Douglas Monroe was a man with principles.
He was a husband. Not a very good one, but he had a wife, Regina, and a child, Spencer, who needed him. It didn't matter that he had never stayed loyal Regina since his son was born. Nor did it matter that Spencer was almost a man and acted like a spoiled little shit half the time. Damn, he deserved a good few months without his dad having to protect him from the scrutiny of his peers. He had a duty to them, to come home, to be there. However, that was private family business. This, out here, finding people to save, this was his real mission.
Saving people. That's why Alexandria was so safe and free. There was no dictatorship or secret goings on. They were a community that worked to save who they could. He was a leader, and as a leader, he was expected to be strong. Regardless of how dire a situation seemed. Hell, he'd been a congressman for Ohio back before the dead decided to start walking and devouring the living. At least in this world he was fighting to unite everyone instead of fighting some damn political war between people from the same state. One perk of the apocalypse, politics was the first thing to die. Politics and most of the population.
As he watched the guy called Rick and his red neck partner search the RV, he was relieved to see that maybe he'd found some survivors who could actually help back in Alexandria. Tough guys to fight, but who weren't the type to go off stealing and raping the women by night. Rick mentioned a family to the other guy, a son. A family meant more people, women and children maybe. If he could bring them back, hed have saved enough lives to feel like he'd made a difference. It would be a sweet relief after all those failed attempts to save people out here.
Last trip to Atlanta, a group of his guys were shot down by rouge police officers. Time before that, Old Scott took his boy to find survivors at terminus and never came back. Since then Terminus stopped transmitting a radio message and were declared terminated. It was all bad news lately. He wasn't sure he could even trust these guys, but hell he was gonna try and reason with them. If they had families, they deserved a chance of sanctuary.
Meanwhile, Rick was searching for weapons, finding nothing in the RV. Having Douglas watching him from the low sofa at the back of the extended vehicle was even more unnerving. He was too calm, too sure that they would be willing to talk with him. Rick wasn't even sure whether to believe in this Alexandria safe zone. Daryl, however, was willing to believe it. He'd noticed the map pinned over the desk behind the drivers seat. Alexandria had a red box over it labelled ASZ, and there was a radio beneath it that seemed to be in working order.
"Radio works fine, but they've cut off my signal. Won't find it again unless I send up a flare."
Douglas spoke when he saw Daryl studying the radio. Rick looked over, confused and wary, "Cut you off?"
Douglas nodded, calmly explaining, "When someone goes missing for longer than three days, they switch off the radio signal, in case someone hostile tries to use it to find them. Usually, you send up a flare and they will radio back, but I'm a little far from the nearest checkpoint."
Daryl could tell he wasn't lying. How he was dressed, how he spoke, the way the RV was so well stocked; he had come from somewhere safe. If Rick was willing to make a deal, Daryl was eager to get everyone in this house on wheels. There were four beds down the centre, a table and kitchen, a bathroom, two couches and a whole four cans of fuel to power it. It was like a Winnebago, something Merle knew a lot about, spending most summer nights with his friends getting high on the road in one of these. Not Daryl's kind of fun. Daryl was younger then, stuck at home at his dad's mercy. Still, he knew about these kinda things. The engine was out but he was sure he could fix it. Dale would have known how to fix it. Daryl was surprised by how sad it was that he'd never thought of Dale since that night on the barn, when he pulled the trigger for Rick. The old man was good, kind, fussy about his tools. Daryl didn't know much more than that. He didn't want Beth to be forgotten so easily. Maybe it would be a lot easier if he could just forget her, remember her a few years from now when he heard someone singing or saw a bottle of moonshine. Yeah, it would be easier, but he knew it wouldn't be right. Beth wasn't just a dead girl, she was the girl. The girl who changed him, who showed him what it meant to have hope for a future. He didn't know why, but Beth left a mark on him that would never fade and he knew it ran deeper than he cared to think.
"How'd you end up out here?" Rick asked Douglas, sitting across from the unarmed man, awakening Daryl from his thoughts, forcing him back to a reality without Beth.
"I was looking for one of our guys. Stuart. He came out here trying to find survivors and didn't radio in for a few days. His last transmission came from this motel, but my guess is he went up to Johnson City. When I got here, I saw some cars racing up the road so I broke into this damn parking lot and got surrounded. The impact of the fence damaged the engine and I didn't have the power needed for the radio to work so I've been stranded."
Daryl frowned, recognising the city Douglas mentioned, "why would he head to Johnson city? Ain't nothing much there."
"Firework warehouse. When we don't radio in, we have to send a flare. My guess is he was heading to the city to send up some fireworks and get our attention."
Rick knew what the man would be asking next. Honestly, he didn't want to trust anyone. After the hospital, he knew no one could be trusted. He couldn't live with himself if trusting this stranger led to Carl dying the way Beth did. This so called safe zone could just be another terminus, or worse, a trap. They could be shot on sight. There was too much relying on this mans word. He was glad to have Daryl by his side. Of Abraham or Glenn were here, they'd have insisted they trust him and go running off to the safe zone. Daryl was as sceptical as him and his word would help Rick make a decision. When he glanced over at him, Daryl raised an eyebrow, looking to Douglas, "Who runs this safe zone?"
Douglas sighed and smiled a little, "if you can believe it, me."
Daryl was sure it was true, and judging by this guys lack of guns and basic survival skills, it was clear he was used to being somewhere safe. He didn't hesitate when he spoke, he was honest, and the picture of a woman and boy up by the map told Daryl he was a family man. It wasn't anything to mean they should trust him, but it was enough proof of the safe zones existence to make Daryl give Rick a nod of the head.
Rick stood before the man, leaning down so they were eye to eye, his voice deadly serious, "We have others. More of us. If we help you get to Johnson..."
Douglas didn't let him finish, waving round to the RV, "this is all for you. I'm here to save people, bring them back. Winter is coming, we always try and save as many as we can before the snow blocks us off. Come with me to Johnson, I'll send a flare and a convoy will come and take us home."
Daryl glanced at Rick, who nodded in agreement. Looks like they had a detour to make. Next stop, Johnson City.
Morgan was all to aware of how soon night would fall upon them. Rebecca said the motel wasn't far but it was clear she had failed to realise how long a journey it was. He planned on cutting through Johnson City as soon as a turning for it appeared but the dying light and his need for rest forced him to consider the need to set up camp. They could just sleep in the car but he didn't want to waste the fuel needed keeping it running. Also, they needed food and most of it needed to be cooked. A fire might be the sort of warmth he needed to shake of the cloudy weariness that fogged his mind. Dawn was asleep already, clutching her journal, softly breathing as she lay to her side. He heard her mutter names as she slept. Sometimes it was her own name, sometimes it was Beth, and once he swore he heard her mutter Dixon. Morgan left her in the car as he pulled up and got out, stretching his legs, glancing around the spot he head chosen. It was the widest stretch of grass by the road, with enough space between the trees and their camp for him to see any walkers that might come lurching out. For a moment, he stood there, shivering in the winter chill, looking at the sky. The sky was a murky canvas adorned with stars, some falling, others formed in constellations he had long forgotten the names of. Since the cities went dark, the sky seemed more beautiful than ever. Every star brighter than it had been before. Another fell and he dared himself to wish upon it. To wish for his son back. To wish for Jenny to come running over laughing and dancing the way she had on their wedding day. No. Instead, he looked away and reached into the car, grabbing the supply bag.
"Where are we?"
Dawn sounded drowsy as she leaned out of the window, watching him sort through the tins of food. He didn't even glance up as he answered, "still a long way from where we should be."
She knew he was still being distant but she didn't care. Trying to understand Morgan was not gonna be easy and she still felt too tired to stand up. Then, a thud from the boot of the car made her spin round in alarm, looking back at Morgan who was also aware of the sound. Grabbing his knife, he went to the back of the car, followed by Beth. Carefully, she reached out, lifting the boot... To find a single brown eye gazing at her. She laughed while Morgan swore.
"Hey Snow, good dog," she reached out, ruffling the fur behind his ears. He seemed all too eager to receive some attention, tongue lolling out of his mouth, tail wagging. Dawn laughed as he licked her face, resting his paws on her shoulders. Then, with a heavy heart, she thought of Jess, suddenly aware of how distraught the girl must the hell did he even sneak into the boot in the first place? Morgan spoke before she could voice her concern.
"Damn dog, can't go back now. Hell He'll just have to some with us."
Dawn's eyes widened in alarm, "No! No we gotta take him back, Jess will be heartbroken!"
Her voice was raised and she glanced around, aware of how unwise it was to get hysterical in such a risky situation but she couldn't stand thinking of a sick girl pining for her pet. Besides, where they were heading could be dangerous. Snow had a habit of running off and following strangers, she wouldn't forgive herself if he got bit or worse, got consumed by a walker hoard. Morgan shot her a warning look but she ignored it. She wouldn't back down.
"If we go back now, even if it's just half way, he could make his own way home..."
Morgan quickly cut her off, raising a finger to his lips, "Keep it down, girl. Now he's gonna stay with us and if we ever make it to Washington and find Rick, then we can all go back and get Jess and Rebecca... Right now, we go forward."
She opened her mouth to argue but at that moment, Snow cocked his head, raising a n ear to the wind, jumping down from the boot of the car, evading Dawns arms as he ran. She called him, pushing Morgan away as he tried to pull her back, panicking as she saw Snow running down the road to Washington, a white blur disappearing into the darkness ahead. Why was he going that way? What had he heard? Why didn't he go home? She moved to run after him but Morgan grabbed her arm, pulling her back, cursing as she elbowed him in the ribs, but his hand kept a firm grip of her forearm.
"Let the damn mutt go, Dawn!"
She glared at him, eyes fiery as she fought against his grip, "he's not just some animal you can abandon, he's a companion to Jess, I can't just..."
He cut her off, letting out a cruel laugh, "these days aren't meant for pets. You wanna cuddle something, take that bag of food and get in the car."
Anger rose in her. An anger she felt before. She recognised how frustrated he made her, how she'd argues with someone like this before. He was afraid, he was angry and bitter and grieving, but she wasn't about to let him walk all over her because he couldn't handle humanity. She pulled her harm from him, standing her ground, resilient as ever.
"What is with you?! All you care about is where were going, you won't let anyone in, you can't let yourself enjoy the now. I saw you staring at the stars, mumbling a wish under your breath! You let yourself think it's okay to be a jerk to me because I don't know what it means to feel lost and alone but guess what... I get it! My family is dead, I was dead... Everyone thinks I'm dead and I may never remember who I'm fighting so hard to see, but I keep living."
He was speechless, knowing she was right, his anger subsiding a little. She wasn't the only one who thought of Jess, who considered chasing the damn dog. He'd been cruel and she had finally admitted to understanding him better than he knew. Dawn was right, she was alone as well, a lost child without a family. He felt ashamed but instead of apologising he just shrugged, "maybe I don't like treating life like some dumb ass game. Maybe I wanna survive this."
She smiled weakly, giving up on arguing, suddenly aware of how defeated he looked, "maybe I'm just not afraid to live... I wanna live, not just survive."
With that Dawn strolled away, opening the food bag, getting a tin of peaches and a spoon, sitting across from the unlit fire. He wanted to leave but it seemed pointless now. No walkers in sight for miles, no dog to chase anymore, and no reason to worry about being tired and needing rest. The argument left him awake and uncomfortable. He lit a fire, glancing over at Dawn, knowing he'd been to harsh on her. As she sat there, barely managing to eat her peach segment, he thought of Duane, the way he acted when he'd been bullied at school. He'd come home, hiding his bruises, sitting all silent, unable to touch his food. Morgan never did any good. Jenny was the smart one. He was the one to give his boy some ice cream and tell him it would all work out. Seeing Dawn like this made him feel guilty. Guilty for bullying her and being too less a man to admit she was right.
He couldn't think of a way to break the deafening silence, watching her, seeing her shiver. Without a word, he passed her his jacket from the car, hearing her low humming as he handed it to her.
"What song is that? The one you keep hummin."
She looked up, seemingly alarmed, biting her lip as he gave her his most genuine smile.
"It's... It's kinda stupid..." She began but he sat back and begged she continue, opening a can of peas. Sighing, she put her can down, arms hugging her knees.
"A month before everything went to hell, my brother, Jimmy... He took me to a concert. His girlfriend's family had a farm a few miles from us and her dad was hosting the Georgia Country Festival. They had pony rides and coconut shack for the kids, but we went to hear Taylor sing. She was this new country singer... Sorry, I guess it's a longer story than you expected."
Morgan smiled, "It's good hearing about what it was like to enjoy life... Keep going."
"If your sure... So we went to the barn and she was there, on a hay bale, singing like an angel. Everyone was singing along and the stars were out and the air smelt like straw and honey. Afterwards, Jimmy got me a toffee apple and we walked home... I couldn't stop singing all the way back. Maggie was so jealous. She'd been stuck at home helping Daddy with the horses. Next day, someone dropped a cd in the mail box, with a song from the concert and I'm sure Taylor dropped it by."
He watched her eyes raise to his, unsure, as if worried she revealing some deep secret. After a second, she continued, "There was this song from the concert I just... I never forgot. It was a song Taylor said she had been writing but didn't wanna release because it was something's private, something that helped her get through hard times..."
Morgan saw how deeply she was thinking, how lost she was in the world she had once loved. For a second she was young again, untouched by death and sorrow and walking corpses. The world they had both lost. He was starting to understand why this girl was always singing. It was her way of reliving her past and remembering the good. She was in pain and he didn't want to see her cry again, so instead, he spoke, "How about you sing some... For me."
Dawn glanced up at him, sighing, brushing her hair back with a weak smile, "And you said you hate country music."
He let out a laugh, sitting back against the car as she began to sing, staring up at the stars again.
" I remember tears streaming down your face
When I said, "I'll never let you go"
When all those shadows almost killed your light
I remember you said, "Don't leave me here alone"
But all that's dead and gone and passed tonight"
Dawn stared up at the sky, watching the stars, remembering Jimmy, Maggie, her parents, Judith, Rick, Carl, Glenn... Everyone who ever meant anything to her. A warmth emanated from inside her, despite the cold night breeze. Hope. She felt hope. As long as she sang and remembered how many good people had loved her and been there for her, she could fight to find her friends. They were her family, after all. Morgan was family now. She had a lot to be grateful for and she smiled as she sang the next part of the song.
"Just close your eyes
The sun is going down
You'll be alright
No one can hurt you now
Come morning light
You and I'll be safe and sound"
Memories of warm summer days and her family hit her like an arrow to the heart. She felt empty, a piece of her missing as she tried to hold onto the hope that was failing to stay alive.
"Don't you dare look out your window, darling,
Everything's on fire
The war outside our door keeps raging on
Hold on to this lullaby
Even when music's gone..."
The last word hit a support inside of her and everything just broke down, her body trembling as she cried, holding her head in her hands. Gone. Everyone was gone. Her dad, her mom, Jimmy, Maggie, Judith... There was only one person she cared about enough to fight for and she couldn't even remember their face. She hated herself for being weak but the song was like a piece of her past that always comforted her till now. Now it was a song for the dead and all the light they carried away with them.
Morgan knew there was little he could say to console her, but he took a boiled sweet from his pocket, yellow as her hair, and handed it to her. To his relief she laughed and glanced at him, eyes shining with tears, "You must have been a great dad."
He laughed, nodding slowly, "oh yes. Left my boys troubles to my wife, but when he needed sweets, I was an all hour candy store."
Dawn smiled, enjoying the sweet lemon flavour of the sweet, giving him a thumbs up before jumping, startled when something warm and wet touched her neck. Morgan laughed heartily. She didn't mind as she saw Snow by her side, licking her face, resting his head on her lap as he got comfortable.
"See, all good things come back to you in the end," Morgan said with a sigh, looking up at the sky again, thinking of his family, but, for the first time in months, he didn't mourn them. He remembered them. Dawn knew what was on his mind and let herself do the same, trying to pull away the fragmented memories, trying to see what she had unseen. Who had she forgotten? Who was missing? It hurt to try and remember, and she was so happy for a moment, that instead of dwelling on what was lost, she was thankful for what she had found. Dawn had finally found a friend in Morgan.