"Take it off."
It was raining.
More to the point, it was pouring.
Coming down like a metaphor as they stood head to head with the Saviors on the blacktop in front of the gate. Caught in the middle of some sort of pissing contest between Simon and the new guy they'd brought along for the weekly pick-up. Some asshole spoiling for a fight as Simon watched him swagger around with slitted eyes. Grinding his teeth like he was just itching to stomp his boot through the back of the guy's neck. And frankly, he never thought he'd say this, but at this point he was inclined to help him do it.
"Your jacket. I said take it off. I want it."
The mousy looking asshole barely came halfway up Tobin's chest, but he was pulling out all the stops like he was two times his height. Reminding him of one of those yappy lapdogs that could fit in a tea cup. Strutting around thinking the term 'Napoleon complex' was a compliment. Only thing was, this lapdog had a gun and people to back up his threats.
A muscle in Tobin's jaw ticked, but he did as he was told. Shucking off the double-down tan with more attitude than he'd ever seen from him. Dropping it in the puddle at his feet as something in his throat pulled tight.
The assholes lip curled. Looking Tobin up and down as the pouring rain slowly darkened the man's red and blue plaid shirt slick to his skin.
"Come to think of it, take off that shirt too. What are you anyway? A walkin' advertisement for the lumber industry? God damn, I'm doing you a favor, honestly. What? Are your tighty-whiteys plaid too?"
The crowd they were drawing was tense.
Everyone's anger on a slow boil as Tobin's boots scuffed up a dry coat of sluggish mud.
On edge for the next blow.
The next demand.
The next order that was going to push even someone like Tobin one step too far.
"Come on, Manders! If you want to discover somethin' about yourself don't do it on my damn time! We've got a truck to load and I have a book waiting on me at home. Its got an Oprah sticker and everything. And I don't know about you, but I'm ready to be emotionally compromised!" Simon hollered from across the yard, moving towards the trucks as he yarded up his pants like he needed to punch another few holes in his belt.
The asshole snorted. Loudly. Giving them a good impression of his general life expectancy as Simon paused at the sound. Leaning up against the mirror of one of the trucks, like he was holding something in, before pivoting slowly towards them.
Simon kept one eye on Tobin and the other on him as he rested his hands on his hips. Eying the others that were slowly making themselves known. Speckled here and there between the Saviors. Body language on edge. Strained. Like they were all on the same wave length Tobin was.
They'd had enough.
And Simon knew it.
The asshole, on the other hand, didn't.
"Negan said these people were trouble, right?" Manders drawled like he hadn't heard him. Shaking his head with a grunt as thinning blond hair plastered itself to his scalp in the downpour. Dripping a steady stream of water he was forced to keep rubbing away. "Maybe it's a good thing I was assigned this run after all. Looks like they need someone a bit more...assertive to put the fear of god in 'em. Besides, this one reminds me of someone."
If it'd been any other time, under any other circumstances, he would have tried to take advantage of the obvious power play. He would have been looking for an angle. Leverage or an opening as Simon and the new guy went toe to toe. But as it was, all he could think of was Tobin. Tobin and the rising tide of resentment that seemed to be building in the others the longer the moment stretched.
"If you want to make your new dog heel, by all means. But get on with it," Simon finally allowed. Forcibly dismissive in a way he knew the man was being anything but. Turning slowly on his heel so that everyone could hear the rasp of gravel across the sole before walking off towards the car. Leaving Manders and a thin half-circle of Saviors behind as he hiked up his jeans and stalked off.
"You heard the man, Big and Tall," Manders spat, snapping his fingers at Tobin with an ugly sneer. "Strip and be fucking quick about it. My ass is soaked through already."
His molars ground together as Tobin's hands came up slowly. Unbuttoning his long sleeve shirt with the kind of restraint he knew he wouldn't have. Seeing the bunch and coil of the muscles in the man's forearms. Evidence enough that he was barely keeping himself from ripping it off just to make a point.
Everyone had their limit.
Privately, he'd always wondered what it would take to make Tobin find his.
And it went without saying he couldn't have discovered that line at a worse time.
The white of Tobin's undershirt was soaked - almost translucent in the way the light hit it as he tossed the shirt at the asshole's feet. Not quite defiant, but not particularly cowed either. As if to remind the world that he hadn't done it willingly. That this hadn't been his choice and that-
A strange dark mark on the inner-curve of Tobin's torso caught his eye through the thin of the material.
"There, that wasn't so hard was it?" Manders said sarcastically. Raising his voice so it could be heard from the line of trucks by the gate. "Now, hand 'em to me. Don't leave 'em on the ground. That's just disrespectful. Aint it?"
He frowned. Attention caught on the way the material clung to Tobin's skin as the man slowly bent down and picked up the jacket and shirt. Trailing streams of water like miniature waterfalls as Aaron and Eric took a careful step forward. Cusping the tension with cut-throat support as Tobin's mouth remained a violent slash across his face. Realizing with a start that whatever they were, there was more of them. Littered across Tobin's back and sides. Puffy and dark like-
Michonne stiffened beside him. Seeing the same thing he was as her expression furrowed. Caught somewhere between anger and something that was closed off at the edges. Like saying any of it out loud was a boundary she wasn't willing to cross. Yet.
"Good," the asshole praised, dripping malice. "Now, we're almost done. Since you've gone and got my new clothes all wet, you best get back to your little mansion and get me something dry to carry them in, hmm?"
Tobin's boot had only just started to turn when the man brought him up short. Taking a step forward the same time almost everyone flinched back at the sudden movement.
"Wait a minute. What's that mess?"
Thunder rolled in the distance. A rumble of spreading base sounds as the sudden intake of breath behind him told him the others had caught sight of it too.
"Did your old man beat 'ya or something?" Manders asked gleefully, raising his gun up to trace down the small of Tobin's back. Not seeming to notice Tobin suddenly clench clothes in a brutal fist. "Lift up your shirt and let's have a look, shall we?"
Tobin didn't move.
But his expression changed.
For some reason the anger drained.
Leaving an unhealthy grey-pallor pale.
"I said lift up your shirt, asshole," Manders hissed. "You shy? Or you got somethin' to hide? Huh?"
Still, Tobin didn't move.
Hell, he didn't do anything.
For all intents and purposes, Tobin had frozen.
"You really going to make me ask again?" Manders snarled. Angry this time. Already too whipped up to even bother waiting for an answer as he nodded to Arat and another Savior he didn't recognize.
The man grabbed Tobin by the arms. Fingers spreading angry marks wherever they touched. Keeping him steady as Arat yanked his shirt up with an ugly sound. Fingerless gloves peeling the thin material up before cursing and almost dropping it when the full scope of the damage was revealed.
Tobin's torso was a barrel-chested lattice-work of bite-mark scars. It was an ugly landscape, with chunks of missing flesh healed over into craggy pits of puckered skin. Like whoever patched him up hadn't known what they were doing. Or worse - judging by the angle - maybe he'd had to do it himself. Leaving the scars pink-raised and ropy against the rest of him. Which mainly comprised of pale skin and dark freckles.
It looked like something had tried to rip its way into the muscled soft of his belly.
"Jesus fuck," Arat breathed, unable to look away. Eyes jumpy. Nervous. Confused. And he didn't blame her. Watching her and everyone else try and make sense of it as a flicker of a memory from Jenner and the CDC wormed it's away into his brain like a cancer.
"It was the French."
"They were the last ones to hold out as far as I know. While our people were bolting out the doors and committing suicide in the hallways, they stayed in the labs till the end."
"They thought they were close to a solution."
Manders just whistled.
"Now, what do we have here? Damn. Ugly as shit, that's what it is. So, what happened? You don't get all wacked up like that without a hell of a story. Share with the class, Big and Tall. C'mon."
The darkness in his mind's eye flashed with the after-image of Dale lying in the trampled grass. Stomach ripped deep and steaming condensation. Mouth opening and closing like the pain was too much - that it'd just left him overloaded. Looking up at him with pleading eyes that told him to end it. To do it quick so the pain never came back. So that his screams wouldn't carry. So they'd all have one less nightmare to work through come morning.
How was any of this possible?
There was a wordless intake of breath behind him. Tara or maybe Francine. Knowing without having to look that more than a few dozen eyes were fixed on them. Invading the man's privacy in a way that set his teeth on edge. It wasn't their fault, but he still wanted to punish them anyway. Needing to do something as Tobin wavered in place. Pale and dissociating.
Because Tobin wasn't listening.
He was looking straight ahead.
Not at Manders or even the wall.
His expression was horizon-bound and blank.
Like for a fraction of a beat he'd gone somewhere and gotten lost there.
The Savior holding Tobin's arms let one hand drop. Curling it into a crooked-knuckle fist as an expectant hush fell over the crowd. Drawing back minutely, and looking expectantly towards Manders before-
The words were out of his mouth before he could think. Surprised, in a passive sort of way, when he realized part of him was actively screaming. Chanting internally to do something- anything- to take the attention off Tobin.
He had to.
"Never seen a dog bite before?" he posed, tone lilting dangerously at the end like he figured the man was stupid. Like he wasn't lying out of his god damned teeth. Realizing belatedly that there were two other marks, one of them just under the man's armpit, that was fresher than the rest. No more than a couple months old.
The asshole's eyes narrowed.
"A dog bite?" Manders repeated flatly. Like he didn't want to believe it, but more and more it started making sense. After all, it couldn't possibly be what it looked like. That was impossible. So it had to be something like-
Tobin just blinked at him slowly. Gaze focusing for the first time in what felt like forever. Looking at him like he was trying to figure him out. Like he'd imagined this moment more than once and this wasn't the way he figured it would go.
Behind them, one of the trucks started up.
"Manders! We're leavin' your ass!" Simon called, leaning out of the cab with a sardonic grin that promised bloodshed. So well timed he could have fucking kissed him as Manders jerked around. Opening his mouth like he was about to protest before he realized Arat and the others were stepping away, guns lowering.
"We'll continue this next time," the asshole hissed. Glaring as Tobin jerked his shirt down with a violent tug. Not even looking at him. Forcing Manders to try and save face by giving everyone a long, mean look before stalking off towards the line of trucks that'd started trundling out of the gates. "Might even have to bring Negan along to show him the side-show. Then you assholes will really be sorry."
No one said a word until the gate slammed shut.
And even then, there was a pause.
It was the kind of quiet that tenses your muscles with anxiety or maybe just decay.
Winding you up until every part of you just aches.
Starved for that emotional drop you can't help but try and avoid all the same.
It wasn't until he opened his mouth, wetting his lips with a dry ache he could feel in his sinuses, that Tobin suddenly turned. Joints popping audibly as he wrenched himself around and moved off towards his house without a word.
The silence lasted long after Tobin's door slammed shut.
Longer after the lock clicked, audible and damning.
"Why didn't he say anything?" he asked softly. Looking towards the house as the after-image of the scars flickered on the inside of his eyelids.
"Do you blame him?" Michonne replied, just as soft. Shaking her head as the others moved closer. Talking quietly as the rain slowly petered out to nothing.
"If you were him would you?" Aaron replied, coming up to stand at his other side as the light on the second floor of Tobin's house flicked on. Like locking himself inside wasn't enough to make the man feel safe.
"You knew?" he rasped, boots grinding through a half turn as the healing cuts on Aaron's face provided a strange contrast against the drenched light blue of his shirt.
It wasn't a question.
Or an accusation.
That last part surprised him. Considering how much stock he apparently had in all this. Trying to figure out how he was feeling and why as Tobin's absence cut a strange swath of clarity through the air above his head. Like he could breathe for the first time since this had all started – despite everything.
Instead, he just turned to him expectantly as Eric firmed into Aaron's side.
"Yeah, seems like we both did," Aaron nodded, chin tipping into his chest for a long moment before straightening again. Letting go of a sigh that had weight to it as the wind started to pick up. "We found him in the woods three weeks after the convoy brought us here. It was our first trip out – most just scouting for supplies and getting the lay of the land. Not recruiting. Not yet anyway."
"It was dark," Eric interjected, catching his eye as the horizon behind him lit up with distance lightening. "We were pulled off to the shoulder behind a pile-up trying to sleep when they drove past us in an old truck, smoking billowing out under the hood. They were driving like they were being chased, screeching tires- erratic- uneven down shifting - only nothing seemed to be following them. We stayed put, figuring there was a herd, that something had to be wrong for them to be driving like that, but there was nothing."
The fingers of his right hand twitched in the muddied air above his empty holster.
He'd missed this part.
Hell, he'd slept right through it.
Lori had talked about it more than once.
No one knew anything.
But everyone was scared.
Trying to get through it with the people they loved the best they could.
Waiting for help.
Waiting for the government.
Waiting for it to get better.
"We caught up with them the next day by accident," Aaron continued, shaking his head. Looking off at the lonely light shining in the top floor of Tobin's house like it was some kind of pathetic metaphor. "They were on foot in the woods. He had a woman and a girl with him. His family. He was carrying both of them, one over each shoulder. No weapon. No supplies. Nothing. I don't know how he did it, or how long he'd been carrying them, but I remember his face. Like he'd seen hell, but what was happening right then was worse. He tripped over something, or maybe he was just exhausted, but they went down. At least that's what we thought at first. We were about to chance it when they turned. They must have been bit. No one in our group knew it was the bites that turned you, not then anyway. And even if he knew, he wouldn't have had a chance. There was a struggle. We saw him trying to push them back, yelling, but they fell on him. I saw it happen. They got him. It was over. By then walkers from the highway had started coming through the trees, following the sounds. They ended up boxing us in. There was nothing we could do. Then it was just screaming."
Eric nodded, arms crossed over his chest. Affirming the story without words as he leaned into Aaron in gentle fractions. Sharing a sober look before Aaron let go of the rest.
"By the time we got there they were gone. We tried to follow the blood trail, but it was too dark so we decided to wait till morning. Hoping he'd made it and was holed up somewhere. But we never found him. We figured he'd turned or the walkers had gotten him, until-"
Aaron hesitated, trailing off as Eric filled in the gap.
"Until we found him with another bunch of survivors camped in a town forty or so miles from where we'd first seen him. I thought we must have been wrong. Maybe he'd gotten away before they'd gotten their teeth into him or maybe it was a different person all together. But now-"
Now it all made sense.
Not they knew.
Tobin had been bitten, and he'd survived.
"Makes sense though, doesn't it?" Michonne said suddenly. "There isn't a virus out there that someone hasn't developed an immunity to. That's just how it works. Maybe he isn't the only one, either. Maybe there are others- were others. People who could have survived if they'd been given a chance."
The thought was exhausting and heavy as he tried to shoulder it.
He'd lost count of how many people they'd put down.
Willing or not.
Always thinking about the bigger picture.
One less walker to deal with later.
"It doesn't matter though, does it?" Eric pointed out quietly. Like they were missing the obvious. "Immune or not, it doesn't change anything. If things were different, maybe. But now? I mean, I don't know about you, but I think the world is fresh out of virologists. He might be here, but there isn't anything we can do about it."
He opened his mouth to disagree before slowly closing it again. Because Eric was right. It did mean something. Something big. But there was nothing they could do about it. It could've meant everything. Back when Jenner and the CDC had still been running. Maybe it was what France had been working on. Maybe they'd found someone like Tobin, someone whose body could fight it and win.
But that part of the world was over.
They were too late.
And now Tobin was just an oddity.
Maybe even a liability if Negan ever got wind of the truth.
He looked up at the house with shaded eyes. The toe of his boot kickin' into the grit as Michonne laced their fingers together. Squeezing gently as the four of them stood there, thinking about missed chances and personal heartbreak. Thinking about how this was going to change things going forward, and similarly- how it wouldn't change much of anything at all.
He thought about those scars and all the things Tobin had lost. Knowing that in a few hours he'd be stalking the shadows on the man's front porch. Thinking about knocking long before he actually did. Wondering off-hand if Tobin would even answer – and if he'd blame him if he didn't.
But mostly, he wondered what it felt like to be the savior of the world, only the horse you rode in on was just a little too late.