl?” He asked, and Daryl walked to him. I followed. “No, honey, not you.” I started to protest, but Daryl agreed. Well what the hell? “I need Daryl to track her. You need to stay here and keep everyone calm.” What about Shane, I thought.

“OK, Dad.” I looked at Daryl and wanted so badly to grab him and kiss him. And make him promise to stay safe and keep my dad safe. Instead I touched his hand. He nodded at me. “Stay safe.” It was a blanket statement, for the two of them. And then they disappeared back into the forest.

Carol was understandably upset, and Lori and Shane were tiptoeing around one another. I worked to keep everyone calm, and keep an eye on Carl. He was adamant that he should have a weapon, and I agreed with him. Just not on the type of weapon he wanted. He wasn’t ready for a gun, I told him, not yet. Why not find something stabby? And he nearly got eaten to find one. Then Lori and Shane argued about whether he could keep one or not. For fuck’s sake.

A full night and no Sofia. Dad and Daryl returned, Daryl checking on Carol in the RV and trying to maintain some kind of certainty in the uncertainty. I’d found a spacious minivan and when I tucked the seats down, I had a pretty decent bed. I grabbed my sleeping bag from the Jeep Dad was driving and made a nice little bed. I figured Daryl would keep his distance, since Dad and Lori were sleeping nearby, but he surprised me, tapping on the window as I was looking at the stars through the open sunroof. I smiled and opened the hatchback.

“Thought I’d join ya for a bit.” He whispered, crawling inside and over top of me. “Feels like forever since I’ve kissed ya.” His lips met mine and I sighed in agreement.

Soon the van was steamed up, even with the opening in the roof. I was clutching at his back, his mouth hungry against mine. God in heaven, if I died like that, I would have died happy. He pulled back, too soon for my liking, and smiled down at me. Even sweaty and dirty from the road and the swamp, he was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.

“Ya don’t honestly think our first go is gonna be in a minivan, do ya?” He chuckled and rolled off of me to lay beside me. He pulled me against him, so he could hold me again. “Nah, girl, our first time’s gotta be memorable.”

I giggled. “Pretty sure every time will be memorable with you, Daryl.” My head was in the crook of his arm and I felt his lips on my forehead. “What do you have planned for our first time?” I asked, wanting a better version of a bedtime story.

He sighed and shifted so we were face to face. “Our first time should be under the stars.” He whispered, brushing my errant hair away from my face. “Cause they’re the only thing that can compare to how beautiful you are to me.” I smiled, who knew he had a poet’s heart? “So, somewhere with soft grass, even with this damn sleepin’ bag I want ya to have some cushion under ya. A cool breeze, because you’re skin and mine, together, feels like fire.” I nodded, swallowing at the picture he was painting for me. “And I want to see all of ya. Every tiny bit, and I want ya to see me. We’ll need a full moon for that.” I was drifting off as he continued. “We’re gonna need a long night, cause I don’t wanna have to stop for the sunrise.”

 

 

I woke up alone and groaned. I hated this nonsense. I heard the others talking outside, so I refolded my bag and tossed it back inside the Jeep. Stretching I felt his eyes on me. I looked up and sure enough, he was standing with Dad, but watching me like he would prey. I smiled and walked over to join them.

Dad kissed my temple almost absently, but included me in the planning. Everyone was searching today. Grid search, I asked, and he confirmed. OK, I thought, we’d all participated in one of those back home. Even Carl had, because Dad was absolutely certain every hand on deck meant every hand on deck. Once everyone had a part, me with Daryl thank God, we started off. T-Dog and Dale were staying back, to work on the RV and to keep an eye on things. Andrea, gun toting idiot, was giving Dale sass for saving her, sass for refusing her gun rights, and sass for everything that her life didn’t offer. I rolled my eyes.

Shane, Dad, and Carl were together and I was worried. That wasn’t a good idea. Not even close. When we heard the pealing of the bells, everyone’s hope grew. It wasn’t what we’d hoped for, the church held nothing but dead inside and an electronic timed bell outside. After we killed the dead and Daryl checked things out, Carol took a moment to get right with God, I thought about how my life could have been if the world hadn’t turned to shit.

Would I have met Daryl? Would our paths have ever crossed? I would have been attracted to him, of that I was certain. Every girl has a type, right? Well, he was definitely mine. I hadn’t dated much, remember I had to fight for summer camp, but when I had, there was a certain roughness to the guys I preferred. Men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Men who could hold their own anywhere, but also had a softer side. Sure, I was usually one of the few who could see that side, but knowing it was there was enough. So, Daryl would have been my type no matter what, but would we have met? I glanced up at Jesus on the cross and felt the most peace I’d felt for months. And that was my answer. Yes. We would have.

I met everyone outside as we waited for Carol. Shane, my dad, and Carl were going further on, but the rest of us were heading back to the vehicles and preparing for what comes next. Daryl and I rolled our eyes at Andrea’s bitchiness toward Lori having a gun when she didn’t, and I nearly high-fived my stepmom when she offered it to her and told everyone off for being irritable with Dad. I agreed with her, and dared Andrea to come at me.

“If you’d stop being so pissed about being alive,” I glared at the blonde, “you’d realize that you can totally die out here, all alone, and I’d happily leave your ass laying.” I offered, raising my bow as I felt Daryl’s hand on my arm.

She glared back at me and stomped off back in the direction we’d started from. Bitch. Lori looked at me like I was a stranger, but you know what? I didn’t care. We had enough trouble without a bitch with a deathwish. Daryl and I kept the group moving and he tried to keep me calm. I was tired of it. Her attitude with Dale, her irritation with the rest of us. And why? Because she was useless in this world? Well, fuck you and toughen up. I kept going, eyes alert even if I was angry. I felt Lori come up beside me, but before she could say a word we heard the gunshot. Fear clutched my heart, a chill ran up my spin and I prayed that I wouldn’t lose one of my family members.

We waited a beat, before Daryl had us crossing a meadow, then a woman appeared on a horse with a baseball bat screaming Lori and my names. We looked up at her as Daryl held her in his sights on the crossbow. She was making little sense, but we heard Dad’s name and Carl’s then Lori climbed on the horse and I ran beside it. I glanced back at Daryl and I knew he understood. My family needed me. God, please don’t take them.

Chapter Text

GREENE FARM~THAT EVENING

The good news? No one was dead, yet. The better news, for my dad at least? That I was the same blood type as both him and Carl. The bad news? My little brother had been shot. A hunting accident if you can believe it. The poor hunter, a man named Otis, looked as though he wished it were him. And if you listened to Lori, she did.

I winced as the ‘nurse’ stabbed the needle into my vein. Shit, that burned. “It’ll take a few minutes, hon.” She offered, as the blood began flowing out of me. She was Otis’ wife, and I felt for both of them. No one wanted to hurt a child, not even by accident, especially now.

I nodded. “Thank you.” I said, sitting still as the blood came out of me at a steady flow. She looked surprised at my gratitude. “You’re trying to save my brother,” I offered a weak smile. “So thank you.” Hershel had walked to the outer room to speak with my parents. Dad looked like death, they’d taken so much of his blood already, so I was happy to give him a break. Carl was laying on the bed, so still and quiet, so unlike my little brother. I took his hand in mine, the one not connected to the needle. I felt his hand clutch at mine and I knew he felt me. “Carl, you’ve got to fight, but not the doctor.” I knew he had, I heard about it. “He needs to save you, do you hear me? I won’t let you go, baby brother.” I felt the tears fall from my eyes and heard the discussion of when the rest of our group would arrive, but it was like a static filled channel.

“I think you’ve given your limit,” the older farmer and doctor said, tugging the needle from my arm. I’d fallen asleep with my head on Carl’s sick bed, his hand still clutched in mine. “I think your daddy wants to speak to you, young lady.” His smile was kind and so were his eyes.

I nodded, and stood up, feeling dizzy almost immediately. “Thank you.” I offered weakly, as I felt someone’s arms help me out of the room. I looked up and groaned. Shane, of course. “That thank you was to the good doctor, not you.” I spat, letting him take me to Dad and Lori.

They had been given a room of their own, and Shane knew me well enough to not start something I didn’t want to hear. Especially since I now looked the same as Dad had when we’d arrived. In my parents’ room, there was a sandwich and glass of milk waiting for me. Dad moved forward to hug me to him. And then Lori’s arms joined his. I felt like a baby, like a toddler when I was scared of the sound of the storms outside and they’d had to comfort me.

“He’ll be alright, Jessi.” Dad whispered in my hair. “He will.” I was shaking, even I could feel how badly.

“And you’re helping so much, Jess.” Lori added, gripping me tighter. “The fact that you and Rick have the same blood type, that’s so helpful, honey.”

They pulled me to a chair and sat me down. Handing me the sandwich on a plate and the glass of milk they waited until some of my color returned. Once I felt a little steadier, I realized that Shane was still in the room. I sat down my dinner and asked about the elephant in the room.

“What’s going on?” I asked, seeing them share a look. “What’s wrong?”

Lori sighed and Dad looked like he’d rather be on the moon. “Carl is gonna need to be sedated, Jessi.” Dad said, looking like he was breaking apart slowly. “Hershel isn’t sure he’ll be still enough without it.”

I nodded showing that I understood. “He doesn’t have all the supplies he needs here. Someone has to go fetch them, if they’re even available anymore.” Lori said, managing only just to hold back tears.

Another nod from me. “Shane and Otis are gonna head out and try to get what Hershel tells them to, but we have to tell you that there’s a chance-”

I stopped that shit right there. “No.” I said, shaking my head. “There’s not a chance, Dad. It will work. Otis and Shane are going to find what he needs and Hershel will fix him.” I was glaring at my parents, daring them to contradict me. “You came back from the DEAD, Daddy. I won’t even pretend like Carl won’t do the same.” The thought that my baby brother wouldn’t make it? That couldn’t even be considered. It would be like losing Daryl. Or Dad. Or Lori even. Not imaginable.

Shane was nodding and I wanted to throw my sandwich and glass at him. Fuck you and just get it done, I thought. I knew why he was doing it. He wanted Lori’s gratitude and her hero worship back. Screw that, I didn’t care. He better take Otis and find whatever medical stuff that Hershel required to fix my baby brother, or else.

 

HOURS LATER~SHANE’S RETURN WITHOUT OTIS

While Shane and Otis were gone, Dad and Lori took my place at Carl’s bedside. They insisted that I get rest. Since I was blood bag B, and Dad was blood bag A I agreed. Sleep came, mostly because donating as much blood as physically possible without death was a great sleep aid. Good to know. I woke up to the sounds of Shane’s return. He was alone and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Otis wasn’t just dead, he was sacrificed.

Shane wouldn’t want to share the glow of triumph, nah that wasn’t his style. When he went to the bathroom to shower, I went to find my dad. He told me quietly what happened, then told me to be on standby, since our services might still be needed. He also warned me that no one had told Patricia, the nurse and Otis’ wife, since she was definitely needed.

When the surgery was over, my parents and I stepped into the room. My God, had Carl always been so small? His personality was always so big and full of energy that seeing him lying on the bed after his operation made my heart hurt. Dad took the chair I’d sat on earlier, and Lori pulled on to the foot of the bed. I stood between the two of them, while Dad tried to eat a sandwich. He told us stories about Shane and him as children, and I fought to stay composed. Luckily they were both so focused on Carl that I didn’t have to shield my facial expressions as much as normal.

Shane walked in a bit later, sporting a dead man’s clothes and new buzzcut. I eyed him suspiciously and felt vindicated by his careful avoidance of my gaze. Must suck, I thought, knowing that at least one person in the group could see straight through your bullshit. We maintained a family vigil, until Hershel insisted that Lori and Dad get some rest. I think he knew I was a lost cause and he shooed Shane out as well. I took Dad’s seat after he and Lori kissed me goodnight. Taking my baby brother’s hand in mine again, I sat at his side until he woke up.

“Jessi?” I heard his hoarse voice and saw the sunlight streaming through the lace curtains. I looked up from where my head had fallen in sleep on his bed, again. He was awake. Thank God.

“Hey, little brother.” I whispered, happy that I could see him awake. “Don’t move, kid.” He’d started to twist. “You were shot, Carl. So take a rest, would you?” He chuckled and held a hand to his bandage. “Do you hurt? Should I go get Hershel?”

“Who?” He asked, inquisitive little brother back again. “Is Dad here? Mom?”

I smiled, and ran my free hand through his damp hair. “Hershel is the doctor who saved you. Actually he’s a veterinarian.” I stopped and pretended to think about that. “I did always say you were a monkey, guess that’s proof.” He giggled and I went on to assure him. “Dad and your mom are here, soon everyone will be.” I smiled down at him as I stood. Dropping a kiss on his forehead, I offered to fetch Dad and Lori. His hand gripped mine for a moment, holding me still.

“Did they find Sofia?” He asked, so worried, and I knew he was because we’d all heard him calling her name.

I nodded, and turned away so he couldn’t see the guilt of the lie I was telling. “I”ll go get Dad and Lori, OK?” He released me and I rushed from the room.

I warned Dad and Lori of the lie I told. And I watched from the doorway as they went inside and saw for themselves that he was ok. Leaning on the frame, I watched my family interact, smiling at their ease of return to normal. Lori left to use give us some time alone and to check to see if the others had come yet. I laughed when my little brother said he and Dad were the same now that they’d both been shot.

“Yeah, I think your mother would rather hear we got the same eyes. So let’s keep that between us. Since you’re in the club now, you get to wear the hat. Didn’t you know? We’ll pad the rim tomorrow so it sits better.” They looked over to where I was still standing.

“Oh, I’m good.” I said, hands up. “I share your blood type, got the same color hair. That’s more than enough for me. I have enough holes without adding to the tally.” I came over to sit on the bed while they worked out Dad’s hat schedule.

“I love you two,” Dad said, holding Carl’s hand and reaching for mine. I gave it over willingly. “Y’all, and your mom,” he nodded at Carl, “are my world.”

“I love the two of you and Lori, too, Dad.” I answered, squeezing his hand. “Just do me a favor, you two?” They both looked at me. “No more gunshot wounds, please?” They rolled their eyes and chuckled. Standing I let them know I was going to check to see if everyone made their way to the farm. Dad stopped me before I could leave the room.

“Jessica, you don’t have to share a tent now.” The tone was clear, Dixon wasn’t needed for my comfort now.

“I know I don’t have to, Dad.” I said, turning to face him. “Maybe I just want to.” And on that note, I was gone. I loved the man, but I was an adult. And he’d have to come to terms with Daryl, sooner or later.

Later that day, Patricia requested that we put Otis’ memory to rest. Since we didn’t have a body, that seemed fair. I watched Shane’s obvious discomfort at being asked to relive Otis’ final moments, and make up what was clearly not the poor man’s last words. Oh, to pry open your rotten brain, I thought, and see for myself just what you did to that poor man. We all stacked rocks on a nice memorial pile, and then we began that difficult task of deciding whether or not to restart the search for Sofia.

Dad thinks we should, if only to put our minds to rest, a decision that Shane clearly disagrees with, since I see him trying to talk Dad out of it. I rolled my eyes as Maggie, the woman on the horse who found Lori and me and told the others how to find the farm, brought out a map to help the search. Daryl tried to talk me out of it, seeing how pale I still am, but I refused to listen. Sitting here and keeping Lori and Carl company doesn’t seem like much help.

Daryl was a little surprised when Dad sent the two of us off onto our own grid while he and Shane went to theirs. Walking through the forest, hearing Andrea bitching in her own grid, I asked Daryl the likelihood of Sofia surviving alone for this long in a walker-filled forest and swamp.
He smirks at me and I hold out my hand to him. Taking it, we walk hand in hand, eyes on the ground for signs of her passing through. “People get lost, they survive.” He raises my hand to his lips and kisses it. “Happens all the time.”

“She’s twelve.” I hear Andrea offer, from the left of us. Great, an audience.

“Hell, I was younger than her and I got lost. Nine days in the woods, eating berries, and wiping my ass on poison oak.” He laughed, letting our hands fall from view, but keeping mine linked with his.

Andrea came closer, and I was about to snark at her about the grid, but felt the urge fall away. “They found you?” She was curious clearly.

The gruff chuckle that Daryl gave made my stomach flip. “My dad was off on a bender with some waitress. Merle was doin’ another stint in juvie. Didn’t even know I was gone. I made my way back though. Went straight into the kitchen and made myself a sandwich. No worse for the wear. Except my ass itched somethin’ awful.”

Andrea laughed and I raised an eyebrow. Better than bitching, I thought. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, that is a terrible story.”

Daryl gave his own laugh and I joined in, it was pretty horrible. “Only difference is that Sofia has people lookin’ for her. I call that an advantage.”

I smiled up at him and squeezed his hand. Andrea drifted back to her grid, and I hoped that she hadn’t missed anything by coming over to ours. “She may have missed some signs,” I said quietly and he nodded.

“Yeah, but she stopped her complainin’.” He winked at me and I smiled.

 

THE NEXT DAY~GREENE FARM

Everyone is pissed because Hershel demanded that our group give over the weapons. I’m not sure why people don’t understand that it’s his land, his farm. He has the right to set the rules. I roll my eyes as Shane leads the vote of bitching and moaning about this newest issue. I see Daryl about to walk away, but rush up to join him.

“Want to come with me?” He asks, looking down at me from behind bangs that are starting to get unruly. I nod and he motions for me to come along.

Once we clear the treeline, I turn to him for a kiss. Searching for Sofia is important, I get that and so does he, but the lack of privacy in this damn place is killing me. He chuckles against my lips. I pull back and we continue along, looking for a new place to search.

The only thing we find is an abandoned house that looks like she might have been inside. Outside, Daryl is drawn to some pretty white flowers growing wild near the house. I stand beside him as he tells me the legend of the Cherokee Rose.

“It's a Cherokee Rose. The story is that when American soldiers were moving Indians off their land on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee mothers were grieving and crying so much 'cause they were losing their little ones along the way from exposure and disease and starvation. A lot of them just disappeared. So the elders, they said a prayer; asked for a sign to uplift the mothers' spirits, give them strength and hope. The next day this rose started to grow where the mothers' tears fell.” His voice is low and gruff, and I listen in silence. Placing my hands on his shoulders, and rubbing away the tension growing in his muscles. “That’s the story anyhow.”

“It’s beautiful,” I whisper, leaning down and kissing his neck. “You should take her one.” He cuts one off from the group and I look around for a suitable vase. Picking up a discarded bottle I hand it to him. “Tell Carol the story, Daryl. Give her some hope.”

He stood up and cupped my cheek in his free hand. “You’re sweeter than the rest think, Jessi.” Leaning forward his lips brush mine. “And that full moon night is comin’, soon I hope.” His smile lights up my day brighter than the sun shines.

“Let’s head back, Romeo.” I wink at him and our arms link together. How did I end up so damn lucky at the end of civilization?

Chapter Text

I left Daryl at the RV so he could give Carol her hope. I went in search of Dad or Lori. Lori was jumpy and weird, so I looked for Dad. Luckily him and Carl were together in the sickroom. I watched while they did hat related things. Fun.

Knocking on the open door, I grinned as they looked up at me. “Is this a ‘been shot, got the hat’ members only meeting? Or is there room for me, too?”

“Course there’s room for you, baby girl.” Dad said, patting the bed for me to come sit. Carl was grinning and looking more like himself.

I sat and smiled at my baby brother. “You look so much better, Carl.” I reached over and tipped his new hat down. “And so do you, Daddy.” He did, his color was back and so was mine.

“Did y’all find anything?” So he knew Daryl and I went out alone. I sighed, knowing that Carl was getting to learn the truth now that he was out of the woods.

“We found a house.” I answered, laying back on the bed and staring at the ceiling. “It looked like she’d been there. It had a bed laid out in a closet, she’d fit, but just. Some recently eaten food.” I shrugged. “Looks good.” I said, with only slight hesitancy.

“That’s great, Jessi.” Carl said, smiling as big as the sun. “She could be close, right?”

I smiled up at him, and knew my dad could see that I didn’t share his and Daryl’s optimism. “It’s a good sign, baby brother.” I sighed. Laying in the room with Dad and Carl chatting around me, I could close my eyes and almost pretend my life was back to normal.

We chatted for a while, until I felt the urge to get out of the house. Dad called for me to wait up, and I stood on the porch and waited for him. We stood looking out over the farm and I wondered what this kind of life would have been like. The quiet country life, with fields and animals. Dad was squinting against the sunlight, and I heard him sigh.

“Jessi,” his voice was low, and I wondered why he was being so careful. “Are you and Daryl-”

“Together?” I finished for him. “We’re trying to be.” I looked up at him. I could see his worry, and his fear about Daryl. “Dad, you don’t know him.”

He groaned and gripped the banister in both hands. “Honey, I’m a cop. I know people like him all too well.”

I glared at my dad, feeling like he was being completely unfair and blinded. “You don’t know HIM.” I snapped, and turned away. “You’re not using your cop skills, Dad, you’re using your dad of a daughter skills.” I ran my hands over my face in irritation. “You’ve done this every single time I dated anyone.”

I heard him chuckled. “And I was right, each and every time, Jessi.” He touched my shoulder. “I’m right now, too. You’ll see, but I’d rather you not have to go through all that again.”

I rolled my eyes. “Daryl isn’t like those other guys.” I knew it, I could feel it. “Look at him, Dad, look at the fact that every single other person in our group has given up on Sofia. He’s the one out there beating the damn bush every fucking day!” I turned and poked him in the chest with a finger. “Not Shane, oh no, Mr. Hero of the Year doesn’t even think we should!”

“Jessi.” He was trying to calm me, but I was done. “Sweetheart, you’ve got to listen to me.”

Shaking my head and stomping down the steps, I shot back at him. “No, Dad, actually I don’t.”

 

GREENE FARM~ LATER THAT EVENING

I’d found Daryl, looking as sad as I felt and pulled him to where he’d set up our tent. Sitting on a stump, surrounded by his early warning system, I held his hand while I calmed down. He knew me well enough to let me have a breather. As soon as he could tell I was ready, we talked.

“Ya gonna tell me what had ya stompin’ all over lookin’ like ya wanted to murder someone?” He asked, pulling me into his arms.

I sighed, feeling much better wrapped in his arms and feeling his heart beating against me. “Where do you want me to start?” I asked, wondering if now was the time to unburden ourselves completely.

“How ‘bout the beginning?” He offered, and I felt his fingers gently tracing across my skin.

I nodded. “The beginning. OK. You know I’m not Lori’s daughter, not biologically?” I felt him agree. “My mom ran away after I was born. Literally, she got as far away as possible, and her parents didn’t want me in their lives anymore than she wanted me. Dad, he was sixteen when I was born, but he stepped up. I mean, really stepped up. Him and my grandparents were the reason I wasn’t scooped out and dumped as a fetus.” His arms tightened against me. “This might not seem important, but you wanted to know everything, so here it is. Dad met Lori in college, they got married, and then Carl came along. Our family has always been very close. I’m talking front row center for everything that me and Carl have ever been involved in.” He needed to know how weird my parents were about not being in my loop. “Dad and Lori started having problems the last few years I was in high school. They married young, so hiccups are going to happen.” And here came the real issue from our closeness. “The only person as close to my Dad as his family is Shane. They’ve been friends since they were children.” I grabbed one of his hands in mine to hold. “When I graduated, my family insisted on throwing a huge party at our house. Food, cake, presents, and a hell of a lot of bragging from my family.” I chuckled at how great it was at first. “I started to feel overwhelmed, I guess, at the party. Fear of the unknown, you know?” He squeezed my hand. “Shane found me, I swear he can SMELL fear and uncertainty. Vulnerable, he thought I was easy pickings, he tried to-” I stopped and shivered. “He only kissed me, but that was more than enough. I tried to fight him off by pushing him away, but he liked that.” I felt Daryl tense up. “I ended up punching him in the nuts.” That got a gruff chuckle. “It’s why, while Lori and Carl worship at his altar, or did anyway, I can’t. I won’t. But I didn’t tell Dad.” I closed my eyes and wondered at my inability to confess to Dad the way I did to Daryl.

“Why not?” He asked, his breath rippling my hair.

“I don’t know.” I whispered. “They were partners in the sheriff’s department. They’ve been best friends forever. I could give you a million excuses, but none of them make sense to me.” I sighed. “That’s not all. Dad doesn’t approve of THIS, just like you expected.” His chuckle this time sounded more real.

“Course he don’t.” Daryl said, pulling me tight against him. “Does it matter?”

I shook my head. “No.” I turned to face him, pulling out of his embrace and staring up at his blue eyes, such a different shade from my Dad and brother’s. Cupping his cheek, I brought our lips together. A short, loving kiss, drawing back and putting our foreheads together, I asked for one thing. “No more hiding, Daryl. I want everyone to know I love you.”

He smiled down at me and rubbed his nose against mine. “Deal.”

We sat together for what seemed like hours, leaving only long enough to grab some food and come back to our tent. I watched the moon rise, and saw that it was almost full. “Daryl?” I asked, drawing his attention from doing crossbow maintenance. “Think the moon is bright enough now?”

His eyes moved from mine to the bright ball of light glowing in the dark. He tossed the crossbow aside and smiled. Biting his lip, he held up one finger to tell me to wait for him. I watched while he unzipped our tent and drug out both of our sleeping bags. He grabbed my hand and pulled me along behind him, toward a spot far away from the area that Hershel gave our people use of, away from the house, and away from our spotters. Finding a suitable spot, he arranged the bags to use beneath us and then, in the light of the moon, he turned to face me.

Chapter Text

Daryl studied me in the moonlight. And I watched him. The way the light illuminated his face, his dark hair looked black, and his bare arms gleamed. I bit my lip, waiting, letting him choose our pace. He stepped closer, looking down at me and smiled.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, letting his hand come up so his fingers could trace the lines of my face. “I can’t believe you’re mine.” I kissed the pad of his finger as it made a pass along my lips. “Since ya shared your story with me, I wanna share some of mine with ya.” I nodded. He stepped back and pulled off his vest, sitting it at the foot of our makeshift bed. Then his shirt came off and he turned so his back was in full view.

I gasped, stepping carefully forward and gently touching the deep scars marking his skin. “What happened?” I asked, my fingertips tracing each dent and groove. “Who did this?”

He was still, but I could feel the tension leaving him as my fingers moved along his back. “My dad was a mean son of a bitch. He drank. He got mean. And he hit whichever of us was closest.” I let my hands run down his back and trace the tattoos and smooth over the rest of his skin. “My mom died when I was twelve. Merle was in and out of juvie until he joined up. That left me.” I could hear the pain in his voice, but I could also hear the pride of a survivor. “I wanted to show ya, I don’t show no one. Hell, even Merle don’t know.”

I tugged on him so he’d turn to face me. I looked up at him with such a fierce feeling of protectiveness. “No one touches you again, Daryl Dixon. Not like that, not-”

His lips crashed down on mine and I was left without words. His hands, usually so carefully above the waist, cupped my ass and pulled me tight against him. He wanted me, there was no doubt at all about that, and I needed him to know it was mutual. A moan, deep in my throat built and he swallowed it. Our tongues tempted and tasted one another, and I knew, barring some kind of catastrophe, tonight we would finally come fully together.

Our clothes fell off in record time, I can’t be sure who took what off of whom. All I know is that we were both, completely and totally bare beneath the bright moon and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He cradled me into his arms and then we were lying on the blankets. One kiss became another, our hands touching every inch of each other, learning and testing what each one liked the best. The answer? Everything. Everywhere Daryl touched me a fire flared. Everywhere I touched him, I could feel his need.

As he kneeled between my open legs, he looked down at me and gave that half smile that I’d come to love. “I don’t got protection, Jessi, so we’re gonna have to be careful.”

I sat up and cupped my hand behind his neck, pulling him down with me. “I don’t care, Daryl. Just take me.”

And then, one rock of his hips and we were finally joined. His forehead met mine, our eyes locked together once we adjusted to just how perfectly we fit together. Then our lips brushed and I arched up against him. I felt him moan into my mouth and he moved. Together we moved, thrust being met with the same intensity. Our mouths searching for any bit of skin we could reach, our lips together every other second.

He’d compared my beauty to the stars, he was like my sun. Bright and hot and burning with every touch. As we came together, moving and clutching, I felt sure of one thing in my world. Daryl Dixon loved me. And I’d die for him.

 

GREENE FARM~ JUST BEFORE SUNRISE

I was snuggled in Daryl’s arms, his head resting on the top of mine. He was right, and it would be annoying how often that happened if I didn’t enjoy it so damn much. Our first time was memorable, and magical. We’d made love so many times during the dark hours that I lost count. Touching, tempting, burning, it was so amazing and I’d fight to keep experiencing it with him.

I felt him stir and smiled. “You waking up?” I asked, kissing his chest. “Maybe we should head back?”

He groaned at the mere thought. “Can’t we just stay here forever?” He asked, and I grinned up at him. “Could start a new Eden. You be Eve, I’ll be Adam?”

I hummed in approval as his hand slid down my body. “That’s pretty damn tempting, Dixon.” His hand landed on my ass and grabbed a handful. “I think we’d scare Hershel’s horses. Not sure they’ve seen naked people around here.”

That made him laugh. “True ‘nough.” He pulled me up so I could be kissed thoroughly. “I love you, Jessica Grimes.” He whispered as he released me.

“I love you, Daryl Dixon.” I said without hesitation. “I’m probably going to be walking funny for a few days, so I’m sure everyone’s going to know just how much we love one another.”

We both giggled at that. “Ya sore?” He asked, once he calmed down. Worried, like always.

“Just a bit.” I assured him. “It’s been a long time, you know.”

He nodded. And held me in his arms. “Know what they say, practice makes perfect, or in your case, less painful.” He kissed me again and I reconsidered the new Eden idea.

 

AN HOUR AFTER SUNRISE

We walked hand in hand back to our tent. Most of our group wasn’t awake yet, so we ducked inside the tent and took a nap. It wasn’t long after that we heard the sounds of the rest of the world waking up. I was still in Daryl’s arms when I heard Dad and the others talking about another grid search.

“Gotta get up and goin’, baby.” Daryl whispered into my hair. Kissing my forehead, he sat up and I felt a chill go down my spine.

“Daryl?” He turned to me and I smiled. “Be careful today?” He squinted at my tone, I knew I sounded scared, but I knew that something was going to happen today. “Just humor me?” He leaned over and kissed me when I sat up.

“‘Course I’ll be careful.” He gave me a breathtaking smile. “Got a lot worth livin’ for, don’t I?”

I nodded and sat in the tent trying to understand the chill. Carl was fine. Dad was clearly doing alright. Lori was being a little weird, but that’s understandable considering. So Daryl had to be the source of my worry. Didn’t he? When I left the tent, Dad walked over to me.

“Jessi,” he said, taking my shoulders in his hands. “I want you to stay behind. Most of the strongest fighters are going on this search, and since Hershel doesn’t mind your bow.”

I nodded. “Which grid does Daryl have?” I asked, looking around. He didn’t seem to be anywhere. I nearly missed the guilty look on Dad’s face. “What?”

“Look, yesterday, I told Daryl he didn’t have any more obligations to us.” I gaped at him. “I didn’t KNOW, Jessi. I didn’t know that you two were really-”

I felt my face fall. My own father had tried to push out the man I loved from our group. The ONE man other than him that cared about these assholes’ survival. “That doesn’t answer my question, Dad.” I breathed. I wondered why Daryl hadn’t told me, but it didn’t hurt that he didn’t. Knowing him, he hadn’t wanted to cause a rift between me and my dad.

“He’s on horseback, Jessi. He’s taking the ridge.” His tone was an attempt to sooth me, it almost worked. “He’ll be alright. I have to admit, he’s a tough one. And he’s amazing at tracking.”

“And he’s alone on the grid.” I bit out. “Alone and in a strange part of the forest.” I glared up at my dad. “You taught us, Dad, you taught me and Carl and Lori that partnering up on a search was the ONLY way to go. So Daryl doesn’t get that, does he?” I turned away from me to hide my fear and worry, but my dad knew me too well.

“Sweetheart?” He pleaded, touching my shoulder. “What aren’t you telling me?”

I felt the burning heat of tears in my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them fall. Not yet, not until I KNEW they were necessary. “Nothing, Dad, I’m not keeping anything back.” I turned and walked toward the RV. “I’ll take the first watch. Dale’s going to boil alive up there one day.”

I watched over the property. I watched Dad and the others, including Hershel’s youngest daughter’s boyfriend go off to work the grid. I wondered at Daryl leaving alone. I kept my eyes peeled as Carol ventured out and spoke to Lori. My stepmom looked shocked, but nodded. And when Dale insisted I take a break, I walked to the house to check on Carl.

As I came up the steps, I bore witness to a conversation I hoped I could burn out of my memory, but figured I wouldn’t be that lucky. Glenn and Hershel’s oldest daughter, the one that came for Lori and me, Maggie were standing at the door.

Glenn was trying to flirt, I guess, when I heard this zinger. “You know, we have eleven condoms left.” Ugh, I thought, they had sex. And then I was wondering where they’d scavenged the condoms.

Then the farm girl hit back with a below the belt attack with, “you see eleven condoms, I see eleven minutes of my life I won’t get back.” Ouch, I thought, looking at Glenn’s face fall. That’s harsh, and sad.

Sad puppy face Glenn begging for confirmation that he didn’t suck at sex, “it wasn’t that bad was it?” I closed my eyes to hopefully stop the trainwreck in front of me, but wait, was she giving him hope?

“I don’t even know if I like you.” Maggie offered. Thank goodness, I thought, because Glenn didn’t deserve the destruction she almost wrecked.

“But you’re thinking about it. You should.” Yep, Glenn got his sorta swagger back.

I wished I could disappear, because that’s when they noticed me standing at the foot of the steps. “Sorry. It was like the slowest moving trainwreck anyone has EVER had the misfortune to experience.” I offered, feeling my face burn bright red in sympathetic embarrassment. “Plus, I didn’t think I was being all that quiet when I came up. I mean, I’m not Daryl.” Shit, fuck, get me out of here. They were still staring at me. “I promise, your secret? It’s safe with me.” I moved past them to get in the door. Inside I let the sort of cool shade take the heat out of my face.

Shaking my head, I moved further into the house to sit with my brother, and try desperately NOT to worry about Daryl.

 

HOURS LATER~GREENE FARM

I was still with Carl when I heard the flurry of activity in the kitchen. Lori stepped into the room to let us know that we’d be having a big dinner together, that our group decided to cook dinner for Hershel and his family to thank them. I smiled at the gesture and hoped that it would be taken as such.

I was leaving to check in with Dale when I overheard Maggie and Hershel’s discussion about us leaving. Clearly, Hershel didn’t want us to be a permanent addition to his land. I walked quietly past the room they were chatting in and outside. The sun was still burning and I noticed that the others were back. I headed for the RV, thinking I’d relieve Dale again.

I heard Dale warning someone to not shoot, then I heard the damn shot fire. I took off running and realized that someone had put Andrea on watch. For God’s sake, I thought and realized that she looked proud. So why were my dad and Shane standing WITH the fucking walker? And that’s when I knew. This dumb, useless, gun-toting moron had shot Daryl.

I gave her no thought as I rushed to meet Shane and Dad who were trying to pick up at bleeding Daryl. He was covered in dirt, blood, and more blood. Was that a necklace of ears? Jesus, I glared at my dad and kneeled beside Daryl. I took his bleeding head in my hands and breathed easier when I realized Andrea had only grazed him. His side, that was another matter, I gasped when I moved his shirt out of the way.

“Lift him up,” I ordered, stepping away and removing the necklace. Eww, he and I were going to have to talk about appropriate accessories when he wasn’t so injured. “GET HERSHEL!” I yelled as we neared the house.

Daryl was leaning on his elbow as Hershel worked on his side. His head was bandaged and he was cleaner, thanks to me. I had sponged off most of the dirt and gore. He pointed out where he’d found Sofia’s doll on the map Maggie had provided for the grid search. And he wasn’t the least bit admonished for taking the horse without permission, he threatened the damn thing. I nearly laughed, but thought it best to restrain it.

“You’re fussin’, Jess.” He grunted, as I wiped more of his face clean.

I shook my head. “No, I’m just cleaning up my favorite masterpiece.” Hershel finished up and gave me a smile. “Thank you, again.” I offered the older man. “You keep saving the most important people in my life, going to owe you a huge debt soon.” He shook it off and left.

Dad and Shane asked Daryl a few more questions and then they walked out too. I sighed and Daryl’s hand met mine. “You knew, didn’t ya?” He asked, and I knew what he meant.

I nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t know WHAT, but I knew something bad.” I studied his face, clean now and pulled out the ‘necklace’ from my pocket. “Wanna tell me about this?”

He grimaced and laid back on the pillows. Patting the bed next to him, I crawled in and lay beside him. He groaned and pulled me closer, wanting my head on his chest. Hearing his heart pound steadily under my ear, I felt calmer than I had all day. “Horse threw me, fell on my own damn arrow, may have had some freaky ass visions of Merle, and killed some dead assholes that thought I was an easy meal.” He said, making it sound simple.

“And the ‘souvenir’?” I reminded him, having handed it to him and let him put it in his pant’s pocket.

I felt him shrug, and wince at the pain it brought to his side. “Seemed right at the time.”

I chuckled and turned my face up to look at him. “This was Daryl’s no good, very bad day, huh?” He grinned and agreed with a nod.

“Better now,” he whispered, kissing my hair. “Couldn’t think of nothin’ but gettin’ back to ya.” He sighed. “Gettin’ to ya, makin’ sure ya knew I was ok. I knew why ya looked at me like that this mornin’ as soon as the horse threw me. Then my asshole brother came into my head and I fought.”

“I’ll have to thank Merle when we find him again.” I smiled, and he grinned back at me.

We heard a light tap on the open door and saw Carol standing there. She held two plates and a smile on her face. “I thought I’d bring you two dinner, and give my thanks to the bandaged hero here.” She sat the plates on the bedside table. She leaned down and tried to kiss Daryl on his bandaged head, but he shook her off. Shaking her head, and smiling at the two of us pressed together, she went back to dinner with the others.

“You gave her more hope,” I said, sitting up to reach over him for the plates. Handing him his, I raised an eyebrow. He stared back, Clearly he wasn’t reading me for once. “Want me to feed you, hero?” He glared at me without heat and picked up his fork. Laughing I followed suit.

Chapter Text

GREENE FARM~DAY AFTER DARYL’S NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY

I woke up next to Daryl in an actual bed! Feeling amazed at the luxury, after all the nap I’d taken during Carl’s trauma was more of the pass-out not aware type of sleep, I cuddled into Daryl’s side. The side he hadn’t pierced with one of his own arrows. I felt him shift under me and chuckled.

“You are the world’s worst patient, Daryl Dixon.” I whispered, glancing up at him. I’d managed, through sheer force of will, to get him to agree to a sponge bath after dinner. And I even convinced him to let me run back to our tent for a change of clothes for him. Now all the gunk and blood was clear from him, and I had a promise that he’d take advantage of Hershel’s offer of a shower, as soon as he was given the ok.

He groaned after my statement, looking down at me with his version of a pout. Which meant he was glaring at me. “And ya can be a naggin’ nurse, Jessica Grimes.” He grunted, softening his irritation by kissing my forehead. “Don’t know why I had to let ya clean me up last night.” He muttered.

I gave him a look. “As I recall, you didn’t seem to mind during that washing.” I raised an eyebrow as I remembered locking the door and taking my time to be very thorough.

Daryl shrugged, but I could see him fighting a smile. “It wasn’t completely horrible.” He answered, looking at the lace curtains covering the windows. “Might even let ya help me in the shower, since I’m injured and all.”

I laughed and crawled from the bed to find Hershel. I wanted to make sure that Daryl was ok to come back to our tent. He wasn’t going to rush, whether he liked it or not. I found the farmer on the porch, enjoying the morning. He assured me that Daryl would be fine to return to his daily routine, barring stealing another horse. I chuckled and thanked him after he told me Daryl could shower the next day.

Returning to the invalid’s room, I found Andrea offering him a novel and Daryl warning her that if she ever shot at him again, he “best be dead.” I nodded, and then looked up at her. “If you don’t know how to properly handle a weapon, perhaps Dale was right, and you shouldn’t have one.” I glared at her before she could open her mouth for one of her glorious retorts. “Leave.”

Daryl was watching me closely as I sat down on the bed. “She fucked up, Jessi, but we’ve all fucked up one time or another.” He said, taking my hand in his. “Let it go, I have.”

I shot him a look and he smiled. “Ever fuck up and nearly kill someone?” He just stared at me. “Because that’s what Andrea did. She couldn’t see through the glare of the sun, and she shot at you. She was aiming for that thick head of yours, Dixon. If she was better with weapons, you’d be dead. And so would she.” It was a statement and I meant every single word of it.
“Jessi,” he whispered, clearly not expecting the force of my reaction to the situation. “Baby, I’m OK. She didn’t kill me, hell, I did worse to myself yesterday.” He was trying to calm me, but this was one topic that it wouldn’t work.

I pulled my hand free from his and leaned closer to his face. Cupping it between my hands, I stared into his eyes. “You’re not dead because of her lack of skill, Daryl. That’s not a win, not when I know Dad will insist everyone learn their weapons better. You’re not dead because Dad hasn’t had a chance to teach her up.” I sighed and ran my thumbs along his cheeks. “She isn’t right for this world, I know it, and it’s going to get someone killed.”

His hand slid to cover mine, holding me to his face. “Then we watch her.” He agreed. “We make sure that she doesn’t screw up. Jessi, you can’t just get rid of people because they’re-”

“Dangerous?” I scoffed. “That’s what Andrea is, it’s what Shane is. They’re both ticking time bombs, the only question in my mind? Which one blows first?”

 

HOURS LATER~OUTSIDE OUR TENT

Daryl and I had agreed to disagree on the Andrea situation. His let bygones be bygones made me want to scream, but I understood it too. This new life, with walkers trying to kill us, and people not much better, made some strong. Unfortunately, Daryl felt that we just had to train up the weakest to make them better suited.

I did agree with the sentiment. For instance, Carol would probably learn to survive. Dale? Well, Dale was pretty much a hippy type, but if it came to killing walkers, he was game. That was a mark in his favor. His fear of ending a human’s life, however, was going to end up problematic. People, I could tell, were going to be just as dangerous to us as walkers. I mean, Dad told us what happened in Atlanta with the “gang” he’d halved the gun supply with, and let’s not forget Dr. Jenner.

Here’s my list for people in our group who would probably learn to survive better:
Daryl
Dad
Shane (that kills me to admit)
Me
Carl
Glenn (he’d be higher on the list, but he wasn’t raised by my dad)
Lori (iffy, she’s still a little timid)
T-Dog
Carol (once we find Sofia, or we put the poor child to rest, whichever)
Dale (once his bleeding heart savior shit is put in its place)
Andrea

That’s how it would work, in order of best chances to least. See who’s last? Yeah, because she’s not going to make it. Even if she learns, she’s going to still make the stupidest decisions and then we’ll be the ones to clean it up or take the hit. I didn’t share the list with Daryl. Because honestly, I think he might have taken it as a personal challenge to prove me wrong. That and his head would grow three sizes too big to fit through the door of the tent, since he outranked my dad in the pecking order.

He was happy to hear about the shower. Whether it was the actual bathing, or the fact that he was going to do his damndest to get me in that hot water with him, I’m not sure.

We spent the day listening as Dad planned to take the group shooting (told you so), and then work on the areas surrounding where Daryl found Sofia’s doll. Daryl, I was happy to notice, would be staying back with me. I begged off the shooting practice by holding up my bow to my dad. He laughed and rolled his eyes, but walked away without a fight. Daryl was watching me and I saw his interest in my response and I knew he was wondering if I could use a gun.

“I can shoot guns, Daryl.” I answered him before he could form the question. “My dad was a sheriff’s deputy in the south. Of course, I’m proficient in gun use.” I rolled my eyes.

He gave one of those gruff chuckles I loved. “Didn’t want to give yourself a little practice? Practice makes-”

“Perfect, yeah, I might have heard that before.” I watched his eyes grow darker at the memory of the last time I was told about it.

I ran over to the RV to see if Dale needed help with watching over us all on the roof. I’d rather be with Daryl, but I also knew that every little bit helps. It’s how I caught Glenn acting twitchier than usual and asking Dale if Andrea might be on her period because she was acting crazy.

He actually thought, and I quote, “I’m only asking ’cause it’s like all the women are acting really weird. And…and I read somewhere that when women spend a lot of time together, their cycles line up and they all get super crazy hormonal at the same time.”

I coughed and he realized that I was standing nearby. “I can attest that I am NOT currently having my period, but thanks for asking, Glenn.” I grinned at his blush. “Andrea’s off her rocker most days, as for the OTHER ladies,” I raised an eyebrow to remind him that I knew who he was thinking of, “I’m sure that’s not the issue either. We’re dealing with the apocalypse, dude, what did you expect?”

Dale grinned at me and agreed. “I’m gonna advise you to keep your theory to yourself.”

I nodded, “Telling a woman she’s PMS crazy brings out a whole new round of nuts.”

Glenn, far from looking reassured, looked more twitchy. What the hell?

“Want to tell me what’s going on?” Dale asked, and I nearly walked away, but thought I might want to hear the answer.

“You’re old.” Glenn started, and I closed my eyes at the poor boy’s tact. “You’re… you know things. So what if someone told you something that someone else should know…”

I rolled my eyes as Dale told him to stop being dramatic and spit it out.

“There’s...there’s walkers in the barn and Lori’s pregnant.” He spit it out alright, and I nearly did too. Fuck, WHAT?

“WHAT?!” I had to keep myself from screaming. They both remembered I was standing near them and who I was. “I’m guessing Dad doesn’t know?”

Glenn shook his head. I ran my hands over my face. Fuck, this was bad. Bad, bad, bad. Dale asked if he should speak to Hershel, and I considered it. Having Hershel explain himself to Dad would be MUCH better than one of us. I nodded. As for Lori? There’s no chance that baby is my dad’s. NONE. Great, a baby Shane. Unless Dad raised it. Wasn’t there proof that nurture was JUST as important as nature?

“About Lori,” Glenn started and I held up a hand.

“She can figure it out,” I said, trying to school my features from shock to whatever I could manage. I shook my head. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear this entire mess of a conversation. Dale? Do you need me to stand watch?” He shook his head and I walked away.

Finding Daryl sitting by our tent, I knew he’d be able to tell something was wrong, but I hoped I could distract us both. His smile made those damn butterflies in my stomach start up again. It was better than the nausea Glenn’s news made me feel.

“Wondered where ya got off to.” He said, patting the ground beside him, but I shook my head.

“Had to make sure Dale didn’t need help with watch.” I offered and he nodded. Standing he loomed by the tree he had been sitting against.

“Does he?” He asked, and I shook my head again. “So what’re we gonna get into all alone while they’re gone?”

I raised an eyebrow and was gratified when he rushed to me and smothered any further conversation with a burning kiss. I sighed into him, trying desperately to be careful of his wounded side.

“I’d really like to carry ya inside the tent,” he whispered against my lips.

I smiled at the thought of it. “If you screw up those stitches, I’ll catch hell from Hershel.” I giggled and took his hand. “Besides, I’m perfectly capable of walking with you inside the tent, Daryl.”

The others were gone, except Dale, Carol, Glenn, and the Greene family. And entering our tent, I watched as Daryl groaned and lay back on our sleeping bags. I knew this killed him, being at anyone’s mercy, even mine. Yet, I loved that he trusted me enough to allow it. I bit my lip and looked down at him, fully clothed and clean, thank God. I could still see the ear necklace and all the blood and gore from the day before.

“What’re ya lookin’ at?” He asked, his gruff voice husky and his eyes barely squinting to take me in.

I smiled and laid down beside him. “You, Daryl Dixon, I was looking at you.” I ran my hand up his chest, careful of the bandaged side. “And I was wondering something.”

I knew his eyes were closed without looking, because I felt him sigh into my soft touch. “What’s that?”

“Why was your mouth coated in blood yesterday?” I asked, sitting up on my elbow to look down at him. I saw him grimace slightly, ut-oh.

“I might of eaten a squirrel,” he stopped and wouldn’t look at me, “raw.”

Ugh, I thought, I’d kissed you yesterday and hadn’t even noticed. “Ah.” Was all I said, and I felt him twitch. “Remind me to never ask that question again.”

He chuckled at that. “So tough, but won’t even eat meat straight from the source. It was still warm-like.” He shook his head and met my eyes as I grimaced. “Should have warned ya, but your kiss was all I could think about on the way back.”

“I can’t fault that logic.” I smiled and leaned forward to kiss him again. When I pulled back, his eyes were more black than blue. “Since you’re injured, I should probably take care of you, right?” I asked, we had been so focused on our first night together that we’d never gotten to much more than the full act, so I wanted to be sure.

I watched his Adam’s apple bob with a swallow. He nodded and that was all I needed to get into caretaker mode. I gave him a smile and began kissing down his neck, flicking against his pulsepoint and feeling his hand run down my back and then back to my head. I kept going, unbuttoning his shirt and kissing each inch of skin that was exposed as the buttons fell open. His nipples were taunt, and I spent a moment enjoying each one before returning to my route. Down his stomach, nuzzling his bellybutton, and then my fingers found the button on his jeans.

“I probably shouldn’t completely undress you,” I whispered against his skin as I flicked the button open. “Just when I do, we’ll be called to defend the damn world.” I felt him chuckle as my fingers opened the zipper. “But I’ll make sure everything necessary to your recovery is bared to my attention.” His fingers slid under the tightness of my braid and I smiled against his pelvic bone. He lifted his ass long enough to free that part of him I was most concerned with, and then he was free. I hummed in approval. “Oh, I’m more than certain I can make you feel all better, Mr. Dixon.” I looked up to see he’d put his other arm under his head to get a better angle to watch me. I smirked at him as my tongue flicked against the head that had given me such pleasure in the bright light of the moon. “Just let me know if there’s anything that you need to make a full recovery.” And with that I engulfed him with my mouth, my hand moved to the base and together with my mouth and tongue, I worked him.

“Shit, Jessi,” he hissed, his fingers tangled in the depths of my hair. “Yeah, fuck, just like that.”

I moved slowly, then faster, then slower, making him moan and gasp. His hand in my hair tightened and I knew he was ready, but he did the unexpected, he yanked me from him. “Get up here, Jess.” He growled and my mouth met his with a hunger that was even more than the night before. “I need ya. All of ya.” He moaned against my mouth, and I felt his hands sliding down to my own jeans, undoing them and tugging. “Pull em off.” He ordered and I pulled back, kicking off my boots and ridding myself of my pants. “Now climb on top.” Demanding, I thought, but I was powerless to deny him.

I straddled him and then he snapped up into me. We both moaned at the feeling. We hadn’t thought it was right to try in Hershel’s house, in a stranger’s bed, but this, I rocked my hips and felt sparks between us, this was US. He pulled me back to him, so most of my weight was on him. I was trying to be so careful of his wound, but he wouldn’t allow it. Not now, not here, here we had to connect. And so, my covered chest was tight against his, even as he quickened his pace of thrusting. He swallowed my screams of pleasure as I was fed his own. And for the first time, but not the last, when we came, we didn’t part.

And for a brief moment, I forgot about the walkers in the barn and my newest sibling on the way.

Chapter Text

Lying together, having put our clothes back in place, I felt Daryl sigh. My head was in its natural place on his chest as he took my hand and linked our fingers together. I could tell he was content, but I’d be lying if I said his sigh didn’t scare me.

“That wasn’t smart,” he whispered, gruff and almost as though he was speaking to himself. “Shouldn’t have let go like that with ya, Jessi.”

I tightened my hold on his hand. “It was one time, Daryl.” I tried to scoff at his concern, but Lori’s current condition came rushing to the forefront of my mind and sobered me. “It’s not like-”

He groaned above me, cutting me off. “Only takes one time.” His other arm was wrapped around me, and I calmed down when I realized he hadn’t noticed that he’d interrupted me. “Can’t risk it, sweetheart.” I felt his lips brush the top of my head. “No matter how much I wanna.”

I smiled and looked up at him. “I’m glad we did, at least once.” I hoped he understood that I wasn’t ready for parenthood. I wasn’t sure I would ever be, between how my mother had reacted to me and the world turned to what it had.

Daryl’s smile was soft. “Not that I don’t dream about it.” I raised an eyebrow, and he unlinked our hands and brushed my cheek with his thumb. “Almost every time I close my eyes I can see it. A family with ya, babies that have your eyes and smile.”

He’d thought about it, I felt my heartbeat lurch almost painfully in my chest. Even in the madness of our reality, he dreamed of us and our future. I bit my lip. If this place, Hershel’s family farm, without the barn full of dead, could become a refuge could there be more? More safety and more security.

I could almost believe it could work. With Daryl by my side, couldn’t we make it work? I leaned into his touch and watched as his head tried to lean toward me to kiss me again. Scooting up, so we were face to face, I leaned into him. Our lips met and that fire that was always burning between us flared up.

I felt his hands move back to the hem of my tank top and raise it to settle under my chin, so my bra was bared to his hands. The rough pads of his fingers glided over my skin, building the passion we’d sated mere moments before. His thumb teased the curve of my breasts spilling over the top of my bra, and I gasped. Feeling the curve of his smile against my lips, his hand moved lower, brushing against my bare stomach, and landing at the waistband of my jeans. He made quick work of the button and zipper, but just as his fingers were sliding beneath the denim, we heard the jingle of his early warning system outside.

I groaned into his mouth and he chuckled. “Fuck,” I whispered, when he pulled away from my lips. I was on fire, and we were interrupted. My dad cursing outside the tent had me pulling down my tank and buttoning my jeans.

“Guess not,” Daryl’s voice sounded twisted with longing and humor. “At least, not right now.” He raised an eyebrow and lay back down.

“Ugh.” I gave a disgruntled growl. I unzipped the tent and stepped out. Dad was standing entwined in the rope of metal things that Daryl had placed around our spot and he was trying, without success to untangle himself. “Let me help you,” I offered with a giggle, stepping forward and working to unravel him.

Once he was free, Dad ran a hand through his hair. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to seeing him without his hat, but I was happy he and Carl were sharing things. “Jessi,” he sighed, and I knew he’d come to tell me about Lori.

I sat down with my back against the tree that Daryl had been sitting against earlier. Patting the ground next to me, Dad sat. He slid his arm behind me and pulled me closer. I felt his kiss against my forehead and waited. “Lori’s pregnant, baby girl.” He sighed, “and Hershel is adamant that we have to leave once everyone’s all healed up.” I nodded, he needed to vent and he chose me. “You know how hard it was when she had Carl.” Yeah, Lori had to have a C-section, and there had been complications leading to the decision. “That was when we had hospitals and real doctors.” His grip tightened and I knew he was struggling. “I need you to understand, Jessi, that whatever happened while I was gone, this baby, they’re OURS.” I smiled, my dad would always be THAT guy. The one who wanted to do what was best for his family.

“Of course the baby is ours, Daddy.” I whispered, looking up and giving him a kiss on the cheek. “Who else’s would it be?” I arched an eyebrow, daring him to mention Shane to me.

His blue eyes were locked on mine and I waited. “Jessica,” I gulped, rarely did Dad use my full first name. “I need to know. What did Shane do to make you hate him?”

I shook my head and started to pull away. No way was I going to have this talk now. Not after he just told me about my new sibling to be. Dad startled me by not letting me go. He tilted my face back to look at him and I could tell that he could see the pain in my eyes. “Baby, I NEED you to tell me. Please?”

I fought the tears that were burning with the threat of falling. “Why does it matter now?” I asked, wanting, no needing to delay the tale.

Dad pulled me tight against his chest, holding me and letting me hear his heartbeat. Like Daryl’s it managed to calm me down. “Because, Jessi, you and I both know that the baby-”
“Is OURS, remember, Daddy?” I whispered, shaking my head, unwilling to let a baby carry the burden of who their father was.

I felt another kiss land on my head. “Yes, but Shane’s reaction to that may be-”

I sighed, understanding. “I know it hasn’t been the same between the two of you since you got back.” Understatement of the year, I thought. “But Shane was never who you thought he was, Daddy.” My voice was still quiet, as though Shane were lurking in the woods and would hear me. “The night I graduated?” I felt Dad’s arms stiffen around me. “He tried to-” Telling Daryl had been hard, but this? This was nauseating. “I stopped him, but he did try.” I wasn’t going to give details, it wasn’t necessary, in my mind.

“How far did he go, Jessi?” His voice was strained, but his embrace was soft and comforting around me.

“He kissed me, but he wanted more.” I whispered. “I fought, and he said he liked that, me fighting.” I felt I needed to give Dad something to lighten the intensity. “He didn’t like it when I punched him in the dick.” I shrugged and felt the harsh, dark chuckle come from him.

Dad sighed and pulled back to look into my face. I’d failed at stopping the tears, and a few had slipped past my careful boundaries. His thumb brushed one away. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He asked, and I could see the pain of my keeping the secret from him on his face. “I would have-”

I shook my head and cradled my head under his chin. “It wasn’t you, Daddy. I just-” I thought about all my time working in a womens’ shelter, of volunteering with the victims of violent crimes. “I felt like maybe it was my fault.” I hated that, the feeling of shame that I’d done something, said something to make Shane think it was alright to try. “I know that it wasn’t. I know that it’s typical for someone to feel that way, but it didn’t stop the shame.” I felt Dad’s arms tighten around me again, holding me together. “I knew you’d hurt him, or you’d tell someone, and he’d lose his job or you’d lose the one friend you’d had since you were a child.” I sighed. “You lost so much, Daddy, just by being my dad. I didn’t want you to lose anything else.”

Dad pulled me back, holding me far enough away so I was forced to look up at him. “I have lost NOTHING in my being your Dad, Jessica. NOTHING. You are everything to me. You, Carl, Lori, and this new baby? You were the first person to show me that unconditional love was an ability every single one of us could have.” His hands framed my face. “I have NEVER regretted having you, baby, NEVER. Losing Shane from my life wouldn’t even make a dent in my world, but YOU? You, I can’t lose. EVER.” I was crying when I heard the tent unzip.

“What the fuck are ya doin’ to her?” Daryl bit out, rushing forward to my side. “Damn it, Rick. What happened?”

I felt Daryl’s hand touch mine and our fingers linked. I was sobbing and Dad looked startled by the ferocity of Daryl’s reaction to my upset. “She just told me about Shane.” Dad whispered, releasing my face and letting Daryl tuck me into his body. He watched as Daryl soothed me, bringing me comfort and calming me down.

“Daryl?” I whispered, holding out a hand to my dad. Dad took it and waited for me to explain to Daryl that it was alright. That I was alright. “Daddy asked about what happened with Shane, and I told him. He wasn’t hurting me.” I pulled away so he could see my smile. “These were cathartic tears, baby, not traumatic ones.” My hand that Dad wasn’t holding cupped Daryl’s face. I kissed him gently and felt him relax against my touch.

I felt Dad’s hand squeeze mine as he cleared his throat. Daryl looked at him with a squint, daring him to say anything against him holding me. “I think I was wrong about you, Daryl Dixon.” My dad’s eyes crinkled with a smile, the blue lighting up. “You’re good for her.” He pulled his hand from mine and stood up. “Just don’t screw it up. She’s my baby girl, no matter how old she is.” He said the last with a hint of his usual overprotective dad voice. Smiling, he carefully stepped over the rope he’d tangled in when he arrived and left us alone.

Daryl’s gruff chuckle vibrated through my body. “Thought he was gonna shoot me when I grabbed ya from him.” He whispered into my hair. “Wanted to hit him when I saw ya crying.” The last he said as he clutched me to him. “No one’s gonna cause ya pain if I can help it, Jessi.”

I pulled back to look into his face. “I love you.” I brushed my lips against his. “And we should probably go see what the word is, if Dad is back, then so are the rest.” I sighed, leaning my forehead against his.

“Love ya so much it hurts,” he whispered, staring into my eyes. “Course that could be cause my stitches got strained earlier.” Seeing my glare, he chuckled. “Kiddin’, let’s go see what the rest got into without us.”

Chapter Text

Tense. That’s what the world was like outside our bubble. Every person in our group seemed shrouded in some form of tenseness. I could almost smell the tension between Shane and Dale, of all people. I mean, how horrible of an asshole could you be to get irritated with a semi-hippy dude? The tension between Dad and Shane, well that was expected, it grew daily. Glenn was a bundle of nerves, rarely making eye contact with ANYONE, even Dale and me, which I took as a sign he and Dale hadn’t told Dad about the surprise in the barn yet. Of all those coils and tendrils of tension, however, the one that was strangest was between Andrea and Shane.

One glance between the two and I nearly gagged. Dear God, did Gun-toting Barbie actually crave Shane? Just fucking kill me so I don’t have to watch her make goo-goo eyes at that imbecile, I was thinking to myself. I mean, gross. There was so much ew going on between them that I had to almost clutch at Daryl to keep myself centered.

Luckily, with all the stress being stretched taut among our group, Daryl and I were no longer the object of attention. Not that we would have paid attention before, but still, it was nice to NOT be ogled at. So one good thing in a sackful of shit. Looking at Lori across the campfire, I corrected myself. Two good things.

As dinner was being finished up, she gestured for me to come with her away from the group. Once we were away from prying eyes and ears, I noticed how truly tense she looked. Before she could speak, I tried to calm her down. “Don’t stress. It’s not good for the baby.” I was smiling at her, hoping that she understood I was alright with the news.

“I can only imagine what you must think, Jessi.” Apparently I hadn’t calmed her at all. She did know that Dad had already told me, that was obvious. “I know that you and Shane don’t get along.”

I snorted and she looked startled. “Sorry, Lori, but ‘don’t get along’ seems pretty mild for how I feel about him.” I sighed and didn’t feel like rehashing my talk with Dad earlier. “Look, Lori, Dad and I already had this conversation. As far as I’m concerned, that baby is my little brother or sister. Just like Carl is. No matter what.” She grabbed me in a bone crushing hug. “I’m serious though, this stress isn’t good for the little peanut.” I was hugging her back, realizing that we hadn’t shared this type of affection with one another for far too long.

“I know,” her whisper brushed through my hair. “Gonna be stressful enough without adding more.” Lori pulled back and cupped my cheek. “How’d I luck out having you as my first?”

I grinned up at her. “Probably a combination of my biological uterus ditching me and you finding my dad irresistible.” She chuckled, a sound I heard so rarely from her that it made my smile grow.

She nodded and kissed my forehead. “Thank God that the uterus ran.” She smiled down at me. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, baby girl.”

“Well, you’re in luck.” I took her hand and pulled her back toward the others. “Because you’ll never have to find out.”

Daryl and I retired to our tent not long after. The darkness was hugging us as we walked hand in hand back. Unzipping the tent and stepping inside, I could feel the tension I picked up from the others fall away, along with my clothes. It was too hot to sleep in our zipped together sleeping bags, so I fell on top of the extra cushion. I hadn’t noticed how quiet Daryl was, he was usually quiet after all.

When I looked up, I found that in the small lantern light that he’d turned on, he was staring at me. The same stare he’d given me on our first night under the moon. The same stare he’d given me this afternoon. Hungry and hot, and I felt my mouth go dry.

He took his clothes off, as fast as I must have, and then he was there. Over top of my body, starting what we hadn’t had a chance to finish when Dad had interrupted earlier. And before the lantern was turned off for the night, I watched his gaze never falter, the love I felt for him reflected with every touch. When we parted, careful to not make the same amazing mistake that we’d given into earlier, we clutched at one another. Never wanting to feel any space between us. Never wanting to not feel the other’s heart beating close by. Knowing that we’d give everything for the other. As our breathing leveled out and sleep took us away, we still clung to each other.

 

 

THE NEXT MORNING: A REVELATION: DAMN IT GLENN DON’T BRING ME INTO IT

Breakfast was interesting. Yes, that was sarcasm. No, I didn’t enjoy the look I got from the two men in my life who I loved the most. Fuck, Glenn, why’d you have to glance at me and Dale when you broke the news?

Of course the news that the barn was filled chock full of undead badness went over about as well as expected. While Dad and Daryl shot me that look of ‘you knew and didn’t fucking tell us, how could you?’ The others were split. Shane, paragon of ‘let’s kill them all and fuck the Greene family if they don’t like it’, was the loudest voice. Because of course he was. Dad, always more interested in keeping the peace than fucking it up, tried to argue that Hershel gets to make the rules on his own fucking property, while still shooting me looks that made me feel like I’d regressed to seven years old when I didn’t fess up to breaking Grandma’s ugly, but favorite vase.

The others were arguing, as though they had a choice. Dad was right, even if it burnt Daryl’s ass to hear it. Hershel’s home, Hershel’s rules. And when I agreed with Dad, Jesus, the look that Daryl shot me nearly made me sink through the fucking dirt and want to hide. Rock, meet hard place.

Dad went off to discuss the situation with Hershel, and he asked me to keep the peace while he was gone. Thanks a fucking lot, Daddy. Daryl was glaring at me. Shane was glaring at me, Glenn, and Dale. And I thought that Dad had far more fucking confidence in my ability to keep them in line than I did. Dale disappeared. Then Shane. So at first I felt like I had a chance to actually make that order Dad gave me work. Almost.

Then I couldn’t figure out where Hershel and Dad went off to. Shane returned, with every weapon we had, which made me wonder what the hell had happened. Then, as I’d feared, all hell started breaking loose. Thanks, Dad.

Shane stalked to the barn, his new toy egging him on. Daryl, sadly, was along for the ride, as were the majority of our group. Whether bystanders or fucking angry villagers I couldn’t decide. Before Dad could come back, I found myself chest to chest with Shane. Arguing why it was a stupid fucking idea.

“You ain’t the boss here, little girl.” He said, slamming the butt of a rifle against the lock of the barn.

“No, my dad is,” I hissed up at him. “And that just fucking burns your ass doesn’t it, Shane?”

It almost stopped him, but even Dad rushing back with Hershel and Jimmy doesn’t work, if anything it eggs him on further. Before I can blink, the lock breaks and they start coming out. Then there’s gunfire. More and more and more. And Shane’s taunts, and piles of corpses, truly dead now. Dad must have pulled me back from the doors, because I’m standing beside him, just as shocked as the Greene family when one final walker comes out and there she is, Sofia.

I see Dad’s arm come up with his gun, but all I hear is static, and I don’t even notice that my own bow is raised. I don’t blink as it’s my arrow that shoots first. I don’t understand as Sofia falls. It was automatic. It was muscle memory and completely natural. Not only to kill the walker, regardless of the face it wore, but also to save my dad from having to kill a child who Carl was growing close to. And then, the static breaks and the silence is almost as deafening.

Arms wrap around me, but I don’t know whose. My bow falls from my hands, and then I’m in the dirt, and the darkness overtakes everything.

Chapter Text

What can be said when you finally break? Not a whole lot, honestly.

I broke. Killing Sofia, taking that responsibility from Dad, broke some tiny part of innocence I had left. I passed out and it took me all night and part of the next day to get through the trauma of killing the undead version of a little girl that Carl had been so hopeful would be rescued. Killing her, knowing that Carl would lose what sparks of faith he had left, it ripped me apart.

When I came to, Daryl was watching over me in our tent. His anger at my silence about the barn filled with walkers had passed. His worry was evident, apparently I had been talking while I was unconscious. He said I begged to die. To leave the horrors of our new reality behind. I begged for an end, for something to replace the terror we all lived in.

“Jessi, ya can’t,” he started, when he told me what I’d been moaning for, “ya can’t leave me alone here. Ya can’t.” He pulled me into his arms, as though holding me together would keep me sane. The pleading voice, the fear shined clearly in his eyes. And I nearly fell apart again.

“It was just bad dreams, Daryl,” I whispered, letting him hold on to me for dear life. “Just bad dreams, long overdue.” I pulled back so I could frame his face with my hands. “I’m right here, I’ll always be right here.”

Dad had apparently followed Hershel to a bar in town, with Glenn in tow. They’d brought back more than booze, or the smell of it anyway. A prisoner/hostage, named Randall. He was injured and our resident vet turned survivor doctor helped him heal. Of course there was dissent about what to do about the man. Two guesses who lead the charge for getting rid of him permanently, versus who lead the charge to release him once healed far away and leave him to fend for himself?

Of course the plan went to shit. Why wouldn’t it? This was the new normal wasn’t it? That you make plans and the world works against you to make sure that it all turns to crap. Shane and Dad tried, apparently, my dad’s way. Neither would go into too many details about what happened, but they both looked like shit when they got back. And Randall was still with them, so another issue.

While they were off on their field trip that made both of them look like they’d gone ten rounds with each other, Hershel’s youngest daughter, Beth tried to kill herself. First she’d gone comatose (who could blame her, I did too for a bit?), then apparently Andrea got the brilliant idea to give her the choice. Thank God, according to Lori that Beth changed her mind, and it wasn’t too fucking late. Lori told me that Andrea made some snarky comments about her and Shane, but I couldn’t focus on that backbiting crap. I was still trying to decide how I felt about being alive in this horror show.

Daryl offered to get information out of Randall. I couldn’t look at him when he returned. I couldn’t stand to think what he might have done to get any intel out of the man, not when he was wiping his hands of the blood. I focused on the living room rug. I focused on anything other than the voting going on around me about a HUMAN’S life.

Carl, my baby brother, actually told Dad that he should kill Randall. My heart broke when Dad looked at me with the terror I knew was clear on my face. My baby brother wasn’t just losing his faith, he was losing his humanity. I sat down on the sofa in Hershel’s house and missed the rest of the conversation. Had I sounded like that when I told Daryl that Andrea wasn’t going to survive? Had I been that cold, thinking it was pragmatic? What was going to happen to all of us if that became our mindset?

Dale, a humanist if I’ve ever seen one, voted against. I didn’t vote, I wasn’t listening. I stood up and walked out of the living room. I walked out of the house. I walked to the porch swing and sat down. I felt so mechanical. Like every movement since waking was just mimicry of what I’d usually do, but that I couldn’t feel myself do it. I sat on the porch, ignoring the rest of the group, their voices, their vote. I had to sit it out.

When Dale was killed the next day, by a walker who somehow found our new safe place, I knew that the world would lose to the walkers. That if a man like Dale, kind and human couldn’t make it, then what would the rest of us have to offer the gods that set this fucking plague loose on us? His funeral was a blur. So was Carol trying to let me know she didn’t blame me for ending the thing that her daughter had become. That Sofia had been dead far before I shot that arrow into her head. That I’d done what needed to be done. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore.

I barely noticed when Randall escaped. I hardly took note that Shane was the one who warned them. Not until Dad and Daryl stood before me telling me they were going to look for him did I pay the least bit of attention to what was going on around me. I was still lost in that same fog that I’d woken up to. Even when I laid down with Daryl at night, nothing seemed the same. When Dad and Daryl told me that with Glenn and Shane they’d go find Randall something sparked. A chill. A familiar chill rolled through me, but I couldn’t focus on it.

“Don’t.” I whispered, as they both stared at me. “Just don’t. Please.” I couldn’t say more, I couldn’t tell them why, but I knew that when they walked away, even more would change and I didn’t know if we would survive it.

 

 

DAYS AFTER SHANE’S DEATH, THE WALKER ATTACK AT GREENE FARM

Dad finally told us what Dr. Jenner had warned him about before blowing the entire damn CDC building sky high. He’d waited. Some would argue he waited too damn long, but he’d waited until things were at their absolute worst. The attack, after Carl was forced to put a bullet in Shane’s head, the rush from the farm, the side of a freeway, that’s when he finally had to tell us. Had to because Carl asked the question no one knew we had to ask. How had Shane turned when he hadn’t been bitten? Daryl had a similar question, because Randall had turned as well, and as far as he and Glenn had seen, there wasn’t a bite on him either.

And so, when things couldn’t seem bleaker, Dad proved they could. Now we knew. People didn’t have to be bitten to become a walking nightmare. They just had to die with their brain intact. I looked around the group and suddenly realized that it was even worse, we’d lost more people. Andrea, even if I thought it would happen didn’t mean I reveled in it, was gone. Patricia and Jimmy, gone. I blinked back tears. Enough, Jessi, I scolded myself as I watched the others become angry with Dad. Angry with his lack of warning. Enough.

“Enough.” I said, loud enough to be heard, not loud enough to get us attacked again. “Just stop. Stop being pissed. Stop being angry with Dad. Stop.” I looked up and realized that it had been days since anyone heard me speak. “Does this really change our situation? Knowing that we can all become whatever the hell those beasts are, does it change anyone’s urge to survive?” They all watched me. “I can’t do this. I can’t listen to the anger, and irritation at ONE more fucking thing we can’t change.”

Daryl slipped behind me to hold me. Offering what comfort he could. “She’s right. Don’t matter. We still gotta stay alive.”

“There’s a place for us,” Dad said, taking heart in my strength and conviction. “I wasn’t sure Jenner was right. Not until I killed Shane.” I noticed that Lori wasn’t looking at him and I knew that he’d told her before us. “Carl had to put him down.” The group grew quiet.

“Rick has honor,” Daryl’s voice shocked all of us. “I know he ain’t lying because I tracked Randall. He wasn’t bit. And Shane’s story didn’t match what we found.” My hands linked with his where he’d wrapped his arms around me.

Maggie speaks up to try to get Glenn to leave, that the rest of us aren’t for them. Hershel shushed her.

“I killed my best friend for you people, for Christ’s sake.” Dad nearly roared. I watched my baby brother bury his head in Lori’s shoulder. “Maybe you all are better off without me. I say there’s a place for us, but maybe it is another pipe dream.” I notice that no one seems to be leaving. “No takers? If you’re staying, this isn’t a democracy anymore.” He turned to walk away, and I pulled out of Daryl’s arms and rushed after him.

“Daddy?” I whispered once we’d gotten far enough away from the others. He turned and opened his arms. I rushed forward and let him wrap me up like he had from the moment I breathed air for the first time. “Thank you.”

“He was dangerous, baby, he was.” Dad breathed into my hair. “Lori knows it, but I’m not sure she’s gonna forgive it.” He sighed. “The others? They need to understand-”

I nodded against his chest. “I know.” I breathed in deeply, even through the sweat and blood, he still smelled like my daddy. “I know, I’ll try to help you as best I can. And I think Daryl will too.”

“Sure will,” Daryl’s voice spoke quietly from behind me. “I meant it, Rick, ya got honor. Bastard lied about too damn much.” He stayed a distance from us, letting me and Dad comfort one another for a moment. “Gonna be hard, gotta find somewhere before winter, and definitely before your next little one comes.”

“I’ve got the two of you,” Dad answered, releasing me and smiling at Daryl. “Should be a hellava help.”

Chapter Text

After leaving Hershel’s farm, learning about our fates should we die with our brains intact, and Dad declaring himself the unopposed leader we had to keep moving. And boy did we move.

Scavenging and searching for Dad’s elusive place of safety for us, we did nothing but move. Food became scarce, we all became conditioned for the harsh realities that this new world leveled on us.

Carol, no longer with her asshole husband haunting her every move and without Sofia to soften her, came out of the shell that surrounded her from the first moment I’d met her. She threw herself into learning how to shoot-both bullets and arrows (I may have insisted she learn bow first, seeing as crossbow was ‘cheating’). She came along in hand to hand, since knives and arrows were quieter and didn’t draw the bastards out, it became necessary to insist we all learn to do more than just shoot. She grew and soaked in the very harshness that I’d once cloaked myself in. Hershel, seeing that she needed and wanted more, began teaching her to assist him with the doctoring that we were all bound to need. Especially Lori.

Lori’s pregnancy was progressing as normally as possible given our world. She and Dad were still prickly toward one another. I feared that, in the entire mess of our new lives, they were losing sight of who they were as a couple, as my parents.

Carl, my little brother, became more dedicated than Carol at learning to survive. The look I’d seen on his face when he told Dad that Randall should die, grew as did the coldness I felt circling around him. His only light appeared to be Beth, Hershel’s younger daughter, as innocent as any of us could hope to be.

When winter bore down on us, it was almost crippling in its cold and we felt lucky to have found storage containers to use as a home. I felt it was prophetic. We were in storage, all our hopes and dreams, all the optimism and plans we had for the future were being locked away. Why not do the same to our bodies?

Every time we moved, it was the same. Daryl scouting ahead. Dad and Carl covering our retreat, and me in the middle maintaining peace and keeping Lori safe and as comfortable as possible. It was nowhere safe enough. And comfort? Is that a joke?

When we managed to stay somewhere more than one night, and even on those single nights, Daryl and I would fight for privacy. Any illusion we could make of being alone, we took advantage of. Our first stolen night came far too long after we left the farm, but it was well worth it. Finding peace together became our balm for the rest of the time. The fear that we both felt, the constant need to put out fires of discontent be it from lack of food or a question of Dad’s sanity would fall away, with as many clothes as we allowed ourselves to remove, and when we joined, our world felt right. It was never long enough. Never peaceful enough.

And the day that both Lori and Dad wished wouldn’t happen came. The day that our group found out that Lori’s baby might be Shane’s. I heard the whispers, I felt the looks. It didn’t matter. And I made sure that every single person knew that. Lori was the only mother I’d known. Dad was the only father that I could ever wish to have. It didn’t fucking matter who put the baby inside her, it was MY sibling. That was the ONLY thing that mattered.

If anything good could have been said about those months on the road, then knowing that Daryl and Dad grew closer. They became almost symbiotic in how they moved through deserted towns, through houses we searched for supplies in, with how they kept the rest of us safe. I was a little surprised when Lori noticed. I thought that she was numb to the world around her, with the coldness Carl and Dad seemed to radiate.

“I think Daryl’s growing on your daddy, Jessi.” She was smiling, watching the two of them study a map with some of the others. I’d stepped away from most of the planning early on, preferring to keep myself busy taking care of the others.

I smiled at the two of them, heads together, talking about our next moves. “Yeah,” I knew my tone was wistful because I was thinking about how our lives could have been. “I have to say, it’s a little weird.” I felt her turn her attention to me. “I mean, would they be this close if the world hadn’t gone to shit?”

Lori reached out and held my hand in hers. “If you’d chosen Daryl in that life, eventually I think they would have come to at least a sort of peace.” She squeezed my hand. “A person, even your dad, would have to be legally blind to not see how much he loves you.”

The elusive safe place: a fucking prison. I would have scoffed, but I reconsidered when I gave it a thought. The walls would be pretty fucking difficult to breach. It looked like a maximum security institution, which meant weapons. And if the world went to the crapper fast enough, there should be at least a partial stockpile of supplies.

Of course, since it was hard to get into, it was also a mess to get out of, hence the overabundance of the dead. Hearing Dad shout out orders to the rest, mine being keeping Lori safe at the fence, I thought perhaps it was going to be fucking impossible. Right up until we were watching our group sitting around a campfire, Beth and Maggie singing sweetly, and Daryl and I watching from high above the front gate.

“Well, Dixon, I guess we found the place.” I whispered, leaning back against his chest.

I felt him snort. “We found the outside of it, I guess.” I sighed and his arms tightened around me. “Ain’t gonna be easy to get inside, funny, spent most my life tryin’ to stay outta penitentiaries. Now gonna be fightin’ to get inside one.”

I turned in his arms and smiled up at him. “Yeah, but I bet you didn’t think you’d get to take your girl inside with you back then.” I raised an eyebrow and got his chuckle in return.

“Naw, didn’t think I’d get to do that.” He kissed me and we fell into the simple peace we yearned for, even if we couldn’t go further than that where we stood.

“Y’all are doing such a great job of guarding us,” Carol’s voice called up to us with a giggle. “Not sure the dangers are in your mouths, but you never know.”

I grinned down at her. “You know what Carol? I might have to keep watching all damn night, just to make sure!” Her chuckle rang up to us. She called us down to have dinner, and sighing I agreed. “Rather stay up here with just the two of us all night, Daryl Dixon, but I have a feeling we’re being summoned.”

 

Getting inside the walls was a nightmare. Never thought I’d see a walker wearing riot gear and bullet proof everything, but here we were. Once the dead assholes were taken care of, and we got inside, there were more undead fuckers. I was so fucking tired by the time we cleared the cell block that the mere thought of a cheap, uncomfortable mattress nearly made me scream. I had other duties though. I had to make sure that Lori had a real check up with Hershel.

Hearing the woman who had acted as my mother since I was too young to articulate my thoughts say that she feared her own baby dying and becoming a walker was heartbreaking. Dear God, I had to get her and Dad to sit down and fucking come to terms with their issues. Her fear of having a walker inside her, of dying and becoming one herself during childbirth nearly choked me. But hearing her ask, no demand, that Hershel take her out if that happens shocked me to tell her I’d do it. Anything to give her some form of peace. Anything to make her stop talking about something so gruesome.

After Lori’s check-up, Carl stayed with the ladies while Dad and the guys went to clear as much of the prison as they could. Of course we couldn’t have good luck in that. More fucking dead. More fucking problems. And now Hershel was unconscious, and had only one leg, because he was bitten. Dad was taking a chance, trying amputation instead of death for a bite. As I watched Maggie and Beth taking care of their father, I couldn’t help but wonder if anything would ever go right and well again.

Chapter Text

Never ask yourself during an apocalypse if things can get worse. Trust me on this, because just when you ask it, the universe fucking delivers the worst answer possible.

Hershel, our doctor, our spiritual anchor (for those of us who need one), was out of commission thanks to a bite by an undead fucker and Dad’s Civil War era medical treatment of “cut it off and cauterize it”. While he seems to be recovering, a bit anyway, what happens? More fucking surprises, that’s what.

If this shitstorm that the powers that be have attacked the entire world with ever ends, I swear to that same power that I NEVER want another surprise in my fucking life. EVER.

Dad and the guys went to clear more of the prison, so of course they found a group of prisoners who happened to survive. Of course. Because we don’t have enough issues, now we have convicts to contend with. I’m sorry, that sounds insensitive doesn’t it? Considering some attempted to kill our group, I think that’s a suitable response honestly.

After dealing with the dead, Hershel’s “accident”, some new survivors, and you know, the entire universe flipping us the bird, I really didn’t want to deal with anymore upheaval. Two of the prisoners are allowed to keep their own space, far away from ours on cell block C. While Dad and our group are discussing what precisely the best course of action would be to deal with these men, another fucking surprise. Because of course there’s another one.

Apparently one of the prisoners had gotten away (clearly not the two that our group tried to decide the fate for), and then led a group of walkers right inside with an alarm that was screaming so loud that it made my teeth hurt. Our group split up to try to find the generator that would allow the noise from hell to keep going. I stuck with Lori, Carl, and Maggie trying to keep them safe and as serene as the four of us could be given that there was a horde descending, and that’s when another fucking shock hit us.

Lori went into labor. Jesus, fuck. Carl and I tried to keep her calm, while Maggie, the only person with a hint of experience in medical care (because Carol had rushed off to try her newfound skills and Hershel was still alive, but not much help currently) tried to decide how best this delivery was going to go.

“I’m not losing my baby,” Lori growled, feeling the blood rush down her legs. “You’ve got to cut me open!” She was looking between Maggie and me.

I knew, watching Lori in such gripping pain, that it wasn’t going to work. Whatever Maggie, and possibly I, was going to have to do, wasn’t going to allow my stepmom to live. And so, as Maggie pulled out the knife to open Lori up, I told Lori something I’d held back for the entire time she and my dad were together.

“Mom,” I whispered, shocking Lori and Carl, “Mom, you know you’re the only woman I’d ever call that, don’t you?” I gripped her hand, looking into her pain filled eyes. “I’m so sorry I didn’t say that before. I love you, Mom.”

Lori smiled, and nodded her head at me. “I know, baby girl. I know.” Carl and I gripped our mom’s hands as I blinked back tears while Maggie brought the knife to her skin. “The two of you, you’re both smart and strong. You’re going to survive this world, together.” She looked into each of our eyes and gave a sad smile. “Don’t let this world spoil you. I may not have given you life, Jessi, but both of you are the best thing I ever did.”

I was openly crying now, feeling her grip slacken in mine as I heard the first cry from my baby sister. I heard Maggie stand, as if to leave the boiler room to clean the baby and get her away from the carnage of her birth, but Carl stopped her.

“We can’t just leave her here,” he offers, pulling his hand from Lori’s. “She’ll turn.” And then, without blinking, he did what I couldn’t do. He put his gun to her head and made sure our mom never felt the indignity of becoming a monster.

The baby’s cries bring me back to the moment, and I look up at Maggie holding the tiny baby. I stood and walked to her with my hands stretched out. I knew my face was soaked from the grief I felt about losing the only mother I’d ever known, but I knew what my responsibility was now. Maggie smiled sadly and handed her over. Tiny and pink, with a soft crown of fuzzy hair, I smiled down at the baby. My little sister.

I moved carefully from the room, rocking and hushing the baby. I needed her to quiet down a bit, terrified of what would happen if more of the walkers came staggering toward us now. I walked through the prison to the outer courtyard, and saw some of our group. Dad sees me with the baby, Carl and Maggie walking slowly and silently behind me. I watch as his face crumbles, and he collapses in grief, knowing that he and Mom will never make up for the months of strife. Seeing his pain, seeing his defeat, I feel more tears burn my eyes.

Chapter Text

Once Dad realized that Lori hadn’t made it, his overwhelming grief took on a tinge of rage. Possessed with the need to do SOMETHING, I watched helplessly as he grabbed his axe and moved purposely back inside the prison. My own grief, and that of my family, gripped my heart and made my chest ache.

Hershel, sensing that I needed some kind of reassurance, asked to give the baby her first check up. I was reluctant to hand her over. He smiled reassuringly at me, and took her gently from my arms. After a brief, but thorough examination, he handed her back to me and I felt myself sigh. She felt so tiny, so precious and I knew I had a new reason to live.

Hershel told our remaining group that she was healthy, but wouldn’t stay that way. “She needs formula. And soon, or she won’t survive.” I felt the tears burn my eyes again, and then felt Daryl come closer to me, looking down at her in my arms.

“Nope. No way.” He gritted out, seeing my eyes flush with tears. “We ain’t losing nobody else. I’m going for a run.”

Maggie was quick to agree. “I’ll back you up.”

“I’ll go too,” Glenn offered. I felt another clench of my heart. These people, not my blood, but still my family were willing to do anything to save my baby sister.

I looked up at Daryl and smiled through my pain. His hand came up to cup my cheek and I closed my eyes at the comforting gesture. It was finally decided that only Daryl and Maggie needed to go. Since I was going to be occupied with the baby, Glenn would try to find Dad and see if some kind of sense could be talked into him. He hadn’t even held the baby or acknowledged her yet.

After Daryl and Maggie leave, I sit down at a table and hold the baby as Carl drops next to me. “Want to hold her?” I ask him, smiling at how he’s looking at her. He gulps, but nods. I carefully hand him to her, showing him how to cradle her head. I smile at him, watching as he studies her. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Carl looked into my eyes and smiled. The pain is still there, but so is something I can truly understand. Devotion. To our little sister. To our family. “She’s perfect.” He whispers, watching her make sucking motions with her mouth.

I watch as Glenn and Hershel walk past with shovels. The two remaining prisoners, seemingly uncertain stand nearby. “How many?” I ask, quietly, but loudly enough for Glenn to hear.

“A third of our group in one day.” Glenn answers, and I am terrified to ask who.

Hershel, a man who rarely curses, gives his own input. “Because of one asshole.”
They walk further away, and I watch them begin to dig the graves of our fallen. I sigh, feeling more pain than I care to. I take in the remaining members of our group, and my stomach flips. Carol isn’t here. Neither is T-Dog. And Lori, of course. I feel a sob building, but won’t allow it to surface. Enough tears, Jessi, enough. It won’t bring them back. It won’t help feed the baby. It won’t do any fucking good at all.

 

HOURS LATER~

Glenn, after digging the graves for the dead, went looking for Dad. When he came back, alone, he could barely meet my eyes. I sighed, knowing that could mean nothing good. I asked, quietly while letting the baby be held by Beth, if Dad was still alive.

Glenn nodded, but he still didn’t look relieved. “It’s bad, Jessi. He’s not taking it very well.”

I squeezed his arm, thanking him for trying. Walking back to Beth, I reached for my baby sister. Finding as much comfort in her as she did in me. I heard Daryl and Maggie come back, and then Daryl was holding a bottle filled with formula out to me. I shook my head and he gave me a grin. Taking the baby from me, he gently cradled her and offered her the bottle.

“She got a name yet?” He asked me, smiling as he watched her suck at the bottle he’d provided.

Carl answered. “Not yet. But I was thinking maybe Sofia.” I felt a tear slide down my cheek. “Then there’s Carol, too. And… Andrea. Amy. Jacqui. Patricia. Or...Lori...I don’t know.” My cheeks were damp from the knowledge that we’d lost so many. Enough to name far too many babies.

Daryl had been watching me while Carl gave the options. He turned his attention to the baby who was sucking greedily from the prepared bottle. “Yeah… You like that?” He was being so soft with her, finally showing the rest of our group just how perfect he really was. “Huh? Lil Asskicker.” The group chuckled and he looked up with a small smile. “Right? That’s a good name, right?” He focused back on the baby, talking to her softly. “Lil Asskicker. You like that, huh? You like that, sweetheart?”

I’d only considered having a family with Daryl once. After that, the world and it’s bullshit took over. But watching him hold my baby sister, talking to her softly, and seeing just how wonderful he’d be at being a dad, I felt the hope take hold. One day, I promised myself, he’d have his own baby. With me. And I’d watch this scene play out differently.

 

The next morning, after waking up with the baby, feeding, and changing her, I watched as Daryl took her into his arms. He was a natural. And just like the night before, I wanted so badly to give him a family of our own.

“You’re starin’.” He whispered, taking a break from telling the baby how sweet and pretty she was. I smiled and moved closer to him, looking down at her and leaning my head on his shoulder.

“I was thinking about how much I want to give you this.” I answered quietly, reaching out to touch her soft head. “You’re amazing with her.” I felt his lips brush the top of my head. Tilting my head back, I offered my lips to him. He smiled and brushed mine with his.

“I’d love it.” He said, pressing his forehead to mine. “Love to have a baby with ya.”

And as though we could guess the other’s thoughts, we both said, “just not right now.” I giggled and he gave a chuckle. “One day,” I promised and his eyes darkened, either from the idea of making that baby, or the image of our family, I couldn’t decide.

The others were up and about soon enough. And then, surprising us all, Dad came into the room. He wanted to check on us, but he looked horrible. I felt fear clutch my heart as he took the baby and smiled down at her. He looked like a shell of his former self. He made sure that Carl and I were alright. We discussed her name, and Carl remembered the name of his favorite teacher. Judith. I nodded my agreement. While naming her for one of our lost, giving her a name untinged by that sorrow was a better option. And so, Judith Grimes, joined our family officially.

Chapter Text

Dad disappeared again not long after Judith was named. A part of me wanted to follow him, to try to get through the veil of grief he was covered in, but I knew that I had new responsibilities now. I had Judith to take care of, and Carl to keep an eye on. Not to mention being the mediator in our group, keeping everyone in some form of contentment.

Maggie and Glenn decided another run was necessary. Judith was going to need more of everything, and to be honest, I think the two of them needed a beat on their own. Daryl, usually the first to volunteer for anything that took him away from the rest of the group, seemed to sense that I needed him close. While they went looking for supplies, he took Carl and Oscar to clean any left behind walkers that Dad may have missed.

Hershel and Beth kept me company. The former veterinarian turned all around healer, seeming surprised by how easily I took to being Judith’s main caretaker.

“You look like you’ve been doing that your whole life.” He was smiling at me, standing and trying to get used to the crutch that would be his constant companion now.

I grinned back at him. “I have.” My answer is simple, and pretty damn truthful. “Or at least since I was six years old.” I could feel the strain of holding my smile at the very reminder of Carl’s birth. How Lori had shown me how to hold him. How driven I was, even at six, to learn everything I could about taking care of my baby brother. How proud I’d been to be given any responsibility for him. How happy I’d been to even have him, and Lori in my life. “She’s as big as Carl was, but luckily I’m slightly bigger now too.” I kissed her soft head.

“You think you and Daryl-” Beth began, but without looking up I can tell that Hershel has cut her off with a look.

Looking up at my two companions, I nod. “Yes, I do.” Funny, I thought, now the answer comes so easily and naturally to me. “Not yet, but one day.”

Hershel wanders away eventually, testing the crutch, or maybe he’s feeling like exploring. Leaving Beth and me together, and I wrack my brain to remember a time that the two of us were alone. She’s a sweet girl, a little too sheltered, but I can see the reason that Carl is drawn to her. She sings, usually Tom Waits songs, which helps keep Judith on an even keel. She also is the first to offer, aside from Daryl or Carl, to help me with her. Which, even in the few days that my sister has been in our care, is a great deal of help.

“Did you babysit much? Before, I mean.” I asked her, as she took Judith from me to give my arms a rest.

She smiles and nods. “Yeah, when I could. I’ve always loved babies.” Beth’s attention is on Judith, and I feel certain that my baby sister is safe.

When Hershel comes back, I can see that there’s an issue. Kissing Judith and telling Beth I need a moment, I pull him toward a quiet part of the prison, within sight of his daughter and my sister, but where we won’t be overheard.

“Your father,” he starts and my heart clenches. “He’s fine, at least physically, Jessi. But, he, well he thinks he’s speaking to another group on one of the prison’s telephones.”

I’m trying to make sense of what he’s saying. Dad’s hallucinating? Or is it a hallucination if it’s simply noises? “How do you know he hasn’t made contact with another group?” I know it’s farfetched, but I NEED to know that Hershel checked. That he has proof.

“I picked up the phone, Jessi.” He was somber, knowing that this was one more added burden to my current pile. “It was static, honey, there wasn’t anyway that he’d made contact.”

I nodded, feeling like I was close to breaking. Dad was the leader here. He had to be strong, but what if, what if we’d asked too much. What if he’d taken on too much? What if he was broken beyond repair? Would I have to step between my baby brother and my dad and make sure that Carl didn’t do another mercy killing?

“I wanted him to talk to me, to talk through it, but he won’t.” Hershel continued, and then I heard shuffling coming from the direction that Daryl had taken his group to clear the prison. There he came, cradling a very weak Carol in his arms.

Hershel and I rush forward, helping Daryl with her, getting her food and water. Daryl’s hand touches mine and I can see the relief he felt at finding her. One less person to memorialize. One less person to regret losing. I smile at him and take Judith from Beth’s arms, letting her take over with helping her dad. Standing next to Daryl, feeling his arm wrap around my waist to hold me and my sister closer, I know that he feels this is a major win. And I share the feeling, but it’s tempered by the knowledge that my dad is somewhere giving in to the demons of grief.

Chapter Text

Carol’s return marked a turning point of sorts for our group. I will forever equate that moment to Dad coming at least partially out of his grief. Her return will be linked with the first time we met Michonne. Her return will be put on the same page as the day our safe place, a prison, was on a scale between “can we make this work” and “danger will forever follow us”.

Dad came out of the room he’d been talking to imaginary people on the phone, if I were to believe Hershel. And I did believe Hershel. Dad had plenty to get through. High among them was definitely Mom’s death before they could find peace between one another.

We were eating, OK, I wasn’t eating. I was holding Judith while everyone around me ate. Dad looked gaunt and tired, and honestly a little shitty. He took in the baby in my arms and came to me, holding out his arms. I smiled and handed him the tiny bundle. Watching as he cradled her to him after taking the time to lift her carefully so he could take in her small face. I gulped, and felt Daryl move from his spot on the steps to sit next to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Dad, it was simply that he wasn’t himself. And that did scare me.

I followed him as he walked outside, taking Judith from him when he tried to give her to Carl. I watched as he walked toward the fence, eyes on something that I couldn’t make out. Carl rushed along with him, and I finally see, another survivor fighting the walkers that mill around outside the fence. Together, Carl and Dad manage to rescue this new person, taking out the dead that are bearing down on them as they pass out.

Carrying her inside, because once he’s closer I can see that it’s obviously a woman, Dad and Hershel look over her wound. Carl, I notice, has a shopping basket full of formula, which makes my heart clutch with fear. Dad managed to get her awake, and asked her for her name. Silence. And so a locked cell is what she receives.

Dad had a moment with Carol, and of course Daryl, like a proud papa had to let him know what a badass she had been. I smiled, watching the three of them. I realized that Carol hadn’t met Judith yet, so I walked over to show her. Her eyes filling with pain made me wish I hadn’t for a moment, and my heart nearly broke all over again when she apologized to Dad, when she realized that Mom hadn’t made it.

While we’re reconnecting, I realized that we had an audience. The total badass katana woman was watching intently from her cell. I nudged Dad and he walked back to try again with her.

Her name, we finally learned, was Michonne. And she confirmed the churning fear building in my stomach. Glenn and Maggie had been taken. They were kidnapped by people from another group. A town of 75 that lived in a place called Woodbury, run by a man who fancied himself “The Governor” and who Michonne confirmed was more than a little like Jim Jones. She offered Dad a way in, to find and rescue our missing members, but I could tell she had more that she wanted to finish there as well.

And so, Dad, Oscar, and Daryl (of course) decide to take her up on the offer. Carl, along with me and Judith, accompany them outside as they load up a car with weapons and supplies. Dad, taking Carl and I away from the others, instructs us to keep our group safe (Carl’s job) and to keep the peace (falling on my shoulders once again). It’s easy to agree. It’s what we do, the Grimeses. Then Daryl takes a turn, Dad taking Judith from my arms, and leaving us a tad bit of privacy.

“I know you’re worried, Jessi.” His arms wrap around me and I let my head settle over his heart. “Don’t, please, I promise I will always find my way back to ya.” I feel his lips on the top of my head and tilt my head back, offering my lips instead. A long, slow good-bye kiss and I promise to try to keep my worry down.

 

“Come back to me, Daryl Dixon.” I plead, and his smile almost tears me in two. Everything we’ve experienced seems to be together, and only bad shit happens when we’re apart. “I love you.”

“Love ya, too, Jessi.” He hugs me tight and then he’s gone. Along with Dad and Oscar, and this new woman, who I pray isn’t leading them where they won’t return.

 

They’ve barely left out sight when I’m with Carol inside the prison discussing Judith and her sleeping arrangements. She’s taken a turn holding my little sister and I can see her perking up from just that tiny bit of contact. Her attention is redirected, behind me, Axel, the other prison survivor is ‘flirting’ with Beth. Beth, a child compared to this moron. Matching Carol’s steps, together we confront him. And then he bemoans the lack of available women.

“Maggie’s with Glenn, you’re with Daryl,” he jerks his head in my direction, “and you’re a lesbian.” Another jerk, this one at Carol.

I have to hold back my urge to laugh. Carol informs him, with a large dose of snark that she is NOT a lesbian, and then I can’t hold back my laughter, at him when he attempts to charm her. Watching Carol stalk away, Judith secure in her arms, I turn back to the poor man.

“Not the best way to get the tiny bit of available female attention there, asshat.” Shaking my head, I follow Carol back to the common area.

 

I should be shocked when my brother turns up with five new people. I should be, but somehow I’m not, even before Hershel and he explain that they heard screaming coming from the tombs and he chose to investigate ALONE. One woman, apparently the wife of one of the men, the mother of another, has been bitten. Carl and I insist that she must be taken care of, in the final and definitive sense. Their leader, a large man who may have intimidated me in the past insists that they take care of their own, so shrugging, we lock them in a room on their own. Fine, I think, then take care of it.

When it’s done, Hershel insists on taking care of the new widower’s wound. I stand by, leaving Judith in the care of Beth and Carol for a moment, and listen. The leader asks for permission to bury their dead, and Hershel gives them good warning. Telling them that not all of us are so trusting of newcomers, and that they shouldn’t get comfortable. As he leaves, I step forward to relock the door.

I watched, from a careful distance, with Judith in my arms, as much later I gave the go ahead for them to bury their dead. Realizing that I didn’t offer any implements to help their gravedigging, I tell Axel and Beth to take some shovels to them.

When Dad returns, I can hear the gates being pulled open and shut by Carol and Carl who took guard duty. I rush forward as he comes in, and takes Judith from me who begins to scream. Looking behind him, I see Glenn and Maggie, then the warrior woman, but not who I want to see. Where the hell is Daryl? And my heart, nearly the end of it’s fine tether, almost shreds when Dad tells us he didn’t come back with them. That his death isn’t confirmed. That he may be alive, but out there, makes my one shred of hope flay.

Dad won’t meet my eyes when he tells me. He won’t look at me when I take Judith from him, holding her to give and take what comfort I can. He won’t meet my eyes when he talks to Hershel about our new survivors. He won’t look in my direction, and it makes that same fear that was growing almost explode out of my chest.

Chapter Text

Hershel, as I sit alone dealing with my pain and cradling Judith while feeding her a bottle, tries to break it to Dad that we have newcomers. Dad, confronting the new group, tells him he doesn’t want nor need the responsibility. Their leader tries to convince him that they’d carry their own weight, but then, out of the blue when I think Hershel was beginning to think Dad had made a different choice, I witness Dad go rigid. He’s not looking at the group, or even at any place that holds a human. Staring up at the walkway above us, he starts yelling. Asking “what do you want from me?” and telling this imaginary terror that he “Can’t help you.” and “Get out!”

Glenn, seeing that I’m broken, that our newcomers are getting freaked out, takes it upon himself to hussle them outside. I’m thankful, as I watch Dad pace the common room frantically.

 

The next day dawns with the strangers gone. Glenn, learning from Carl that they had found a way into the prison that no one witnessed, recruits him to help him reinforce the prison. When they return, I have to say I didn’t notice how long they’d been gone, they give us more great news. The boiler room, where Mom died, was overrun with walkers once more. Hershel wants us to retreat, but where? So Glenn, showing more leadership than I’d ever noticed from him, takes Maggie so they can attempt to find the breach that brought the group into our ‘safe place’ as well as the walkers.

It could have been hours later, or it could have been minutes, but Hershel comes to me to let me know that Glenn has driven off in a rage. Dad had wandered off into the forest, reiterated by Michonne, who mentions to me that she witnessed him having an intense conversation with no one. Hershel admits that Dad mentioned seeing Mom, and that Dad feels it means something. I think, sure, it means he’s lost his fucking mind.

Then, in another blink, I learn that Axel is dead. And before I can think, we’re fully under attack. I’m numb, not the same numb I felt when I took care of Sofia, but numb so all I can focus on is keeping Judith safe. I leave the fighting to the others. I leave it to everyone else, because Judith and Carl are all that I can care about, even Dad seems far from me now.

When Daryl returns with Merle, I unthaw, barely. I don’t understand. Anything. And I fear that I won’t ever get the full story.

I do know this, when the dust settles, when the walkers are contained to the outer fence and The Governor and his minions are gone, this isn’t over. Not by a long shot. This was just the initial offensive.

As they regrouped, I felt more removed from the others. I hadn’t contributed, and I didn’t regret it, but I didn’t feel a part of the entire situation. Daryl wrapped his arms around me and Judith, as I vaguely listened to Hershel calling again for a retreat. And in the back of my mind, I wondered, again where? Merle shocked me, his new hand, his almost compliance to being detained. He told us that The Governor, his master (former or current I didn’t know) had the firepower and manpower to kill us all. On that cheerful thought, I begged off and went to the cell that I’d taken against Daryl’s insistence that he’d prefer the perch. I was not, then nor now, going to be intimate with him somewhere that fucking open.

I listened as Hershel boomed, at my dad I realized that he’d “said this wasn’t a democracy. Now you need to own up to that. And do something!”

I heard a familiar pattern of my brother’s stomping run and knew he’d chased after our father.

Daryl didn’t join me. I sat holding Judith, thankful when Beth brought me a bottle for her, and waited. I was certain that plans were being made. I was certain that preparations were being made. I was also certain that I was no use to any of it. I heard an argument break out over Merle, sides were taken, and Hershel surprised me again by giving Merle his backing.

Eventually Daryl came to find me. He watched from the doorway as I smiled down at Judith in my arms, rocking her and feeling like she was the only thing anchoring me to the earth for now. When I look up, seeing him almost too relaxed given the situation that brought us here, I try to smile.

“I’m glad you came back to me.” I scootch over, giving him room to sit beside us. “What happened?”

Daryl Dixon, who has made eye contact with me since the day we met, wouldn’t meet my eyes. He focused on Judith. He looked at the edge of my shoulder. Anywhere, but my eyes. He muttered getting separated from Dad and the others, and that it didn’t matter, since he was with me now.

“I’m happy you have Merle back,” I offered, giving him Judith to hold for a bit. “It’s just, he’s not always the best person for you.” I bit my lip, watching him cradle my sister. “Please, Daryl, don’t let him bring you down.”

He kissed me, telling me things that I couldn’t hope to decipher in the kiss. Except his love, of course, that was loud and clear.

 

And then, because life wasn’t fucked up and all around batshit enough-Andrea showed up.

Apparently, Dad failed to mention quite a bit about their time in Woodbury. For instance, Andrea is alive. And shacked up with The Governor. And Michonne and her are besties. And, now I’m wondering what else he left out of their field trip.

Andrea, winning the award for worst taste in men ever, swears she’s on our side. Sure, I think, holding Judith tighter than necessary especially when her eyes lock on my sister’s existence. She swears that The Governor, Philip she calls him, wants to negotiate. She turns her doe eyes on Dad, begging him to consider. Dear God, I think, turning away and taking Judith far from this scene, I hope that Dad isn’t completely addled and agrees with her.

Dad, trying to broker peace with Andrea, with Carol’s backing, takes Judith to allow the witch to hold her. Using my sister to try to get this woman to kill her new boyfriend, sure ok. That’s absolutely going to work. And while she’s at it, maybe she can find a cure for whatever that causes people to go rabid after death. I’m sure that’s just as fucking likely.

And then, my ever gracious father gives her a car to drive back to the enemy.

That night, as Daryl holds me, Beth gives us another acapella concert. As she sings, Dad gestures for Daryl and Hershel to join him. I give them space, still not wanting a part in any of it, feeling that too much is being kept from me to matter. And rocking Judith, I decide that at some point, I won’t care about much at all.

 

Dad decides that he’s going on a run back to our former home. As in where he, Mom, me, and Carl lived prior to the unholy hell we currently live in. He picks Michonne and Carl to accompany him, still having issues meeting my eyes. It’s for weapons, he says. To stockpile against an onslaught that Merle keeps warning us about.

I go about my business at the prison. Feeling that Daryl and Merle need some brother-time. Feeling that the others need their own space. Mostly just needing some alone time. I gave Judith to Beth and Carol, and walked to a lonely spot, away from everyone, and sat with my thoughts.

Dad couldn’t look at me. Daryl was having similar issues, going so far as to sleep in the perch by himself, after all. Judith, this tiny being that was reliant on me for everything now, was becoming the symbol of hope for the group. And here I was, feeling like alone was where I was going to be stuck.

“I can’t believe he finally made a move on you.” I heard Merle’s voice say, from below where I’d found a quiet spot. “Thought for sure you’d end up with someone else before he’d man up.”

I rolled my eyes, and looked down at Daryl’s brother. “Maybe he didn’t make the move, ever think of that, smartass?” He chuckled and climbed up beside me. “Truth was, we moved together.”

Merle settled beside me. “I’m glad, however it happened, that it did.” He was looking out across the horizon that I’d been studying. “He deserves it, you.”

“I know.” I answered, feeling my chest tighten at the thought that he was keeping things from me.

“It was because of me.” He said, causing me to glance at his profile. “The reason he didn’t come back with the others. Your daddy made him choose, and he stayed with me.”

I felt a tear fall. Ah, Merle over me. “I see.”

He shook his head, glancing over at me. “I don’t think you do. It wasn’t cause he gave up on you, how the hell do you think we ended up back here?” He reached over with his real hand and brushed my tears away. “Hell, I thought he’d toss my ass in a river to get back to you.”

I tried to smile, but I couldn’t believe that Dad and Daryl, the two who had made so much progress had argued to the point that this had to happen. “I’m sorry about Dad.” It was weak, but it covered so much. “He’s-” I didn’t know how to finish that. He’s distraught over Mom. He was unnerved by the world he woke up in that he didn’t know to show you more humanity and left you behind on a roof. He hasn’t been himself, not really, for some time now.

“Don’t be.” He brushed it off and refocused on the horizon. “My brother needs you. That’s all that matters.”

We went down not long after our heartfelt chat. Daryl was waiting, Judith in his arms, when I went inside. He finally met my eyes, and I nodded. I understood, sort of. He pulled me to him, shifting Judith so he could hold the two of us.

“I’d rather die than be away from ya, Jessi.” My heart clenched in pain at the mere thought. “But he’s my brother, and Rick was being-”

I shushed him. One day, hopefully soon, the three of us would have to sit down and discuss it. But for now, with Dad being away, I shelved it. For now, I’d take what I had and enjoy it. Even if it felt like it was all on borrowed time.

Chapter Text

When Dad, Carl, and Michonne returned from gathering guns, I realized that my little brother had ulterior motives for going on the run. They unloaded the car and I chuckled when I saw the crib box. And then Carl came over to me, Judith in my arms, and held out a framed photo. Tears sprang into my eyes. It was a photo from our favorite place to go out to eat during better times. The owner had taken it as our family sat our regular table and put it over the bar, along with his other regulars.

“I wanted Judith to have something that we could show her to tell her about Mom.” He smiled, and I hugged him to me, squishing our baby sister in the process. Carl chuckled and pulled away. Kissing Judith’s cheek, he rushed back to help Dad and Michonne with the weapons, ammo, and the crib.

I turned to go back inside, but Dad’s voice calling my name stopped me. “Jessi,” I waited. “Could I have a minute?”

He sounded uncertain. And I waited until he was confident that Michonne, Carl, and the others who came out to help had the unloading and moving of the supplies inside under control. Dad tilted his head toward a quiet spot away from the others.

“I, Jessi, I-” He stopped and rubbed his hand down his face, trying to collect his thoughts. “I know you’ve been worried about me. I know I’ve been acting strange lately.”

Strange? More like completely ruined by grief, but OK. I shrugged, thinking about Daryl being left behind for sticking up for his family. A family, I might add, that Dad had left handcuffed to a roof in Atlanta.

“It’s just-” His blue eyes watered as he looked down at me. “I’ve been seeing HER.” I watched his eyes pinch closed, either fighting his tears or trying to force the image away. “Lori-” his pain was so heavy that my heart clenched. “She shows up, and I can’t focus on anything, but her. And how I failed-her, Carl, you.”

Shit. His guilt. All the guilt he was feeling was piling on and breaking him. “Dad,” I touched his hand and he met my eyes again. “You never made peace with her. Not really, not before she-” my own eyes burned with tears and I kissed Judith’s head, causing his eyes to flicker to my sister. “You need to let it go. The guilt? Aren’t we all guilty of not doing everything we can in this shitty world? You can’t keep letting it run you.”

“I didn’t want to leave Daryl behind, Jessi.” He whispered, and I saw him swallow hard. “He’s too- The two of you are too important to me to do that. But I didn’t think-”

I shushed him, much as I had Daryl. “I don’t agree with what you did, Dad. That’s his family, his only blood family left.” I bounced a newly agitated Judith, clearly picking up on the strain of the atmosphere around her. “But, I do get it. Somewhat. Merle isn’t the easiest person to trust. But, he is someone with experience, not just with the Governor, but with other tactics.” I was thinking of his military service.

Dad wrapped me and Judith in his arms. I felt him kiss the top of my head, and when he pulled back, he gave Judith her own bit of affection. I offered her to him to hold, but he shook his head. “Not right now, honey, I should help them put everything away.” He smiled, a rarity as of late. “And I think I have a crib to assemble with Carl.”

 

As the day went on, I watched the way Carl interacted with Michonne. They seemed at ease around one another, playful. I was smiling, arms free since Carol and Beth had commandeered Judith away from me, when Daryl’s arms came around me. He propped his head on top of mine and watched with me.

“Seems like he likes her.” His voice rumbled over the top of my head. I nodded, and allowed myself to relax into the strength of his arms. “Don’t got lil Shitkicker with ya right now.” It wasn’t a question, but I knew where his mind was heading.

I turned in his arms and tilted my head to look up at him. “Sounds like you may be thinking of something, Daryl Dixon.” His smile told me everything I needed to know.

Daryl led me back inside, through hallways, until he found the destination he was aiming for, what used to be the prison laundry. It was private, and as he pulled me through the doorway and shut the door behind us, I realized that he’d put some effort into the room. He’d tossed a few of the cell mattresses on the floor, and a blanket or two to soften the “bed”.

I drew him to me and our lips met. Daryl’s kisses were always surprising to me. Soft lips, urgency, even all the passion in the world was in each one, but every single time it was different. We took our time, like we hadn’t been able to since our first night together as a couple. Taking one another’s clothes off. Touching every inch of the other. Relearning the things that made him gasp and moan, while he reminded himself of every spot that earned him my lips uttering a prayer that sounded like his name.

By the time we fell, completely naked onto the bed that he’d created for us, all of the strain of not being able to have this, one another was falling away. When he finally joined us together, I knew without a doubt, that this man was the only future that I could be certain of. He and I, together, and we could face whatever hell that unleashed next.

 

Hours later, when Daryl and I emerged from our hideaway, Carl met my eyes and I knew he needed a moment with me. Kissing Daryl as he moved to talk to Dad, I went to my little brother and saw that he’d taken a turn keeping Judith occupied while I was taking a break. I reached for her and he handed her to me with a smile.

“How was the trip back home?” I asked, as we walked to a quiet spot letting me sway with the baby in my arms.

“Weird.” Carl answered and I thought I understood. “Met that guy that Dad kept trying to reach by walkies.” I raised an eyebrow, wondering why Dad hadn’t mentioned it. “He’s not in great shape, but he gave us the weapons and ammo.” He shrugged, clearly not interested in this unknown element. “I wanted to talk about Michonne.”

I took a seat and he sat down next to me. “What about her?” I cradled the quiet and napping Judith in my arms, but kept my focus on Carl.

He took a breath and started to confirm what I’d seen with my own eyes. Carl and Michonne had grown close during the run. She was a badass (which I never doubted), but she was also caring. She had been the one to fetch the photo, after he’d dropped it during a horde situation. They clearly bonded, but he worried that Dad would keep his word and send her away.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, glancing down at Judith’s tiny mouth sucking in her sleep. “I’ll talk to him, if you want?”

Carl grinned and hugged me without jostling Judith too much. “Yeah, that would be great, Jessi!” I patted his arm with my hand, careful not to drop the baby and answered his smile with one of my own. He almost looked like the little brother he’d been before this entire mess, almost.

 

I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t feeling safe or content or fucking happy with the situation at all. Andrea, clearly unable to kill her Jim Jones clone boyfriend, had informed us that she’d managed to convince him to have a sit down with Dad to negotiate the situation.

What’s to negotiate? He did something terrible to Maggie, we all knew that, even if we didn’t know the particulars. He tortured Glenn, using Merle as his implement, and then doing God knew what to him as well. He tried to have Merle and Daryl fight to the fucking death, for ENTERTAINMENT. Let’s not bring up the attack on our safe place. Hordes of zombies aren’t the best “welcome to the neighborhood” present, but who I am to feel that way? But sure, let’s negotiate.

“Jessi,” Dad sounded pained, as though I was the one who wasn’t thinking logically. “I have to at least try.” No, I thought, you really don’t.

And then, because he didn’t think my fear was at a high enough pitch, he decided to take Hershel and Daryl with him. Of course, Dad, just take the man I love and our ONLY healer on this run because fucking Andrea can be trusted. Absolutely.

Daryl put his arms around me and tried to calm my nerves. He tried, but he knew he’d fallen short when I kissed him like I was saying goodbye to him. I realized, after the last time, every single time he had to go I would have to do this. Because he wasn’t safe, none of us were, but right now he definitely had more danger in front of him than behind.

“Don’t say goodbye,” he ordered, showing the first signs of fear I’d seen from him ever. “Don’t, Jessi, don’t jinx us.”

I looked down at my feet and sighed. “If I don’t-” I swallowed the lump that had rushed back into my throat at the first mention of this meeting. “Then one of us may not feel peace if the other doesn’t come back, or if the other person comes back to even worse.”

It sounded hard put, not worded right, but I couldn’t say the words. I couldn’t tell him that if he didn’t come back to me alive, I would become worse than Dad had when Lori died. I couldn’t remind him that he wasn’t the only one in danger. What if they left and the Governor took the distraction as an opening and came in to kill the people left behind? What if he came back to me, but I was dead? Goodbye isn’t a dirty word, not anymore. It was simply a precaution. Dad hadn’t said goodbye to Lori, and look at what he’s going through, I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. Saying it out loud, giving actual credence to it outside what Hershel and I talked about would make it really real.

Daryl was going to fight me on this. I knew it. He’d prefer to NOT consider one of us at the wrong end of a bullet, walker, or any other multitude of ways we could die. Yet, I saw what happens to those who put on rose colored glasses and pretend that they’re safe. Yes, I felt we could face the dangers side by side, but we weren’t. We haven’t for some time been facing them together. He was Dad’s soldier, friend, and second. And I was the caretaker, the calm-keeper, and that put a wrench in our ability to keep one another safe. I knew he wouldn’t want to hear my fears, not now, but one day, very soon we’d have to face it. All of it.

This was why, when they were ready to leave, I said goodbye, but Daryl didn’t. He wouldn’t. Dad, understanding my fears, hugged me tight and offered me his own. We knew, better now than just about anyone, what not saying it to someone you love could mean. I even hugged Hershel, this man who kept saving my family and who had become family too.

As I walked back inside, I smiled as Glenn took charge. And then I had to step between him and Merle, something I had the feeling I’d be doing frequently. Of course I thought, hearing Merle say we should ambush the meeting to kill the asshole and his cronies.

“We can’t, Merle,” I try, still between the two of them one hand held up in front of each man. “It’s too fucking dangerous.”

Merle starts to argue, but Glenn chimes in reminding him that Daryl is there. That Daryl, Dad, and Hershel could be lost in crossfire. I can see Merle’s about to argue, the consummate attack first, worry later soldier. Merle stomps off, and I share a look with Glenn. He wouldn’t give up that easily.

Sure enough, we caught Merle filling a duffel with weapons. He and Glenn clashed again, things were said, things that weren’t great to witness, but there was a part of me that completely understood where he was coming from even if I didn’t agree. I let Maggie and Michonne deal with the two of them when it comes to blows. When it looks like they aren’t going to be able to talk them down, I take the gun that Dad had started requiring each of us to carry from my waist, and fired one shot into the ceiling. Shocked, by the noise, by the action, everyone stopped. I stared them all down, and then walked away, because Judith had begun to cry.

Chapter Text

I felt like I could breathe easier only when Dad, Daryl, and Hershel returned. The fear was still heavy, and it wasn’t lessened when Dad informed us that we were, essentially at war now. Daryl told me later that he’d learned as much from one of the Governor’s henchmen. That the meeting was for show, but in the end, it wouldn’t be worth shit.

I watch Dad as he takes Hershel aside, and wonder if he’ll ever be safe to mourn Lori. If we’ll all ever have an actual breather to just BE, instead of constantly having to fight and push.

It doesn’t surprise me when he takes Daryl and I aside later on. He wanted to share a caveat that the Governor offered him. Hand Michonne over and they’d be left alone. I share only a brief look with Daryl, my mind on Carl’s growing attachment to her. I shake my head and Daryl agrees with me, “It’s just ain’t us, man.” His arm is around my shoulders, holding me against his side as we look at my dad’s face. I’m not certain we’ve convinced him that handing her over is a bad idea. He’d do almost anything for a peaceful solution.

Later, I stand guard in a tower as Daryl and Michonne work together with Glenn and Beth to lay spike strips at the prison gate. When they come closer, I ask what’s the plan, and she grins up at me. She tells me that we don’t necessarily have to beat them, we just have to make it a pain in the ass to get inside. I chuckle and can see why Carl likes her so much. Fierce, yes, but also clever. A great addition to our little group.

When I walk back inside after guard duty, I can see Carol and Merle facing off. Moving closer, in case I have to once again step between Merle and another fight, I overhear her tell him to pick a side already.

“I’m only here for my brother,” Merle growls, still feeling about as welcome as a fucking boil.

Carol snapped back, “Yeah, well he’s with us.”

Merle smirks and answers, “No, he’s with Jessi.”

Dear God, I think, he truly doesn’t get it. Why Daryl sticks with us, all of us. He thinks that Daryl is just staying because we’re together. Shaking my head, I wait until they part, Carol going to check on my baby sister.

“You know that’s not true, right?” I ask when we’re alone. “He’s not just here for me.”

Merle gives a snort of disbelief. “Really?” He raises an eyebrow. “He wouldn’t even consider running off with me, girl. The only words out of his lips, aside from arguing about which way was the right one, was your damn name and how he had to get back to ya.”

I shook my head. “He loves me, sure, and I love him. But this group, we count on one another, Merle. And your brother is one of the most important people here. Trust me, he’s not just here for me.” Before he could argue, I walked away.

As the Greene family holds hands praying, my eyes meet Dad’s. I can see his uncertainty over the deal the Governor offered, but I also see something else. He’s seen her again, I can tell. He’s seen Lori.

Dad and Daryl take a moment to themselves as I take Judith for a bit of a walk outside. I’ve barely stepped into the prison yard, when I hear the two of them calling to me. Looking over my shoulder at them, I see a look of panic. What now?

“Merle and Michonne aren’t here.” Dad offers, showing a guilt that I didn’t expect. “He- we- there was a moment-”

I close my eyes. Of course Dad would go to Merle. Of course. And Merle, always willing to go with the WRONG fucking plan jumped to it. Opening my eyes, I waited for more fucking bad news. Daryl touches my cheek, refocusing my attention to him. “I gotta track ‘em.” Sure, right, absolutely. “Find ‘em before Merle does something stupid.”

Something stupid that my dad condoned and plotted with him to do. Why not? Another fucking goodbye. Another day spent in fear and worry. Clearly that was going to be my constant state from here on out. Using Judith as armor so I wouldn’t have time to fucking deal with the fear and worry, that would be my only course of pain control. Shaking my head, I turned away from both of them and walked my baby sister around the yard, not welcoming either of them to join me or to follow.

 

I miss a great deal during the following hours. I don’t realize that Glenn ‘married’ Maggie. I don’t notice Dad announcing he’s finished being supreme ruler of our group. I don’t vote for war or peace. I don’t even notice when Michonne comes back alone. I have done what I promised myself. I have thrown myself fully into the care of Judith. I won’t watch Carl to see if the harshness in his eyes has grown. I won’t watch Dad to see if his sanity is on the fritz. I won’t watch and wait and pray. Not now. Not anymore.

I’m bouncing Judith on my hip and making her a bottle when I feel Dad come up behind me. “Let me take her for a while,” he offers, his voice low. “You need a break.”

I shake my head, keeping her in my arms. “No, I don’t.” I manage, popping the bottle nipple in her mouth and kissing her forehead. “This is my focus now, Dad. Her. That’s it.” I don’t look up at him. I don’t want to see whatever emotions cross his face. “You and Daryl can save the fucking world from here on out. I’ll do the old fashioned kitchen baby shit.”

I walk away, not feeling like dealing with anything other than formula, diapers, and cribs. The rest of the world is madness, but Judith won’t know of it, not for now. Not on my fucking watch.

 

I’ve managed to go to sleep, a troubled nap while Judith has her own more peaceful version. I can feel Daryl’s body press into mine as he climbs into the sparse bed of a cell I’ve claimed. I add his presence to my dream, until I feel the dampness of his face press into the curve of my neck. Tears? What the hell?

I roll over, letting his arms stay locked around me and search his face. I know that pain. That grief that looks like it’s swallowing him whole. Merle’s dead. Gone. His face shows that he has no blood family left, and he doesn’t have to say it, doesn’t have to tell me what he was forced to do. I know, because it’s what Carl was forced to do. What Andrea had to do.

I pull his head to my shoulder and hold him as he lets it out. The pain. The grief. The anger. I want him to have the time to process, but that just isn’t the world we live in anymore. So instead, I give him this, the peace of me holding him while he gets as much as he can out. He’ll want to have a stronger look on his face when he really sits down with the others, and I give him that time to be able to force it.

“I love you.” I whisper, kissing his hair. “I love you and I know it doesn’t make it better, but I do.”

I feel him calming. The tears slowing, and then, when he’s collected himself a bit, he pulls away and looks into my eyes. “It does make it better.” He tries to smile, but he’s in so much pain that it’s fleeting. “I love ya. And that does makes it easier, somehow.”

When Daryl goes to talk to Dad and the others, he learns everything that I ignored. He returns and is astonished that I didn’t bother to keep informed. When I shrug, he pulls me to him and kisses me. “Ya can’t give up, Jessi.” His voice is fierce. “Ya can’t, cause then what do I got left?”

“I haven’t given up,” I correct. “I’m just refocusing my efforts to other shit.” At that Judith starts to fret. Standing I go to her and get her out of the crib, she needs a diaper change, so I do that, redressing her and holding her against my chest. “She doesn’t need any of this bullshit, and she won’t have to know about it for a good long time.” My voracity matches his.

“Glenn and Maggie are married now.” He whispers and I raise an eyebrow. Interesting. “Your dad don’t wanna be leader in the absolute sense.” I shrug. “And we’ve got a plan.”

I sigh. “What’s my part to play?”

 

I only return to the group after Daryl fills me in. I offer a smile of congratulation to the newlyweds, I nod at the others, and I sit with Judith on my lap as they make preparations for war. I find myself nearly screaming when Carol tries to offer some kind of fucked up in memorial of Merle, by admitting that he gave them better odds. I shoot a look at Daryl, but he’s barely listening. Thank fucking God, I think, because reminding his fucking brother that he at least did something good in his life, by Carol’s standards wasn’t exactly appropriate in my mind.

 

Dad’s plan, in between visits from Mom, is pretty simple. Pack all our shit up in the vehicles, just in case. There are a multitude of “in cases” but the two main ones are: in case we’re being watched, which has a good likelihood of being correct, and of course, just in case we have to flee. Michonne, I’m happy to see, has been accepted finally by Dad. I sense a tension between Dad and Carl, and feel a flash of curiosity about the source, but then Judith’s hand wraps in a loose strand of my hair and tugs, trying to get free.

Our preparations are finished quicker than I expected. My part of the plan is simple and safe. Judith and I are to take a walk to a vehicle that’s hidden full of supplies we’ll need during the attack. A walkie is with me, so Dad or Daryl can let me know if I have to beat a hasty retreat or to tell me it’s safe to come back through a code that will let me know if they’re only contacting me under distress.

The walk makes sense. I take her out almost daily, careful of the route, even if I rarely leave the gates. Anyone watching won’t bother with us, and if they do, I have more than one way to stop them from harming us. The rest of the plan is ambush. Make the prison seem deserted and then attack. Like trapped animals, they’ll be slaughtered, but at this point it’s the only way.

I leave when I’m told to. Walking as though Judith and I are just enjoying the sunshine. That we have nothing more in mind than a casual stroll. I reach the hidden car without issue, sidestepping walkers easily, and keeping Judith quiet. I lay her down on the passenger’s seat, happy to see whomever stocked the car put everything within reach so I don’t have to get out. Getting in, shutting the door and setting the locks on all the doors, I wait.

I can hear gunfire in the distance. Yelling, gunfire, and some other noises that I don’t want to consider. Picking up Judith, I push the seat back so we can sit comfortably while we wait for it to end. One way or the other, it has to end.

The walkie comes alive and my hand shakes as I lift it. Dad, it’s Dad’s voice telling me that they’re going after the Governor. He fled, with some of his followers, and so the fight has to continue on the road. I don’t have to ask who “they” are. Daryl will go, of course, and anyone else who wants to. But definitely Daryl. Another parting, another worry that I won’t get to say goodbye. Maggie and Glenn are staying behind to stand guard, he lets me know, and I know he wants Judith and I to return. To be safe within the walls of the prison that is now our home.

Inside the prison is a mood of jubilant victory, tempered only by the wait to see if Daryl, Dad, and Michonne are successful. I learned that I wasn’t the only one to sit the fight out. Hershel and Beth were waiting in the woods with Carl to defend them. My mind hadn’t been on anything except my part, and I am happy to see that we came through unscathed, so far.

Unscathed, but seeing Hershel shooting a look in Carl’s direction, I realize something troubling must have happened. Dad returns, with Andrea’s body in tow and a bus filled with Woodbury survivors, including Tyrese and Sasha, the two that Carl had found and Dad had pushed out. Hershel and Beth welcome our new members, and I see the hatred and anger on my baby brother’s face as he confronts our dad about welcoming them into our home.

Moving forward with Judith still in my arms, I try to get between them. Carl looks deadly, but he’s still my baby brother, so I hand Judith to Dad and pull him away. “What’s going on with you?” I ask, away from the others, away from Dad. “This isn’t you, Carl. This anger. This hate.”

His blue eyes, looking incredibly like Dad's, are flashing at me as his fists clench. “They tried to KILL us, Jessi. They all were a part of it, so why give them a chance?” I feel my heart clench. My little brother, so hardened by this new fucking world that he’d rather line up survivors and kill them all then consider they made a bad choice.

“No, they didn’t.” I whisper, reminding him that these people, the ones mingling in our group, stayed back. “You can’t just kill everyone, Carl.”

He walks away from me without another word.

Chapter Text

After the Governor’s defeat, our community at the prison grew and thrived. Dad and Hershel made plans to use the fertile land surrounding us for farming. Carl worked hard to go back to being “normal”. Beth found love. Daryl and Glenn managed to find peace between them, and worked together on runs and keeping up our numbers and morale.

During one run, they find a man named Bob Stookey. And another member is added to our population. Hershel, Dad, Carl, and Beth prep the land for crops as I keep Judith occupied on a blanket nearby, enjoying the sun and laughing at my brother’s attempts to become a farmer. It feels like we might have finally found IT. That elusive place that my dad kept promising.

With the aid of our new members, with the ingenuity of Hershel’s experience, and with the aid of the prison library we keep adding conveniences. Running water being the one I most enjoy. Everyone has a part to play. With my decision to make sure Judith is raised without the cloud of terror hanging over her innocent head, Dad decides the other children will be added to my self-imposed burden. I become the head of our daycare. Keeping the kids, none as young as Judith, occupied while their parents perform their own jobs.

I’m not their teacher, nor do I want to be. Instead, I am their caretaker between the classes that other adults teach. I’m in charge of their fun, reading them books, taking them on walks so they can enjoy the world that isn’t overrun by biters, and watching as they act out plays that children their age can perform. Carol takes storytime almost daily, even with my own version, and it’s then that I take Judith and rest. Classes aren’t long in the prison, but my days feel full. And I take all the pleasure I can in seeing my baby sister grow and my baby brother find himself outside of the blood and gore that was overtaking his existence.

Michonne and Daryl keep Carl in comic books, every run seemingly adds to his growing collection. And Daryl keeps me in small tokens of luxury that he knows will make me smile. A bottle of sweet smelling shampoo he found in some pharmacy or lotion for myself, instead of the baby scented bottles we keep for Judith and the other children. He offers each tiny gift with that smile that I’ve grown to love so much. And then, late at night, after each member of our community has closed the curtains and blankets that we call doors, he and I slip away to our own spot. Far away from the others, in a section that actually has a real door, we can take our time with one another. Even nights that have no moon to shine through the tiny window of the area we’ve made our home, in darkness we can find one another. Because at night, Dad takes over the care of Judith, and Daryl takes care of me.

 

Every time a new person or group appears to seek refuge with our group, my dad asks three questions. The answers are important, but more so the inflection that these newcomers answer each becomes tantamount to our safety. “How many walkers have you killed? How many people? Why?” I rarely witness these interactions. Keeping Judith away from anyone who hasn’t been vetted, who hasn’t been deemed safe, is my sole responsibility. Even if Carol has taken her to play or if Beth has her as an audience for one of her solo performances. I find my baby sister, and I keep her hidden away. Sometimes, I have to hide for longer than I’d care to, forced to neglect my duties to the other children, as Daryl, Dad, Hershel, and our other leaders take their time to decide on these newly arrived people. In the end, it’s worth it. Keeping her safe, away from eyes that would see her as a weakness or a target keeps me busy. And once the decision is made, my routine returns to normal, until the next influx.

Carol found comfort in a new relationship. A man with two daughters, Lizzie and Mika, and who has to be locked in his cell nightly because of sleepwalking. Ryan Samuels, a nice man who seems to treat his daughters and Carol well. I’m happy for her. She takes up the job of head chef and seems to enjoy the storytime she started, which she’s earned. The peace, the quiet, and the comfort. After Ed, and then the loss of Sofia, Carol deserves any happiness she finds.

I watch these new people, their ways and their actions, making sure that no one got past Dad’s questions by accident. While Dad is governing with help, I am staying clear of any role that would hand me more responsibility. I have more than enough, I think, as I watch Dad and Carl become more at ease with one another. While I watch Carl’s harsh edges start to smooth a bit, and Daryl learns to pick up more leadership than I think he’d ever considered for himself.

I laugh more now, than I have for some time. Seeing Beth fall for a boy named Zach and seeing Zach try so desperately to make himself useful. Most of my laughter comes from his insistence in trying to guess Daryl’s past life job. He tries so hard to get me to give him hints, but I shrug and chuckle. Daryl’s past doesn’t matter to me, as mine doesn’t even seem real to me now. Carol still teases my love every chance she gets, calling him “Pookie” or reminding him of his sweetness, in full view of all the people who have a trace of hero worship for my sweet man.

He’s gone back to hunting, without me since I've become a full-time parent to my sister. And Daryl’s aim is forever true, bringing back a big game that half our community had never enjoyed, not even in the before that most of us know better than to mention. I find myself laughing at the people who rush to thank him, that want to shake his hand, because the look on Daryl’s face, a mixture of awkwardness and incredulousness will forever make me laugh. He doesn’t see himself the way they do, he can’t even seem to see himself the way I do.

After Michonne comes back from a supply run alone, with nothing more than comic books for Carl’s growing collection, I know that a real run will need planning. And, as soon as that thought flashes, I know that Daryl will go. He always does. And now, after going through all that we have so far, he doesn’t fight me on the goodbyes I have to say. On the closeness I need to feel before he leaves me. Because, seeing Merle die at his hands, he knows as clearly as I do, that it doesn’t always end the way we want it to.

Maggie is scheduled for the next run, but I watch as Glenn takes her spot, and feel like I should find her. Make sure she’s alright, that she isn’t sick or- The thought rushes through me and I close my eyes. I have time, before Daryl leaves and before I have to get to work, so I run to Maggie and Glenn’s “room”.
“Hey?” I offer Judith bouncing on my hip. Maggie smiles up at me from her seat on the bed. “I saw that Glenn’s taking your spot, wanted to be sure you’re ok.”

I can see the blush burn on her cheeks and bite my lip. “I’m fine.” Her accent is thicker when she’s embarrassed or any of her emotions are higher. “He’s a worrywart.”

She slides over so I can sit, and she reaches for Judith letting my arms have a break. “Does he have reason to be a worrywart?” I ask, since we’ve settled in the prison, Maggie and I have become closer. We’re basically the same age, and she was there when Lori-

I watch her studying my baby sister, taking her time to answer. “Not yet.” Her answer is quiet, and I understood. Those extra condoms that I’d overhead them bantering about at the farm were long gone. And they’re married now. It’s just a matter of time.

“Are you-” I stop, wondering if it’s my place to even feel curious. Would I, if we weren’t surrounded by the hellscape we were in, be asking the same thing of a friend? Feeling sure I would, I go on. “Are y’all trying?”

She squints at Judith’s button nose, considering my question. “We aren’t NOT trying.” And I have to giggle, which makes her own slip out. “I don’t know, Jessi, I see this little one and I think why not? But then I remember-”

Covering her hand with mine, I nod. We’ll both always remember how Judith came into this world as Lori went out. “Just let me know, when you are, trying, I mean.” I wink at her and stand. Holding out my arms so she can hand Judith over. “I have to go say goodbye, see Daryl off.” Kissing Judith’s soft head absently. “Come find me if you need company. All those kids need more distracting than I can come up with.”

My day, after kissing Daryl with more passion than I think his run mates cared to witness and forcing out the familiar promises on both sides, went along the well worn routine that I’d begun when routines became real again. I kept the kids occupied between classes, and felt so much pressure off my shoulders when Carol relieves me for storytime. Taking Judith for a long nap, for both of us, I woke up to Carl looking like he was ready to throw up, standing in the cell that I used during the day.

“What’s going on?” I ask, fear creeping in. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Judith was awake too, sitting in her crib playing with the toys that kept being found during runs.

Looking around us, he asked if we could take Judith for a walk. And I knew, whatever he was about to tell me was bad news. Carl took Judith in his arms and we walked out of the building and down to the fence, away from prying ears. And there, rocking Judith in his arms, getting as much calm from her sweetness as I did, he told me that Carol’s storytime wasn’t exactly what Dad and the others thought it was. That Carol, the consummate mother and quiet one, was teaching the kids how to weld and use knives. Closing my eyes, letting Carl tell me that she was fucking TRAINING children in the art of killing, I felt that fear that I thought I’d over come come creeping back in harder, with longer tentacles and that it was wrapping around me once again.

And here, away from the crowds of our population, away from the pig family that Dad and Carl had built a pen for, away from the walkers that were crowding around one part of the fence, I knew without a doubt that our world wasn’t nearly as safe as we wanted it to be. And, a snide part of my brain reminded me, it never would be.

Chapter Text

Daryl returns with bad news. Zach didn’t make it. He kisses my forehead and goes to tell Beth the news. After doing this painful duty, he finds me in our quiet space, Dad had come in from a long walk looking almost as upset as seeing Lori’s ghost had once made him and asked to take Judith earlier than usual. Seeing Daryl’s face, I give silent thanks to my dad.

Opening my arms, he steps into them, and I hold him as he tells me that Beth’s reaction wasn’t what he expected. That one of our most innocent people, barely shrugged at the news that her boyfriend died. I tried to explain to him, to make him understand why he shouldn’t worry, not about her or anyone else’s reactions to this common news.

“She’s already lost so much, Daryl.” I whisper into his chest, as his head is buried in the top of my hair. “She’s growing used to it, guarding her heart, because she’s terrified of falling apart.” I’m explaining Beth, but I realize I could be describing every single person in the prison. “You can’t let this make you so upset.” I pull away, forcing him to look into my face. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s never really anyone’s fault, Daryl, some people just aren’t meant for this world.” And for once, I wonder, if I’m one of them.

 

I realized, far too late, at how complacent I’d become in our new home. I took for granted that our life was finally stable and safe. I didn’t appreciate how truly fucked up the gods must be to unleash this fucking plague on us. And for that reason, I didn’t have any idea that danger was circling us like a fever about to break out.

Not long after calming Daryl after he’d broken the news to Beth about Zach, hell found its way inside our new home. It started with a whimper, but it ended with a bang.

At first, it was a normal kind of issue. Walkers had overrun part of the prison. That had happened before, it was expected. What wasn’t expected was finding out that these walkers were OUR people. That they hadn’t been bitten in most cases, which meant they died some other way, and in one case the man had been LOCKED in his cell. It was a personal precaution he took due to sleepwalking.

I watched, holding Judith well away from the killed walkers, as Dad, Hershel, Dr. Caleb, Daryl, and Bob inspected a body. And when Dad looked up and his eyes met mine, I knew deep in my gut that something was horribly wrong.

By the time I was processing what was happening, I was in quarantine with Judith and the other most vulnerable. Elderly, children, and of course, me the mediator. Beth was with me, and so I had SOMEONE I could fully count on to help me. But the news wasn’t great, when it leaked in. A flu that was either transmitted through the very pigs that Dad and Carl had built a pen for, piled up walkers weakening the fence, an illness that raged so hard that death seemed inevitable for any who caught it.

I missed a lot simply by being kept far away. Even when Carl was added to our group, another helper, but no more knowledgeable about what was happening outside our sight and hearing than me. Dad visited, of course, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t share much.

There was a run. For antibiotics, and I knew Daryl would go. But there wasn’t a goodbye, there wasn’t time. Dad mentioned that Carol was gone, but wouldn’t meet my eyes to explain. And he kept from me the names of the sick, and the names of the dead. He’d bring food, but no news, and for that reason I didn’t look forward to his visits. I didn’t know if or when Daryl returned.

I heard gunfire. I heard screams. Still no news.

And then, as abruptly as we’d been caged away from everything, we were out. Dad and Daryl were acting tense around one another. Tyrese was angry and had signs of a fight on his face. But still, no one told me anything.

I did learn of the dead. Dr. Caleb gone. Karen, the woman that Tyrese was with, gone. David, a man I’d barely gotten to know, gone. And the ones that I hadn’t had the time to get to know at all, names that I couldn’t put face to a name. So many people were gone.

And I felt hope at the survivors. Glenn, Lizzie, Sasha, Hershel names that I could say and know that they’d come through the other side. That there was a bright light in the darkness.

Until the very building shook with the first salvo of the Governor’s return.

 

I wish I could tell you that I heard my dad give his speech to good ol’ Phil, but I didn’t. I was trying desperately to keep the promise I’d made to myself to keep Judith safe and innocent. I tried to get her onto the bus filled with the most vulnerable. And I really wanted to ignore Mika and Lizzie’s argument about whether they should help with the fight or not, but I couldn’t. Weren’t they as innocent as Judith? Shouldn’t they be kept safe?

And that’s why, when our entire world crumbled around us, I found myself with Tyrese, Lizzie, and Mika. Holding tight to Judith, so thankful for the bag filled with her needs, and yet completely separated from the rest of my family.

Trekking through unknown territory with an infant, two young girls, and a very angry man isn’t all that enjoyable. Now add in the complete and utter fear and pain I felt in not knowing if Dad made it out to safety. If Carl was alive and well. If Daryl, God please, if Daryl had survived.

Also add in the eternal optimism that Lizzie had for walkers and their place in our world. The unnatural empathy she felt for these diseased and mindless beings that were the first signs that our world was fucked. Keeping her safe, while also watching Mika flinch at every danger, while juggling Tyrese’s attempts to hide the grief that was clearly eating away at him, and keeping Judith safe became a cakewalk in comparison.

He and I found ourselves fighting walkers who were attracted by screams from one. We had to explain to the other that it wasn’t fine to keep them alive, even if they seemed benign. The night watch became a battle of wills between Tyrese and I. He would insist that I needed rest, since I was shouldering Judith’s care, and I would fight back with the reality that he was our strongest warrior and his rest was paramount.

I never voiced the real reasons I couldn’t stand to rest. I didn’t trust Lizzie. I’d come back after battling a group of walkers with Tyrese to find her and Mika back to back as he’d instructed, but her hand so tight over Judith’s mouth that my sister was changing colors. There was this flash in her eyes, this moment where I truly feared her. A little girl. And I was scared of her.

The one I think Tyrese would have understood was the one that I didn’t want to share. I couldn’t voice my fears about Dad, Carl, and Daryl. If I spoke it out loud. If I gave in and said that they could be- Then I was terrified that I’d make it real. But in the same vein, I couldn’t say that they were safe. I couldn’t jinx the possibility that they were fine. That we’d find them again. I couldn’t chance it.

And so, we’d have a standoff. And we’d both end up awake and watching.

Carol found us. She’d tracked us, and while I was burning to know why she’d gone. What had happened that she wasn’t there when we needed her most? There was a flicker in the look she shot me that made me scared to know.

“Wow,” I said instead, smiling at her appearance. “Looks like you had a good tracking teacher.” It hurt, thinking about Daryl. About how he’d taught me as well. But I had to say something, had to show her I was happy to see her.

She wrapped me in her arms, Judith squished between us, as she kissed my temple. “He certainly is.” She pulled back and I saw it, the question. Had he made it? Or was he not here with me because he didn’t?

I shook my head, “I don’t know.” It was all I could say, because I said it through the lump that was lodged in my throat.

She patted my arm and we carried on along our path. Her and Tyrese talked about the signs we kept seeing mentioning a place called “Terminus”. How far they imagined it would be? How long would it take to get there? I walked along, bringing up the rear, with Judith in my arms. I didn’t really care where we ended up. As long as I could focus on Judith and her needs, nothing else mattered. Not now.

We found a small house situated in a pecan grove and decided to give it a try for now. While Carol and Tyrese cleared the house, I took Judith around the perimeter for my own clearance. A gunshot made me run back to the front of the house. Mika had taken down a walker. Little Mika, so soft and sweet, had done the necessary when push came to shove.

Carol and I, while setting up the house for our stay, talk about the two girls. She tells me that Mika may be too soft and sweet to survive, but she also says that Lizzie may be too unstable.

“She’s different,” I say, bouncing Judith in my arms as Carol bakes. And then, Carol is gone, rushing outside.

Lizzie had been playing tag with a walker. She’d had a fit when Carol killed it. She really does think they’re still people, that they’re misunderstood. That it isn’t a fate worse than death to become one. A chill runs up my spine at the mere thought of this child staying near me and Judith. Near weapons that we have on hand. And so, for another night, I lose sleep.

 

Am I surprised that Mika and Lizzie are dead? No. I wish I could say I was, but I’m not. Carol had insisted that I come with her and Tyrese on the hunt, assuring me that Lizzie understood. That Mika would keep her in line. And we returned to a bloody and dead Mika with Lizzie standing over her, and a gleam in her eye. I ignored her and rushed to Judith who was sitting on a blanket nearby. I knew, before she said the words, that my little sister would have been joining Mika had we not come back when we did. And I knew, watching Carol look at the carnage, that Lizzie wouldn’t live for much longer either.

I listened to Carol and Tyrese that night, before Lizzie was sent to play with her little sister forever, talking about the prison. The rats and rabbits that he’d found proving someone had fed the walkers that piled up on the fence. He even speculated that Lizzie, the obvious culprit, was probably to blame for Karen and David. And I learned, as Carol explained the situation, just why she’d disappeared from the prison. Why Daryl and Dad had been tense around one another in those final moments at the prison. Carol had ended it, thinking that killing the sick would end the illness. And as they made a version of peace, I knew that Dad had exiled her. For the good of our group.

The house in the pecan grove lay abandoned. As safe as the prison we’d fled now. And with it behind us, and the unknown promise of a place called Terminus, we walked on.

Chapter Text

Finding a cabin as we hear gunshots fired felt lucky. Unlucky was that it was already inhabited, by someone talking on a walkie to others. Carol and Tyrese held the man at gunpoint, as I carried Judith inside and leaned back against a wall, with a view out a covered window. While they urged the man to give them information, I watched, making sure that our new friend’s friends didn’t come for a visit. Judith seemed to be as intent in her focus on my shirt collar as I was with the view.

Finally, Carol took charge. She planned on going in alone, even though Ty wanted to argue. A glance at me and Judith, and he was more agreeable to staying behind. While he stood guard, Carol took our buddy’s ample supply of fireworks, and with a smile and nod, she was off.

I can see the walkers coming, and as I tell Ty, the idiot that we were holding hostage grabbed me and Judith, and threatened Ty with our deaths if he didn’t walk outside into the mass of biters. Sharing a look with my reluctant protector, he doesn’t fight it. He goes, and then, within minutes, he ambushes the idiot when I feign shock at what I’m seeing from my view and position near the window.

Tyrese had killed an entire horde of fucking walkers with his bare hands, and killed the moron who took a look at me and Judith and decided we were fair game.

 

When Carol returns, she isn’t alone. And seeing Dad and Carl rush forward to wrap me and Judith in their arms has me crying in happiness. They survived. They were alive and here and kissing my cheeks and head. And Dad, after checking every inch of exposed skin on me for signs I was hurt, took Judith from me and did the same with my baby sister.

I watched him, and Carl take over the care of Judith, if only for a short while, and then I see HIM. Daryl. Alive and safe. And his arms are around me and his face is buried in my hair, and I relax, fully for the first time since I left the prison behind. Because he was in front of me, and he was alive.

As we leave, Dad takes a moment to “fix” the sign urging people to come to Terminus for safety. “No Sanctuary”, far more truthful than what had been. And hopefully keeps far more people safe.

 

We had new members. Short introductions. Abraham, the soldier with a mission. Eugene, the mullet that swore he knew a cure for the dead rising. Rosita, Abraham’s second, and possibly lover? And Tara, someone that had apparently been with the Governor at his final stand.

I nodded through the introductions, feeling the exhaustion that had been building since I’d walked away from the prison into uncertainty catching up. But there wasn’t time. We had to put distance between us and what Daryl mentioned was a place full of cannibals. Great. And he seemed preoccupied. Beth had been with him when we all got separated, and now she was missing too.

We rested, eventually, and I found out that Michonne was without her katana. And seeing her without it, it was like seeing Hershel without his leg at first. She was still a badass, but something was clearly missing.

And Hershel? He hadn’t made it. Philip had killed him. And I was happy to hear that good ol’ Phil had met his fucking maker too.

Dad and Carol seemed to make peace. And I watched as Daryl and Carol took a moment to themselves.

I felt that I should feel content. We were together again. Most of us. I knew that Daryl wouldn’t rest until he found Beth. I knew that Carol was still a little bit cagey, which I understood. I knew that our new members were adamant that they had to find a vehicle and head north. Get the prize that was mullet man to his lab, was the mission, apparently.

So while I knew what I should feel. I couldn’t make myself feel it. Not when I knew that Daryl would rush off to play hero. That Dad would make it his mission to find us another safe place. That I would once again be relegated to the middle of the pack peacekeeper. It was the same, but it wasn’t. And I couldn’t put my finger on why, at this point in my life, that it bothered me.

Before he can rush off to play hero, Daryl does run off, but he kisses me awake and smiles down at me to let me know he’s going hunting. He doesn’t ask me to join him. I haven’t hunted with him for so long he doesn’t even bother.

I don’t bother telling anyone else. I just assume that the rest would realize that Daryl would go hunting. He had his precious crossbow. We were surrounded by forest. What’s so surprising? But I should have, because everyone is still twitchy and the poor man of mine had to hold up his line of squirrels when he came back to his own group prepared to take him out because he made a little noise in return.

“We surrender,” he says, and I bite back a laugh.

We find a minister, stuck on a rock of all places, and surrounded by walkers soon after. Honestly? I’m thinking as our group takes care of the danger and the holy man, Gabriel, tries to make jokes about stealing Daryl’s squirrels. Dad gives him the questions and I listen as the answers are no, no, and because God doesn’t abide violence. Well, he’s going to last a long time, I think, shaking my head and waiting to learn our next move.

Gabriel’s church is nearby. Dad, Michonne, Carol, and Glenn clear it before the rest of us enter. Abraham notices the church bus and once again reminds us of the importance of getting Eugene to Washington. Michonne, glancing at me and the clear vision of complete exhaustion that I must be wearing, says we need supplies and rest. I close my eyes and nod my thanks. And nearly fucking cheer when Dad agrees with her.

Gabriel tells our group about his own survival tactics, and something rings strange to me, but I’m so tired that I can barely stand. Carol and Daryl have gone to fill our water bottles and containers. Dad has Michonne, Sasha, and Bob come with him and Gabriel, clearly not trusting the good man of the cloth. And Maggie, Glenn, and Tara decide to loot for weapons. Before he leaves, Dad thanks Tyrese for keeping his girls safe and takes Carl aside.

Tyrese leads me to one of the church pews and takes Judith from my arms. “Lay down, Jessi, rest.” He commands, and before I can argue, my body takes the command to heart and I’m out.

I wake up before our group returns. Carl is standing over me and I blink to make my eyes focus on him. He glances at Tyrese and asks me to come outside with him. Outside he shows me deep scratches along a window and a horrible message dug into a wall. “You will burn for this.”

I share a look with my little brother and nod. He has to show Dad. And we have to find out just what the hell Gabriel’s story really is.

There’s a celebration later that night. One that I feel is premature at best, and tempting fate at worst. Abraham, using my little sister to support his mission’s end game, tries to sell us all the pipedream of Eugene the man who could save us all. Judith, a baby, coos and Dad takes it as a sign. And so, we have a new purpose it would seem.

I don’t notice Carol slipping out. I don’t see Daryl follow. But, as the hours pass, as more horrors show up on our doorstep, I realize that once again, he didn’t take the time to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

Daryl leaving me behind without a word was becoming something of a habit. I tried to understand his reasoning. I tried to put myself in his place. I tried, and I failed, because there was this huge part of me that knew that I wouldn’t do that to him. No matter whose shoes I wore, I wouldn’t leave the person I claimed to love behind with the uncertainty that saying nothing creates.

Bob had disappeared too. And Sasha, feeling on edge, blames Gabriel. And finally, as though it took simply pushing the right button on the black draped man, he told us his sins.

Gabriel had barred the doors of his church, this church, when the world slid downhill fast. He’d listened as his own flock pounded and begged for safety. He’d listened as they’d died. And he’d sat here, waiting for the divine punishment that he assumed our group was.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Didn’t this man answer my father’s famous three questions with two no’s and a “God doesn’t abide”? How did he not realize that he’d killed a mass of people? That because of his own fear, he’d let his own people die.

Hearing a whistle outside, Dad sees Bob on the grass in front of the church. As Bob’s being collected, shots ring out. And when Dad comes back inside, he lets us know that we hadn’t escaped the terror of Terminus. It had simply followed us.

Bob isn’t doing well. And while we can all see that from his recent amputation, when he shows us the bite that he’d been unwilling to show earlier, we know it’s a matter of time. He gives Dad as much information as he can about where these animals had taken him, and Gabriel reluctantly tells Dad it sounds like the elementary school to the south of the church within walking distance.

After getting Bob comfortable on the couch in Gabriel’s office, Dad forms the attack plan. Abraham bulks, and I feel a burning irritation with him and his fucking pipe dream. I say nothing, not even when Glenn barters with him. Offering Maggie, Tara, and his aid to get Eugene to Washington if Abraham agrees to at least one more day.

That’s how, mere hours later, I was enclosed in the church as I watched Dad, Michonne, Sasha, Maggie, Glenn, Tara, and Abraham walk outside. We heard a man’s voice, Gareth, I guessed from what Dad and the others and shared. Threats, warnings, bargaining. And Judith, feeling fed up as I did, cried. They breached our doors, and they died. Trapped by Dad’s plan. Trapped by their own egos and need for vengeance, or food.

When Gabriel follows me out of our place of hiding, he looks around at the carnage blanketing his church and talks about how it’s the Lord’s house. And Maggie, sweet Maggie, who I’d watch pray with her family, answered with, “It’s four walls and a roof.”

 

Bob had hung on. He knew we’d won. He knew that this latest round of monsters with human faces was gone. And so, we took our turns to say goodbye. Since Daryl wasn’t with me, since I had no idea where he’d gone. I said a goodbye for both of us. And as I left the office, left behind another good person who hadn’t been able to beat the odds, I wondered just when it would be me? Or Daryl? Or Dad?

 

We buried Bob. I couldn’t create tears, no matter how badly I wanted to. How horribly I knew I should feel, and did feel somewhere deep down inside, yet nothing came. And as I hid my face in Judith’s softness, I knew that there was something broken inside of me. I just didn’t know what.

Abraham held Glenn to his deal. And since we had no idea where Carol or Daryl were, Dad promised that we’d follow once we knew. He gave Dad a map, the spot marked clearly, and a message that made Dad realize that he was important to the world.

I sat with Michonne on the steps of the church. Dad had taken Judith inside with Carl and watched her with her recovered katana. And as I sat with a woman that I was growing to value more with each passing moment, her silence, her compassion, her care for my brother, I watched as once again Daryl came back. And he wasn’t alone.

 

Daryl’s new companion’s name was Noah. He had been at the same hospital where Beth had been taken. Where Carol had now been taken. And here he was. Standing awkwardly beside Daryl and I could do nothing but wait.

I waited for the plan. The plan to rescue Beth and Carol. The plan to rush forward to get our people back. The plan that would take Daryl away from me, without a goodbye again, no doubt. With a nice helping of fear and danger.

I knew it would come. I knew where I’d stay. With my sister. Wherever Dad deemed safe. And I’d wait. For word of our success or for word of our failure. Because this was my limbo. My purgatory. Where I sat constantly, waiting.

I didn’t listen to the plans. I didn’t participate. I fed Judith. I diapered her. I bounced and kept her occupied. I focused on the one person that I could keep safe. That I could keep comfortable and free of the insanity that curled around us ever closer day by day.

As I pretended that I was somewhere else, Daryl, Sasha, and Tyrese fortified the church. Dad and Michonne focused on boarding up the windows. Carl, Michonne, and of course, Gabriel stay with Judith and me. I watch with bemusement as my baby brother tries to explain to our new pacifist the necessity for a weapon for self-defense. Gabriel points to me, using my seeming lack of weapon as proof that wasn’t true. And then stops when I lift my shirt and he can see not only a handgun, but a rather large knife.

Shaking my head, I go back to my own world. As though I were so weak and gone that I wouldn’t keep weapons near me for safety. Like I would hesitate to take out a threat to myself or Judith. Honestly, this man was ridiculous.

And I was right, even if I hadn’t voiced it. Gabriel was completely ridiculous. He was ‘tired’ so he retired to the rectory. Later, after Michonne had checked on him, we heard his voice outside the church. What the literal hell? Of course, unlike the man of the cloth, Michonne and Carl work to unfortify the church to save him. And with him come enough walkers to keep my brother and Michonne busy. Damn him. I think, carefully lowering my sister to a spot hidden behind the pulpit and stepping forward with my knife in hand to fix his idiotic mess. Overwhelmed, I shout to Carl to grab Judith and we all rush into Gabriel’s office. And there, as we can hear the horde chomping for our flesh, we see how he’d gotten out. Through the hole in the floor, which we use to escape.

Outside, Michonne and I take charge. Killing the walkers that were trapped by the other fortifications that were in place, before boarding up the remaining freaks inside the church. Forced to sit outside with my baby sister, my baby brother, Michonne, and Gabriel, we listen as he tells us about his little field trip. As he’s telling his tale, we can hear that the doors of the church, the way we’d barricade wouldn’t hold.

And before we can get into position to fight, a fucking firetruck rumbles up and drives straight through the doors. I never thought I’d be so happy to see a foul mouthed ginger in my life, but I swear Abraham became one of my favorite people in that one moment. Michonne tells Maggie that Beth is alive and the others are on a rescue mission, and the decision is made. We’re all going to Atlanta.

We’re waiting as Dad exits the hospital. I see the look in his eyes and I KNOW that something has gone horribly wrong. And then Daryl walks out, cradling the limp body of Beth, and I know. I know that she’s dead. That Daryl will carry the burden longer than he will her body. And that because of that he’ll seek me out. He’ll need me to reassure him that he was a good man. That he was worthy. That he did his best. And I knew that I would give that to him. I’d push aside my own pain at being left behind at every whim he had to rescue and save. I’d push aside my own tattered and shredded feelings and needs and I’d rebuild his.

This time, however, I also knew that in rebuilding him I was tearing apart myself. For every brick I gave him for strength, was coming from my own supply. And one day, Daryl would be as invincible as I wanted him to be, but I’d be gone. As surely as if he was carrying my limp body from the wreckage. And I wondered if he’d notice.

Chapter Text

17 Days.

It’s been 17 days since Atlanta. Since Daryl walked out of that hospital carrying Beth’s body. Since Maggie became shrouded in grief. Since Noah became part of our group.

17 days, and it feels like a lifetime or a second, depending on where I stand.

New goal. New plan. New purpose. Noah’s home, outside Richmond, Virginia. Five hundred and thirty miles from Atlanta. To me? It could be as far away as the moon or as near as the person standing next to me. Another hope. Another dream. Walls. Security.

Glenn voices his worries. Dad, ever the optimist, mentions that we can move again. And again. Michonne keeping the theme going adds that there’s always another place. Again and again.

We separate. Two groups. Dad, Glenn, Michonne, Tyrese, and Noah lead. The rest of us close but back.

We get news through walkies. Wait, we’re there. And then, it’s gone. And then, we have to cauterize the wound. Never good news. Never.

And another loss. Another goodbye. Another funeral. Tyrese this time. My protector. My companion when we’d fled the prison. And now he was gone. His strength hadn’t mattered. His convictions hadn’t made a difference. Nothing mattered. Not anymore. My tears came easily. I didn’t have to search for the pain of his loss. It was on the surface bubbling.

Dad buried him himself. He was angry by the loss. By this man who’d protected his daughters when he couldn’t. And as I watched Tyrese’s beanie placed on the cross marking his grave, I thought how horrible this world was. How futile survival seemed. And as I let my tears flow freely, I never noticed if anyone comforted me.

 

We’re sixty miles from DC, things have gotten desperate. On foot, with walkers circling like vultures, I almost envy my former exhaustion. We’re moving. We’re putting one foot in front of the other. Yet we seem to get nowhere.

Sasha’s pain from two losses is making her yearn for a fight. A suicidal attack, if you ask me, since we’re all dehydrating and starving. She wants to attack the circling scavengers head on, Dad wants higher ground. And as my group ponders around me, Daryl and Carol take off in search of water and food. And I can’t find energy to care about either situation.

Our walker problem gets solved by a convenient revine/overpass combo. Just like, what is that animal that tumble off cliffs en masse? I fight for the knowledge that seems to be on the tip of my dry tongue, but it doesn’t come. And Sasha ruins any type of focus I can muster by attacking the horde, forcing the rest to join her. And then Daryl’s back, rescuing my dad, once again.

Moving forward. Thirst and hunger are constant companions, more constant than the man who swears he loves me, I think. I’m terrified that I’ll fail at my one fucking purpose in thie hellscape. Keeping Judith safe has been downgraded to keeping Judith alive. Screw safety. Living is what I’ll settle for.

I hear an argument over alcohol, and I glare. And then the barking starts. And then gunfire. And now we have food. Hunger can make people do desperate things, and I’m not above them. I close my eyes, and force away the image of the collars around our dinner’s throats. Living, I remind myself, that’s what we’re striving for.

And more moving. And more. And I stop fighting the urge to disappear. Into my head, away from it all.

I get pulled away from the nothingness I’ve slipped into by the dampness of rain. And before I can fully process, we’re rushing for a barn because the storm has picked up and is raging.

As night falls, the pounding storm batters down on the roof of our shelter. Dad tells a familiar story of my great grandfather. And as the others listen, I slip away again. Inside of myself. I don’t hear or see the walkers fighting against the doors. I see and feel nothing. I hold my crying sister close, and convince myself that I am nowhere.

Morning dawns and I’ve been leaning against the wall of the barn all night. Judith cradled on my outstretched legs. And I can tell it’s over. The storm. The walkers. Gone. I survived. We survived. And that’s proof, I think, that nothing in this world makes sense.

 

When another stranger appears, a man named Aaron, promising hope. I wonder when door to door salesmen made a comeback. And then I shut it off again. I focus on Judith and her survival. And I wait for Dad and the others to make the plans.

He has photos. Of this magical community. Alexandria. Dad knocks him out, he’s tied up, and when he comes to, he’s asked for more intel. I listen passively. Does it matter? Whether he’s telling the truth, or leading us to another Terminus, does it matter?

Dad, Judith, and I stay in the barn since everyone else seems gung ho to check out the Disneyworld of the apocalypse. While we sit around with Aaron, Dad being clear on his threats, I hold Judith and take my place from the night before. Leaning against the wall, her cradled on my legs. I wonder what Dad sees when he looks at me. Does he see that I’m broken? Have I hid it so well that even he sees nothing? I must be, because he barely glances my way. Trusting that Judith and I are safe together. And he’s right, she’s safe with me.

She’s hungry, and fussy. So Dad crushing acorns, trying to make something that she can have to curb her tiny hunger. I help him, as our guest begs to be untied, for extra security. When the ploy doesn’t work, he offers applesauce he has in his backpack. Dad, untrusting as me, tests it first, no matter how the stranger acts insulted at the thought he would poison a baby. And Judith, having starved for too long for either Dad and I to admit, finally got something in her tummy that helped.

Our group returns with supplies. Dad wants to keep the food and not go to Alexandria, but he’s overruled. And so, as night falls, we’re on the move again. A vehicle this time, and I feel myself relax despite myself.

There are potholes. Walkers, flares, wrecks. But eventually we make it. It’s morning. I’m in the RV with Abraham and the others, and I feel panic build at this new community. What are we really driving into?

 

Dad’s holding Judith in his arms in front of the huge gate. We can hear children playing, and he takes my hand in his. A united front. United in front of an unknown group. Daryl takes my other hand, and I feel a little shocked at it. When was the last time we touched casually? I couldn’t remember.

We walk through the open gate and are greeted with demands to hand over our weapons. I stare at Dad, feeling completely confused by the mere thought of disarming. I hadn’t been without at least one weapon since this entire mess started, and while my bow was long retired, a knife or gun was always at my side.

Aaron, calming down a tense situation, assures us we can keep them until we meet Deanna Monroe, their leader. A woman who looks like the end of the world never happened. Clean, coifed, and dressed like a Stepford wife, I wonder what made her worthy to lead.

We each meet her one on one in her well appointed house, a video camera lurking behind her to record our interviews. Because when I take my seat, I have no doubt at all that we’re being interviewed. She begins by giving the full community brochure in detail. Eco friendly this, self sustaining that. And I listen as I take stock of what I’m seeing and not hearing. Nothing about security or training for attacks. Nothing beyond the gate and guards, who failed at their one job by not getting us to hand over our weapons. She was a politician, that’s as clear as a bell. She doesn’t seem to want to know much.

I tell her what I care to share. I’m Rick Grimes’ oldest child, his first daughter, and I take care of my baby sister and brother. I keep things running smoothly. I maintain the contentment of our group. And as I’m standing, I realize that I never mentioned Daryl. Not once.

Our weapons seem a small price to pay for the home we’re given. Dad, Carl, Judith, me, Carol, and Daryl. Cozy. My first goal, even before food or water, or anything basic need based, is to get clean. And so, Judith and I take our first shower together. I find such happiness in her amazement at the warm water flowing over us, at her giggles as the bubbles from my shampoo slide over us. And when we come out, I find that someone, Carol I assume has placed clean clothes for me on the counter, and some things for Judith as well.

Brushing my long hair after the shower, while Judith lay in the middle of the bed in the room I’d chosen, I let myself pretend that the world had been forced back into the before. That there wasn’t danger lurking all around and that we were safe. That we had a chance of a real life. In a house. With running water and appliances, and electricity. That this would work. That there wouldn’t be another screw up. And I let myself pretend that I could see it, believe in it, and feel happy about it.

Chapter Text

I know that Dad and some of the others aren’t as trusting of our new home as I’m pretending to be. I hear them whispering. I see their side eyes. I’m still doing my job. I’m taking care of Judith. And I’m sure Daryl is around, somewhere, and he’ll find me eventually.

Dad and the others want to walk around the community and check it out, but I beg off. I can feel their eyes on me, but I can’t care. Not really. The shower helped me feel something, but not enough, not really. And I don’t want to keep my mask in place. At least give me a break, I think, a minute where I can stare at the wall and just not.

Carl takes Judith and I lay back on the bed in my new room. Alone, I think, but then my door opens and Daryl steps inside. He’s still wearing the clothes we arrived in. He’s still sweaty and dirty. And there’s a part of me, deep inside, that sounds suspiciously like the old me. The one from before, that wanted to shoo him out. Tell him to take a shower and change his clothes before he ruined my new bedding. She’s inside of me, though, and doesn’t break through.

I think I must smile when he sits beside me. I must have, because he pulls me into his side and kisses my forehead and for a moment I remember how I feel for him. That I love him. That this type of casual touching and intimacy is normal for us. I know it’s there, and I can almost grab hold of it, but it flits away and I still feel empty.

 

Everyone has a job away from or for the community. Everyone except me. Deanna tells me simply that my job remains what it always was, caregiver for Judith. And I accept it. The role I’d taken on when Lori died. One that I don’t have to even think about doing. I just do. And I think that even Judith is fooled. That she doesn’t see that the games and stories are just an act. That I love her, and that I know, but I’m not here. Not really.

Dad’s the new peace officer. Michonne is his second. Daryl is resistant. Glenn, Tara, and Noah are supply runners. Carol is the community cook. And I’m me. Or I look like me, I must because no one pays attention or mentions any differences. So I slip back into my own little part of nowhere, and I go about the motions of life.

Deanna visits to lay out more information about the new roles and jobs everyone has been given. Dad’s role as security. Maggie’s position as Deanna’s assistant. A new government, here in this tiny unprepared community. And that there’s a welcome party tonight to welcome us all.

I don’t want to. I don’t want to mingle. I don’t want to pretend. I want to simply be. And I can see that Dad’s going to insist. And I’m going to agree.

It’s a party. And it’s just as I feared. My mask is firmly in place. Judith is in my arms, and I have to go through the motions of being grateful and hospitable. I have to smile and play the perfect older daughter to the new head of security. I have to stay aware, say the right things, play the role that I’ve been given. Seeing the smiling faces, the nods, I know I’ve succeeded.

Later, as I put Judith to bed in her crib and then tuck myself in my own bed, I wonder if Daryl was there. Was he at the party? Had he mingled too? Had he worn his own mask? And would he come to bed and sleep beside me tonight? He hadn’t the night before. He said he wanted to keep watch. He said he was too tense. He said so many things. What didn’t he say?

 

A run for parts to keep the lights on. And another loss. One for us, and one for them. That’s how to tally it now. The losses. Us vs Them.

Noah, the one who’d been with us the shortest time. The boy that replaced Beth, in a way. Gone.

It’s clear, as I rock Judith in the living room as Glenn recounts how Noah died, that these people are not prepared for the reality of this new world. Dad seethes. Not simply at the loss, but at the entitlement of thinking they know best, when clearly they don’t. Glenn wants to teach them. I’m not sure we’ll be allowed.

The next time I’m around for a confrontation, I witness Dad brawling with the community doctor. It reminds me of a school yard brawl, the crowd, the noise and then the good doctor strikes and hits his wife. What’s her name? Jessie. God, I had to think about it, and it’s my fucking name. I shake myself free of the stupor I prefer. In time to see Dad show the crazy side of him that he’d buried. And then Michonne, thankfully, knocks him out before we all get thrown back to the wolves.

 

Dad’s got some explaining to do. Or actually, a trial of sorts. Deanna is planning on passing judgement. On him and his actions alone. I’m sitting at his bedside, listening as Carol advises him of what to do, how to answer, and I find myself smiling sincerely. She’s done what I did. Say what they want to hear. Give them a bedtime story fit for Judith, and then put on your mask.

I see Dad’s focus shift to me and for the first time in a while, I feel like he actually sees me. When the others leave, he takes my hand to stop me from going. I sit back down and meet his eyes.

“You’re different.” He says. Not a question, but still a revelation.

I shrug, ready to make a joke about my new wardrobe, but I stop. He’s trying. “Aren’t we all?” I offer instead. The truth, but not too revealing.
His blue eyes are squinting at me. “Not you, not-” He sighs, hand holds my hand. “Jessi? You’d tell me if you, if you needed help wouldn’t you?”

I nod. Sure. If it were killing a walker breathing down my back, I’d yell up a storm. “Sure.” I’m ready to try to leave again, but his grip on my hand tightens.

“I mean HELP, Jessi. Real help.” And I know that he’s seen more than I guessed. That the mask had slipped too far.

I sit back in my chair and smile. “What kind of help would I possibly need, Dad?”

And he stares at me. At the way I sit. At the way I’m dressed. And then, he refocuses on my face. My eyes. And I can see him taking stock. “Why didn’t I see it?” It isn’t a question for me. And I don’t answer it. “God, I failed you.”

That’s enough. “I don’t know what you mean, Dad. You’ve been the best dad a girl could ask for.” And I finally stand, pull my hand from his, and kiss him on the forehead. Enough show and tell, I think, and I give him one more glimpse, if only to keep him here with us in Alexandria. “Listen to what Carol said, Dad, give them the story that a child would like to hear. It works.” And waving a goodbye, I walked out.

 

Dad comes home later. I hear him greeting Carl downstairs, but I stay in my room, playing with Judith. Carol comes to my room, the day winding down, and tells me that I have to attend the meeting. I nod with a smile and she gives me a look that makes me wonder if I’d lost my mask totally.

I’m with Carol, Maggie, Abraham and Eugene at the place where the meeting is supposed to happen. Maggie’s asking for a delay until Glenn and Dad show up, but our new leader insists on going forward without them. The charges, the excuses, Michonne’s attempts to fix it. Carol takes a turn. Abraham gives his try to explain Dad and the world beyond the gate. Maggie’s turn comes, and hearing her talk about Hershel makes my heart clench. Everyone focuses on me, his daughter, when it finally happens.

Dad, coated in blood, carrying a walker corpse walks up and throws it down in front of them. And I hear his speech. I hear the conviction in his words as he explains the reality of our world. Of the danger. And of his absolute belief that he can teach them to survive. And I feel parts of me come back, not nearly all of them, not nearly enough, but some.

And then, the good doctor arrives drunk and kills Deanna’s husband with Michonne’s katana. As Reg, her husband bleeds out, she finally gets it. She understands, and with a nod, Dad finishes it. Pete’s dead. Reg’s dead.

And Daryl is back, although I’m not sure I knew he was gone. And another man has arrived. The elusive Morgan. The man who had saved Dad at the very end of before, and who had given up all of his weapons and ammo to us. And I can feel myself thawing a bit more.

Chapter Text

Walkers would always be an issue in our new world. Always. So I wasn’t shocked when we learned that there was a quarry nearby serving as the world’s worst fishbowl.

After the night of no return, when Reg and Pete met their ends, we tried to find a new normal. Daryl and Dad butted heads, even with or especially because Daryl showed up with Morgan beside him. Dad wanted to halt recruitment. Daryl wanted to keep it up.

Dad had housed Morgan in the empty house that Deanna had placed him after his brawl with the good doctor. Prior to having her approval to ventilate his skull, that is.

Pete, an asshole if I’d ever heard of one, was denied a community burial. And that’s how Dad, and recently released Morgan, had come to find the quarry. They came back, with news and a plan. Dad insisted I sit in on it. He was trying, I could clearly see, to get me involved again. Back to the good old days, where I didn’t have to pretend I cared.

I listened to the plan, which seemed solid, if nothing went wrong. I heard the volunteers give not only approval, but willing bodies to throw in the line of fire or teeth. Divert the herd west, away from Alexandria. Simple, right? Eugene added the need for a wall, where a crucial intersection apparently was. I’d have to leave that to the experts, or at least to people who paid attention to our surroundings. Carter, a whiny little toad if I’d had to guess, was given that important task.

And the entire community, like an old fashioned barn raising, but with greater chance of death, came out to help. I offered Carol help with refreshments. Why not? We were obviously the most alike of this entire group.

Walkers, again, a constant threat, showed up for the party. And Dad, trying to prove his point to an extreme level, warned all of us his original group to back off, it was time for Alexandrians to defend Alexandria. Morgan, after seeing Carter freeze faster than a drip of water in the arctic, stepped up and took care of the ‘threat’.

As the time grows near for the plan to go through, Dad lines up his volunteers at the finish line, and I stay back. This is not my part to play. I have another safer role.

Carol bakes. A lot. And after a trip to the community pantry, I sit with her in the kitchen and keep her company. We're looking out the window when we see something so fucking surreal that it takes both of us a few beats to make it make sense in our heads. A neighbor woman, standing outside for a smoke, is ambushed by a horrible man wielding a machete. And as we’re transfixed by the impossibility, he finishes the job and runs off.

Sharing a look, we both call up to Carl and when he pops his head around, we order him to stay inside, keep Judith safe and lock the damn doors.

Together, outside, Carol and I watch these new enemies. I know we’re both seeing the same thing and making a similar plan. We’re that much alike, right? I know she’s taken note of how they look. How they seem to be marking their foreheads with fresh blood in the shape of a “W”. And as we part, going separate directions, I know that she’ll be finding a way to camouflage herself, because I already am.

The killing of savages, walker or human, comes back to me like riding a bike. Or breathing. Natural. And I don’t flinch as I cut each one that I come across down. Or when I put a member of the community out of their misery. Consequences for one, mercy for the other. I’d taken one of the beast's ugly poncho for my own, and my forehead had his blood in that ugly sign.

When I found Carol again, there was a second of danger for both of us, until we took a beat and nodded. I had been right, she’d done the same as me. I watched as she saved Morgan, and then she led the way to the armory. Olivia, the woman who kept track of supplies looked like we were there to kill her, which meant our disguises worked.

As Carol loaded up a duffel full of weapons and ammo, I took the time to give Olivia the briefest, but most concise firearm training ever. Showing her how to release the safety, point it, and shoot. And telling her, as I followed Carol out, to shoot anyone who came inside.

Carol killed a prisoner that Morgan felt the urge to take. He shot me a look, and I backed her up. This was NOT the time for amnesty.

By the time everything was quiet again, or mostly quiet. Carnage was everywhere. And I was reminded that there was no magical safety zone. That nowhere was safe.

 

When a call goes up that Dad is heading back, I rush toward the gate. He barely makes it inside, the herd hard on his heels, but he swears to me, as he sees me in front of him that he’s SURE that Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham will be heading back to continue the plan. But until then, as the walkers are heard growling and thrashing against the gate, we’re to keep the lights off or low, and the noise to a minimum.

I hear that there was an attempt at looting. That Deanna’s surviving son put a stop to it.

I try to find Maggie. She should be here. She hadn’t signed up for any of the mess that had been planned. When I find her, she looks terrified, and upset. Which, learning that Glenn is MIA makes sense. But then, holding my hand and staring into my face the real reason comes out. She’s pregnant. And as I hug her and try to reassure her, she tries to find humor by telling me that she accidentally told Aaron first.

While we wait for Glenn to return, for Daryl, Sasha, Abraham to show back up. I watch as Dad takes Jessie’s son Ron under his tutelage for gun training. Rosita offers machete lessons. And Dad insists on added supports for the newly built wall.

And then, just as things seemed to grow slightly quieter, the watchtower fell, taking down part of the perimeter wall. And another swarm of walkers rushing forward. While Dad orders sheltering in place with the doors locked, I’m visiting Jessie. Forcing myself to reintegrate with the world, and letting Judith see the inside of a different house, I’m there when Dad carries Deanna inside. She’s been injured, and as I’m checking her wound, I find it. The bite. And we all know.

Deanna takes death better than she’d taken the other harsh realities of this world. She smiles. She makes jokes. Hell, she even banters when Dad nearly shoots her as she’s hovering over Judith’s crib.

And as we’re watching, the locks don’t hold. The walkers rush inside, and we’re trapped upstairs with a dying Deanna, and a couch blocking the stairs. Dad, assessing the situation, makes a plan so gross that I want to vomit, but if it keeps Judith safe I’m game. Killing two walkers, and cutting into them, we create our very own meat suits. Covering sheets with the gloppy insides of the undead, then covering our clothes and heads with the sheets, we should be able to get away.

I’ve tucked Judith under my shirt, against my skin, hoping that she’ll understand the need for quiet somehow. And I tugged the sheet over top of me, wanting to retch at the smell enveloping me. Michonne had given Deanna a gun, offering to do it for her, but giving in when she insisted she’d do it. And then, covered in gore and gross, we walked downstairs and outside, into the middle of the mass of dead.

The growling and stumbling jostled us, but eventually we made it to the armory. Sam, Jessie’s youngest had incessantly called for her, and I’d been sure we’d be caught, but we made it. Dad asked Gabriel to keep me and Judith safe, cutting off any argument I may have made. And while Jessie tried to convince Sam to stay with me, he wouldn’t, and they all left. Headed for the quarry, I sat in the church, cradling Judith and soothing her after our tent of stink was gone. The growling was growing closer, and I knew they were piling up again outside, but Gabriel shocked me. He picked up a machete, and with Tobin who’d found sanctuary inside with us, rushed out to help.

It grew quiet after what seemed like days. And once I was certain the danger was manageable if not passed, I opened the doors. And Michonne was rushing toward me. The news was terrible. Carl had been shot. Again. We rushed to the infirmary, where she took Judith from me and I walked inside. Daryl was being stitched on his back on one side, and Carl lay unconscious on the other. And I stood between them, feeling the temptation of the darkness of nowhere beckon to me to come back.

Chapter Text

Two months. It’s been two months since the quarry diversion. Two months since the invasion of savages with “W” on their foreheads had attacked. Two months since walkers had spilled into Alexandria, making Daryl create a lake of fire to deal with them.

Carl survived. He wore a bandage across his head, hiding the eye that Ron’s shot had taken from him. I teased him that now Dad had to catch up with him on gunshot wounds. He’d smiled, remembering the Greene farm like I had. Strangely happier times.

We had a new wall in place. Daryl had returned to supply runs. Eugene was doing gate duty. Burying the dead. Burning the undead. And business was back to normal.

Dad and Daryl headed out for another run. And Dad took the time to stop, kiss me goodbye and remind me that he’d be back. Daryl absently did the same. His mind clearly on the task that lay ahead of them. And as I held Judith up, waving her hand for her to say goodbye to Daddy and Uncle Daryl, I tried not to dwell on anything gloomy. I was trying to keep myself present. To find my way back to myself.

When Dad and Daryl returned, they had a stranger with them. Dad told me his nickname was Jesus, but I could have heard him wrong, because I was heading to bed. So tired that I was pretty damn sure I’d be asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I woke pretty damn quick. Hearing steps on the stairs, hearing a gun cocking, hearing Dad and Michonne’s voices joining the noise, I opened my door and tried to make sense of the scene in front of me. Happy for once that Daryl hadn’t joined me in bed.

If I had to guess, the man held at gunpoint by Carl would be Jesus. I could see the resemblance. And he was offering to tell us about his community, the Hilltop. Grabbing a long flannel shirt to cover my nightgown, I followed them downstairs.

He was painting a more rural version of Alexandria. A group that farmed and lived off the grid, basically, and he was offering to take some of our people to meet his leader. I listened, and watched Dad absorb the information. As he looked at Carl and me sitting in one chair, I knew we’d stay behind. Which was fine by me, but little brother liked to be in the thick of things.

Carl’s urge to go was tempered by Dad charging him with Judith and my safety. And the safety of Alexandria, just in case he needed extra bragging rights. I wasn’t surprised that Daryl went. Or Maggie, Glenn, Abraham- It was our life.

When Maggie came back, with an ultrasound of the baby, I knew that the sweet confirmation of her joy wasn’t going to flush away the clear agitation running off of Dad when he ordered a meeting in the church.

A new enemy. The Saviors. Dad urges to strike first. Morgan counters with setting up talks, negotiations. And the vote, which I abstained from, came down on Dad’s side. Another war. More loss.

When the group leaves, I visit Morgan. He’d been spending a great deal of time in the house that he’d been held in when he first arrived. When I walked downstairs, I realized why. He was creating a cell. And I asked why.

“Options,” was his simple answer, and I waited for more. “Death doesn’t have to be the only option, Jessi.”

Ah, he wanted to have the chance to talk us into keeping prisoners. I wished him luck and he stopped me as I started to leave. “You know, you don’t have to keep bottling it up. You can find a healthy way to let it out.”

I shook my head and left. He didn’t have a fucking clue.

 

They returned. Dad and his ragtag band of survivors. Success was declared. No loss on our side. But Maggie didn’t look great. Luckily Glenn seemed to notice. And they walked off together and I hoped that they’d get a break now.

Daryl had relocated his missing bike, which I was certain I should know more about, and yet, I couldn't dredge up the memory. And he doesn’t seem inclined to share.

The runs begin almost immediately after our “win”. Denise asks Daryl and Rosita to take her out. Which seems odd, but what do I know? And Eugene and Abraham go on their own run.

Things happen in rapid fire. Daryl and Rosita come back, Denise is dead. I watch as Daryl buries her himself, trying to get him to open up to me. To tell me why he feels like every death is his personal failure, but I see that Daryl Dixon stoic asshole has returned with a vengeance. Or maybe he didn’t return, I consider, as I watch Carol approach and a conversation starts. Maybe I’m not the person he gets his comfort from anymore.

Denise died, but Eugene was wounded. He’s housed in the infirmary. Which has to be pretty damn sparse now that Denise isn’t there to care for the wounded.

I’m the last to notice Carol left. I don’t really know why. Maybe I’ve fallen backwards in my road to recovery and I slipped into that dark void without knowing. Maybe.

Dad’s confidence, even with the attack that left Denise dead, has grown. Daryl’s plagued by guilt. And then he roars out of the community alone. And Michonne, Glenn, and Rosita follow. I know because the gate attendant tells me when I take Judith for a walk. I brush it off. I’m sure it’ll be fine. I try to adopt Daryl’s attitude, but it doesn’t fit me. And Dad and Morgan have gone too.

When Dad returns, alone, I clamp down on any fear that I feel rushing up. There’s nothing to worry about. Don’t borrow trouble.

But then, as I’m taking care of Judith, I hear Maggie’s scream echoing around me. Rushing to the house next door, I find her curled on the floor with a terrified Enid standing there without a clue of what’s wrong. I send her to find Dad, and the decision is made for her to return to Hilltop. There’s a doctor there, the one who did her ultrasound, and he should be able to help.

Carl and Dad pack lightly. Sasha, Eugene, Abraham, and Aaron go along too. Dad leaves Gabe in charge, glancing at me to let me know I’m in charge of watching Gabe, just in case.

Carl takes me aside and lets me know that he’d locked poor Enid in the armory because she’d argued about going with them. I promise to check on her, and they hug me goodbye.

 

It doesn’t take long until I get a nagging feeling of unease. Like a feeling I hadn’t had since Dad and Daryl both were hurt. That skin crawling coldness that warned me of impending doom for someone I loved. And once I felt it, I couldn’t set my mind on anything else.

Searching our house, I finally found the map that Dad had brought back showing Hilltop. I traced the path they’d take to get there, looking for clues to what I could be feeling. I saw plenty of places where an ambush could be set. Or a roadblock. Any number of ways to create problems for them along their way.

The feeling didn’t leave. I packed a light backpack, and grabbed Judith in my arms and jogged to the armory. Letting Enid out, and cutting off her anger and ranting, I told her I was leaving my baby sister in her care. That she had to keep her safe and that I’d be back. She tried to ask questions, but I shook her off. Now that the feeling had taken root, I had to go.

I left by the front gate. It wasn’t all that difficult, honestly. And I grabbed one of the vehicles I’d seen the others use for runs, and then, I started out to trace the path that Dad and the others had taken. Hopefully I could stop whatever horrors I felt brewing before they happened.

Chapter Text

It only takes a second to change your entire life. And I’m pretty sure I could pinpoint the exact second that mine did.

I’d taken the car along the most obvious route to Hilltop. And when I’d come across a spot most likely for problems to arise, organically or man-made, I’d get out and take a look around. Daryl hadn’t finished training me in tracking, but I could still read the signs. Footprints. Scuff marks. Skid marks.

It took me until I got near the final place I’d marked on the map as a likely spot. And when I looked around, I knew I’d found it. Which was great, because darkness was settling in. I followed the marks I’d found, winding through trees, and seeing light up ahead to confirm my suspicions. I got as close as I could, without drawing attention to myself, seeing that the clearing where I’d seen the lights was ringed with strangers. They were dotted here and there, far enough a part that most wouldn’t notice them, but close enough together to make me uneasy.

And kneeling in the middle of this scene was my family. Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, Rosita, Sasha, Eugene, Abraham, Carl, Dad, Michonne, and Aaron. I watched, holding my breath as the door to the RV nearby opened, and a tall man carrying a baseball bat walked out. I could only hear snippets of his speech. “New World Order”. Threats of one of them dying. “Lucille”. And then, while I watch, and hear enough to see that he’s playing “Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe,” with my family’s lives.

His bat lands on Abraham, and I feel the tears burn down my cheeks in silence as this horrible man, with his terrible bat, beats him to death. I’m shocked, so shocked that I don’t understand why Daryl’s lunging at him. Why he’s being forced to kneel again, but then, I see his eyes land on Glenn and I’m standing outside of the trees, the light landing on me and he stops.

“Well who the fuck do we have here?” His voice is deeper than I’d heard from my hiding spot. And he has dimples. I swallow down my fear and answer him, happy to hear how strong my voice sounds.

“Jessica Grimes.” I can hear Daryl choking. Dad’s voice screaming. But I can’t make sense of any of it. Because this man, this murderer, had his full attention on me and I knew that I’d created enough distraction from what he’d been about to do to at least postpone it.

“Grimes?” He repeats, looking down to where I assume my dad’s positioned. “Yours?” The question isn’t for me. It’s for Dad.

“I’m going to kill you.” Dad bites out. More threats roll off his tongue, but the man lost interest.

His attention is back on me. “Now, little Jessica Grimes,” he’s stepping toward me, studying me carefully. “Why would you be hiding all the way out here?”

I keep my chin up and return his stare. I would not show this man fear. Ever. “I wanted to know-” I swallowed. “I wanted to make sure that my family was safe.”

He smirked at me, at my explanation. “That would explain how you got past my Saviors.” Ah. Now I know. It was him. Negan. I’d heard the name tossed around enough since their first trip to the Hilltop. I’d assumed he was a myth they hid behind.

I didn’t drop my gaze. I didn’t lower my chin or relax my stance. “I suppose it would.” I sounded unconcerned. As though I hadn’t just watched him kill Abraham in the most brutal way. As though I couldn’t hear his blood still dripping off the bat he was holding so casually.

“They’re safe,” he glanced back at my people. “Well, most of them are.” He shrugged. Broken eggs, spilled milk. “Which brings me to my next question. Why are you here? Now?”

“A trade.” I offered. Thinking fast. “I’m here to make a trade.”

His eyebrow raised and his smile grew. “Really?” He looked down at my people again, gauging, I suppose what I could possibly offer him and what I was trading for.

“Take me instead,” I swallowed again. “Instead of Glenn.”

If he’d been curious before, now he was seriously shocked. “You? For him?” He used the bat to point at Glenn, making the drips louder, and I didn’t follow its path to confirm. “You’d die in his place?”

I nodded. I would. I would die for Glenn to survive to see his and Maggie’s baby born. To give him the chance to be a father. To give them the family they deserved. “Yes. I would.” My voice was quieter, but still steady. I could hear Daryl and Dad fighting their own battles at this development, but I prayed they’d remain calm. For everyone else’s sake.

His eyes are still on mine. A new look crossed his face. Was he impressed? “Done.” And I sighed, resigned to my fate. “You for him.” I closed my eyes and smiled. When I opened them, he was striding away. “Come on, Jessica, let’s go.”

What? I stood still. I was supposed to die. He agreed. So what the hell was going on?

He turned back and crooked a gloved finger. “Now.” And not daring to look down at my family, terrified that I’d lose my nerve, I followed after him.

He was waiting at the door of the RV, holding open the door, and tilting his head to show me I was supposed to go first. As I walked inside, I heard him tell his people to wait until we were gone to release the others. They were free to leave, but he’d be visiting real soon.

Chapter Text

When Negan joined me in the RV, the silence was overwhelming. He pointed at the passenger’s seat, and I moved forward sitting down and hoping that my nervousness was well masked. I was still wrapping my head around why I wasn’t a puddle of gore like Abraham outside. He took the driver’s seat and set down the bat, still coated in Abe.

I stared out the windshield, not willing to speak first. And he stared at my profile, I could see him from the corner of my eye. “Relax, Jessica,” his voice was far quieter inside the confines of the RV. “Sit back, sweetheart, and buckle up. Wouldn’t want you to fall out of your damn seat before we get home, now would we?”

Home? Seat belts? What the literal hell? I sat back and complied with his suggestions. Why not? Once the click of the belt confirmed I’d done what he’d asked me to do, the RV’s engine roared to life and we bumped away, to wherever he was taking me.

At first, it was as quiet as it had been when I first stepped inside. Aside from the roar of the vehicle, neither of us spoke. We passed the car I’d taken from Alexandria, and I felt a flash of fear, and failure. I’d left Judith behind. I gave her up, willing to die for Glenn, and now my choice felt selfish.

Dad would make sure she was kept safe, I reminded myself. He had Michonne by his side, and she’d step into the void I’d just created. Carl would remind her of her big sister. Hadn’t he gone to much more trouble for the family picture over the bar? I was telling myself this, over and over, as Negan drove us to wherever he considered home.

Maybe, I thought, he’d kill me there. In front of the rest of his people, because I was certain, having seen the ring of followers that lined the clearing, he had far more people than Dad had thought. Perhaps, unlike Abraham’s death, mine would be a different kind of show. An example. A reminder. To those who followed him of his strength and power.

I was becoming lost in thoughts, but I was also very present. More present than I think I’d been in months. I noticed when he’d shoot me looks. When he’d rub a hand over his face, in thought or frustration I couldn’t tell. And I was firmly aware of the bat, and how close at hand he kept it.

“Jessica Grimes,” Negan saying my name, in the darkness of the RV, as we drove away from my family and all I knew in this world, was almost shocking. The silence broken, the facade of peace gone. “Rick didn’t really answer me earlier. Are you his?”

I considered his question. Was he asking if I was his family? Or was he implying something more intimate? “I’m his daughter.” I answered, my voice loud enough to be heard over the noise of the RV and the road.

“Explains the hick’s reaction to you showing up.” Negan said, musing to himself. I wondered what Daryl had looked like when I stepped forward. “I’m guessing you're his?”

A much tougher question, I thought. I had been. And it felt like eons before this night when I was. But now? When had been the last time that Daryl and I found peace in one another? When had we looked at each other like a lifeline? I found myself more confused than Negan about what I was to Daryl. Now. And before.

“It’s not that difficult of a question, princess.” His voice sounded a little mocking, but I honestly didn’t care. What did it matter? Here, as I drove away with the enemy.

“Does it matter?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the road in front of us.

I heard him snort. “That sounds cold, Jessica. Very very cold.” I could tell he was studying me again. Like a puzzle. “If I’d known Rick Grimes, the biggest pain in my balls ever, had a daughter, I don’t think I’d picture you in a million years.”

He has two daughters, my mind corrected. And I doubt you’d have envisioned either one of us. I didn’t speak. What was the point? I’d be dead soon. Or worse. For all I knew, he was taking me to God knew where to take his time in torturing me to death. And yet, the only fear I felt was for what I’d left behind.

Silence bore down on us again, and I considered what Dad would do next. He and the others would take Maggie to Hilltop. She’d get the medical attention she needed. And then? He’d rush back to Alexandria to make sure that Judith was safe. He’d berate the guard at the gates for letting me leave. He’d hopefully take my deal with Negan to heart and return to the normalcy of life. He, Carl, and Judith could mourn me and let go. That’s what I’d hope he’d do. Enough fighting and uncertainty. Let Alexandria, let our people live their lives in peace. Or, I considered Negan’s warning, in as much peace as they could hope for.

I don’t know how much time passed before he spoke again. I was focusing on thoughts of Dad’s future plans when his voice called me back to the RV.

“Why?” It was one word, but it held so much. I understood what he wanted to know. Why had I offered without knowing that I’d be sitting here and not becoming Abraham’s twin? Why had I stepped forward when his people hadn’t even had an inkling that I was hidden out there? Why had I come at all?

I took my time to answer. Why had I come? A rush of fear, the cold fingers of death teasing up my spine that warned me that someone I cared about was in danger. A need, after so long without feeling anything, to DO something. Why had I shown myself when I’d been safe among the trees? Because standing by as a witness while such terrible loss was inflicted on my family was unbearable. The very thought that Glenn would die, that he would miss his child’s entrance into this uncertain world, and the possibility that his death would kill Maggie or their baby had pushed me forward. Why had I taken the chance, when I didn’t even think it was a chance by offering a man I just watched brutally kill a member of my own family? Because living, no surviving had become unbearable. Because I watched people I love walk away every single day, most without so much as a glance back, and it had become the worst form of torture to endure. Death, even in such a brutal and horrifying way, would be an end to it. It would make sense. Because in this world, death was the only thing that was certain.

I didn’t say any of this. I simply offered, “I don’t know.” When I’d found myself in the light, in front of Negan, I truly didn’t make the decision to move forward. The offer had been a rash one. I hadn’t really thought it over, and yet, when it slipped out I didn’t want to take it back. It had felt right. The perfect answer to the perfect storm that was surrounding us. I didn’t want to be an active part of the equation, so I took a chance to remove myself from it.

He was studying me again. “You haven’t asked me anything about what lies ahead.” He was curious about my own disinterest. That I wasn’t begging him to spare me. That I showed no inquisitiveness about my future, or even if I had one. I didn’t have any, what lay behind me was far more important that whatever I was going to face.

When I didn’t give him anything to go on, he sighed. “Are you suicidal, Jessica?” He sounded like he might care. How strange. And was I? Did I want to die, really?

I smiled sadly. No, I didn’t want to. If I had, with the weapons at my disposal I could have taken myself out of the equation so many times. Permanently. Without help. I shook my head, knowing he’d see it.

“And, yet, you offered to die.” The darkness was lightening, and I wondered what time it was, how long had we been driving. “Why was he more important to you than your own life?”

Glenn. Why was Glenn more important than me? Easy. He wanted his future. The hope of his family growing. The love of Maggie to carry him on. He was more important because he still had hope. I can’t think of a way to tell Negan this that would satisfy him, not without him refocusing on the possibility that I was suicidal.

“Every life is important.” I answered, feeling far too Gabriel-like for my own sanity. But it was true. Every life, here in the dystopia we’d been shoehorned into, was important.

He grew quiet again. And I waited. There was more, I was sure of it.

“I’m taking you to my headquarters.” We’d come to the brochure portion of the ride, I realized. “The Sanctuary. “ Not as nice sounding as Alexandria, but it couldn’t be worse than Terminus. “You’re right, Jessica, every life is important. Especially every life that has a purpose.” I wondered what he thought my purpose might be. “I don’t think I trust you to be alone, not yet.” Ah, so death did not await me, that’s a turn. I could tell he wasn’t buying that I wasn’t harboring self-harm thoughts. “You’ll be my shadow, for now.” Shadow? Like a pet? “Where I go, you go. What I eat, you’ll eat.” He shot me another look and I wondered what he saw. “Hopefully, soon, I’ll give you your purpose.”

I gave a small nod, letting him know I understood. Negan it would seem, has adopted me.

Chapter Text

My first impression of the Sanctuary was that it looked a hell of a lot like the prison. There were walkers being utilized as added security around the perimeter. Interesting idea, I thought, and wondering if eventually that would be my purpose.

As we entered the gates, flashes of my life before, at the prison threatened to overwhelm me. Lori’s death. Blood. Judith’s birth. Blood. Dad’s descent into madness. Blood. Daryl’s pain when Merle was gone. Blood. The Governor’s last stand. Blood. Every memory that came to me was tinged in the surreal redness of the blood that was spilled. And my eyes were drawn to Negan’s bat. Still coated in Abraham’s blood and brain matter. I realized that I was wrong. There were two certainties in our world. Death and blood.

I paid little attention to the people around us, but when I refocused, fighting back against the tide of memories I noticed that along the path Negan was leading me was lined by kneeling people. Fear radiated off these people, but also awe. They were in awe of him.

I followed him. Not too closely, but close enough so I could keep up without jogging. He was whistling as he walked. As though this happened everyday. Him returning with that bat coated in gore, a stranger in tow, and not a care in the world.

Inside the utilitarian building, he kept moving. Forward momentum, full steam ahead. Purposeful. And still, as he walked, people kneeled. As naturally as I drew breath in my lungs, as unthinking as I’d been walking through life, they fell to their knees and stayed there until he was out of view.

Soon we were in a nicely decorated room filled with attractive women in short black dresses. I had walked behind him, back straight, chin up, and I didn’t drop my posture when I followed him into what I could only believe was his harem. They greeted him. They fawned over him. And they paid me no attention, as though my being there was normal. Or as though I was invisible. Their conversation was an annoying buzz in my head, nothing more.

I didn’t care what they were saying, or offering to my new keeper. I was still fighting the rush of pain that had surfaced with the similarities of this place to another. And when that door was opened, so where the other ones. More loss. More pain. More blood. It was almost overwhelming. And yet, noticing that no one seemed to see anything amiss with me, I had to think that my mask had returned. That no one could see the pain that memories were dealing me. Worse than the losses, the flashes of the happiness I’d once had. The hope that I’d held so deeply. The love I’d shared with Daryl.

“Ladies,” his voice, so commanding and deep, drew me away from my inner turmoil. “This,” I felt his hand on my shoulder. “Is Jessica. Jessica, I’d like you to meet my wives.”

Harem. I kept my eyes forward, waiting for him to decide what came next for me. I wasn’t planning on befriending these women. I’d seen, when I’d allowed myself to focus on them, that I bore no resemblance to them. We shared nothing but our gender.

One wife stepped forward. Her movement, coming closer, reminded me of my past. My ability to read people, once upon a time, and decide if danger was in front of me. She didn’t look formidable. Or dangerous. But hadn’t we all learned that monsters often had the faces of angels?

“Jessica,” her voice was quiet and she was looking at me like someone might study a caged or trapped animal, deciding on my danger. “I’m Sherry.”

My eyes were on hers, and I gave a curt nod. And? I wanted to know. You’re Sherry. I’m Jessica. What did it matter?

Negan was waiting. What he was waiting for I had no clue. Did he imagine me feral? Did he expect me to lash out? Did he want me to?

“Come,” he said, finally breaking the silence that had once again fallen around me. “Jessica,” he offered, believing that I hadn’t understood he meant me. “Come with me, sweetheart.” There was another term of endearment. He’d done it a few times now, but this time I heard it. Really heard it.

I followed him. Another room. Still nice, even lavish decor. And a huge bed. I huffed out a breath. A bedroom? My eyes landing on the subtle touches that told me whose. A pair of leather gloves on the table between chairs. The hint of a t-shirt hanging loose out of the chest of drawers. Negan’s room, obviously.

He took the seat facing the door and pointed at the one facing his. I sat down. My eyes locked on his. The bat was leaning against his chair. “Now we’re face to face, and on the same level.” He took in my small stature. “Well, almost.”

I settled in for more conversation. Is it conversation? If a man who you don’t know asks if you’re suicidal, is that really chit chat?

“There’s something about you, Jessica Grimes.” He was studying me again. Full on. No need for side-eye now. His eyes locked on mine, and I waited. “What broke you?”

And there it was. A complete stranger removed my mask. “Who says I’m broken?” If I wouldn’t tell Dad, why would I tell you?

“Your eyes.” He wasn’t digging. He was sure. “Your body and your posture, even your words. They make a good show. But your eyes? It’s clear as a fucking bell.”

I didn’t answer. What was the question? Why would I deny it? Or confirm it? What’s the point?

“How long?” And once again, I knew that he wasn’t asking something as simple as the words implied. How long have I been like this? How long since I started going through the motions, a puppet in life, pretending that surviving was living? How long had it been since I’d felt something as strongly as what I felt that led me to that clearing? To him?

“I’m not sure.” And I wasn’t. It had been subtle. I’d kept it at bay. I’d fought it. And yet, one day there it was.

He nodded. He seemed to understand, which made as much sense as him caring did. “You need rest.” It wasn’t an order, it was a comment. “Rest, a check up with my doctor, and food.” His eyes roamed over my body, and I wondered why he’d think I’d need food. “Come here.”

He stood up and offered me his hand. Taking it, with more confusion than I’d allowed to show since I’d walked out into the open, he helped me to my feet. I guess that my shirt had raised, and he saw that I was armed. Knife and gun, they were pretty much my only wardrobe accessories.

“You’ve been armed this entire time and didn’t try to fucking kill me?” He asked, pulling them both from their usual places. I felt more naked without them, than I ever had without my clothes. “Why?”

Whatever he’d planned for that had made him help me to my feet, it was postponed. Why hadn’t I attacked him? Why hadn’t I tried to use my weapons to free my family? Why, when alone and on the road with him, hadn’t I fought him? Blindsided him and taken him down?

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. There was a time, long long ago, that Jessica Grimes wouldn’t have hesitated. She would have drawn the gun and killed him stone cold dead. I thought I knew that Jessica. I guess she really was gone now.

He looked unnerved. A look that I imagined I’d shown when I saw Lizzie holding Judith’s mouth shut with her hands, as my baby sister started to turn blue. Fear. That’s what I saw on his face. Fear. But was he afraid of me, or for me?

Chapter Text

Negan, after taking away my gun and knife, motions to his bed. And I go rigid. Surely that’s not what he’s brought me here to do. He has a fully stocked harem. Full of women who look like they give a far bigger shit about what they look like than me.

He takes stock of my stillness, and gives a small chuckle. Dear God, was he going to laugh at my inhibition to go to bed with him? “Jessica, I’m not planning on joining you.” He takes my hand and I try desperately not to flinch at the casualness of the touch, so foreign to me since I cannot remember the last time anyone had tried. The pads of his fingers are calloused, they remind me of Daryl’s, but his hand seems bigger, more slender. He’s tugging me toward the bed, and then, once standing in front of it, he tries to sooth me. “You look exhausted.”

Do I? It seems like I’m always sleeping when I’m not taking care of Judith. My room in Alexandria had become a refuge from the world, and I’d had to force myself to leave it.

Negan watches me. And once again, I wish I could see what he saw. If my mask really had gone away, I wanted to know how far it had slipped, and how to put it back in place. “Go ahead, Jessica. I’ll be working right over there,” he points back to where we’d been seated.

Since sleep is the fastest way to nowhere, I take off my boots and without a shred of hesitancy left, I pull off my jeans and climb in the bed. The urge is heavy now, to escape again. To get away inside my own head, where nothing waits. Because, even if Negan can see that I’m broken, he can’t see that the dark release of nothing and nowhere is all I can ever wish for.

 

When I wake up, it’s dark. Completely dark, without even the light of the stars and moon coming through the window we’d sat by when I’d arrived. I wondered, had it happened? Had the darkness that I’d slipped into so willingly finally taken me over completely? I felt no fear. No worry. I felt nothing. And in that, I found solace.

 

The next time I surface, the light’s blinding. Sunlight shining through the window that I’d seen when we’d sat down and Negan had tried to unlock my secrets. I wished it hadn’t come. Morning. Not, I told myself, because I wanted to die. Simply because I found safety in the nothing. In the dark of nowhere.

Negan is sitting in the chair he’d sat in the day before. At least I think it’s the day before. I can see him without sitting up or giving him a sign I’ve awakened. And with this advantage, I study the man who had studied me. He’s reading a sheaf of papers. The bat resting on the table before him, within reach, as seems to be his habit. There’s a walkie talkie beside it. His leather jacket is gone, tossed over the chair I’d occupied before. One hand is shading his eyes, while the other is holding the papers. And I wonder, why him? Why could he see so easily what no one else could? What knowledge does this dangerous man have that my own father doesn’t? What experience would give him the ability to read me easier than Daryl, a man I’d given everything to? And what would he do with the knowledge? The truth about Rick Grimes’ daughter? The reality of my stability or instability? The fact that I wasn’t strong, or brave, or built for this world? The veil that I’d worn so carefully and fully that not even those closest to me could see through it?

He fidgeted, as though he could feel my eyes on him. And I closed mine quickly. Feigning sleep, praying that the darkness would come again, that I’d be able to escape back to nowhere, to nothing.

It didn’t work. He’d seen or thought he’d seen my eyes open. And he called to me, loudly and clearly. “Jessica, come over here.” It was an order. Plain and simple. And since I’d traded my life for Glenn’s, I complied.

I got out of his bed, pulled my jeans back on and walked barefoot over to where he was sitting. He’d tossed the papers onto the table and sat back in his chair to study me standing beside him. And I waited to see what he’d expect of me now. Whatever he saw, it didn’t seem to please him.

“Put on your boots,” he gestured to where I’d set them before resting. “Time for a fucking tour.”

I pulled on my boots and sighed. It wasn’t loud, but he’d heard it, I’m sure. It seemed like he was attuned to every fucking minutia of my being, and I’d just met him. I could hear him pulling on his jacket, the sound of him taking his bat in hand. I turned around to see him far closer than I’d expected him to be. His hand reached out and cupped my chin so he could tilt my face up for his inspection. A rough thumbpad traced beneath my eye, as he studied my face.

“Not much of an improvement,” his voice was low, quiet even. He shook his head and released me. “Let’s fucking go, let you see what you gave up your fucking life for.”

I should have felt fear. It should have made me worry about what I was going to see. Yet, I felt nothing. I wasn’t here, not really, not as long as I could slip back inside myself, back to nowhere.

I followed him, again close enough to keep up without exerting myself, but far enough that I didn’t have to be near him. As I’d been able to do for months, or years now, I took note of everything without taking in anything. Going through the motions, seeing but not experiencing, taking stock but not worrying, all of that was as second nature to me as breathing. As fighting. As surviving.

The marketplace, or whatever he termed it, where his people bartered points earned through work for necessities or luxuries. The cafeteria, again based around earnings through these jobs that he kept mentioning. He stopped our tour long enough to give me food. Hovering to watch me eat, making sure everything was consumed. Satisfied that I’d gotten something down, as though I didn’t eat, we kept going and I wondered, perhaps he had decided on my purpose. Perhaps. Outside, a closer look at his walker security system, I wondered if eventually we’d all be found here, guarding a building without any notice of what or who we had been before. Back inside, to the infirmary, where the wife that had introduced herself, Sherry, was getting results of a pregnancy test.

I had a flicker, as she told Negan it was negative, as the man with the ruined face was nearby, of something tugging in the back of my mind. Hadn’t I, at some point, wanted this? The hope of a child. The future of a family. With Daryl? Maybe, but that was once upon a time, and this was the real world.

I didn’t pay attention to the interaction between Negan and the doctor, or Negan and the man he called ‘D’ or the wife. The doctor, I’m sure I was told his name, but what need did we have of names? What did it matter? He stepped forward, toward me, and asked me to sit on the exam table. I sat. I did what was asked of me, nothing more, nothing less. It was automatic, muscle memory with a hint of listening to what was necessary. Simple. Done. I didn’t notice what he’d checked, or what he said. I didn’t care. I was healthy, clearly, since I was still breathing. I’m sure Negan and the doctor spoke. I’m sure they shot me looks. I didn’t pay attention, I’d gone back to nothing. To nowhere. Where it was blank and easy.

I was told to follow him again. And I did. Back through the building, more hallways, more information. Then we returned to the room filled with women. All clamoring for attention, and he brushed them off and took me back to his private space. And he told me to get more rest, and I wondered why? What was so important about my resting? But I only pondered for a moment, because in the end, nowhere was beckoning. And that temptation of nothing was too powerful to resist.

 

I woke to darkness again. Complete and perfect. Home. And as I let my internal darkness tempt me away, I wondered if it mattered where I was physically, since I wasn’t there. Not really.

Chapter Text

When the darkness pulled me away from the dark, I felt the peace that I craved, but it was short lived. Pain intruded in the form of Daryl’s face. Standing close enough to me to touch, looking so completely disappointed in me, as though I’d betrayed him. I tried to speak, but nothing came out and he disappeared. Turning his back, saying nothing he faded to nothing as he walked away from me, once again.

He was replaced by Dad. Sad eyes, filled with tears and more disappointment, more betrayal. Again nothing said, and again he turned and walked away without another look. Then Carl, then Judith, then...as my heart clenched, pain radiating through me, my entire family, their faces shrouded in disappointment and betrayal, walking away from me without a single word.

I felt something shaking me, and wondered if this is how it ended, my very body breaking apart at the seams. But my eyes felt like they were being forced open, and there was Negan. Hovering over me, blocking out the stream of sunlight shining behind him, his hands on my shoulders shaking me awake.

His hands stayed on my shoulders, but the shaking stopped when my eyes opened. He was doing that studying thing again. And I was trying to figure out why he shook me, why he’d woken me up, even with the invasion of the people I cared about tormenting me.

“You were screaming.” His voice sounded harsh, as though he’d been shouting too. “I tried to get you to wake up by calling your name, but you wouldn’t fucking open your eyes.” He released my shoulders and sat down on the bed where he’d been kneeling over me. “Screaming and crying like you were fucking being tortured.” His eyes never left mine. “What happened to you, Jessica?”

Nothing. I thought. Nothing had happened to me that hadn’t happened to everyone still surviving. Nothing different. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing. I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks, wet and cooling on my skin. I could still see every single person I loved or tried to love walking away without a word. And I knew that it wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t something I’d share with him.

 

Negan didn’t push me, not then, to share what had made me emote more in my sleep than he’d ever seen me show in consciousness. Instead, he handed me a new set of clothes, and pointed toward a bathroom. I went inside, and shut the door. “Don’t lock that, Jessica.” I heard his voice muffled behind the closed barrier. Of course, I was still on suicide watch.

I took off my clothes, and took a look in the mirror over the sink. What did he see that I didn’t? My hair needed a washing, but I had been through the forest, through the sweat inducing angst of watching Abraham die, and then a day here without a shower. I was pale, far paler than I’d been at the beginning of the end. I looked at myself and saw nothing I hadn’t already known. I was me. Pale and a bit dirtier than usual, especially since living in Alexandria, but still outwardly I was Jessica Grimes.

“Get a shower, princess, we have places to be.” His voice called, and I sighed and did what was expected.

The shower was much like the first shower I’d had with Judith in Alexandria. Welcome after the gritty feeling I watched wash down the drain. I dried off with a towel that was waiting on the counter when I’d come in. Then I pulled on the clothes he’d provided. A pair of black leggings, a loose white t-shirt that looked like one of his own, over a bra and panty set that was my size. My boots were in the other room, but I found a brush and untangled my wet hair, braiding it in a long rope down my back.

When I opened the door, Negan was sitting at the foot of his bed waiting for me. He turned to take stock of my fresh appearance and with a nod, gestured for me to come closer. Once again, his hand cupped my chin so he could force my face up for another inspection. His hands were gentle, a far cry from what I’d witnessed from him in the clearing with my family. I waited, patiently for him to finish and release me.

“We’re going to Alexandria today.” He was saying, giving me an idea of what to expect. “You aren’t to speak to them, any of them, is that clear?” I tried to nod, but he was still holding my chin.

“Yes, I understand.” I offered, hoping this would release me from his touch. He was so casual with it, the way he touched me, that it was unnerving.

“Good girl,” he smirked. And I knew some part of me didn’t like the way he’d said it. As though I really was his pet. “Get your boots on and we’ll head out.”

 

On the road to where I’d once called home, I sat between Negan and the man with the scarred face, ‘D’. I sat quietly, and allowed myself to slip back into the comfort of my own blank mind. Letting myself forget that I’d see them, those people who’d turned away from me with a look of frustration and mistrust, in person.

When we arrived, Negan held my wrist in his hand as he banged on the gate. He mocked my former family and community by acting the Big Bad Wolf. Spencer, Deanna’s son, opens it without realizing, I think just who he’s admitting. Then again, I was standing next to Negan, so perhaps he felt it was safe.

And then Dad is there, saying he’d expected more time. Negan handed that bat, the weapon that he’d used to take a life we knew, to him and we’re inside the walls. I know that Dad is trying to check on me, I know even as I keep my eyes straight ahead, even before Negan issues his threat. “No one, not a single fucking one of you, is to speak to her.” I know that all eyes have landed on me, standing beside Negan, because he hasn’t released my wrist. “If anyone wants to tempt my fucking temper, then please, go right the fuck ahead.” No one speaks, not even Dad. Not to me.

Dad’s set aside half the supplies, the edict, I suspect that came before I’d stepped forward. Negan overrules that, saying that HE says what they’ll take, not Dad. A fierce woman, one of Negan’s, sets the others loose on Alexandria to search and find.

I stand still beside Negan as he and my father go back and forth. I’m not needed here, not really, so I allow my mind to wander back to the safety of the nothingness. It’s broken by a gunshot sounding out. I’m pulled along with Negan and Dad to the infirmary, where Carl has taken a stand. No, I think, don’t. Let them take what they will, little brother, let it go and be safe.

Dad pleads with Carl to stop, echoing what I felt inside my head. The need to protect him, to keep him safe. After all, hadn’t I offered my life to do just that? To keep them safe? Negan compliments Carl on his prowess and conviction, but then tells him that he will kill more of the people he thinks of as family. I feel Carl’s eyes on me, but Negan laughs.

“Jessica’s far safer with me than she ever was with you.” His hand slides from my wrist to my hand. He links our fingers as I struggle to understand. “But every single other person here? They’re fucking expendable to me.”

And the weapons, they’re what Negan decides is the price for Carl’s stand. The food, that stays, since Dad and the others will need strength to collect more for Negan. He wants Dad to thank him. To thank his benevolence, but Dad is Dad. Negan shifts and asks if any weapons are kept outside the armory, and Dad insists that the answer is no. There’s a tense time when Olivia’s inventory doesn’t match what Negan’s people find.

As Dad walks away to try to figure out where the missing weapons could be, calling his people to a meeting, I feel more eyes on me. I don’t glance around to find the source, I don’t have to. “Your hick is lookin’ at me like he wants to fuckin’ kill me.” Daryl, I hope beyond hope that he won’t. That he’ll stay safe, that he won’t squander my attempt to save lives.

The weapons are found in Spencer’s house. Once Negan has every weapon, Dad asks for my return. Since Alexandria is being compliant, since he’s playing nice, can I come home?

Negan looks at me, I can tell because I can feel his eyes on my face. “Jessica, do you wanna stay?” I say nothing. He’d told me not to, I’d given my life for Glenn’s, and I don’t renege on deals. “Would you look at that? Your own fucking daughter isn’t interested.” As we’re leaving, Negan holding my hand, and Dad on his other side, Negan gives the shot that I knew he’d been holding tight. The shot that would wound the deepest. “Rick Grimes, biggest fucking asshole I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with, how does it fucking feel to know that you broke her so fucking badly that staying with the fucking Devil is a better offer than staying with daddy?”

He helps me into the same vehicle we’d come in, but D isn’t on my other side. I haven’t a clue where he is, nor do I care, but I do know that I’m glad I didn’t look at Dad. That I didn’t meet the eyes of Daryl. That I’d kept my word to Negan, because I knew, if I had dropped my thousand yard stare, my mask, that I may not have been able to leave again. And since it didn’t matter whether here or there, as long as nowhere waited for me, I could survive anything. Until the end for me came, and then I’d be in the nothing forever.

Chapter Text

When we arrived back at the Sanctuary, I saw where ‘D’ had been. He was riding Daryl’s bike, and I supposed that, like the weapons, was the spoils of war. Or a skirmish, since as far as I could tell, it hadn’t gotten to full war.

I followed Negan without thought. Without fear, without a care or the need to even pretend that I was aware. Every part of me was so used to this, going through the motions, that I could do it without a single aware thought. Once again I was in his room, and seated in front of him.

“Jessi,” he tried the name that my dad must have used to ask for my return. I flinched. It was a name I only heard out of the people closest to me, and he was for all purposes, a stranger. “You don’t like the name?”

I kept my eyes on his. “It’s fine.” I answered, sitting ramrod straight and as still as a stone.

He was still examining me. Looking for what, I truly couldn’t say or care. “Did you want to stay there, with Rick and the hick?”

I felt my brow furrow. What kind of question was that? Was it a trick or a test? In the end, what did my answer matter? I’d made a deal, life for a life, and here I was. “Does it matter?”

He leaned back in his seat and sighed. “Consider me fucking curious.”

I still didn’t get it. Why would he care? What difference could my wants, or my feelings matter? “Where I am doesn’t make one bit of difference to me.” It was true. Here or there. What did it matter to me? Not like I could let myself stay present, or aware. Nowhere was far more tempting than anything my surroundings could offer. Here, at least, I didn’t have to pretend as much, or I didn’t think I did.

“I believe you,” he said, leaning forward and staring at me intently. “But I still wanna know why the fuck you think that?”

His curiosity bothered me. I’d given him my life for Glenn’s. I’d agreed to whatever was coming. I’d assumed death, sure, but I would do whatever he asked of me. Except this. I would not bare my soul to him. Not just because he was a stranger. Not simply because he had monstrous tendencies. Because in the end of it all, I didn’t think I had to share it with anyone, much less him. I was his property. And that was it. Pet or prey, I really didn’t care.

I didn’t answer him. My silence is answer enough. Or it should be. My eyes remain locked on his. And we reached a stalemate.

Time passes, how much I have no clue, but it must. The shadows from the sunlight dappling through the window move subtly. “I can’t help you if you won’t share,” Negan offers, cutting through the quiet.

Why bother? What’s the point of trying to help me? I traded my LIFE and I suppose my body, but the rest? It doesn’t play a part, not really. “Why does it matter?” I finally asked, a tinge of curiosity coming to the surface.

He stared at me, considering obviously how to answer me. “Why didn’t anyone else?” He countered.

I tilted my head and took my time to perform my own inspection of him. He looked far too interested in my opinion. He had, aside from throwing my lack of answer in Alexandria in Dad’s face, treated me with kindness. And even with his not so subtle dig at Dad, it was more about how he’d failed me.

“I suppose,” I finally leaned back in my own seat, feigning a relaxation I didn’t feel. “That no one noticed or thought that I needed help.”

Negan ran his hand down his face. The tell I’d noticed when we were in the RV. I still couldn’t tell what it meant. Frustration? Irritation? Calming himself? His mouth was closed and it looked like he was chewing his words. Tasting them, and deciding which ones to use. Which ones to toss out, which ones made the most sense.

He sighed, long and deep. “Why didn’t they?” And I couldn’t decide if he was asking me, or if he was ruminating on the lack of attention that my people showed me. His eyes were locked on mine, almost trying to draw the answers he wanted so badly to questions he hadn’t asked yet, right from my brain. “Jessi, if I could see it. If I could take a fucking single damn look into your goddamn eyes and see it, then why couldn’t they?”

My mask, I wanted to say. The mask that I wore so carelessly, yet so absolutely covering my every lack of emotion, or overly emotional reaction that I didn’t know how to deal with. Why would they want to slip it off? When every single day we’d survived, another fucking terrible thing showed up. Humans who wanted us dead. The dead who wanted us dead. The fucking very nature of our environment wanted us dead. Why would anyone, much less the people who loved me, want the added burden?

“Why would they want to?” Question for a question. And it was true. If I didn’t want my own fucking burdens, why would I expect someone else to pick them up?

His eyes were looking at me like I’d disappointed him. That somehow that wasn’t good enough. That I should have done better. Yeah, well, get in line, I thought. “People are resources, Jessi. Family, if you’re left with family and loved ones, then they are MORE than just resources.” He was so focused, yet there was something behind his words. Something that I couldn’t quite grasp. “Your dad, your hick, they-” He stopped, and shut his eyes, letting me have a break from his scrutiny. “What was your place in your group? Your purpose with them?”

I was about to say that I took care of my brother and sister, but I wasn’t sure he knew about Judith, and even though I wasn’t available to her bodily, I wouldn’t put her in danger. “I-” I tried to think of the best explanation. “I took care of my brother. I made sure that our people stayed-” what was the way to say it. “I meditated, in the beginning. I made sure that no one blamed themselves for the inevitable losses.” Daryl, I thought, I made sure he knew that it wasn’t his fault. Not when Merle died. Not when he couldn’t bring back Sofia. Not when Zach was lost on his run. I took it from him, the burden.

“And what did they give you in return?” His voice was quiet. He wanted the comparison. My burden versus theirs.

My chin raised in defiance. I wouldn’t make my family sound selfish or neglectful. They weren’t. We lived in a horrible Hell on earth. We all had burdens. “They loved me. They kept me safe.”

Negan’s eyes were slits as he squinted at me, as though he were trying to filter through my scarce answers to find something to latch onto. “Love is a two way street, and safety? Why are you here, instead of anyone else, or better yet, why did anyone have to be here?” He stopped, letting me roll it around in my head. “Your dad didn’t need to start shit with me, Jessi. They didn’t have to attack my people. They had no reason to pick a fight that they weren’t going to win.” He leaned forward again, closer and more intense. “You weren’t in the groups that we gathered, why?”

“I didn’t go on runs.” It was the truth. I hadn’t been on a run since before we settled at the prison. It wasn’t something nefarious. It wasn’t.

“Why?” He asked, always wanting more.

I shrugged. “I didn’t want to go.” And Deanna hadn’t given me the task for a job, and Dad hadn’t asked either, I added in my head.

“Why?” Again.

“Because. I. Didn't. Want. To. Go.” I was getting aggravated with this, why did it matter, damn it?

“Why?” His tone never changed. He didn’t raise his voice.

I sighed, and glanced at the wall. “I didn’t want to go.” I sounded defeated. Even to me. A crack in my mask.

“Did your dad, did your-” he stopped, skipping over Daryl, but including him in his own way. “Did they ever ask why you didn’t want to go?”

No, they hadn’t. They had left. And most of the time without a backward glance or a goodbye. I shook my head. Not willing to speak. Not knowing how my damn voice would sound. And not willing to allow another crack to form.

“When was the last time?” He asked, and I looked back at him. Last time? He saw my confusion. “The last time he touched you, the last time he LOOKED at you?”

He wasn’t talking about Dad. He wanted to know about Daryl. I swallowed and blinked back the burn in my eyes. “I don’t know.” My voice was a breath. But as quiet as his room was it could have been a scream.

Negan leaned back in his seat again. He was breathing slightly harder, as though interrogating me was a workout. “They didn’t see you, HE didn’t see you breaking because it was inconvenient to them.” He bit out and I was shocked at how angry he sounded. Why was he pissed, he barely fucking knew me? “They let you fall completely fucking apart and didn’t fucking see it because they might have to fucking take care of you.” His eyes were flashing like fire. “It was FINE when you built them back up, when you took their fucking guilt for whatever your group went through, but they couldn’t, HE couldn’t fucking take a moment to do the same for you.”

“You don’t know him.” I spit out. Defending Daryl against his accusations.

He glared at me. “I don’t fucking think you do, either.” He returned.

I glared right back at him, feeling more than I’d felt in God knew how long. How fucking dare he? How dare he challenge it, what Daryl and I shared. But how long ago did you share it? A traitorous part of my brain asked. “You know nothing. About me. About him. You don’t know shit.” I was angry. With Negan, with myself.

He raised his eyebrow. “I know that this is the first fucking time you’ve shown ANY fucking emotion since you walked out of that fucking strand of trees. I know that you sleep so you can fucking leave the world behind, so you don’t have to fucking face the realities that fucking surround you and no one is willing to help you through it so you can wake the fuck up and see that you’re barely fucking alive.” He was as irritated as I was. “I can tell you this much, Jessica Grimes. If you were mine, like you were his, and you’d stepped up and offered your fucking life for another person’s, I’d have fucking stopped you. I would have fucking put my own down in your fucking place, because that’s what love is.”

I felt the first tear fall. And then I was sobbing. That first crack in my fucking shell, it had broken the whole damn mask. There I sat, unmasked and broken. As Negan sat before me watching.

Chapter Text

I managed to regain my composure, eventually. Negan had watched me, the entire time, just watching as though I were some type of entertainment for him. Seems an odd way to kill time when he had his harem on standby, but who am I to judge? Once I was back under control, at least more manageable control, I leaned back in my chair worn out. Fuck emotions.

“Feel better, Jessi?” He asked, and I could feel the smugness rolling off of him.

The urge to tell him to go fuck himself was overwhelming. Instead, I turned my face to the wall and thought about how to retort. “Why are you here?” If he could ask questions, why couldn’t I?

He snorted. “I run the damn place, princess.” I turned back to face him, seeing the fucking glee on his face.

“No,” I said, shaking my head and glancing between the two of us. “Why are you HERE?”

He squinted, confusion replacing his pleasure of his own power. “Here? In my fucking bedroom?”

I bit my lip, enjoying the turning of the tables. “Yes, here, in YOUR bedroom, with ME. Why are you HERE with me when you have-” I shot a thumb toward where I was sure his harem was waiting with bated breath, ready and far more willing to enjoy his company than me. Because I wanted a fucking break. I wanted to have a breather, a moment to just not.

It dawned on him, and he smirked, dimples showing. “Jessi, are you jealous, sweetheart?”

It was my turn to snort. Jealous? Of what? “Why would I be jealous?” I looked at him like he’d lost HIS fucking mind. How the hell did he think he was going to ‘help’ me if he was batshit insane himself?

His eyebrow quirked. Clearly he was a firm believer in his own attractiveness. Wow, that damn ego, how does he fit through the damn door? “Want to get rid of me?” I nodded, finally figured it out, didn’t you? He chuckled and it was a deep earthy sound. “Not happening, sweetheart. Not yet, anyway.” Fuck.

“I’m not suicidal.” I practically growled. “If I were, then why wouldn’t I have used MY gun or MY knife to kill myself?” I didn’t add that since he’d taken them and done fuck knew what with them it wasn’t like I had access to any other fucking implements of self destruction. What did he think, I was going to fashion a noose out of his sheets?

Negan was leaning back in his own chair, and we were like mirror images. “You keep saying that, but, let’s just say I’m not ready to trust it.” I had a sudden urge to roll my eyes. “Am I really that terrible company?”

I considered it. If he was quiet and I was sleeping, it wasn’t torture. If he was digging through my psyche, then yes, he sucked for company. “Depends.” Was the answer I settled on.

“On?” Damn him, fucking curiosity. I wanted him to go, to leave me or send me to this promised purpose. Not talk me to death.

“How quiet you are.” There, take that.

He laughed, full bodied, eyes sparkling, and dimples fully in show. “I bet you were fucking amazing before.” I knew what he meant, before I broke. Before I locked myself away inside of my own head. “I can almost see it, almost.” His eyes, I noticed, changed colors. Not like mine do, but still.

“Has my purpose here been decided?” I asked, anything to get space from him. Away. Alone.

He shook his head. “Like I said, princess, I don’t trust it.” He didn’t trust ME he meant. Didn’t trust me to keep this, my newly present self.

 

When night fell, I was still sitting with him. We’d eaten, he had food brought up for us, and he kept his word. I ate what he ate. And damn it if he didn’t eat too much. A trip to the bathroom to get ready for bed and I had a flash of wonder. Where had he been sleeping?

I came out of the bathroom and he was lying on the bed with his back against the headboard. No, he couldn't have. I would have known. Wouldn’t I? “You planning on sleeping in that fucking doorway?” He shot a look over at me and I knew my eyes were wide. What the fuck?

“If you toss me a blanket, I’ll take the sofa.” I said, walking toward it, suddenly aware of the fact that I was wearing only a damn t-shirt. The same one he’d given me to change into. I was thankful that he was taller, because it meant all my important parts were covered, but I was still very aware that I was bare from mid-thigh to feet.

He shook his head. “Get in the damn bed, Jessi.” I watched him roll his eyes. “When I said I wouldn’t ‘join you’, I mean I wouldn’t JOIN you.” Just, fuck. “You didn’t seem to fucking notice before.”

Of course I didn’t. I was escaping into my own fucking darkness, and YOU pulled me part way out of it. So it’s YOUR fault that I’m aware now. I was glaring at him. “Why can’t I sleep on the damn sofa?”

He got out of bed and walked over to where I was standing near the sofa. He took my hand and pulled me to his bed. HIS bed that I was now firmly aware I’d slept next to him in for two damn nights. “You aren’t sleeping on the fucking sofa because I’m a fucking gentleman.” He lifted me by the waist and put me to bed as though I was a testy toddler. “I’m not planning on groping you, for shit’s sake.” He tucked me in, blankets pulled up to my chin. “We’ve been sharing the damn bed, get the fuck over it.”

He crawled into the other side of the bed after he’d turned off the lights. Nearly complete darkness surrounded us and made me far too aware of him. We weren’t touching, there was probably enough space between us for a wife or two, but still I KNEW he was there. And the bed wasn’t comfortable. How had I fallen away before? Why wouldn’t the fucking darkness rise up and grab me again? Damn it.

 

I was still awake when the sun rose. Still lying on the damn bed, flat as a board, completely awake and aware. Negan had stolen it. He’d taken away my nowhere. My nothing. My mask. And he snores.

Once it was light in the room, I climbed out of bed. I hadn’t looked out of the window. I hadn’t explored. And I wanted to.

The view wasn’t spectacular, but it was something. I was leaning against the frame, and just looking, wondering what happens next. Negan would give me a job, I vaguely recalled him explaining some during the tour. I squinted through the sun light streaming through the glass, what had I seen and heard? What else had I missed?

 

I heard the rustle of sheets from behind me, alerting me that Negan was awake. I didn’t turn to face him. I wanted to enjoy my solitude for a bit longer. I felt raw and tired. I felt like I was more exposed than I was, still only in the t-shirt and panties that I’d worn to bed.

Negan must have gotten out of bed, because I heard the bathroom door shut. I gave him silent thanks for giving me time alone. I let my mind wander back to Alexandria. To Dad. To Carl. To Daryl. They were like sand through my fingers. I felt something, but it was fleeting and I couldn’t grasp it and hold on to it.

I heard him come out of the bathroom, and I still didn’t turn. I didn’t say a word. I was trying so hard to hold on to the little piece of peace I had left. I could tell that he’d sat in ‘his’ seat. Which meant he had a clear view of me, or the back of me anyway.

“You know, staring a hole in a person is pretty damn creepy.” I said to the window.

He chuckled. “I was wondering if you were planning on jumping.” I groaned. Although, if he were willing to joke about it, maybe-

I turned and found him reclining in his seat, feet on the table before him, his hands behind his head. He looked well rested. That made one of us. “Sleep well?” I asked with only a hint of the irritation that I was feeling. Ugh, feelings.

“Like a baby, chock full of mama’s milk. You?” I could feel my nose wrinkle. “You look pretty fuckin' tense."

Seriously, darkness, now would be a fabulous time to come rushing back playing Pied Piper for me. Then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge him or his mocking. “The bed wasn’t comfortable. It was like I was the princess in The Princess and the Pea.”

He laughed. “Never been called a goddamn pea before.” I guess not, since I’m sure you’ve been called things that would make a former sailor blush. “I stayed on my side of the bed, sweetheart, so why couldn’t you sleep?”

Of course he would think it was about him. I REALLY wanted my former numb self. Blowing through this bargain without having to FEEL anything would make it much easier. I closed my eyes, searching for the way back. My way back to nowhere.

“Jessi?” His voice wasn’t as clear. Was it working? “Jessica Grimes, open your damn eyes.” Ugh, just like my feelings for Dad and my family it slipped away.

My eyes snapped open into a glare. “Why?” I asked, hearing the pain in my own voice. “Why did you have to meddle in something that wasn’t your fucking business?” I didn’t wait for his answer, I walked to the bathroom and shut the door. And just in case he thought I’d mindlessly follow his damn orders, I flicked the lock on the door.

Chapter Text

I was locked in the bathroom, where I’d retreated and redressed, when Negan finally had enough of my shit. I heard the lock tumblers roll and then he had the door open and was looming in the frame. Damn it. Why was he so adamant that I NOT lock the damn door if he had a fucking way to unlock it?

“Are you through with your tantrum, Jessi?” His eyes were flashing, but he didn’t sound pissed. Weird.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “What if I’d been naked in here? What if I’d been using the facilities?” I glanced at the toilet. “What if I’d been in the shower? What if-”

He rolled his eyes. “Dramatic, aren’t you?” He huffed out a breath. “It ain’t like I haven’t seen what you’re packing, sweetheart. You’ve met my fucking wives.”

“Yeah, I like to think that we women aren’t ALL THE FUCKING SAME!” I glared at him. “And speaking of ‘dramatic’, what’s the point of telling me not to lock the fucking door if you could just fucking get in anyway?”

He shrugged. “It’s fucking easier to get in, if I don’t have to fucking pick the damn thing.” He gestured for me to get my ass out of the bathroom. “Come on, we’ve got shit to do.”

I brushed past him and grabbed my boots. Once I was ready, he tossed on his jacket and grabbed his best friend, the bat, and whistling led the way outside. The shit we had to do, apparently was oversee the supplies coming in on trucks.

I’m standing beside Negan, fulfilling my duty as his shadow when I hear the shot ring out. Gunfire? Looking up and keeping pace with Negan, we find my little brother holding a machine gun and demanding Negan’s head.  Well, I didn’t see that coming.

 

Carl killed two Saviors before D tackled him. I’d stood by Negan, his shadow. I could have sworn that I felt a bullet ripple the air next to my head. Did my brother nearly kill me in his quest to take out Negan? I’d felt pretty damn lucky when the target himself used a Savior as a human shield instead of me, but to die at the hands of Carl, well that would have just been pretty much keeping with my life so far.

Did I hear Negan right? Did he say Carl was ‘adorable’? I was going to end up dead. Definitely dead simply because I seem to surround myself with men who find the violence we’d been forced to learn to treat as a normal part of life"cute" or "fun". And then, Carl was given the grand tour, with me Negan's shadow along for the ride.

I should have been bored, or irritated, but I hadn’t really been there when he’d given me my own. I could have done without watching him play king on high on the catwalk addressing his subjects. Seriously, I could live to be a thousand years old and pray that the image is erased from my memory by some magical means and not miss it. Fresh veggies for everyone, without points deduction. Negan doesn’t want his people to get scurvy. Let us all give praise, “Amen.”

Respect. He thinks that the people cheering because he’s granted them free carrots is respect. Yeah, I'm pretty confident that I’ll be regaining full access to the lovely nothingness of my inner sanctum.

We end up back with the harem. They look like dolls, which I hadn't noticed before. Dressed almost the same, just sitting there waiting to serve their master. I gag internally. Carl looks pretty interested. Great. Wonderful. Now that I’m paying attention, I notice one of the wives takes Negan aside, Sherry the one who'd introduced herself to me. And then I watch him approach another one, and give her a talking to for, wait, she cheated on him? Jesus, am I in Melrose Place?

And then I watch as the wife that stepped out on him assures her 'husband', that she loves him. OK then. This isn’t fucking surreal at all. Then he basically makes out with Sherry. Did I trade my life to watch soap operas play out constantly? Please God don’t let it descend into porn.  Why couldn't he just have put me out of my fucking misery?  

Negan leads the way into his bedroom. And he glances at me to be sure I’m right on his fucking heels. Of course I am, I think, did you assume I’d stay with your concubines and mingle?

Negan sits and gestures for Carl to take my seat. Well, the seat I’m usually grilled in. I go to take the chair next to my brother, but Negan stops me and pats the empty space beside him on the sofa. Really? I have to slip past his legs and share personal space to get to the open spot. Too close for me. I keep my eyes on the ceiling, but he takes my hips in hand and shifts me over, forcing me to glance down at him and his casual touch. Ugh.

I sit and wait to see what punishment Carl is going to get for the deaths of two of Negan’s men. Wasn’t that what had caused Abraham’s death? My dad and the others killing his men? I wish for the numbness, because right now I’m afraid. Afraid I’ll have to watch something horrible happen to Carl.

Negan orders my baby brother to remove Dad’s hat, and the bandage that covers the horrible crater that Ron had created with that damn bullet. I watch as Carl tries to argue against it, but as I suspected, this is part of his punishment. Negan reminds him of the two men he killed, this is the price he has to pay. Carl flashes me a look, is he pleading for me to intervene? Or is he begging me not to look? He takes off Dad’s hat, and then unravels the bandage and my heart lurches. My poor baby brother. And Negan? Far from the compassion he’d shown me at first, taunts him. Telling him how disgusting it looks. And I close my eyes so I can’t see Carl’s pain or his tears.

Negan must notice that I’m taking it as hard as Carl, because I feel his fingers brush my hands clasped in my lap, and then he apologizes to my brother.

A knock comes to the door and I open my eyes. No one ever comes to Negan’s room. At least no one had since I’ve been here. It’s a rotund man whom Negan addresses as ‘Fat Joseph’. Charming, I think, fat shaming as a nickname. He was carrying the bat, which apparently has a name. Lucille. And I have to listen to the weirdest exchange over a weapon that I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness. Negan is speaking about this piece of barbed wire wrapped wood as though it was a woman. And again I feel pretty damn certain that with him leading me through ‘recovery’, I’ll be back to my numb self soon.

The Savior is dismissed. Negan returns to Carl. He tells him that his eye is badass and he wouldn’t cover it. That seeing my brother’s scar would make sure no one fucked with him. My eyes fall closed again, when Negan demands that Carl sing him something. Again, Carl tries to object, and again he’s overruled. When Carl starts singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ I cannot stop my tears. Dear God, another crack to what was left of my mask. I feel his fingers brush my hands again, but I keep my eyes shut.

Lori. She used to sing that song to us when we were little. And Carl held on to that memory. Even after- They’re talking about her, about what happened. I can feel my heart clench. Feel my fear ratchet up at the thought of Judith. Carl tells Negan that he’d put her down, and my throat is burning from the pain of it. The memory. Negan offers that he understands why Carl’s gonna end up a future serial killer and I bend my upper half, folding in on myself.

I feel a hand on my back. It’s huge so I know it’s Negan’s. I’m fighting a building sob, and I try to focus on the fact that he’s trying to comfort me, and not on the fact that he created the situation he has to comfort me through. I fight to regain my composure, and he tells Carl and I that the ‘iron is ready’ and we leave the suite. My arms are wrapped around myself, and I’m desperate to find it. My darkness. The comfort of nothing.

Downstairs, a man is tied to a chair with the fire of a furnace burning before him. Negan gives a speech about rules. Their importance. And I look around at the gathered people. The wives are lined up in front. D is reaching for an iron tucked into the flames, and then before it happens, understanding flows through me in a shock of horror. It’s how his face was scarred. It’s the punishment. And then it happens. The man tied to the chair, the iron, and the scent of burning flesh.

My chest is heaving as I pant for breath. I can’t seem to get any air. Why can’t I breathe? I hear the buzzing of Negan’s mocking voice. I hear a buzz mentioning forgiveness. I hear a buzz, but nothing clear. And I’m still fighting for air. Negan returns to Carl and I. I’d forgotten my little brother had seen it too. Then Negan’s hand is tilting my face up, and he’s saying something because I can see his lips moving, but I can’t hear them, the words.

“Breathe, Jessi, breathe.” It’s Carl’s voice, breaking through the static. I focus on his words, and I work to calm myself.  Focus on drawing air in and letting it out. Until finally, I can hear the sounds of someone mopping. Of the scraping of a chair across the concrete floor.

When I’m breathing normally, we return to Negan’s rooms. And somewhere, downstairs, my brother’s gotten his confidence back. He taunts Negan for not killing him. Or Dad. Or Daryl. And I can feel his eyes on me, silently adding me to the list. Instead of proving Carl wrong, Negan invites my baby brother to take a ride with him.

I almost believe that I’ll get to stay behind. Alone to fall to pieces or to find my way back to the numbness, but I’m not that lucky. I’m included in the invitation. We take a cargo truck. And I’m put between Negan and Carl. I have a flicker of fear that this is going to be the last ride I’ll have, that Carl’s brash action has doomed us both.

Chapter Text

Negan didn’t take Carl and me somewhere and ditch our bodies after beating our brains out with his best girl, Lucille. Sadly. Instead, he took us on a road trip. Back to Alexandria. He regaled us, the entire way there with all the ways that he COULD have killed Carl. How he could have forced me to have to watch him put down my baby brother for daring to attack as he had.

I let his bullshit roll over me. I’m learning, slowly, that Negan loves the sound of his own voice. And he truly adores putting fear into the hearts of those who allow it. Instead, I watch out the windshield as we drive along the road. Abandoned cars. A smattering of walkers. And the feeling of being fully aware of everything for the first time in a long time.

When we arrive at the gates, no one dares to stop us from coming inside. With both Carl and me at his side, Negan makes his way to Dad’s house. And, instead of walking in like he owns the place, which I’d expected, he knocks. Olivia, the woman who’d kept the inventory for the armory and pantry answered, and I wondered if she was my replacement in my former house.

I can’t remember having much interaction with her before, when I was still an Alexandrian. It doesn’t strike me as very strange how intimidated she seems by Negan. He’s a hard pill to swallow when he’s trying to play therapist, but when he’s just being himself, well then you see an asshole in full bloom. She tries to get rid of us, because whether she understands or not, Negan and I are a matched set right now. She tells Negan that Dad is out scavenging, that he probably won’t be back by the end of today. I wonder if Michonne went with him, and that’s why she’s here, to watch my baby sister.

She talks about how they’re low on supplies, how they’re practically starving, and then Negan shows just how fucking charming he is. A raised eyebrow. He looks her up and down and insults her by insinuating that since she’s curvy, that he doubts her sincerity. And, yes, I’m editing his bullshit, because it was disgustingly mean. He catches my eye, and sees my glare, so he tries his hand at apologizing.

Of course, this is Negan we’re talking about so once he tries to say sorry in his own classy way, he follows up with an offer that has me rolling my damn eyes. “I think it would be enjoyable to screw your brains out. I mean if, you know, you’re agreeable to it.” Dear fucking Christ, does he have a filter at all?

And Olivia, who I can’t recall much about, does something that has me fucking grinning from ear to ear. She slaps him straight across his smug, arrogant face. The crack makes my heart sing.

Negan ruins the fucking experience by telling her, after she rocks his fucking head on his shoulders with that slap, “I’m about fifty percent more into you now. Just saying.” Ugh. Seriously? He catches whatever look I have on my face, smirks at me, and winks. Could he be more crude and annoying?

He dismisses her, letting her leave his royal presence to fix lemonade that he knows he left behind. Powered lemonade is his newest whim, and I wonder if Olivia had it in her to fucking poison him.

Of course, we couldn’t just drop my little brother off at home, get back in the damn box-truck, and head the fuck back from whence we came. Now, where would Negan’s fun be in that?

Olivia, acting as though I’m an enemy too, stays in the house as Negan takes a grand tour. Taking off his boots, testing the carpet in Carl’s room with his bare feet, I have to wonder if he’s truly enjoying the feel of it because of the novelty, or if he’s checking to see if wiping his bare ass across it would cause him discomfort. Watching the steady stream of water as though he’s never had it before. He looked around what had been my room with interest. Uncomfortable interest, as though he’d find something more about me. Good luck.

And then, as we passed the room where Judith sleeps, he goes to open the door and I shake my head and tell him it’s just another empty room. He squints at me, and puts his hand on the doorknob.

“Really?” I ask him, raising my eyebrow. “Why are you interested in empty rooms?”

He calls my bluff and opens the door, and there she is. My little sister, the ONLY thing I regret leaving behind. And the ONE person in the world that I wanted to protect, from him, from the world at large and he’s found her.

“Oh my!” He doesn’t raise his voice, as he draws nearer to her, and handing Carl his precious Lucille, he almost seems in awe of her. “Look at this little angel.” And then she’s in his arms, and he’s being incredibly gentle with her, as he looks over her sweet blonde curls at me. His tenderness is a surprise, even if he’d never shown me the mean streak I knew ran in him.

Judith is holding a stuffed elephant as he bounces her gently in his arms. He takes a minute to study her, and then looks once again at me. And I wonder at the clear question in his eyes. What could Negan possibly want with this? With Dad’s life? With mine?

Negan makes himself at home in Dad’s house. He shaves with Dad’s straight razor, giving Carl advice like “against the grain, always go against the grain”. He’d handed Judith to me before he went into the bathroom, and I started to turn away, to take her somewhere alone, but he stopped me. “No, sweetheart, you both stay.” Shooting a look at my brother he corrects himself. “All three of you stay.” Which is why I’m having my unscheduled visit with my baby sister in full view of the man I’d assumed would kill me.

While he’s shaving, giving out advice to Carl, he keeps watching me with her. As I quietly talk to her, running my hand down her soft curls, and checking her for signs that she missed me. Even a tiny bit. I can’t stop myself from kissing her head. From entertaining her with her stuffed animal. And I work hard to block out Negan’s interest. Pretending that he’s not filing my reactions away for another round of my therapy when we head back to his domain.

He fixes dinner. Spaghetti sauce from scratch. Noodles, obviously. And he enlists Carl to make rolls. Me? For once, since I offered myself in Glenn’s place, he allowed me to sit at the dining room table and have peace away from him. Still in view, of course, but at a distance. With Judith. And get lost in her, if only for a little bit.

Olivia returned with the lemonade, and I could feel her glaring at me. Her urge to grab Judith from my arms, to keep her safe from ME was clear as a bell on her face. I could also tell that Negan had noticed. “Be a lamb, Olivia, be a lamb.” He was reiterating what he’d said when he requested the lemonade earlier, only now the term that I’d taken as a taunt to the other woman, took on a new meaning. A warning, I could hear it in his voice. A threat, a reminder of who he was, and that I was with him was so evident that she rushed into the kitchen to make the drink.

Once dinner was prepared, we settled around the table, looking for all the world like a family dinner with a tinge of hostage situation. There’s an extra place setting, but I’m so wrapped up in my baby sister that I don’t pay attention to the why. I’d kept Judith on my lap, but we didn’t start to eat. Negan, clearly waiting for something, or someone. And I knew, he was holding dinner for Dad. A picture he’d created, a scene that would fuck with Dad’s head a little bit more. His children, a member of his community, and the very man who’d bested him, around his very own dining room table with a meal fit for a Sunday dinner from before the world turned to shit.

Negan has the patience of a toddler. Eventually he realized that Dad wasn’t going to return just because he’d set the stage. He finally gave in and asked Carl to pass the rolls. I hated to admit it, and I damn sure wouldn’t let him know, but he made a sauce that rivaled the Italian place that I’d loved while at college. I fed Judith from her own plate. I drank a bit of the lemonade that Olivia had made. And I tried, very hard, to ignore the feeling that Negan was watching me closely.

After eating, Negan decided it was perfect weather to sit on the porch and take in the scenery. He held out his arms, once he’d taken off his jacket, and I reluctantly handed Judith back to him. He took one chair and Carl took another. Negan looked like he was enchanted by my little sister. That in her he saw something that he hadn’t seen in far too long. Did I trust it? That he wasn’t dangerous to her? No. I didn’t. Not because he’d shown violence to me or her, but because the need to keep her safe. The need to make sure that she remained innocent of the world and its dangers was one of the few things that I’d never felt numb to was amplified by my mask developing the cracks that Negan’s meddling had created.

I leaned against the banister in front of them. Close to Negan, since she was in his arms, and I hadn’t noticed that Carl’s eyes were taking in my behavior, and Negan’s.

“So my sister doesn’t get to sit?” He bit out, glaring with his one unruined eye. “She has to stay quiet, she has to just blindly follow you around?”

I closed my eyes to his challenge. He didn’t get it. And I had a feeling no one, not even the rest of my family understood. Why I’d done it, why I had to stay beside him. Carl didn’t see me. No better than anyone else had. Dad had only had a glimpse, and even he didn’t get it.

“Have you seen me order her to stand?” Negan asked. “Have you seen me tell her not to look at you or speak to you?” He was challenging my brother’s assumptions. “Jesus, were you this fucking blind before you lost your eye?” I opened my eyes to see him cradling Judith to his chest. His voice stayed low, quite even, careful not to scare her. “I’ve been thinking about what you’d said earlier, Carl. Maybe it is stupid keeping you and your dad alive.” He pulled Judith forward, bouncing her on his knee and seemingly speaking to her. “I mean why am I trying so hard? Maybe I should just bury you both down there in those flower beds.” A gesture to the manicured lawn in front of us. He was staring into Judith’s tiny face, smiling and chuckling. “And then I can just settle in the suburbs.”

My heart clenched. Fear blossoming in my chest at the thought that my deal with him was all for nothing. That my brother’s actions, that his clear challenge of Negan’s power and his seeming inability to wipe all of us out was a sign that he was weak.

 

We’d gone back inside Dad’s house. Negan grew tired of taunting my brother and the neighbors. Judith was fussy, too much excitement I’d guessed. He’d given her back to me, watching as I rocked her in my arms and hummed to her. He followed me upstairs to put her down for her nap. Ignoring the dagger glare of Olivia, ignoring Carl’s unasked questions, the hurt that had flickered across his face when he decided that my silence was my own choice.

I was staring down at Judith as she drifted off to sleep clutching her elephant. Leaving her, today, would be more painful than my realization that I'd given her up for the ‘greater good’ had been. Holding her, feeling the rush of feelings that I’d gone numb to, the unconditional love I had for her, made it all the rawer. He watched me, leaning in the doorway, keeping his distance, letting me have this at least.

“I wouldn’t have taken you for the maternal type, Jessi.” He kept his voice down, so Judith could rest. “I didn’t know that you fucking had her here, that she depended on you.” I could feel the intensity of his attention. “That you sacrificed your need for HER when you offered your life to me.”

I hadn’t noticed the tear falling. Didn’t even feel the usual burn warning that I would cry. His thumb brushed it from my cheek, startling me since I hadn’t heard him come closer. I kept my head down, drinking in Judith’s tiny person. Savoring it, memorizing it, so I could take this little piece of her with me.
“Do you want to stay?” It was barely a breath. “Jessi, do you want to stay?”

I shook my head. A deal was a deal. And I wasn’t a shirker. Plus, I’d seen the look on Olivia’s face. The judgement. The insinuation that I was a traitor. A turncoat. In bed, I imagined her look inferred, with the enemy.

“No, I don’t want to stay.” I answered, keeping my voice as quiet as he did. “There’s nothing left here for me, nothing aside from her.” I couldn’t stop myself from running my hand down her back. Touching the softness that I’d taken care of for so damn long. “And she has other people for that now, to keep her safe.” It hurt to acknowledge that I was so easily replaced. That Dad had handed her care, her safety over without effort.

He left me there, letting me have my quiet and solace in the company of a sleeping little girl that had become my only reason to keep the motions going. The only reason that I kept up my mask. The only reason that I’d survived, even if I wasn’t living.

Chapter Text

I was upstairs with Judith when I heard it. A gunshot rang out and I glanced down at my little sister to see if it would wake her. She didn’t even twitch. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

How could a shot ring out? Negan had taken all of Alexandria’s weapons. There weren’t any left. Which meant that one of his people, the Saviors who I tried to ignore being around him constantly, unless we were in his apartment had shot off a round. But why? I said my own version of a prayer. Please, don’t let Dad have done something stupid. Please, let him and the others not have made things worse. Please, don’t let my deal with Negan be made in vain.

I didn’t leave Judith’s room. Not until I heard another shot ring out. And again, my baby sister didn’t even make a tiny move in her sleep. That’s two shots. That’s two times that death may have visited my dad’s people. And that’s two times too many for me to ignore.

I walked slowly downstairs. I didn’t want to face whatever was outside. I didn’t want to walk outside and see the people that trusted my dad to keep them safe have suffered more loss because they couldn’t just go along with the damn program. Was it Dad’s goal to make me regret what I’d done by showing me how little they cared that I’d done it?

When my feet hit the porch, I see Olivia’s body. Carl’s kneeling over it, and he glances up at me. What the hell happened? Moving past my little brother, and the dead body of my replacement, I see Negan and Dad facing off in the street. Rosita is prone on the ground. Spencer Monroe is laying in a puddle of blood and guts. And Negan is wearing blood like a badge on his chin and shirt.

How long had I been wrapped up in watching Judith sleep?

I hear Dad telling Negan that “your shit is waiting at the gate” and for him to leave. He doesn’t know I’m with him, I think, but I’m not sure it would matter to Dad if I was. Anger is rolling off him in waves, and Daryl is standing tense at his side. Aaron, looking as though he’d lost a fight with the heavyweight champion is leaning on Eric’s side. I’m trying to make sense of the scene, part of me BEGGING for the return of my self imposed blankness. Anything so I don’t have to see THIS.

Negan’s saying that we’ll happily leave, once he finds out who made the bullet. What? Someone made ammo? I glance around the group and I know who it had to have been when my eyes land on his mullet. Damn it, Eugene. It takes Negan threatening to kill another person, using the fierce woman named Arat as his weapon, for Eugene to admit it. Right after Tara tries to take credit.

These people. These fucking people could give a shit about what I’d tried to do when I traded places with Glenn. Every single one of them would keep fucking trying. Trying to get one step ahead of Negan. Get the big win in a war that should have ended with the death of Abraham and me taking Glenn’s place. And they had the fucking audacity to look at me like I’d fucking chose the enemy.

I walked off the porch and Negan caught my movement from the corner of his eye as he’s discussing something with Eugene. “Come on, Jessi,” he beckoned. “Rick, I’m going to be relieving you of your bullet maker and whatever you left for me at the front gate.” He tells Dad that no matter how much they find, how much they put together it won’t be enough. Dad and Alexandria’s debt has grown to be so fucking big after what’s happened today.

And then, as fast as it seemed to happen, we were leaving. I didn’t notice if Dad or Daryl or any of the rest of them were looking at me. I didn’t care. These people, my own family, were making every fucking thing worse. And I’d bargained my life to save Glenn. I’d bargained my chance to keep Judith safe and innocent on the CHANCE that Dad would get it. That he’d understand. That Daryl was wrong. It wasn’t about who had it all. It was about surviving and living without a fucking blade hanging overhead, waiting for one wrong move to drop.

I realized, as I sat in the passenger side of the cargo truck, Eugene between Negan and I, that this was the first time I’d left Alexandria without saying goodbye to THEM. Because my first trip with Negan, I’d made eye contact and acknowledged Dad and Carl. But this time? I didn’t look back once.

 

We return to the Sanctuary without fanfare. Aside from the surreal kneeling and having Dr. Mullet, PhD, along this time. A blonde female Savior named Laura takes charge of Eugene’s tour, and I’m left with Negan. Before we can go inside, he’s told that Fat Joey is dead. That Dwight and Sherry are gone. I wonder if he took Daryl’s. I wonder what would make them leave. And I get it. They were together. And now they were wanted.

A man with an impressive mustache, if facial hair can be considered impressive, named Simon is given the task of leading the hunt for the duo. And as we’re standing outside, Eugene is brought out, clutching a jar of pickles for some fucking reason. I listen as Negan asks him questions about his brilliance, about his abilities, and Eugene does what Eugene always does. He lies about his credentials. He talks about all those fucking faux PhDs and I wonder if he’s forgotten I’m standing beside Negan? Perhaps I’ve become so adept at being his shadow that I’ve literally disappeared. Another twist I didn’t see coming.

Negan shows Dr. Smarty Pants, his nickname for Eugene not mine, the walker security and asks how they could postpone decomposition. It’s a test. And Eugene passes by telling him that if they pour metal over their heads or some other nonsensical bullshit that I don’t really care to listen to. Negan’s so fucking impressed, I hear him gift Dr. Mullet the company of some of his harem. Well, isn’t that just amazing. They’re his sister-wives and they’re his fucking brothel workers.

I’m with Negan, in his apartment when the first salvo of trouble turns up. A letter found in the desk of the resident doctor. Seemingly showing that the poor man helped the couple escape. I closed my eyes, had it only been the day before that I stood beside Carl and witnessed Dwight help Negan punish another man? And now, not forty-eight hours later, I get to witness another fucking punishment.

Eugene is summoned for the spectacle and looks as twitchy as he ever has.

This time it’s worse than before. So much worse. I can’t look away as Negan explains the doctor’s crimes. I can’t turn my head when he taps him on the shoulder with Lucille. I can’t look away when, instead of the iron, he throws the doctor face first into the fire.

The buzzing in my ears is there. The smell of burning flesh once again heavy in the air. When Negan’s eyes find me, I’m not sure what he sees, but the mocking smile is gone. He nods to someone, and then there are arms around me. And I’m taken back to his apartment alone.

 

When Negan finds me, I’m curled up on his bed. The blankets wrapped tight around me, my jeans on the floor beside my boots. I can hear him open the door. I hear him take off his jacket. I hear him go to the bathroom. I feel the dip of his weight on the side of the bed I’m curled on. His fingers brush my hair out of my face, and he sees my eyes wide open.

“I thought you might be resting again.” His voice is quiet, like when talking to a frightened animal. His fingers are tracing my cheek and he sighs. “Shit, Jessi, this has been a fucking roller-coaster of a couple of days, hasn’t it?”

I don’t answer. I just look up at him, waiting for him to get to the damn point.

He shakes his head. “Am I being unreasonable with your people?” The question shocks me. Why would he ask my opinion? “I don’t think I am. I think I’m being a fucking benevolent guy.” His fingers have stilled on my chin. “When you-” He bites his bottom lip. “You gave up your life for one of them.” He was studying me again. “You were willing to die for them.” He huffs out a sigh. “What a way to repay it.”

I swallow down the hurt I feel at his reminder. He was right, about some of it. Hadn’t I thought the exact same thing? “I have no idea what your agreement with Dad entails. I don’t know about the supply expectations or whatever you two decided on.” I let myself get comfortable on the pillow. “And I don’t care. A deal is a deal, and if it’s agreed on, regardless of the pressure involved, then it should be adhered to.” I sounded like a fucking lawyer. “I made my deal with you. And I’ll fulfill it.”

It was all I could offer. I didn’t want to think about Dad and Daryl’s next moves. Because as sure as the sun rises each morning, they had one.

Chapter Text

Exhaustion, real true exhaustion can make things occur when you finally let your body relax that you wouldn’t do if you’d fallen asleep naturally. That has to be the reason, five nights after returning to the Sanctuary from Alexandria for the second time, that I finally succumbed to my exhaustion and completely ignored my bed-mate. And while you’re unconscious, finally letting the elusive rest take over your entire body, you may wake up in an awkward position. That HAS to be the reason that on the sixth day I woke up wrapped around Negan’s body. It’s the only damn reason that makes any type of fucking sense.

I woke up, feeling the heat of his chest pressed against my cheek, my leg thrown over one of his, and curled so tight against him that I felt the blush burn up my body from my toes to my hairline. Fuck.

His arm was wrapped around my back, holding me as tight against him as I was pressed, and from the steady rise and fall of his chest, and the snoring, I knew he was still asleep. The issue now? How the hell do I extradite myself from him without waking up the mocking asshole?

I couldn’t struggle while I figured it out, that’s the ONLY reason I stayed exactly the same as I woke up. It definitely wasn’t because of how warm he felt. I definitely wasn’t snuggling closer because he smelled strangely wonderful. And I sure as fuck wasn’t pressing tighter against him for comfort. Because that would mean that I was full on fucking insane. Period.

I was locked in my own thoughts of how to remove myself, and NOT about what he must use to shower with to smell the way he did, and missed as his fingers tightened on my hip. I was so entirely inside of my own mind thinking of escape options, really, truly, that I nearly missed feeling his head lower to the top of my head and inhale the scent of ME. I swallowed hard. Shit.

“Morning, sunshine.” Negan’s voice was rough from sleep, making him sound even deeper and darker than usual. “Sleep well?” I was listening for the tone. The one he used when he taunted people. I've learned it well over the past few days. And I couldn’t find it in his question.

I shrugged, but didn’t move. “It was OK.” I sounded so breathy that I wanted to fucking die. Not a suicide, more like could the fucking bed swallow me already, death.

His chuckle vibrated against my cheek. “Just OK?” His face was still pressed into the top of my head, I could tell, since I felt the warmth of his words ruffle my hair.

I propped my chin onto his chest and looked up. “Just your average Tuesday.” I was going for flippant. If I looked and sounded like it didn’t matter, then I took away his ability to tease and mock.

He was smiling. Not a smirk. Not a leer, but an actual smile. “This is what you do on Tuesdays?” His free hand found my cheek and the rough pad of his thumb brushed my skin. “Damn, might have to make every fucking day Tuesday.”

I rolled my eyes and started to pull away, but his arm around me tightened just enough to ask me to stay. It wasn’t restrictive, it wasn’t a demand or command. Just a little pressure letting me know that he didn’t want me to move yet, if I wasn’t against staying. Was I? Against staying?

I lay still as I pondered, letting my head lay back against his chest. His hand was still cradling my face, his thumb still brushing my skin. It was weird. The way he was holding me, touching me, was very different from before. From when Daryl and I first touched. From the first time we made love in the field near the Greene Farm, using the moon as our only guide.

The way Negan had begun casually touching me from almost the first moment we were alone. The way he held my hand in Alexandria during the first visit. The way he found me after killing Dr. Carson to find reassurance, understanding. I’d told myself that when he’d held my wrist and hand during that first time back, it was to remind me of my order not to speak to my people. Or to poke a hole in my dad’s softest spots. Was that the only reason?

“Why did you do it?” I asked, realizing that I wasn’t being nearly clear enough. “Why did you hold on to me when we went back that first time?” I looked back up into his face, feeling that if I held his eyes with mine, I could probably see if he lied.

He was staring into my eyes and I could tell he was weighing my question with his answer. A sigh. “I told myself it was to rub it into Rick. To the redneck. To remind them that they fucking failed you. And failed to do what they’d wanted so badly to do, beat me.” He licked his lip and his thumb brushed under my eye, tracing where the dark circles had been so dark. “That works for the wrist hold, right?”

I watched him and waited. He seemed to be dealing with some inner debate.

“Fuck if I know, but when Carl fired that shot, while your dad and I were trading barbs, I saw it. That look that crossed your face.” His thumb moved lower, over my cheek, down until it was right under my bottom lip. “You looked like you’d failed. That you offered yourself up on a silver platter to die, and they didn’t care. That it wasn’t enough to get them in line and that it was all for nothing.” A brush against my lip. “And damn it, Jessi, I couldn’t fucking stand to see that. To let you think that you weren’t enough. No matter what THEY did, or what THEY think. You’re worth a thousand of each and every one of them.”

I swallowed and nodded, then lay my head back on his chest. I’d asked, and he’d told me. And I could tell, from the short time I’d been his shadow, that he wasn’t bullshitting me. I knew because he looked as fucking confused by it as I was.

We got up not long after that. I couldn’t meet his eyes, not yet. I had too much to think about, about what he’d said. I needed to work through not just what he said, but what it meant. And how I felt about it.

He gave me the bathroom first, and after I’d showered and redressed, I came out to find him standing tense in front of the window I’d stood at days ago. I studied him as I put on my boots. And I waited for him to tell me what today’s schedule looked like.

“I’m gonna need you to come with me to the cells,” he was speaking to the window, not turning to face me. “We had a breach last night.”

I was biting my lip. His tone, it warned of something, but I wasn’t sure what. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He didn’t look at me as he walked into the bathroom to get ready for the day.

 

As we walked to the cells, a part of the Sanctuary that I didn’t recall visiting on either tour, he wasn’t whistling. He was holding Lucille as tensely as he’d stood at the window. I started to feel a blossom of fear building in my chest. Was this it? Had he finally shown me too much, or lulled me into a false sense of security, and NOW after toying with me like a cat does a mouse, he was leading me to the end? The fear was heavy, suffocating, and building as we walked.

He stopped before we turned down another corridor and looked down at me. I was studying the floor, feeling like my heart was pounding loud enough to hear, to remind me that I wasn’t ready to fucking die. Not yet.

“She came in last night,” his voice was quiet. “They brought her down here, but just told me.” Her? She? Who? “I don’t know if Rick was part of the plan, or if this was a search and destroy mission.” I swallowed, still staring at the floor. “Jessica,” I closed my eyes and waited. When his fingers slid to my chin and tilted my face up to his, they opened. “I’m not doing this to hurt you. If she sees you, it might help her make the right choice.” His thumb, as it had earlier, was tracing my cheek. “Just stand beside me, you don’t have to speak unless you want to.” Freedom to choose, he was giving me the freedom to decide if I wanted to talk to whomever had, once again, refused to just go with the new world order.

I nodded and we continued. I can feel Negan tense beside me and then he’s rushing forward to an open door. And there, on the floor with a disgusting man hovering over her, is Sasha. Her shirt is ripped, I see as Negan draws the man’s attention. Her hands are bound behind her. I can feel the rage rolling off the man beside me as the other man tries to explain. Tries and fails.

My eyes don’t leave Sasha. She’s glaring up at me, as though I did this. I put her in this room. I tied her up and left her to this piece of utter garbage. I’m so focused on the hatred and anger that she’s throwing at me with just her eyes, that when the man falls, knife wound to the neck bleeding fast and furious, I nearly miss it.

One of the others, I don’t know his name, is hovering just behind us. Negan calls for him to get Sasha a new shirt, after asking her her name and complimenting the beauty of it. He kneels, as I stand behind him, and cuts off her bindings. Apologizing for what she’d had to deal with from the attempted rapist. Apologizing for the necessity of the rope. And as she’s still shooting me looks that would stab me as surely as he’d taken down Davey, and a flicker of recognition lights up his face as he stands up, closer to me.

“Oh shit, I remember you. Yeah. You were there.” He makes the motion with Lucille mimicking Abe’s death, a knocking noise. And her glare at me grows hotter. “Hey, that’s unnecessary.” He caught it, and stepped slightly in front of me. He starts to divert her attention from me, mixing compliments about her toughness with questions about whether this was Dad’s idea.

“Rick?” I can hear the derision in her voice. “Your bitch? No.” Great, she’s acting alone, which means that even if Dad doesn’t come for Negan, the others, like Rosita, are going to try on their own.

Negan tells her she has a choice. That he doubts that she thought she’d survive, but since he’s down a man, she can decide. He hands her the knife and I feel myself still. Kill him, take her shot, even though he’s got Lucille to back him up. Slit her own wrists, die on her own terms, even if it would be a damn shame. I don’t hear the same concern in his tone that he’d had with me when he asked if I were suicidal, but maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough. Or, take the knife, kill Rapey Davey when he reanimates, or let him eat her face. If she kills him, she’s joined the cause.

And then he turns, takes my hand in his, and walks us out the cell. Locking the door behind us, Negan waits until we’re down the hall, the back up behind us. “Are you alright?” He’s being quiet, and I nod. “I’m gonna take you back upstairs. I’ll check back on her alone.” Another nod. “These fucking people, Jessi, they-” He stops speaking, but we’re still walking. “They don’t get it. None of them.” And I can’t tell if he means what I’ve done, or what he expects.

Chapter Text

I had a flicker of fear, as Negan took me back upstairs, that he’d make me stay with his harem. If he still thought I was a risk to myself, then would he make me sit with them and play nice? A laugh threatened to erupt from me at the thought of his dolls being my babysitters.

Luckily, for my sanity and his women, he took me to his apartment. Inside the room where I’d spent the majority of the time I’d been at the Sanctuary, Negan closed the door behind us and gave a long sigh. I turned to him, where he was leaning against the door, eyes closed, Lucille propped beside him. He looked far more tired than I’d ever seen him. And we just woke up. As though he could feel me staring, his eyes opened and locked on mine.

“Jessica,” he breathed my name, pushing off the door and rushing forward. Like he could finally see ME. The one he's been working so damn hard to uncover. And then, before either of us could make another sound, process another thought, his hands were cradling my face and his lips met mine.

I couldn’t think, not of a reason to stop him, or of a reason that I was leaning into him. My hands slid up and were holding his head in place, keeping his lips in place. I knew, a quiet nagging voice was trying to remind me in the back of my mind, that this wasn’t something I should want. That he wasn’t someone I should want or touch. Or need. But I did. I needed him. I needed Negan because he’d been the ONLY person I’d met that saw straight through me, forced me to face the world that I couldn’t stand to live in, and make me open up.

When my mouth opened under his, I felt him sigh into my mouth, and then his tongue flicked mine and I moaned. I felt the loss of his mouth so deep inside that it shook me. His forehead was pressed against mine and when my eyes opened, he was waiting.

“Shit, Jessi,” his breath fanning my wet lips. “Who wouldn’t I kill to finish this right now?” He pulled back and placed a kiss on the tip of my nose. Taking a fortifying deep breath, he stood up, but kept my face in his hands. “I WILL be back, Jessi, and we WILL finish this.” His fingers traced my face, and then with a small grin, he left.

My stomach was clenching in desire. And even when I could think clearly, once his heat and scent were gone, it didn’t go away. Not even a small bit.

 

When Negan returned, I couldn’t guage his mood. He seemed lost in thought, and so, I didn’t push. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to know what Sasha had chosen. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what Negan had learned.

Eventually, after eating, he pulled me from my chair and onto his lap. A new, but not unwelcome development. He nuzzled his face into my neck and shoulder, and I realized, with a bit of surprise, that he wasn’t being cocky or as egotistical. He was taking his time to let me adjust to this new situation between us.

When he spoke, it wasn’t about what he’d promised before he left me earlier. And what he said was more shocking than him slowing everything between us down.

“Sasha?” I turned to look into his face as he leaned back into the sofa. “Is she true to her word?”

I considered what he was asking me. Sasha had been with Tyrese’s group. The group that Dad had scared off at the prison. The group that had ended up with the Governor, but who hadn’t fought against us in his war. She’d lost Bob, then Ty, and then she lost Abraham. Since he was asking if she could be trusted, then I had to assume she’d chosen Negan’s side. Yet, would she?

When Tyrese and Sasha had rejoined us at the prison, she hadn’t gone through what she’d survived through until now. And I was sitting on the lap of the man who personally inflicted the final loss. I heard what she’d called Dad. I knew she felt that Dad had failed and given in to Negan, which she found inexcusable, would she side with NEGAN the man who she felt caused all of it?

“I think, from the look on your face, Jessi, I have my answer.” He sighed, and leaned forward again, to press his face against the skin of my neck. “Fuck. I really hate this.” I waited, clearly Negan felt like sharing more than pleasure. “I want to get lost in you, Jessica Grimes. I want to take you over there to that fucking bed that I’ve laid with you in for over a fucking week, without touching you, and finally get lost in you.” Guess he hadn’t slept as soundly as he’d pretended. “Instead, I have to go down and call a meeting to make backup plans.”

I turned to face him again when he pulled back. I let my fingers trace his face, as he had so often done to mine. Who was he? Negan? Really? My fingers traced his lips, and I found myself leaning in, brushing his with my own. His hands, which had been resting on my hips, found the back of my head and held me to his mouth. Building the need I’d felt with our first kiss, and this time I took a more active role. My tongue tempted his, my teeth grazed his bottom lip, and I pulled away first.

His eyes, the ever changing colors, were nearly blown black with lust. I heard him groan, and I stood up. He had work to do, but I wanted him to understand, we were waiting to finish it, but I was fully committed to it. To him. To whatever we were heading toward. Because, since I stood in front of him, willing to let him kill me, to take away my misery and let my people live, I knew that I could trust him. Negan had the power to truly destroy me. To take my life, literally, in hand and squeeze it from me. Yet, he’d done the opposite. He brought me back. And while I wasn’t completely sure I was happy to be back, I knew that he’d done it. And I owed him, not a debt, but I owed him for being the one person who saw and helped. Without, actually in spite of, me not asking.

Chapter Text

Negan returned to the apartment around dinner time. He was carrying our food with him and smiled when I approached him to help. He’d looped Lucille into his belt, but he was still doing some juggling. We sat in our usual spots, began eating, while I waited. Waited for him to tell me what was coming next.

“I’m going back to Alexandria tomorrow.” He told me between bites. “I want you to stay here, Jessi.” I was confused. Why? “What’s going to happen tomorrow, what I have to expect will go to shit in some way, I don’t want you there.”

I swallowed the last bite I’d taken. “Why?” I was scared, why wouldn’t he want me there? I’d been with him every other time. “How bad are things going to go?”

He sighed and sat back, his food forgotten. He ran his hand over his face, and I realized it was his catch all gesture. Depending on the conversation it could mean frustration, irritation, unease, or even that he was trying to get his words in order.

Negan’s eyes met mine. “If Sasha isn’t as cooperative as she’s trying to convince me she is, then I have to prepare for a trap.” I swallowed, wondering who would be dealt the worse blows. “I can’t-” he closed his eyes, collecting himself. “I won’t chance you bargaining with your life for one of mine, Jessi. I won’t.”

He thought it was going to go so bad that I’d make ANOTHER deal? This time with my own family? The thought that it had gotten so damn bad, even after I’d tried to stop it, made me so tired. Tired of Dad’s insatiable need to stay on top. Tired that it didn’t matter what anyone did, death and blood were always going to be the only constants, the only things that wouldn’t end or change in our world.

“Do I get to know what any of the plans are?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to, or if I should. Either side may think I’m the enemy or a double agent.

He shook his head. “I need you to understand, sweetheart, this ISN’T about you. It’s not about whether I trust you.” He patted his lap and I moved to sit with him. He cradled me against his chest, holding me as he continued. “You just surfaced, Jessi, you just came back to what you must have been like before.” Close, I thought, but not completely. “I can’t risk you becoming reckless with your own fucking life. Not again. Not for me. Not for one of my people. Not for the chance that Rick or your redneck MIGHT call whatever’s coming off.” I felt his lips brush my forehead. “I meant what I said, you’re worth a thousand of every single one of them.”

I listened to his heart beating against my ear. Had it really only been this morning that I woke up like this? Pressed against him, listening to his heart, letting his scent envelope me as his body heat warmed me. It felt so natural now. Being comforted by him, feeling the way his hands and arms curved around me, there wasn’t a hesitation or an awkwardness.

“I didn’t ask you to go to the cell with me as a test,” he was saying. “I wanted to take you, to show her that you were OK.” He sighed. “I keep thinking that they’re going to come to rescue you, that they get how fucking special you are.” I snuggled tighter against his chest. “When I saw how that chick at Rick’s house LOOKED at you, I thought, alright so some of your people were stupid. But then I started thinking. Carl didn’t come for you. He came to kill me. He came to show himself, and your people what a bad ass he was.” I felt his lips brush the top of my head. “I wanted them to prove me wrong, Jessi. To prove to me that they fucking get that people are important. That YOU are important. And they keep fucking failing.” Another sigh.

“When they told me about Sasha being caught, I thought, here’s another woman. A woman from Alexandria. Maybe, just fucking maybe, she’d come for you. But I saw how she looked at you, and I knew, they didn’t only NOT get that you’re fucking important, they’ve written you off. A loss, a turncoat. Who would do that?” I felt him shake his head above me in frustration. “Your dad, he asked for you to be allowed to come home ONCE. One time, and when we went back? Neither of them seemed to fucking SEE that you were right fucking there. There, freely roaming the house you’d shared, taking care of YOUR baby sister like you’d never left, and NOT one fucking look or word.”

One of his hands slid up my arm, and feeling the rough pads of his fingers against the bare skin of my arm peeking out from his shirt made my eyes flutter closed. Then his other hand met my neck and its mate touched my chin and tilted my head up, pulling me away from his chest, and his lips met mine. I could feel him pouring into me every single ounce of his belief that I was worth more. More than any of my people seemed to understand. More than Dad, Daryl, or Carl seemed to place on me.

My mouth opened for him, and as our tongues touched, I knew that I had to have this, whatever it was that we were starting, I needed it. Him. This. My fingers were sliding through his hair, and I was straddling him. The kiss deepened, and I felt like the world stopped moving. Nothing existed except him, me, and this. A different type of escape. And I prayed it was a healthier one.

His hands left my neck and chin, and were curving under my ass, supporting me as he stood up from the couch and walked to the bed. And then I was prone under him, his weight pressing me down into the softness of the mattress, his mouth still memorizing mine. When he pulled away, I had to bite back a groan. My eyes opened, looking up into his face, and seeing everything I wanted and needed reflected.

“Jessi,” his voice was raw, like sandpaper, “tell me you want this too? Tell me that you want it, and me, and that it’s NOT because you think it’s part of the deal?” I curved my hand around his neck and tried pulling him back to me, but he held firm. “I need to know, Jessica. I need to know that this is what you want, sweetheart. I won’t-we won’t, not until I know that it’s your choice.”

I swallowed, and let my fingers play in the hair at his neck. “I want you, Negan, please.” And that’s all it took for his mouth to claim mine again. A moan built in the back of my throat as his hands roamed down to the hem of his shirt, the one he’d given me to replace my own.

Our lips only left one another’s out of necessity. To get rid of our shirts, my bra, his pants, my pants. Then there was only my panties and his boxers between us, and he rocked into my covered core and I felt just how much he wanted me. This. Us. He swallowed my moan as I rocked up into him and he had to pull his mouth away so he could growl out “fuck” at the feeling.

Our eyes met, and then the last of our clothes were gone. My hands were clutching his shoulders as he arched his body into mine, filling me. How long had it been since I had this? With Daryl? Had it felt like this? Negan stilled, pelvis tight against mine, and his forehead met mine.

“Jesus, Jessi,” it came out half prayer, half moan. I rolled my hips and he was forced to close his eyes at the sensation. “Keep that up, princess, and this won’t last nearly long enough.”

I smiled and rolled again, wrapping my legs around his body and changing the angle. Letting him go in just a bit further. I moaned at the feeling. Dear God. “Move, Negan, please.” Pleading, asking for it, seemed to spur him on.

He picked a torturous pace. Slow, eyes locked on mine, watching as he pulled himself almost entirely from my body before sliding just as slowly all the way back inside. Letting me feel every single inch of him, every curve, every vein, while he seemed to be memorizing how I felt wrapped around him. He could feel when I clenched against him, watched when I moaned and sighed at the feelings he was reteaching me.

Negan his pace, his body, kept the need for a release building in me. Until I begged. Until I pleaded with him to give me more, harder, faster, more. And he seemed more than happy to oblige. I was a mess under him. His name released from my lips as a plea, a prayer, a moan, and finally a scream. I felt him, when he’d coaxed me to feel pleasure beyond counting, finally move toward his own. And as he climbed toward his own climax, he brought me with him one more time.

He was on top of me, his full weight bearing down on me, as our heart beats slowed, our breathing synced, and our bodies cooled from the heat that had spread. Negan’s face was buried into my neck, his breath fanning my skin, and our hands were still touching one another, searching for confirmation. For the proof that we’d both just felt that. Together.

“Jessica Grimes.” He sounded hoarse, as though we’d been talking for hours, instead of this. “Just another Tuesday?” It was a joke, but it wasn’t mocking. And I laughed under him.

Turning my face, he lifted his to meet me. Our lips met and he rolled off, pulling me back to lay over him. When I pulled away, staring into his dark eyes, smiling I offered. “You promised to make every day Tuesday.”

Laughter rolled around us as he pulled the blankets over us and tucked my head under his chin. “Sleep, Jessi,” I felt his lips on my head. “I’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Even with the pleasant exhaustion we’d created together, I felt the fear tugging at my heart. Tomorrow would bring changes, good or bad, to my world. Changes that I’d play no part in. And I wondered, as sleep fought to take me under, who would I lose in this war? And whose loss would break me this time?

Chapter Text

I woke up, naked and in Negan’s arms and it wasn’t as strange as it should have been. His snoring didn’t seem as loud, and I didn’t fight against the urge to press closer. I was tucked under his chin, his arm wrapped tight around me, holding me to him, and my leg was over his again. Natural. As jarring as it should have been for the second day in a row to wake up like this, only this time completely bare, it wasn’t. It felt right.

If anything had surprised me, about last night, about yesterday, it had been his gentleness. The passion was definitely there, but he’d been far more gentle and tentative than I’d expected, if I’d been expecting anything. And I hadn’t. Not with him. Not me and him. I was letting myself focus on this. Us. Because as the sun rose higher, I knew that the thoughts that would take over my mind, when he walked away to go to face my dad, my people, would leave me once again in limbo.

Negan slowly woke up. He took his time, his hand sliding down my length, testing my skin, almost trying to decide if I were real or not. Then it slid back up, this time making sure he’d missed nothing, no dip or curve was neglected. Sliding through my hair, which had come down at some point, I tilted my head back, looking up at his face. I was still learning about Negan, this man who seemed so contradictory. But here, in the early morning light that was glowing over his face, all I could see was beauty.

“Hey, you.” Sleep had made his voice rough again, and I found myself smiling at it. “I could get used to waking up like this.”

I shook my head, thoughts I didn’t want to deal with sneaking in one at a time. “Only on Tuesdays remember?” I watched him, watching me, and he shook his own head.

“I told you, I’d make every damn day Tuesday.” And then he was pulling me toward him, over top of his body and finding my mouth with his. His hands fell to my lower back and I licked into his mouth as he moaned. And then, I was on my back and he was on top of me, his weight feeling like perfection. “You’re beautiful,” he’d pulled his mouth away and was studying me. “So fucking beautiful.” And then his mouth returned to mine.

When his body arched into mine, when I rolled against his, I realized that he could be just about damn near anything. He could be gentle, definitely, but as he learned that I needed and wanted more, he could adjust, he could read me like he had when I stepped out of those trees and met him face first. And then we were pounding together, the sounds ripped from us mingling and making their own kind of music. Tuesday, or the thought of Tuesday became my new favorite day.

Spent, yet not tired, not even a little bit, Negan hovered over me. His weight was on his elbows, and he was still inside of me, growing limp, but still connected. Our eyes were locked together, my hands tracing his face, brushing a strand of hair from his forehead, touching a scar along the side of his face. He studied me as I memorized his face, this face that had terrified me the first time I saw him. How had I not seen how soft his eyes could be? Flashing from golds, to browns, to somewhere in between. The dimples that I’d noticed, that could peek out not only when he was smiling or laughing, but when he smirked and sometimes even when he was pensive. His mouth, mocking and taunting words could spill from these lips, but so could my name, sounding like a plea, a prayer, or on a moan. My thumbs stroked over his bottom lip, feeling the softness that contradicted many of the things he said. His scruff, that he’d shaved off with Dad’s razor, had grown back and I had to admit to myself I preferred him this way. Rough and rogue looking. Powerful, yet caring. Passionate and… I wasn’t sure, I was still learning about him.

“Jessi,” his hand came up to touch my face. “What do you see when you’re starin’ at me like that?” Constantly curious, I thought, smiling up at him as I licked my bottom lip.

“I see you,” I whispered, still drinking in his face. Tucking it away, for when he left, when he went to face off against my family. I felt my heart lurch. “When do you leave?”

He nudged my nose with his and kissed me, taking a moment of peace before his day had to truly start. “Soon.” It was a breath across my lips, and then he dipped in again. As though he couldn’t get enough of me, of my mouth, of my taste. When he pulled back, he rolled off of me with a sigh and I turned to face him. I curled into his side, his arm wrapping around me as though it were made to go there. “I’d rather stay here, fuck if I’d rather stay here.”

I nodded. He didn’t have to reassure me, I knew he wasn’t excited about whatever was coming. And even if he was chomping at the bit to remind my people what they should have known by now, leaving me and this behind wasn’t as easy as it should have been. For either of us. “I- I don’t know what to ask, or what to hope for.” I offered, my hand drawn to his face like a magnet. I cupped his cheek, and felt my chest tighten. “If I hope for your safety, and I do, then does that mean that I hope that Dad isn’t safe?” I felt the guilt of that thought gnaw at me. “If I hope that they’re safe, then does that mean that I don’t want you to come back?” I know he saw me flinch at the idea, because his free hand came up to mirror mine, cupping my cheek. “I want it all, all of you to be safe, for this to come to a peaceful end, but that’s not our world, is it?” I felt the burn of tears start in my eyes.

Negan was stroking my cheek with his thumb. “You can hope for all of us, Jessi, there’s nothing to feel bad about wanting me AND Rick to be safe.” He kissed my forehead. “I wish like hell that none of this had to happen, NONE of it. Except the part that brought you here,” I looked up at that, “I would have fucking preferred you came whole and not a part of a life for a life deal, but I won’t feel guilty for having you with me, Jessica Grimes.” Another kiss on my forehead. “I will come back today. I will. Now, if you’re up for it,” I waited. “Come join me in the shower, I’m not ready to say goodbye to you just yet, sweetheart.”

Chapter Text

Showering with Negan was an interesting experience to say the least. While in theory we’d gone in to get him ready for his day, he took the opportunity to take care of me. Making sure the water was just the right temperature, pulling me inside with him, he gently held me under the stream of water letting it dampen my hair. He shampooed the full length of my hair, massaging my scalp with his blunt nails, and rinsing every sign of the bubbles free from the tangled mass. He washed every inch of me, making sure I was perfectly clean, before standing before me and drinking in the entire vision of me.

Negan shook his head and licked his lips. “Jessica Grimes, you’re gorgeous.” And then his head lowered and his lips brushed mine.

My arms wrapped around his neck and my body molding into his. Negan was lean and hard from top to bottom and feeling his skin flush against mine was enough to inflame me again. Pressing me against the wall of the shower, our mouths feasted feeling like we couldn’t get enough of one another, and I knew that’s exactly how I felt for him. When I felt him slide into me, I pulled my mouth free with a gasp. Jesus, would it always feel like this? Like the first time?

Negan urged me on, talking to me, reminding me of how beautiful he found me. How hot, and tight, how wet, I was wrapped around him. His voice, always deep and rough, was somehow harsher with his need. My legs were tight around his hips and I rocked back into his thrusts, feeling like we couldn’t be close enough. My mouth sought his and we swallowed one another’s screams as we came.

Once my legs stopped shaking, Negan let me slide down so my feet were beneath me. Standing against the shower wall, I looked up at him and knew that he had to return to me. We’d just begun, and I would die if it ended before we knew one another better. I took his hand and pulled him under the spray from the shower-head, and cleaned him as he had me. Washing his hair, as he leaned down for me to reach, then every inch of his skin, because if he worshiped me, then I couldn’t possibly deny him his own.

The water was shut off, we were wrapped in our towels, and Negan kept me by his side. We dried off, he gave me another one of his shirts, and I had to wonder why he kept clothing me in his own clothes. The marketplace had clothing, I’d noticed during Carl’s tour.

“I like seeing you in them,” he answered, pulling on his jeans and shirt, and clearly reading my mind. He was smiling down at me as I pulled it over my head without my bra. “Jessi, you’re killin’ me with that.”

I smiled back at him, thinking that anything that made it harder for him to leave, would make it easier for him to keep himself safe and come back. “It’s not like I leave the rooms when you aren’t beside me.” I shrugged, reminding him that I was his captive, but feeling not the least bit upset by it.

Negan’s eyes met mine as he pulled on his boots. I was standing in his shirt and my panties and his eyes had slid up my body from my feet to my eyes. I could see the sharp intake of his breath, see his eyes darken, and I waited for him to say or do something. “You’re not a prisoner, Jessi.” His voice was quiet, and once his boots were on he stood and approached me. “I’ll leave someone outside the door, if you want something to eat, other than the meals that I’ve told them to send up, tell him. If you want to take a walk, tell him.” His hands cupped my face and his thumbs brushed my cheeks. “Just remember, Carl knows how to get here, and I can’t be sure that leaving here and going there won’t open up the Sanctuary for attack.” I started to speak, but he cut me off. “I have protections in place, but they only work if you’re safe inside. In these rooms.”

I nodded, and swallowed the fear I felt rearing its head. “What if-” I wasn’t sure what I wanted to ask. What if they come while he’s away? What if my own family attacks the place I’m being kept, and I’m put in danger by them? What if they ‘rescue’ me? What if he doesn’t come back? The last one was too scary to even think, much less voice.

He shushed me and kissed my lips gently. “Don’t worry, sweetheart.” His eyes met mine again and he was smiling. “I will come back. You will be safe.” He was searching my face, looking for signs that I was slipping back inside myself. “Stay with me, Jessica Grimes.” And I wasn’t sure, if he meant in my own mind, or with him here forever. His lips met mine before I could ask, and I fell into the feeling of him and his mouth. When he pulled away, he groaned. “Did I mention I hate this?” I nodded. “I do, I hate the entire fucking mess. Going there, leaving you, the entire damn thing sucks balls.” He sighed and pulled completely away from me. Negan pulled on his leather jacket and pulled out his red scarf.

I walked up and took the scarf from his hands. Throwing it over his head, and looping it around his neck, I smiled at him as I worked. I zipped up his jacket, and inhaled as I took Lucille from her spot leaning against the sofa. I handed the bat to him and sighed. It was time. Time to say goodbye.

His hand came up to touch my face again, tilting my chin to stare into my face. “I will be safe, Jessi. I will. And I’ll be back beside you before you know it.”

I grabbed the lapels of his jacket in my hands and used the leverage, coupled with standing on my toes to press my lips against his. “You’d better, Negan.” I sounded stronger than I could remember sounding. “Come back to me.”

He brushed my lips with his again. “Nothing could stop me, princess, nothing.”

Our goodbye didn’t need the words, the mere knowledge that he understood that I needed the reassurance, and I needed to give it back to him was enough. Watching him walk out the door, looking back at me after he’d introduced the man who would stand at the door, seeing that he needed a final look meant more than I could ever tell him. It meant that walking away from me was as difficult for him as watching him walk away was for me. And that was more than I’d been given in a very long time.

 

While Negan was gone, I stayed in his rooms. I ate the meals that came. I looked out the windows. I walked the floors. I found a few books, and picking one, I lay down on the sofa he usually sat on and read. I got lost in the words, I got lost in the story, I let myself get lost so I wouldn’t fold in on myself and let the darkness pull me away. I paid little attention to the passage of time. I ate breakfast when Negan left. I ate lunch when it interrupted my reading. I ignored the change in the shadows as the sun moved across the sky outside the window.

Negan returned before the day ended. I could hear the walkie the man outside the door flare to life. I could hear the excited voices. I heard the commotion as they came roaring back. It was incredibly loud, and since Negan’s rooms were on the back side of the compound, it was jarring.

The man he’d left outside the room knocked and I rushed to open the door. “Negan asked that I bring you to him.” I nearly rushed out, but the man’s eyes on my bare legs reminded me that I was still in just Negan’s shirt and my panties.

I shut the door and rushed to pull on my bra, tug on a pair of pants, and slide my feet into my boots. I reopened the door and started out, but the man stopped me. “Stay behind me?” It wasn’t an order, but I stopped. “Just in case.” And I nodded. Just in case of what, I was too scared to ask.

We met Negan in the same room he dished out punishment. As soon as I saw him, I rushed past my companion, coming to a stop only when I could feel the heat of his body. I did a fast, but thorough visual inventory. Aside from his red scarf, he looked like he had when he’d left. He set Lucille down and opened his arms and I practically leapt into them. His hands clutched at my back and I felt his face press into my hair. I also felt both of our tension leave us, feeling with our hands and arms that the other was safe was making both of us breathe easier.

“Jessi,” his voice wasn’t loud enough for the people surrounding us to overhear. “Christ, I-” And this time it was me that cut him off, pulling back and drawing his face to mine. Letting my kiss tell him just how fucking happy that I was that he’d returned, safe to me. His forehead met mine when our lips parted. His eyes looked tight, unlike his body which had lost most of his stress. “I need to tell you, before I tell the others.”

He pulled me away from the people he’d been standing with when I’d come into the room. Lucille was back in his hand, clearly he didn’t feel safe enough to leave her behind, not even the few steps he’d moved us. I waited, feeling the fear rebuild inside of me. Something had gone wrong. Something had made him look like this, with tight eyes and unease dripping off of him.

“Your people, Jessi,” he started, running his hand down his face in that same gesture I was growing to expect. “They, your dad, he’s pushed me toward this.” He was explaining, but not fully. “I have to do this, Jessi, I have to.” I was squinting up at him, unsure of what he was getting at. “I’m declaring war, Jessica. On Rick, on your people.”

I felt the breath leave me, but oddly it wasn’t the same as when I’d watched the doctor die. Just as though I’d been punched in the stomach, knocking the breath out of me. They’d done this. They’d created a world where nothing, but fighting and death had to continue. They hadn’t even considered me, or what I’d think. Instead, they’d made this happen. I closed my eyes, feeling Negan draw closer to me. I felt his thumb brushing away a tear I hadn’t felt fall.

“I wouldn’t have even considered it, Jessi. It’s such a damn waste.” I nodded, he didn’t have to explain, not now.

I opened my eyes, and took a deep breath. “When?” I wanted to know when to expect it, when I could expect to see my family attack. When I should be prepared to watch people I knew and cared about die or try to kill the man in front of me. Prepare to lose people, possibly to lose my own life, since they didn’t even seem to remember me at all.

I stood behind Negan when he walked outside to announce that they were going to war. I listened as they agreed. And then, after it was done, I walked back to his rooms with him and wondered would I be ready?

Chapter Text

The night after Negan declared war on Dad and his people, we spent alone in his rooms. He was tense again, having kept me beside him as his lieutenants reported to him and they worked out a plan. I could feel the eyes of these men and women on me, wondering I was more than sure, if I could be trusted.

Negan had pulled me onto his lap, tucking me into his body, and glared over my head at them. “She’s with me.” Was all he’d say, and so I sat in during the planning. I listened as I heard that three of Negan’s people had died, two Alexandrians, and Sasha were casualties of Dad’s need to be on top. I listened as I learned, for the first time just how vast Negan’s reach really was. The people I’d seen outside, the ones I’d witnessed the night Abraham die, they were mere drops in his ocean of people.

I learned that Dad had put his trust in the wrong people. That those people had turned at the last moment and helped Negan and his people. I learned that Sasha had died in the coffin during transport, a question building within me about the how. Negan passed over it, and they pounded out their plans. They expanded security. They talked about what to expect, what to prepare for, who else couldn’t be trusted.

Once we were alone, in our rooms with the sun finally going down on a miserable day, I turned to him and for once it was my turn to get him to talk. But first, first I needed to get his stress levels down. So I pulled him by his hand to the bathroom, and skipping the shower, I ran us a very warm and deep bath. I made sure the temperature was just right, then I turned to him, and took off each piece of his clothing. I was doing a more thorough inspection than I could do in front of his people. I checked for bruises, which he had a few of, and more importantly bites or scratches.

“Jessi,” he sounded like he was fighting against himself, which if his hardness was telling the truth, he was. “What are you doing?”

I looked up at him and smiled. “I’m checking to make sure you made it out unscathed, Negan.” I shook my head and pulled him toward the bathtub. “You need to relax. De-stress. Get in the tub.” It was an order. I heard it, he heard it, and he stopped.

“Gonna join me?” I nearly rolled my eyes. What was it with the men I found attractive and their inability to bathe without me? Although, drinking in Negan’s form, I couldn’t say that Negan had been adverse to hygiene before me.

 

“Get in,” my hands went to the hem of his t-shirt and tugged it over my head. I heard the slosh of water as he did as I said, and shucked my boots before taking off my pants and the rest of my clothes. Naked, I turned around to face him and found him leaning back against the wall of the tub. He’d turned the water off, and he was staring up at me.

I bit my lip, seeing him there, the water not obscuring him at all. Dear Lord. Who was he? And then he crooked his finger and I lifted my leg and stepped into the warm water. His hands reached for mine, pulling lightly so I would sit facing him. I crossed my legs, sitting between his open legs, and let the water’s temperature help my muscles relax. Muscles that I hadn’t realized were tense.

Negan’s hands came up to frame my face and then he leaned forward to brush my lips with his. A light kiss, almost like he was proving I was real. And then he lay back again. His eyes were dark, pupils so dilated that they were nearly black. But he also looked exhausted, so tired that I hoped he wouldn’t grow so groggy that I wouldn’t be able to get him back out of the bathtub.

He pulled me forward, letting my head relax on his chest, and listening to his heartbeat against my ear helped calm me even further. Of course I was a little tense. My family was trying to fight unbeatable odds against Negan, a man who I was growing to consider more than valuable to my happiness.

“Tell me about today.” I whispered, running my hands along his arms, pulling back so I could stare into his eyes. “Tell me what you think went wrong with Sasha.”

He sighed, his hands sliding up my arms and touching the bareness of me. “I don’t know what to think.” His eyes were on mine. “Dr. Smartypants thinks it was a lack of air.”

I squinted, thinking that wasn’t likely. If I’d learned anything about Negan so far, it was that he wasn’t that careless. “But?”

“It could have happened,” his fingertips were dipping along my collarbone, up along my neck, and curling around the back of my head. “One of my guys could have shut it tighter after I put her in there.”

My own hands were trailing over his skin too. Touching his sides, up his chest, through the smattering of hair. “Is that really likely?” I asked, keeping on topic, even if our hands seemed to have minds of their own.

Another sigh. “Anything is likely, Jessi.” He didn’t really think so, I realized, but if that’s not how Sasha died, then he’d have another problem to contend with. “As for today? It was a shit show. Just like I fucking thought.” His fingers tightened in my hair, but not painfully. “Rick trusted the wrong people, he made an alliance without understanding the people he’d recruited.”

I nodded, letting my own hands loop around his neck. “What else?” I could tell, just like I once could read Daryl and Dad, that there was more. “What else went wrong?”

Negan’s eyes dropped and he took a deep breath. When he looked back into my face, when his eyes met mine again, I knew this was what he was most irritated about. More than the loss of life. More than the attempt to kill him. More than the threat of war.
“He didn’t ask about you. He didn’t bargain for you. He didn’t fucking even say your name, Jessi.” I opened my mouth to ask which one, but he shook his head. “Neither of them.” And I realized, Dad would have been the one speaking. My dad, the man who’d always been my hero. A man who once upon a time I wanted so badly to make proud of me. A man who I’d once been able to tell when his life was in danger. He’d truly written me off.

“Ah.” I was surprised at how unconcerned and unhurt I sounded. It did hurt. Knowing that two men who meant the world to me didn’t seem to care about me at all hurt. Yet, there was a part of me that understood. I’d left. I made a deal. I hadn’t fought against the darkness for them. And I hadn’t fought to get back to them. Maybe they weren’t the only ones who wrote someone off. I licked my lips. “It’s fine, Negan.” And a large part of me meant it. “It’s fine.”

I kissed him then. Letting my lips, my mouth tell him what I couldn’t. I’d made my choice. And they’d made theirs. There was no looking back. For any of us.

Chapter Text

The war didn’t come fast and furious. Instead, days were spent with Negan enclosed with his lieutenants, working to find a way to keep his people safe and deal death to my family. Eugene was cloistered in a warehouse with a set of workers to make ammo. And me? I walked the Sanctuary with different Saviors, the inconsequential. The ones that didn’t have much to offer during planning.

I took in the marketplace, the kitchens, the other areas that I hadn’t paid much attention to during my tour and then Carl’s. I walked outside, breathing in fresh air upwind from the walkers that lined the fence. I smiled while seeing the garden. I kept to myself, but always tried to smile and show that I was approachable, that I was trustworthy.

While I got to know Negan’s world, I tried to remember who I’d been during the time we spent at the prison. When I’d taken care of Judith and did storytime with the other children. How I kept myself busy while Daryl was recruiting or on runs. How I kept my life turning while Dad and Carl reconnected. How Jessica Grimes used to be.

I could remember being the person that calmed the tension down. That came back so easily with Negan the night he’d returned and declared war on Dad and his people. It was an added bonus that Negan hadn’t felt tortured by what he had to do, not really, there wasn’t a guilt that I had to take away. I hadn’t had to remind him of the man he was, of the fact that he was good enough. Negan didn’t need that type of reassurance. He knew who he was, he was in touch with his darkness and he reveled in it. No guilt, just more irritation by what he saw as my family’s failures.

I could also recall that I’d been the mediator, the person who kept the calm, the person who made sure everyone had been on the same page. I wondered, while reading the book that I’d pulled from the shelf, who had taken that role on when I’d disappeared into my own mind? Had Michonne? Was Carol the one who took it over, she’d clearly become Daryl’s new confidant? I settled into the sofa, curling into the spot that Negan’s body usually occupied and let my mind drift to the story in my hands.

 

Negan returned after lunch, but before dinner. His eyes were tight with the tension of dealing with the unknown. The things he couldn’t prepare for, like what he could expect from my dad. He’d dealt with the ambush of one outpost. He’d dealt with Daryl, Sasha, and Rosita’s attack on a set of Saviors, a rocket launcher attack, after a confrontation. But this? War? He didn’t quite know what to expect from Dad and my family. And that was stress that he usually didn’t carry at all, I could tell.

He chucked when he took in me, down to the shirt and panties that I’d found most comfortable when I was in his rooms sitting in his spot on the sofa, legs up on the back, head on the seat, hair hanging down to the floor. His shirt was at my waist, my panties fully on display, but honestly I was comfortable. More comfortable than I’d been in a very long time. My eyes met his, the tension I could still make out even upside down, but there was mirth there too.

“See something funny?” I asked, tossing the book aside, but staying upside down.

Negan stalked toward me, power still radiating off of him even here, in his own space. He put Lucille down on the table, and he stood over me, looking down and his grin grew. “What are you doin’, sweetheart?”

I stared up at him, seeing his tension slowly go out of him. Finding my silly ass upside down was helping him. Not completely, but a little. “Reading. Or I was.” I gestured at the discarded book. “How was your day?”

He hovered above me shaking his head. I rolled my eyes and turned over, sitting up. I scooted over so his seat was empty. Negan sat and pulled me to him, kissing my temple. “It was long.” He sounded tired, and I could feel the remnants of his tension in the way he was holding me. I curled into his body and let him hold me before I asked the first important question I felt I had ever asked him.

“Can I help?” I wasn’t asking if I could take his mind off of it. And I knew that he knew that from the way he stilled.

Negan huffed out a sigh. “Jessi, I don’t want to ask you-”

“I’m asking YOU, Negan.” I interrupted. “Can I help?”

He settled back into the sofa, getting more comfortable and considered my question. “It’s just that, we don’t know your Dad, not really.” His fingers were sliding through my hair as he talked, absently, but soothing for both of us. “I thought I understood Rick Grimes. I thought I beat him.” Another sigh. “Clearly that was a fucking lost cause.”

I pulled back so I could see his face. “You want to understand my dad?” I asked, wanting to be sure I understood what he was having issues with. He nodded, his eyes searching mine for signs of distress. “What would help you plan?”

That night, Negan saw me at my most aware, most Jessica Grimes self. I sat with him, explaining my dad’s morality. My dad’s belief system. How he’d fought other odds, the Governor, Terminus, and the challenges that had come from the first moment he took over as the leader of our group.

I discussed Daryl, for the first time with him. Explaining that the man I’d loved was more than a redneck or a hick. That he was a tracker. That he was my dad’s second. That he was far more formidable than Negan could ever have known.
And I told him more.

That I’d saved Glenn because of Maggie’s baby. That Carol was more like the me that I hid behind than even I was, that she could be far more merciless than anyone seeing her would ever assume. I told him as much as I could, not so he could harm them, but so lives could be saved. Not just Negan’s and his people’s, but my family. That if he knew what to expect, that if he knew how they worked, that somehow it could all be cut off at the pass.

Negan listened, taking in my words as they were offered. He rarely interrupted. Instead he listened, only asking a few questions here and there. I realized, once I finished that he’d seemed pretty interested in Carol and the Rhees. He also paid careful attention to what I said about Daryl. Dad’s information was welcome.

“The Rhees?” He’d listened well enough to keep names straight. “She was having issues? With the pregnancy. That’s what you were saying?”

I nodded, wondering why he was so curious. Then he muttered under his breath. “Negan?”

His eyes met mine. “We took the doctor from Hilltop.” His voice was quiet and I understood. He’d made it worse. My ‘sacrifice’, it was worthless if she didn’t have medical help. Shit. “When our Dr. Carson-” was thrown face first into a furnace, I waved him off from reminding me of that horror show. “I had Simon get their Dr. Carson.” Wait, what? “Brothers.” I nodded and sighed. Great. “Shit.” Yep.

“That would explain why I didn’t see them in Alexandria, and why they’d be ready to go after your blood.” I offered, shifting so my head was on his chest. “Any reason you’re so interested in Carol?”

Another huff of breath. “Yeah, think that she’s with the Kingdom. Fucking tiger nearly ate me.” What the literal fuck? I must have twitched. “He didn’t, obviously.” Sure, let’s be nonchalant. He could have become kitty chow, but here he was, safe and sound. I shook my head.

“Any other people you piss off while out there on your own?” I asked, my voice muffled against his chest. Information would be useless if Negan threw out aggravation like confetti.

“I wasn’t alone,” he offered, but I could hear the warning in his tone. Negan didn’t like to be reminded that he’d made shit infinitely worse. “Daryl?” I waited, what about Daryl? “You still sound like you-” He stopped and pulled me away from his chest so he could see my face. “Are you still in love with him?”

I stared up at Negan. I held his gaze, I considered what he was asking. Did I still love Daryl? Yes, I would always love Daryl. He was the man that I’d given trust for my very life to. He was the man I’d hoped to start a family with. He was the man that I didn’t see coming, but once he was there, I couldn’t have imagined anyone in his place. But was I IN love with him? That was a far tougher question to answer. And I had to wonder why it mattered? Negan had WIVES. I was a distraction, nothing more nothing less.

“Why does it matter?” I asked, watching his face. It wasn’t the same tone I’d used when he’d asked his questions when I first arrived. When he was trying to unlock me.

“I-” Negan’s thumbs were stroking my cheeks. “I just NEED to know, Jessi. Are you still in love with him?”

Maybe he didn’t trust that I’d hold up my end of the deal. That I wouldn’t stand beside him if push came to shove. That my love for Daryl would overrule my new loyalty to him. “It doesn’t matter, Negan. I’ll stand by you.” He shook his head and then he was on his feet and pacing.

“It does matter, Jessica. It fucking does.” He was running his hand down his face. “I NEED to know that he’s in your past. That you’re fucking over it.”

“Why?” I asked, honestly baffled. “Why does it matter, Negan?” I sat up, scooting forward so my feet met the floor.

“It just fucking does.” He almost growled, looking far scarier than I’d ever seen him look. “I want him out of your head and heart, Jessica. I-”

“This doesn’t make fucking sense, Negan.” I stood up and put my hands on my hips. “I know that I haven’t exactly been in a position to PROVE my fucking loyalty to you and your people, but Daryl’s place in my head or fucking heart doesn’t have a damn thing to do with that. If you don’t trust me, then put me in a fucking cell!”

He was glaring at me and I knew I was glaring back at him. “You are just as fucking blind as your brother aren’t you?” He offered, voice deadly quiet.

Blind? What the fuck? “I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.” I threw up my hands and started to turn away from him. How do you argue with a madman? You don’t.

“It’s got nothing to do with your loyalty, Jessi.” He was staring down at me, fists clenched. “And I’d fucking kill the first asshole who threatens you with time in a cell.” I stared up at him, so filled with confusion that I couldn’t speak. “It’s you. For shit’s sake, it’s YOU.” I was still staring. “You asked me why I was HERE, remember?” I nodded, sure, I remembered asking why he was so damn focused on me when he had plenty of diversions in his harem. “Because of YOU. I wanted to know you, the person behind a fucking will to die. The woman I could see hiding behind so much fucking pain that I could barely see her, but she still came out of those fucking trees and stared me in the eye and offered herself up in bargain for someone else’s life.” He moved closer. “YOU, Jessica Grimes, that’s what matters. I want to know if Daryl is still living in your heart because if he dies at my hand or my order, I don’t think I’ll survive you hating me for it.”

Wait, what? “Why?” I asked, scared of hearing it, but needing to know what he meant.

Chapter Text

Negan was staring down at me, my question hanging tense in the air around us. I couldn’t understand, why? Why did he care if Daryl was still in my heart or my head? Why would he care if I hated him in the end? Why did it matter whether I wanted the life that I’d built in my mind with Daryl? Why would Negan, a man I’d watched unflinchingly kill Abraham and his own fucking doctor, burn a man’s face with a hot iron, and gut another man just to prove a point, give a shit about who I loved?

“Why?” His voice was almost a hiss it was so low and dangerous. “Why, what, Jessi?”

It was a challenge. A dare. He wanted me to close the loophole of my question. He wanted me to explain my own mindset, to test me, but I wasn’t sure what the test entailed.

“Why would it matter to you?” I asked, sitting down in my usual spot. “I get that you found me distracting or a puzzle or something.” I leaned back and looked up at him. “But that’s all I am, a distraction, Negan. You have far more women to keep your bed warm than just me.”

I didn’t sound jealous because I didn’t think I was. Why would I be? He introduced them to me first fucking thing when I arrived. It wasn’t like his harem was a secret. It wasn’t like he hadn’t made out with wife number one in front of me and Carl.

“Why would it matter to me?” He repeated, sitting down in his own spot. “Jesus, Jessi.” That hand wiping down his face, clearly frustrated with my ass. “Have you seen my wives lately?” His eyes locked on mine. “Aside from my disastrous trip to visit dear old dad, and these fucking planning sessions, when have I been more than a room away from you?” Obviously I couldn’t count the trip to Alexandria to take Carl home, it wasn’t like he’d brought them along.

“I am so fucking confused, Negan.” I answered, staring at him. “Is that what you think my purpose is? As an addition to your harem?”

He was staring at me as though I’d asked him if my hair was on fire and he was afraid to confirm it. I waited him out. If that’s what he assumed my grand purpose was, then he was sadly mistaken. Sex with Negan was one thing. Hell, finding out that I liked him, his company, was pretty damn huge for me. Joining up to be a sister-wife? No.

Another swipe of that damn hand of his down his face, and I could feel the frustration rolling off of him. “Why is that such a fucking horrifying situtation to you?” He asked, and I was shocked at how quiet he sounded. “Why the fuck am I even having this discussion with you?” That question was clearly more to himself, than to me. His eyes met mine again. “Seriously, what the hell is it about you?” Another inner debate that he couldn’t hold in.

“It’s horrifying, Negan,” I started, drawing his full attention to me. “Because you’re asking me to give up ONE person. One man who I had ALL of since practically the beginning of this mess.” I considered how Daryl and Merle had taken me in when Lori was wrapped up in Shane and corrected my statement. “Not practically, literally. From the moment I met Daryl Dixon, he took care of me. I trusted him with my LIFE, Negan. And then I trusted him with my heart and body.” I closed my eyes, thinking about how Daryl and I had come together. How we’d fit so effortlessly for so long. “And you want assurances that he’s gone from me. Completely, but you have MULTIPLE women dangling from your string.”

I looked at him, trying to gauge if he was at least TRYING to see it from my point of view. The look on his face nearly made me lose my ability to breathe. Negan looked, well to be honest, I wasn't sure what emotions he was showing. Too many to choose just one.

“You’re still in love with him?” Negan asked, his mouth barely moving with the words.

“I will ALWAYS love Daryl, Negan.” I answered, shaking my head. “Haven’t you ever- Isn’t there anyone that you’ve loved, or love,” I thought of his women, “that will live inside of you forever?” He shot a strange look at his bat, and I had a flicker of unease. “Being IN love with him isn’t something I can answer, Negan. I don’t know. I haven’t been myself for such a long time.”

He stared at me, seemingly thinking about what I was saying. And the silence curled around us. Negan moved, so fast that I was startled. He was on his knees on the floor beside my chair, and his hands were reaching for my face. I leaned into his touch, but he didn’t lean forward, didn’t pull me to him. Instead he cupped my face and stared into my eyes. I waited, fear blossoming in my stomach.

Chapter Text

Negan knelt in front of me, his hands on my face, rough thumb pads swiping under my eyes. I watched him as he stared at me, trying it seemed to see straight through me. I closed my eyes, and let my hand cover one of his where he rested on my cheek. I couldn’t deny that I liked his touch. I couldn’t say that I felt NOTHING for him, but I also couldn’t agree to become whatever he considered his “wives” to be.

I was holding his hand to my face when I felt the thumb of his other hand touch my lips. I sighed, letting the air in my lungs wash over his fingers. Why did he have to ask this now? Why did he have to make it more complicated than it had to be?

“Jessi,” Negan’s voice was raw, as though he was torn by the mere thought of speaking. “Look at me, sweetheart.”

I opened my eyes and met his gaze. “Why now, Negan?” I asked, thinking that if we dealt with all of it like a bandaid, that maybe we could rush past it, and get to the real issues. My family and his people were going to go toe to toe.

“I told you, Jessi, I-” his eyes closed and he took a deep breath. “I need to know that you won’t hate me if he dies. If he dies during this fucking war that him and your dad seem to need so damn badly.”

When his eyes opened, he saw me studying him. “I didn’t hate you when you killed Abraham, Negan.” I started, and he opened his mouth to speak, but my free hand brushed over his lips to stop him. “Let me speak, please.” His nod gave me the clear to keep going. “I didn’t hate you when you killed him, or Olivia, or Spencer. I didn’t hate you when those deaths happened because I think I understand why you did it.” I sighed again. “This world. The world we live in now, it’s not the same as it was before. Before we had the luxury of high morals, of knowing firmly right from wrong. Now, it’s kill, be killed, or be killed again. Every single person, every LEADER in this new world, has a new set of morals. A new set of right from wrong. A new set of rules.” I closed my own eyes to collect my thoughts. “I’ve watched Daryl leave a barn after beating a man from a rival group for information. I’ve watched my own father attack another man in the middle of Alexandria because he felt he had the moral high ground. I’ve watched women who never once raised a hand to defend themselves against abusive men in their lives kill without blinking.” I opened my eyes to see he was listening intently to me. “I may not always agree with the rules of each leader. I may not always agree with their tactics or their motives. In the end? It doesn’t matter what I agree with. If I choose to follow someone, then they are the leader and I am not. Because I don’t want to LEAD, Negan. It’s not something I’m interested in. I don’t want that responsibility. I don’t want the weight of the lives of followers on MY shoulders or conscience.” I took his hand from my face, but kept our hands together. “If Daryl dies at your hand, or one of your people’s hands, then you have to know that I will experience the pain of losing him. I will grieve him. But hate you for HIS choice to fight? No. That won’t happen.”

His eyes, ever changing, were dark again. He had listened, but did he HEAR me. “Are you really sure about that, Jessi?” He let his fingers link with mine. “That his death, or your dad’s, or fuck, Carl’s, won’t make you hate ME?”

I shook my head. “Death is one of the few constants in our world, from before and now, Negan. Men and women died before this shit started, and they’ll die after your war with Dad and Daryl.” I knew I sounded defeated, because I was. This was something he couldn’t fix. They couldn’t fix it. I would never be better in this one sense. The inevitability of death didn’t make it more reasonable or easier to deal with. “I will grieve, Negan. I will be sad and angry about their deaths, or yours, because it could go either way. But hating you? Or them for that matter? Why would I? I haven’t hated them for anything else, I can’t hate you for it either. You’re all so certain it’s necessary. All I can do, all I can promise is to try my damnedest to help you understand them, and in that you’ll find a way that the cost isn’t as great as it could be.”

“I don’t want you to disappear inside yourself over this, Jessica.” His eyes were still locked on mine. “I don’t want you to lose yourself because of this shit.” I could see he meant it, and I didn’t know why he was so concerned.

“Negan,” I was staring at him, trying to think of a way to phrase what I wanted to know without raising the tension in the room to a fever pitch again. “Why do you care, really?” Our fingers were still linked. “Don’t you have enough wives?” I tried to make it sound flippant, but I was honestly trying to understand him.

He got to his feet and used his free hand to run down his face. His other was still holding my hand and he used it to pull me from my chair. Sitting down in his spot on the sofa, he tugged me onto his lap. His face found my neck and he inhaled the scent of my skin, seemingly to calm himself or to gather his thoughts.

“I don’t know.” He whispered, his breath fanning against my skin. “I don’t know why I care. I don’t know why it matters if you hate me, Jessica Grimes. I just fucking do. I care. I want you to-”

When he stopped, a groan left his lips as though the mere thoughts he wanted to give life to by voicing them. I felt like I was holding my breath, but then his hands were cupping my face and he was staring me in the eyes again. And then his lips met mine and my eyes closed. Kissing me, Negan felt like he was as tormented as he’d been in trying to explain himself, but he was trying, I could tell to show me.

I let the kiss go on for as long as I could, but I wanted answers. Making out with Negan was well worth the time, but the truth was that being physical with him would NOT make what we needed to get clear come out easier. I finally pulled away, watching his eyes open when I moved my mouth from his.

“Words, Negan.” I begged. I needed to understand, and kissing it away wasn’t going to work. Not for me.

“I want YOU, Jessi. I want you and me, I want US.” I knew I looked confused because I felt it. He swallowed hard and glanced down. “What we have, what I want us to have, it isn’t the same.” As? I wanted to ask, but I waited. He was talking now, I didn’t want him to clam up. “My wives, they were offered a deal, or some offered me a deal-” Another swallow, and I stayed quiet. “What you offered? Was YOUR LIFE for someone else. You wanted to die and use me to do it, but you also wanted to SAVE someone with your death.” It was the truth, but I didn’t quite understand. “You had no fucking clue I’d bring you here. That I’d let you live, that I’d work to bring you back to yourself.” Also all true. “When I asked you if you wanted me, I had to know that you didn’t assume it was part of you being alive still. That this, us, wasn’t part of it. That you aren’t THEM.”

I leaned back, staying on his lap, but wanting to see him. His face, his posture, and his eyes. “When you say they, the wives, had a deal?” I wanted to know, he had his curiosity, so did I.

Negan sighed, his eyes tight. “The ones that had partners, were offered a place with me, for their own safety and to keep their men in line. The others came to me, wanting the same protection and perks.”

“Perks?” I asked, starting to understand a bit more.

“No points. No fighting. Safety and luxury.” I nodded, showing I wanted all of it. “In return, I owned their bodies. Their partners couldn’t touch them again. They were my wives, after all.” He said it as though it made perfect sense. His harem for their luxurious lives.

“That’s why-” I closed my eyes at the memory of the man’s skin burning. The smell of burnt flesh. “Because she cheated.” I whispered, remembering him and the woman, her vows of her love for him and I felt sick. “What about me?” I wanted to know, I needed certainty even with his multiple wives that the rules didn’t apply to him.

“It’s a one way street, Jessi.” His voice was quiet, he was clearly watching my face. “They get a better deal than me, in so many fucking ways.” Sure, I thought, they didn’t have to be with you every time you rang the bell. Or hell, maybe there were nights when they all took him on, how would I ever fucking know?

“Of course,” I stood up and moved out of his reach. “Pretty clothes, safety, and unlimited shit that they don’t have to work for-” except flat on their backs, or on their knees. “What about Eugene?”

“Eugene?” He clearly forgot that his harem was currently keeping Dr. Mullet company.

I was standing at the window, staring out into the darkness so different from my own. I directed my next words to the glass. “Yes, Eugene, the bullet maker. Aren’t YOUR WIVES keeping him entertained?”

“They aren’t fucking him.” He offered, clearly bothered by the very idea. “I’m not even sure he’s capable.”

My hand pressed against the cool glass. “And me? Would I be entertainment for your next pet?”

“Jessi,” Negan groaned, and I heard him stand. “Didn’t I say that you’re fucking different?”

“Don’t come closer, please.” I didn’t turn around, but I needed him to not touch me. “How am I different? Because I wanted to DIE and you saved me? Because I didn’t offer to sleep with you for my freedom or gifts? Because I wanted to DIE and I became a martyr in your eyes?” I turned finally, and let him see the pain on my face. “Negan, I’m not a fucking saint. I’m not a martyr. I’m someone who gave the FUCK UP. I couldn’t stand this fucking world. The pain, the death. Watching my baby brother turn merciless. Watching my dad and the man I love decide that they are willing to let people DIE so our people can have ‘more’?” I sighed and leaned against the wall beside the window. “You think you see me so fucking clearly. You don’t see me any better than they did.”

He started forward, but I held up my hand to stop him. “You take the bed, Negan, I’ll take the couch.” It was final. And he knew it. I needed space. And since he wouldn’t let me leave this room without him, then I’d be sleeping alone. Period.

Chapter Text

Negan tried to make peace with me in the morning. I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t push him away. I also didn’t agree to becoming wife number whatever.

I knew he was thinking that I was falling back into who I’d been when I walked out of the trees when he had my family on their knees in the dirt before him. While I was stuck in my head, it wasn’t searching for the darkness. Nowhere was tempting, but more tempting was finding a way free.

I wanted to be free of everything and everyone. I didn’t want to stay at the Sanctuary. I didn’t want to return to Alexandria. I knew that I could expect a chilly reception at Hilltop, given Negan’s mention of removing their doctor. I wasn’t sure where I could go, but I knew that I needed to be free of every expectation. Of the looks that Negan shot me when he tried to engage me in conversation and got the bare minimum. Of the pressure of being Rick Grimes’ oldest daughter. Free of the urge to take away the stress, pain, and guilt from those I loved.

I took more walks. I was a regular on the grounds now. No one blinked at my presence. I even saw smiles and a few waves. I returned each one, absently, because I couldn’t afford to garner suspicion.

Apparently I wasn’t as good at hiding my lack of interest in the Sanctuary, its people, or my surroundings at all, because almost a week into the tension surrounding Negan and me one of his higher ranking Saviors approached me. I vaguely recalled seeing him at the meeting Negan had called right after the declaration of war. He reminded me of his name, Gavin, and I waited to see what message Negan had sent him with since he’d begun checking in through whichever person happened to be on hand that particular day.

“You look as though you’d rather be anywhere but here.” He mentioned offhandedly. My hackles raised. Was this a test? Negan sending someone outside to tempt me into what? Admitting that I’d rather be dead? Or something more punishment worthy?

He was older than me, but so was Negan and Daryl. Perhaps that was the plot, try to tempt me with a similar type? Well, he’d have to do better than this poor weak chinned man. “I feel like I repeat this a great deal, but where I am pretty much doesn’t fucking matter to me.” I offered as I glanced around, taking in the fact that the ‘guard’ who had walked with me outside was gone. “You taking over babysitting duty?”

He chuckled. “You feel like he doesn’t trust you?” His face showed true mirth at the idea of it. “He trusts you.” I shrugged. OK, so?

“Not babysitting. Making random observations about me. I have to wonder why you’re here?” Turning away from the man and staring out over the scarce landscape, I waited.

Gavin sighed. “His head isn’t in the game because you have him tied into knots.” Another shrug from me. “Look, I’m not gonna tell you to put on the wife uniform and get over it. Not my place, but seeing how you’ve been studying the gates with so much interest, I thought I’d ask if you need out?”

Out? On a longer walk? Or OUT? “Out?” I wanted him to fill in the blanks. I was a cop’s offspring, after all.

“Out. Gone. Not here.” Spell it out he did. “If you’re not here, and God knows what your people have planned, maybe the boss can get his shit together.”

I felt my heart pounding against my chest. It couldn’t be this simple. My want gets delivered so easily. “He’d send people after me.” I said, still not facing him. “He sent them after the couple.”

Gavin snorted. “Yeah, because she was ALREADY wearing the uniform. And D was one of his most trusted.” I squinted at the bare patch of road I could see from my position. “You? You’re just ONE person who he can’t afford to rush after. Going after you would make him look desperate. Negan doesn’t do desperation.”

In public, I added, because I’d seen the man look desperate. What if he was right? What if I could go? Be gone and for once NOT witness the madness? “Hypothetically speaking, how?”

“We have cars all over. Gassed up, supplies, weapons all within walking distance, as long as you know where to go.” He said, and I could hear him chewing more words. “That is if you hypothetically wanted to leave.”

I took a deep breath. “And you’d be the ‘Savior’ to help me?” I wanted to know what his deal was. Why would this man, one of Negan’s loyal, offer this out to me?

“I want us to win. I want us to be alive at the end of whatever bullshit is coming.” His voice was strained. “I have a feeling that you ain’t going back to your people. Why not send you safely out? I don’t get anything out of your death, but you leaving? Hopefully that’ll get us a fully functioning boss. Because I think you know that Negan ain’t up to snuff right now.”

I swallowed. If I trusted him and he was setting me up, then what do I lose? My life? Hadn’t I wanted that permanent out for such a long time that I couldn’t remember not thinking that death was something to pray for? Or Negan would punish me, mark me, scar me for wanting to go, lock me up and throw away the key. Again, hadn’t I expected as much when I learned he was bringing me here?

“Tell me what to do.” I said, turning to face him.

 

Finding the car was simple. Getting away wasn’t. Gavin had to give me the window of opportunity, and I had to find a way to get away from my usual babysitters. Then I had to be as stealthy as possible before a real alarm could be raised that I wasn’t where I should be. Luckily for me, my babysitter wasn’t really quick to announce that he’d lost sight of me. Or that I wasn’t in all my usual haunts. I hoped that the note I'd left hidden where Negan could find it when he searched his rooms would allay his fears, his urge to come after me. I hoped he believed me when I swore I wasn't going back to Alexandria. That I wasn't searching out my family or returning to the fold. I prayed that he'd read it and KNOW that I meant it. Every single word.

I found the car about a mile from the gate. Gavin hadn’t lied when he said that they supplied them and kept a cache of weapons in them. Nothing magnificent, but enough to keep me safe and nourished until I found a place. I found the keys hidden where he’d told me. And I gave a silent prayer of gratitude for that.

I drove out of the empty town bordering the Sanctuary, trying to decide where to go. I could always find a place to park, live out of the car and travel when the walkers showed up as they inevitably would. Or, there must be other communities. Somewhere that my last name wouldn’t matter. Somewhere that I could blend in and wait.

Wait for news of the war. Wait for news of deaths. Or wait for death itself.

And so, with this in mind, I drove to the one place I was sure that no one would care who I was. A place that I’d heard Jesus mention aside from Hilltop. A place called the Kingdom.

 

The truth is that it’s difficult for me to find this “Kingdom” at first because, well, when Jesus mentioned it, I wasn’t exactly myself. I drove and tried to capture anything that Dad may have said about it. I knew he hadn’t gone there, but Jesus had mentioned that it was another group that had to give tribute to the Saviors.

I was less afraid by being seen by whomever would pick up the tribute, than I was having others find me. Anyone who would expect me to be me. Anyone who would look at me like I failed everyone.

I found it on my second day outside the Sanctuary. Travel in circles enough, I suppose you’d find just about anything. And when I say I found it, I mean that I was approached by people on freaking horseback. Wearing a form of cobbled together armor, I thought I must have died along the way, because this was the weirdest shit I’d seen thus far.

“Who are you?” One of the men asks me, when they come across me on a road in the middle of what I took as nowhere.

I was leaning against the hood of the car, having just stopped to figure out my next move. “Jessica Grimes, and you?” I replied, going fully nonchalant, while still feeling the calmness of the blade I had tucked in the waist of my jeans.
“Grimes?” Another man asked, and I was ready to facepalm. Shit, did he actually know Dad? He turned away from me and the others turned with him. A brief, yet animated conversation ensued. When they turned back to face me, he ordered me to come with them, and I nearly argued. It was seeing one of the men hold up a crossbow aimed at my head that stopped me.

“Where am I going, exactly?” I asked, moving toward the drivers’ side door of the car. I was ordered to stop. Great, so I guess my extra weapons and supplies were going to be fucking left behind. “There are weapons in here, don’t you want to confiscate them?” Try to show you’re helpful, and not scared or intimidating.

One of the men motioned me to come closer to them, but another stopped me and demanded I remove the knife I assumed was carefully hidden. Fighting the urge to roll my eyes, I pulled it free and tossed it to the ground. Another man disembarked from his horse and came toward me. “I’m going to do a quick pat down,” he offered, hands out to show me he wasn’t armed. I nodded and he did what he said, no lingering touches or inappropriate moves. Finding none, I was told to go to the man who’d motioned me before.

“Give me your hand,” another command. I held my hand above my head and he tugged me closer, and I finally understood, he wanted to get me onto the horse with him. He also wanted me in front of him, better to keep an eye on me, no doubt. Once I was seated, I took note that the man who had patted me down was looting the car.

“It still has gas,” I offered, thinking why not just fucking take the entire thing? He shook his head and finished his rummaging for anything worth taking. He returned to his horse, burdened with all the supplies and weapons he’d found. He bundled them and then he got back on his horse and we were off.

No one spoke as they took me back to wherever. But once I crossed into their community, I finally realized that I’d found it. Even if technically they found me, I was where I’d wanted to go. The Kingdom.

Chapter Text

The Kingdom was something that I wasn’t expecting. Well, I wouldn’t have known what to expect, but this- This wasn’t what I would have imagined. There was a corral for the horses. The brick buildings had white trim. There was a gazebo where people sat and chatted. A garden, a clothes line, and people glancing up as the men who found me rode with me through the community. Picnic tables dotted the area they took me through.

“What was this place before?” I whispered, feeling awed by the simplicity of the life here contrasting against the opulence of the buildings.

“School.” One of my companions grunted.

I nodded, thinking it must have been a boarding school for diplomats’ children or politicians and the rich. I felt a flash of curiosity about Deanna’s boys, and whether they attended school here. I was still taking in my surroundings when the horses halted. We were in front of a building with the words “Post Theater” engraved into the white wood trim. I was helped down and pushed forward, toward the steps of the building.

“Go on,” the man who’d rode behind me said, coming up behind me. “You have to be presented to King Ezekiel. He’ll decide what to do with you.”

King Ezekiel? What did you expect, my mind screamed, it’s called the fucking Kingdom after all? I walked up the steps, wondering if I looked as certain as Negan had said I had when I left the tree line that first night. And then inside, I was directed toward the actual theater, and seated on a throne with a tiger at his side was a man I had to assume was the king himself.

I bowed. What else could I do? Clearly this was some type of cosplay kingdom, yet they all seemed to be taking their roles pretty damn seriously. And if I wanted to find a place here, then I’d play along.

“Rise up, young maiden.” Dear Lord, are you serious? “I am King Ezekiel. Who are you?”

I truly hoped that this theatrical man, with his graying dreads and regal attempts didn’t expect me to go ‘Shakespeare in the park’. “Jessica Grimes, your majesty.” I answered, rising and looking him straight in the eye.

“Grimes?” Ugh, there it was again, recognition. “Are you related to Rick Grimes?” I closed my eyes and prayed for composure.

“Yes, I’m his oldest daughter, sir.” I answered, breathing through my nose, hoping that he wouldn’t send me away.

He gestured for the men who were clearly still crowding me to move, or leave. “I thought you were-”

I wondered if I was supposed to be dead? Or a traitor? Or something truly offensive? “I offered myself as a trade for Glenn Rhee’s life, sir. I had no idea that I wouldn’t die for it. I-” I glanced down, collecting myself. “I left the Sanctuary. I feel I won’t be welcome in Alexandria, and even if I am, I’d rather not return.”

I could see the questions in his eyes when I raised my head. Questions that bubbled and churned. I was surprised he fought them off. “We have two of your people here, Jessica.” Shit. Who? He nodded at the men who hadn’t left, but had pulled back. “Have a seat, please. I’d like to see what they have to say.”

Great. More people who would assume I was a turncoat. Or that I was dead. Or who knew what else I’d have to face. More expectations. More crap that I was trying to avoid.

 

I was surprised when ‘my’ two people arrived. Carol? Morgan? What the hell? Carol took one look at me and rushed forward, pulling me from my seat and hugging me to her. I felt myself lean into the comfort she was giving me. And Morgan met my eyes over her shoulder. I didn’t see it. The judgement. The disappointment.

“Jessi,” Carol breathed, pulling back and brushing my hair from my face. “I thought you were-” She pulled me back into another hug. “I thought you gave up, sweetheart. I thought you gave up.”

I felt the burning in my eyes warning of tears and fought them. I shook my head and she released me. “I did too.” I lost the fight, tears brimmed over and were running down my cheeks. “I can’t go back, Carol.” It was a whisper, but she heard me and nodded. She moved away from me and I heard her approach the king.

“Jessi,” Morgan was staring at me, at whatever expression had taken over my face. He shook his head, his eyes tight. “I worried,” he started, moving closer, but not touching me. “I thought that you might have-”

I brushed the wetness from my face. “That I’d traded sides?” I asked, shaking my head at the horrified look he shot me. “No? That seems to be the popular opinion in Alexandria.” I fought to regain my control. “No one understood, I guess.” Feigning a lack of concern was harder when your face was challenging it. “I just can’t-” I shook my head again. Not able to continue my sentence as the feeling of pain took over.

“Jessica Grimes,” King Ezekiel’s voice sounded powerful, but gentle at the same time, a rare talent if I’d ever heard one. “Carol has vouched for you, and so, I welcome you to The Kingdom.”

 

Carol insisted I come to her house. That I stay with her. And Morgan followed us, letting the two of us walk side by side, letting us have some privacy. It was unnecessary since I was silent during the walk. And Carol, knowing far better than most what I was dealing with, let me have the quiet.

Her house was quaint, on the fringes of the Kingdom, surrounded by the same type of walker warning system I knew from my time at Daryl’s side. Seeing the ring of noise making paraphernalia made my heart clench painfully at the mere thought of him, and I thought I hid it, but Carol’s hand found mine and gave it a squeeze. I’d never escape them, any of them, I realized no matter where I went. Memories would torment me until the day I finally died.

Inside was just as cozy as the exterior, and I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room that was clearly meant to be a living room, unsure of what to do. “Sit, Jessi,” Carol offered, gesturing toward her couch.

I sat, hands clasped in my lap, waiting for it. The interrogation. The questions. The curiosity that was no doubt flowing through her and Morgan. Nothing came. I heard a bit of rattling in another room, and looked up to find that I was alone in the room. No Morgan. No Carol.

I sighed and let myself sink into the sofa. I hadn’t rested since leaving the Sanctuary. I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t be ambushed by walkers or worse humans. I let my eyes shut, for a moment, and when I opened them again, it was dark outside. It took a moment for me to remember where I was, but when I did, I wondered where Carol was.

“I’m right here, Jessi.” Her voice came from my right, and I saw that she was sitting on the other side of the couch. I’d fallen asleep sitting up. “You look exhausted.”

I couldn’t even find the energy to snort. I was exhausted. Completely and totally. “It’s been a long couple of-” I stopped. It seemed like it had been a long couple of years. My entire life was just a long series of pushing forward when I should have been sitting it out, it seemed. I sighed. “Thank you.” I offered.

“Hey,” I turned to look at her. “You don’t have to thank me, Jessi.” She smiled, and I could see the guilt in her eyes. “We really didn’t take care of you, did we?” She asked, studying me far too closely for my comfort.

“I don’t know what you mean, Carol.” I deflected. I ran my hand down my face and nearly laughed. Dear God, had I picked up Negan’s habit? “I’m tired, but I’m fine.”

She shook her head, I saw it from the corner of my eye. “You’re tired, but you’re not fine, Jessi.” I started to speak, but she stopped me. “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.” I heard her give a bit of a chuckle, but didn’t know what she found funny.

“Everyone seems to think they know me, Carol. What do you see when you look at me?” I asked, wondering if she saw a martyr, a broken woman, or a suicidal mess?

She moved over, close enough to offer comfort if necessary, but still leaving me space. “I see a woman who shouldered every single thing that life and her people threw her way without a single complaint. I see a woman who loved so deeply that people took it for granted. I see a woman who would have taken on everyone else’s loss or sorrow or pain, just to keep them from feeling it. And I see a woman who offered her own damn life in the place of someone else’s because she gave up HOPE and wanted someone who still had it to live.” She took my hand in hers, and squeezed it. “Am I close?”

My tears were falling again, even as I shook my head, trying to deny how right she was. “You all did the best you could.” I was absolving her of any type of guilt she might have had, that they might have had.

“There it is.” She said, drawing my attention to her face. Her smile was sad. “You’re doing it again. You’re trying to make ME feel better about failing YOU.” She shook her head and she brushed my hair out of my face again. “Jessi, we were a family, we ALL should have seen it. We should have seen that you were breaking, but we didn’t. Not a single one of us.” Another shake of her head. “I can’t believe I made you come to defend Rick. I should have seen it.” She meant when all hell broke loose in Alexandria, the day Dad saw a glimpse of it. “So worried about those three questions, but never worried about the real cost.”

I pulled my hand from hers to swipe my tears away. “No one needed to fix me, Carol. Not when we’re constantly fighting everything this world keeps tossing at us.” I stared at a framed print on her wall. “Everyone had their own burdens. No one needed to take on mine.”

“You took on ours.” She reminded me, voice as quiet as mine. “Jesus, Daryl-” She stopped, seeing me flinch at the mention of his name. The thought that she would dare question his motives or his love for me, that the mention of his name would now be forever linked to Negan. To his insistence that I give up Daryl and his memory. “Jessi? Have you seen him?”

My eyes stayed on the painting. “I’ve been back to Alexandria twice since-” I didn’t have to say since when I knew she’d fill in the blanks. “He stared a hole in me the first time. I doubt he noticed me the second.” I was proud of how I sounded like I didn’t care.

“I’ve seen him. And your dad.” She offered, but my eyes were following the lines of the painting. “He misses you, Jessi. He, they love you so much, honey.”

I nodded. I didn’t doubt either assumption. I’m sure they did, or they told themselves they did. That they SHOULD miss me, that they SHOULD still love me. “You aren’t going to try to talk me into going back are you?” I had to know, because if that was something she wanted, then I would leave. I would venture into the unknown. I would become completely isolated before I was forced back.

“No.” She was firm. “I can understand you needing space.” And then it came, a question I should have anticipated, but didn’t. “Negan? Did he force you to-”

“NO.” My tone startled her, I felt her body tense. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have-” I closed my eyes and turned to face her again. “He isn’t like that.” With me, I added in my head, since I wasn’t sure his wives would tell the same story. “He-” how do I explain it without giving anything too intimate away? “He helped me break free from-”

“You wanted to die.” She said it so matter-of-fact that I knew she understood. “He helped you through that?” I nodded, praying she wouldn’t pry further. “That’s one good thing he’s done.” She sniffed, and I could tell it pained her to even give him that much credit. “I made some stew, would you like some?” A change of topics was welcome, and I nodded again.

 

 

Days in the Kingdom were different. I offered to do any job that needed done, bar planning for what was to come between the Saviors and Ezekiel’s people. I had a feeling they wouldn’t have agreed to allow me to join even if I was amiable. There wasn’t the same distrust I’d seen in Alexandria here, but I knew that my last name, and my disinterest in returning to Dad’s side was enough to make some question my purpose in their community.

Laundry duty. I nearly laughed at the irony of being given laundry duty. Once upon a time, I’d become a hunter and tracker just to escape laundry duty.

I didn’t complain or talk much at all while working. Getting lost in the physical aspect of the job, letting muscle memory be retaught to do this rather menial task was a form of escape too. I spent my day washing clothes for the community. Bedding, linens, clothing I washed and hung. I folded the dried batches, and I helped sort with the other workers, who showed me their system.

When I was dismissed, I’d walk back to Carol’s. Usually she was waiting for me, but if she wasn’t, I’d sit on the top step of her porch and look out over the grass. I’d watch it bend in the slight wind. I’d let my mind pretend for a while that I wasn’t hiding and waiting.

Carol would make us dinner. We’d sit in her living room, and she’d try to get me to open up more. Not as antagonistic as Negan, she usually managed to get me to talk a bit before I’d feel she pushed too hard and I’d close down again. ANY criticism toward Dad, Daryl, or anyone I considered family or, in the case of Negan that I felt anything for, was off limits.

And then it happened. I had just come back, with our clean laundry in tow, when Carol told me to sit down. I knew, from her tone, from the way she could hardly look into my eyes, that it was time. That they were going to be heading to the first round of a war that I wanted no part in. And for once, the only time I truly remembered feeling this way, I didn’t want anyone to say goodbye to me before leaving. I didn’t want to see her go. I didn’t want to see Morgan walk away.

I also knew that I’d sit behind in the relative safety of The Kingdom, waiting, and feeling like I was hovering in limbo. And I wondered, whomever came back, what would they find in my place?

Chapter Text

Waiting at The Kingdom was made worse by my little quirk of feeling when people I love are in danger. The chilly fingers of fear, death, and danger crawled up my spine. Finding me unwilling to act on that warning, they danced across my skin. Still not getting me to move forward, to rush to save and protect, it felt like they were closing around my throat. Choking off my air. Holding me hostage for my impotence.

Who? I wanted to scream. Who, of the people I loved so much, was in danger? Who do I rush to? Which person was in MORE danger? Which person could I save? They were all in danger. Every single person I loved and cared for was at the mercy of fate. A fate that they’d pushed toward. A fate that would be marred by death and blood. So, I tried to reason with the warning that was screaming through my body, WHO do I pick? Where do I rush to?

It seemed like days passed, but the truth is that it was mere hours when the news spread. I was at the laundry. I had hoped that work, menial mind numbing work would keep the fear and warning of my body at bay. It didn’t, but had moments that it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. When the call went up that the King had returned, I followed the others to see what news came with him.

He didn’t have to speak, and he wouldn’t. I could see, on his face, Carol’s, and the man who acted as his guard Jerry’s face that it wasn’t a success. Regardless of what had happened out there, these three were all that survived. And, since I couldn’t see the orange and black of the tiger peeking out, clearly the impressive cat was a casualty as well. My eyes met Carol’s and I nodded, walking away, back to her house.

Carol joined me not long after. She told me what she’d seen, what had gone wrong, how they’d been cut down by the Saviors. She told me that Ezekiel was taking the loss far harder than she’d expected. I listened, drinking in the news, but learning that she couldn’t alay any of my fears about the people I loved enough to have my skin crawling with the cold warning of the danger to their lives.

She leaves me, urging me to get some rest, and I know that she’s going back to the theater to try to talk to Ezekiel. There’s something there, between the two of them that I almost recognize. Something between what I had with Daryl and what I nearly experienced with Negan. I take her advice, laying down on the sofa to try to rest.

I wake up to shaking and I know it’s happened again. That I started screaming, that in the safety of my dreams I had allowed all the fear and uncertainty to unleash and overcome my constraints. Opening my eyes to Carol’s worried face, her hands brushing my loose hair away from my sweaty face. I’m gulping for air and I can tell that my face is awash with tears, I feel the dampness cooling.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, sitting up and looking around. It’s dark. I haven’t a clue whether she just got home or if I woke her. “I’m sorry-”
She hushed me. “I have them, too.” She offers, letting me sit up and taking the seat that becomes available as my body rises. “We all do, I think.” Carol’s voice is still quiet, and I wonder if I simply scream, or if I scream their names?

“I didn’t.” I answer, swiping at my face with the blanket I’d been covered with. “I didn’t have them at all, not one.” I was thinking about the darkness and nowhere phase of my life. “It was blank and peaceful and I never wanted to wake up from it.” I could hear the yearning in my own voice. “I still don’t want to wake up.” I finally admitted it out loud. That I didn’t want to live anymore. And I couldn’t and wouldn’t take it back.

“Jessi,” Carol murmured, pulling me to lean against her, like a mother and her child. “What would your death help? If you weren’t alive, then it would be such a waste.” I felt my heart clench painfully at how close she sounded to what Negan had tried to convince me of. “I know it’s painful, I do, but you can’t give up.”

I let her comfort me and let the words finally flow free. “I’m tired of bearing witness, Carol. I don’t understand why-” I stopped and closed my eyes thinking of all the horrors we’ve seen together and separately. “I should have stood up to Dad and told him to go find you when he exiled you.” I felt her shake her head. “I’ve seen all of it. I’ve watched everyone change. Why was what you did to protect our people worse than what anyone else has done?” My fingers were fidgeting with the blanket. “I’m not strong enough for this world, Carol. I’m tired. I’m weak. And I wish I could do it-”

“No,” she pulled back so she could force my face up to look at her. “Don’t you ever even think about that. Not anymore. Do you hear me?” I looked away. “Jessica Grimes, killing yourself, removing yourself from this screwed up world isn’t going to make it better for the people you love. Any of them.” And I knew she included Negan in that group.

We sat for a while together, my head on her shoulder, and hand holding mine. The silence stretching, but not awkward, both of us lost in our own thoughts.

Eventually we tried to sleep again, Carol going to her bed, me settling back on the couch. I didn’t let my body win the fight to chase after sleep. I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk ruining Carol’s chance for rest after her more difficult day.

The sun rose and so did I. I was standing on the porch when Carol joined me. Staring out at the grass swaying ever so gently, I heard her step beside me. I was expecting her to ask. I had a feeling that she knew I’d agree. And so, after a bite of fruit and some water, I was off.

I walked with purpose to the theater. I smiled at the guards, and realized that they were expecting me. Carol, I thought with a shake of my head, knew me far better than I considered. I approached the doors that kept Ezekiel closeted away from his people and knocked gently. No answer came, but I hadn’t expected one. I pushed the door open, and slipped inside.
He looked incredibly broken. Sitting on his throne, holding Shiva’s chain in one hand, but staring at nothing, I wasn’t sure he’d even heard my knock, much less noticed my entrance.

“Jessica,” his voice wasn’t as powerful. It was still gentle, but it was filled with such pain that I could feel it push past the chill that was still trying to get me to pay attention to its warning.

“Ezekiel.” I offered, moving forward and sitting down in a seat in the front row. Carol had told me he was having issues with his title, so I wouldn’t use it. “I’m sorry about Shiva.” His eyes meet mine and I can see the pain I heard in his voice pooled there. “It’s terrible when you lose your hope, isn’t it?” I ask, leaning back into the theater seat to get more comfortable.

He grunts and stares at Shiva’s chain still clutched in his hand. “I’ve lost far more than hope, Jessica.” I nod, even though his eyes are no longer on me.

“It’s Jessi.” I correct, and smile when he looks back up at me. “Have you ever heard of Pandora’s box, Ezekiel?” He nods. “Well, I’ve always hated that they call it a ‘box’. It was a pithos, but one wrong translation later-” I stop, realizing I was lecturing and enjoying it. “Anyway, you know the tale, the myth. I always think of it as a precursor for Eve’s fall. Us women and our NEED for knowledge.” My smile is far more genuine than it has been in a very long time. “Do you remember what was left when she opened it, Ezekiel?”

“Hope.” He answered, and I noticed he seemed captivated by the change in me. “Hope was all that remained.”

I nodded. “Pandora, like Eve, was created by the king of the gods. In Christianity of course, God created Eve from dust and Adam’s rib, but Zeus created Pandora from clay. Clay very like the pithos that she opened.” I was watching him drink in my tale. “She was curious, I like to think, because she was still learning what was inside of HER, so she was drawn to this other clay container. Perhaps she opened it to see if it held what she held.” My eyes stayed on his. “And it did. All the darkness, all the pain and anger. All the rage and evils of the world. Because Pandora, like all women and men, wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t infallible. She wasn’t someone who never made mistakes or never regretted her decisions. Hope, I like to think, was left behind because that is the VERY last thing that a human has to lose.” I was watching him, taking in the fact that he had begun to relax into his throne at the yarn I was spinning. “If we lose hope, and I once thought I had NONE left too, then we’re not human anymore, Ezekiel.” I sighed, touching the arms of my seat. “And if we’re not human any longer, then what do we have to fight for?”

Ezekiel seemed to come back to himself. Pain and grief were still there, they always would be, for all of us. He needed time. He wouldn’t be ready for whatever battle came next, but he would be prepared to live. And that meant that my job here was done.

 

Carol left again. And others. Off to wage more war. And I stayed behind. This time I wasn’t alone. And I wasn’t doing laundry. Instead I sat with Ezekiel and together we waited to see what would come next.

Chapter Text

I was with Ezekiel when the cost of war came home. We heard the sound of the front gates being smashed through by what sounded like a tank, but we found out was actually just a truck. I was shocked by how fast he moved, rushing from the throne room and telling me to find a place to hide. To keep me from what was coming, to save myself, I heard him urge without words.

I couldn’t blame him for expecting me to want to hide. And the idea was tempting. It just wasn’t something I could do. I rushed in the opposite direction from the Kingdom’s leader, keeping to the shadows, trying to find out what the Saviors had been sent to do. I knew it had to be the Saviors, Dad would have no reason to attack the Kingdom. They were allies.

I can see Gavin, the man who helped me leave the Sanctuary, standing over the gathered residents of my new home. He was informing everyone of the true cost of crossing Negan. Of causing untold damage. Of daring to rise up against the status quo. From this point forward everything from the food they produced to their very lives and bodies would belong to Negan. The buildings, this vantage point, would become Gavin’s new outpost. And I closed my eyes waiting for the next salvo.

It comes in the form of a demand for the location of Ezekiel. No one, I’m proud to see, speaks up. Gavin grows frustrated. He warns that while he doesn’t want the situation to devolve into violence, if no one gives up the king they’ll force his hand. He mentions that hostages will be killed in “Negan’s way” and my heart beats harder. Maybe, if I step out, if he sees me it will buy time. Or, my more rational side warns, he’ll pick me as the target of the rage Negan clearly has with these people. He gives them five minutes.

I see, in the slight distance, a flash of silver. Not metal, but dreadlocks, and staying in the shadows I rush to meet Ezekiel to talk him down from giving himself up, in case he’s entertaining the idea. He holds up a finger to his lips when I approach, as though I need a warning to stay silent. Gesturing I realize that he plans on a diversion.

A fire, then a bus, and the people are fleeing. I’m with Ezekiel, and I see that I haven’t learned his entire plan. Locking the gates from the inside, not noticing until a moment too late that I’m still beside him, he’s planning to offer himself up. And now we’re both Gavin’s willing captives. Thanks, Zeke. Thanks a LOT.

I have to listen to Gavin monologue, and I start to wonder if being a Savior means that you have to enjoy the sound of your own voice? Perhaps they all want to emulate Negan? His eyes fall to mine and as he’s telling Ezekiel how he wished it hadn’t come to this. I have to fight the urge to roll my eyes. And then he mentions that he won’t have to endure for long, since they plan on putting his corpse on the fence of the Sanctuary, a warning to anyone else who even thinks of another rebellion. My stomach churns. More deaths, he’s reminding us, all because of Ezekiel’s need to fight against Negan.

His eyes land on mine again. “And you? Well, I’m damn sure that you’re going to be JUST the right gift for Negan after the shit show we just went through.” Bile is rising in my throat at the thought of what he’s imagining for me at Negan’s hands. Regardless of the reality of the image, regardless of what Negan would even contemplate doing to me if I was returned to him, the thought that Gavin could consider me at Negan’s mercy was unbearable.

Ezekiel, making me smile at his renewed show of confidence tries to urge Gavin to switch sides. He tries to tempt him with descriptions of my dad’s leadership. It falls on deaf ears, as Gavin looks at me clearly insinuating that even his own daughter wasn’t all that keen on Dad’s show. Gavin shouts out orders as we wait for the next move. Ezekiel is trying to undermine his authority, but that too falls flat.

I’m trying to keep my eyes on everything at once. I want to know where the next surprise is going to come from, where the rescue team will show up. Where the attack will start from. I nearly miss Gavin’s attempts failing when he tries to contact his people via walkie talkie. That’s when we all hear gunfire. And I know, help has arrived.

He shuffles us, and his men inside the theater. And then Carol and Morgan are there, chaos ensues, and I lose track of people. Ezekiel stays at my side, but the Saviors are running or dead, and Morgan is rushing after Gavin. We make our way outside, and find Morgan with Gavin clearly deciding the latter man’s fate.

Both Ezekiel and Carol ask Morgan not to kill Gavin. I add my own voice to it. “Morgan, you’ve fought so hard against THIS. Please don’t.” And as we all watch, a fighting staff pierces Gavin’s throat from behind and standing there is Henry, the little boy that Ezekiel has practically adopted.

I fight against fainting. I fight against the static ringing in my ears. I have to stay present. I can’t escape, no matter how horrifying it is to see ANOTHER child give in to the darkness. I watch as Ezekiel and Carol have completely different reactions to what Henry has done. One tells him to look away from the death he’s dealt, while another admonishes him for disobeying. One assures him that everything will be fine, another is berating him for daring to go against orders.

I look around. The fire from the distraction that Ezekiel caused still burns. The bus is still blocking the path. The gate is still locked. And no one is still standing among the buildings, but the five of us.

 

I wait until sunrise, but I have a bag packed and ready. Carol doesn’t seem surprised. Not that I’m leaving at least. The others are going to Hilltop. I won’t be joining them.

“Where will you go?” She asks, as I pull the backpack over my shoulders. “Alexandria isn’t livable, you won’t join us at Hilltop-” And it dawns on her. “Jessi, don’t.”

“I have a debt to fulfill, Carol.” I answer, pulling her to me for the first hug I’ve ever initiated. “Maybe, maybe if I go back-” I don’t know how to finish it. What hope could I have for returning to Negan? Not an end, but at least, hopefully a better welcome than I could expect at Hilltop.

She pulls back and casually brushes my errant hair from my face. “Stay safe, do you hear me?” She demands, searching my eyes for the same urge to die that was no doubt clear from the moment I admitted it to her. She wouldn’t find it. Helping Ezekiel find himself, talking about Pandora and hope, helped a great deal.

“I will.” I promised. “And you, keep them safe.” She knew, as I was sure she would, that I meant my family. All of them.

“Come back to us, Jessi.” I smiled sadly and walked away. Back to where the car had been left. Back to where I started this chapter. Back to my way back to Negan.

 

Finding the Sanctuary, or the way back to it, was easier than trying to find a place I’d never been. I was greeted by the horrifying sight of damage that I knew had happened, but I wasn’t prepared to see in person. Daryl did this. Dad did this.

The guards see me approaching on foot and they rush forward to meet me. Seeing that it’s me, they take my backpack, pat me down with less regard for my person than the men on horseback had, and then march me inside. A knock on a door I had only seen once before and a growl allowing us to enter, and there he was.

Negan. Seated at the head of the conference table. Lucille, that damn bat on top of the table and not nearly clean enough for my tastes. And his eyes flashing at the sight of me. My chin rose. His eyes searched me from head to toe.

“Take her to my apartment.” Not a single word to me. “I’ll deal with her later.” Deal with me? That was ominous, but what did I expect?

 

One guard took me upstairs, opened the door and pushed me inside. No backpack. No distractions, other than what I could find in his rooms. His bed was unmade. The sheets tangled, the pillows askew. I wondered if he’d had a wife visit while I was gone. I shouldn’t care, I told myself, I left. But I had a pang of pain and irritation at the idea of it.

The sofa. His spot. The gloves on the table. And there, beside them, sitting where I’d tossed it the night I slept on the couch, was the book I’d been reading. And tucked into the cover was the note I’d left.

I knew that meant he’d read it. I’d left it in the bathroom, propped up against the mirror. I hadn’t wanted him to find it immediately when the alarm was raised that I’d left. I wanted him to find it, but I wanted time. Time to get free. And look how well that had turned out, I thought, but stopped myself. This was inevitable, regardless of where I was when it happened.

I sat in my chair, and pulled the book toward me. My note, I took out and sat on the table, and I opened the book and tried to lose myself in it again. I heard the door open, but expecting lunch or some other benign interruption I didn’t raise my head from the book.

“Jessica.” I closed my eyes. His voice, so very deep and so very dark. He sat down in his spot and waited for me to put the book down. I opened my eyes and pushed it away.

“Negan.” I studied him. He looked tired, but also frustrated and angry.

I watched him put the bat down beside my book on the table, over top of my note. He leaned back in his seat. And he studied me. What was he seeing? Did he finally see that I’d found my way fully to the surface? Did he see that I was the me he’d kept saying he wanted to meet? Or did he see a traitor?

“Why did you come back?” Right to the point. Good, I hate idle chit chat.

My hands clasped together in my lap and I kept my eyes on his. “Where else would I go?” A question for a question.

His hand ran down his face and I smiled. So familiar to me. Such a Negan gesture. “Just because you’ve got nowhere else to go?” He wanted more. And he deserved it. “Why should I let you back in?” That hurt. It was expected, but it still hurt. The thought that he’d send me away.

“Because I have nowhere I’d rather be.” I answered, and I meant it. Being here with him was a far more pleasant experience than anywhere else I could go. “Let me in because I want to be here, with you.” He heard it, finally. That I wanted to be with him. Here.

“I’m going to kill your dad, Jessica.” He says it as though he’s telling me that the sky is blue. It’s clear he means it. “I’m going to bring your people to heel.”

I take a deep breath. I knew as much. Hearing it was difficult, but I also knew that it had been pushed to this. “I know.” I offer, and his eyes flash. “I told you before, Negan. I follow the leader I choose, I don’t choose to lead.”

“What happened while you were gone?” He’s still watching me, and I know he’s finally seeing the differences.

“I found myself.” I answer, and he smiles.

Chapter Text

Negan and I sat together, across from one another in his apartment, discussing what had happened while I was gone. He saw my glance at the bed, and gave a quiet laugh.

“You think I’ve fucking slept since you left?” I felt the shock of his admission right to my core. That he’d admit that he’d been screwing them since I left, with no time to rest hurt far more than I cared to admit. “I toss and turn in that bed every fucking time I try to rest.” Wait, what? He’s staring at my face when it dawns on him. “You thought-”

I wave him off. “I thought nothing.” I answer, but I can hear the strain in my own voice. “What else?”

 

His eyes lock onto mine. “Your note, Jessi, you left me a goddamn note.” I glanced down at where Lucille was fouling up the paper. “Did you honestly think that leaving would HELP me?” I could hear the exasperation in his tone. “Your note didn’t make it better, sweetheart. I fucking nearly lost my mind. Where did you go?” I looked into his face and shook my head.

“The Kingdom.” Why lie? It wasn’t as though anyone was left behind by now. “I went to the Kingdom, because I thought it would be the ONE place no one would know me.”

“And?” His curiosity was freaking boundless.

I sighed. “I was asking for too much, apparently.” I left it at that.

“We haven’t heard from my lieutenant from that zone,” he was watching my face. “From the entire team, actually.”

“And you won’t.” It was simple. To the point.

He nodded, clearly he expected as much. He sighed. “Simon wants to just kill everyone fucking one.” I blanched, the cost of that many lives, and for what? “I don’t agree.” He had seen my face. “Hilltop sent me a gift.” I waited. “Boxed up nice and tight in a coffin sized box. One of mine, turned undead freak.”

I took a deep breath through my nose. “Guess Glenn and Maggie are still holding a grudge.” Flippant, but worried. “How many?”

He knew what I meant and his shrug scared me. So many he couldn’t count? Or so many he didn’t care? “I didn’t want this, Jessi, YOU know that.” A nod from me. “Carl tried to distract me.”

I knew he meant when he went knocking on Alexandria’s gate. “He did?” Please tell me he didn’t get hurt, my mind begged.

“Yeah, offered me a deal like you had.” I gave a lurch of mirthless laughter. “He almost memorized your entire script.” He sounded almost proud. “It was bullshit, since the rest of your dad’s people got out, but it was a fucking strange touch.”

“Guess he listened to me a little bit after all.” I said, feeling a smile tug at my lips. “Any other terrible news?”

Negan nodded. “Yeah, you’ve been here for too fucking long without me touching you.” And like when he knelt beside my chair, he moved so fast that I was in his arms before the words could make sense, and our lips met and I felt something I hadn’t felt even when we’d kissed before. I felt HIM. All of him. His power. His confidence. And more than anything, his NEED for me.

A knock came to the door, and he nearly growled at the interruption. I smiled against his lips, but knew that we had time. At least a small window until the next round of battle. I had no idea how wrong I was.

 

We were outside. The knock on the door had been a reminder from a Savior that Negan had wanted to walk the perimeter to access the damage. Taking my hand in his, he drew me from his apartment for the inspection. I was with him, outside when the radio squawked to life. And I’d know the voice on the other end from around the world. Dad.

Negan was mocking. Asking for Dad’s location so they could meet face to face, but then it came. The news that could threaten to tear me apart at the seams. The news that would make my nightmares a reality.

“Carl's dead. He wrote letters. He wrote one to you. He asked you to stop. He asked me to stop. He asked us for peace. But it's too late for that. Even if we wanted to deal now, it doesn't matter. I'm going to kill you.” Dad blurted it out and I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that my baby brother, a boy that I had watched slowly turn into almost a man, was gone.

Negan’s hand tightened on mine. I had no idea what he saw as he stared down at me. “How did it happen?” The question brought Dad up short. He didn’t get it, Negan’s interest, that I was standing with him. “How did he die? Was it the grenades...the fire?” Dear God it really was a war.

Dad sounded angry that Negan would even suggest that he was the cause of my little brother’s death. He told Negan, and me, that he died helping someone, and my throat burned. My little brother had died being kind. He’d died for being helpful.

Negan and Dad were going back and forth. Negan telling him that he hated to hear it. That the loss of Carl was a terrible one. That he had hoped for a different outcome. And my dad heard nothing. He reiterated that he wanted to kill Negan.

“The hell are you doing Rick? Why are you fighting? Why are you making this so hard? Carl is dead because of you. Because you couldn't leave shit well enough alone. I mean maybe he would have died some other way. Any one of us can get our ticket punched at any second. But in this case... in this case, he is dead because of you. Because you weren't there to stop him from doing something stupid. You set this course Rick. Who's next? Jessica? Have you ever considered her? That she could already be DEAD because of you?” Negan’s fingers were trying to sooth me by rubbing my knuckles.

Dad snarled that Negan would be next. Ignoring any mention of me. I barely noticed. I was thinking about Carl. About when Lori and Dad brought him home from the hospital. How six year old me had been so desperate to help. To hold him. To tell him stories from my books. I took every opportunity to feed him. I wanted to change his dirty diapers. I wanted to prove that I was a good big sister and that he’d always be able to count on me. I thought about when he wanted to learn how to ride my bike when I was ten and he was four. How he taunted me with the fact that he wasn’t that much smaller than me, and how I shook my head and helped him onto the seat and kept the bike balanced. How I was just as excited as him when he took off finally on his own. All the times I helped him with his homework. Or when we sat and he read comic books and I’d read my novels. Fighting over the television. Or the phone. My little brother was gone.

“You see... I stop people from dying. I am the answer. Now, it may have taken a hard lesson for you to hear it, but you should hear it now. It's time. Do not let anymore of your shit decisions cost you to lose anyone else you love. That garbage... that sticks with you forever. Just like Carl will. Just like JESSICA should. Hell, I'm feeling it now and I'm going to be feeling it for a while. You could have just let me save all of you. I mean that's why I killed your friend in the first place. Why Jessica offered herself up so no one else had to die.  So that you can sit there and say that you're going to kill me, but you won't. You failed. You failed as a leader and most of all Rick, you failed as a father. Just... give up. Give up because you have already lost.” His voice was calling me back to the present, but memories of Carl and me were too tempting to get lost in. “You still haven’t asked, Rick. You still haven’t asked the ONE question I keep waiting for. ‘How is she?’” He closed his eyes as I focused on him again. “You have two kids left, Rick. And you haven’t a fucking clue how one of them is right now. You’re so fucking focused on winning. That’s why you failed. You never fucking understood. Since you didn’t ask, let me go ahead and tell you. She’s beside me, Rick. Jessica Grimes is standing right beside me and she heard it. She heard that her LITTLE BROTHER is dead and wanted peace, but all you want is my fucking head.” He opened his eyes and stared down into mine. “Keep the letter Carl wrote. If he wrote one for Jessi, I’ll retrieve it for her, because I’m coming for you, Rick. I’m coming and I’m going to take care of it once and for all.”

And then he handed the radio to one of the Saviors standing nearby. His hand free now, he cupped my cheek. I closed my eyes at the feeling of his gloved hand, the comfort he was offering. “Let’s go upstairs, Jessi.” And he took me back to the quiet and safety of his apartment.

Chapter Text

Our walk back to Negan’s apartments went unnoticed by me. I was still gripped by memories of my little brother.

Walking with my dad and him, when Carl was a precocious three year old Dad holding one of his pudgy little hands, me holding the other. The birthday parties, the cake and presents, but most of all Carl’s wonder each and every year that it was ALL for him. Going to church on Sunday and ending up at our grandparents’ house for dinner. Going to the movies, fighting over which cartoons to watch on Saturday mornings. Him splashing in the kiddie pool Dad put up, and seeing the absolute glee on his face when he splashed me. Barbecues in the summer. And Christmas parties in the winter. Halloween costumes. Thanksgiving at the kids’ table. And now, he’d NEVER get to experience any of it, not even in the harsh reality that was our reality, with his own family.

Negan, without me even noticing, had put me to bed. I was curled in on myself. Fetal position and feeling like the earth could stop spinning, time could stop, just so I could breathe and FEEL what I needed to feel at the loss of my baby brother’s life. His arms wrapped around me from behind and he molded himself against me. Letting his warmth sink through the cold that enveloped me.

“My wife,” he whispered, his chin pressed into the top of my head. “Her name was Lucille.” I listened to him as the flashes of Carl’s far too short life were still rushing through my mind. “She was my REAL wife. And I didn’t deserve her.” I felt him shake his head a bit. “She was a lot like you, Jessi. A giver. Someone who would take away the sins of every person she loved, just to save them from the guilt of their own shitty actions. MY shitty actions.” I felt his lips brush my head. “When I said you weren’t like the others, Jessi, I meant it. You’re more like my REAL wife than any of them could hope to be.”

The images of Carl were flickering slower, a side effect of not living a long life. Him laying in the big bed at Hershel’s farm. His pale skin shining even brighter than the crisp white sheets under him. The bandage over his side, the fear that had crept up my spine at the thought of him not making it. Him in Dad’s hat, looking so proud that they both survived being shot, and my heart was breaking. How he hardened. How cynical he’d become. The loss of his eye. The loss of his innocence. And now, he was gone, because he’d tried to regain his compassion.

I was sobbing and didn’t know when I’d started. Negan’s arm tightened around me, holding me together as I raged and sobbed at the loss of my baby brother. At the knowledge that we would never meet again. That we would never make peace between us. Because the very last image that passed before my eyes was him leaning over Olivia’s body, and the glare of blame I saw on his face. At me. At his big sister who was supposed to make everything better.

Negan held me as I cried myself out. As my heart broke and re-broke, over and over. I didn’t care that Dad hadn’t mentioned me or that he didn’t even seem to notice when Negan mentioned me at all. I couldn’t muster up the outrage at him for dismissing me. All I could feel was loss and pain and failure. Guilt that I wasn’t there. That I hadn’t stood next to Carl as he tried to help someone. That I wasn’t there with Judith to make sure she was safe. That I failed them so damn much by letting myself get lost in my own mind. And now that I was gaining my freedom from the darkness, that I had to FEEL every single pinch of it. Every punch of fear. Every ounce of danger and anger. Every single drop of grief. And it was threatening to overwhelm me, which made me fear that I’d get lost again. Within myself I couldn’t save anyone, and so, I had to fight against the temptation to shut down.

 

Hours later, Negan was still holding me. Still trying to soothe me as best as he could. Tightening his hold on me if my sobs gained volume, rubbing my arm if I was quiet and lost in my memories, and quietly telling me more of his own past. More about Lucille. More about how he failed her, how he wanted to be sure he didn’t repeat those mistakes with me. We didn’t leave the bed. We didn’t eat. We lay there, him curled around my back as I was curled tight into myself.

Finally cried out, finally exhausted by the grief that wasn’t gone, not nearly, but at bay for a moment, I turned to face him. His eyes were as tight with grief as mine and I knew he’d spoken the truth to Dad when he said he felt Carl’s loss. That he regretted it. That when he asked if his actions had caused it, he truly worried that he had killed him. That it was his fault and that it wasn’t just my pain or anger that he feared, but his own.

Cupping his face with my hands, I leaned forward to kiss him softly. I knew my face was swollen and red. That my nose was no doubt a mess. That I looked like I’d lost my heart, because I had lost a huge piece of it. Pulling back, our eyes searched one another’s. Looking for comfort, for peace that wasn’t easily attainable with so much pain. He kissed me again, sighing into the feeling of my lips on his, and our foreheads met when he pulled back.

“I’m sorry, Jessi.” His voice was rough, as though he’d spent hours screaming instead of hours of whispering all of his own pain and loss. “I’m so fucking sorry that he’s gone.”

I gave a small nod, not ready to speak just yet. Not sure I could without the sobs building again. I brushed his hair from his forehead, and tried to smile. To reassure him that this wasn’t a relapse to the other me. His hand met mine and he linked our fingers.

“I’m not sure you heard me tell you-” He started, and his eyes flashed with more pain. Lucille. He wasn’t sure I’d heard him tell me about her.

“I did.” I was so quiet that I wasn’t sure he heard me.

His lips brushed mine again. “I meant it. Every word.” I knew he meant that he meant it when he said I reminded him of her. “She wasn’t a saint, Jessi.” I guess a flash of worry that he’d put me back on that damn pedestal came back. “She had her faults, everyone does, but she tried her damnedest to see the best in other people. In me.” He sighed. “I didn’t deserve her, I don’t deserve you.”

I listened to him and I could hear the pain in his voice. The guilt that still nagged him about his sins against her. “It’s because you think that, Negan, that you do.” His eyes were locked on mine. “People who think they’re entitled to the good things in their lives, the good people in their lives, are usually the ones that least deserve them.” I shifted on the pillow looking for a more comfortable position and he helped me by sliding his arm under my neck so I was more elevated. “See. I didn’t even have to ask you for that. And there you were fixing it.” He started to speak but I stopped him. “You deserved her, and you deserve me because WE decided you do. That’s all that matters.”

Negan studied me. “How do you do that?” He asked, a sad smile coming over his face. “How do you know just what to say to make everyone feel right about themselves?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think I do it for everyone.” I felt a flash of guilt at how I treated Andrea. “Some people, they just need to be reminded of who they are, and why they matter.”

His thumbs were tracing under my eyes again. And then lower, over my bottom lip. “I want to give you so much, Jessica Grimes.”

“Can I request something?” I asked, staring at him. He nodded. “Make me forget. Just for a little while, Negan, make me forget losing him?”

He leaned in and as his mouth covered mine, I thanked God that he understood. And as our clothes fell away, as our bodies joined, Negan once again gave me what I needed.

Chapter Text

Negan and I could only allow ourselves to be lost in one another for a short time. He had to focus on the fight ahead. I had to focus on keeping myself present. We showered, and he let me know that Eugene had been given his own outpost. He was tasked with making ammo, and he had help. Father Gabriel, partially blinded by a fever and aided in an escape attempt by the second Dr. Carson, who died in the attempt, was one of Eugene’s new workers.

He kept the plans the Saviors had in store for Dad and my family quiet, secret from me, knowing that even if I understood that the fight had to go on, I still wanted no details. I wanted no one to think that I had plans to tattle to my dad. I wanted no reason for the people I was surrounded by to see me as a threat.

“Are you stayin’ behind, Jessi?” He asked, dressing for battle. I was thinking of my options, as I dressed in one of his shirts and a pair of leggings. “You could stay close to me, but I can’t say you’ll be safe.” I nodded. “If you stay here, I’ll make sure you’ve got someone I trust with you.”

Did I want to witness what was coming? Even if I didn’t know the plans, did I want to see more blood? More death? More loss? “I’ll stay here.” I couldn’t. Not after Carl. Not yet.

Negan nodded and pulled me into his arms. After a kiss, and another on my forehead, he pulled back slightly and stared down into my face. “Don’t worry. Don’t lose yourself, Jessi. Stay here, stay with me.” I smiled and nodded up at him. “I’ll come back to you, I swear it.”

And then he was gone. Limbo again. Limbo and no distraction big enough to keep away my grief and that cold chill that was gaining purchase to warn me of more danger and loss to come.

 

When the knock came, I was confused. And I pushed the confusion by reminding myself that the guard he posted outside when he’d gone to Alexandria with Sasha he’d sent for me. Opening the door, I was greeted with the mustached Savior, Simon leaning casually against the door frame. He looked smug. He looked too carefree.

“Ah, there she is.” He looked me up and down. “I’ve got a new room for you, princess.” The term of endearment that Negan used for me sounded incredibly wrong and mocking coming from his mouth. And then his hand was gripping my arm so tightly that I knew I’d have bruises and he yanked me out of Negan’s apartment. He talked the entire way to my ‘new room’ and the more he said, the more terror I felt building in my stomach. Terror and pain, and more grief and loss.

“Daddy dearest ran Negan off the road. And now, Negan’s gone.” I felt my throat tighten. A knot forming that hurt and burned. “I could use you to barter with daddy, but why would I want to do that? Not when I plan on killing every single one of YOUR people.” I wondered if I was actually going to a ‘room’ or if he planned on killing me first. “I think I’ll lock you up nice and tight, and then, when it’s time, I’ll make you watch.” I felt my breath coming faster, trying to get air. “When you see each and every person you know die, and you’re begging me to kill you, I’ll leave you there. In the middle of their bodies, alone.” Why? What had I done to this man? “I’M NEGAN.” He muttered, and I knew. I’d done nothing. Nothing except returned to Negan. Nothing except showing him loyalty beyond even what Simon thought I’d shown my own family. And he couldn’t have a viper in his new nest.

 

I don’t spend much time in my new ‘room’. A cell, maybe even Sasha’s former cell, and the darkness is real. I can’t tell how much time actually passes, but even trapped in the dark, forced to face the pain of the loss of Negan and Carl it could have gone on forever. I knew, however, when one of Simon’s underlings came to fetch me it hadn't been long.

The cell was a taste, I think, as I’m yanked along the hallways toward Simon’s convey. Clearly it’s time to make his move. I don’t speak as he practically tosses me into the vehicle. I won’t give him the fucking time of day. This man, this thing seated next to me, talking to hear his own voice, is nothing compared to Negan. He’s nothing compared to my dad. He’s nothing compared to Daryl. And I hope, like I have never hoped before, that I get to see him die at the hands of someone I love.

I hear it when the cars are brought up short by a spike strip and flash back to Michonne’s plan during the fight with the Governor. I nearly smile, but I have to force it down when I hear the walkie squawk to life. I hear Maggie’s voice asking for Negan and my heart clenches. Both from hearing her sound so alive and powerful and from hearing Negan’s name so casually spoken. She threatens to kill thirty-eight Savior prisoners unless Simon orders a retreat. His answer makes my blood run cold. He calls the prisoners ‘damaged goods’ and writes them off.

As they are getting prepared, I hear the roar of a motorcycle and know that Daryl is coming. And then the rapid fire of a machine gun and I have to laugh at the thought that I’ll die at the hands of a man I loved. But the truck is moving, and I’m forced out to bear witness as the attack begins at a bus blocking the way. Bullets rain down from above, I am in the midst of chaos. The Saviors around me are firing arrows and I’m confused, how can they think they’re killing my people if they can’t SEE the targets.

And then in a flash I know. The arrows are tainted. They’re going to leave me here, among people who aren’t dead, not yet. That’s what he meant. Simon must know enough about me to know that I’d figure it out. That’s why he thinks I’d beg for death. He wasn’t actually leaving me among the dead. He was leaving me among my people who blame or don’t trust me, to watch and bear witness when they won’t listen to my warnings of what was coming. He wanted to leave me here, with the prisoners he called ‘damaged goods’, to watch as my people die. Watch as they all die around me, impotent to stop it.

When they finally hear me, I know, it’ll be too late. And I’ll be left as meat for the beasts, beside those Saviors that Simon has deemed expendable. He turns to me and I see that he can tell that I’ve figured it out. His cosmic joke on me. On the woman Negan could trust to come back. One that WAS different from the wives. And one he wouldn’t allow to live untouched because I wouldn’t stay silent.

They breach the gate and wall. They swarm, and I’m left beside Simon, because he wants to hear me beg to die. His attention is diverted when I catch sight of Tara, and then I’m pulled along behind him as he hunts her. Eventually through push and shove and literal darkness, I’m alone. And then lights flare up and it’s blinding and there’s more gunfire and I hear revving engines and then nothing. I’m alone. Or at least alone among those who I thought knew me best.

Chapter Text

I’m pushed into an outdoor pen by an unfamiliar face. Nothing is said, or nothing I take note or at least. I’m fighting against my own mind. My own absolute terror of everything. Of the feeling of powerlessness. Of the feeling of dread and grief. I barely glance around at my pen mates. I know who they are. The written off Saviors. The ones that Simon was quick to let die.

I find an empty space and sit facing the wall of the fence. I let my mind go over the past twenty-four hours. Finding my way back to Negan. Learning about Carl. Letting myself be distracted by Negan for the briefest of moments. And then, this. Everything seemed helpless. Everything.

 

Morning dawned. In the harsh light of the sun, the damage was shocking. The dead, the madness of the night before in sharp relief. Or it would be, if I paid any attention to it. I hear the pen opening. I hear a voice call a prisoner over. And then I hear nothing other than the static of the voices of my pen mates.

They may have tried to engage me in conversation. They might have asked me questions. I didn’t acknowledge any of them. I was replaying my memories. Of Carl. Of Negan. Of Judith. Of Dad. Of Lori. Of Daryl. They were a mix tape of images rushing through my head. I’d lost everything. For nothing. And I’d sit here until death finally found me. Quiet and alone. Even if I was surrounded by people.

I feel arms around me and I struggle. I fight, wanting to be alone with my memories, untouched by whomever dared place their hands on me, but then I hear the voice and I turn into the arms. Letting the comfort offered roll over me. Letting Carol pull me out of the pen and away from the static.

 

I’m sitting inside a huge brick building. The only real building I’ve seen on the property. And Carol is knelt in front of me and I’m fighting to hear her. Fighting against the static.

“Jessi?” Finally I hear her and sigh. “Honey, how did you get here?”

“Simon.” My lips barely move. “He-Negan’s-” I stop, closing my eyes against the flood of pain threatening to drown me.

“Jessi?” Dad’s next to Carol and I open my eyes and see him standing there looking down on me and I search for the blame. I look for disappointment or his anger and rage for me and my choices. I can’t see any, but maybe he has a mask now too. “Sweetheart,” he’s on his knees next to Carol and he’s taken my hand. “How?”

I bite my lip and my eyes pool with tears. I expected condemnation. I expected frustration or anger. Not worry. “Simon.” Still my lips feel numb. “He,” I take a deep breath. “Negan’s dead.”

I catch a look flash across Dad’s face, but I can’t read it. “He brought you here?” He pushed past whatever he was thinking. “Why?”

And I remember why he left me. “The arrows-” I gulp, feeling the bile rise in my throat as I see that we’ve gathered more of my family around me. “They’re tainted.” And I see the confusion flash on their faces. And they listen as I tell them what I figured out. What Simon planned. What my role would have been.

 

Dad’s pulled me into a hug once I’ve said all I could manage. And I close my eyes at the feeling of my daddy holding me. “Carl left you a letter.” He breathes into my hair. “I have it upstairs.”

I nod, feeling my eyes overflow. “Judith?” And then Daryl is there, handing my baby sister to me as Dad releases me. I hold her tight and breathe her sweet baby scent in. My little one, my purpose again. “Oh, I missed you.” I kiss her curls as she holds onto my neck like she remembers me. “I missed you so much, my little Jude.” I feel Daryl’s eyes on me, but I can’t, not yet.

“You said that the arrows were tainted?” Carol asks, and I nod. “What about the other weapons?”

“I have to think that they were.” I answer, my cheek pressed against Judith’s head. “It wouldn’t make sense to shoot arrows sight unseen into the void, and not taint the regular weapons too.” I rock Judith and go toward an open window. I can see digging in the distance. Graves. “I can’t be positive.” I don’t want people to die on a hunch. “He wanted me to beg to die, and he wanted me in a pile of bodies. Since-”

“Our body count wasn’t high enough to make that make sense.” Maggie’s voice offered and I nodded as I held Judith and faced the window. “They wouldn’t taint every weapon either, not necessarily. Just in case we listened.” I nearly laughed. Knew me so well, and them too.  "They'd force us to kill anyone wounded, just in case."

“It’s possible.” I replied. “I wasn’t privy to planning.”

“Course ya weren’t.” Daryl, coming to my defense, reading my lack of knowledge as my lack of treason. “No one thinks ya did anythin’ against us.”

I couldn’t hold back a harsh laugh. Really? “I think we know that’s a lie, Daryl.” I said to the window. “I was in Alexandria a time or two, remember?” Silence descended. “It doesn’t matter, does it?” I turned and saw the worry flicker across some faces that I could have sworn knew me best. “I’m here. I told you what I DO know. I’m at YOUR mercy now.”

 

Dad and Michonne found me upstairs with Judith. Maggie and Glenn had given me a tour, which I took with my little sister tucked in my arms, and showed me to the room she was staying in. The room that I’d be staying in.

“Jessi,” Michonne came up and wrapped both me and Judith in a hug. “I’m incredibly happy to see you back.” I could see in her eyes, as she pulled back the pain of losing Carl. They’d grown closer as we lived in closer quarters in Alexandria. She knew what lines existed for us, where Lori and her roles were concerned and she was careful of them.

“Thank you.” It was stilted, I knew, but the truth was I’d experienced a second loss that I couldn’t share with her or Dad. Or anyone in this community. I felt Negan’s loss acutely and I knew that grief wouldn’t be welcome here.

She took Judith from my arms and Dad pulled a creased envelope from his pocket. My name, in Carl’s untidy scrawl stared up at me daring me to take it. “I told him he needed to practice his penmanship more.” My eyes were burning and so was my throat. “He told me that it didn’t matter, no one cared what your handwriting looked like in an apocalypse.” I sniffed, staring at the paper, running my finger over the ink.

“We’ll let you have some time to read it.” Dad offered. Hugging me to him again, and kissing my forehead. “I love you, baby girl.”

I nodded and waited until I heard the door close behind them to pull the letter free.

Jessi-

Remember when I wanted to ride your bike before I got to kindergarten and you said I’d get hurt, but I showed you that I was already nearly your height? You gave in, helped me onto the seat, and held on until I got the hang of it. You never let me get hurt. You never have and you never will.

All my memories, all the good and some of the bad have you in them. You, making sure that I was alright. Giving me blood. Giving me time. Giving me patience when I didn’t deserve it. You even, when push came to shove, gave your life for us. And I blamed you.

I blamed you for leaving us. I blamed you for being with Negan instead of coming home. I blamed you for not answering when Dad asked if you could come home. I blamed you for so much, Jessi, and I was wrong.
Negan asked me if I was always blind, and I think we all were. Where you were concerned anyway. I never watched to see how YOU were doing. I never checked to see if you needed me. Needed a shoulder. Needed an ear. Needed me to take away your hurt. It hurt a bit to see that Negan saw it and I didn’t.

You wanted it to stop, didn’t you? Not just the fighting. Not just to save Glenn. You wanted IT to stop. Life. The daily burden of taking all of our pain and fear from us and all the heaping piles of danger. You didn’t know, you couldn’t have known that he wouldn’t kill you. You thought he would, didn’t you? You thought he’d kill you in front of us, a life for a life, and we’d realize that with you gone we could figure out how to make peace.

I learned compassion from you, Jessi, or at least how to keep my humanity during the terror that we woke up in. I found it too late. My lesson came far too late, but I learned it. I’ve asked Dad, and Negan, to find a path to peace. It’s you. You’re the path to peace. He loves you. And Dad loves you. If anyone can bridge the gap, it’s you. After all, Jessi, we’d have all lost every bit of our hope if you hadn’t been with us for so long.

I wish I could have said this to you in person. I wish I could have hugged you and said goodbye to you, told you that I was sorry. I looked at you with anger the last time I saw you. I know you saw it. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry because I should have seen that you were breaking. I should have seen that my big sister needed me as much as I needed her. And I’m leaving this world without making peace with you. I’m sorry, Jessi. I’m sorry that I won’t be with you and Judith as you teach her everything you taught me. I’m sorry that I don’t get to hug you goodbye. I’m sorry.

Remember that time, after church at grandma’s and the dog? Her neighbor’s puppies that we were so happy about, and the one got loose and ran into the street? I rushed after it, and you came after me and pushed both me and the puppy out of the way of a car? You’ve been pushing me out of the path of every danger you could see coming, Jessi, so don’t blame yourself for this one. I died saving someone else. I became you. And I love you for that.

Love-Carl

 

My face was so damp with tears that I felt like I had dunked my head in a tub of water. Carl, when did you become me, I wondered. Smiling through my tears at his words. He forgave me. He loved me. And he believed in me. I wish, I thought, folding up a letter that would stay with me for the rest of my life, that he had been right about Dad and Negan.

Chapter Text

I’m still upstairs when Daryl finds me. Standing at the window, staring at the digging of graves I have to wonder if they’re making extras. I can feel him watching me, even if he’s as silent as he’s ever been. I can sense that he has more questions than I care to answer. I know he’s hoping that I’m still the woman he fell in love with, the one who takes the pain from everyone, their guilt, their worries.

When I turn around, he’s leaning against the closed door. His hair’s too shaggy. He looks tired and dirty, but he looks like Daryl, too. The Daryl that I fell in love with, the man who I told Negan I would never forget. The mere thought of Negan causes me to flinch with the pain of losing him, and Daryl sees it, and moves forward.

“Please don’t.” My voice is quiet, rough from sobbing. “I know you want to ask me about it, Daryl, but can I have some time?” I can see the pain in his eyes from me stopping his progress toward me, the uncertainty at my request. “I’ll tell you, soon, I promise.” I just need time, I plead internally, time for it to not be so raw.

“Anything ya need, Jessi.” He answers, and my heart clenches. I’m going to break him apart when I tell him. I’m going to make the softness in his eyes for me turn hard. I’m going to see the look of betrayal flash. And I’m going to have to bear it all alone.

He leaves, looking for all the world like a kicked puppy and I slide down the wall beside the window to the floor. Why am I here? Why am I staying? For Judith, I remind myself. For my little sister, the only sibling I have left, the one I’d promised myself to keep innocent of the realities of our world for as long as possible. I close my eyes and let my head fall back against the wall. I had to find strength in her. Otherwise, I’d fall to pieces and retreat into myself. She had to matter more than my grief. More than my pain. More than my heart shattering.

 

Maggie comes upstairs with Judith in her arms. I’m still against the wall, still lost in my own thoughts. Carl’s words swimming together with the last time I saw Negan. His promise to return to me morphing into Carl’s wish for peace and certainty that I was the key.

“Hey,” she’s quiet, and it reminds me of the wife that had greeted me at the Sanctuary. Wary, as though I’m a caged animal. I look up and see a tiny smile on her lips. “Thought you’d like to have her back.”

My arms reach up automatically and I smile when Judith practically leaps into them. Sitting her facing me, letting her play with my long braid, I memorize the changes that I hadn’t when Negan had given me the time with her in Alexandria. Her curls were getting so long. Her pout getting fuller. And those eyes. Dear Lord, she had Carl’s eyes.

“Never got a chance to thank you.” Maggie was still here, sitting cross legged across from me.

“Didn’t need to.” I answer, making a face at Judith to see if she’d laugh. She does and I feel a sliver of peace. “How’s the baby?” I remember the whole reason for her coming to Hilltop, the lack of their doctor, that I’m sure she’s still angry with Negan over.

“We’re good, Jessi.” I know she’s studying me. I know that she’s looking for changes in me. “Glenn’s alive because of you.” As though I need reminding. “Why did you-”

I glance up and see it. The question that is on every single one of their minds. Why did I offer my life? “I wanted to die, and I was too cowardly to do it myself.” She flinches, and I shrug. Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.

“Do you know-” she starts and I know the second question on everyone’s minds. Why didn’t he kill me?

My eyes meet hers. “Why didn’t Negan kill me?” Her smile is gone. “He saw something that no one else did.” Another shrug from me, if I pretend it isn’t a big deal, perhaps she’ll spread the word and I won’t have to answer it again.

She leaves soon after. Alone with Judith, bouncing her slightly on my lap, I wait. I know that my visitors have only just begun. I tell my baby sister stories that I’d once told Carl. About bunnies and deer, about princesses, the thought of the word alone makes me flinch and I can hear Negan’s voice, and princes and castles. I tell her stories about Lori, about Dad, about Carl, and about BEFORE.

“Remember,” Dad’s voice cuts in as I’m telling her about Carl’s favorite game, “remember when the two of you fought over the hiding spot so loudly that the neighborhood kids found you before you even knew the counting was over?” I chuckle and glance up. “I’m sorry.” I have no idea what the apology is for, so I say nothing. “Jessi, I’m sorry that-” he closes his eyes, and I watch as he rubs his face with his hand and my heart lurches at the now familiar gesture. “It’s-”

“It’s fine.” I answer, hearing pain in my own voice. Pain that I’m not sure he can decide the source of, because I’m not sure he wants to know. “I’m fine.”

“Are you?” He’s moved to sit beside me, under the window. “You look better than-”

“Yeah,” I nod. “I’m better,” even if my heart is in tatters. “Weirdest therapist in the history of therapy, but I’m better.” I see a flash of Negan across from me on the sofa in his apartment, dimples peeking at me, eyes dark.

“You went to the Kingdom.” Carol told him, of course, or maybe Ezekiel. I don’t answer. “Why-”

Judith has grown tired and is cradled against my chest, and I feel her sucking on her fist. “I didn’t think I’d be very welcome in Alexandria.” My hand is on the back of Judith’s head, sliding through her curls with my fingers, soothing both of us.

“Jessi,” I can hear his pain, but I shake it off. I can’t, not anymore. “They didn’t-”

“Trust me?” My voice stays quiet, I will keep my promise to keep Judith safe. “Understand why?” I give a soft snort. “Yeah, I know.”

I hear him sigh. “You’re staying.” It’s not a question, it’s a command. And I nod.

When Dad leaves, I put Judith down on the bed in the room and lay beside her. Her tiny body, relaxed in sleep, is entirely precious to me. I watch as she makes a sucking motion with her mouth, and smile. I will die before she knows how cruel the world can be. Or I will prepare her so she won’t be broken by it, not like I was.

I fall asleep with her near me. I let my exhaustion take over, my hand on her stomach, the steady rise and fall of her breathing lulling me into a more peaceful rest than I’d had since the first time Negan and I made love.

 

 

The screams wake me up, Judith’s startled awake and is wailing. I pull her to me, and know, without a doubt that it’s begun. The infected have risen, and they have started to create the havoc that Simon was so gleeful about. I move toward the door, trying to soothe Judith’s screams, while trying to see if I can lock us in. I can hear it, as I get closer, the turning of the handle and I hope against hope that this isn’t the end.

 

Morning dawns and the carnage is extensive. One of the wounded was in the main house. A house that Judith and I were in, and he had attacked the people sleeping on the main floor. Another wounded had run rampant in the infirmary, and now the doctor and an assistant are dead as well. More graves, more fear.

I watch from the upstairs window as they dig. As the bodies of the dead are laid to rest. As more and more death surrounds us. We’d been lucky, Judith and I, the person who opened the bedroom door, had been friend and not unthinking monster. Not everyone was so lucky.

When I finally go downstairs, I learn that Tara has been wounded. I listen, leaning against the wall as she says she’s made peace with her fate. When Daryl sees me, I meet his gaze and I know what’s needed. Me and Pandora. Hope.

I hand Judith to him and take Tara for a walk. She looks slightly uncomfortable with me at first and I push that aside. I can’t deal with my own feelings about someone not knowing me or my motives, not when she seems so keen to die.

“Denise?” I start, and I see her flinch. I’m sure I do the same when Negan’s mentioned, or alluded to. “I know what that kind of loss makes a person think.” I can feel her eyes focus on me. “It makes you think about how sweet your reunion will be. Even if you’re not religious, even if you didn’t believe in the afterlife before, there’s that pull to join them.” We’re still walking, but I can tell her attention is focused on me. “Because even if there’s NOTHING after you leave this world, it has to be better than the pain.” I can hear it, lurking in the darkness of my own mind, the yearning to join him or it. “Tara?”

She’s stopped moving, standing beside me looking out of the gate. “Jessi?”

“Would she want you to give up?” I ask, as inside I’m asking myself the same question about Negan. About Carl. About Lori. “Would Denise think that this world would be better off if you were gone, even if it meant you’d be with her?” Would they? Would they want me to join them, or the darkness, or would they want me to fight?

Our eyes were focused on the landscape, but we were silent. I’d given Tara something to consider, and I’d given myself something to think about too.

 

When I make my way back to the main house, I see Daryl holding Judith on the porch and watching me. Climbing the steps, I open my arms and grin when she leaps toward me again. “She missed ya.” He’s still quiet and unsure with me. “We all did.”

I close my eyes, fighting the urge to remind him that I’m not blind. “I missed her too.” I leave it at that. I can’t. Not yet. “I think Tara heard me.” I offer, letting him know I did my part. “She’s got to make her own mind up, though.”

I can feel his eyes on me, but I’ve turned to look out over the community. “Ya were always good at it.” I nod. I know. “Maybe I shouldn’t of asked-”

I shake my head. “Everyone has a purpose, Daryl.” And I turn to the door and offer, “this is mine.” I walk inside, bouncing Judith and focusing on her again.

 

I learn later, after I’ve put Judith down for her nap, that Ezekiel’s adopted son Henry has run off. I learn that some of the prisoners have escaped. And I find out that Dad and Morgan have gone after the prisoners, while Carol has gone in search of Henry. Ezekiel, feeling that I should be given more information, tells me this as I lean against the banister of the porch.

“I’m used to it, you know?” I ask, as he stands beside me. “Them scattering without a glance back, without a goodbye.”

He’s nodding, but he tries to reassure me. “I’m sure they-”

“Don’t even think about the possibility that they could NOT come back?” I turn to face him. “With death lurking around every corner, do you think that’s a great strategy?” I watch him study me. “Has Dad told you about our mom?” I wonder how much my dad has told his allies about our past. His eyes tell me he hasn’t. “She died giving birth to Judith, in a prison that we took for sanctuary.” The word nearly chokes me. “She died, surrounded by dead walking around like puppets for blood and flesh, and Carl-” I swallow back the pain of his name. “He had to put her down. He was ten.” I can see the discomfort on his face. “Dad NEVER got to say goodbye to her, Ezekiel. And he was tormented by it. He hallucinated her presence. He heard her voice on a silent phone. He nearly went insane from it.” I turned back to face out toward the domestic scene of people working to rebuild. “You’d think at least he would understand, wouldn’t you?”

Chapter Text

I keep losing myself with taking care of Judith. Feeling her tiny body in my arms, doing the most menial parts of childcare, it all feels like heaven. I love her so much that it nearly replaces the pain and grief that are now my constant companions.

I’m playing peek a boo with her when Michonne comes into the room. Judith’s giggles are like music and my smile is the widest it's been since I arrived. “You look beautiful smiling like that.” I look up at her and my smile holds. “But you’re keeping yourself holed up in here, Jessi.”

I shake my head and blow a raspberry to get the giggles up and going again. “I’m getting accustomed to it, Michonne.” It being my real purpose here. Judith. “Were you with him?” I know she knows I mean Carl.

“Yes,” she sits on the foot of the bed. “I was with him. We all were.” It cuts me deep. All of them, except me.

“Ah.” I keep my attention on Judith’s face. “Did he-” I closed my eyes trying to ask it. Did he suffer? Do I really want to know?

Her hand touches mine, forcing me to glance up at her. “No.” She shakes her head. “He greeted it just like you tried to.”

I look back down at my little sister. “No, he greeted it like it was what had to happen. I greeted Negan as someone suicidal.” Let’s not sugarcoat it. “I wish-”

“He did, too.” She whispers, and I wonder what Carl said before he died. What he told them, what they heard him ruminate about. “Rick hasn’t,” I look up at her, what hasn’t my dad done? “He hasn’t read his letter.”

I can feel the confusion flash across my face. He’d told Negan- “When he contacted Negan,” I felt my face flinch at the name and she noticed. “When he told him about Carl, that was, it was from what Carl told us, what was in Negan’s letter.”

“You read it?” I asked, letting Judith grab my hand and bring it to her mouth.

“Yes,” I could hear the hesitation in her voice. “I read all of them.” Mine too, I thought.

“Oh.” So she knew. Or she suspected. “Since he’s dead, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” I meant Negan, and she knew it.

Her hand touches mine, the one not being gnawed on by Judith. “Maybe not to the conflict, but I think it matters to you.” I sigh. “You can tell me anything, Jessi, you know that, right?”

I give a little huff of laughter. “Can I?” My eyes meet hers. “Are you going to be alright if I tell you that he pulled me from the darkness that I found solace in? Are you going to be OK with the thought that I found comfort with him and in his arms? Comfort that my own people didn’t see I needed? That I WANTED him to kill me, in front of all of you, so it would STOP. The ‘conflict’, the pain, the mimicry that I was living.” I saw her gaze never falter. “Will you be alright if I tell you I love him? That he loved me, just like Carl realized? That he died, and Carl’s gone, and now I’m ALONE even if I’m surrounded by people? That Judith is the only company I want because she doesn’t look at me with questions in her eyes or judgement? Is that what you wanted me to share, Michonne?”

I can feel the tears running freely down my face, but I don’t brush them away. I don’t care. Let her see it. The pain, the grief, the absolute heartbreak that I’m feeling. “Oh, Jessi,” and then she pulls me to her and is hugging me as Judith is still sucking on my hand. “Yes, sweetheart, that’s what I want you to share with me. You can’t bottle it up, not anymore.” She pulls back and brushes those ever present errant hair away from my face. “No masks, Jessica Grimes. Not anymore.”

 

Michonne gives me space. She’s given me the same comfort that I realize that Carl had found with her. And I am happy that Dad found her. That they’re a couple. That they have love even if I feel alone.

Dad comes in a while later. He watches from the doorway as I hold Judith at the window, pointing out things to her as she pulls on my braid. He comes up beside me and untangles her fist from my hair. She looks up at him and grins. He takes her from me and sits on the bed. I lean against the wall beside the window and watch them.

“She missed you,” he says, pulling silly faces so she giggles.

“I’ve heard.” I answer, smiling as he does the same dad things that I watched him do with Carl, and I knew he’d perfected with me. “I also heard,” I moved over and sat beside him. “That you haven’t read your letter.” My hand strokes Judith’s curls and she turns her head to scrunch her nose up at me.

“I-” I can hear the pain in his voice. “It’s not that simple, Jessi.”

“Sure it is, Dad.” I reply, looking up into his watery blue eyes. “You read Negan’s, right?” I don’t even stumble on his name this time, and I’ve almost managed to stop flinching. He’s staring at me. “I heard, when you-”

He gulps, and I smile at him. “I-” I sigh.
“It’s fine. I’m FINE.” I repeat. “If you could read his, then yours should be even easier.” I stare at him, watching him flinch and I know what the issue is. “He wouldn’t have blamed you, Daddy. That’s not Carl, it never was, not really.” I know that they had issues early on, when Carl’s hardness was at its peak. “He forgave me.” I whisper.

“There was nothing to forgive, Jessi.” I blink away the tears threatening to blur my vision again. “You-” He stops, Judith is starting to fuss and I open my arms to take her back. Once she’s cuddled against my chest, he closes his eyes and tries again. “You saved Glenn. You-”

“Wanted to die, Dad.” I finish for him. “I wanted to die so badly, that after I watched him kill Abraham in the most gruesome and horrible way, I was WILLING to let him do it to me so I could die.” Why bother pretending otherwise? It solved nothing. “I was willing to leave EVERYTHING and EVERYONE behind, just so I could escape.” Michonne listened and it had freed some of my pain, so why not share it. “I thought he’d kill me. I thought he’d do what I couldn’t. I was weak and I was a coward.” He was watching me with rapt attention. “He didn’t, obviously. Instead, he pulled me out of it. He FORCED me to talk it out. He pushed and pushed and pushed, until I just let it out. And,” I swallowed hard and kissed Judith’s head. “I fell in love with him. I fell in love with the enemy, Dad. A man who killed and who did horrible things, but who STILL managed to find me in my darkness. I fell in love with him and you threatened to kill him.” From Judith’s even breaths I know she’s fallen asleep. “I’m telling you this, Dad, not to torture you, but to tell you that if I can survive ALL of that, then you can read a damn letter.”

He tried to smile. And when he left, he kissed my forehead. “It’s good to have you back, Jessi.” And I knew, when he said it, he meant the REAL me. Even if I wasn’t quite the same as before.

 

I hear the commotion of something happening at the gates, but I think that if it’s something I should know, someone will come find me. And they do. Carol does.

“Jessi,” I’m giving Judith some bites from my plate, when I look up. “You need to come downstairs.” I can see something lurking in her expression, but I realize it might be about Henry.

“Is it Henry?” I ask, picking up Judith and once I have her steady in one arm, I pick up the plate.

“He’s fine, Jessi.” And she’s gone. OK, what the hell?

When I reach the main floor, I see them all standing in a group. Michonne, Dad, Daryl, Rosita, Maggie, Glenn, Tara, Morgan, Carol, and Ezekiel. My family. And I feel a chill. Not the usual warning, something stranger. They’re all watching me as my feet touch the floor and I swallow hard.

“Jessi,” it’s Michonne who speaks, which should be the warning I need, but it isn’t. “Gregory came back.” Gregory? She sees my confusion and takes a breath. “He’s the former leader here.” I nod, not understanding. “He-” A sigh that seems to be shared by the entire group. “He helped the Saviors.” Ah, an actual turncoat and traitor. I wait, clearly there’s more. “Negan’s alive.”

I feel the blood drain from my face. And I know that all of them see it, even if only two of them know the real reason. Maggie rushes forward to take Judith from me and I sit down hard on the bottom stair. I feel dizzy and I hear that same static that seems to take over when I’m overwhelmed. He’s alive. He survived. My eyes close and I feel my heart pounding in my chest. As though it was reminding me that I could live and breathe easier.

When I open my eyes, I realize that they’re all studying me. And I know, from the look on Dad and Michonne’s face that this doesn’t change anything. Negan surviving, him being alive, it didn’t mean that it was over. In fact, it meant that it had barely begun.

Chapter Text

It’s Michonne who rushes forward, her hands on my cheeks, her face inches from mine. I can see her lips moving, but I hear nothing. Fighting against the static, fighting against the reality that my family will try to kill him. That the war isn’t over, not by a long shot, and nothing short of Negan’s death will make them stop.

“Jessi,” her hands are warm and I blink when her voice finally breaks through. “Sweetheart, please, are you alright?”

I swallow and feel my stomach churn. “Yes.” A breath, a hiss. It’s all I can manage. She helps me to my feet and walks me back up the stairs. I fight so hard against the fear churning in my stomach. Against the urge to vomit. Against the urge to scream. “I don’t want to know.” I whisper, as we arrive at my door. “What the plans are, where or when? I don’t want to know.”

“I promise,” she answers, and then I’m alone in the room.

I slide down the closed door and sit on the floor thinking about how horrible such wonderful news turned out to be.

 

By the time a knock comes on my door, I’ve gotten on the bed. Curled in fetal position and reliving the short time I’d spent with Negan in his arms. With his lips pressed against mine. With our bodies joined and passion raging through us. And if I see him again, it will be his body to confirm his death.

I don’t answer the knock, but the door isn’t locked so Dad comes in to check on me anyway. I feel the bed dip on the side I’m facing, and I remember Negan doing the same after our last trip to Alexandria. Pain rips through me.

“Jessi,” I can hear it, that same uncertainty and quiet. Like he’s afraid I’ll scream or bolt “Baby girl, I can’t-”

I think of how I’d told Negan I knew he’d go after Dad. How I told him that I didn’t want to lead, and that meant I’d follow whomever I choose to lead me. Dad was my leader now. Even if my heart was tearing apart, I’d follow him. “I know.” Same answer, different man.

His hand was rubbing my back. “I-” He stopped, weighing his thoughts and words. “I read the letter.” I nodded into my pillow. “I know what Carl wanted, what he envisioned.”

But it doesn’t matter, I inserted it for him. It doesn’t matter because the two of you can’t see that peace could be an option. That Dad and Negan as leaders with Daryl and the others beside them would create a true future. In the end, nothing mattered, except who was alive and who was dead.
“He wrote-” I heard him stop again. “He saw it. You and Negan.” I sighed.

I faced him finally. “He saw it before I did.” I knew he could see my pain, but I hoped he also heard my resolve in the course. “I don’t want to know, Dad. None of it. Plans, times, nothing.”

He nodded, this he could give me. “I wanted to ask you,” I waited, wondering what favor he wanted from me. “Come with me to meet the man Carl saved?”

I was a bit surprised. I’d assumed he’d have been vetted. Those three questions asked. “Sure.” I sat up and rubbed my face with both hands. “I must look like hell.”

“No,” Dad answered. “You look like my daughter. You look like Jessica Grimes. And you are beautiful.’

 

Siddiq was the man’s name. We met him in the infirmary and I smiled at him to show him that I didn’t hold him responsible. He explained meeting Carl. How my brother left him some rations. How he tried to get him to come back to Alexandria and how they fought the walkers because of a belief his mother had about releasing their souls. He tried to apologize for not seeing the danger in it, but before Dad could speak I stopped him.

“My brother saved your life because he saw something worth saving.” I told him, holding out my hand. “His death was honorable because it came from him showing you compassion.” Siddiq shook my hand. “Are you medically trained?” I asked, looking around the infirmary.

He told me he was and I smiled as we spoke. Dad watched us, studying me and the man who he might have felt cost Carl his life. I listened to Siddiq as he told me about his schooling, about his mother, about his worth. And I was engaged. I was present. I knew that this, at least, gave Dad some hope for me. That I would survive, perhaps even thrive, as long as I could stay like this.

 

When we left the infirmary, Dad told me that some of the remaining prisoners had been given jobs around Hilltop. That they were earning trust. He pointed to a few who were doing walker clearance. He showed me other parts of the community, giving me a tour, and trying to reconnect with me. I was just as interested as I had been in the infirmary.

I nodded, I asked questions, and I took in this new group. They were productive. They had crops and I had a flash remembering teasing Carl about becoming a farmer. He pointed out other parts, told me a bit of the history of the place, and I was smiling as we started back to the main house.

“How bad is Alexandria?” I asked, wanting to know if it was beyond repair.

He sighed, as we stood on the porch looking out over the workers. “It’s bad. Really bad.”

“Can it be rebuilt?” This was the real issue, this place was beautiful, but there wasn’t enough room.

He nodded. “Once it’s over.” Negan. The Saviors. “How bad was the Kingdom?”

“Not too bad, actually.” It didn’t have real damage, just the danger of being overrun by more enemies. “Livable without much work.”

 

Michonne and Dad keep their word. I’m left out of planning. When I am nearby the talking stops. Far from making me feel bad, it makes me feel HEARD for once. And settling back with my family becomes more bearable.

I know it’s coming, even without knowledge from their pow wows. I can see them prepping weapons. I see them deciding who and where. So I’m not completely unaware.

I’m taking Judith for a walk when I see Morgan attack Henry. I heard Dad trying to talk him out of coming with them. And I realize that I’m not the only one who broke. I close my eyes and hurry back to the house. I can’t see someone go through what Dad did. Not without knowing the full story. Not without feeling the pain of it.

 

Dad comes to me when they’re ready. He kisses Judith and he stares into my eyes. “Jessi, I promise, this will be the end.” It’s his goodbye, and I know he means it. One way or another, today is the end.

“Be safe.” I tell him, and I mean it. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart.” And then a kiss on my forehead and he leaves my room.

Daryl is hovering just outside the doorway. “Just gonna lurk?” I ask him, and he gives a half smile that tugs at my heart. Walking into the room, he smooths Judith’s curls with one hand and stares down at me.

“I still love you,” he whispers, and I know that he does. “I meant it, when I said I couldn’t live without ya.”

“I know,” I whisper back. “I love you, too, Daryl Dixon.” And I do. I still feel it. Even with Negan inside of my heart. Even with what I feel for him, I still love Daryl. “Kiss me, please.”

And he does, and I feel what I couldn’t find before I left Alexandria. That same heat. The same flames rising up between us. When he pulls away, I open my eyes and see my feelings reflected in his face. “I will come back to you, Jessi. I won’t lose you again.” And it’s a promise and a threat. Because to have one, I lose the other.

Chapter Text

They aren’t gone long. Dad, Daryl, and the others when I hear a radio come to life and the chill that runs down my spine forces me to listen. The location’s changed. And I feel that chill turn colder. I no longer care that I can’t decide which of the men I love are in danger, I HAVE to stop it.

I’d stayed behind for everything since the death of Sofia. I watched, I bore witness, and it wasn’t enough. It weighed me down and it broke me. I was damned if it would happen again.

I found Tara, who was in charge while the others were gone, and asked her where the children were going to be kept safe. Together we talk about the best option, which is the main house, and the best caregivers. I can see that she’s staring at me with questions, but I don’t plan on sharing my plans with her. As she hands me a gun and knife, just in case, I walk back to the room where Judith is napping. I pick her up and take her down to the women who have been tasked with keeping the children occupied, quiet, and safe, and hand her off with directions. Keep her safe, make sure she’s alive when I get back. I feel like the ‘or else’ is implied heavily enough that I don’t have to say it out loud.

And then I walked into the office that the others had taken me to the first day. I know there’s a map somewhere, and I find it quickly enough. My eyes trace the pathways, the location that my dad mentioned practically glows in my eyes, and I work out how to get there fast. I take a horse, thinking that Daryl should enjoy the irony of me stealing Maggie’s horse to go on my own search, but that I doubt he will. I’m off, before anyone can raise an alarm with the extra preparations going on, and the road rises before me and all I can think of is stopping whatever madness that we’d all allowed to go on too long.

 

I hear the sounds of exploding and gunfire and I’m hoping beyond hope that I’m not too late. I push the horse forward, even if the poor animal would much rather run in the other direction, and I see it. A huge meadow, the opposing sides, and I close my eyes with gratitude that I’m not too late. And it’s almost like God mocks me because they rush one another. Christ.

I get off the horse and tie it to a tree far enough from the battle in front of me that it’s safe, but close enough for me to get to it if necessary. And then I move forward. By the time I reach the chaos, it’s over. Like a flash, the Saviors have surrendered, and I see them. My dad and Negan facing off.

Shit, I rush forward, past the sounds of voices calling my name. Past my family. Past Saviors and friends and foes. Drawn like a moth to a flame, I have to stop it. Stop them. Both of them.

By the time I reach them, they are going at it hand to hand by a tree that strangely has a stained glass panel dangling from its branch. Negan’s on top, but I hear Dad ask for a moment to tell him about what Carl had envisioned, and I stop, out of sight of the two of them, hoping against hope that they get it finally. But I see the flash of glass in my dad’s hand, and then blood and I’m screaming and rushing forward. I’m at Negan’s side, my hand clutching his against the flow of blood as the rest of our family shows up. I hear voices urging Dad to end it, as though I’m not at Negan’s side, as though I’m not trying to staunch the flow of warm blood as he stares up at me like he’s seen a ghost. I’m begging, pleading with Dad to think of Carl. To remember what he asked for, what he wanted so badly that he found peace in dying. I beg that he let him live, not to let him die, and I can hear the anguish in my voice. And the sobs building.

I don’t hear what Dad says. I see and hear nothing, but Negan, his eyes on mine as he’s fading, and him trying to say something. I shush him, praying that he won’t go, not now. And then Siddiq is there, and he’s pushing my hand away, and taking over. Saving him, the man I love and Michonne is trying to pull me away, but I’m fighting her, I won’t leave him. Not now.

I watch, helpless, as Siddiq works. I pray, silent and pleading prayers to let him live. Please not yet, not now.

“Jessi?” It’s Dad, and I can’t look away from Negan’s pale face to see him. “Honey, we have to move, there’s a horde.” I don’t care, I think, I won’t. “He’s coming, too.” And I see it now, Siddiq is getting him stabilized to move. I let him pull me away, and I hear him asking how I found them, how I got there so fast, and I’m trying to focus on his words, but all I can see is Negan’s blood. And when I look at my hands I realize I’m coated in it.

“Horse,” I whisper, and nod toward the tree line where I’d left it. “Let me,” I struggle to get my heartbeat and thoughts under control. “Let me go get it, and I’ll meet you back-” And I pull away and rush back to where the horse waits, needing the time to collect myself, even if I have no fucking idea what comes next.

 

I ride back to Hilltop slowly. Alone. I think about the calls for Negan’s death. My family who wants it so badly that they can smell it. I wonder, did Siddiq save him simply so he can have a more ceremonial execution? Will Dad stand up to the others, will they vote? Will I stand alone in wanting him alive? Was Carl wrong about everything?

When the gate’s in view, I see the smoke and my heart stops. Judith. And I push the horse into a run and am inside before I notice. Jumping down, I search for Tara. She sees me and I see all the questions on her face, but I brush them off.

“Judith?” I see her staring at my bloody hands and I ignore her. “JUDITH, Tara, where is she?”

And then, one of the women is rushing forward with my little sister, her blonde curls catching the sunlight and I have her in my arms. I don’t pay attention to the looks I get at the smears of partially dried blood staining Judith’s clothes, her skin, because she’s alive and safe. I kiss her head, telling her how much I love her and how happy I am that she’s alright.

 

I find them in the infirmary. Dad and Michonne, standing over Negan’s bed. I’ve cleaned up, given the gun and knife back, and have my newly washed sister in my arms. He’s still unconscious, and I feel their eyes on me as I stand close looking down at him.

“We can’t let him go,” Dad’s voice is quiet, to keep me or Judith calm I don’t know. “He’ll be a prisoner forever, Jessi.”

I don’t look up. Rocking Judith in my arms, I stare at one of the men who holds my heart. Is that enough? That he’s alive, but won’t be free? Can I live with that outcome? Can he? It’s better than what I’d feared for him. A public execution. A show of power and strength.

“Am I allowed to visit him?” Hushed, keeping my little one free of the tension rolling through me.

They’re silent and I close my eyes. If the answer is no, then I’m not sure what the point was in saving him. And then I know, because I wouldn’t survive if he’d died. Not after I found out he was alive.

“We’ll talk about it later.” Michonne offers and I nod.

My hand touches his, and I feel him twitch. His warmth. His strength. And I hope he understands.

 

 

Daryl finds me later. I’m in my room alone. Standing at the window, watching the sun set. I hear him come closer and I don’t fight it. I don’t warn him away. I don’t ask him to go. His arms wrap around me from behind and his chin is propped on my head. I let myself relax into his embrace. Let him comfort me, even if I know he doesn’t understand or agree. I let him give me what I’d always given him. A piece of himself, to replace a piece of me.

“Scared the shit outta me.” His voice is rough, and I smile. “All of a sudden, there ya were, and I couldn’t get to ya.” I hadn’t seen him. My focus elsewhere. “Nearly tore me in two hearin’ ya beggin’ like that, Jessi.” For HIS life, I added, for HIM to live. “Sounded like ya were dying yourself.”

I was, I thought. Watching his blood flow out of him, feeling its warmth coat my hands, I felt like it was mine. And I felt like I would die. Just like I would if it had been my dad laying there. Or Daryl.

“Ya care for him.” It was a statement, not a question. “Wish ya didn’t.” I closed my eyes. “But he did what I couldn’t.” I felt my throat grow tight. “Found ya and brought ya back.” The tears started without warning and I cried as he held me, remembering how observant Daryl Dixon really was.

 

Daryl held me that night. In my bed, while Dad and Michonne took care of Judith, he held me and whispered to me how much he loved me. That he would always love me. That he couldn’t stand to see me in so much pain, but that he’d hold me together forever if I let him. He listened to my sobs, letting me cry for so many things that I lost track.

For Lori, who I couldn’t put down so Carl didn’t have to. For Andrea, for not believing that ANYONE could learn to survive, and if they couldn’t, they should be protected. For Mika, for not seeing and warning everyone of my fears about her sister. For Lizzie, I didn’t see her clearly until too late, and maybe if I had then she could have been stopped, without her or her sister dying. For Tyrese, for Bob, for Noah. For everyone I didn’t pay enough attention to, for not seeing the danger, for not helping. For Abraham. For being too late. For being too weak. For not asking for help in time.

For Carl, dear God, Carl. If I’d been there, if I’d read his letter and took it to heart and asked to participate, to discuss options. Would it have come to this? Would Negan be lying in the infirmary with the axe of being forever imprisoned hanging over him? Would Daryl need to listen to my breaking heart? Would Dad have to have gone against the others, the ones that wanted him dead? If I’d spoken up. If I’d acted. If I’d been there from the beginning.

I eventually ran dry of tears and my guilt was still heavy, but I needed to stop. Crying, letting my emotions run amok wasn’t going to fix anything. I turned in Daryl’s arms and looked into his face. His eyes were so tight with pain, his own pain at my outburst. At knowing that Negan and I, that he wasn’t the only one in my heart.

“You’re still beautiful, Daryl Dixon.” My hand rose and I let my fingertips trace his lips. “Every bad thing, every dark moment, and yet, you are still as gorgeous as you were the first time we kissed.”

He let me touch him. The angles of his face. Brushing away his too long hair, his scruffy chin, his blue eyes studied me as I reminded myself of his familiarity. His arms were still around me, his head on the pillow, and with nothing more than the light of the moon he drank in the very sight of me.

“Ya’ve always been beautiful, Jessi.” He whispered, letting one of his arms release me, and touching my cheek with his own hand. “Beautiful and giving.” His thumb brushed my lower lip and he smiled sadly. “Didn’t deserve ya.”

I was about to ask if he meant Negan or himself, but he leaned in and kissed me and I let my words die. Daryl’s kisses were always so soft and sweet. His lips showed me how much he’d memorized about me, letting his kiss grow more passionate and sighing when I returned it. Our tongues touched and I knew, even with Negan nearby recovering. Even with my begging for his life. I wanted Daryl. Now. Here. I wanted to get lost in him. To remember how we felt together.

Our clothes fell away, and when he slid into me, I remembered every single moment we’d had together. Every hope, every promise, every touch. And when we lay entwined in the afterglow, I wondered how it was possible that one person could be made for two completely different men. Because Daryl and Negan, I knew, were made for me and I was most certainly made for them.

Chapter Text

Negan woke up. I was by his bed, and he was staring up at me. I took his hand in mine and sighed. And then Dad, with Michonne by his side, told one of the men I love exactly what his future held.

“Carl pictured something better. All of us, working together, for something bigger than all of us. You'll have a job, too. You get to be a part of it. You'll be an example of what this will be. You're gonna rot in a cell.” Dad tells him as I hold his hand, and close my eyes against the burning of my building tears. This isn’t what Carl wanted and he knows that, but part of my deal with Dad and Michonne, with Daryl is that I won’t speak against this. The plan for Negan. For that price, I can visit him. I can keep this connection, even if it’s sparse. Even if it isn’t going to be enough.

Michonne, I can feel her eyes on me as she speaks, “For the rest of your life.” My heart pounds in my chest as I feel Negan’s hand tighten on mine.

“You're gonna be evidence we're making a civilization. Something we had, something we're gonna get back. Keeping you breathing will help show people things have changed. That's the part you'll play.” A civilization where someone who could be your strongest soldier, your strongest ally is a prisoner.

My eyes open and I look up as Michonne cuts me as deeply as Negan. “So, after all this. Maybe you're good for something.” As though him saving me, loving me was nothing. Not worth noticing, or worth more than being a caged animal.

 

They leave us alone. I pull a chair to his bed and sit down. I can feel his eyes on me, but I’m quiet. Was it worth it? The deal I made, the plea I made for his life? Would he think so? Would he agree as the years pass by?

“Hey you,” he whispers, and I have to smile. I’d thought, days ago that I would never hear his voice again. Looking up, his hand reaches out and brushes my hair from my face. “He told me he killed you.” Simon, that asshole. “Made it fucking a pleasure to squeeze the fucking life out of his sorry ass.”

“I thought you were dead.” I offered, drinking in his face. “He told me that, when he left me here hoping that I’d die.” Simon was dead, that was a pleasant thought. “I’m sorry.”

“For what, princess?” He asked, cupping my chin in his hand. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“Everything.” I answer. “For this most of all.” I glance around the room. “For agreeing to-”

He shushed me. “I’m alive because of you.” Yeah, and what kind of life is it? “If I can see you, touch you, then it’s a small price to pay.” I hear the ‘for now’. I can hear it as if he’s screaming it.

“Daryl,” I start and see his eyes flinch. “Negan, I have to say it.” He nods, his hand leaving my face. I take it back in my own and link my fingers through his. “Daryl and I, we-” And now I can’t say it. I can’t tell him that I’ve agreed to a future with Daryl. That he and I are together, because I can see the pain in his eyes at the mere thought of what I was going to say. I sigh and stare at our hands. His long fingers nearly covering the entire back of my hand. The warmth I can feel, reminding me that he’s alive. That he’s here. That he’s with me.

“Hey,” I look back up. “I wasn’t fair, when I asked you to-” And now he’s struggling with the words. “I love you.” He looks as surprised as I am by the words. “I love you, and that means that I have to fucking be happy for you, even if-”

“I love you, too.” His eyes lock on mine. “I do-” I close my eyes, because this part is the hardest. “But I love him, too. And it’s selfish, and it’s cruel, but I do.” When I open mine, he’s smiling at me.

“You’re a miracle. Do you know that?” And I stare at him. “You have so fucking much to give, how did I not fucking see that it was more than even I could hold.”

I snorted. A miracle? Really? “I’m a broken woman, who got pushed to get better by the strangest therapist I’ve ever seen.” His dimples deepen. “Lucky he was so fucking sexy. And I am greedy enough to want him, AND the first man I ever loved. Greedy enough to not give a damn if another woman goes hungry for love just so I can have you both.” His smile has turned to a smirk. “Not sure that’s all that miraculous, Negan.”

“You forced them to save me.” He reminded me. I nodded my agreement. “Have you read Carl’s letter?” Another nod. “Rick’s woman-”

“Michonne,” I supply for him.

“She radioed me,” my shock must be pretty damn clear. “Yeah, I know. She read mine to me.” I wait, I know this is important. “Your brother, he wanted so goddamn much.” I chuckle. “He wanted US, Jessi. He wanted you and me. And he wanted peace.” I nod. “She didn’t tell me you were alive. I-” He sighed. “I don’t know if it would have changed my mind. I don’t know if knowing you were here, ALIVE and waiting would have stopped this. It was just too fucking far gone.”

I’m blinking back the tears that had threatened to fall when Dad and Michonne had issued their edict. Using my free hand, I swipe them away. “I know.” And I do. Now. That this would have happened if I’d never gone to find my family that night. If I’d never met Negan. If he’d never laid eyes on me at all. Carl had expected too much, from Dad and from Negan. They couldn’t have worked this out. With or without me.

 

I stayed as long as I could, but he was still recuperating, so sleep took him under sooner than I’d expected. I sat with him for a bit as he dreamed, seeing a smile across his lips, I stood and kissed his forehead.

I was walking away from the infirmary when I saw Daryl coming out of the house. He smiled when he caught sight of me. I met him on the porch, letting him pull me into his arms and hold me. My head on his chest, listening to his heart beating, I felt his hands slide down my back.

“How was your visit?” Daryl’s head was propped on top of mine, and I could feel the sound of his words vibrate through my cheek.

“Fine.” I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to talk to Daryl about Negan and my angst in regards to him. He deserved better, they both did.

“Got plans for the rest of the day?” Daryl’s voice, rough and sweet made me think he was planning on distracting me in my bed again. I shrugged. “Cause I was thinkin’-” I waited, my body almost humming at the promise. “Been awhile since ya had your bow in your hands.”

“That wasn’t the proposition I thought I’d hear from you, Dixon.” I pulled back and looked up at his face, that half smile haunting his mouth. “You’re right. It has been awhile.” Far too long, I thought, since I felt good enough to pick it up.

He pulled me off the porch and I followed, wondering just what he’d set up. And there, away from the come and go of our combined communities, he had his crossbow, a very sweet compound bow for me, and a target that made me laugh.

“Is that?” A body outline with a painted on mustache that looked close enough to Simon that I’d take extreme pleasure of picking up that bow and notching arrow after arrow into his fucking fake face.

“Thought ya’d want a target that would motivate ya.” His eyes were twinkling down at my smile. “Want to bring all of ya back, Jessi.” I nodded, and took the bow that he’d picked up from his hand.

“Let’s see how much rust I’ve let accumulate.” Testing the bow tension, I adjusted it and then, feeling Daryl’s eyes on me, I notched my first arrow.

 

We walked back as the sky started to darken, hands linked, my bow slung over my shoulder and his crossbow on his own. I was smiling and laughing and I could tell that he was enjoying me, this me the happy one. The one that was regaining her confidence, even if it had taken far more tries than I cared to remember to hit the fucking target where I wanted to.

I was so wrapped up in Daryl and our afternoon, that I nearly missed the hiss. The hissed words aimed right at me as we walked past a group of people that I could swear I didn’t know, and had never met. I felt Daryl’s hand tighten in mine and knew he’d heard it too.

“Negan’s whore.” And I couldn’t tell if it came from one of the women or men. “Fucking traitorous bitch.” I could swear I heard one spit in our direction, but I kept walking, head as high as it had been when I’d walked out and offered my life for Glenn’s. An offer that would never be heard as loud, apparently, as my screams for Dad to save Negan’s life.

We walked all the way to my room, a room that until the day before I’d shared with Judith, in silence. Daryl’s hand still holding tight to mine, our fingers linked, my heart pounding so loudly in my chest that I was sure he could hear it. What had I expected? That I’d be welcomed back, no issues? For God’s sake, they didn’t even look all that happily on me when I went back to Alexandria.

“Jessi,” Daryl’s voice was quiet as I drew my hand from his and went to stand by the window. “Ya can’t let a few-”

I snorted, my go to expression lately it seemed. “Please, Daryl, don’t insult me or yourself by pretending it’s only a few that have those thoughts about me.” I’d seen them, even Maggie who still had Glenn at her side, looked at me like I’d betrayed them by asking for Negan's life to be spared. “I knew it was going to be like this.” My voice was hushed, not masking my pain, but not willing to shout it out either. “I knew when Sasha came to the Sanctuary.” I heard him inhale. Ah, he’d assumed I hadn’t known. “She looked at me like I’d killed Abe myself.” I could still feel her eyes burning into mine, and Negan stepping in front of me so I wouldn’t be hurt. “I saved one, but apparently I should have saved two.”

“Ya didn’t know-” Daryl was begging me to stop blaming myself, but how could I? Not when everyone else clearly did.

“I didn’t know he wouldn’t kill me, Daryl.” I turned to face him, letting the dim light shine over me. “That’s all. I knew that I was too late for Abraham, I watched him do it, paralyzed. I saw him point at Glenn, and I was there. Didn’t even decide to step out, but there he was looking at me.” I could still feel the chill that had driven me to that fucking clearing. The chill warned me that Daryl and Dad were in danger. “I saw a way out, me for Glenn, and I took it.” My eyes met his and I could see his pain at my words, but he had to get it. “I wanted him to kill me, Daryl. I wanted him to take it away, my life, my pain, my fucking failure.” He opened his mouth, but I rushed on. “He didn’t. And that shocked me far more than it shocked any of you, I promise you that.” I leaned against the wall and kept going. “Negan, he’s a persistent bastard. He pushed and pushed.” His eyes narrowed. “Pushed me to TALK, Daryl, nothing else. He wanted to know when, and how. When I’d lost my way. How long it had been since I felt anything. He pushed until I cracked wide open.” His hands were tight fists. “And then, Sasha showed up. And I knew, even after I’d SEEN Olivia watch me like a fucking hawk with MY OWN SISTER, I knew that no one trusted me. Not now. Because he DIDN’T kill me, Daryl. That’s all. If I was dead, I’d have been a fucking martyr. A rallying cry for you to go for his fucking head. I lived and I was a turncoat. And you still went for his head.” My eyes dropped to the floor. “I fell in love with Negan because he saw through my mask without trying and he refused to wait until I asked for help to give it.” I would not apologize to these people for finding comfort in him. Not even my own family. “But even then, I never once blamed anyone for my break, Daryl. That was on ME. Not you. Not Dad. Not Carl.” My voice broke at my little brother’s name. “No one owned my failures, but ME.” I sighed, and looked back up to see him studying me. “And I never once, not even when he asked and begged me to, did I give up loving you.”

Daryl watched me, waiting to see if I was finished. Satisfied I was, he moved forward, putting down his crossbow. Taking my bow from my shoulder and leaning it against the wall I had been, he tilted my chin up so I was staring at his face.

“I hate him, Jessi.” His voice was as hushed as mine. “I hate him for killin’ Abe. I hate him for considerin’ killin’ Glenn.” His thumb brushed my skin. “I hate him for takin’ ya up on that deal. But most of all, I hate him for helpin’ ya when I was too fuckin’ blind and selfish to do it myself.” He was still staring down at me. “I won’t defend him. Not to them. Not for ya. But I will tear them apart if they come for ya again. Words, looks, don’t fuckin’ care. Ya ain’t him, Jessi. And no matter how ya feel for him, that ain’t how they’re gonna talk to ya.”

I started to speak, but he stopped me with a brush of his lips. Just letting me know, with a kiss, that he loved me even if he didn’t agree. That he would never agree with me where Negan was concerned. And I had to wonder, if push came to shove, would Daryl join with the call for Negan’s death and would he forgive me when I stood against him and them.

Chapter Text

There were three communities that didn’t need much rebuilding and one that needed extensive rehab. And I wasn’t very welcome in any of them. How would I know this? Because, ALL of the population of ALL three were at Hilltop in the beginning, at some point on another. And while Daryl had promised that I wouldn’t be subjected to the abuse of their collective feelings of disappointment and irritation with me, and I’m downplaying it trust me, he couldn’t be with me twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Not that he didn’t try his damnedest.

I spent my days getting used to my bow again. Soon, my Simon target was fully beheaded, and I had to grin as I made a new one. Sometimes I took Judith with me, sitting her on a blanket at my feet, telling her stories about Carl as I notched arrow after arrow and kept an eye on any danger that might try to sneak up on us, walker or human. She was walking now, and I would take her hand in mine, fold the blanket and sling my bow over my shoulder as we took our time getting back to the rest of the world.

She came with me to visit Negan on most days, even once he’d been removed to a more secure spot. I’d sit by him as she toddled around and I hoped he found some measure of peace from our time with him. On the visits that we were alone, he’d touch me more often. Taking my hand and kissing the knuckles, or leaning in to smell the side of my neck. I knew, once we returned to Alexandria, that he’d be the first real visitor to Morgan’s cell and he wouldn’t be able to get as close to me as he did in Hilltop, so I savored it as much as he did.

We knew it wouldn’t last. The quiet, the ease of our visits, but we also knew that we both found comfort in them. Negan’s lips brushing my neck, my fingers linked with his, such simple signs of affection, yet we knew what they brought to each of us. Pain. Whispered threats. And the dirty looks. When I was alone with him, I could care less about what was being said or who was shooting those damn looks my way. And then I’d leave, and the strength of his presence was gone, and I’d have to walk with my chin up and back straight as though I could give a shit.

I did though. It hurt me to know that people I barely knew thought so little of me. It hurt worse to know that the people who did know me, and quite well, seemed to share those same thoughts. Unlike my brush with falling apart from those days before meeting Negan, however, I didn’t fight feeling it. I was wide open and I owned my emotions. I cried when I felt like crying, and as Daryl and my family were learning quickly, when I was pissed they knew it now.

“Damn it, Dad,” I was glaring at him as we sat together discussing what came next. He wanted Daryl, and me clearly, to head to the Sanctuary and get it back on track. “You promised.” Not just visits with Negan, but damn it, I just got back to seeing Judith every damn day. “How the hell is this supposed to work? Plus, don’t you need all fucking hands on deck at Alexandria? You said that it was a mess that needed rebuilding.”

I knew that Daryl’s eyes were on me. I also knew that Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, Carol, and Ezekiel were watching me intently. Too fucking bad.

“Jessi,” Dad was using his patient parent voice and I nearly growled at him. “Honey, you know the place better than anyone here.” I shook my head. “You do, I can’t put one of the former Saviors in charge, not yet.”

“I barely left-” I stopped, feeling Daryl tense. Shit. “I wasn’t really given much free reign, Dad.” Not until I was ready to run away from him, I added in my head. I sighed. “I don’t know his people, I don’t know what they fucking did there.”

Daryl’s arms wrapped around me, trying to calm me down. “Jessi,” his face was practically buried in my hair. “We can go and get an idea of what needs done. We’ll visit Alexandria as much as ya want, I swear.” I wanted to fight free, but I knew that he was trying to compromise. Trying to make me see that fighting against it wouldn’t help my cause at all. And so I relaxed into his touch and sighed again.

“Fine.” I agreed, looking up at Dad with hard eyes. “What are we expected to do?”

 

What we were expected to do, I learned quickly, was determine who was trustworthy and how to tame those who would undoubtedly fight back. Daryl and I were supposed to take stock of the Sanctuary and learn not just what it used to be, but what it COULD become now. And so, with me at his side, dealing with the reports and people that Daryl didn’t have the patience to contend with, we started to reteach Negan’s people how things had to be from here on out.

Corn ethanol fuel, that was the plan for the Sanctuary. No one seemed to want to hear that we didn’t have nearly enough fertile ground for crops. And Eugene as a constant presence wasn’t exactly welcome for me either. Dad tried, during my trips to Alexandria, to remind me that Eugene was intelligent and he had helped win the war. Sure, thought, but you keep forgetting that I care for Negan and that smart asshole could have killed him with that backfiring gun. And, there was that memory of why I ran away from Negan, the fear that another Eugene would come and as his newest girl, I’d be expected to entertain him.

I helped where I could. Learning that the majority of Negan’s people were go with the flow types. They transferred their loyalty strangely easily, and I had to hold back an absolutely hysterical laugh when they tried to kneel for Daryl and then Dad. Once they were told those types of displays were no longer necessary, most of them fell in line quickly. There were hiccups. People not feeling safe when Daryl insisted the walker security line be killed for good. People fighting against the more open, no points, system of being fed and clothed. These were easily squashed, mostly. Daryl’s biggest issue was his discomfort in leading this way.

Nights were spent explaining that he had to understand it from their point of view. They’d been here, some of them at least from what they’d told me, for years. Negan had kept them safe. He’d given them jobs and security. Learning that he was gone AND that all the rules and ways they’d learned to live were different wasn’t an easy thing to get used to. Daryl would counter with the ones that had easily changed, and I’d point out that most were Negan’s true soldiers, the ones that were leaders because they could sense the change in tides. When you’re looking at grunts, or even the lower totem Saviors, you’re looking at people who want stability, change is hard.

I fell back into mediating easily. It was natural for me. As was hunting, which Daryl and I did regularly. Mostly for his sanity, because being trapped behind the walls of a huge brick building was never going to suit him easily. I rested easily in knowing that Daryl, and not me, would eventually be asking Dad for a reassignment. He hated it here as much as I did, even if I was growing used to navigating through the people’s issues and finding solutions to the rising problems.

So we’d hunt. Sometimes just to get away, and other times as we left to visit Alexandria. Daryl never let me go alone. I tried to tell myself it was because he wanted to check in with Dad. I tried to convince myself that he wanted to keep me safe, even if I was more than capable of it myself, or that he wanted to see the progress in rebuilding our former home. I even tried, as he and I sat with Judith and watched her paint and listened as she told ME a story, that he wanted to visit with her. But, I could feel his eyes on me as I walked to the cell that held Negan, and all those illusions I’d try to build in my mind for his presence here with me would fade and I knew. He was here to make sure I didn’t release him, that I didn’t stay behind with him, that Negan never got to know me as intimately as he already did again.

It took around eighteen months to rebuild and for us to all be back in the flow of things. The Sanctuary wasn’t in perfect order. Not even close, but it was better. As long as no one wanted to stay in any of the rooms that held the broken windows. Windows that were gone thanks to gunfire from a war that never had to be. The crops, still not nearly enough, were growing, but for how long? And the corn ethanol was being produced as it could be.

Alexandria was almost better than it had been. Wind mills, flowing water, and rebuilt homes along with crops of their own and a new hope filled the air. I didn’t check on Hilltop or the Kingdom personally, but regular reports and updates came in over the radios or in person. We were getting back to normal, or most of us were.

Daryl was chafing under the strain of leadership and having to walk the same path that Negan had walked. He begged me, more than once, not to remind him of whose apartment we lived in. Not to mention that I’d slept in the bed, that I’d made love in the bed, with anyone other than him. He chafed at the reminders of Negan, and I chafed at the absence of him. This wasn’t right. Not the building, not Daryl’s body on those sheets in this bed. Nothing was right, even if the flow of life continued, everything felt wrong.

Chapter Text

I was walking with Daryl when the call came through about a longer run to DC. Arat, the Savior who had killed Olivia and another named Justin were trying to use a walker as a scarecrow. I sighed, thinking that being well meaning and yet stuck in the past were both going to get these people killed by one of the men I loved. Sure enough, Daryl put it down, and warned them, again that this wasn’t how things would run from now on.

Laura, another Savior, yet a far more malleable one, had warned us and that’s what brought us outside to the crops. Eugene and Rosita were working inside on something very science oriented, and I hoped that Daryl understood more of their ramblings than I did, because science was not my strong suit. As we’re making our way around the perimeter, enjoying a moment to ourselves, quiet and without a demand on either of us, he lets me know that a run’s planned.

“We gotta head to DC.” I nodded, this run had been mentioned before. Seeds, farming equipment, things that were necessary for survival in this harsher new world. “You comin’ or-”

Ah, he wanted to know if I was going with or would I stay behind here? “Someone has to keep Eugene in line.” I smiled, knowing that Eugene could get ahead of himself if no one was here to temper his more rash impulses. “Unless you want me to go?” Maybe he’d prefer I head out with him.

He huffed a big breath and a sliver of fear ran through me. “I thought if ya wanted to, ya could go to Alexandria and stay with Judith.” Oh, wait, what?

“Alone?” I asked, confused. Daryl hadn’t let me go out on my own since I came back to him. Aside from the few times I had bow practice in Hilltop, he found time to go with me, or keep me by his side. Being with him at the Sanctuary was disturbingly similar to my time here with Negan.

“Gotta meet them at the midway point, figured ya go ride with me there, then ya could head on to Alexandria while we go on.” I nodded, yeah, it sounded simple, but this wasn’t what I had learned to expect from Daryl Dixon since I’d returned. “I trust ya, Jessi, I know it don’t seem like I do-”

I smiled up at him. “I know you do, Daryl.” I wrapped my hands around his neck and pulled him down to my level. Brushing my lips against his, I felt him relax. He was so tense. “You’re just really really protective.”

He chuckled against my mouth and then dipped in for a more passionate kiss. Our inspection had taken us to one of the more private outdoor spots, and no one was around, which is why I didn’t mind when his hands ran down my back and started pulling up my shirt. Tossing it onto the ground next to us, I had his unbuttoned and added on top of mine in no time with his vest tangled in the mess. My hands fell to his belt as he went to the button of my jeans. Suddenly it was an urgency of need. The need for his skin on mine, the need for my mouth on his chest.

He pressed me against the building we were standing next to, and then he was inside of me and our mouths were locked together tasting one another like we couldn’t get enough. Since I’d come back, since I’d chosen him, love making between the two of us had become more frenzied at times, and we didn’t pull away anymore when Daryl was about to finish. We’d found it, I supposed, as he rocked into me, pulling his mouth from mine to bury his head in my neck to nip and suckle at my skin. We found the safety and security we’d wanted before trying to start our family.

My nails were biting into the skin of his shoulders as my climax roared through me, and his moan as his own rushed out of him made my skin tingle where his mouth was attached to my collarbone. He held me tight, feeling my legs shaking and knowing me well enough to know I wouldn’t be steady enough on my own. I felt as he grew limp within me, slowly leaving my body. My head fell back against the bricks of the building behind me and my hands brushed his flopping hair away from his face. I leaned forward and kissed him slow and sweet. I loved Daryl Dixon. If only, if only I didn’t love Negan too.

We dressed not long after, and Daryl’s hand met mine and our fingers linked automatically. Walking back into the building, I wondered what had brought on this newfound respect for my independence. I didn’t ask. I was just happy he understood that I could and would take care of myself and that I was WITH HIM.

 

The plan for the run was simple enough. Seeds, farm plow to use as a prototype for Hilltop’s blacksmiths, and whatever else could seemingly come in handy for our continued survival. I could sense that Hilltop’s relationship with the other communities, or at least with the Sanctuary was growing strained. Our fuel production wasn’t as high as our need for food supplies seemed to be. Add in the fact that Maggie and Glenn wanted Negan dead and buried, and well, there was some strain.

I hopped on the back of Daryl’s bike, knowing that Dad would bring me a horse to get to Alexandria from the meeting point. Leaning into Daryl’s body, smelling the leather of his vest, feeling the hard muscles of his stomach under my fingers made me remember leaving the CDC. Before our first time together, before Sofia, before the Greene Farm. Before.

“Remember,” Daryl started, and I smiled against his back. “No ticklin’.” I giggled. He took one of my hands from his stomach and drew it to his mouth for a kiss on my knuckles. “Love ya, Jessi Grimes.”

“Love you, Daryl Dixon,” I yelled over the roar of the engine as he kicked it alive. And we were off.

 

I didn’t have a long parting with Dad, Daryl, and the others. I wanted to get to Alexandria and Judith. So kissing Daryl soundly, and promising to be safe while getting his own back to me, I hugged Dad and Michonne and got on the horse they’d brought for me.

“I’ll come pick ya up,” Daryl started, and I smiled down at him. “Don’t wanna steal one of Rick’s horses, would ya?”

“Wouldn’t be the first horse either of us stole, Daryl.” Which made Maggie chuckle, and I smiled down at her in return. “Y’all be careful!” And then I turned and headed back the way Dad and Michonne had come.

 

I made good time, the horse being far quieter than the bike meant that I didn’t get sidetracked by many walkers. And the ones that came too close for comfort were easily taken down by an arrow from my seat. I enjoyed the peace of riding alone into Alexandria. The guard at the gate barely sniffed in my direction, so I supposed I could count that as a win. I made way to Dad’s house, not the same house we’d lived in together as a family, since it wasn’t there anymore. The horse was left with the people that Dad had put in charge of them, and I walked alone through the streets of Alexandria.

In eighteen months time, they’d rebuilt the community. When I first visited after they started to build it back up, I was shocked by the damage. Houses burnt, or fire damaged. The gazebo that Carl had hidden himself away at, torched and charred in places. So much destruction, and for what? To prove who was a bigger man? To be king of a mountain that no longer existed?

I’m sure Dad, and Daryl, not to mention the rest of our people, would have thought that seeing the carnage that Negan and the Saviors had inflicted would turn my heart from him. It hadn’t. Not even slightly. There were no rights or wrongs to this ‘war’. It was two groups of people led by two men who kept hitting and hitting. It was bound to go this way. I should have seen it in the clearing. I should have known somehow that me offering my life wasn’t going to be enough. I hadn’t, and that was something that I couldn’t take back. Nor would I.

I climbed the steps up the porch of Dad’s house, smiling at the easel that Michonne had set up in the corner for her and Judith to paint on. A painting still attached that had Judith, Carl, and me in her tiny scrawl. I took a moment to smile over it before I opened the door and walked inside.

“Hey!” I called out and my grin grew as I heard her tiny feet beating down the hallway to launch herself into my arms. Judith, my little sister, a tiny blonde angelic dynamo. The woman they left her in the care of smiled at the two of us on the floor, and I nodded as she said goodbye. “Now, baby Jude, what are we gonna do today?”

We spent time playing. Painting was something she and Michonne shared, so I played games with her. Finding a deck of cards and playing a version of memory, I laughed at how smart she was, clever. After lunch, she pulled me toward the door and asked to take a walk. Walks with Judith meant that she got story time, and that she got to tell me stories. I listened at her story about the birds who flew up high and smiled when she asked if she could fly too.

“I think, my little Jude, that would be a bad thing for a little girl to try.” She pouted and I giggled. “Want me to give you a piggyback ride?” Her grin returned with a nod and I crouched down and let her climb on. “You’re heavier than you look,” I grunted, standing up and swaying with her.

We walked along the streets, and when we got close to Negan’s jail, she pulled my braid. Ah, she wanted to visit the boogie man. “Go.” She demanded, and I saw her little fist pointing at the building.

I rolled my eyes, but went along with her demands. I planned on visiting him anyway, and she’d come with me plenty of times before. The guard gave me a look, and I sighed, but they didn’t stop me. They couldn’t. I didn’t have a key. I couldn’t have freed him if I wanted to. And Dad had let them all know that I was granted the right to visit. So screw you, asshole, I thought. I knelt down inside the house, letting Judith get on her feet, and take my hand.

When I came into the room where his cell was, the cell that Morgan had built, I had to let my eyes adjust slightly. There was light, but it wasn’t complete. And there he was. Sitting on the mat on the floor with a ball in his hand. My heart lurched. Even down here, looking like the prisoner he was, his power still radiated off of him, his pull still strong.

“Oh my goodness, I’ve been granted the pleasure of seeing TWO princesses today.” He smiled and stood up. I walked to the bars and my free hand reached for his. “Missed you, sweetheart.”

“I know,” I answered, looking down at Judith. “She wanted to come visit. Demanded an audience.”

Judith was smiling up at us. “You did?” He let my hand go so he could kneel in front of her at her level. “Well, I feel very special that you wanted to come see me, Princess Judith.” She giggled and he reached his hand out to touch her silky blonde hair. “You are an angel, aren’t you?”

She sat on the floor and he knew exactly what she wanted. What she wanted every single time she came with me to visit him. They started playing ball through the bars as I sat down with my legs outstretched around her. Saving the need to run after a batted ball.

They played and he talked to me. “You look beautiful, Jessi.” His eyes flicked to mine. “As always.”

“You look tired, Negan.” I said, feeling the worry creep into my voice. “No one has-”

He shook his head. No attempts had come on his life yet. “Floor’s hard as hell, but I’m fine, don’t worry.” I bit my lip. “Give just about anything to be the one doing that to your lip, sweetheart.” I felt my chest flush. Jesus.

“I think Daryl’s going to ask for us to be allowed to leave the Sanctuary.” I knew he was. He hated it there. Hated walking the same path as Negan with me by his side. “Not sure if he’d want to come back here.”

Negan nodded, smiling when Judith caught the ball perfectly. “Good job, princess.” His eyes met mine. “Where do you think he’d want to go?”

I shook my head. “Hilltop, probably.” I cringed. I had no fond memories of Hilltop. “Either spot is further away than-”

“I know.” Further away from him. A longer trip. Longer time between visits. “I know, Jessi.” His eyes were soft and I wanted nothing more than to hold him. To sit on his lap as he was playing with Judith, to take comfort from him and give it right back. I missed it. His casual touches, how it had been getting so natural between us. Until. I sighed.

“I should go,” I said, and Judith looked up at me with a pout. “I promise we’ll come back,” it was a promise to both of them. To two pieces of my heart. I stood and took her hand. Moving closer to the bars, Negan stood and pressed his face into one of the spaces, and our lips met. Not close enough, not nearly enough. “Bye.”

“Bye, sweetheart.” And then, quiet so Judith couldn’t hear, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” I whispered. “Jude, can you say ‘bye’ to Negan?”

“Bye, Uncle-” I stopped her.

“Jude, you know you can’t call him that.” I admonished, pain flashing through me at the thought of it. “Just say ‘bye’.”

“Bye,” she looked confused, and I knew she was. She was a child, but she knew what she saw. Her big sister and this man in a cell had the same thing that she saw her have with Uncle Daryl. Shit.

My eyes met Negan and his smile was sad. He wanted it. To have the title. To have the same standing as Daryl, with me and my family, but without losing himself for it. We’d talked about it a few times. Going in circles. “Bye.” I said, fighting against the urge to scream.

Judith and I spent the day playing. She told me about the races her and Dad had, and how she won. How Mom would help her hide, how much fun she had with them. She chattered and I listened, loving that she wanted to share everything I missed during the time between visits. I missed her so much when I wasn’t here, but I also loved the fact that I got to JUST be her big sister now. Not a parent, just what I’d been to Carl.

We’d just started making dinner when I heard a knock on the door. Opening it, I saw Aaron standing there smiling. I liked Aaron, he and Daryl had easily become friends early on, and he never seemed to show as much animosity toward me as some of the others.

“Daryl and your dad wanted me to tell you that they’ll be back tomorrow.” I must have looked concerned because he hurried on. “Nothing bad, well, nothing overly bad.”

“What happened?” I felt Judith’s arms wrap around my legs and my hand absently went to her head and brushed through her curls.

“The bridge is out.” Shit. That wasn’t good. “They wanted to go back to the Sanctuary while we pushed on.” I let out a breath I was holding and nodded. “I’ve got to go home and see Grace.” My smile came back. “Have a good night, ladies.”

“Night, Aaron, thanks for letting me know.” And as Judith offered her own goodbye, we went back inside. “Guess we’re having a sleepover, baby Jude.” Her giggles carried me through the night.

Chapter Text

Dad and Michonne came home later than I expected. A day later than I expected. And Daryl wasn’t with them. I felt the fear bubbling, the tension rolling through my body as I tried, in front of Judith to cover it by smiling and asking if there had been more problems.

“Yeah, sweetheart,” Dad answered, lifting Judith up and kissing her cheek. “Give me-”

I smiled, let him have a few minutes to decompress from whatever the two of them had seen. “Sure, no rush.” But Michonne saw my worry, saw me checking the road for Daryl.

“He’s at Hilltop, Jessi.” She answered and I felt my blood run cold. “He’s fine. He just wanted to-”

“Leave the Sanctuary.” I answered. I’d known. Of course I had, he’d mentioned it often enough, but I had assumed that he’d take me with him, or at least let me have a say in our final home.

“Actually, he’s there to help Maggie and Glenn with some issues,” Dad corrected. He looked at me with a look I knew well. Let Judith have some time with her Dad and Mom and then we’d sit down and talk.

“OK.” I said, walking toward the door. “I'll just go-”

“How is he?” Michonne asked, walking with me to the porch. Negan? Why would she care?

I turned to face her. She looked different, tired most certainly, but whatever happened on the run, whatever was keeping Daryl at Hilltop, wasn’t simple to get through. “He’s fine. Tired, but that’s probably from boredom.”

She nodded, looking distracted. “Kenneth is dead.” Ah, that would do it. “And-” She took a deep breath and looked into my eyes. “There was an attempt on Maggie’s life.”

“What?” I nearly screamed, but knew that it would bring Judith rushing out to me. “What happened?”

Michonne glanced behind her, making sure that Dad had Judith occupied and then walked to a couple chairs. We sat down and she told me about it. That Gregory, the turncoat that they’d allowed back into the Hilltop, had talked Ken’s dad Earl into trying to kill Maggie. That in his grief he’d done it, failing, but hurting both Maggie and Enid in his attempt. And so, Daryl stayed after helping Glenn and Maggie execute Gregory. My throat tightened at the thought of it, and Michonne’s hand touched mine.

“They felt they had to.” I looked at her face and realized that she wasn’t sure she agreed with it. “He stayed, but he’ll be back for you, Jessi.”

I nodded. Of course he would. “Is Hershel?”

“He’s fine.” She smiled. “Growing fast. Looks like his daddy.” I hadn’t gotten the chance to see him, not yet. Going to Hilltop brought me no joy. “Glenn asked about you. He wanted to know when you’re coming to see your godson.”

I sighed. I felt the title was gifted to me for the wrong reasons. For a proposed sacrifice that never happened. And it ill suited me. I was happy that he’d lived to see his son born, that he was getting to raise him. But I shouldn’t be applauded for it, not when they also knew that I loved the man who would have willingly snuffed that possibility away.

“I can’t.” I stood, and folded my arms across my chest. “I’m sorry, Michonne, but I can’t. I love Maggie and Glenn. I’m sure I’d love baby Hershel, but Hilltop? No.”

I saw her nod as I walked down the steps and toward Negan’s prison. The only prisoner in a war that wasn’t over. Not really.

 

Daryl came back to Alexandria. He hugged me tight and told me of the plans for a new bridge. Dad had mentioned it, but he was dealing with the day to day running of Alexandria. And he was enjoying time with Judith, so I couldn’t fault him for not sharing.

“I’m staying here, Daryl.” I said it with my face pressed against his chest, breathing in the scent of him. “The bridge isn’t far, and if you’re planning on rebuilding it there, then I can come to you as much as we want to spend time together.” His agreement vibrated through my cheek. “I love you, but-”

“I know, Jessi.” He whispered, and I could feel his lips touch the top of my head. “I just couldn’t-”

“Stay at the Sanctuary?” I tilted my head back so I could look up at him. “I know, Daryl. I wasn’t exactly loving it myself.” His thumb was brushing my cheek. “Not there, but not Hilltop either, please.” I was begging him, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t go back there.

He nodded, chewing his cheek. “Carol’s takin’ over the Sanctuary.”

I raised my eyebrow. “What?” For fuck’s sake, I leave them alone for two days and all hell breaks loose.

He sighed. “Ezekiel proposed.” And? I waited. “She wants some time.”

I snorted. “That man adores her.” I shook my head, but understood. “Is she gonna be OK there?” Not because she was weak or didn’t have the courage, but because of the entire mediating situation that I dealt with daily there. “I mean, I could go back and-”

Daryl’s chuckle stopped me. “Jessi, she’ll be fine.” He shook his head staring down at me. “You’d try to fix the whole world wouldn’t ya?” His nose brushed mine and then our lips met. “Never noticed how fuckin’ good ya are at it.” His breath fanning my lips.

“At what?” I asked, knowing that we were standing far too out in the open for anything to go further than a kiss.

“Fixin’ our shit. Solvin’ our problems.” He pulled away and stood up, arms loose around my back now. “Why didn’t I ever see it?”

“You saw me just fine, Daryl Dixon.” I answered, letting my head fall against his chest again. Letting myself fall into the calmness of hearing his heart beating against my ear.

 

The bridge work would take time. So a temporary camp was set up nearby the worksite, and former Saviors were the main workforce. Daryl acted as the foreman, for the most part, or Dad’s eyes on the ground. Dad kept up with it as well, going back and forth more than Daryl or I did. I spent most of my time in Alexandria, helping keep things running and doing the same mediation that worked so well at the Sanctuary. People everywhere needed a go between, even someone like me, that they looked at with less than complete trust.

Tara, Eugene, Rosita, Carol, Ezekiel, in other words the normal suspects, spent time at the camp working on the goal of getting the bridge up and ready. While they worked hard at getting the roadway opened, I worked to keep Judith learning her letters and numbers. I kept Carl’s grave cleared, sitting with her and talking to him about what he was missing.

And I’d visit Negan, listening to him tell me about the things he didn’t do every day. Or I’d visit the camp, taking some much needed alone time with Daryl, or discussing ways to keep the Saviors that were balking at the new world order in line with Carol. I showed her the trustworthy, the ones that were far more willing to tow the line. I also pointed out the problem ones. The ones that were balking even now.

No one mentioned that there’d been graffiti found in the Sanctuary, at least no one from our original group. Laura, the woman who’d told Daryl and I about the walker scarecrow, came to me and told me about it. I sighed and closed my eyes. Asking what had been done, I was told that it was ordered removed, but paint is one thing, internal strife and rebellion were another.

I found Dad, Daryl, and Carol all in the main tent. “Why didn’t one of you tell me?” I watched them consider what they might not have told me, and the dawning realization. “You can’t stamp it out with a paint over or a washing.” I was irritated. We Are Still Negan? And no one thought to tell me?

“Jessi,” Dad started, but a single look from me was enough to stop him.

“I asked, you, Daryl.” I shook my head at him. “I asked you if there was anything I could do to help Carol, and you just said no.” What the hell?

“It wasn’t-” He started and another flash of my eyes and he stopped too.

I groaned. “What else?” I looked between the three of them, focusing on Carol. She and I understood one another, at least I thought we did. “What else have I missed?”

“There are six missing Saviors.” She answered, staring me straight in the face. “Walk offs.” That made no sense, where would they walk off to? I was squinting in confusion. “All we know is they aren’t here the next morning. Gone.”

“Where would they be trying to go?” I asked, incredulous disbelief coloring my voice. “There’s nothing out there, they don’t have weapons. Why the fuck would they leave?”

“We don’t know, Jessi.” Dad answered, shaking his head. “Between the writing on the walls, and this? You gotta wonder-”

I laughed. Really? “Dad, seriously?” I rolled my eyes, Negan, of course. “He’s locked away. I’m his only visitor, other than you, I guess.” I shook my head. “Unless you’re all insinuating that I’M the fucking go-between.” No one spoke. “So it’s crossed your minds. Fucking fabulous.” I huffed out a long breath. “If I wanted Negan out of his cell, do you really think I’d just play gofer with his messages? I think I’m a little better than that.”

With that I walked out of the tent and walked toward the building site. I had planned on spending the night, but now? Why would I want to? Why would I stay where my own fucking family was thinking I could be behind this shit? I watched the water rush past the banks, deep in thought, when I felt someone behind me. Quiet as a fucking shadow, and still as one too.

“We didn’t think that, Jessi.” Daryl’s voice barely broke through the sound of the water. “That ya were the-”

I snorted, loud and very irritated. “Daryl Dixon, you try very fucking hard to cover for the people that think the very shit I accuse them of.” I turned to face him. “I KNOW what they think of me, Daryl. I have eyes, hell I even have ears.” I closed my eyes and looked at the ground. “I have NEVER once done a single thing that would qualify as being a traitor to my family or friends. Never once. The only thing I did that made it seem like it was BEGGING for Negan’s life. A man I love, by the way.” I saw him flinch at the reminder. “I’d have begged for your life, Daryl, if the tables were turned. I would have begged for Dad’s. Or Michonne’s. Or Maggie’s. Or Carol’s. Hell I did beg for Glenn’s.” I felt the tears building. “I can’t stop loving him, and trust me, I know it would be so fucking easy for everyone if I could. And because I can’t, I won’t stop visiting him. I agreed to not fight any of you when the cost was life imprisonment. Not one fucking word against it.” My throat burned. “Next time, Daryl, don’t lie. I know you ALL thought it. Even if you didn’t entertain it for long.”

I didn’t leave. So I ended up seeing all hell break loose. A Savior named Justin and Daryl in a fist fight on the bridge that wasn’t nearly completed. I’d rushed up when I heard Dad’s yelling. And sighed, wondering why I hadn’t left sooner. This entire ordeal was a mess. I found Dad afterward, and told him I was going. He tried to hug me, but I shrugged him off. Not now. Not after the day I’d had.

“Michonne’s gone to Hilltop.” He offered, as though it mattered to me at the moment. I was going home to read to Judith. To listen to her try to get through her alphabet. “Jessi, please, don’t leave mad.”

“Why would I be mad?” I asked, as I climbed onto my horse. “It’s not like my entire family thinks I’m a double agent.” And with that parting shot, I left, riding full stop back to Alexandria. Without saying goodbye to Daryl or the others.

Chapter Text

I was only back in Alexandria for a day. One full day before more fucking insanity made its way into my worldview. While I had been at the camp, Negan had stopped eating. It had been a few days, and I was more than ready to go to him to try to talk some sense into his thick head, but was brought up short by his request.

He wanted to speak to Michonne. Michonne, who’d taken over Dad’s duties while he took more and more time at the bridge construction. Who was listening to and dealing with endless rounds of irritated community members, finding solutions to issues that weren’t really issues, and now who was going to be trying to get Negan to eat.

“You know Negan,” she tried to sooth me. “He’s bored and wants to renegotiate no doubt.” I nodded, trying to hide my disappointment. “Walk with me, and once I convince him to eat, you can visit. Seems like you have something you need to get off your chest.”

I did, actually. My emotions had been running high lately. And it hit me, as I rode back to Alexandria from the construction site, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my period. When Daryl and I had been in charge of the Sanctuary, when we’d begun trying in earnest to start the family we’d put off for so long, I remembered the pregnancy test I’d seen in the infirmary when I’d first arrived with Negan. I found a cache of them and when we came back, giving up the running of Negan’s remaining group, I’d brought them along. Not all of them, but enough, should I have need.

And so, that morning, I’d taken one. Sure enough, the little plus sign had glowed bright telling me that Daryl and I had been successful. I had a tiny Dixon growing inside of me. I wasn’t planning on telling Negan that I was expecting, not before I told Daryl. Or Dad. Or Michonne. I did need to tell him we were planning to, trying to soften the blow. To get him ready for when I would tell him.

I walked along with her, reluctantly leaving Judith behind. “You gonna tell me what’s up?” She asked, giving me a sidelong glance as she carried Negan’s meal on a tray.

“Eventually.” I said, staring straight ahead and gathering my nerves. I sighed, fuck it. “I’m pregnant.”

I could see her smile beaming even with my eyes locked on the horizon. “That’s amazing news, Jessi.” I nodded, feeling my own smile blossom. “I didn’t know that you and Daryl were trying.”

“We decided that since everything seemed to be settling down-” I stopped, thinking about what, no who, lay ahead. “It was always something we wanted to do.”

She took my hand in one of hers, holding Negan’s lunch in the other. “This is a GOOD thing, Jessi.” I knew she was telling me this simply because in her mind, a baby with Daryl, our family finally beginning would hopefully pull me further from Negan. “Are you planning on telling him before Daryl?”

I shook my head. “No, but he needs to know that we’re planning on it.” I answered. I gave a humorless chuckle. “You might have to talk him into eating again, once he finds out.” We were outside Negan’s prison. “I’ll wait here.” I leaned against the wall holding his window, out of sight, but nearby in case Michonne needed me.

“It’ll be fine,” she reassured me, letting my hand go. “You’ll see.”

 

What I saw, or heard, was Negan breaking. He yearned for that fucking bat of his far more than I knew. To see it. To see HER. I heard something I hadn’t heard when I visited him. What I hadn’t noticed when Judith was between us. I heard the defeat in his voice. The pain. The fact that he’d given up or wanted to.

My visits, it seemed, meant nothing. Not only weren’t they enough, they weren’t even helpful. He didn’t ask for me. He didn’t beg for more time with ME. No, he needed and wanted the company of a piece of fucking wood.

I walked with Michonne back to the house. She seemed at a loss for anything to say, and didn’t seem surprised when I didn’t follow through with my visit. I had no doubt that she could read clearly on my face exactly how I felt. Crushed seemed too easy of a word. Too mild. I’d begged for his fucking life, and he wanted a ball bat.

Judith and Michonne were sitting at the bar and I’d just laid down when I heard a visitor. Coming out to see what was going on, I heard that Maggie had arrived. Glancing at my stepmother, I could tell that she wasn’t expecting this visit anymore than me. I picked up Judith and nodded at Michonne, we dropped my baby sister off at our version of daycare, and I found myself once again walking a far too familiar path.

 

Was I surprised that Maggie came to kill Negan? A bit. She had Glenn. She had Hershel. She had Hilltop. Yet, as I looked at the resolve in her eyes, I knew. I knew that she had become close to Sasha. She felt her loss, first of Abraham and then for Sasha’s own life, just as heavily as if Glenn had died. Maggie had lost so fucking much. Her stepmother, her stepbrother, her father, her sister, and countless others that we’d come to see as family.

Was I surprised that Michonne gave her the key to Negan’s cell? Not completely. I had been the one to beg for his life. My dad had given me that simple consultation because so had, in a way, Carl. Dad wasn’t here. And if I had to be honest, I’m not sure he’d have stopped her either. Daryl wouldn’t have.

Michonne waited with me, pacing the street as I leaned again near the window. And I listened as he begged to die. As he begged for the very death he talked me away from, as he pleaded to join Lucille. I felt a tear slip down my cheek, and I had finally had enough. Today was a wash for me. I was finished. I started walking back towards home when Dianne comes running and screaming about a shootout at camp.

 

Michonne, Maggie, Daryl, and our family arrive in time to see Dad on the other side of our newly constructed bridge, a horde closing in. I hit the one closest to him with an arrow as Daryl takes aim and shoots more. But it’s hopeless, even I can see it, if Michonne can’t. Even if she’s running with the others, I stay by Daryl, shooting as many as I can. Tears run down my face, because I see Dad’s nod, and I know, as he raises his gun what his plan is. And then it explodes. Fire and bodies, and I’m screaming and Daryl’s arms are around me turning me away as he watches the flames.

My heart’s breaking into a million pieces. Daddy. No. I’m sobbing as Daryl holds me. Trying to talk to me quietly, whispering, and walking me toward the trees.

Daryl, never very talkative, tells me that they learned who was luring the Saviors away. He’s trying to get my mind off of what I’d seen. Trying to divert the pain that is flashing through me in waves. Trying to keep me present, as though a diversion can make my pain lessen, as though it can put my heart back into one piece. The women from Oceanside had taken their vengeance. They’d killed the ones they could remember killing their men. I heard bits, but the reminder of the explosion that killed the first man I ever loved. A man that was my hero from my first breath. A man who no one would ever truly live up to, not even Daryl. My daddy was gone.

As Daryl held me, I told him. I told him what I’d wanted to share with both him and Dad. I told him that we had a baby on the way.

 

Daryl and Michonne can’t let Dad go. No body, no death. And so they search. And search. And search. Michonne manages to find Dad’s gun, offering it to me, but I shake my head emphatically. She puts it away, promising that Judith will have it when she’s old enough. That along with Dad’s hat, my little sister will keep gaining pieces of the family she’s lost. I wonder, idly, if one day she’ll have my bow, Michonne’s katana, and Daryl’s crossbow.

Michonne came to me not long after Dad was gone to tell me of a new hope. She’s pregnant. Apparently Daryl and I weren’t the only ones wanting to start a family. I can tell that she’s uncomfortable telling me. I’d have to be ignorant to not understand her discomfort. Dad was gone. Judith was my ONLY remaining family, or at least that’s what she thought.

“Michonne,” I smile and correct myself. “Mom, this is GOOD news.” Her answering smile shows her relief. Hugging her to me, I tell her how happy I am and that Judith is going to be an amazing big sister.

“She’s had you to learn from,” her whisper rustles my hair. “Of course she will.”

I’d gone back to visiting Negan. Dad was gone. My life was forever changed, and honestly, I wanted to keep at least some parts of who I was the same. I told him that Daryl and I were planning on starting a family.

“Planning?” He glanced down my body and I could have sworn he had x-ray vision. “Oh, sweetheart, I think you’ve done more than plan.”

I raised my chin in defiance. “At least I didn’t beg to die.” I saw a flash of pain cross his face. “Pretty fucking interesting, I BEG for your fucking life, only to have you want Maggie to end it.” I nod to myself. “Of course, being with Lucille, be it wooden or angel form must seem pretty like paradise compared to this.” I gesture around the cell.

“Jessi-” I shook my head. “Honey-” His hands reach through the bars trying to reach for me, but I step away.

“My dad’s gone. I’m pregnant with my first baby.” It’s barely above a whisper, but I know he can hear me. “Why am I down here with someone who doesn’t fucking care?”

“I care, Jessi.” His voice is as pleading as it had sounded when he’d begged Maggie to die. “I had a momentary fucking lapse.”

“I’ve got to go.” I whisper, moving toward the door. “Bye, Negan.”

I wish I could say I stopped visiting him. That between starting a family with Daryl and helping Michonne with Judith that I gave him up. I couldn’t. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Judith and I visited, me taking her along more as a barrier between us than anything. And I tried very very hard to pretend that he didn’t seem to take note of every single change that pregnancy brought to my body.

A new group arrived at our gate. Or at least part of a new group. Michonne, carrying her pregnancy weight far better than me, met them. Shock and amazement, she knew the woman who appeared to be their leader. A woman named Jocelyn.

Chapter Text

Jocelyn, Michonne’s friend, has a group with many kids. It seems odd to me, so many children, without as many adults, but who am I to judge? I see their eyes land on my bump, Michonne’s bump, and Daryl’s protective nature. I feel the cold chill I normally get when someone I love is in danger, but they all seem so normal. Survivors, by nature, are watchful. It’s what keeps them alive. At least that’s what I tell myself over and over.

Judith and our other young ones, kids I’ve helped teach and read to, have a bonfire and sleepover with the newcomers. Innocent, or so it seems. Why then, as Daryl sleeps comfortably next to me, can’t I let the chill be overcome by his warm? Why can’t I fall off to sleep too?

I tell myself, as I creep down the hallway and out the front door, that I’m only going to make sure that Judith has fallen asleep in the company of these strangers. It’s when I’m getting closer that I feel a sharp pain in my head and then darkness takes me under.

 

When I come to, I’m in the infirmary. The pain is terrible. From my head down to my toes and I can’t seem to move. What the literal fuck? And then I realize that I feel no movement from my baby. Nothing. Usually when I first wake up, or when I’m coming awake, the baby is so active that I feel like I’m going to pee myself. Nothing. And I remember going to check on Judith and the world spins and I feel like I’m going to throw up.

“Hey,” I guess I moved, flinched or groaned. It’s Michonne, and she’s holding tight to my hand. “You’re awake.”

“What happened?” My voice is hoarse and dry. “Why am I in the infirmary?”

She sighs, grabbing a cup of water from the side table and helping me sit up. I realize that my bump, usually so full and active is still so horribly quiet. “Jocelyn, her people, they-” She took a deep breath and after I drank helped me lay back down. “They took the children.” I tried to sit back up. “No, Jessi, it’s fine. We got everyone back.” But I can see, in the way she won’t meet my eyes that something is wrong.

“Judith?” My voice broke, my fear so very strong.

“She’s fine, Jessi.” I saw Michonne swallow hard. “They killed one of ours, and left you-” I waited, wondering if-

“Daryl.” My voice was a breath. If it wasn’t Judith, then Daryl. He was one of ours. Did they murder him?

She shook her head and took my hand in hers. “No, honey, not Daryl.” I was confused. Then what was so terrible that she couldn’t look at me? “It’s your baby.” My baby?

I felt my heart clench and I knew. It wasn’t moving. “My baby?” I felt my eyes sting. “Mom?”

Michonne finally looked into my face and I saw it. The pain of loss, a pain she knew. Her eyes were shining with tears. “Siddiq, he realized yesterday, when we brought you in.” Yesterday? Fuck. “He’s going to have to help you-”

I was gasping for air. “Where’s Daryl?” And then I saw him, in the doorway, holding Judith. “I’m sorry.” The tears were blurring my eyes. I was sobbing. I’d done it. I’d failed so terribly at the ONE thing we both wanted. “I’m sorry.”

Daryl handed Judith to Michonne and pulled me upright into his arms. “It’s OK, Jessi, we can try again.” He was kissing my hair, promising me that this wasn’t our only shot at our family.

 

It was our only shot. If I’d lost my baby during the time before, there would have been a way to induce my labor. I would have been able to give birth, naturally, and no harm no foul. This wasn’t the time before. And Siddiq, while a great medic, was NOT a OB/GYN with a full arsenal of medication at his disposal.

I ended up having a flash of Lori’s fear and death. Somehow, my baby did not turn, perhaps babies are slower in turning? Perhaps I got insanely lucky. What I wasn’t lucky in was having a cesarean that didn’t end in at least partial tragedy. My tragedy wasn’t death. It was simply an end to my ability to have children.

I will not go back through the pain of having that surgery performed. I will not graphically recall the blood and the fear and the pain. I won’t allow myself to remember finding out that Siddiq hadn’t been completely successful and that I would never get to have a child by Daryl, or anyone for that matter.

I survived. My baby didn’t. A tiny girl whose brain had to be pierced just in case. A little girl that would never play in Alexandria, never be given a piggy back ride by me or her daddy, a little girl that I couldn’t even name because my pain was so overwhelming.

Once I was well enough to move, I walked carefully back through Alexandria, a fog of grief and barely noticed anyone or their expressions. I made my way back to the house I shared with Michonne, Daryl, and Judith. I walked to my room, and I tried to focus on Judith’s gift of a painting. Me, Uncle Daryl, Mom, and was that Negan?

“Judith,” I pulled her carefully onto my lap, since I was still in pain. “Who is this?” I pointed to the bearded man that was on the other side of my colorful self.

“Negan.” She said, snuggling into my chest. Which also ached, because my milk hasn't dried up yet. “He make you feel better.”

I closed my eyes and felt my chest tighten. “He does?”

She nodded, and sighed. “Was scared.” She whispered and I kissed her curls. “Mommy was bloody.” Oh God. “All over. You weren’t there.” I felt my eyes start to burn. “Uncle Daryl and Mommy not tell me what happened.”

Damn it. “I’m sorry, baby.” I tried to rock her, but pain flashed through my body. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

“You were asleep on the road.” Fuck, she’d seen. “I wanted to see you, but they not let me.”

My eyes closed again. “You’re safe now, Jude. You’re safe.”

She tilted her face up to look at me. “You sad. Uncle Daryl said-” I saw her look at where my baby had once cradled inside of me. Her tiny hand touched it gently. “No more baby?”

I was crying and hugging her to me when Michonne and Daryl came to the doorway. “Judith, sweetheart, let’s let Jessi rest?” Mom offered, walking over and picking her up. “We love you, honey.” She was looking at me and I nodded, pushing Judith’s painting onto the side table.

She walked out with Judith blowing me a kiss and telling me she loved me. Daryl was leaning against the wall beside the door. “Get some rest, Jessi.” I sighed, and started to lay down. “I’m gonna go back to searching.” I closed my eyes and knew, even as he was saying it, that he didn’t want to be here with me. Not now. “Maybe I can find-”

I nodded, rolling over so he was confronted with my back. “OK, be safe.” I couldn’t offer more. Not now. Not after failing so spectacularly.

“I love you.” He said quietly and I nodded. If you loved me, I wanted to scream, then you’d stay. But I didn’t. He needed time to grieve in his own way. And being alone was Daryl’s way.

“Me too,” I offered, but I wasn’t sure he’d waited. Or if he’d heard.

 

I healed. Physically, and as mentally as I could. I had to. Mom was growing closer to her due date, and I had to be there to help. I wanted to be there. I’d watched Judith be born, traumatizing though it was, and I wanted to see my newest sibling come into this world.

Daryl was seen less and less. We drifted further and further apart. And between the grief I felt over the loss of our baby, the excitement I allowed to take its place in part at the impending arrival of Mom’s baby, I didn’t get to visit Negan.

My little brother, Rick Grimes Jr came into this world with a lusty scream and I swore that I could see Dad and Carl in his tiny face. I see Michonne, and my heart nearly explodes with love. He doesn’t replace my little girl, but he’s wonderful.

 

I’m walking home, after his birth, when I decide that it’s time to see Negan. The guard barely looks at me and I go inside, the darkness of his cell pisses me off. Light isn’t a luxury, so he should have some. I’ll have to talk to Mom about it later.

“Come to show me your little one?” His voice, sounding hoarse from disuse, is quiet. My heart pounds at the reminder of my loss, but I can’t be angry with him for not knowing. I am appreciative that no one told him.

“No.” I answer sadly, taking the single hard chair and moving it closer to his cell. “I don’t think you can see the cemetery from here.”

“Cemetery?” He takes in my appearance in the dimness. “Oh, Jessi, no.” Strange, he sounds like he cares. As though he feels the pain I feel. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He’s moved so he’s standing at the bars, his hands reaching through, but I don’t take them.

“Yeah, I-” I feel a sob building and force it down. Today is a happy day, I remind myself, think of little RJ. “She didn’t make it.” I take a deep breath. “My new baby brother did.” I smile, remembering his tiny fist. “There’s a new Rick Grimes in town.”

Negan kneels on the hard floor and looks up at me. “Sweetheart, let’s go back to the baby.” I shake my head. No, I won’t. “You need to talk about it.” Shit, why? “Tell me.”

And I do. What I’ve pieced together about the night Jocelyn’s people kidnapped Judith and the others. About the head wound they gave me, about being found JUST in time to save me, but not the baby. How my little sister and the other kids, including one of Jocelyn's group was saved. About my cesarean operation and the resulting damage. And how, even after all that, I wanted to just think about RJ and Judith.

“Where’s Daryl?” It was quiet, but loaded. “Why isn’t he here, making sure you’re talking?”

“He suffered a loss too, Negan.” It sounded lame, but it was true. “Daryl does better on his own to process.”

He nodded, sensing no doubt that I wasn’t in the mood to rehash his feelings on Daryl’s failures where I was concerned. “I can’t have kids either.” It was quiet, but just as pained as how I felt when I learned that my hopes were gone. “Lucille and I tried, and tried. Nothing. I shoot blanks.”

“Why did the wife-” It was weird, but I was curious about the pregnancy test I’d seen, which led me to Alexandria’s cache of tests.

“Sherry.” He nodded. “She, before she agreed to-” He sighed. “Her and Dwight-”

“Oh.” They’d run off together, but I’d assumed, god knew what. “Guess we’re a sad pair.” I gave a dark chuckle. “Both genetic dead ends.”

Negan shook his head. “No. We can’t make babies, Jessi, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact.” I snorted. “OK, not necessarily the best fucking impacts in my case, but you, oh, Jessica Grimes, you are more than fucking remarkable.”

 

I felt better, slightly, by the time I’d kissed him goodbye and walked home. Judith came rushing to greet me, and I told her all about RJ and how she could meet him the next day. Smiling at the woman who’d stayed with her while I was with Michonne, trying hard to ignore the pity I could see in her eyes, I closed the front door and got us both some dinner.

Chapter Text

The aftermath of Jocelyn’s visit to Alexandria changed our world in far more reaching ways than just the loss of my baby and Daryl leaving. We locked down. We became more insular. We stopped visiting other communities. Hilltop and the Kingdom were almost mythical it seemed. The Sanctuary, it went under, quickly. Carol’s leadership couldn’t bandage the lack of land to grow things, the lack of unity that Negan’s power had ensured, and the deaths of his people at the hands of their victims was one final straw.

Former Saviors, the ones that assimilated and weren’t killed for their past indiscretions found homes in the remaining communities. Michonne, calling her ‘Mom’ was as natural to me it seemed as inhaling, became more careful. She wanted RJ, Judith, and the other children to be safe. As safe as she could make Alexandria with the dangers lurking just outside our walls. And so, she pushed aside her one time dream of a unified group. Her urge to create a charter, a treaty between our people dropped. Her maternal instincts coupled with her warrior nature won out.

Judith and I still visited Negan. He was given more light, the window that had been boarded opened. He got a cot. He was allowed books. His prison became more livable, even if it was still captivity. Without Daryl to occupy part of my time, without the need to take care of my sister and my new brother, I spent more time with him.

He and Judith continued to play. First it was ball, then as she grew and became more inquisitive, he and I would take turns telling her stories. I spent the visits that I made to him alone, with my side pressed against the bars of his cell, feeling his heat mirrored against his side. I was on the free side of the cage, yet I was just as imprisoned as he was. We talked, and talked. I made sure he never felt that same darkness that forced him to ask Maggie for death and he made me realize that letting go of my baby girl might be simpler if she had a name.

“Surely you and Daryl had ideas.” He offered, our fingers linked together through the bars. “Give her a name, sweetheart.”

I sighed, and let my fingers trace the length of his. It sounded simple. It could be. But I couldn’t, not alone. “I’ll have to go to him,” it was a breath, but Negan heard me. “She was his baby too.”

He didn’t flinch. Or sigh. Or make any sign that it irritated him that I’d be leaving Alexandria to go to Daryl to have this conversation. It had been weeks since I’d seen him. I knew where he was, everyone who should know did. He was back at the site. Back where Dad had disappeared. Back to his search, which he felt was more important, more conductive to his pain than being with me.

“Then go,” he offered, but his hand didn’t leave mine. “But be safe, be smart, and come the fuck back to me, princess.”

I left a day later. I had to prepare. Daryl hunted, but God knew what he’d consider food at this point. Supplies, a horse, and I had to take Judith aside and explain. I wouldn’t leave her without a goodbye. Without assurances that I would make it back to her. Without telling her I loved her and she needed to be good for Mom. And so, hugging Mom, giving RJ a kiss on his soft and sweet smelling forehead, and one more hug and kiss to Judith, I was off.

My trip was uneventful. Few walkers approached, and those that did were easily dispatched. Knives and arrows, how quickly we learned to adapt. I heard the river before I saw it. I saw his early warning system before I saw him. And then I was at his camp, a dog approaching me with curiosity.

“DOG!” His voice sounded harsh from disuse. And I realized he probably only spoke to the dog, aptly named, and sparingly. The brown haired animal rushed back to Daryl’s side and I looked up at the man I once would have happily died for. Would I still? “Jessi.” He bobbed his head and gestured toward his makeshift seating arrangement around his campfire.

I sat and he joined me, biting his lip. “You look-” dirty, tired, miserable all came to mind. “Good.” It came out as lame as I felt. Why was I here? Right. “I-”

“Still as beautiful as the day I first saw ya.” I blinked back the pain in my chest and swallowed down the lump in my throat. “Missed ya.”

I nodded absently. Then why’d you leave? Why was camping by the damn river better than laying next to me and working through our grief together? I said none of it. Why bother? “I think we should name her.” It came out in a rush. Not my intention, but it did. “I can’t-WE can’t let her go if she doesn’t have a name.” My eyes were on the rushing water and I nearly missed Dog coming closer to me. And then his soft head was on my knee and my fingers slid through his rough fur. Soothing, just like I’d read during my short stint in college. Petting animals helped calm anxiety. “She deserves that much.”

“Jessi-” I shook my head. This wasn’t about us. This was only about HER. “You could have-”

“She was OURS,” I met his eyes finally, feeling all my pain and anger coming up. “I shouldn’t HAVE to do it alone.” I stood up, scaring Dog a bit, forcing him away from me. Walking to the bank of the river I watched the rush of the current, wishing like hell that my dad was here. “You can search for Dad, you can hide in a tent and adopt a dog, but you can’t name our baby.” I gave a snort of false humor. “Hard shit, sign up Daryl Dixon, the more simple it sounds he likes to sit that shit out.”

“You coulda died.” He was closer than I expected and I cursed his ninja-like feet. “You coulda died. We coulda lost Judith. And I couldn’t do shit to stop either fucking thing.”

“Our baby did die,” I was sure he was close enough to hear me over the water. “She’s gone, and we don’t get another chance, and she’s laying under the dirt. She’s alone and she doesn’t even have a fucking name.”

I didn’t fight him when he wrapped his arms around me from behind. I didn’t pull away when his chin propped on top of my head. I let my tears, the ones I’d held back for the most part after RJ was born, fall. Our little girl deserved so much fucking more. Than this. Than us.

“I’m sorry.” It fluttered my hair, his apology. “I have fucked up at every fucking turn with ya, Jessi Grimes.” I shrugged. Cannot unspill milk or unbreak eggs. “I couldn’t stay and see how-”

“Broken I was?” Sighing, I could feel Dog’s body sit next to my legs. “I’m fine. It’s fine.” It wasn’t, not really, but this is me. I reassure. I let go. “Let’s name her, and I’ll go home, and you can keep searching.” For a pipe dream. For a man who is as gone as our little girl.

 

I was home before dark. Mom seemed shocked. Judith was extremely happy. And Negan was relieved.

“You look tired, princess.” He was seated on his cot, but stood as I walked down the stairs. I pushed the chair closer to his cell and practically collapsed into it.

“Don’t get up,” I waved him off from standing, I was tired enough for the both of us. “I am tired.” I smiled at him. “And I probably smell like wet dog.” He chuckled and stayed seated. “I didn’t expect to go and be back so soon. Not that I’m not grateful.”

“Daryl come back with you?” His worry, no doubt. I shook his head. “Damn fool.” My smile grew.

“You’re biased.” I sat forward and touched the bars in front of me. “We named her.” I heard the springs of the cot squeak with his body shifting. “I had to stop by one of our more artistic people’s places, I want her grave marked properly.”

“What did you pick?” My eyes met his and I could see true interest. “What’s your little girl’s name?”

“Wren Mae Grimes-Dixon.” I smiled, thinking of how tiny she was and how the wren was a delicate bird. I brushed away an errant tear. “The man who I stopped to see, he’s making her a cross engraved with her name and-”

“A wren?” I nodded. “It’s a beautiful name, sweetheart. She would have been-”

“Would have.” I clutched at the bars in front of me. “WOULD HAVE.” I glared. It wasn’t fair. Why did my baby have to pay the ultimate price? Why did I have to KEEP paying? “I can’t decide if I’m pissed that you let me live to feel this. Or if I’m pissed that she didn’t turn inside me and take me with her.”

“Jessi,” I could hear his pain and fear. The pain of my loss and grief coupled with the fear of me slipping away again.

“It comes in waves.” I brushed more burning tears away. “I don’t want to die, but fuck if it doesn’t suck to live.” Closing my eyes against the feelings, the pain and anger. “I got to hold her.” I hadn’t told him. I didn’t want to relive the pain. “She was perfect. So fucking perfect, even when they put the needle through her tiny fucking skull ‘just in case’.” I felt the sob come and didn’t stop it. “She should be here.” It hurt. The steady beat of my own heart like a traitor. “She should have cried. She should have been demanding for my milk. Dirty diapers should be my reality, MY DAUGHTER’S dirty diapers.” Instead, I have my brother’s. Again. “I’m sorry,” fuck why now? I’d felt so much better on the way home. So good when I commissioned her grave marker. And now? Now I felt it all like it was new. “I don’t know-”

“Because you bottle it up, Jessi.” He was in front of me, his fingers touching mine. “You push it away, you move forward. That’s Jessica Grimes.” I looked up at him and saw his smile. “Stop being so fucking brave, princess. Let it out.” The tears were leaving burning paths down my cheeks. “Stay. Stay with me here, go up, ask them to lock you inside with me, but don’t fucking go back to Michonne and Judith tonight. Give yourself this ONE FUCKING NIGHT to be taken care of.” I closed my eyes. “It’s not a request, princess, it’s a command. Go up to whatever moron is lurking upstairs, tell them to open the damn door of this fucking cage and lock you in.” I didn’t move. “Let me hold you tonight, Jessi. Let me hold you while you fucking grieve finally. Please?”

It was easier than I expected, getting locked in the cell with Negan. I left my weapons easily with the guard, and then I was cradled in his arms, laying on top of him on his cot as he whispered comfort to me while I cried.

Chapter Text

I woke up in Negan’s arms. On top of him, actually, since his prison cot was barely big enough for him. All cried out, for now, and feeling stiff and still tired I tried to lift up, but his arms held on tighter.

“Don’t you dare.” I smiled at the roughness of his voice. It had been so damn long since I’d heard it first thing in the morning or in this case pre-dawn. “This fucking cot sucks, but having you on top of me does not.”

Propping my chin on his chest so our eyes could meet I smiled up at him. “I love you, do I tell you that enough?” One of his arms released me so his hand could cup my cheek. “I wish you-”

“Hush.” Negan shook his head and smiled down at me. “You tell me you love me every single time I see you. ” His thumb was tracing under my eye and I saw him swallow hard. “I’m so fucking sorry, Jessi.” I started to ask why he would be sorry, but he stopped me by answering. “For this entire fucking mess.” He glanced at our surroundings. “I should have forced Rick to listen to what Carl really wanted. I should have fucking stopped it before it fucking started. You-” His thumb brushed my lips and I saw his eyes tighten. “You should have been enough to leave this fucking bullshit to your people.” Another swallow. “And I am so fucking sorry that I gave up. That I wanted Lucille. That I told Maggie to kill me. That I forgot that YOU were here. That I need you just as fucking much as you think you need me.” I moved up so our faces were lined up, but before I could kiss him, he gave me one more gift. “I fucking love you, Jessi Grimes, and I’ll die before I think of leaving you again.”

Our lips met, and I was thankful that I’d woken before dawn. It meant that we could find new comfort in one another. Comfort we hadn’t had for as long as I hadn’t heard his voice straight from sleep. If anyone asked me how our clothes ended up on the floor, I wouldn’t be able to answer, but I could tell them how he kissed the scar I couldn’t bear to look at when I got out of the shower because it reminded me of everything I’d lost. How he watched my face as he entered my body after so long and how we both still felt like we were made for one another.

I was under him, the cot making the most irritating sounds that a cot could ever hope to make, but no one came to check. No one interrupted us. No one could have, honestly. We both needed to be together. Like this. Like we needed air, or food. And as I went over the edge one last time, taking him with me, I knew that I had to find a way to have this feeling again.

 

I left once we heard Alexandria waking up outside. The guard came down to see if I was ready, and after kissing Negan goodbye inside the cell, much to the embarrassment of his jailor, I left for home. I’d sent word, through yesterday’s guard, to Michonne that I was staying with Negan. I expected her to be awake when I walked in, RJ was an early riser as most babies tended to be, a thought that brought me a fresh wave of pain.

“Morning.” She offered to me as I closed the front door behind me. She was cradling my little brother and rocking him as he had breakfast. “You look like you slept poorly.”

I rolled my eyes. “That cot is made for one. And it might be made more for someone my size than his.” Rolling my shoulders as the pain started to remind me of my Negan mattress.

“Are you planning more sleepovers?” She was grinning at me, so I knew she wasn’t irritated or surprised.

“Possibly. I need a shower. I smell like a wet dog.” And sex. “Not sure RJ isn’t allergic to dog dander, so I’ll clean up first, and then snuggle his cute little self.”

“Jessi!” Judith’s little feet slapping against the hardwoods gave me too short warning of her impending launch, and then she was wrapped around my knees.

Smiling, I lifted my not so little sister into my arms. “Hey, sweetie.” She tugged on my braid, something she’d begun to do when I got out of the infirmary and she wanted my attention. “Did you sleep well last night?” Her pout told me more than words ever would. “Sorry I wasn’t here to keep you company.”

“Why couldn’t I sleepover with Negan, too?” I could see the mirth in Michonne’s eyes over the top of Judith’s head. Guess Mom could smell more than wet dog on me, or she was making some assumptions.

Biting my lip and hoping my blush wasn’t burning as bright as it felt, I cleared my throat and gave my best non-answer. “I need a shower from my trip yesterday, want to keep me company?” Diversions still worked with her, thank god, and so we set off for the bathroom while I listened to Judith regale me with what she’d done the day before while I was gone.

 

The shower, accompanied by Judith’s storytelling, was heavenly. Once I was dried, dressed, and had my hair pulled up in a long ponytail, I sat my little sister down and told her that I was planning on visiting Carl.

“And the baby?” She asked, her tiny hand on my stomach.

“Uncle Daryl and I named her,” we were snuggled on my bed. “Wren Mae, do you like it?” She nodded. “Her cross is being made right now, but we haven’t visited with Carl for awhile and I thought we should go catch him up, what do you think?”

“Can we take a picnic?” I smiled, it was one of the ways Dad and Michonne had worked out to keep Judith’s life on a more normal keel. Kissing the top of her head, I assured her that a picnic was more than doable. “Can we visit Negan after?” I sighed, not because I didn’t want to visit him with her, but I didn’t want her life to be more complicated due to my relationship with him.

“Of course,” my need to be near him won out. It always would.

 

Judith and I sat in the sunlight, and I listened as she retold her tale of a day without me. My eyes landed on the tiny grave that was next to my baby brother’s. The artisan had told me it would take a few days to finish what I’d asked for, but I could picture it. Guarding over Wren’s grave, keeping watch when I couldn’t, standing far taller than my little one ever would.

We ate sandwiches and drank cool water while we sat on one of the thinner blankets that the community had saved. It was a temptation to lay down and take a nap in the warmth of the sun, but I fought it. I could just imagine the rumors that would run rampant about my mental state if Judith and I were caught sleeping in the cemetery. Instead, we gathered our blanket and leftovers up, I took her hand and we walked to visit Alexandria’s only prisoner.

 

“Well, well, well,” his voice greeted us as we came into the light streaming in from the newly opened window high in the wall of his cell. “What do I owe to this honor?” He’d dropped to his knees so he was close to eye level with Judith.

“We visited Carl and,” she looked up at me for confirmation, and I nodded and reminded her of my baby’s name. “Wren, and had a picnic.” She was beaming at the fact that she and I were spending our day together and I had to think about how long it had been since we’d had one. “Jessi said we could come see you.”

“Jessi is an amazing woman,” Negan’s eyes met mine and I could see his dimples were deep with happiness. “And a wonderful big sister.” His fingers brushed through Judith’s long curls. “Thank you for coming to see me, angel.”

She sat down on the hard floor and regaled him with her activities of the day before as I sat down behind her and let her curl into my lap.

Negan’s eyes kept meeting mine, his dimples deep, and his smile wide. He needed these visits too. To keep him sane and with me. To remind him that life, any version, even this one was worth living.

Chapter Text

Visiting with Negan, falling back into a routine with Michonne, RJ, and Judith, the days slipped away. I moved into a smaller house, closer to the prison when RJ turned two, wanting Michonne to have the house and my siblings to herself more. She’d closed off, so much of our community and herself, that I needed to be able to breathe. Judith was an almost constant visitor, spending nights, learning to make my space as much hers and the house she shared with Mom.

We’d read, books that we salvaged from runs, or, once I’d come more permanently back to myself, ones that I wrote for her. Negan read them, along with any other books that I brought him, rabidly.

I heard about the Sanctuary being left to rot, Daryl and my experience there had been proven correct. The land wasn’t fertile enough for crops, the people weren’t ready to move past Negan’s leadership, and so Carol gave it up for a loss and went back to the Kingdom. I couldn’t tell him, it wasn’t news I wanted to share, to see his face drop when he realized that the fruits of his leadership had crumbled in the hands of my dad’s allies would be one too many strikes against them for him to take. His people had gone off on their own, and there were rumors that they’d become bandit like, but nothing was confirmed.

Judith grew, and as she grew older Michonne and I split up her education. I took up the task of helping teach my little sister the things she would normally have learned in school, which we had a version of in our community, but my tutoring helped her through the hiccups. Michonne taught her the katana and other defensive tactics. Since math wasn’t my strong suit, I learned that Judith had taken to sitting on the steps outside Negan’s now opened, but still barred, window to ask him for his help.

I found them there, my eight year old sister wearing my dad’s sheriff hat and her well worn boots with her math book cradled in her lap, listening as the man I loved argued that her math problem didn’t matter because there weren’t any airplanes anymore to make a difference.

“I don’t think that’s going to help her solve the problem, Negan.” Judith’s face split into a smile at my appearance and so did his from the window that he was leaning beside. “Since I’m useless at math, I’d ask Mom if I were you.” I tapped the brim of her hat.

“I hear that our little girl here found some survivors,” Negan offered, smiling up at me and I was sure wondering if I planned on giving the guards the night off to keep him company as I had made routine since the first time I slept in his cell.

I sighed. She had, and it was causing a LOT of upheaval, not only because Mom was feeling stressed that Judith had wandered off on her own during the scavenging that she hadn’t really wanted her to go on. “She did,” I shook my head as Judith looked up to see if I heard the verdict. “I don’t know what the council is going to decide, you know I stay out of it.” It was easier, and less stressful to keep my opinions to myself during council meetings concerning new people. Everything I said had to run through my people’s filter for how it might be of an advantage to Negan.

“Why does Mom worry so much?” Judith asked, for what seemed like the millionth time. I knew, because she talked about Wren and that day that she saw me lying in a puddle of blood in the street that she remembered her abduction by Jocelyn and her people, so she had to remember what Daryl and Michonne had done to free her, but there was a naive hope that people weren’t all bad still inside of her. She sighed and shut her book. “Negan told me a story about dogs,” I glanced at him and he shrugged. “Just because ONE bad one hurts someone doesn’t mean that all of them are bad. Look at Dog.” I chuckled, thinking about how seldom Daryl visited, but how much Judith had loved the hound that he brought with him.

“Jude, you have to try to see it from Mom’s point of view.” I sat down beside her, knowing that Negan’s eyes and ears were trained on me. “Keeping you, and RJ safe is something she can’t let slide. And she trusted Jocelyn, she trusted who she had been before-” I closed my eyes, knowing that my little sister couldn’t understand the idea of before, since she was born after. “When we still had planes,” I smiled and opened my eyes to meet hers. “When every day wasn’t a fight for food, or shelter,” I looked around at our rebuilt Alexandria. “People now see what we have, see the prosperity and the safety, and they covet it. Like Gabe talks about when-”

“When you bother showing up for his sermons?” She smiled up at me and I shook my head at the truth of her words. “Not everyone wants it all, Jessi.” I thought about Dad, Daryl, and Negan and felt like she had no idea of how many people that loved her DID want it all. “Some just want to share it.”

“Out of the mouths of babes,” I whispered, and tilted her hat back to kiss her on the forehead. “I don’t know whether to keep trying to show you the truth of the world, or to celebrate the fact that you’re not cynical like the rest of us.” Judith shook her head at me. “I love you, you know that?”

“Yep,” she hopped up, and kissed my cheek before rushing off. “I love you, too, Jessi! Bye Negan!” She was down the street heading back toward Mom’s house before I had a chance to respond.

“She’s still innocent, Jessi.” Negan offered, while I watched her get smaller and smaller. “Let her have it, that naivety for now.”

“It won’t keep her safe,” I offered, turning to face him. “And I won’t fucking survive if something happens to her, Negan.”

 

The group that Judith found, I learned, weren’t going to be allowed refuge with us. Michonne, however, the next morning let me know that she planned on taking them to the Hilltop. Tasked with keeping RJ and Judith safe while she was gone, I moved back into the family home, at least for the time being. Walking the same halls that I’d heard Judith’s tiny feet trod, seeing the blue handprints of her and Carl hanging on the wall, I could almost hear Dad’s voice calling out to me. I could almost pretend that he would be coming down the hallway, smiling at me as he told me how proud he was that I was home. That I could feel Daryl’s presence in the room we’d shared, his weight, his strength. And I knew, as I settled into my bed, with Judith on one side and RJ on the other, that I had made the right choice in making my own home in the smaller house. Because ghosts of the past would never help me move forward and prepare for whatever future lay ahead.

Chapter Text

The storm rolled in while Mom was still at Hilltop. A gorgeous, wonderful storm that crashed in, but we had ample warning. Judith had asked if we could move the slumber party to my house, but I shook my head and told her that Mom’s house was better, if only because I was getting updates from the community, and the people seemed happier to speak to me there, than at my house.

I knew, before Mom left, that Rosita had been harmed, which made Siddiq going with her an even better idea than we first thought. Aaron was off, without Michonne’s knowledge I knew, working with Jesus on getting into better fighting shape. A part of him still wanted to be able to recruit new people to our community. The loss of Eric, coupled with his role as a father, made him want better for us. And I had a suspicion that Jesus and Aaron were wrestling with more than just their urge to fight, if the way Aaron blushed when I asked him how his studies were coming was any indication.

Eugene was probably with Rosita, but with no word on him, I forced back worry. I wondered, as Jude and RJ and I snuggled on the couch with a book and a promise from me that I wouldn’t make the stories too scary (RJ didn’t love the scary stuff, and I couldn’t fault him for that either), if Rosita and Siddiq were going to tell Gabe about their after hours activities? I knew, from some of Negan’s share sessions, that he’d heard it too. The whispered conversations, the sidelong glances, there were moments, I thought, reading the book that RJ had picked while letting my mind wander, that Alexandria had the feeling of becoming Melrose Place.

I had no idea how much was changing outside the house that I sat in with my little sister and brother. No clue, just yet, of what darkness was slowly coming closer as the storm crashed around us. The whispers, the chill of fear, I’d grown so used to them that they were no longer a divining rod for the danger facing a loved one. It seemed constant, whether Judith was beside me or not, even during the peace that we’d managed since Negan was locked away. And so, as I felt the cold fingers of warning creep up my spine, I shook it off and ignored it because if there was one simple truth I’d learned since the beginning of all the madness so long ago, it was that there was no safety, no peace, only pockets of easiness like the eye of a storm, before the next strike of lightning and the boom of thunder followed.

 

I woke up in my bed, later that night, darkness still all around and had to take a few beats to remember that I wasn’t in MY bed. I was in the bed that lived in Mom’s house. One hand was on RJ’s tiny body, feeling the reassuring rise and fall of his breathing and the serenity of his warmth, but the other, which had been tucked around Judith’s body was empty. Her side of the bed was cool to the touch and I felt my fear ratchet up. We’d gone to sleep, after the storm was dying down, and both of my siblings had been curled up on either side of me.

Lying there, thinking about my next course of action, I worried that I’d lose my mind, but I heard it. I tiny squeak on the staircase, and thought that must mean that she’d gone downstairs for a drink of water. Careful to get up and not wake up RJ, I stepped out of bed and opened the door. And there, in the dim light of the half moon, stood Negan.

I wasn’t sure which one of us was more shocked. Him or me, honestly, but my eyes were wide and his were, well resigned.

“Jessi-” It was a breath, clearly he wasn’t sure how alone we were, but I noticed that he had Judith’s compass around his neck and I knew.

I shook my head and smiled at the floor. “You’re leaving.” I sounded as resigned as he looked.

“I have to know, Jessi,” he took a step toward me, but I surprised him by taking a step back. “I have to see-” he sighed. “That cage, sweetheart, it’s driving me insane.”

I snorted softly. “Even with my visits? I guess I should be happy, it took longer this time.” My eyes met his. “Go, Negan.” I started to turn back to join RJ in bed again, but his fingers on my elbow stopped me. “I’m not enough, am I?” I should have known, somewhere deep inside I probably did know, but the realization always sucks.

“It’s not that, Jessi, God it was never that.” The fingers of his other hand tilted my head up so I could face him fully. “I just- I’d ask you to go with me, but I know that-”

“I can’t,” shaking my head and whispering. “Because I have to make sure that they’re safe, Negan.”

“I know that, sweetheart, but I can’t stay here.” He sighed, his fingers brushing my skin and touching my lips. “I promise you this, Jessica Grimes, I will find you again. And we WILL be together, but first I have to find us that place.”

Another soft snort from me. “You sound like Dad,” his eyes widened at that. “That elusive safe place, utopia.” I shook my head again. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Negan.” I let my hand cover his where it was cupping my cheek. “Be safe, and-”

His lips met mine and I felt like dying. Not suicidal, not wishing for death, but actual dying. He was saying goodbye, but using his kiss to remind me that he did love me, and he truly believed that we’d end up together. Who would have guessed that Negan of all people would be so delusional about the dangers of our world?

When he pulled away his eyes were locked on mine. “This is NOT goodbye, Jessi, do you hear me.” A nod from me and then he started back down the stairs. “I do promise, and sweetheart, I plan on keeping that one.”

 

Judith was back beside me in bed after morning had fully dawned. I could feel the chill of her skin, and I knew that she hadn’t been in the house. I had searched, after Negan was gone, but hadn’t found her inside. I heard her sigh, and turned to face her.

“He’s gone,” I nodded. “He promised not to hurt anyone, not even if they hurt him, Jessi, but he lied.” My confusion must have been obvious. “He hurt you, didn’t he?” Oh.

“Negan,” I considered my words, having always been as truthful as possible with her. “He can’t stand being caged, Jude, so he had to go.”

“No,” she sounded so sure and calm. “He didn’t have to go. He has you, and he tells you he loves you all the time, but he just walked away.” She looked indignant and irritated. “I let him, though, and-”

“It’s ok,” I cuddled into her, knowing we had a little time before RJ was up and raring to go. “You didn’t make it worse for me, Jude.” I brushed her hair back from her face. “I let him go too.”

 

Trying to get through the normal morning routines and NOT worry about Negan out on his own in the wild world that he hadn’t been free in for too long to keep me comfortable about his chances, wasn’t as easy as anyone would assume. Not even with my experience and the truth of our world reminding me that nothing was guaranteed. If anything, the reality made it harder.

I couldn’t be sure that Daryl would live day to day on his own at his shabby camp by the river, and he’d been out for far longer than Negan had, and had far more experience living off the land. These were the thoughts that kept intruding as I put together RJ and Judith’s breakfast. I felt her eyes on my back, but as though we’d come to a mutual understanding, neither of us were willing to speak about it again, not now.

It doesn’t take long. Breakfast is barely finished when the first alarm is raised. And I knew, even before the first knock came, that they would come to me first. Even if I hadn’t been staying in Mom’s house, even if I wasn’t Rick Grimes’ daughter, they’d come to me, because they all knew how I felt about Negan.

Judith, a far better actress than me, offered to help search. While I swore that I had no idea that he’d escaped, or HOW he’d escaped, since I had only visited the OUTSIDE of his prison the day before, Judith got dressed and ready to go. I knew I should tell her not to go, but I also knew that even if she’d promised to shoot him the next time she saw him, he’d be safer if she found him than anyone else.

“I have to stay with RJ,” I told the suspicious eyes that were watching me as RJ wrapped himself around my knees. “I promised Mom.” Nods, but the clear look of distrust in their eyes told me more than anything else. “Why would I help him leave?” I finally snapped. “Since having him HERE means that I get to be WITH him, helping him go would be stupid, wouldn’t you think?” I reached down for RJ. “I hope you find him,” and that was true of Judith at least.

 

Judith did find him, but not before all hell seemed to break loose for the rest of our world. Mom returned, and everything was a flurry of news and irritation and frustration. Negan escaping was almost the least upsetting thing that could have happened.

Jesus is dead. I feel a rush of pain at the loss of a man who was far too kind for this world, even if he had brought Negan and his people to my dad’s attention. I wonder how Aaron is taking it. Since I’m getting the news from Mom, I know he must have gone to his daughter’s side. Comfort from the unconditional love of a child is unbeatable, I would know.

There’s a prisoner in Hilltop, a member new group of badness that seems to actually use the hordes to make their attacks. And not in the same way that Negan used them for guarding the Sanctuary. And Daryl, Mom mentions with a look in my eyes that tells me more than words ever could, is in charge or learning more from the prisoner. I feel a rush of fear and terror at what tactics Daryl will use to get what our people need to keep safe.

Negan’s return is almost anti-climatic. Mom, I can see, is shocked that I don’t want to go and speak to him. Questions and a suspicion in her eyes that I shake off. Offering to take RJ with me for the afternoon, since she plans on confronting the Council after what she considers their duplicity and backstabbing, she nods, but I know the conversation isn’t over.

Judith finds me, playing with RJ on my porch, and I wait to hear what she feels like sharing. Taking a seat on the top step, she watches while RJ runs around the porch trying to grab and catch the ball I was rolling around for him.

“He was coming back on his own,” she offers, and I tilt my head to show her I’m listening. “He knows I was right, Jessi, that there’s nothing out there now, not for him.” Nodding and clapping as RJ catches the ball on the first go this time, I wait for whatever else she wants to share. “He told me he promised you-”

I chuckle as my baby brother launches himself at me and tackles me onto my back. “People promise a lot of things, Jude, you know that.” I know she knew it, she’d shared Carl’s letter he wrote to her with me. “Promises mean nothing without actions.”

“And he’s back, Jessi,” I was wiggling under RJ’s attempts to tickle me into submission. “He’s back and he’s right there-” I didn’t have to look to know she was pointing at his cell. “He loves you.”

“Oh, Jude,” I sit up, holding RJ’s now squirming body as I tickle him back. “I wish that was enough.”

Chapter Text

I kept RJ late into the evening. Judith had gone off to eavesdrop on Mom and the Council, and I had taken RJ inside to read and relax. I knew Negan could see my house from his cell, it was one reason I’d asked to move into it, but I pushed aside the idea that he would watch the three of us on the porch.

Mom came as I was getting RJ ready to take back home. She looked tense and I knew that something was up, so I sent my little brother into the kitchen to grab a snack and color.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, sitting down on the couch and tucking my feet under me. “Did the Council-

“Nothing to do with that,” she shook her head and stared at me. “I went to see him.” Ah, Negan, that would make her tense alright. “Jessi, I caught Judith listening in as we had our-”

“Showdown?” I offered, seeing her flinch at the reminder of what must have been a doozy of a conversation. “She visits him without me, Mom, you know that.”

She swallowed and I realized it might be worse than that. “I know that now,” what? How had she NOT noticed Judith doing her homework on the steps of his prison? “She told me I should listen to him, that he’s changed, has he?” Her eyes were locked on mine, searching for answers that she seemed to hope I had.

I shook my head, thinking it would never end. The suspicion, the IDEA that I was an authority on all things Negan. “To me?” I asked, smiling sadly. “He promised to never try to leave me again, not after he asked Maggie to kill him.” I felt the twist of pain knowing that he had left me, even if he kept his promise and came back. “I don’t think I’m the best person to ask this-”

“You are,” she was firm. “You see him completely different from the rest of us, Jessi. You know him in a different way. I trust you-”

At that I laughed. “Really? Are we back to that lie?” Her eyes widened. “Michonne, MOM, we both know that there are definitely parts of me that you don’t trust. No one does. And THAT’S why you’re here.” I heard RJ’s approach. “You ready to go home, buddy?” I felt his tiny arms wrap around my neck from behind. “You’re getting too big,” his lips smacked a loud kiss on my cheek. “Take him home, Mom,” my eyes met hers again and I could see she wanted to continue our talk. “I’ll come over tomorrow, we’ll finish this.”

I watched RJ and Mom walking back toward their house, the tiny lantern in Negan’s cell letting me know he was still awake, as the darkness grew. Shutting my door behind me, I walked across the street, down the steps I could find in the dark and into the room that held his cage.

“Welcome home,” I offered as he looked up at me. “How was your trip?”

 

My visit with Negan was with the bars between us. He understood, as I knew he would, that our nighttime visits wouldn’t be as close or pleasant for some time to come. I returned home, took a shower, and tucked myself into bed and wondered what would happen next.

The next morning I kept my word and went to see Michonne. I grinned around the tangle of limbs that was my little brother wrapping himself around my legs, and smiled up at the woman my dad had fallen in love with. “Morning!” I offered, shaking my head at her offer for something to drink. “Come on, spider monkey,” I tugged RJ up, so he could hold on to my neck. “Let’s go hang out with Mom.”

He played while I answered Mom’s questions. “Negan’s changed. He went out there in the big bad world and realized he’s not the big bad wolf anymore,” I knew this because we’d talked about it the night before. “But if you want to know if he’s still Negan? Yes, he is.” I wouldn’t lie to her, he was still very much the man I fell in love with, and that man was both confident and a leader. That would never change. “He came back, Mom, not only because the world’s shittier for him than before, but because he promised me that we’d be together again.”

“He wants me to talk things over, a sounding board,” I knew this, he told me. “I don’t trust him, Jessi, I don’t.” I nodded, it made sense, even if I did trust him. “She told me that she visits him because he listens to her, that not everyone does.” Judith, of course, my little sister was nothing if not open when asked. “She doesn’t see him like I do.”

“Neither do I, Mom.” She knew this, and it was why she was talking it out with me. I sighed. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken her with me when I visited him.”

“Maybe,” she didn’t sound sure. “She told me that I changed, and that meant he could too.” Jude was being a little too honest with Mom, I thought. “We had a fight,” I smiled sadly. “I’m going to give the Council the freedom to send a delegation to Kingdom for the fair, they accused me of-” she sighed, and shook her head. “Our people have a right to decide.”

“That was the point of the Council, I thought,” I offered, wondering if I should go check on Judith. “You know I-”

“Won’t say what you’re thinking about any of it,” she smiled, and I knew the worst of our frustration with one another was past. “I wish you would, Jessi. You’re STILL Rick’s daughter.” I shook my head, of course I was, but I was also Negan’s lover. “At least to me, even if you don’t share with the others, please?”

“I understand staying more to ourselves,” I felt like I had to give her my opinion, if only because she’d asked. “After-” my hands moved to my stomach absently, and I closed my eyes for a moment to steady myself. “We lost things, Mom, we’ve ALL lost things, people, but Dad wouldn’t have wanted us to close off.” I could see him, on that bridge, one final look between us. “He died-” she flinched, “disappeared, not knowing that I could have been giving him a granddaughter. He was trying to unite us, that was the point behind that damn bridge, wasn’t it?” She nodded, her eyes tight with the memory. “Just because there are monsters wearing human faces, doesn’t mean that all humans are monsters.”

“Even after your loss?” She asked, and I knew she didn’t just mean Wren. She meant Daryl. Dad. Mom. Carl. “You still think that we should be-”

“I think there’s a difference between being naive and being careful while being open minded.” I considered the group that Judith had saved. “Those people Jude found, the ones you took to Hilltop?” She nodded. “I didn’t meet them, but were they as bad as you feared?” She shook her head. “So we could have had,” she held up her hand with all five fingers extended, “five more able bodied adults to help our community flourish. Instead, you took the risk to leave with Siddiq, our doctor, to take them to another community that might not have taken them either. And on top of that, what else was risked?”

She listened and I could see her digesting my words. “Magna had prison tattoos,” it was quiet, more to herself, as though she was convincing herself about her decision. “What do you propose?”

“Nothing,” I smiled. “I offer you nothing in the way of picking and choosing, that’s the Council’s job, right?” A shrewd look passed over her face and I saw she understood. “All I’m saying, Mom, is that we can’t write people off before we know, or before we have a second to see if they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

“I thought I knew Jocelyn,” her eyes were on my very flat stomach. “It cost you so much, that belief.”

I reached out and took her hand. “Live and learn, Mom.” Holding her hand we heard RJ banging blocks over in the corner. “I mean, I haven’t lost everything, have I?”