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Last Choice Liars

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“Ace! Someone asked for a drink and I have no idea what it is.”

You lifted an eyebrow at Julie and took another drag from your cigarette. “Tell Jason. I’m on break, girl.”

She rolled her eyes and heaved a dramatic sigh. “He said to ask you.”

You groaned. “Fine. Lay it on me.” You shoved off from the wall, putting your half-finished cigarette out against the brick. The whiskey label mural needed a touch up, you noticed. You scooped your hair back up, scraping it into a bun and bracing yourself to head back into the Friday night chaos.

“An Island in a Storm Tossed Sea?” Julie sounded more like she was asking than telling, her face scrunched up as if she were trying to remember it correctly and couldn't.

You snorted, feeling the smile start unbidden. “A Lonely Island In the Middle of A Stormy Sea?”

“That’s the bitch! Do you know it?”

“I know of exactly one asshole who would come in here and order it,” you told her with a laugh, heading for the door. Inside, you scanned the bar until you caught sight of him, sitting at a high top table by himself with a beer in front of him and his eyes roving the place alertly. You chewed on your lip and turned to Julie, who'd followed you in.

"That's Shane," you told her. "He's a cop. We, ah."

"Oh my God, you hooked up," Julie said, eyes wide. "But you're-"

"It was last week. Last Thursday, before Mal came crawling back. And Shane and I didn’t even exchange numbers or anything. It was just a one night stand," you muttered, feeling yourself blush under her scrutiny.

Shane chose that moment to pick up and sip from his beer, and Julie sighed. "He has got some serious muscles. Like, do you see those arms?"

Your lips twitched and you couldn't help the flash of memory that had you biting your lip again. Oh yeah, Shane had some muscles, that's for sure. And he'd used them, much to your delight last week. "Yeah. Yeah, I've seen them. He's fucking strong."

Julie slapped a hand over her mouth and giggled at your wink and wicked grin. "Should I send him to the bar?"

You shrugged. "Up to you. He tips well. Tell him he can have a goddamn Sam Addams and like it, and see what he says. Or, better yet, take him one and tell him it's his Lonely Island."

You turned and pulled one on draft and handed it to her. She gave you an odd look but shrugged and headed that way, and you hid in the kitchen doorway as she delivered it to Shane. He grinned and laughed, his eyes panning the bar as he searched for you. You stepped out of the doorway and waved, and he lifted the Sam Addams in a salute.

"Ace! Shots, babe!" Jason called from up the bar. You rolled your eyes and nodded, reaching for the Bailey's with one last smile Shane's way.

You were surprised by how pleased you were to see him, considering you'd broken your rule about taking customers home for him and then hadn't talked to him for a week. Thing was, you'd liked the guy- genuinely liked him. If it hadn't been for the hefty dose of awkward you'd experienced the next morning, you might have given him your number. As it was, you hadn't seen him since he'd left you with a kiss and a promise to see you on the other side of the bar some time, and that had been a week ago. You and Mal had gotten back together in that time, and you figured you'd been just a notch on Shane's bedpost.

And you'd been fine with it, really. You hadn't been looking for anything with him; hadn't even really thought taking him home through very much before you did it. But here he was, and as you mixed drinks you watched Julie help him move to the spot at the end of the bar near the computer. As soon as his back was to the wall he seemed to relax, and you could feel his eyes on you as you grabbed the lighter and the line of shots went up with a whoosh.

It was probably a half hour before you could make your way back down the bar to him. You hopped up and started punching stuff into the computer, talking as your fingers flew over the POS screen.

"Hey, Walsh. Wasn't expecting to see you again."

"Yeah, that's my fault. I meant to leave you my number, but when Carl called I got all mixed up. Then it was a crazy freakin' week. First night I ain't pulled a double since Sunday," he said.

You glanced over at him and realized he did look fucking exhausted. "Christ, that sucks, man."

"Eh. Shit happens," he said with a shrug. "Especially when you're a cop. How you been? You're hopping tonight."

You snorted. "This is fairly light for a Friday. Been pretty good. Mal came crawling back."

"Yeah?"

Another look his way showed Shane actually seeming as interested as he sounded, and not like someone who was afraid his chances of getting lucky had just tanked. But like a friend, who was genuinely curious how you'd been since he saw you last. You smiled. "Yeah. I figured he would. We're back together."

"You happy?" He lifted the beer to his lips again and you paused, surprised.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm happy," you said slowly. "Why?"

He shrugged. "If you're happy, I'm happy. Didn't come back just to see if you would take me home again. Wasn't opposed to it, mind. But I like you, Ace. I enjoyed hanging out with you the other night. Figured I'd do it again, if you're cool with it. Plus, this is a pretty great joint. I know this bartender here, makes a mean Lonely Island In the Middle of a Stormy Sea."

You grinned and reached for a Valhalla mug, pulling him another Sam Addams. "Yeah, I know that bartender too. She's fucking awesome. I liked hanging with you, Officer Dickhead."

"Oh, we're gonna have to work on the nickname there, Slugger," he said with a grimace.

"Slugger?"

"You heard me."

Judith started babbling in her pack'n'play and you cracked an eye at the clock on the shelf across from your bunk. Six thirty in the morning was way too damn early to be awake, in your opinion. Shane shifted, his groan echoing oddly in the ear you had against his chest.

"Already?" he whispered as he scrubbed a hand across his eyes.

You lifted your head to see her sitting up in her crib and looking at you. She broke into a smile when she saw you look at her and started babbling and cooing.

“Morning, Judy,” you told her seriously. “You’re up early.”

She waved her hands in the air with an emphatic string of nonsense, and you smiled at her. Shane groaned again, and you shoved up to your elbow to look down at him and run your fingers down his cheek. He was rubbing one hand over his eyes like being awake was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. You snorted. “Told you not to stay up so late playing with Rick and Glenn and my idiot brother.”

“Can you not say it like that?” he said with a frown. “We weren’t playin’.”

“No? Then what do you call it?”

He pulled his hand off his eyes to scowl at you. “Planning. For this place. You know, to keep it running.”

You rolled your eyes at him. “There’s a whole damn Council that meets regularly for planning purposes. You boys were involved in an incredibly sexist game of poker with condoms as chips again and we both know it.”

“Why the hell would I be involved in that? I don’t gamble,” Shane argued. He sat up on the edge of the bed and shoved his hands through his hair as he denied it, and you rolled your eyes behind his back.

You leaned forward and kissed his shoulder. “No, you don’t gamble well. They see right through you, Walsh, and so do I. You’re a terrible liar. Plus, Glenn told me about your boys-only game when I ran into him sneaking out of the tower with his and Maggie's industrial sized box of condoms.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, shoving to his feet and scooping Judith up. “So we played poker. It was fun, it was sexist, and I ain't sorry. Come on, baby girl. Let’s leave your aunt Ace to her gloating and go find some breakfast, huh? What d’ya say?”

“You love me and you know it, Dickhead,” you called to him as you curled up in the space he’d vacated.

“‘Course I do, Slugger. Shut up and go back to sleep. Got that run with Daryl this afternoon.”

An hour or so later, you snagged a denim jacket from the hooks Shane had installed on the cell wall and ducked under the curtain. You'd be on the bike with Daryl today, and he'd insist you had more protection than just a flannel when you rode. You stifled a laugh when you saw Daryl coming down the stairs, crossbow over his shoulder and annoyed look already in place, his eyes tight and tired looking.

"Morning," you greeted him. "How'd you fair in poker last night, you sexist asshole?"

He rolled his eyes at you. "Shut up. I won."

"Of course you did. What'd you idiots bet though? Condoms might have been the chips but unless you've got a girlfriend I don't know about, you wouldn't need those," you teased, bumping his shoulder as you fell in step with him. Both of you paused to check the map at the same time. No one had added anything new since last night, and Daryl grabbed a green post it, scrawled 'Big Spot Run' and both your names on it, and slapped it under the chart with the names of everyone in C Block that was now beside your map. It wasn't required to mark where you were headed when you left the prison, but everyone did it anyway, just to better keep tabs on your little family.

Daryl snorted as he did, shooting you an amused look. "Wouldn't ya like to know, sis? Ain't nothin' to worry about."

"Great," you muttered, heading for the door. "That's not worrisome at all."

Calls of "Hey Daryl!" "Morning, Daryl, Ace!" "Hey, Dixons!" echoed as you headed into the courtyard together. You squinted in the morning sunlight and called greetings in return while Daryl tried to pretend he wasn't beloved by everyone here. Carol had a serious face, but her eyes danced as the two of you stepped up to her outdoor kitchen.

"Just so you know, I liked you first," she informed Daryl dryly.

You laughed when Daryl rolled his eyes. You waved to Patrick, who waved back shyly, and scanned the courtyard for Shane. You saw Beth with Judith, feeding her a bottle, and wondered what crisis had gotten to Shane already today.

"Stop. Smells good." Daryl tossed his hair a little as Carol handed you both bowls. "You know, Rick brought in a lot of 'em."

"Not recently," Carol said with a shrug. "Give the stranger shelter, feed him; you're going to have to accept the love."

"Darrie doesn't exactly accept love easily," you teased, kissing your brother on the cheek when he turned his scowl on you. "I'm gonna find Shane. Meet you at the bike in a bit."

"Yeah, yeah. Don't get distracted fuckin' him. If ya late, I'm leavin' ya here."

"That's delightful. I have no idea why everyone thinks you're so great," you muttered, rolling your eyes and heading inward toward the second courtyard. Once upon a time, the thing had been overrun with walkers, and you'd lost a good friend trying to secure the gate against them. Now, it was more living space, full of plants, rain barrels, laundry lines, and tables, including the one where Shane usually ended up sitting and handling Council and prison business left and right. You had a feeling that's where he'd be.

 

 

"Maggie!" you called, rising from Shane's lap when she came around the corner. He made an annoyed sound- you'd been pretty heavily involved in making out, after all, and maybe Daryl hadn't been totally wrong to worry about you getting distracted- but he let you up anyway.

Maggie's lips twitched in amusement, everyone well used to you and Shane and PDA by now. Hell, she and Glenn were even worse than the two of you, not that she wanted to admit it. "Mornin', Ace. Shane. You know, there's better spots for makin' out and shit."

"Yeah, well, he was here and so was I," you countered cheerfully. "You and Glenn coming with us this afternoon?"

"Glenn is. I'm stayin' here," she said, and something in the way she said it had you narrowing your eyes at her.

"Yeah?"

She tossed her head and sighed. "Yeah. Glenn's come over all protective all the sudden. Well, not all the sudden I guess, but still."

You shot a look behind you at Shane, well and truly intrigued. "I'll see you this afternoon, hero. Maggie and I are gonna go trash talk you boys before I leave."

"Whatever you say, Slugger," he said with a roll of his eyes. "Be careful, please?"

You bent and kissed him again, your hand lingering on his cheek. "I'm always careful."

"Sure. That's why you got that damn rusty nail in your fuckin' foot last month and we had to send Doc S to find a tetanus booster," Shane said with a scowl.

You looked down your nose at him and flipped him off. "That could have happened to anyone, thank you very much."

"Only if 'anyone' was barefoot on the goddamn roof of the administrative building and hanging over the side of it trying to paint 'that one spot, Dickhead; I just couldn't reach it'."

You sighed. You supposed that was fair; it had been one of your dumber moments. "Ok, fine. I promise to be careful. I love you."

"I love you too," he said with a soft smile. "Now go insult me some behind my back with Maggie and then play with your brother. Bring me back something interesting."

You were grinning as you wandered off with Maggie, plotting what kind of 'interesting' find you could bring for Shane. You were hoping for a truly hideously ugly shirt you could hold out to him and declare with perfect seriousness would look fantastic on him. He'd gotten you damn good on his last run, coming back with a bar of fancy soap. You'd been in the damn shower together before you realized he'd coated the thing in clear nail polish so it wouldn't lather. He'd howled, you'd bitched, and then you'd engaged in some other fun shower activities instead.

"You two are so cute it makes me sick," Maggie declared.

You laughed. "Some days," you agreed. "Now why's Glenn being an overprotective idiot? Did he hang out with my brother and Shane too long last night and pick up their bad habits?"

She sighed and fiddled with the wedding ring on her finger, staring out into space at the walkers building up on the fence. "No. I mean, yes, but-" She met your eyes and looked worried. "I think I'm pregnant."

"What?" you yelped, and she shushed you with a look around.

"Shut up, Ace! You can't tell anyone until I know for sure. I just- I'm late, and..." she trailed off and shrugged. "He wants me to stay behind. So I am."

You shook your head, a smile tugging at your lips even as your heart twisted a little. Not being able to have kids was a dull ache deep in your soul you didn't think would ever go away, especially now that you had Shane. Seeing him with Judith made you wish you could see him with a little one of your own, but you'd had a long time to adjust to knowing you'd never be a mom. And if any couple deserved a munchkin, it was Maggie and Glenn Rhee.

"Maggie, that's amazing news. If you think so, that is," you added, since she still looked worried.

She was staring at Glenn now, where he loaded supplies into the truck with Sasha and Tyreese, Zach, and Daryl. Bob walked up, a newcomer Daryl had brought in a week ago who'd been an army medic, and you figured he'd be going with you as well. That was cool; you could use all the hands you could get since Shane had shorted you the coal crew to handle buildup on the fences instead. You guessed keeping walkers from tearing them down and invading the place was important and all.

Maggie looked back at you now and her own smile was small but bright. "Yeah. Yeah, it is. It might be. If I am. I just had to tell somebody," she added with a chuckle.

You grabbed her in a quick hug. "I'm glad you did. Need a test or anything?"

"If you see one, it'd be nice. Don't advertise it, though. Glenn's keeping an eye out too."

You nodded. "Of course. I'll keep an eye on him as well."

Maggie smiled again. "All of you be careful."

"Ace, come on, damn it!"

 

 

You were on the back of the bike with Daryl, your tiny convoy getting ready to head out after some friendly bickering, a few threats, and one last goodbye kiss for Maggie and Glenn when you saw them standing at the gate with Rick and Carl. You squealed loud enough that Daryl flinched away from you.

“Shit, sis. Settle down, damn it,” he muttered. “Some of us like our fuckin’ eardrums.”

“Asshole. Your brother’s home; get excited!”

“Why?” He demanded. “Just means we gotta deal with his ass now too. Shit.”

You rolled your eyes at him behind his back and waved toward Merle and Michonne. They waved back and you knew you were grinning like a fool as Daryl cruised to a stop.

They’d been out on a three week haul this time and they were home early. The two of them made an unlikely team- especially since Merle had tried to fucking kill Michonne when they met- but they worked damn well together out there for all their bickering. So well you privately thought there might be something there. Then again, you caught the way Michonne sometimes looked at Rick, and the way Rick sometimes looked at Michonne.

Like they were looking at each other now, you thought. You bit your lip and hopped off the bike to hug your brother, eyeing him and Michonne critically.

“You two need to shower. You’re disgusting,” you declared.

“Nice to see you too, little sister. Where ya headed off too?" Merle demanded.

"Hittin' the Big Spot," Daryl said with a jerk of his head. "Want in?"

Michonne looked considering, and you grinned when Rick shot her a concerned look. Rick still had you worried at times, but over the last few months, as his plants grew, his mental health seemed to be stabilizing. He didn't leave the prison much anymore, not for more than checking his snares, but he seemed pretty happy with his plants and his pigs. Surrendering control of the group had done wonders for him, even if "Farmer Rick" had been the subject of many frustrated venting sessions from Shane.

Your Dickhead still didn't think he was much of a leader, no matter how many times he proved otherwise.

The prison was thriving, damn it. There were Rick's crops. You had pigs and piglets, Michonne and Merle's horses, and there were even rumors of chickens being spotted around and possibly obtained. Carol kept the domestic shit running smoothly, in that incredible way she had of just handling things, and had even started classes and story time for the kids, classes you'd been shanghaied into helping with a few times. Supply runs were organized, Daryl hunted, you covered every available surface of the place in paint. Judith was growing, Carl had stopped carrying a gun and looked a little bit less like a soldier, Beth had a boyfriend, and Hershel had performed three marriage ceremonies in the last month. People were being brought in all the time, and life was looking damn good.

Shit, you had a bar again. A small one, but still. You'd managed to bully Daryl and Shane into building it for you, an extension of Carol's outdoor kitchen. You hosted a once a week, adults-only night that involved music, drinking, and a non-sexist poker game.

It was almost like the world hadn't really ended or anything.

Then you glanced at the walkers building up on the damn fence again and sighed. Never mind, there's the apocalypse.

Chapter Text

"Army put up the fences," you told the group, leaning against the bike as Daryl walked along it. "Made this a place people could come."

"When we found it last week there were a ton of walkers up against the chain link, keepin' people out like a bunch of guard dogs," Daryl added. "Clear, Ace."

"Told you it would work," you said with a shrug.

"So, what, they just left?" Bob asked.

"Give a listen," Sasha said dryly.

Music filtered to your ears and Michonne smiled slowly. She chuckled as Daryl came to the gap you'd cut when you were out here last time.

"You drew them out," she said. "Clever."

"Hooked up a radio to two car batteries. Darrie, are we going in or are we waiting until Michonne admits she's got a thing for our brother?" you asked, lifting an eyebrow at Michonne.

She rolled her eyes and said nothing, but the others chuckled. Daryl snorted and shot a look your way.

"Gonna be a long damn time if that's what ya waitin' on, since anyone with eyes can tell she's got a thing for Rick. Besides, why the hell would she like Merle? Nobody fuckin' likes Merle. Merle don't even like Merle."

You cracked up at that, as did Glenn. Michonne shook her head and drew her sword, ducking through the gap in the fence.

"Come on, comedians. Let's make a sweep if you're done. You damn Dixons are all the same, aren't you?" she muttered.

"Pretty much," Daryl agreed. "Make sure it's safe. Grab what ya can. We'll come back tomorrow with more people. Ace, ya with me."

"Why?" you asked, slightly offended.

"Macho sexist bullshit, sis."

You rolled your eyes and followed Daryl.

 

 

It didn't take long to clear the Army tents. You scooped up a couple of first aid kits to stuff into your pack, since medical was always a priority. Daryl whistled and the others gathered, heading toward the doors of the Big Spot.

He banged on the window and leaned against it while Zach studied him. You grinned, knowing what was coming next.

You liked this kid. You'd liked him from the moment he'd met you and Daryl out there three months ago, with his school buddies and his endless babble about their lives while Daryl held the crossbow on him. He hadn't batted an eye at your questions, and he and his friends were fun to talk to. Zach and Beth were, in Daryl's annoyed words, 'like a damn romance novel', too.

"Alright, I think I've got it," Zach declared.

"Got what?" Michonne asked, looking between him and Daryl.

"Oh, I've been trying to guess what Daryl did before the turn." Zach swung his rifle down and went and sat on Daryl's other side.

"Been trying to guess for like six weeks," Daryl said, sounding disgusted. "Knows what Ace did; don't know why I'm such a damn mystery."

"Because you act all mysterious and grumpy," you informed him. "And I'm easy to figure out. Paint, booze- that's me."

"You're certainly not the open book Ace tends to be. Besides, I'm pacing myself. One shot a day," Zach said.

You wondered what Shane would have to say about you being an open book, what with the way he often got frustrated by how you didn’t talk about the past. Not the real stuff, the heavy stuff. Map and Will and all that shit.

"Shoot, then," Daryl muttered.

Michonne was grinning openly now, knowing full well like you did what Daryl had done- he’d followed Merle around, fixed cars, and generally wasted his abundance of talent on your shithead brother’s drug problems. Zach looked from her to you and winked at you.

"Aight, well. The way you are at the prison, you being on the Council, you're able to track. You're helping people. But you're still kind of, uh… surly."

You started laughing and Daryl flipped you off without taking his eyes from the fences. "He's always surly. He's been surly since he was born."

"How would you know? Ya younger'n me."

"Five minutes, Darrie. Five minutes."

Michonne snorted. "Alright, come on, I want to hear his guess."

"Big swing here," Zach said when you and Daryl fell silent. "Homicide cop."

You and Michonne cracked up at the same time, you sliding down the wall to lay flat on the ground you were laughing so hard. Daryl sighed.

"Man's right," he said, sending you into fresh peals of laughter. "Undercover."

"Dude, come on, really?" Zach asked, eyes wide as he stared from Daryl’s dead-serious face to where you could barely breathe from laughing so damn hard.

"No!" you managed. "Do not listen to him. He was never a cop. He and Merle hate cops. Ironic, considering."

"Oh, your brother loathes cops," Michonne agreed with a roll of her eyes. "Loudly and very vocally."

"But-" Zach started, pointing at you. "You and-"

"Me and Shane? Yes, a constant thorn in Merle's side," you agreed cheerfully, dragging yourself to your feet. "Hey, Dar, company."

Walkers slammed into the window behind Daryl's head and he didn't even turn to look.

"We gonna do this, Detective?" Michonne asked, and you sniggered again.

You took the crossbow Daryl held out without a word as he pulled his knife, going in with Michonne and her sword to take down the two walkers that had made it to the front. You covered them while Bob eyed you.

"You know how to use that thing?" Bob asked, nodding at the bow in your hands.

You made a face. "Why is everyone so surprised by that? I grew up with Daryl and Merle. Yeah, I know how to use this thing."

"Cain't draw it, though," Daryl grunted as he hauled a body out. "Guess I’ll keep it."

"Gladly," you agreed, passing it over. "Stay in formation for the sweep, newbies," you informed Zach, Tyreese, and Bob. They all seemed competent enough, but they hadn't come out on runs before. You, Glenn, Sasha, Daryl, and Michonne were used to this nonsense. "Then we've all got lists."

"Let's do it," Daryl declared, and you followed at his back into the dark, Glock in one hand and knife in the other.

 

 

You wandered the aisles, marveling at the sheer amount of shit humans had once thought they needed to survive, like you did every time you found a store like this. You thought about the tiny cell you and Shane shared, smaller than your bedroom in your apartment in Atlanta, and how all you needed to feel like you were at home was Shane, some art supplies, and one of his worn-out flannel shirts.

"How did we live with all this crap?" you mumbled to yourself, and headed over toward the food section to finish filling your cart. You'd already hit the baby gear, stocking up on diapers, wipes, jarred purees and formula, and some toys and clothes for Judy. Then you'd picked up some odds and ends, including a box of green hair dye for yourself and some bleach and a box of pale blue for Carl. He'd been talking about wanting to do the ends of his, since he was wearing it long now, and you figured why the hell not?

The worst that could happen was Rick yelling at you again, like he had the first time you'd dyed Carl's hair. Then he'd had to admit it looked fucking awesome, you thought smugly.

You passed the wine and beer section before you made it back over to groceries, and you thought about picking up a couple cases and bottles for your next adults only night. But you figured space was limited this run and you had enough to get through at least one more party, so you'd just clear it out when you came back tomorrow with more hands.

You paused on the wine aisle, seeing Bob examining a label about halfway down the aisle. You left your cart where it was and strolled toward him, moving soundlessly in paint splattered Converses with the ease of practice. He was fully absorbed in the bottle and didn't see you approach, and you studied the shelf with your thumbs hooked in your back pockets.

"That's a shit label, man," you said critically. "I go with-"

Bob jumped at the sound of your voice and slammed the bottle down onto the shelf as he looked around frantically. The whole shelf collapsed in a flood of broken glass and spilled wine, and your eyes got wide as you saw the unit begin to tip forward.

"Shit," you yelled, and shoved Bob out of the way.

Then the world went dark- well, darker- as something slammed into your head.

 

 

"Ace? Ace? Dammit, sis!" Daryl's voice filtered into your awareness urgently and you groaned.

"What?" you called, lifting a hand to press it to your throbbing temple. "Shit, Dar, you're so loud."

"Fuck. Don't scare me like that," he snarled, and the relief under his typical irritation registered and had you opening your eyes slowly.

Oh, yeah. You'd had a shelf fall on you. It must have knocked you out for a hot minute, since you didn’t remember hitting the floor or know when Daryl had gotten there.

"Ya cut or anything?" Daryl asked.

"She shoved me out of the way, man; I'm sorry," Bob said from somewhere in the distance.

"We're in wine and beer!" Michonne called from somewhere to your right. "Shelf fell on Ace. Think she's ok!"

"I’m fine," you confirmed, and tried to slide out despite the glass everywhere. Being under the shelf was starting to make you feel a little too trapped.

But of course, you didn't go anywhere, and the pain in your ankle registered over the throbbing in your head.

"Shit. I'm stuck, Dar. Got my foot caught," you said, huffing in annoyance. "Gonna have to haul this thing off me."

Daryl nodded. "Aight, lemme take a look. 'Chonne, head around and-"

Something crashed through the ceiling. You contorted, trying to get a look at it from under the shelf, and heard Glenn's worried voice.

"Yeah, we should probably go now."

 

Walkers started raining from the roof. Daryl's face reappeared, grim and tight, and he shined his flashlight at where your foot was lodged. You followed the light and made a face of your own, wondering just how well the damn thing was going to work when you got it out.

"Daryl, just go," you said softly as gunfire started echoing in the store. You could hear more walkers falling, and you reached for your brother's hand. "It’s ok. Just go."

"Like hell," he grunted. "Hang on."

You looked up at the shelf above you for a moment when he disappeared. "Yeah, I was just going to get up and leave," you muttered.

Then you found yourself very, very distracted by one curious and snarling walker, heaving half a body hand over hand toward you along the tile floor. Well, shit.

You fumbled down at your side, but you couldn't quite reach your knife, and goddamn that dead bastard was fast. You saw the bottle instead and grinned, grabbing it by the neck and slamming it onto the floor.

"Come on then," you told the walker, and jammed the broken glass into the massive slice that had split the skull open and almost reached the brain. Undead hands brushed your arms as you stabbed at it with the glass, finally shoving a shard in far enough that the eyes glazed over in second death and the thing stopped trying to eat you.

You took a breath and blew it out, already wondering just how in the hell you were going to explain this one to Shane. He was going to fucking kill you.

"Ace?" Daryl called, and you lifted your hand.

"Still here," you told him with a wave as he and Zach appeared. They began lifting the shelf off you, and you wiggled your ankle, trying to get it free. "How bad?"

"Pretty bad," Daryl admitted. "Got it?"

"Not yet; give me a little more," you grunted. Daryl reached down and hooked you under the arms as Zach got you the last centimeter of space you needed, and your brother slid you out and pulled you to your feet.

"Aight, let's go, let's go," he called, wrapping an arm around you. You leaned against him heavily, keeping weight off your ankle as much as you could and taking in the disaster this run had turned into.

Your team was gathered, weapons out and bodies on the ground. Sunlight streamed in from holes in the ceiling, looking like the place had been ground zero of a meteor shower. Plus, at one particularly large hole, the support beams were barely keeping aloft-

"Is that a helicopter?" you asked, staring up at it.

Zach started screaming.

 

 

Will's belt stung like a motherfucker as it lashed into your back and you gritted your teeth to keep from crying out. It was only going to get worse from here, you told yourself grimly. So you'd better just keep it all in. Begging and apologizing wouldn’t stop him, after all; not until he was satisfied.

You were right, it did only get worse. Three whips later you couldn't contain the strangled noise that slid from you along with the tears that streamed down your cheeks unchecked. The fourth lash caused the scream to rip from you and Will chuckled.

"Shit, my little ace in the hole, ya used to be tougher'n this. Guess I've let ya get soft, huh. Well, not any longer. Go on, get outta here. Next time do's I say and we won't have to find out how tough ya are," he said, ruffling your hair.

You pulled yourself cautiously to your feet and felt blood slide down your back. You eyed him suspiciously, but Will was threading his belt through the loops on his jeans, his eyes already fixed back on the football game on television.

You went to the fridge and pulled out a beer, passing it to him where he had collapsed in his chair and held up a hand without a word. He cracked the can open and started yelling at the referee, but you'd edged down the short hallway and reached the safety of the room you shared with Daryl, closing the door behind you with a long sigh.

"How bad's it, sis?" Daryl asked, voice harsh.

You shifted and shrugged. "Hell if I know. Hurts like a sonnuva bitch."

"Yeah. Lemme see," he ordered, and you eased down onto the side of his bed and turned your back to him. "Fuck. Ain't nothin'. Have ya patched up in no time," he added gently after a beat.

You snorted. "So it's bad. It's all good; do what needs doing."

"Gonna hurt. Gotta stitch at least this one."

You closed your eyes, grabbed Daryl's pillow, and wrapped your arms around it. "Go ahead. I can take it."

"Know ya can. You’re a Dixon."

Chapter Text

"Ok, people, what have we got this morning?" Shane asked, spinning a chair backward and settling into it. "Daryl, Glenn, and Sasha are out on that run, so it's just us."

"We should welcome back Merle," Hershel said with a nod toward the oldest Dixon. "Glad to have you and Michonne home. Are you staying long?"

Merle shrugged. "Hell if I know. Up to the Samurai, really. Got a couple more’a them grids to clear out, but we ain't in no hurry. Trail's cold and she knows it same's I do."

"Then why are you still going out there? Isn't it dangerous?" Carol asked.

"Sure. So's breathin', these days. Samurai's gonna go no matter what, so I go and I watch her ass."

Shane snorted. "Got a thing for Michonne there, Dixon? Your sister seems to think you do."

"Lil sister can mind her own business, ya pig bastard," Merle shot back, but there was no heat in it and Shane knew it. Merle grinned at him and then gestured toward the other three. "We got us a majority here. Let's make some decisions while the other three are out. What's on tap?"

Carol rolled her eyes. "Always making trouble, Merle. Hershel, how's the pharmacy look?"

"Got a list here from Caleb. There's a lot needs gathering, but hopefully the Big Spot will handle some of it. Low on antibiotics again," Hershel said, sliding the list toward the others.

Shane sighed and jotted down a note. "Gonna be a long run to get more of those. Might do to wait a bit, what with the fences piling up again. That group this morning was almost as bad as last month."

"And what a disaster that was," Carol agreed.

"The hell'd I miss?" Merle asked, eyes narrowing as he leaned forward onto the table. "Ain't we got crews down there takin' 'em out?"

"Yeah, but they don't spread out anymore," Shane said with a grimace. "The herds are getting bigger, and we had one come in middle of the damn night. Took all of us from C block and two of the regular fence shift crews to get it under control. They get too deep, they could bring the fences down. We need some backup plans."

Merle chewed on his thumbnail in the habit Shane had came to realize was a universal Dixon trait. "Aight, lemme take that one. I'll see what I can come up with."

Shane nodded and scribbled down a note about that too. "Better do it quick."

"Don't get ya panties in a twist, pig; I'll have ya a couple options by tomorrow's meetin'."

"Sounds good. Now, we need to talk about Rick," Carol said seriously.

Shane's eyes narrowed. "What about him?"

 

 

"Hey, brother," Shane said, wandering down into Rick's garden with his thumbs looped into his gun belt.

Rick was drenched in sweat, doing something Shane didn't understand and frankly didn't care about with what might have been a hoe. Or possibly a rake. Shane wasn't a farmer and he never would be, and honestly he didn't want to be. That was Rick and Hershel's job.

Shane's, apparently, was everything else; including this awkward conversation he was about to have.

Rick glanced up at Shane and nodded. "Hey. Something wrong?"

"Why do you think something's wrong?"

Rick leaned against his garden implement and squinted at him. "You got a look. Like you're about to tell me you slept with Sheila at a party last week and maybe it wouldn't be the best idea in the world for me to ask her out."

"That's specific," Shane muttered, wincing as he shoved a hand through his hair. "We ain't over that ancient history yet?"

Rick cracked a grin and Shane rolled his eyes. He snorted and flipped Rick off when his friend laughed.

Shane took a minute to enjoy the sound and the sight of the relaxed smile on Rick's face. Rick had a rough go of it, losing Lori the way he had. All the shit with the Governor had taken a damn toll on his best friend, and on top of the winter they'd had before that, the hard choices Rick had made to keep them alive, waking up in a fucking hospital alone, and Lori's death, Rick had come too damn close to going completely insane for Shane's liking. He was glad Rick had taken a step back from leadership over the past few months, even if it had made Shane's life harder by extension. Running the Atlanta camp had been difficult enough; and the prison was bigger now than the camp had ever been. Plus, they were doing the whole rebuilding civilization bit, when Shane's camp had been entirely focused on sheer survival.

Which circled him back to why he was here, he thought and looked beyond Rick for a minute at the fences.

"Going out to check the snares later?" he asked finally.

Rick's smile faded and he nodded. "Yeah. Daryl wanted me to come on that run with them. I couldn't."

"Yeah, I know," Shane said with a sigh. "Man, we don't- look, you did some hard ass shit. And Lori- fuck. I'm still not over it, so I know you aren't."

Rick swallowed and looked away, tapping his tool on the ground a couple of times as he shifted restlessly. "No. I'm not. I'll probably never be."

"That's fair," Shane muttered. "Thing is though, brother, when you go out there? You gotta take your gun, man."

Rick straight up rolled his eyes at Shane. "I've got a knife. I run into trouble, six bullets won't make much difference."

"You been hangin' out with Carl too long, man. Acting like a damn surly teenager. Just take the fucking gun so I don't have to make an issue of it, ok? If Ace can do it, so can you," Shane said firmly. He crossed his arms and stared Rick down until the other man sighed and nodded.

Shane clapped him on the back with a smile. "Let me know if you want company when you go. I'll be up there until then. Someone flooded the laundry room and I don't even fucking know how, since we don't use the machines. Like a damn basement I know of, back in the day."

Rick laughed again. "Still say that's from you fixin' my sink before I could do it."

"Shit. You know about that? Supposed to be a secret." Shane shook his head as Rick started toward his pigpen and Shane headed back up the track.

"Lori may have let it slip in a panic when the basement started filling up."

Shane laughed. "Oh, I can believe that. It’s not my fault you're a shit handyman. Pretty decent farmer, though."

Rick looked over his field as he and Shane got ready to part ways and nodded. "Least I'm good at something. I'll take my gun. Go solve someone else's problems, brother."

Shane sighed as he started back up, wondering when Rick would start believing in himself again the way Shane- and everyone else- believed in him.

 

 

Shane looked over at Rick's desk and shook his head. His friend was staring at Lori again, and Shane bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing. He folded a piece of paper into a thick, dense triangle, aimed, and glanced up at the front of the classroom.

Mrs. Lewis was writing out a string of numbers and letters on the blackboard that made Shane's head hurt- he already knew he was failing the test next week and no amount of Rick hounding him into doing homework was going to help that- so he aimed carefully and flicked his missile in a perfect arch toward Rick's ear. It bounced off and Rick jumped so bad he knocked his math book to the floor with a bang.

Everyone jumped, including Mrs. Lewis, and Shane had to work damn hard to keep a straight face when she narrowed her eyes at the two of them. "Problems, Mr. Grimes? Mr. Walsh?"

"No, ma'am," Rick said innocently. "Just, uh-"

"Just too busy looking at the back of Miss Evans' head to notice your textbook precariously balanced?"

Shane smothered a laugh behind his hand and Mrs. Lewis cut her eyes sharply to him. He straightened up and scooped up his pencil, studiously copying down the equation she'd written out. She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to Rick.

"Try to keep the disturbances to a minimum, Mr. Grimes. And take at least some notes, please. I don't want you to have to rely only on Mr. Walsh's translation, since he's been busy playing triangle football instead of paying attention as well. Perhaps you can ask Miss Evans to tutor you both after school."

Rick turned red and muttered an apology, staring at his notebook as his cheeks flamed. Shane, on the other hand, watched Lori turn and glance from Rick to him, and he flashed his best smile and winked when she caught his eye. She rolled her eyes at him and looked back at Rick, biting her lip before turning her attention to the front as Mrs. Lewis started droning on again.

Yeah, Shane thought smugly when she tucked her hair behind her ear and shifted in her seat. He'd spend some time tonight coaching Rick, and his friend would have a date by the end of the week.

"Mr. Walsh, at least pretend to pay attention!"

 

 

“It was just a head?” Shane didn’t know what his face was doing, but he figured it was close to Rick’s disgusted expression.

Rick had run into a woman out there checking the snares and tried to help her. Turned out, she wanted to feed Rick to the zombie head of what used to be her husband. Rick had rolled his eyes at Shane’s “this is why you need your gun, man, what the fuck?”.

“A head,” Rick confirmed. “Hate leaving her out there though.”

“She tried to feed you to a fuckin’ head, brother. I’m gonna call leaving her the smart play.”

Rick snorted and shifted his feet, looking down at Judith in his arms. “Yeah, you might be right there.”

“Might be?” Shane muttered. He leaned back against the table, staring up the path before shoving upright to pace restlessly.

Ace and her brother should have been back by now. They were supposed to do a quick sweep, grab the basics, and come home. They’d do a bigger run tomorrow, after the fences were under control.

“They’ll be back. Might have hit a snag or two out there but they’ll be fine,” Rick said, his voice amused.

Shane scoffed. “Snag or two. Like someone feedin’ people to severed heads?”

“Yeah, I’d say that would qualify,” Rick said dryly.

The man in the guard tower whistled and one of the fence crew ran for the gate. “Finally,” Shane muttered, and took off for the courtyard as the convoy pulled up.

Dixon let the bike fall to the side, not bothering with the kickstand as he jumped off and started yelling for Doc S or Hershel, and Shane’s heart stopped.

“Where’s- fuck,” he snapped, and took off at a dead run.

Ace wasn’t on the bike.

 

 

Shane’s hands were still shaking when Hershel patted Ace’s cheek and declared her mostly just in need of sleep. She had a couple cuts and scrapes, including one deep enough to need stitches on the back of her arm, and the old man had wrapped her ankle after some gentle prodding.

“I’m fine, Shane,” she said. Her voice was tired and thick with grief, and Shane’s heart twisted again. “I’m fucking lucky my ankle’s not worse, I suppose, but I’m fine.”

“Stop it,” he told her firmly, rubbing a hand over his eyes and trying to force away the fear and the anger he’d been drowning in since Dixon yanked open the passenger door and pulled Ace, blood and dirt and fucking wine all over her, from the car.

“Stop what?”

“Blaming yourself. Zach isn’t your fault.”

Her laugh was sharp and mocking. “It isn’t? He got bit because they stopped to get me out. Because I was the dumbass who got stuck and they wouldn’t leave me.”

Shane didn’t remember crossing the cell, but he took her face in his hands and ran his thumbs over her tear-streaked cheeks. “Sweetheart,” he started, but she closed her eyes and shook her head.

“They should have left me, Shane. They should have gone. A fuckin’- a fuckin’ helicopter was coming through the roof, walkers raining everywhere, and they stopped to pry me out from under a shelf.”

Shane snorted. If she was going to be ridiculous, he’d call her on it. “That’s bullshit. You think your brother would ever even consider leaving you behind? Shit, Slugger, you’re not that dumb.”

Her eyes flashed as she opened them and met his. “It’s not dumb. It’s common sense. They should have saved themselves. I’m the idiot that got caught under a shelf.”

“You pushed Bob out of the way. Saved him from serious damage, from what he says.”

“And cost Zach his life!”

Ace’s voice hitched as she started to cry again, and Shane tugged her into his lap. He held her close and whispered into her hair as she sobbed, reassuring nonsense as she let out the guilt and the grief.

It soothed some of the sick churning in his gut, holding her close. Thing was, he didn’t believe Daryl should have- or ever would have- left her there. Daryl wouldn’t have left anyone, even at his own expense, and definitely not his sister. Shane liked to think it wouldn’t cross his own mind to leave someone else behind, not anymore, but he knew himself too damn well.

If it had been him in charge, and the choice was leave someone behind to get home to Ace or die trying to rescue them, well-

Let’s just say Shane was glad things had gone the way they did, all things considered. Ace was alive, and frankly that was all he cared much about.

But Shane had come damn close to losing her; probably closer than she was even telling him. He knew when she fell asleep, he’d be making a trip up to Daryl’s cell to get the real version of the story.

What he knew so far had been snapped at him by Daryl as they helped Ace into C block, babbled by Bob trailing them until Daryl had ordered him to wait outside, or delivered reluctantly and no doubt skewed by Ace’s guilt. From what he could gather, she’d saved Bob from being flattened by a shelf, nearly been killed by a walker (she’d claimed it wasn’t that close but Daryl had snarled something about a broken bottle and Shane had questions goddamn it), and barely gotten released from where she’d been caught before Zach was bitten. Then a helicopter had collapsed through the roof and destroyed the entire building, on the heels of their retreat.

The group was lucky they’d only lost one person, and Shane was damn grateful to the kid for getting his girl out.

Ace had stopped crying and just leaned against him now. “I brought him in. I brought him and his friends in. And he gave his life for me.”

“Slugger, no. He gave his life for the group. Everyone on that run knew the risks,” Shane said firmly. And he meant it too. Everyone knew what they were getting into when they went out there.

Even Ace.

He tightened his grip on her as she huffed out an annoyed breath. “But if I hadn’t been stuck-“

“Something else would have happened and the place would still have been torn up. Maybe it would have been tomorrow, with a bigger group there, and everyone would have been crushed. Maybe it would have been Bob today, killed when the shelf hit him wrong. Maybe it would have still been Zach, when the walkers started falling in. You can’t know, sweetheart, and guilt and second guessing will eat you alive,” he finished, tangling his hand in her hair.

“You’re one to talk.” The annoyance in her tone made him smile, but it fell from his lips with her long sigh. “Poor Beth.”

Yeah, Beth, Shane thought, guilt rising in him again. Daryl had gone off to tell Beth as soon as he knew Ace wasn’t badly injured. Shane shifted Ace so he could kiss her gently, and hated himself a little.

Shane’s girl was here in his arms; she wasn’t hurt too badly. She’d made it home. Shane felt bad for Beth and guilty as hell for it, but he’d sacrifice all the Zachs in the world to make sure Slugger came back to him.

Chapter Text

Shane woke up to Ace’s lips trailing over his chest and heading south fast, along with all the goddamn blood in his body. He shifted, looking down to find Dixon blue eyes already on his and dancing.

"Good morning to you, too," he said dryly. "What the hell you doin', Slugger?"

"If it isn't obvious, then I'm not doing it right, am I?" she tossed back with a smirk.

He rolled his eyes and tugged lightly on her hair, urging her back up so he could study her a little easier. He swept his knuckles across her cheek as he searched her face. "You ok?"

Ace huffed and rolled those eyes. "I'm fine, hero."

"Yesterday-"

"Was a close call," she interrupted firmly. "But I'm alive, and I'm ok, and…”

Her hands were busy as she trailed off, biting at her lower lip and ghosting her fingers down his stomach and just under the edge of his jeans as she did. Shane grabbed at her hand and she laughed.

"Damn it, Slugger!" he snapped, but she ignored him in favor of kissing him hot and needy. His hand wrapped in her hair and the next thing he knew he had her pinned under him, her legs locked around his waist and the flannel she’d stolen from him bunching high on her hips. The bare skin of her thighs slid warm over his sides as she rolled her hips to meet his with a greedy noise coming from the back of her throat. He leaned his forehead against hers and glared from up close.

She looked completely unrepentant, and he could feel himself smiling. It was hard to be mad at her when she was so fucking pretty and those damn hands were roaming his back and arms like they were right now.

She nipped at his lower lip absently. "Come on, Walsh. Don't tell me you're not interested."

"I'm not in the habit of lyin' to you, am I?" he muttered, and gave in. "Damn it. Come here, and be quiet."

"You like it when I'm- fuck!- loud," she retorted, her breath catching when Shane yanked her head back so he could bite at her neck.

Shane grinned and ran his tongue down her throat, his fingers working on the buttons on the flannel. "Maybe," he agreed lazily. "Others don't though."

"Aw, fuck them," she gasped, arching into his hands as he got enough of the damn buttons undone to close them over her breasts. He’d been thoroughly lectured about ripping buttons off her shirts- sorry, his shirts- after the last time he’d done it and hadn’t been able to get them all collected again. Not that Shane cared; she could lecture all she wanted as long as he got to kiss her when she was done.

She let out a low moan that had him smirking and running a fingertip down the inner curve of her breast. She mumbled a curse and he followed his finger with his lips, barely brushing her skin, and her hand tangled in his hair and pulled.

"You know, I'm thinking maybe we just fuck each other instead," he suggested, lips hovering over hers again as he got the last of her buttons undone and ran his hand up her body from hip to throat. He cupped her cheek and slid his thumb over her lower lip as she rolled her eyes and bit at it.

She squirmed when he laughed, driving one finger into his ribs even as she hooked a leg over his hip and rolled with him to land on the floor with a thump. She managed to land on top, because of course she did.

Shane looked up at her, his shirt open and falling off one shoulder, her eyes lazy and filled with a curious mix of need and satisfaction, and her hair falling in a cloud of wine-colored tangles he shouldn’t have found so goddamn sexy, and Shane wondered just what the hell he’d do without her.

“You happy now?” He asked her archly, faking the annoyance he knew she’d expect even as he reached for her again.

She came when he tugged on the shirt, leaning over him with a hand on either side of his head and his on her hips. She shrugged. “Sure. About to be happier, though.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

She kissed him hard before rolling her body over his in the horizontal version of one of her dance-floor moves. Shane’s brain short circuited at her skin sliding warm and soft over his, and then she was rocking her hips against him with one hand scooping back her hair and the other planted on his chest. Shane let out a groan of his own and pulled her down hard against him, his own hips shooting up to meet her as she laughed and did it again.

“That’s how you wanna be, huh?” He growled, and got the shot straight to his ego- and straight to his dick- when her eyes went wide and dark and her lips parted. “Two can play that game, sweetheart.”

In a heartbeat, he surged up and tossed her back onto the bed, unbuttoning his jeans as he leaned over her. She grinned recklessly at him, pulling sharply on his jeans herself as he grabbed her legs and yanked her closer. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her fingers into his hair, lifting one eyebrow in clear challenge as he slid inside her.

“Come on then, Dickhead. Give it your best shot,” she whispered.

Shane snorted. “I always give it my best shot, and you haven't been complaining yet. Now shut up, unless you’re sayin’ my name.”

“God, you’re so demanding- Shane! Shit, Shane!”

He laughed and thrust into her again, loving the way she cried out for him with that breathless shocked surprise and naked need in her voice as she said his name. She rose to meet him now, matching him touch for touch, stroke for stroke, and her mouth found his even while her breath hitched and she moaned and shuddered.

Shane mumbled her name right back to her, gripping the bed frame above her head for balance as he gave her more and more to send her flying. She cried his name as she hit the peak, and he fell moments later, collapsing over her with his face buried in her mulled-wine hair.

She ran a hand down his back and slapped his ass lightly, and he snarled in her ear and jabbed at her with his elbow.

“Morning, Dickhead,” she said cheerfully, rubbing his back. “Think I’ll take a nap now.”

“Shut up, Slugger.”

 

 

Shane left her messing around with a sketchbook and gathering supplies for art class with the kids later this morning. She seemed a thousand times better than the night before, but her babble about the chalk project she was going to do with the kids had hitched when she heard Beth talking to Judith as she wandered toward the common area. Shane had run his hand down her hair and she’d swallowed hard, then picked up babbling where she’d left off.

Losing Zach- especially like that- had been a hard knock, Shane knew. But Slugger was tough, and much like all of them, she was getting too damn used to losing people. She’d be alright, he thought as he ducked into the early morning sunlight.

Rick was down in the field with Carl already. Shane noticed the horses were gone and frowned, wondering what the hell was up with that. He’d checked the wall and no one had listed any long runs today from their little clan.

He added figuring it out to his to-do list and headed over to start the charcoal for Carol to man the grill. He shook his head when he saw her already there, slicing and dicing shit for breakfast on Ace’s bar.

“Sorry Carol. Running behind this morning,” he apologized.

Carol shot him an amused look. “Your hair’s a mess, Walsh.”

Shane leaned onto the bar beside her and looked over the prison, scanning the fences for build up. There was a group on the south fence that needed attention. He glanced at Carol blandly and stole a bite from under her knife. “Is it?”

Carol snorted. “You two are like rabbits.”

“Oh, I’d say more like tigers. You know, dangerous,” Shane shot back.

“And solitary. You aren’t tigers. Rabbits,” she declared firmly, waving the knife in his direction, and Shane started to laugh.

Then the gunshots echoed.

 

 

Shane and Carol burst into motion as Lizzy and Mika came out of D block screaming.

"Mr. Shane, Miss Carol, help!"

Mika sobbed into his arms as Lizzy babbled the situation to Carol. Shane shot Rick a grim look, passing the little girl Carol's way as C block's doors slammed open and their people poured out.

"Walkers in D," Shane snapped.

"What about C?" Rick yelled back, all of them already on the move.

"Clear!" Ace's voice was firm and controlled as she, Daryl, Sasha, and Glenn and Tyreese fell in behind them. "We locked the door to the tombs. Hershel's on guard."

"Ain't a breech," Daryl confirmed. "Followed procedure."

"Judy's fine," Ace added, to both him and Rick. "Come on."

 

 

D block was pandemonium. Ace tossed Shane a knife and pulled Daryl’s from his belt as her brother fired the crossbow, the three of the them the first through the doors as usual. Shane snatched a rifle from the hands of a petrified D block resident, lobbing it to Rick before charging toward the walkers on Ace and Daryl’s heels.

It was grim; it was brutal; it was ugly. Twenty-seven of their own, bitten or turned or somewhere in between. And when it was all over, that wasn't even the worst part.

Hershel and Doc S were already at work on the survivors, but Shane was more concerned with the walker Rick had found locked in his cell and bleeding from the eyes. He looked at Ace over his shoulder and she nodded.

"Doc? We need you up here," she yelled down. "Got something strange."

 

 

 

"No bites, no wounds. I think he just died," Rick said. He shifted the walker's head, checking the neck and then looking up at the group gathered in the cell doorway. Shane, Ace, Daryl, Hershel, and Doc S crowded into the doorway, all of them anxious to figure out what fresh disaster they were dealing with.

"He died horribly, too. Pleurisy aspiration," Doc S agreed.

Hershel sighed. "Choked to death on his own blood. Caused those trails down his face."

Shane ran a hand through his hair and swallowed hard. What a way to go; drowning on your own blood and helpless. Locked in a cell waiting to turn.

No thanks. Shane knew he’d rather go out taking on a fucking herd or staring down the barrel of another Governor’s gun. Shit, he’d take starving to death like they’d come close to over that winter before he died in a cage from something he was powerless to do anything about.

"I've seen it before. On a walker outside the fences," Rick said, eyes meeting Shane’s like he knew what Shane was thinking. Hell, maybe he did.

"They were on Patrick, too," Ace put in, and her hand slide into Shane's as she leaned against his side. "They were sick, weren't they?”

"Yeah. They’re from internal lung pressure building up, like if you shake a soda can and pop the top. Only imagine your eyes, ears, nose, and throat are the top," Doc S said grimly.

Ace gagged, and Shane had to agree with her.

"It a sickness from the walkers?" he asked, already trying to figure out what sort of fresh bullshit they were going to have to go through to keep people safe.

What the hell were they supposed to do if it was from the walkers? It wasn’t like they could stop the fence crews or the supply runs. Walkers were every fucking where; that was kinda the whole thing. End of the world and all, and now Shane had to figure out how to keep them from being carriers of some mysterious illness that would wipe people out in hours? Shit, he was so not qualified for this. Shane was just a grunt, damn it. Just a cop.

"No, this kind of thing happened before the walkers. Could be pneumococcal. Most likely an aggressive flu strain," Doc S disagreed.

That helped a little, in Shane's mind, but it still opened up a range of problems to deal with. Diseases had to be treated, and they’d shelved the whole antibiotics debate. Plus there were the kids to think about, as well as the elderly, and who knew how this was being transferred from person to person? Shane found himself wishing he’d picked up some training courses on quarantine procedures and how to deal with epidemics and outbreaks.

"Someone locked him in just in time," Hershel said.

Ace sighed and shook her head, eyes sad as her hand tightened in Shane's. "Charlie sleepwalked. He locked himself in. He was eating barbecue last night."

"How the hell can someone die of a cold in a day?" Daryl demanded. "And what the hell do we do about it?"

"Those are the damn million dollar questions, aren't they?" he muttered. He pressed a kiss to Ace's head in reassurance, knowing Patrick's death would weigh on her as well. He was part of her art classes, and she'd been looking forward to working with the kids this morning. Instead, she'd put one of those kids down when he tried to eat Glenn's face, snatching up Daryl's crossbow and firing a bolt right through Patrick's cloudy eye.

Rick sighed, pushing up from his crouch beside Charlie’s twice dead body. "Violet."

"The fuck, man?" Shane asked as everyone's eyes turned to his friend. What the hell did one of the pigs have to do with anything?

"Had a sick pig. It died fast. Saw a sick boar in the woods."

Shane grimaced. He’d heard of swine and avian flues, sure enough. “This while you were being served to the head on a silver platter?”

Rick shot him a look that clearly urged Shane to shut the fuck up at his earliest convenience. “Maybe.”

“What the hell are you- you know what; it doesn’t matter,” Ace declared. “Hershel, Doc S, what do we do now?”

"Birds and pigs are how these things spread in the past. We need to do something about those hogs," Hershel declared.

"Maybe we get lucky and these cases are it," Doc S offered. Shane read the fear in his eyes like everyone else there and knew it was a shot in the damn dark hoping for that to happen.

Ace snorted, shoving her hair back from her face in a move so like Shane’s own that he almost smiled. Her words were quick to wipe it off his face, though, as she studied the body and then met everyone's eyes in turn. "Bugs like to run through close quarters. Should have seen it at the Lullaby. If one of us got sick, all of us got sick. And this place? We’re on top of each other. It doesn’t get closer than this. We need to get ready.”

Shane clenched her hand in his as he stared at the body, knowing she was right. "Hershel, we need to call a Council meeting."

 

 

“God, I’m so sorry, Shane; it’s just Rick’s gone and I’ve got this party and the school called, and-“

Shane rolled his eyes as Lori babbled in his ear, already swinging into the school pick up lane. “Lori, stop. It’s fine.”

“But it’s your day off, and-“

“And it’s Carl. You know you can call me any time. That’s why you’ve got me listed with the school, so I can help you out in just this kind of situation. Stop fussing. Kid and I’ll just hang at your house and watch Disney movies all day.” Shane hopped out and waved to the SRO walking the playground. Tom Morgan was a good officer, and he nodded back to Shane and continued on his round.

“Still-“

“Say thank you, Lori, and let me go get your kid before he infects the whole school,” Shane cut her off again, teasing to break through her worry. He didn't mind taking care of the sick kid. Carl was his nephew, Rick was dealing with his mom and dad down in Florida- there was some kind of housing emergency and Shane honestly didn't remember what it was- and Lori had been looking forward to this champagne-soaked bridal shower three hours away for weeks. Shane had this.

Lori heaved a sigh on the end of the line and laughed a little. “Thank you. Tell Carl I love him.”

“I will. Now get," he ordered, and laughed when she huffed and muttered something about demanding men. He shoved the phone in his pocket and hooked his shades into his shirt as he headed toward the nurses' office, stopping to sign the kid out and scribble his name on the pick-up sheet.

The kid looked fucking miserable, Shane thought when he saw him. Carl was pale and looked vaguely nauseated but mostly just humiliated.

"Aww, little man," Shane said in sympathy as the nurse brought him out. "Come on, buck up. You'n'me are gonna have us some fun today. Hit the mall, maybe ride a mechanical bull."

Carl made a face. "Uncle Shane, I puked in class."

"Yeah, I heard. Need a trash bag for the ride?"

"No," Carl said after a moment's consideration. "Need some juice."

"Juice we can handle. Come on, let's get you home. You guys need anything else from me?" he asked the nurse, who licked her lips and shook her head.

Shane flashed her a quick grin when her eyes flicked up and down his body before settling back firmly on his face. "Well, my number's on file. You know, just in case."

"Oh, good. That's good, Officer Walsh," she said, a faint blush rising on her cheeks. "Carl, you feel better now."

"Bye," Carl muttered, slinging his bag toward his shoulder before Shane took it from him and steered him toward the door.

Shane draped his arm around the kid. "Ok, my friend. Big decision to make. Robin Hood or Hunchback?"

Carl gave him a mournful look. "No, Uncle Shane. It's a Hercules kind of day."

"Aww, shit. Feel that crappy, then? Hercules it is. Grape juice or apple juice?"

Chapter Text

You went with Rick when Shane jerked his head Rick's way. You'd already seen the look on his face when he came from the cell with his knife covered in blood, and you nodded as Shane and the others gathered to hold a rapid conversation about where to have their Council meeting.

You fell into step with Rick and squeezed his hand wordlessly as you ducked through the door. He glanced at you and squeezed back before pulling his hand free to try to keep Carl at a distance.

"Carl, stay-" The kid wasn't listening to Rick, running straight to him instead with wide, worried eyes and slamming into him for a hug.

You frowned at Merle, who had Michonne with one arm over his shoulder and one over Maggie's and was clearly favoring one leg. You hadn't even registered Merle's absence with the fracas going on, but come to think of it there’d been a distinct lack of redneck bickering during that fight.

"Dad, I'm sorry. I didn't see you come out," Carl was saying, and your heart clenched at the fear in his voice.

It hadn't been that long since Lori, after all.

"It's ok. I'm fine. But you might want to back away," Rick said, pushing Carl back a couple of steps.

"I had to use one of the guns by the gate. I'm sorry, Dad," Carl said.

Michonne grimaced. "The lump and I were coming back in. I fell. They came out and helped us."

You shot Merle a look. "Where the fuck were you going without saying goodbye? You alright?"

"Don't get ya panties in a twist, lil sister, we were just headin' out for a quick supply run. I'm fine, but our Warrior Queen here twisted her damn ankle bein' an idiot."

"Oh, shut up-" Michonne started, turning toward him with an annoyed look.

You sighed and cut in before they could really get going. "Glad you're alright. Carl, listen. Patrick got sick last night. Some kind of flu that moves fast."

"We think he died and attacked the cell block," Rick added. "I'm sorry; I know he was your friend. He was a good kid."

"We were going to do a chalk class this afternoon. He was excited about it," you put in, sorrow welling up at the look on Carl's face. First Zach, now Patrick and all the others. It was too damn much, you thought grimly. "We lost a lot of good people. Merle, Daryl and I are fine. So are Glenn and Hershel, Maggie. But we were all in there."

"You shouldn't get too close to anyone that might have been exposed, at least for a little while," Rick added. "Carl. All of you."

Carl ran back over toward the others and Merle looked thoughtful.

"Kid, help this dumbass on inside, aight? Look, Rick, I'm on the Council. I gotta get in there and do my part," your brother declared firmly.

"I don't think that's a good idea," you said slowly, but Merle was already striding your way.

He winked as he reached you and tossed his arm around your shoulders. "Guess it's a good thing I didn't ask you now ain't it? Where's the damn Council meetin', little sis. I gotta help ya pig figure this shit out."

 

 

The bar was slammed. People were standing elbow to elbow, every damn table was full, and there were more milling around near the jukebox with drinks in hand.

You scowled at Ellie. “Is this within fire code? How many fucking people are we rated for?”

“You drowning?” She asked with a grimace. “I’m sorry. It’s this bug. Everyone’s sick. I’m here to help, though. Put me to work.”

You eyed her and ran over your mental to do list. Ellie could waitress like a machine but she couldn’t mix a drink for shit. “Drop food. Take orders. Pull beer. If it’s a mix, for the love of god, let me do it.”

“I’m going to chose to not be offended by that,” she said magnanimously as you ran an orange peel around the rim of the glass and slapped the Old Fashioned on the already-loaded tray. “Partly because you’re not wrong but mostly because you’re doing amazingly well on your own.”

You snorted and yelled for Tara to come pick up. “Ellie? Just so you know, I quit.”

“Tell me tomorrow,” she said with a laugh, heading down the bar to respond to the six hands waving in the air for attention.

You kept working like a madwoman, the sound of the printer and “hey, Ace” or “miss?” or “bartender!” making your jaw clench tighter. You’d have killed for a cigarette. Or one of the shots you poured messily into the lined-up glasses and lit on fire. Or just two consecutive seconds in which you weren’t moving.

None of that was happening tonight, you thought in despair as the kitchen started screaming for you. You ignored them because you had a draft mug under the tap in one hand and were popping the tops off bottles with the other, and the kitchen could kiss your ass right then for all you cared.

“Ace.”

Your head whipped up in shock, hands swapping mugs and yanking the newest tickets from the printer without conscious direction from your brain. You knew that voice. What the hell?

Daryl stood, shoulders hunched and chewing on his thumbnail. Your first thought was he looked tired, and you got worried. Your second was that you so didn’t have the time or the energy tonight.

“Julie, pick up!” You shouted, then scanned the tickets and started pulling more bottles. “Dar, this is a real bad night. I’m on my own. You want a drink, get in line. You want to chat, call me tomorrow. Sometime after noon.”

“Look, sis, I got eyes. I see ya busy, but we need to talk.”

You groaned and gestured down the bar. “I’ve gotta mix. Follow along and yell; that’s the best I can do.”

You dumped vodka and peach schnapps into a shaker, added a scoop of ice, and grabbed the pineapple and cranberry juices from their coolers. Daryl fought his way to the bar and leveled the asshole who’d been staring down your shirt half the night with a pointed glare until he gulped and moved away.

“Sis, can ya take five? It’s important,” he insisted with a frown.

You slapped the lid on the shaker and scooped it up, shaking with one hand as you hooked an orange slice over rim of a tall glass with the other. “Not really,” you informed him. “Look, I’ve got tickets up to my eyebrows and- I hear you goddamn it; get Ellie!- I’m completely swamped. What’s up?”

You poured the Sex on the Beach into the glass, tossed a cherry into it for good measure, and slung it three seats down along the bar with practiced aim. “Sarah, consider yourself laid,” you called, already on the move again as Sarah yelled a thank you.

“It’s Merle,” Daryl said.

You lifted an eyebrow and lined up three more glasses, plopping spoons and ice into all of them before turning around and grabbing what felt like every bottle from the bottom shelf. “And?”

Daryl’s eyes got wide as you poured vodka with one hand and tequila with the other, crossing your arms to put both in every glass. You switched to rum and gin and nodded acknowledgment of a beer waved in your direction.

“And… shit. Sis, he’s in the hospital,” Daryl said.

You snorted and grabbed the sweet and sour and the triple sec. “Again, and?”

“He OD’d.”

You cracked a Coke open and dumped a splash into each glass, chugged the rest of the can while stirring the Long Islands, and lobbed the can toward the recycling bin. You scooped all three glasses into your hands and moved toward the far end of the bar to drop them in front of the early-thirties moms getting plastered. “Ladies, this is it until you eat. Don’t make me take your keys, now.”

Back down the bar you did a quick scan, waved a one minute to the empty beer being wiggled your way again, and turned to see Ellie with an overloaded tray on her shoulder coming out of the kitchen. You looked back at your brother and shrugged helplessly.

“Daryl, I can’t go anywhere right now. I’m drowning as it is. Everyone we know is sick. Jason’s in the ER tonight too, getting IV fluids and shit because he puked so much today he passed out. I physically cannot stop or I’ll collapse, and I can’t leave. So either wait till closing time or call me tomorrow and give me an update. Merle snorting himself to oblivion is so not my problem tonight. Tony, I swear to God, if you want another fucking beer you better put that damn thing down and wait your turn!” The last bit was delivered with a finger pointed at the asshole waving his empty at you again, and everyone gathered around the bar near him glared at him. You turned back to Daryl and shrugged. “Sorry, Darrie. I’ve got more shots to make.”

Daryl scoffed and glared. “Yeah, sure. Shots are more important than our brother. I get it.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” you snarled, but he waved you off and headed for the door. You stared after him for a beat, but turned back to the bar as the printer sounded again.

 

 

Arguing with Merle did absolutely no good. He stood firm in his decision to risk exposure, making D block his destination. You followed him with a sigh so you could fill him in on what you knew.

“And ya think everyone in here is exposed?” Merle asked, eyes scanning the blood and bodies still in the cell block.

You nodded, hovering in the doorway with your arms crossed. “That’s what it sounds like. I mean, most of us touched the walkers. I’ve got walker blood on me right now.”

“Need to get that shit washed off real fast, baby sis,” he said in a warning tone. “How many dead?”

“I think it was twenty-six,” you said softly, closing your eyes against the pain. “Biggest loss we’ve had.”

Merle grunted. “Seems like. What the hell ya thinkin’, coming into this mess?”

Your eyes shot open and you glared at him. “What was I thinking? I was thinking I heard gunshots and Lizzy and Mika crying about walkers in D block! What were you thinking, runnin’ off with Michonne and not putting your destination on the wall?”

Merle rolled his eyes. “We was headin’ out to find some supplies, is all. Didn’t list a destination cause we ain’t had one. Just knew y’all didn’t bring nothin’ back from the Big Spot and we needed shit.”

You scowled. “And Michonne’s ankle?”

Merle laughed and waved as he headed back toward you, pausing to squint at a blood splash on one wall. “We need to seal this block off. She done fucked up trying to wrestle a couple walkers while I’s busy with a few more. Heard something crunch when she fell. Rash of damn ankle injuries goin’ around, huh?”

You gestured vaguely toward the hallway. “Council’s meeting down there. Why do I feel like the story was a hell of a lot scarier than what you just said?”

“Cause ya ain’t dumb. How’s the arm?”

You rolled your eyes as you walked with him. “It’s fine. It’s just stitches, and I don’t even think it really needed them.”

“Pig bitched, huh?” Merle wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and you glared without any real feeling behind it.

“His name’s Shane. Yeah, he fussed. Hershel insisted though.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Merle grunted, the he frowned when the coughing echoed up to you both. “Like with that. Shit. Better catch up to whoever it is.”

 

 

"I'm just taking her back to my cell, so she can rest," Tyreese said.

You rounded the corner to see him up the hall with an arm around Karen. Karen had stayed in D block with the rest of Woodbury’s former residents, even when Tyreese and Sasha had moved to C. Karen coughed into her hand again and your jaw tightened.

No way she was going into C block. Not where Carl and Judy were.

"Tyreese, I don't think that's a good idea," Hershel said slowly.

"Oh, it sure ain't," Merle agreed.

You stepped into the crossway and the Council was out in full force, all of them looking at Karen with worried eyes. Shane sighed and glared at you and Merle.

"What the hell are you doin' in here?" he snapped.

Merle ignored him as Karen looked at all the grim expressions. "What's going on?" she asked.

"We think it's a flu or something," Glenn said. "It's how Patrick died."

"Judith is in that cell block. She's vulnerable. Anyone that may be sick, or even exposed, should stay away." Hershel's soothing voice didn't do much to eliminate the sudden sick fear churning in your stomach.

He was right. Judith was the most vulnerable of anyone there. She'd been born after the world went to shit, so she'd had no vaccines, no flu shots, no fucking chance beyond natural resiliency against catching something like this. To be fair, the old adage about building up your immunity by eating a pound of dirt a year? Yeah, Judy qualified.

But against something as aggressive as what had taken down Patrick?

You swallowed hard, eyes locking with Shane's as you grabbed for Merle's hand to steady yourself. You had a sudden, impossibly detailed image of Judy's little face with blood coming from her eyes, and you couldn't-

The look on Shane's face said he was just as worried as you were, though he tried a tight smile for your benefit.

"It killed Patrick?" Karen asked.

"But she's gonna be ok. Now that we know what Patrick died from, we can treat it, right?" Tyreese said, glancing from Hershel to Karen. Karen pulled away, pressing a hand to her lips.

"Don't panic. We're going to figure this out. But we should keep you separated in the meantime," Hershel reassured them. "I'll see what we have in the way of medications and Caleb will take a look at you."

Karen sighed. "David. From the Decatur group. He's been coughing too."

You stiffened and the Council all looked at each other. Shane rubbed a hand over his forehead, shoving off the wall.

"Hershel, go tell Doc S what's going on. Carol-"

"I'll get started moving linens down to A," she agreed.

Sasha stepped toward her brother. "There's some clean cells in the tombs. We'll get you settled," she told Karen with a smile as she lead them off.

"Little sis and I'll go get David. Michonne and I brought in Decatur," Merle said firmly. "Walsh, gonna need another meetin' later."

"Yeah," Shane agreed. "Daryl-"

"We'll start on the dead," Daryl said grimly.

Shane reached for your hand, pulling you to him to kiss your cheek as you and Merle headed past. "It's gonna be ok, sweetheart," he whispered.

You smiled at him, but even you knew it didn't reach your eyes. "Of course it is."

 

 

You collected David, who was as shocked and worried as Karen had been, and took him down to the tombs. Carol had brought down clean sheets and things, and Karen was already settled in when you dropped David off.

You were quiet and worried as you wandered back up to the main cell blocks with Merle.

“What’s on ya mind, sis?” He asked after a bit.

You sighed and shoved your hair back from your face. “Everything. Sickness spreads so damn fast in quarters like this, and this one killed a kid in less than 24 hours. And we’ve got so many vulnerable- the old, the kids. Especially-“

Merle rubbed your back when you cut yourself off and shook your head. You could feel tears spring into your eyes and you stared at the floor, coming to a stop.

“Merle, what if Judy gets it? I can’t- I can’t lose another baby,” you whispered, throat dry. “I know she’s not mine, but-“

“Don’t be a dumbass. ‘Course she’s yours. Maybe ya didn’t grow her or nothing, but she’s yours all the same. Yours and the pigs’. One weird-ass family situation, ain’t gonna lie, but who’m I to judge?” Merle said with a shrug and a twisted smirk. “We got a weird ass family of our own, you’n’me and Darylina.”

You gave a watery laugh and brushed at the tears on your cheeks. “Yeah, we do. She feels like mine. And I can’t lose another baby. If she gets sick-“

“She ain’t. You ain’t. Ya think the damn pig ya so enamored of ain’t got that baby girl first and foremost in his mind? Come on now; ya know better than that.”

You scowled at him. “Would it kill you to call Shane something nicer? You’re talking about the man I love. Some day he might be your brother in law. What are you gonna do then, just keep calling him ‘pig’?”

“Shit, why not? Shoe fits’n all,” Merle said with a wink. “Don’t change the subject. I know ya worried, baby girl, and ya got a right. But we’re gonna make it. We did this far; aint no damn virus gonna bring us down. Chin up, aight? Now go get a shower; scrub that blood off and make the shower good’n hot. Imma go help ya... Shane out with the dead ones.”

Chapter Text

Daryl tossed Shane a shovel and the two of the set to work. Daryl had tied his ever-present bandanna around his face, and Shane copied him with one he'd stolen from Ace's pile of painting supplies.

“So, what the fuck do we do, man?” Daryl asked with a grunt. “Gonna have a fuckin’ epidemic on our hands.”

Shane sighed. “Yeah. Really wishing I’d taken that training course on dealing with this shit.”

“They offer courses on apocalyptic healthcare?”

Shane snorted a laugh, using his foot to drive the shovel into the dirt. “You’re an asshole.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

They shoveled in silence, Shane keeping half an eye on the fence where a shit ton of the dead bastards were gathering- again. How the hell were they supposed to keep them under control? They had crews on the fucking fences all day.

"Your asshole brother owes me a plan for the fences," he informed Daryl, irritated. "And what the damn hell was he doing down there? He wasn't exposed, but he walked himself into it anyway?"

Daryl shot Shane a look that was so Ace it confused the fuck out of him for a minute. "You think Merle won't be in the damn middle of where the action is? It's like ya ain't met him at all. Hey, Rick."

Rick grunted, standing over the two of them. Shane stopped digging and looked at his friend, knowing all the signs of something being on the man's mind. He also knew Rick was a close mouthed son of a bitch and would let it out in his own time.

Daryl glanced at Shane and turned to keep digging. "Glad you were in there."

"Wasn't much use without my gun," Rick said after a beat, reaching for third shovel Daryl had hauled out here for some reason.

Shane snorted and got back to work. Rick didn't want to hear Shane's thoughts on the matter; not again. They'd had a few conversations about that shit already- one involving Rick taking a sucker swing at Shane and Shane sitting on his ass laughing about it while Rick scowled at him before pulling him to his feet so they could slap each other on the backs while Ace rolled her eyes and called them cavemen. Shane had yet to change Rick's mind on it. Maybe Daryl could.

"No, you were," Daryl said, like he'd read Shane's fucking thoughts. "Look, man, all this time you been takin'? You earned it. We wouldn't be here without you."

Rick picked up a shovel and got to work between Daryl and Shane. "It was all of us."

"It was you first. You two assholes, much as Merle'n'I hate to admit it. Shane got the camp started; kept everyone alive. You got us here."

Shane blinked at Daryl. It wasn't that Daryl was any more of a dick to him than he was to anyone else, but Shane thought that might have been the nicest thing a Dixon who wasn't Ace had ever said to him. Daryl rolled his eyes at Shane and ignored his presence in favor of appealing to Rick.

"You gonna help us figure this out?"

Rick glanced from Daryl to Shane and Shane just shrugged at him. "You know how I feel about it, brother. I don't have a fucking clue what I'm doing."

"You're doing a good job making it up as you go along. All of you are," Rick disagreed. "I screwed up too many times. Those calls you gotta make- I go too far down that road, too many times. I almost lost my boy, who he was."

Shane snorted. "That's bullshit. Carl's fine; always has been. And if you made too many bad calls, what about me, man? Otis? That shit on the farm? But you're lettin' me be in charge."

"Yeah, and fuckin' Merle," Daryl added. "I mean, seriously, Rick. Them two are better options than you?"

Shane laughed, but Rick just shook his head. "Whatever else this place needs, I'm here for it."

Shane sighed and went back to shoveling. Daryl nodded and did the same.

"Like I said, man, you earned it. What it's worth, you see mistakes. I see when the shit hits, you're standing there with a shovel. Both of you assholes."

 

 

“Daryl! Rick! Shane!”

Maggie’s voice cut through the silence in a shriek that had all the of them springing up and reaching for weapons. Shane figured that was a good thing when he saw the goddamn fence about to cave from the weight of walkers pressing against it.

The three of them converged with Maggie, Glenn, Sasha, and Tyreese, with Maggie chucking them crowbars and shit from the collection hooked on the fence. For a few minutes it seemed like they could get ahead of it, all of them working together in mildly panicked silence.

"Are you guys seeing this?" Sasha called suddenly.

Shane looked her way and saw the headless rats, in a bloody pile just down the guard run from where the fence was-

“Shit, damn, fuck,” he snarled as one clever asshole climbed on the shoulders of his fellows and the fence started giving way.

“Think that’s helpful?” Daryl snarled as he slammed his back against the fence, holding it up with his own body. “Rick! We need a plan! Ain’t gonna hold, man!”

Shane glanced at Rick, who had a lost look in his eyes. Shane followed his friend’s glance toward the pigpen and felt his heart sink. Rick met his eyes and Shane nodded once, reading the plan in his partner's face.

“I’ll get the truck.”

 

 

Daryl drove. Shane crouched in the trailer with Rick, thinking about that time they'd geared up and gone in with a SWAT team for no other reason than more bodies were needed and he and Rick had been there. They'd crouched in the back of the SWAT van and looked at each other just like this.

He reached over and slapped Rick's shoulder, like he had then, and tossed him an overconfident grin. "We got this, brother."

Rick's lips twitched upward briefly. "Alright, you cocky asshole," he muttered. "Watch your back, damn it."

Yeah, Shane thought as they pulled through the gate and Daryl took them toward the first of the walkers. Rick remembered that adventure too. Shane also remembered Rick blocking the rest of the team from shooting the target, and he remembered the way he'd yelled at Rick for being a stupid, reckless idiot when Rick walked the man out in cuffs with the sobbing hostage just behind him. He wondered if Rick remembered the conviction with which he'd informed Shane, the sheriff, the head of SWAT, and everyone else who'd bitched him out that saving the man's life was the right the thing to do.

Rick was all about saving lives, Shane thought. It's what made him a good cop and a good leader. It also made what they were about to do so much harder.

Daryl stopped them just ahead of the mass on the fence, Rick and Shane both standing and eyeing the walkers. They got the attention of the dead fucks soon enough, but Rick was waiting for something, his eyes on them.

Shane watched his friend, watched the battle inside him, and reached a hand Rick's way as Dixon yelled an impatient "let's go". "Brother, I can do it."

Shane could. He didn't mind a sacrifice, and pigs- even piglets- were a hell of a lot easier to live with than a human being. He thought about a dark schoolyard, his ankle throbbing, fear for Carl bubbling up in him. He thought about Otis' screams and the pain of having a chunk of his own hair ripped from his head.

Yeah, he could do it. Pigs would be a hell of a lot easier.

Rick didn't speak. He rubbed a hand across his eyes, reached into the box, and pulled out the first of his piglets. The thing squealed and screamed in Rick's arms, then squealed harder as Rick crouched again, grabbed one hind leg, and hamstrung it with a brutal jerk of his knife. Shane's heart broke for Rick, for the poor goddamn pig, for Carl when he found out, as Rick dropped the piglet over the side and walkers fell on it instantly.

"Go!" Shane yelled, and Daryl pulled up ahead of the shambling motherfuckers who didn't get to take a chunk out of the first sacrifice.

Rick did the next two, ending up with pig blood sprayed all in his face, and Shane's teeth ground together at the sight. The pigs were being sacrificed because they couldn't be allowed to stay; not after Violet. They were carriers of the disease, and they would save the prison from fence collapse in the meantime. Two birds, one bloody sacrificial stone. But that meant Rick had diseased blood all up on him now, and Shane couldn't stand by and watch this shit tear his best friend up anymore.

"I got it," he snapped when Rick reached for the next one. "You don't have to do everything. Wipe that fucking blood off your face."

Shane sliced into the squirming thing in his arms and wondered if it was a bad sign that he didn't feel anything but annoyance at the blood now all over him as well.

"Go!" he snapped to Dixon, and they lead the walkers away a little further.

 

 

Shane sat in the open doors of the ambulance, annoyed as hell but knowing he had to let the damn paramedics do their job. Rick had hovered at his shoulder, stressed and pale, until the sheriff himself had come to talk to him. He was still being interviewed right now, thumbs hooked in his belt and his stubborn bastard expression firmly in place. Shane snorted as Rick jabbed a finger in the sheriff's direction, glad his brother had found a new target. He been two seconds away from clocking Rick in the jaw to get him to calm the fuck down.

Shane hissed as the pretty paramedic dabbed at the wound on his shoulder with antiseptic of some sort. It stung like a motherfucker, he thought, and all this was wildly unnecessary. He glanced at the woman as she held the cleanser over the new hole in his shoulder and found her eyeing him as well.

He flashed her a shit-eating grin. "Lot of fuss over nothin', ain't it?"

"I pulled a knife from your shoulder, Officer Walsh," she said with a roll of her eyes. "I'd hardly call that nothing."

"I've had worse," Shane said, shrugging with the shoulder that wasn't currently grasped in strong female fingers. "Doesn't even need stitches."

"You trying to do my job now? It does need them, and you'll sit there and take it like a man. And you'll go to the doctor tomorrow and get further instructions," the paramedic told him in a no-nonsense voice.

Shane laughed. "Yes, ma'am."

"Stop flirting, you lucky bastard, or I'll call Ace," Rick snapped. "She'll yell at you for awhile, for all the good it'll do."

"God. Don't you dare. You tell Ace about this and I'll tell Lori about all the shit you've gotten into," Shane fired back. "Ace would freak the fuck out and leave work to come down here. Ain't worth that."

"This your girlfriend?" the paramedic asked, her tone noticeably cooler than before.

Shane smiled at her. "Naw, she's my best friend, aside from this lump of anxiety here. She's tending bar up in Atlanta right now and I just don't want her to worry."

Rick's snort was eloquent and Shane shot up his middle finger. The paramedic looked less interested than she had before but not as pissed as a moment ago, and Shane decided that was good enough. More than a few women hadn't been able to understand or handle his friendship with Slugger, and Shane had already decided if they couldn't deal with him having a female friend they weren't in the running for future Mrs. Shane Walsh anyway, if such a thing existed.

"Brother, I'm sorry," Rick said for the millionth time as the woman pulled the antiseptic-soaked gauze pad away and ripped open a suture kit.

"Stop it. This isn't your fault, and it's nothing anyway," Shane said with a roll of his eyes. "Shit happens, man. I'm the one ran into the fight like a reckless fool."

"Only 'cause I was already in it," Rick shot back.

Shane huffed and shoved his free hand through his hair, shooting Rick a glare now as he started to get pissed. He hissed as the paramedic started the first stitch, but started talking before Rick could do more than flinch. "So, what, I should have just let you get your ass beat and possibly killed? I'm your fuckin' partner, asshole. I did my job; you did yours. Shut up about it already."

Rick sighed and studied the paramedic's actions closely, but at least he'd fucking stopped apologizing. Shane grunted when she slapped another gauze pad against the now-stitched hole and listened with half an ear as she rattled off instructions and wrapped it in a bandage. He already knew he'd have to go to the doctor, if only to get clearance for active duty again, but he'd had enough injuries to know all the muscles and tendons and shit in his shoulder were fine. It was a surface injury; just a puncture that would heal in a couple of weeks.

Goddamn it, he was supposed to go up to Atlanta and see Ace the day after tomorrow. He'd be explaining this shit after all, and she’d freak out on him. She thought he didn’t see it, but he knew her well enough to read the worry when he told her about close calls or injuries. At least he'd be able to show her, in person, that he was fine.

And hell, she'd probably tease him about it just being an excuse to take his shirt off, and she'd run her fingers over it and then smack him upside the head for his stupidity. Then they'd get take out or something, and hell, that sounded so damn good to Shane he was considering going up there tonight if it wasn't too late when they let him leave. On the other hand, she was on again with that bastard, so she was probably booked for the night.

As soon as the paramedic declared him finished and stepped away, Rick pulled him into a rough hug, slapping him on the back and glaring some more.

"Don't scare me like that, brother," Rick said firmly.

Shane rolled his eyes but patted Rick's shoulder. "I'll try, man. Don't get into fist fights with assholes with knives. Use your damn gun."

"Fuck you, Shane."

"Naw, you're not my type."

 

 

When it was done, Rick went straight for the pig pen. Shane sighed and followed him, knowing his friend needed some help. Problem was, Shane wasn't any good at this shit.

"Rick," he said slowly, leaning on the pen wall beside where Rick had already begun breaking it down. "Had to do it, man."

"We need to stay away from Judy." Rick didn't stop working, didn't look up at Shane.

Shane sighed. "Yeah, I know. Especially after this. Look, man, we need to get this blood off us."

"I'll go when I get this burned. Might as well do it all at once. Shower isn't gonna change the rate of exposure much," Rick said, grunting it out as he ripped off the first panel.

Shane nodded and shoved upright. "I'll help then."

"No. Gonna do it- gonna do it alone. Go shower. Find Ace and talk to her. She's scared," Rick said quietly. "Hell, we all are."

Shane stared at Rick and shoved a hand through his hair. "Rick, can you- can you just listen to me for a minute, man? I get that you needed a break, brother. I do. I can't- Look, if I lost Ace? I'd- you'd have to put me down and I don't mean as a walker. I mean me, Shane Walsh, right here. 'Cause I would- shit."

He broke off and ran his hand down his face, his whole body going cold at just the idea of it. "But you aren't me, Rick. You always were the better of us. Always. And you still are. I'm doin'- I'm doin' my best to fill your shoes, brother, but I don't fucking know what to do right now. We're gonna have another Council meeting. I want you to come. Please."

Rick ripped another panel free and tossed it into the center of the pigpen. "I can't. You know why I can't."

"No, I know why you won't. Rick, we believe in you. All of us, but especially me. You've never let me down, not once, you hear me? Just think about it, man. I'm gonna go get the pig blood off me, then I'll get back to body patrol. Council will meet in the morning. Hope you're there," he muttered, and headed up to the showers.

Chapter Text

In the shower, Shane decided he needed to stay away from everyone who hadn't been exposed yet, and he really ought to keep his distance from those who hadn't been exposed too badly as well. Like Ace, he thought.

Ace needed to be safe from this thing, and after the pig blood, Shane was about seventy-five percent certain he was going to get it. Him and Rick, come to think of it, so he should stay away from other members of the Council for good measure. Make sure someone would be out of isolation to run this joint.

Sad to say, but he figured he could leave it in the hands of the Dixon clan and it would be run well enough. Especially if Ace kept her brothers' crazy in check.

For now, he decided, he'd move into one of the guard towers. He headed to their cell to throw a bag of things together, and of course she found him in there.

"Hey, hero. Heard you saved us from an invasion." She smiled and stepped closer to him, and Shane took a step back and held up a hand to stop her.

"Stay back, Slugger," he warned.

She frowned and crossed her arms, giving him a narrow-eyed look that suggested she already knew they were gonna fight. "What the hell for? I'm already exposed."

"Had to slaughter the piglets to lead the walkers away. Got pig blood all over me, sweetheart. It's best if you keep your distance."

Her whole face softened in sympathy. "Oh, poor Rick. I mean, I know why- swine flu. But that's still rough. He ok? You ok?"

"I'm fine," he told her, wishing she'd just let him leave already. It was hell, being this close and not holding her. He knew she was worried and upset; he'd seen her reach for Merle's hand when Hershel had mentioned protecting Judith. "I'm gonna get out of here and crash in one of the guard towers for awhile. Don't want to risk anyone in here."

"That's a good idea," Ace said, and reached under the bed to pull out their battered pack, from the winter on the road. "I'll come with you."

"No," Shane snapped. He shoved a hand through his hair and groaned when she looked at him and simply raised an eyebrow. Her own version of Rick's stubborn-bastard look was fixed firmly in place, and Shane had a sinking feeling he wasn't going to win this one.

He'd try anyway. She was too fucking important to risk her getting sick.

"Slugger, come on. You need to keep your distance. From me, from Rick, from the walkers. Minimize your risk," he insisted, shoving another shirt into his bag.

Ace laughed at him and he shot her a glare. She rolled her eyes and leaned against the bunks, arms crossed. "Are you fuckin' kidding me? How the hell am I supposed to stay away from the walkers? Tell me that. We're going to need medicine. The fences are still going to need clearing. D block will need to be cleaned out eventually, and in case you haven't noticed, we're short twenty-nine pairs of hands!"

"I have noticed," he snapped. "We can do it short thirty. Ace, please. I can't risk you."

"But I can risk you? Fuck you, Dickhead. Seriously, what the hell? You're just as important to me as I am to you. I've already been exposed. I think movin' out of the cell block is a good idea, because we absolutely cannot let Judith get this. She's the priority. But I will do my part to take care of this place, and that means I will be in danger. We talked about this. I'm not helpless and you can't use the 'please be safe for me' line to manipulate me into doing whatever you want me to do today!" She glared at him, eyes flashing with temper.

He scrubbed a hand over his face and reached for her. "Slugger-"

"No. Don't you 'Slugger' me right now, Dickhead. I'm scared and I'm angry and I have no idea what to do here, but I do know that you and me? We'll do it together. I will not be sidelined, Shane. I'm already at risk. Don't ask me to sit back and watch you and my brothers and everyone else I fuckin' love be in danger while I do nothing. Come see me when you get your head out of your ass. I'll be helping bury the dead. I can damn well dig," she snapped. She spun on her heel and ducked under the curtain.

"Damn it, Slugger-"

 

Ace leaned on Shane's arm, laughing her ass off at his commentary on the place they had just left.

"Jesus, Shane, don't hold back," she gasped out when she could draw in a breath. "I mean, I know it was bad, but I swear it came highly recommended."

"My ass. You're trying to give me food poisoning. Did you see that sanitation rating? I've never seen a restaurant with a D before," he bitched, mostly because it made her break into another peal of laughter.

Ace had looked fucking sad last night when he came into the bar. Sad and kind of pinched around the eyes, like she was in pain. When Shane had called her on it, asking what was wrong, she'd sighed and said she'd had a fight with Mal, and then she'd tripped coming down the stairs on her way into work and slammed right into the trash can at full speed.

She'd waved off his demands to go see a doctor, saying she was just a little bruised and sore, and being on her feet for hours wasn't helping. Shane could sympathize, and he kept an eye on her all night just to be sure she was really ok.

He'd had to go home, 'cause he'd had Carl's game today and he'd promised the kid he'd be there, but when Ace had told him she had a rare Saturday night off, he'd immediately decided he was coming back and bringing her out. Now he was glad he had, even if she was trying to kill him.

They were strolling downtown Atlanta, Ace pointing out street art or places she’d like to put street art as they went. Shane laughed when she grabbed his arm and drug him across the street, disregarding four lanes of traffic, to gesture excitedly toward an alley where she’d seen a piece “with just the most original look, Shane; I mean you have got to see this!”

Shane eyed the dark alley dubiously, but he was carrying and he’d only had one beer with dinner. He started to follow her when the yell caught his attention.

“No! Let go, that’s my fucking purse!”

Shane grabbed Ace’s arm and moved her toward the streetlight, his eyes searching for the source of the angry yell. “Stay right there, Slugger, you hear me?” he snapped, seeing the two college-age girls struggling against a couple assholes trying to steal their bags.

Shane jogged up the street toward them, shooting a disgusted look at the people giving the struggle a wide berth and averting their eyes. “Hey, assfaces! Leave them alone!”

The two assailants turned to him, matching sneers on their lips. “This ain’t your business, douchebag. Move it along,” one snapped.

“Naw, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Shane said mildly, tucking his thumbs into his pockets. He could get to his gun quickly from here, at his side under the flannel he’d thrown on, but he’d rather just intimidate them out of it all. “Cause I’m not the type to walk on by when a lady yells for help. Now let the bag go and leave them alone, and we’ll call it even.”

The two exchanged glances and let go of the bags, puffing themselves up and taking a menacing step in his direction. Shane jerked his head for the two girls to go, and they did, heading for the safety of the waiting crowd and pulling out their phones as they went.

“Why you think we’re gonna listen to you?” Asshole number one asked.

Shane sighed and shifted his weight as the leader got closer to him. “Because I said so, and I’m a cop, dumbass. I’m giving you an out. Better take it; there won’t be another one.”

Asshole number one scoffed. “Yeah? Where’s your badge?”

Shane shrugged, waiting.

“I don’t think he’s really a cop,” Asshole number one sneered to his buddy, who looked way less certain of that. “I think he’s just a dick bag who needs to be taught a lesson.”

The asshole swung and Shane took it right on the chin, not even knocked back a step. He snorted and spat blood from his newly split lip on the ground, hearing Ace’s angry, worried voice yell his name. He held up a hand to calm her down and smirked at the asshole.

“My turn,” he said, and grabbed the guy’s arm, throwing him to the ground and setting a knee in the center of his back, holding his arm twisted behind him. “You’re under arrest for assaulting an officer,” he said mildly as he heard sirens approaching. “As well as attempted robbery.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Shane’s head shot up at the venom in Ace’s tone, and his eyes went wide as he watched her fly into motion when asshole number two started to run. Her fist shot out and clocked him square in the nose, and Shane was reminded of the first time he’d seen her when asshole number two yelped and grabbed at his face. Ace followed it up with a swift kick to the junk that put the dude on the ground, and Shane flashed her a grin as Atlanta PD rolled up.

“Thought I told you to stay back where it was safe,” he told her sternly a bit later. She leaned into his side, his arm around her shoulders, and watched PD load the two assholes up and take statements from the girls and the witnesses.

“When do I do what you tell me?” she shot back, and Shane had to laugh.

 

 

Shane stared after Ace, wondering just why in the hell she was so bent out of shape about him asking her to keep her distance.

Didn't she get it? He was trying to keep her fucking safe; keep her and Judith and Carl and everyone he cared about safe from a threat he didn't know how to fight. He didn't know if staying away from him or anyone else who'd been exposed would do any fucking good, cause yeah, she'd been right there with him, splashed in blood just like he had. Hell, she'd put down Patrick. But she hadn't had the pig blood on her, and Hershel said the pigs were certainly carriers.

Staying away from each other, keeping at a distance from the walkers- those were common sense things that would decrease her chances.

He strode out into the courtyard, ready to channel some of his fear and worry into something productive, like digging more graves or stabbing more walkers. Instead, Rick called his name.

Shane's eyes narrowed at the expression of barely-controlled horror and anger in Tyreese's eyes, as well as the cool cop look in Rick's. He hadn't seen that in a long damn time, he thought as he fell in at Rick's side. Tyreese wasn't slowing down, and Shane wanted to ask what the fuck was going on as he, Rick, Carol, and Daryl followed the big man toward the tombs.

Something held him back, though, and he decided to wait and see.

The smell hit first, then the blood smeared along the hallway. Shane shot a look at Rick, who hooked his fingers into his gun belt as he studied the smears.

His gun belt, Shane thought. Rick was wearing his gun. Inside the prison.

Wild hope, at odds with the burning-flesh smell, the width of the blood trails, and the set of Tyreese's shoulder, sprang up in him anyway. If Rick was carrying again, maybe everything would be ok. Maybe-

Tyreese led them out the door and into bright sunlight and Shane lost his train of thought at the still-smoldering bodies laying side by side and blackened.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered. His eyes flicked all around the scene and he rolled his eyes at himself when he reached to his side to pull a pair of gloves from a duty belt he hadn't worn in over a year. Maybe more. Old habits died hard, it seemed, and he crouched beside the remains with Rick at his side.

"You found them like this?" Rick asked, looking up at Tyreese as Shane pulled his knife and used it to press lightly on one body. Ash crumbled where his knife point barely touched it and he sighed.

"I came to see Karen," Tyreese started slowly. Shane winced at the way he sounded, knowing shock when he heard it and wondering how it was going to manifest in Tyreese. If it'd been Shane, and that was Ace he'd found-

Well, he'd already told Rick if he lost Ace, Shane would have to be put down as well.

"I saw the blood on the floor, and then I- I smelled 'em." Tyreese's voice wavered, and he whirled toward Shane and Rick. "Somebody dragged them out here and set 'em on fire!" he roared. "They killed them, and set them on fire!"

Rick's jaw tightened as he exchanged a look with Shane, and Shane turned to study the bodies and run a hand over his face.

He sprang up when Tyreese moved, taking a step toward Rick that had Daryl moving in behind him, hands up and ready. Shane glanced between them, caught Rick's eye, and waited.

"You're a cop. The two of you are cops." Tyreese rounded on Shane, and he dropped his hand from the butt of his gun so it wouldn't escalate things further. "You find out who did this, and you bring them to me! To me!"

Thing was, Shane got that. He really did. There'd been some talk about removing Malcolm fucking Hall's head and bringing it to Ace on a silver platter, talk that would have become action if the building hadn't been burning up around Shane's ears. But Shane was in charge of this joint now, more or less, and he wasn't down with bringing one of their own- even one who could do this shit- to Tyreese. Not with that look in the man's eye.

"Come on, man, let's take it back a step-" he started, reaching toward Tyreese to calm him down in a gesture he copied shamelessly from Rick. Rick was the one who soothed; Shane tended to let the assholes take a swing so he could add assaulting an officer and resisting arrest to the string of charges.

Tyreese, it turned out, wasn't in the mood to be soothed anyway. Tyreese, Shane thought as he took the first punch to the jaw and staggered back with the force of it, was a fighter and maybe even more of a hothead than Shane himself.

Yelling echoed around as Shane spat blood and barely got his hands up in time to block the big man's next hit. A couple of those, Shane thought grimly as he shot out one of his own, and Shane would be on the ground. Man packed a punch.

Then Rick came out of nowhere and Tyreese was down, Rick on top of him and beating the man's face in. Shane had a split second of appreciation followed by flashbacks to himself doing something similar to Carol's deadbeat husband, and he winced as Carol's voice joined Dixon's in trying to get Rick to stop. When Daryl grabbed for Rick's arm and Rick shoved him back with a snarl, Shane figured it was time for him to get involved before Rick beat the poor bastard to death.

"Rick! Rick, damn it. Come on, brother, he's scared. That's his girl on the ground, there. I don't blame him for the hit, so let the man up," he ordered, managing to do what Daryl hadn't and get a good hold on Rick. He hauled his friend's skinny ass up and off Tyreese, shoving him back and shooting him an amused look when Rick snarled and raised his fist at Shane. "Oh, we both know how that ends, brother," he commented. "But come on if you want to. We'll see if Dixon does like Ace and throws a wrench at our heads."

Daryl snorted as Rick's eyes cleared and he lowered his arm. "I'd just deck ya both. Don't need a fuckin' wrench."

"Shut up and get Tyreese to Doc S," Shane said mildly. "Carol, make sure nobody disturbs the scene; Rick and I'll be back. Rick, you idiot, come with me so I can make sure you didn't break anything."

 

 

“So,” he said when he had Rick sitting at a table with his battered knuckles up for Shane to doctor. “We gonna talk about it?”

“Talk about what?”

Shane snorted and dabbed antiseptic on the scrapes on Rick’s knuckles. Rick hissed and jerked and Shane rolled his eyes. “Come on, man, don’t be a baby. You’ve had worse. This ain’t nothing.”

“Yeah? Then you sit on this side of the deal,” Rick shot back. “Stings, asshole.”

“Yeah, it does that. Wiggle your fingers,” Shane ordered.

Rick hissed again, moving his fingers carefully and clearly with effort.

“Yeah, you sprained it at the very least. Sit there like a man and I’ll stitch this one and wrap it,” he told Rick.

“That’s sexist,” Rick informed him.

“Yeah, yeah. Alright, talk while I do this. What’s going on in your head these days, brother?”

Rick sighed and jerked as Shane stabbed a needle through his skin. “Fuck, who taught you how to do this?”

“Paramedic. Think her name was Amanda, but I could be wrong. Speak, you close mouthed son of a bitch,” Shane said, eyes narrowed on Rick’s knuckles.

“Don’t know what you want from me, Shane. This- this is who I am,” Rick said slowly. “I beat the shit out of him.”

“He was beating the shit out of me. When we finish your hand, you get to check out my face,” Shane retorted. “Come on, man.”

“I’m not fit to lead, brother,” Rick said softly.

Shane glanced up as Hershel cleated his throat in the doorway before making his way to the table. “Come to check up on my skills, doc?”

Hershel smiled at him faintly. “Came to check up on your patient. But your stitches are crap.”

“Get the job done,” Shane said with a shrug, winding a bandage around Rick’s hand. “Maybe you can talk some sense into our fearless leader.”

“Ok, Ace,” Rick muttered, and Shane grinned.

“You know, I fell off the wagon a few times,” Hershel declared in his measured tones.

“That what this is?” Rick asked, gesturing toward the hand Shane was finishing up.

“Pretty close,” Hershel said with a shrug. “When it happened, I didn't stand around feeling bad about it. I got back up. I had responsibilities. People to keep safe."

"Council's still meeting in the morning," Shane added. "We need you there. I need you there."

Rick grunted, grabbed his gun belt, and strode from the room. Shane sighed and sat back in his chair, rubbing at his eyes.

"He'll come around. For what it's worth, you're not doing so badly yourself. I know I had a- a fairly poor opinion of you to start out," Hershel said with a chuckle, settling into the chair Rick had vacated and dabbing at Shane's split lip.

Shane snorted. "I'd say you had a right."

"Never said I didn't," Hershel agreed amicably and Shane laughed. "Point being, I don't have a poor opinion of you anymore. You want Rick to believe in himself. Maybe you should try to follow your own advice."

Shane scoffed. "Oh, Rick- and plenty of others- would say not believing in myself is the least of my problems."

"And they'd be wrong. Sure, you're a cocky son of a bitch," Hershel informed him, to Shane's delight. "But you doubt yourself where it matters. You're just as-"

"Where the fuck is he? Walsh!"

Shane winced at the tone in Ace's voice. "Run, doc. Save yourself," he muttered, rising as Hershel laughed. "I'm in here, Ace."

Ace flew through the doorway, the scowl on her face turning into wide-eyed fear as her hands flew up. Tears started in her eyes and Shane rounded the table, cursing mentally. "Damn it, Shane, what happened?" she whispered as he reached her.

"I'm fine, Slugger. Just some bruises. Tyreese packs some power, and I said the wrong thing at the wrong time," he told her, reaching for her despite all his arguments that they stay away.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously and he held her in place when she would have spun on her heel and stormed out. "I'll fucking kill him."

"There's no need," Shane told her, pulling her close. She leaned against him, holding on tight, and Shane hated himself for not being able to stick to his resolve and stay away. It was dangerous for her, but goddamn it, he couldn't see that look in her eyes and not do something about it. "He's grieving. It's fine, and you should see what Rick did to him."

"I did," Ace muttered. "Well, I saw Rick and his hand. He told me you were down here, and you'd been punched in the face. Also about what happened to Karen and David. Shane, what the hell?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I know," he agreed. "I don't know what happened to them, Slugger, but Rick and I will find out. And my face is fine, I promise. Sweetheart." He pushed her back enough to take her face in his hands and look her in the eyes. "I just want you safe."

She sighed and pressed a kiss to his palm. "I know. But when are we ever safe, hero? I can't be sidelined all the time. I'm healthy; I've been exposed; no one beat me up recently. I'm in better shape that you are, Dickhead. I'm going to be involved, and I'm going to be at your side where I'm supposed to be. Deal with it."

"Deal with it?" he shot back, amused as hell.

She smiled at him and pulled him down for a kiss. "Yeah. Deal with it," she whispered, her lips against his.

Chapter Text

You sat in on the council meeting the next morning. You hadn’t asked anyone about it; you’d just walked up, sat between Shane and Merle, and waited. Since Sasha had gone into isolation, they were short a body anyway, you figured.

Then Michonne did much the same thing and you grinned. She winked at you, leaning in the doorway as everyone settled into place and got down to business.

"It's spread. Everyone who survived the attack in cell block D. Sasha, Caleb. Now others," Hershel said.

You bit at your lip, reading the controlled worry under his calm, measured tone. Dr. S getting sick was bad. Daryl had brought him in, along with his stash of medical supplies from the small clinic he'd run before all this. He'd saved several lives and probably a few limbs as well, and now he was sick? Your best resource against the illness had caught it.

Merle shifted forward, stabbing at the table with his finger as he met everyone's eyes. "It's lookin' rough in there, people. Doc S catchin' it too; that's a run of bad luck we cain't afford."

"So what do we do?" Carol asked from across the table.

"First things first, cell block A is isolation," Hershel said firmly.

"Anyone shows symptoms, you get them down there," Shane agreed. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Carol, can you make sure we get meals down there safely?"

"Use a cart, leave it outside the door. Someone can roll it in and out who's already got it. I'll deliver; I've been exposed," she agreed.

You sighed, hesitant to be the one who said it but knowing someone needed to. "Not to butt in, since I'm not on the Council and all, but we tried isolation with Karen and David."

"Yeah, what the hell we gonna do about that?" Daryl put in, tone slightly panicked. You got that. Murder wasn't something any of you had planned on in your little community.

Merle snorted. "Two damn pigs can look into it, right?"

You shot him a glare, but he was looking over your shoulder at Shane and not paying any attention to you.

"Yeah, we'll handle it. I'll get Rick on it, start makin' a timeline of who's where when. People, what are we gonna do to stop this?" Shane asked bluntly.

"There is no stopping it. You get it, you have to go through it." Hershel had taken charge, as the only one with any real experience in diseases.

You were grateful, but he wasn't hiding the worry in his voice very well. You started chewing on your thumbnail as you scanned the rest of their faces. The whole damn Council shifted in various states of worry.

From the doorway, Michonne spoke up. "But it just kills you?"

"The illness doesn't. The symptoms do," Hershel disagreed. "We need antibiotics."

Shane groaned and muttered something under his breath, and you glanced at him as the coppery tang of blood flooded your mouth when you bit down too hard on your thumbnail. On Shane's other side, sitting backwards in a chair, Daryl tossed hair from his face and drummed his fingers on the table.

"We've been through every pharmacy nearby. And then some. We picked everything clean."

You blinked and turned to Hershel, picturing the map as you thought. "Hershel, the veterinary college, West Peachtree Tech?"

He nodded. "That's my thought as well. They'll have everything we need."

"That's fifty fuckin' miles. And Slugger, how the hell did you come up with that?" Shane demanded.

You shrugged. "I'm the one that made the map, remember? Map's just another art piece. Fifty miles was always too much of a risk before."

"It ain't now," Daryl said firmly, slapping his legs and starting to rise. "I'm goin'. Merle, ya in?"

"Wish I could, little brother," Merle said softly. "But I think I got me another destination."

You turned slowly and looked at him, and he was pale and sweating. Your hand groped for Shane's and he held on tight to you as you stared at your big brother, clearly trying not start coughing. "No," you whispered. "No. You asshole, you didn't have to be exposed!"

"Easy, Slugger," Shane said, running his thumb soothingly across your knuckles. "He'll be fine. Merle, get your ass to isolation. Daryl, pick a team and get out there. I'd go, but-"

"Naw, ya stayin' here," Daryl agreed. "Merle, ya idiot."

"Shut up, both of ya. Couldn't leave this shit up to the pig, now could I? Listen here, ol' Merle's been through worse than this. Ain't nobody can kill Merle but Merle," your brother said with a wink your way. He lost the battle with the coughing fit as you scowled.

"I'm gonna kill you if you don't stop referring to yourself in third person," you snapped. Bickering was easier than dealing with the sharp, stabbing fear that you'd lost him. And you'd barely started being family again, goddamn it. "Go on to isolation, you idiot. Michonne, back out of his way."

"Doesn't matter," Michonne said easily. Merle pushed to his feet, blew a kiss your direction and nod Daryl's, and headed toward the door. Michonne ran a hand down his arm as he passed, and your eyes narrowed on that with interest. "I'm going with Daryl."

"You haven't been exposed," Shane objected.

Michonne shrugged. "Merle's already given me flees."

You snorted out a laugh, 'cause yeah, that one was good. Merle's answering laugh echoed from the hallway beyond, then dissolved into couching. Shane reached over and pulled your thumb away from your mouth, squeezing your fingers lightly.

"Ace, ya know what this place looks like?" Daryl asked into the silence after Merle's coughing. "Inside, I mean?"

You frowned, considering. "Roughly? Sort of. The complex, anyway. Inside the actual buildings not so much. I haven't been there."

"I can lead the way. I know where everything's kept," Hershel offered, rising.

Daryl sighed, slinging his crossbow over his shoulder and hesitating as he eyed Hershel. "Look, out there? Sooner or later, it's the same. We run."

The old man glanced down and smiled slightly. "I can draw you a map."

Daryl nodded once. "Good. Sis? Ya in?"

You glanced at Shane and he met your eyes steadily, his jaw tight. But he didn't say anything. You touched his cheek and he closed his eyes, leaning into your touch and nodding. "I've got to, Dickhead. It's my brother. And I know how to get there."

"Wish you wouldn't, Ace," he said slowly, voice raw. "But I know you're right. Dixon, you watch her ass out there. You and Michonne both."

"For the last fucking time, hero, I can take care of myself," you protested. A faint chuckle ran around the room and you rolled your eyes and scowled. "You know, screw all of you."

"For the last fuckin' time, sis, we ain't that backwoods," Daryl shot back, and you slapped a hand to your face and groaned.

"Ok, that's enough from the wonder twins," Shane said dryly, but he kissed your palm as he rose. "Daryl, Michonne, Ace- be careful."

"There are other precautions I feel we should take," Hershel put in.

Everyone paused and turned to him, Shane waving for him to go on and reaching for the paper he'd been scribbling notes on. "Like what?"

"There's no telling how long it will take Daryl and his group to return," Hershel began. "Wouldn't it make sense for us to separate the most vulnerable?"

"Administration building has separate offices and rooms," you offered.

Shane scrubbed a hand over his face as Glenn spoke up. "Who is the most vulnerable?"

"The very young," you said softly, glancing at Shane. Judith. Carl. Lizzy and Mika and the handful of other kids, all of them part of your art classes and so enthusiastic about simple things like chalk and finger painting. Kid things, the kind of shit they'd have done in preschool, but in the middle of the apocalypse, simple kid shit was a treasure trove of wonder.

Shane nodded, pulling you to him to hold you tight as Glenn asked about the old. "She'll be ok. We'll send Beth with her; Beth hasn't been exposed yet. Slugger-"

"I know," you said, pushing back to study him. You ran a hand down his arm and poked him lightly in the side. "I know. I'll be careful. You too. Don't get sick while I'm gone."

He snorted. "Come on, let's go get your gear. I'll get started moving the kids to the admin building."

 

 

Merle looked between you and Daryl and crossed his arms. You fidgeted under his glare, biting the inside of your lip to keep from blurting out what had happened. Daryl nudged you with his elbow and Merle's eyes narrowed.

"I saw that," he snarled. "Spill, Ace."

"What?" you asked, widening your eyes innocently, the way you did when CPS came by asking questions. "I don't know anything."

Merle loomed over you. "Ya don't know nothin' about how the bread dough I had risin' before school got turned into- into that?"

You bit your lip as you looked at the dough balls scattered around the kitchen and living room, the remnants of a brutal, bloody war. There'd been many casualties. You'd won.

You shot a look Daryl's way and he narrowed his eyes at you. You turned back to Merle, all set to deny it, but you opened your mouth and it came babbling out. "It was Daryl's idea! We were lookin' for something to do and we saw the dough and Daryl said it would be the perfect for indoor snowballs, an'- Merle, bein' sick is so fuckin' boring!"

"Watch yer damn mouth, sis," your older brother snapped, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Shit. I had one fuckin' test, ya idiots. Ya just had to be good for three hours. There's fuckin' dough all over the place."

"Yeah," you said, shoulders slumped. "I know. We're sorry."

"Speak for yourself," Daryl muttered. "It weren't my idea. I won, though."

You turned aghast eyes on Daryl. "You serious? We both know I won!"

"How the hell ya-"

"Both of ya shut it! I don't care who won! We gotta clean this shit up before Will gets home," Merle snapped. "Shit. Ya fuckin' ten years old, you're too damn old for this shit."

You chewed on your thumbnail, guilt overwhelming you. You did know better. You knew what would happen if Will came home and saw all this. You'd just been so bored. Being sick and home from school sucked ass, even if Daryl was at least sick with you.

Merle started collecting dough balls, muttering under his breath about idiot siblings who don't fucking think. You shot an agonized look at Daryl, who just shrugged and got to work cleaning up as well. After a pause, you darted over to your big brother and wrapped your arms around him from behind.

"Sorry, Merle," you whispered, letting go almost immediately as he stiffened. "We didn't think. We'll clean it up."

You turned and got busy, bending and fishing a couple of wayward ballistics out from under the fridge. As you rose to dump them in the trash, something slammed into the side of your head. You yelped, whirling to see Merle with another ball in his hand and a gleam in his eyes.

"Oh, no you don't!" you shouted, diving for cover behind the couch and lobbing a ball back at him.

"What the fuck are ya- shit!" Daryl exclaimed, and you cracked up when he took the dough ball to the face. You winged one his way and tossed yourself cackling down behind Will's chair as both your brothers returned fire.

 

 

"I'm scared," you whispered.

The kids had gone into isolation, Carl pissed and being drug kicking and screaming. Beth had gone with them, carrying Judy while you, Shane, and Rick stood at a distance and watched. Shane's hand had clenched on yours as the doors closed behind the kids, and you'd fought back the sick churning in your own stomach to be strong for her dads.

Now, though, as you checked your spare magazine and shoved it into your back pocket, you met Shane's eyes and let your own tears well up. "I'm so scared. So many people are already in isolation. There aren't many of us left who aren't sick, and now the four of us are going to leave? It's gonna be all up to you and Carol."

Shane snorted and pulled you in, his hand tangling in your hair. "Yeah, but we can handle it."

"I know. I mean, shit. You and Carol is like the Council at three quarter strength anyway," you joked, but your heart wasn't in it. "Shane?"

"Yeah, sweetheart?"

"Merle's sick."

Shane sighed and eased down to sit on the bunk, pulling you into his lap as he did. "I know. I know, Ace. He's gonna be ok."

You sniffed, dashing away tears impatiently. It was Merle. He irritated you more often than not, and you'd spent most of your adult life wishing he'd fucking leave you alone or bailing his ass out of jail.

But it was Merle. He was your brother, the brother you'd taken more hits for you than you liked to think about, who'd gotten you your first art supplies. Who'd taken care of you when you'd lost the baby, and been there when you called for help with Malcolm. It was Merle, and now he was sick. "How the hell do you know? People have died from this already."

Shane tugged his fingers through your hair, working out tangles. You sniffed again, trying to picture a world without Merle in it. It was bizarre to think, considering how little you'd talked to him for so many years, but you couldn't picture it.

Shane pressed a kiss to your forehead. "You're gonna get medicine. He's tough as nails, your asshole brother. You really think he's going to let some disease bring him down?"

"What is it with you men thinking you can will your way into being fine? It's a fucking disease, hero. You can't just beat it with brawn and stubbornness," you snapped, shoving up to glare at him.

He flashed you a grin and ran his knuckles down your cheek. "Maybe not, but we can try."

"Asshole."

"Yeah, I acknowledge that. But you've known it for awhile," he shot back, and your lips twitched in appreciation.

"That's fair," you admitted. "Keep an eye on him?"

"You know I will. Be safe. I mean it, Slugger. You get those meds and you get your ass back here. Whatever it takes," Shane said, tone suddenly hard and serious. "You think like we did on the farm, girl. Whatever it takes to come back to me. Promise."

You blinked at him. Neither of you really talked about the farm, about Otis' death or the way you'd been ready, no hesitation, to shoot Randal. Hell, you'd fired the bullet and if Rick hadn't knocked you to the side, he'd have been dead. You still argued Rick should have let you, even knowing first hand now how killing a person fucked with your mind. It'd been a dark time, survival time, and both of you had pulled back from it in the months that followed. Malcolm's death had helped, for you at least. But that look was back in Shane's eyes now, and you touched his cheek with your fingertips as you searched his face. "Dickhead, what the fuck? Where's that coming from?"

He looked away, shaking his head slightly. "This thing, with Karen and David. I look at Rick, and he's still messed up over Lori. How could he not be? And Tyreese, he's- he's all kinds of fucked up right now. And I keep thinkin'-"

Shane tightened his arms around you and leaned his forehead to your shoulder. You curled against him, already knowing where he was going. You'd been thinking it yourself, after all. "Yeah," you whispered. "I know."

"Naw, you don't," he muttered. You scowled, but he kept going. "Sweetheart, I was gone on you from that first flash of hair. You socked that asshole in the nose and I was fuckin' yours. Came into the bar with that bullshit drink order to impress you, not to try to stump you."

You'd been running your fingers through his hair, lost in your own desperate fear of losing him, but that made you pause. "What? Really? It's been how many years and you never told me that?"

He snorted and met your eyes again. "It's embarrassing, Ace. Besides, we decided to be friends, and I got used to you callin' me Dickhead. Figured it'd take away from it if I told you the truth."

"Idiot," you muttered fondly. "You'll always be my Dickhead."

"Yeah, yeah. Look, thing is, for as long as I've known you, I've known you were there. No matter what, I could come to you, for anything, sweetheart. If you were- If I lost you-" he cut off, and you watched that cold, hard expression settle on his face. "Shit, Slugger, if someone killed you like they killed Karen? No one would be left standing. I wouldn't wait around to find out who it was. And if I lost you like Rick did Lori, just the usual shit that's been happening since the damn world ended?"

He pulled you in tighter, lips to your hair like he could breathe you in and keep you safe. "Shit. I told Rick he'd have to put me down. Not walker me, but human me. 'Cause I wouldn't be, not anymore."

"Oh, shut up," you scoffed lightly. You kept your tone steady with effort, since the simple promise in his voice left you almost as cold as the knowledge that you felt much the same. If something happened to Shane, you would be first in line for the loony bin. "You'd be fine. I mean, I'd expect some serious mourning, maybe some weeping and gnashing of teeth, but you'd have Carl and Judith to look after."

Shane shook his head, his tone as matching yours but his eyes still holding that edge of darkness that he'd had when he came back from the school with the supplies that had saved Carl's life, at the cost of Otis' life and, for awhile at least, a chunk of Shane's soul. "You're ridiculous, sweetheart. Just be careful. And get home."

"Yeah," you said softly, curling back against him. "Point me in the right direction and pull the trigger. Right, hero?"

"Yeah," he agreed. "Whatever it takes, girl. You just make it back to me. Come on, your brother's waiting."

Chapter Text

You slung a rifle to your shoulder and headed out to join Daryl and Michonne. Daryl glanced at you from under the hood of Zach’s charger.

“Runs the best and the fastest,” he said, seeing your pained expression. “Gonna be ok?”

You sighed and leaned into his shoulder. “I’ll be fine.”

He patted your back roughly and slammed the hood, then turned and hugged you better. “Zach weren't your fault. Merle’s gonna be fine, too. Sasha, Glenn, all of ‘em.”

“Yeah, I know,” you agreed, bartender's smile firmly in place. “Come on, we’ve got a long ass way to go. Who else we taking or is it just us three?”

“Me, if you’re sure.”

You turned to Bob with a smile. “Hey! Why wouldn’t we be sure? Welcome aboard.”

“After last time…” he started, looking at you dubiously.

You were going to respond, but Daryl pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and held it up in front of Bob.

“What’s this word?” your brother asked.

Bob blinked and rattled off the medicine name with no hesitation. You started laughing, genuinely laughing, when Daryl grinned, slapped Bob on the back, and nodded sharply.

“Yeah, we want you along.”

 

 

At the last minute, Tyreese joined you, making it a party of five. You winced at the damage to his face, what with you knowing exactly how all that crap felt. You’d looked worse when the world ended, maybe, but shit. Man was a tough bastard to take all that damage and be up for a run like this.

On the other hand, he’d punched Shane. Your sympathy faded a little when you remembered the bruise along your Dickhead’s jaw.

Daryl drove, because of course he did, and you’d claimed the passenger seat to zero protests. Shane had jogged down ahead of you to the gate and slid it open at your approach, grabbing the pulley to swing open the outer gates as well.

He held your eyes as Daryl pulled past, and you waved and smiled brightly to try to ease the worry in his eyes and the tightness of his clenched jaw. You twisted to keep him in your sight as long as possible, and he moved to watch your car from the fence before grabbing a crowbar and heading toward the current patch of walkers rattling the chain link.

“They’ll be ok till we get back,” Michonne said quietly from behind you.

“I know,” you agreed. “Shane's in charge.”

Daryl snorted. “You two make me sick, sis.”

“You’re just jealous,” you shot back pleasantly.

Michonne chuckled faintly. “You Dixons are all the same. Can’t leave people alone to save your lives.”

That made you laugh, and you turned your attention to her and your brother instead of stressing out over everything you were leaving behind. “Oh, you love the way Merle picks on you. You have to or you wouldn’t run off with him all the damn time.”

“It’s not running off. And the lump invites himself,” Michonne muttered. Her voice was oddly embarrassed, but you caught the fondness in the way she called your older brother 'the lump'.

You twisted in the seat to look at her with narrowed eyes. Tyreese stared out the window, not listening to anyone’s nonsense, but Bob was smiling at you from the middle seat. Michonne had a faint blush rising on her cheeks and wouldn’t meet your eyes.

“Dar,” you said slowly, smirk spreading over your lips. “Someone’s sweet on our asshole brother.”

Daryl snorted. “We done talked about this, sis. Michonne’s got a crush on Rick. If anything, she and Merle are just fuckin’, but she don’t like him.”

You gagged. “God, Daryl! Don’t even joke!”

“I am not sleeping with your brother,” Michonne said at the same time, with an air of desperation. You noted the absence of the shocked disgust that you’d expected, and started to comment when the radio crackled.

“… who arrive, survive…”

You and Daryl shot wide eyed looks at each other and you leaned forward to fiddle with the radio.

“Was that a voice?” Bob asked, bewildered.

“Sounded like it,” you said grimly, leaning back as Daryl batted your hands out of the way. “Darrie, I fuckin’ did that already.”

“Don’t call me Darrie!” He snapped. “Whatever it was, it’s gone. Ace, grab one of them cds in there; we’ll draw the walkers away from home while we-“

“Daryl!” You snapped his name and braced yourself, foot slamming down onto a non existent brake when you saw the walker in the road.

Daryl proved he could fucking drive after all, whipping the Charger around and avoiding not only the first walker but the next three as well before slamming on the actual brakes at the start of a herd of them.

“Way to pull a fuckin’ Lori, asshole,” you muttered. “Better back up before we’re surrounded.”

“Shut up,” Daryl shot back. “Brace yourselves, everybody.”

Daryl slammed the car into reverse and hit the gas, and he ran over the three walkers converged on the rear of the car. For a minute it looked like you’d get free, but of course the wheel got stuck in walker guts or brains or some shit and Daryl’s attempt to keep going only resulted in getting stuck deeper.

The herd was converging on the car and you pulled your knife and got ready. You shot your brother a look. “Next time, I fucking drive.”

“Seriously, sis? Bite me,” Daryl shot back. “Hand me the crossbow.”

You pulled it from the floorboard at your feet and passed it over. He glanced at everyone in the backseat as Michonne pulled her sword.

“Bob, Tyreese, hit the gaps and don’t stop for nothin’. ‘Chonne?”

“I’ve got a break on this side,” she agreed. “Head to the trees.”

“Sounds good. Ace?” Daryl grunted.

“On your ass, Dar,” you said grimly, eyes on the walkers.

 

 

The machinery's steady beeping usually faded into the background, but it was annoying the shit out of you today for some reason. On the other hand, you could have just been impatient and annoyed with life in general.

The tv was out. You'd finished your last book the day before and Daryl had taken it back to your place when he left last night. Merle was running around somewhere, no doubt doing something illegal, and sleep was a distant memory. It'd been two weeks in this fucking hospital bed and you still couldn't get comfortable in it.

The hole in your side, stitched closed and mostly healed at this point, was probably the reason. It'd made a good excuse for a lot of your low-key bitchy behavior, and you were going to milk it as long as you possibly could.

But you were going home tomorrow, you reminded yourself. Your face was still a kaleidoscope of unnatural colors, your ribs were still broken, but the stab wound had been the worst of it. Now that it was pretty well healed, the doctors figured you had enough sense to keep yourself alive all on your own.

You doodled restlessly, trying out ideas for the next installment in your 'Urban Decay' series you'd been doing around Atlanta. Two weeks of recovery was more than enough time between your last piece going up and a new one, and people might start to forget if you let it go too much longer. You'd done a zombie cop a few weeks back that had been wildly popular- you'd gotten a couple of decent sized commissions from that one- and your latest, the one where you'd painted the front of a Subway across from City Hall to look like a shambling, overgrown ruin, had gotten a couple of spots on local news, along with your photo and an interview with the Subway owner about why they'd agreed to the piece and what the Urban Decay series meant to them.

You'd gotten some emails for an interview yourself, but landing in the hospital had put the kibosh on that rather spectacularly. So you needed a follow-up, and it needed to be superb.

Sounds that didn't make sense started to trickle into your consciousness, jarring you out of your sketch and back into reality. Someone- several someones, from the sounds of it- was screaming. Maybe that wasn't exactly unusual in a hospital, but you couldn't usually hear it.

You set your sketchbook aside and started the somewhat laborious process of getting up. Disconnecting from the various machines would bring a nurse, but that was fine with you. You leaned against the IV drip and headed slowly for the door to see what the hell was going on out there.

People were running, you could hear now, and all the sudden the whole damn place went dark. You had just enough time for a startled "what the fuck?" before the lights came back up as emergency power kicked in. But something was seriously wrong. You were debating trying to find out what was happening or hiding, since you were beat up enough that you weren't exactly going to be useful to anyone, when the door to your room slammed open.

You jumped, staring wild-eyed as your brother jerked the bandanna from the lower half of his face and looked you over rapidly.

"Good, ya up. Get dressed and get the knife I got in there," he snapped, tossing you a bag. You caught it awkwardly as he ducked back out the door and hauled in a wheelchair. "Come on, sis, fuckin' move!"

"Dar, what the hell?" you asked, dumping the bag on your bed and finding a massive hunting knife on top of a collection of your clothes and your paint-splattered Converses. "What's going on?"

"Honestly? End of the fuckin' world. Dead people are tryin' to eat people. I ain't makin' this shit up, swear," Daryl answered. He was peering out your door at the hallway, and you suddenly realized he had his crossbow in his hands.

But- what? The dead? "What?" you said, staring at him. "Daryl-"

"Shit! Sis, get a fuckin' move on!" Daryl snarled, and jumped back from the door with his crossbow up. "They made it to this fuckin' level now. We gotta move!"

Well, your brother had officially cracked, you decided, but you got your jeans pulled on all the same. Daryl muttered and watched the door and looked stressed as fuck, and then he darted to your side and slapped his hand over your mouth. You started to shove him off you, but then you froze as something shuffled by your door.

It looked vaguely like a human, but it didn't walk like one. Then it pushed your door open and Daryl aimed, and in the two seconds that you had to see the thing's face before it had a crossbow bolt in its eye, your world turned upside down.

"That- Daryl, that-"

"Yeah, it's a goddamn zombie. Sit in the chair, we gotta go and we gotta go fast. Merle's waitin' on the street with the truck but it's bad out there, sis. Get ready to fuckin' fight. Ground floor's the worst."

You pulled the knife and held it in a shaking hand, still trying to figure out what the actual fuck was happening right now. "Damn it, the zombie cop was a damn metaphor," you mumbled as Daryl slapped his handgun into your other hand. "It wasn't supposed to be real!"

 

 

 

You stayed right on Daryl's ass as you broke for it, Michonne on your other side covering Bob. Tyreese didn't move from the fucking car when the rest of you did, and Daryl grabbed your arm and pulled you toward the trees when walkers surrounded the big man completely. You stood unwavering for a moment, but then you turned and drove your knife through a walker's eye and got a fucking move on.

You all knew the risks, and you knew what was at stake. You had to get these medicines, and you had to get back home to your people. To Merle and Glenn and Sasha and Doc S, who were counting on you. And to Shane.

Daryl lead the way, the four of you rushing through the trees just ahead of the walkers. Stragglers kept coming out of nowhere, and Michonne's sword came in real freaking handy more than once on the way. Daryl slowed down so you could catch your breath, far enough ahead to look around for two seconds and get your bearings.

You jerked a thumb in the general direction you needed to be going and Daryl nodded, but his eyes narrowed on the trees back the way you'd come. You heard it too, the rustling noise of something coming, and you got ready for more running. It had to be the herd, right?

Then out of the trees, soaked in blood and grunting with every breath, came Tyreese.

You couldn't believe what you were seeing. He'd fought his way out of that pack of nonsense, when you- all of you- had thought he was a dead man. That was one tough bastard, you thought.

Daryl's crossbow twanged by your ear and the lead walker went down as it came through the trees. "Come on," Daryl grunted, and you were off again.

Your brother had been right. Sooner or later, we run.

Chapter Text

Shane went down to the tombs and checked the barricades they'd rebuilt after running the Governor out. It wasn't that he thought they were in any danger of being compromised, it was more just that with Ace gone he had to keep moving. He had to keep busy, and he couldn't fucking stand the thought of anyone talking to him right then.

Not that there were very many people wandering around the prison still. Most everyone was down for the count, which was a truly terrifying prospect.

Hershel had gone into the quarantine block to help, despite everyone's protests that it was a bad idea. Carl and Beth were in charge of the little ones in isolation, and Shane tried hard not to think about his daughter and how goddamn vulnerable she was. If Judy got sick-

Shane tested the strength of a barricade and forced his thoughts away from that. Besides, Ace and Daryl would be back soon enough. Yeah, it was fifty miles, so it would take them a hot minute, but Shane decided right then and there that everything would go perfectly smoothly for them. They'd find everything easily and in abundance, get in and out with no problems, and make it back in time for supper.

Maybe that was a bit optimistic, but Shane's fucking nerves couldn't handle the alternatives.

When he'd checked all the barricades he moved onto the generators, which had enough fuel if not an abundance of it, and then there was nothing else to do down here. He knew he should go back up and no doubt hit the fence again, and he was heading that way when Rick came striding into C block with his cop face on.

Shane frowned and crossed his arms. "I know that look. What's goin' on, brother?"

Rick hooked his hands in his gun belt and stared at the floor, shaking his head slowly. Shane's eyes narrowed and guilt rose up as he realized this could only be about Karen and David. He'd forgotten about all that shit in his worry for Ace, and now he shoved a hand through his hair and moved investigating their deaths back to the top of his priority list.

"It's Carol," Rick said finally, snapping Shane out of his spiral.

Shane blinked. "What's Carol? What about her? She sick?"

If Carol was sick, that meant Shane would have to figure out someone else to do meal prep, and since he was pretty sure the number of working, non-sick hands was down to a solid three pair without her- him, Rick, and Maggie- Shane had a feeling it would be him doing it. Goddamn it.

"No, she- she's not sick," Rick said slowly. He scrubbed a hand over his face and shot Shane an agoinzed look. "She did it. She killed Karen and David."

Shane fucking stared at Rick for a full thirty seconds. Carol? Sweet Carol, who did his - and everyone else’s- laundry and who kept the place clean and taught classes to the kids with Ace? She had brutally killed two of their own, dragged their bodies out, and burned them?

Then Shane thought about Carol with a rifle in her hands; Carol with her brass-knuckle knife taking out walkers; Carol teaching the kids how to use weapons during story hour when she thought no one would notice. (Shane had noticed. He didn’t care. Hell, he thought it was a good idea.) Coldly practical Council Carol, and yeah. He could see it.

He heaved a sigh. "Well, at least that's solved."

Rick blinked at him. "How are you- it's Carol. I never would have thought-"

"Rick, come on, man," Shane said with a shrug. "You know how it goes. Domestic violence, they're either perpetual helpless victims or they're some of the strongest people around. Ace has always been strong, but I'm starting to think we all missed the moment when Carol decided she was gonna be too."

Rick shook his head and pressed his fingers to his forehead again and Shane sighed.

"Look, what are we gonna do about it? That's what I want to know. We cain't let it stand 'cause Tyreese will have everyone's heads if we try. But- hold up," he cut off with a frown. "How do you know? What'd you find?"

"I didn't find anything," Rick said with a grimace. "I asked her. She told me."

Shane whistled and leaned on one of the tables. "Shit. She give a reason?"

"She wanted to stop it from spreading. Said she was tryin' to protect the group," Rick said slowly.

Shane just nodded. Yeah, that sounded right.

 

 

"Unit 56, we have a 10-16, repeat 10-16 in progress. Caller reports children in the residence and shots fired."

Shane hit the button for the lights and siren as Rick hit the gas, grabbing the radio on his shoulder to call in. "Dispatch, 56 responding now. ETA 3 minutes," he added as he pulled up the address on the computer.

Rick took a turn practically on two wheels as dispatch rattled off more crucial information, and Shane sighed and shoved a hand through his hair before checking his gun.

Two years on the job together and Shane had decided domestic disturbance calls were the worst. Rick said it was missing kids, and fuck that was a close second, but for Shane it was the domestic violence ones. He didn’t understand why the woman almost always cried when they arrested he piece of crap beating on her, though he knew he wasn’t supposed to make assumptions like that about who was the vic and who was the perpetrator. Facts were, though, most of the time he and Rick handled this kind of shit, the woman was black and blue and posted the bastard’s bail. And this time, there were shots fired and kids in the house.

Fucking kids, man.

Rick pulled to a stop and Shane was out the door practically before he had the car in park, pulling his Glock and scanning the house. Inside, he could hear the high-pitched wail of a small child. He and Rick exchanged glances and headed for the door.

"King County Sherrif's Department, open up!" Shane yelled, banging on the door with his fist. He and Rick stood to either side of the door and waited.

It didn't take long for the door to crack open and a girl, maybe eleven or twelve, to look out. Shane glanced at Rick and lowered his gun, leaning down to her level. "Hi, sweetheart. I'm Officer Walsh, this is Officer Grimes. We got a call there was a problem here? Is your mom home?"

She opened the door wider as a woman's calm voice came from further in the house. "Let the officers in, Callie. We're in the kitchen. Callie, go tend to your brother and sister while I talk to the policemen."

Shane followed the little girl into the house, his gun twitching in his hand when he stepped around the corner and saw the body on the kitchen floor, the gun on the counter with the magazine placed beside it, and the woman with a battered face and blood in her hair sitting and sipping from a steaming mug. She had a phone to her ear and Shane heard Rick muttering into the radio on his shoulder as the woman met Shane's eyes.

"Yes, the officers have arrived. Thank you very much. Yes, thank you," she said into the phone before hanging it up and placing it gently on the table.

Shane offered a smile to the little girl as she moved past him into the hallway, where the baby's wails had faded to whimpers. "Ma'am, I'm going to need you to step away from that weapon," Shane said slowly, exchanging a glance with Rick. "I take it you made the call?"

She rose, winced, and limped her way around the counter. "I did. I'm unarmed. The only other people in the house are my three children. My husband started beating me; threatened to beat Callie and Edward. Jack had his gun on him- he has a concealed carry permit; I can get you the paperwork- and I was able to get it from him. When he wouldn't leave and tried to go to the kid's rooms, I shot him. I'm reasonably certain he's dead."

"He's dead," Rick confirmed from beside the body. "Ma'am, is this the first time he'd hit you?"

She shook her head, the first emotion Shane had seen yet in her eyes as they slid from Shane’s and faint color rose on her cheeks. "No. But it is the worst, and it's the first time he's threatened the children. I couldn't let him- I had to protect them."

Shane let out a long sigh as the ambulance pulled up and shoved his gun into his holster. "Let's get you checked out, ma'am."

"Theresa," she said softly as Shane lead her toward the door. "My name's Theresa. Can you call my sister, to come get my kids? I know you're going to have to arrest me."

Shane nodded, and pulled out his phone. "Go on and call her while they look you over, and we'll talk more after."

Inside, Rick was looking over the body and the damage around the house. Broken dishes, a bottle, a knocked over chair- everything looked like it added up, and one glance in Rick's eyes showed he agreed with that.

"Gonna have to talk to the kids, man. She's callin' her sister to come get them, so we don't have to get CPS out here right now," Shane said. Then he stopped and shook his head, closing his eyes. "Why stay? If someone smacks you around? Why stay till it gets this bad?"

"Men like that, they get in a woman's head. Twist her up; make her think she's the one at fault. We see it all the time, brother," Rick said, squeezing his shoulder.

Shane shoved his hand through his hair. "Yeah, I know. Still don't fuckin' get it. Just leave. Especially when there are kids involved, man."

"Yeah," Rick said grimly. "I know. She handled it, though."

Shane stared at the dead guy, the blood pooling from under his head. Yeah, she'd handled it. And she sat outside on the tailgate of the ambulance while the paramedics looked her over, cool and calm as you please.

He didn't get it.

 

 

"I'm taking Carol out on a supply run," Rick informed him the next morning.

Shane grunted, stabbing another walker through the fence with a crowbar. He was fucking exhausted, and he leaned on the fence for a minute to catch his breath. He looked over at Rick. "Ok? I could use you here, brother."

"Been out here all night?" Rick asked, giving him that stubborn bastard look.

Shane shrugged, not in the mood for a fucking lecture. "Yeah, I have. Basically you, me, Maggie, and Carol keeping this joint running, and now you wanna take half my strength on a supply run? What the hell we low on urgent enough for that? Last I checked, inventory was fine for rations. Not great, maybe, but enough to get by. Wait for the others to get back."

Rick shifted, his eyes sliding away from Shane's. "We need to go. I wanna see if we can scrounge anything up that'll help, until the others get back. I won't be gone long."

Shane sighed and rubbed at his face, then grimaced when he remembered his hands were pretty well covered in walker blood. He scooped up the crowbar and jammed it through the fence again, since if he didn't keep moving he was going to sleep instead.

"Ain't gonna change your mind, am I?" he asked Rick bluntly.

Rick slapped him on the back. "Nope. I've gotta go."

"Fine. Be careful. Better bring back something fuckin' useful, man. Make it worth it," he warned grumpily.

Rick sighed. "Get Maggie out here and get some sleep. You look like shit."

"Who put you in charge again?" Shane shot back.

Rick shrugged and headed off toward the cell blocks again. "Just a suggestion, brother."

Shane kept moving, kept stabbing. He wondered what the fuck Rick was up to, because he knew his partner well enough to know he was definitely up to something. Taking Carol, insisting he had to go right now- Shane wondered if it had anything to do with Carol killing Karen and David, but he was too goddamn tired and busy to figure out Rick right now.

So he stabbed more walkers, only pausing to haul open the gates when Rick and Carol cruised down. He had fucking work to do, damn it.

 

 

Maggie grabbed the other end of the beam and helped him jam it into place. Shane grunted a thanks and banged it down with a hammer, and Maggie stepped up to the fence and took out a couple walkers. When Shane moved to grab the next beam and drag it down the line, she scooped the back end to her shoulder and carried it with him.

"I went and talked to Daddy," she said as they braced it against the fence.

Shane shot her a glance. "He doin' ok in there? How about Glenn, the others?"

"They're ok," she said quietly. "I'm worried, though. What if- Shane, what if Daryl doesn't get back? Or not in time?"

Shane snarled and stalked away for the next beam. He didn't respond until he'd slammed the next beam in place and then stabbed a few walkers as well. He wasn’t fucking thinking about them not making it back. He couldn’t handle them not making it back.

So it wasn’t a fucking option. He’d told Ace to do whatever it took, and she’d promised him. She was coming back.

And they’d damn well make it in time because he didn’t want to think about the alternative either. Her asshole brother was in there, and much as she acted like she couldn’t ducking stand him, Shane knew she would be devastated if anything happened to the bastard. Plus Hershel and Doc S and Sasha and Glenn and all the others...

Shane felt like shit when he thought about Glenn and the old man. Maggie had to be going just as crazy as he was, he thought. If not worse. At least Ace was out there up against walkers. Walkers were something she could fight, and fight fucking well. This disease? There was nothing Glenn- or Maggie- could do but wait and see.

He turned to Maggie with a sigh and touched her shoulder in apology. "They'll be back. Daryl and Ace, they'll make sure they get back in time. They’ll all be fine. Especially Glenn. He’s a tough bastard, just like your dad."

Maggie smiled slightly, but it was strained around the eyes. "I know. They’re both so strong, and the tea’s helping. And Daddy’s not showing any symptoms yet. But-"

"No buts," Shane said sharply. "Look, we gotta keep it together out here. We're it, in case you haven't noticed. Rick ran off with Carol on a supply run, and that leaves you and me to keep everyone in there safe. I need your head in the game, Greene."

"It's Rhee," she huffed, sounding annoyed as she stabbed at a walker. "But you're right. Daddy always says we all have jobs to do."

Shane snorted. "Alright then, Rhee. We're doin' everyone’s damn jobs, aren't we? Come on, help me with these beams. Get this fence braced, take out a few more walkers, then-"

"Then you get some sleep," Maggie interrupted him. "Not gonna be any use to us if you collapse from exhaustion. We'll finish bracin' it, then you go crash out and I'll take on the walkers on the fence. I'll wake you in, say, five hours?"

Shane stared out at the road and bit his lip, considering. But damn if she wasn't right. He'd be no use to anyone if he couldn't stay on his feet. "Make it three hours."

"Four. Don't argue or I just won't wake you up at all.”

Chapter Text

You woke up when your pillow started jerking under your cheek, your brother's impatient voice muttering for you to get the hell off him already. You groaned, blinked in the morning sunlight, and scrubbed a hand over your face as you sat up.

"What time's it?" you mumbled, taking the bottle of water Daryl shoved into your hand.

He grunted. "It's mornin'. That's all I know. Come on, we gotta get moving. My fuckin' arm's asleep, so thanks for that."

You rolled your eyes at his bitching even as he grabbed your hand and pulled you to your feet. Michonne and Bob had their heads together already, and you stretched and looked around for Tyreese. He was down by the creek, washing out his blood-soaked shirt, and you took a minute to scan the trees for any sign of danger as Daryl joined Michonne and Bob in determining where to go from here.

"Ace! Ty! Let's go," Daryl yelled.

You started his way, but paused when you realized Tyreese hadn't moved. "Tyreese, come on," you called again.

Daryl and Michonne had already started walking, talking to each other as they headed up the path, but Bob stepped to your side. You exchanged a worried look with him before he yelled at Tyreese too.

The big man finally stood up and glared at you both. "What's the point?" he roared, loud and angry enough that you took a half step back before gritting your teeth and standing firm.

Bob eyed you sideways, but you ignored him in favor of glaring down at Tyreese. It irritated you when you reacted like that, goddamn it. You didn't cower; not anymore.

Not ever again.

"What the hell does that mean?" you shot back at him.

He tossed his hands up and scoffed. "We lost a whole night. Everyone back there, they're probably dead already."

You flinched at the hardness of the words, the thing you already feared in the back of your mind. You'd been thinking it all during your turn on watch, and it was only when Daryl had come and sat beside you and said he'd watch, just go the fuck to sleep already that you'd realized you'd been crying. Now Tyreese was yelling your fear at you with that not-all-there rage in his eyes, his hands clenched into big fists at his sides.

Bob set a hand on your arm as you stared at Tyreese's hands, and you jerked away from the unexpected contact. You gritted your teeth and reminded yourself that old habits die hard, and you'd been wary of unexpected touches for your whole fucking life. That wasn't going to change any time soon, and you glared back down at the angry man who'd apparently decided everyone was dead as Daryl and Michonne doubled back. Daryl looking annoyed as hell fro the corner of your eye, and you didn't blame him. Shit, you were too. Your brother was waiting on you to get back there and save his damn fool life, after all, and Tyreese's angry theatrics were just delaying your progress even more.

Bob sighed. "It helps to keep moving," he said calmly.

Tyreese scoffed, but at least he was fucking moving now. "No," he snapped to Bob. "It doesn't."

He stalked forward, shoving his way between you and Bob. Bob stood his ground, letting Tyreese's shoulder bump his as the other man threw his little tantrum, but you jerked back out of the way of the hot glare he leveled at both you and Bob. Bob rolled his eyes as Tyreese brushed past Daryl and Michonne as well to take the lead, half-laughing as he followed him up the road.

You weren't laughing, because Tyreese's increasingly erratic behavior had you wary and on edge, and you hated it. But Merle was counting on you, so you drew in a breath, forced your shoulders to relax, and looked up to find your brother at your side and watching you with narrowed eyes.

"Ya aight?" Daryl asked quietly.

Bob and Michonne were talking ahead of you, and you shrugged one shoulder, falling into step with him to bring up the rear. "I'm fine. Tyreese's fuckin' temper's gonna be a problem, though."

Your twin hitched the crossbow up on his shoulder and snorted. "It ain't no worse'n ours."

"Yeah, it is," you disagreed. "He's unpredictable. Violent. And he's fuckin' given up. That's a scary combination."

Daryl eyed you and then Tyreese and grunted. "You given up?"

"Naw," you told him with a toss of your head and a dismissive bravado you certainly didn't feel. "Merle's immortal, remember? He's fine. We'll get there in time. Right?"

"Right," Daryl agreed. "Listen, I'll talk to Ty. Tell him to back the hell off around ya."

You shot him a look. "What the hell for?"

"'Cause, sis, ya got that damn look in ya eyes. He fuckin' scared ya, just now. I'll handle it," Daryl snapped, and sped up to reach Tyreese's side.

You snatched at his arm to stop him, embarrassed that he'd noticed, but he evaded you easily. You grimaced and focused on watching everyone's backs, hoping whatever he said to Tyreese wouldn't be too damn embarrassing for you.

 

 

You glanced at the clock on the dash and groaned, pulling the beanie from your head and tossing it into the passenger side. You were late, and you were going to catch hell for it. Especially since you were going to show up splattered in fresh paint. You'd been planning on having enough time to go home, shower, and change.

The piece had other ideas, and you bit at your thumbnail absently as you pulled into traffic. But it was going to be worth it.

You'd found this overpass, see, with the perfect lines and the right exposure, and you'd been unable to resist. Five hours and a good deal of sheer dumb luck later, the overpass looked like a castle that had been constructed of cheerful, colorful LEGO bricks, and you'd done a LEGO royal family waving from inside a painted window.

Honestly, you'd been one hundred percent certain you were going to get caught with that one, with the sheer amount of time and continued exposure. Of course, the fact that it was night helped with visibility.

But it didn't help with the fact that you were now thirty minutes late.

You yelled at yourself mentally for losing track of time as you pulled into the parking lot and cut the engine, then flipped the visor down and glanced at your hair, currently a light seafoam greenish-blue shade your hairdresser had been dying to test out. At least it'd been done last week, you thought as you grimaced at the yellow paint streak over your eyebrow and the blue smudge on the side of your nose. So it looked fucking awesome even if it'd been shoved into a hat for five hours.

Not that he would care. You flipped the visor back up, shucked your paint-splattered tank and yanked on the flannel you'd spied in the backseat, buttoning it low enough to show your lacy bralette and half-tucking it into your jeans to at least make it look somewhat like you'd made a style choice instead of a 'I'm running late, damn it' choice.

Then you squared your shoulders, shoved a hand through your hair, and headed inside to see just how much your asshole twin was going to get on your nerves tonight.

Daryl was leaning on the bar, sipping a beer and looking about as comfortable and happy to be there as he'd have been in front of a firing squad. He'd cleaned up from work, you noticed grumpily. Damn it. You were hoping he'd have been grungy. So he wouldn't be able to pick on you, you know.

He spied you as you caught the hostess' eye, pointing toward your brother and catching her nod before you headed toward the bar. He glanced you over and shot you an amused look, and you rolled your eyes.

"Don't start. I was busy; lost track of time," you said when you reached him. You leaned against the bar beside him and grinned as a familiar face came toward you from the other side. "Hey, Billy."

"Hey, Ace," the bartender greeted you. This was Daryl and Merle's hangout, not yours, but you most of the long time bartenders in the district on sight if not by name. Professional courtesy- and maybe some scoping out the competition. "Whatcha want tonight, sweetie?"

"Oh, I don't know. Just give me a local draft, would you? Whatever you got," you said with a shrug. You turned and eyed your brother, who was eyeing you back. "So."

He snorted. "So."

"Been awhile," you said, smiling slightly. Billy slid a mug down the bar and you caught it as Daryl's upper lip curled.

"Yeah. Too damn busy with that asshole to return my calls, or what?" he asked, eyes flashing.

You set your beer down carefully without taking a sip, feeling your jaw tighten and the familiar churning arguing with Daryl always gave you start in your stomach. "Already, Darrie? It's been two minutes."

"Two minutes longer than I've seen ya in six months. Sent me like three texts. Ain't returned a damn one of my calls. Sorry if I seem a little grumpy, sis," he snapped back.

Guilt warred with irritation, because he was fucking right. You hadn't called him back, and he'd called at least once a month. You'd texted him a few times, just a couple 'hey, how are you, I'm swamped' messages. Cop-outs, really. You hadn't wanted to contact him, because you hadn't wanted to fight with him. He'd been pissed since you hadn't gone to visit Merle in the hospital, and-

"That damn asshole tell ya not to talk to me? Or ya just too fuckin' good for us now?" he asked.

You caught the flash of hurt under his anger, and that twisted the guilt in further. Your eyes slid away from Daryl's and you crossed your arms, shifting irritably. "I don't think I'm too good for you. Just don't understand why you don't think you're worth more than just followin' Merle around and cleanin' up his messes," you muttered, falling into the old argument, even though you'd sworn you wouldn't do any such thing. "Mal says-"

"I don't care what ya damn boyfriend says, sis!" Daryl exploded, his voice rising over the general sounds of the bar. "Ya fuckin' older brother was in the hospital and ya never came to visit. I wanna know why you didn't come."

You glared, feeling your back stiffen as eyes turned toward the two of you warily. "Don't yell at me," you snarled. "I didn't come because he fucking OD'd. He wasn't sick or injured or anything, he just took too much of his own goddamn product. Like Will and his booze."

It was a cheap shot and you saw it land, in the way Daryl tossed his head in disgust and shifted his feet.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Yeah, he did. Still coulda died. Guess that don't matter to ya, though, if he's just like Will. Don't matter he took care of us when we was kids."

Your eyes rolled so hard your head started to hurt. "Dar, he wasn't-"

"Around, yeah, I know. I know all ya arguments, and I know ya ain't never blew either of us off like this 'till after ya hooked up with Malcom Hall."

You glared harder. "Mal doesn't have anything to do with it."

"Really?" Daryl snorted and gestured wildly. "Malcolm fuckin' Hall always thought he was above us. He was just fuckin' slummin' with ya in high school, Ace, and ya knew it, and now ya makin' something of yourself, and he still treats ya like shit. Always cheatin' on ya and all. I swear, sis, he don't want anything real, he just wants to-"

"Just wants to what, Darrie?" you interrupted him softly, blood pounding in your ears. You found yourself wishing Daryl had just punched you already, like you used to when you fought as kids, because God knew that would have been easier to take. "Just wants a good fuck? If that was the case, he'd have stopped putting up with me a couple years ago. Tell Merle I said hey, if you want."

You turned and started to walk away, and Daryl reached for your arm. He paused when you jerked back out of his reach, shooting him a glare over your shoulder. His hand dropped slowly, and you saw the apology in his eyes that you couldn't- wouldn't- give a chance to make to his lips.

You saw, but you didn't care.

"It was good to see you, Dar," you told him. "I'll call you sometime."

"Ace-"

You kept going, waving as you hit the doors. Once outside, you blinked back the tears that burned in your eyes and headed for your car. You wanted to go home, shower, and forget.

Mal was right, you thought duly as you slid behind the wheel and leaned your head back against the seat. You scrubbed a hand over your face and started the car, movements careful and precise. They didn't get it, and they didn't respect you. They loved you, but they saw you as their little sister they needed to take care of, not an adult fully capable of making your own decisions. You loved them, but you didn't approve of their lifestyle.

It was easier to not see them. Not talk to them. You sighed, wishing it wasn't the case, but staying away was clearly the answer. For your own mental health, if nothing else, so you could avoid scenes like that one in the future.

You just wished you didn’t miss them so much.

 

 

There were trees down around and on top of the gas station and garage, clearly from one of the storms that cropped up over the last few weeks. Shane had been worried about trees falling on the fences, but you'd reassured him the prison wasn't close enough to the trees for that to be an issue. You studied the way this tree had fallen, eyes narrowed as you peered between the branches. There was something back there, but you weren't sure what it was.

"Darrie," you said absently, stepping closer.

"Stop callin' me that. Whatcha got?"

You gestured. "There's something back there. Can't tell what it is, but-"

He grunted, studying the tree same as you, and a slow smile crossed his face before he bumped your shoulder lightly with his. "Good eyes. Let's go."

 

 

It was a van, and you hovered as he fiddled with wires under the dash. Nothing was happening.

"Are you sure you're doing that right?" you asked dubiously.

Daryl shot you a glare over his shoulder as he tried touching two of the wires together again. "'Course I'm fuckin' doin' it right, Ace. My damn job. Shit."

"Well, if you're doing it right, shouldn't it be starting by now?" you asked- entirely reasonably, in your opinion.

He snarled, pushing you back as he slid from the passenger seat. "Battery's toast."

"And that's… bad?" you asked, chewing on your thumbnail.

"Is it- yes, Ace, that's bad, Jesus fuckin' Christ." Daryl shot you a disgusted look as he tried to peer into the dirty window of the garage. "Didn't Merle and I teach ya nothin'? Shit. We gotta find us a new battery."

You snorted and grinned, pleased with the rise you'd been able to get out of him. "You taught me jack shit, asshole. Shane taught me how to hot wire a car though. Of course we need a new battery. Luckily for us, this is a garage. Should be able to find something that'll work."

You shoved off where you'd been leaning on the side of the van, winking at a grinning Bob as you started around to the front to find the best way in. Daryl sighed as he followed you.

"Ya such a bitch sometimes, sis. This really the time to be jokin' around like that? Fuck," he complained.

You flashed him a smug look. "You're just mad because I fooled you."

"I'm mad 'cause-" he broke off and frowned at tree branches all in front of the door, and the teasing smile slid off your own face as you studied it. "That's our best entrance. Gonna have to cut in, see what's back there. 'Chonne, Ty, Bob- slowly," Daryl advised. "You too, sis."

"Duh," you shot back with a roll of your eyes. You pulled your machete and stepped up. "I'm always careful."

"Shit. Ya never fuckin' careful," Daryl muttered.

Michonne laughed and stepped between the two of you, sword drawn. "Ok, children. I'm separating you now. I swear, you two are worse than the lump."

"I resent that," you said cheerfully, and all of you got to work.

 

 

Tyreese had obviously missed or just didn't give a shit about your 'go slowly' memo. He hacked into the branches like a madman, and you shifted slightly closer to Michonne in an effort to be sure you were out of swinging range. His goddamn temper was up again, if it had ever gone down, and you paid more attention to him from the corner of your eye than you were to the tree in front of you.

"Take it easy man," Daryl called to him. "We don't know what's back there."

Tyreese, as was typical for him this whole trip, didn't even acknowledge that Daryl had spoken. Moments later, his blade got caught in something, and you tensed as he ripped it out. Wire wrapped around the tip, and he shook it off with a grunt. You relaxed a little and turned back, taking another swing at the branches yourself. The sooner this was over, the better, after all.

And then the hand snagged yours.

 

 

Michonne reacted instantly, her sword severing the hand before you'd done more than yelp at the touch of slimy skin. Daryl snarled something and danced back out of range of another hand, and then pandemonium rained as the garage's doors burst open under the weight of walkers throwing themselves against them.

Michonne went Bob as you darted forward and sank a blade into the one that had grabbed Daryl, and Tyreese-

Your teeth ground together as the other three yelled at him to let go of his. He stayed engaged, determined to rip the asshole from the branches. Of course, when he succeeded, it was to fall flat on his back with the dead bastard on top of him, going for his throat.

You yanked the Glock from your side and put a bullet in the thing's brain before Daryl or Michonne had even moved. It collapsed over Tyreese and the other three looked at you, eyes wide. Daryl's were faintly approving, but you ignored him. You shoved the Glock back in your holster, hauled the corpse off Tyreese and tossed it to the side, and whirled back to him where he still lay on the ground. You glared down, your own temper rising snapping and snarling in the face of one two many incidents with him. He was endangering everything, and you were over it.

"You idiot!" you half-yelled. "Are you serious? You damn near got all of us killed by not fuckin' listening!"

Tyreese's eyes narrowed and he pulled himself to his feet, standing over you and giving you a death glare of his own. You were pissed now, though, and you didn't fucking care. He could loom over you with those clenched fists all he wanted; you had bigger fucking monsters in your closet and you weren't afraid of one semi-suicidal walking temper tantrum. You glared back, waving the machete you still held until Daryl plucked it from your hand with a muttered oath.

"Oh, I get it," you sneered at Tyreese, ignoring your brother and the hand he set on your back. "Sasha's sick. Your girl was killed. You're on the edge, and I don't fucking blame you. But you're not the only one with people back there in danger, damn it! You're makin' things worse, you massive asshole. And I have someone to get back home to. Several of 'em, in fact. I've got a brother to fuckin' save, and a man I promised I'd get home to, whatever it takes. So fuckin' get your goddamn head on straight, cause I swear on whatever you find fuckin' holy- I'm getting that medicine and I'm getting home safe, and if you keep fucking with that, I will not hesitate to put you down."

You spun on your heel and stalked toward the doors. "Come on, Darrie," you said calmly into the silence. "We need a fuckin' battery."

Chapter Text

Daryl leaned over the engine of the van, disconnecting the old battery while you paced beside him and worked on settling your fucking temper down. You were still fuming, even after Daryl pulled you resolutely away from Tyreese and into the garage.

Michonne took Tyreese to see what they could find in the gas station by way of supplies- this hadn't been intended to be an overnight and on foot trip, so you were running short of important things like water and food- while Bob followed you and Daryl and shot questioning looks between you. You mostly ignored his presence in favor of stalking around silently until Daryl found what he was looking for and gestured you back out again.

Tyreese had puffed up and come after you when you'd stepped away from him, and you’d been reaching for your knife when Daryl planted himself firmly in Tyreese’s path. He and Tyreese had engaged in a silent staring match while you glared over Daryl’s shoulder until the big man sighed, rubbed a hand over his eyes, and nodded at you once. He muttered an apology and turned away, and Daryl had hustled you into the building before you could do or say anything to potential make things worse.

It had probably been a valid concern, you admitted now, considering you’d already threatened to kill the guy and had meant every word.

Bob leaned on the wall now, still watching the two of you, and you found yourself wondering how much he knew. He'd been picked up after all your injuries from your last round with Malcolm had healed, and so far you'd managed to avoid getting beaten up by anyone else. You were practically able to feel the question mark in Bob’s stare as he tried to figure out what had been going on under the surface of that interaction.

You figured if he wanted to know badly enough he’d ask, so you closed your eyes and enjoyed the sun on your face, trying not to think about how much time was passing and how sick your brother and maybe even by now your lover might be. That wouldn’t do you any good, because if you were too distracted with worry for them to focus on what was going on around you, you could get yourself killed just as fast as Tyreese seemed to be trying to die.

"Ace," Daryl grunted, breaking his silence for the first time since his sole 'ya aight?' in the garage.

"Mmm?"

"Got cigarettes in my back pocket. Grab 'em and give me one."

You rolled your eyes. "Why? You've got hands, don't you?"

"An' they're a little busy right now. Just do it. And yeah, ya can have one. Bob too," he shot back, shooting you a glare as he angled his hip toward you.

"Well, if you're sharing, that's a different story. Lead with that next time," you told him, and Bob chuckled as you pulled the pack out.

The nicotine helped settle the remaining churning temper, as both you and Daryl had known it would. You blew smoke in Daryl's direction and took the old battery from him when he hauled it out and handed it to you.

You were trading casual insults the whole time, Bob laughing at you both, and you shot him a grin. "He's such a jerk sometimes," you told Bob with a roll of your eyes.

Bob just shook his head. "You love him."

"Course I do," you agreed. "We're family."

"That's nice. Hold onto that," Bob told you. "That's important."

"Yeah, it is," Daryl muttered. "Was a time ya didn't think so, sis."

"Oh, don't start, Darrie," you shot back. "You'll just piss me off again."

Bob's laugh was long and loud. "Oh yeah, you two are siblings."

Daryl snorted. "How’d ya tell? You never told us about the group you were with. Before us.”

You watched the smile slide off Bob's face as his eyes went distant. "Which one?" he asked.

You shot Daryl a look. “Nice going, asshole,” you muttered. Daryl made a face at you but you saw the guilty look in his eyes.

He knew, just as you did, how asking about things before now could backfire. Nearly everyone your prison had taken in had come in ones or twos or a few tightly-knit groups of five or so. Never more than that, all of them grim and dirty and scarred in more ways than one. You’d heard stories that made your heart hurt and your stomach turn, and hell- your people had stories of their own.

"You know, when you found me out on that road, I almost kept walking," Bob said quietly into the heavy silence.

You handed Daryl the jug of distilled water to pour over the dry cells of the battery before he could ask for it. "Why's that?"

"I was done being a witness. Two times, two different groups. I was the last one standing. Like I was supposed to see it happen, over and over, like it's some kinda curse."

Jesus, you thought. Your dead came flashing to your mind, Amy and Andrea and Dale and Lori and T Dog, the others from the camp before and now the dead from the prison, and your heart ached. You couldn't imagine losing everyone, only to find more people and lose all of them too.

"But, when it's just you out there with the quiet…," Bob trailed off, blowing smoke as he looked away from you both. Then he sighed, gestured absently, and continued. "Used to be I'd drink a bottle of anything just so I could shut my eyes at night."

Your hands stilled for a moment, cigarette halfway to your lips, and you glanced at Daryl. He'd paused as well, his eyes cutting to you, and you wondered if he too was thinking about Will's alcohol-filled breath on the back of his neck and the sting of his belt, or Merle taking up where Will’s addiction had left off, booze and drugs and trouble hanging around him like a cloud.

You had a feeling he was, when he nodded almost imperceptibly at you and glanced back at the sound of Bob’s heavy sigh.

"Figured the prison, the people. I thought it'd be easier," Bob said.

You turned back to him reluctantly, the scar on your back tingling, and forced yourself to pay attention to him and not the past. It wasn’t like you didn’t understand.

Bob met your eyes steadily, his filled with sorrow and apology. "The run to the Big Spot? I did it for me. I did it so I could get me a bottle. Of anything."

Daryl handed you back the water and you took a swig from it, for something to do with your hands so they wouldn’t shake more so than because of thirst.

"I picked it up. I held it in my hands. And that's when Ace suggested a- a better label. So I put it down," Bob said slowly. "I put it down so hard it brought the damn shelf with it. That's what brought on the walkers, and that's what got Zach killed."

 

 

 

The door slammed and you froze, caught like a deer in the headlights by what you saw inside your apartment. It wasn’t like Will beating one of your brothers- or you- was a new sight or anything, but he usually didn’t have your twin gripped by the throat, one eye swollen closed, and blood all over his face from his lip, his nose, his cheek.

“What the hell?” You snarled, dropping your backpack as you started toward your brother.

“Ace, don’t-“ Daryl choked out, and Will’s hand tightened on his throat so his voice cut off.

“Shut up, boy! Girl, ya get your ass on to ya room and mind ya own!” Will yelled, pointing toward you with his free hand. His speech was slurred damn near beyond recognition, his eyes bloodshot and glassy, and you wondered if he’d sent something up his nose along with however much booze he’d downed tonight, since his pupils were pinpricks.

You almost did as he said. Every fiber of your being screamed at you not to argue or object, because that would just make it worse- for you and Daryl. But you saw the look in Daryl’s eyes and knew this was bad. This was worse than it’d ever been before, and you were genuinely scared your daddy would fucking kill Daryl.

With Merle in juvie, taking care of each other was up to you.

“Let him go, you big bully!” You snapped at Will, on the move toward them.

Daryl struggled against his hold, trying to get free and telling you to back off with the panicked look in his eyes, but you weren’t stopping. Your own temper was rising, hands clenching into fists like Will’s, if a thousand times smaller and weaker. You had to end this.

You slammed into Will, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him off your brother.

Will just laughed, backhanding you casually and sending you flying into the counter. Your breath went out in a burning huff as he shook his head and drug Daryl up by his grip on his throat.

“Ya shoulda listened, Little Ace. Ya gonna have a turn when I’ve done finished teaching’ ya brother a lesson about stealin’ my fuckin’ cigarettes,” Will declared.

Your eyes widened as he hauled back to hit your brother again. Daryl couldn’t take much more, judging by the glazed-Over look in his eyes and the way he’d gone limp in Will’s grasp. Your eyes fell on the frying pan beside the sink, and you were moving with no fucking plan as the smack of a fist hitting flesh made you flinch.

The frying pan clanged into the side of Will’s head and he dropped Daryl. You stepped in front of your brother’s crumpled, unconscious body, eyes wide and chest heaving with panic as you squared off with Will again.

You were so fucking dead.

He pulled his hand from his head and looked at the blood on his fingers, then back at you, and his eyes promised you were going to hurt. Your hands were shaking and you were scared so badly you couldn’t think, but Daryl hadn’t gotten up and you were all that stood between Will and your brother. If you hurt, you’d hurt. Wasn’t like it’d be the first time.

“Are you shittin’ me right now?”

You held the pan up and tried to keep your voice steady. “I’ll hit you again. Just leave him alone, damn it!”

There was no warning before Will moved, and your head cracked against the counter with the force of the blow. Will was muttering as he yanked the pan from your hand and tossed it to the side, and you blinked away stars and tried to scramble to your feet. It was no use, since he just grabbed your arm and tossed you back down, setting a knee in your back to keep you on the linoleum floor.

You heard the rustle of leather through belt loops and squeezed your eyes shut against the tears, then forced them open again, turning so you could see Daryl on the floor from the corner of your eye as you braced yourself.

Will ripped your shirt up so he could get skin, and you stilled. You’d lost. There wasn’t any point in fighting it anymore, and at least if he was focused on you he was leaving Daryl alone.

You screamed with the first lash, and kept screaming until you passed out too.

 

 

You stared at Bob for a moment in silence, and he wouldn't meet your eyes. Daryl took the water back from you and held out his carton of cigarettes. You took another one, lit it from the end of your first, and stabbed the fresh one out toward Bob.

"That's bullshit," you declared bluntly.

His eyes whipped to you, a question in them. Daryl snorted.

"Yeah, it is. Bob, get in there and try the engine. Red and green wire. Go on, it ain't rocket science. Even fuckin' Ace can do it," he added, and you rolled your eyes. "Give it some gas."

When Bob was in, Daryl looked back at you, a question in his eyes. You shrugged and made a face, and his lips twitched up. He leaned over and kissed your cheek as the van came to life.

You shook your head at him when he whistled for Tyreese and Michonne, slamming the hood down yourself. Bob climbed out of the driver's seat and you gave him a long, cool look.

"Daryl and I picked that spot. Sasha brought you with us. No way anyone could have known," you told him. "Hell, I got trapped. So it could be on me, right? But we can't do that. Not out here, not when people depend on us. I have a fuckin' bar. You wanted a drink, you could have one any time. You put the bottle back," you added softly.

You scooped up some of the grocery bags of supplies Tyreese and Michonne had raided from the gas station, handing them to Bob to put in the van. "You aren't standing alone. Not anymore."

"Come on, sis, let's fuckin' go, damn it!" Daryl called from the driver's seat.

You rolled your eyes and flashed Bob a grin. "Never alone, even when you wish you were."

Bob's smile back was haunted, but it was there.

Chapter Text

By some miracle, you made it the rest of the way to West Peachtree without any more incidents. Unless you counted awkward and tense silence in the van the whole way there as an incident.

You didn't, considering what you'd already been through this trip. So you decided to just be grateful you'd made it there.

Daryl parked the van and you went in on foot, your eyes narrowing at the school complex as you mentally called up the map on the wall. "Ok, I think we're headed that way. Who's got Hershel's map?" you asked, gesturing toward the historic-looking building off to one side. "Pretty sure the one we want is back there and to the right."

Daryl pulled Hershel's sketch and notes out of his pocket and passed them to you. "You're navigatin', sis."

You nodded, turning Hershel's map to orient it with what you saw in front of you. "Yeah, ok, I was right. That way. Keep it fast and silent, troops; guns only if we have to."

 

 

Getting in was, in your opinion, way too goddamn easy. By the time you'd reached the room Hershel marked- the learning lab according to Hershel's notes and the sign over the door- you were tense as fuck and wondering why in the hell you hadn't run into any walkers. Not a single one. It was uncanny.

"Aight, let's make this snappy," Daryl declared. "Split up and clear it out."

You cleared the lab easily, snatching a few bottles of basics like peroxide and rubbing alcohol, then hitting the pharmacy in the back. It was locked, as Hershel had warned you it would be. You and Daryl exchanged looks and you shrugged.

"I don't know," you said.

Daryl grunted and leaned around you to the desk, grabbing a paperclip and untwisting it. "Figured with ya fuckin' record ya knew all this criminal shit."

"I painted walls that didn't belong to me, asshole," you shot back. "At most, I climbed locked fences. I didn't break into them."

"Well, lucky for us," your brother grunted, looking up at you with his eyes dancing as he jiggled the paperclip in the lock, "Merle taught me. Got it."

The door cracked open and you used the crossbow Daryl had handed you to clear the pharmacy as Daryl climbed to his feet. Michonne gave you an amused smile as you handed it back to Daryl and pulled out the list.

"Bob, you're in charge now," you told him. "I can't say any of this shit."

Bob grunted. "Anything that ends in -cilin or -cin, we grab."

"That's easy enough," Michonne muttered, and you all got to work.

 

 

Daryl and Tyreese got all the paraphernalia needed for IVs from the other supply closet while you, Michonne, and Bob loaded up the meds. You took a bag each when Daryl and Tyreese came in with multiples, then declared yourselves done and headed out.

This was going way too well, you thought nervously.

And then, of course, it wasn't.

You were heading for the exit when walkers came snarling out of open classroom doors, blood dried on their emaciated faces and eyes burst like overripe tomatoes. Daryl led the way as you swept your flashlight over an exit sign, all of you moving as fast and quiet as possible. The walkers had your scent, though, and they closed on you much more quickly than anyone was comfortable with.

Of course, the exit sign lead to a locked door, so you turned off into a darkened classroom. The door was broken, Bob discovered, so he and Daryl wrestled a couple empty cages in front of it to hopefully slow the oncoming walkers down.

The door at the far end was chained closed, and hands reached through the gap in them when you rattled the chain to test it. "Son of a bitch," you muttered.

"How many?" Daryl asked.

You shrugged. "Can't tell."

"Other door ain't- yep," Daryl said with a sigh as the other door slid open and walkers stumbled in over the empty cages.

"We can take 'em," Tyreese declared, raising the fucking hammer he'd picked up somewhere.

"No! they're infected, same as the prison," Bob shot back. "We get their blood on us, breathe it in- we didn't come all this way to get sick!"

"How do we know the ones behind there are any different?" Tyreese yelled back.

You wished they'd stop fucking yelling, because it certainly wasn't making the situation any clearer. Daryl eyed the approaching walkers, then the door, and shrugged.

"Gotta change sometime," he declared with impeccable logic.

 

 

The good news was, one shot from the crossbow you held while Daryl broke down the door and a swing of Michonne's sword to behead the last two walkers, and the doors were clear. The bad news was, the stairwell down the hall was locked and you were dead-ended with bloody-eyed walkers coming up fast.

"We don't have an exit," Michonne declared grimly.

You and Bob hurled chairs and whatever else you could find into the walker's paths, trying to slow them down, so you weren't looking when your brother snapped "so we make one." It was such a Daryl thing to say that you laughed and glanced over your shoulder to see Tyreese proving he wasn't entirely useless and hurling a fire extinguisher toward the massive window.

"Ace!" Bob yelled. You whipped back toward the walkers in time for one ugly, bloody bitch's fingers to brush your face and her mouth to come at your nose wide fucking open.

You yelped, ducked, and shoved her backwards. As you scrambled back to get away, Bob fired a wild shot from too damn close and your ears started ringing. You froze, breath catching and Will's belt snapping in the back of your mind, and Bob fired again.

That time the bitch went down, but there were more of them coming and someone yelling your name, and you forced your head to turn slowly toward Daryl's urgent voice. He grabbed your arm, hauling you to the window.

"Sorry sis, ain't got time for ya to freak out on me. Ya can blubber all over me later, promise; just fuckin' get out there to the walkway below," he snapped.

You bit down on your cheek, hard enough for the coppery taste of blood to fill your mouth, and the world quit feeling like you were inside a fishbowl. "I'm good," you informed Daryl. "But I'll take you up on the blubbering later."

Daryl snorted as you balanced in the window and eyed the distance to the ledge. "Whatever. Just go, come on."

"I'm going, I'm going," you mumbled, and jumped.

Michonne came next, then Daryl and Tyreese. Bob was the last one out, and he overshot it. You saw the moment he hit wrong, his knees and ankles buckling and sending him to his stomach on the walkway. He held a bag in his hand and it fell, dangling over the side and damn near taking him with it.

Especially when the walkers grabbed it and started pulling.

"Dar," you snapped, already moving back to Bob. He had medicines; that's what you were here for. You needed his fucking bag.

Bob slid toward the edge as more walkers got hold of the bag, and you promptly dropped down beside him, leaning down head first with him to grab the bag and try to wrestle it away from the grasping undead hands. You had your knife in one hand and you plunged it into the eye of a walker, the thing dropping like a stone and taking your fucking knife with it. Your momentum swung you further forward a bit, and you started to scoot backward to a more stable position.

"Damn it, Ace!" Daryl snapped, and you felt hands grabbing at your waist to hold you in place as well.

The fucking walkers were strong, so you were pretty glad for the anchor.

"Just let go of the bag!" Daryl snarled. Michonne and Tyreese were saying the same things, but you shook your head and held on with stubborn determination.

You scooted against Daryl's grip, leaning out just a little further so you could hook the bag better, and-

"Shit!"

You started to fall, saw it happening and said a quick apology to Shane for not making it back and to Merle for not saving him like you'd said you would, but just as suddenly as you were falling you were jerked back up and to the side, on the platform. Daryl snarled a string of vicious curses in your ears, but you were focused on Bob and the bag that he somehow, miraculously, managed to get free and fling up onto the path as well.

Your brother's cursing cut off abruptly at the clinking from inside the bag as it hit the walkway near you. He stood and held out a hand, pulling you to your feet where you promptly bent half over and tried to decide if you wanted to puke after that near death experience. You'd almost settled on no, but you weren't one hundred percent convinced of that yet.

Daryl pulled the bottle from the bag and you decided you were going to puke real quick after all. You leaned over the edge of the walkway and heaved, then shoved upright and swiped a hand along your mouth as your eyes narrowed on the Wild Turkey in Daryl’s hands.

"Got no meds in your bag? Just this?" he asked in a low, dangerous voice. "Maybe you should have kept walkin' that day."

You looked at Bob, his head hung in shame, and you went for your knife before you remembered it was in the eye of one of the walkers down below, where you'd plunged it trying to help this alcoholic bastard stay alive and keep hold of the meds. Meds that, you remembered abruptly, you'd all piled into the bag Michonne had over her shoulder, one hand settled protectively on the top of it as she stared at Bob with hard eyes.

Daryl scoffed and started to throw the bottle, and goddamn if Bob's hand didn't go to his gun as he snapped "Don't."

You took three long strides, and it was only the grip you had on Bob's shirt that kept him on the ledge when your fist slammed into his face. You hauled back for another punch, and when he flinched you ripped the gun from his holster and pointed it at his goddamn head.

"Sis, wait," Daryl snapped. He stalked forward, bottle in hand, and got up in Bob's space, forehead pressed to the other man’s.

Bob wouldn't meet his eyes, and you stuffed his gun through your belt at the center of your back to keep from shooting him between his. Your hands were shaking as it sank in that you'd just damn near died for a bottle of fucking booze. Fucking booze.

You’d almost broken your promise to Shane to make it back to him so Bob could get his drunk on tonight.

"Let it go. Man's made his choice. Ain't nothing you can do about it except let it go," Tyreese advised.

You snorted, still pissed at Tyreese and his fucking inability to keep his shit together as well. Wasn’t like Tyreese had much room to talk about making choices and letting things go, after all. Besides, he didn't get it. He saw a bottle; you saw a series of them, smashing into walls and shattering, placed oh-so-precisely down onto counters or tipped dangerously up to hard-set lips. He saw a personal risk, Bob almost dying for his own choices, and you saw the split second where you'd known you were breaking that important promise. For fucking booze.

"Oh, I could do something about it," you disagreed coldly. "I should do something about it. See, I know men like him. Sooner or later, his choice? It'll get someone hurt."

"It already did," Daryl snarled.

"No," Bob said quietly, head still down in shame. "I didn't- wasn't nobody supposed to get hurt. It was just for when it got quiet."

"My sister already was!" Daryl snarled. "Could have been killed, both before and just right fuckin' now, takin' a header into those walkers for your addict ass. And Zach fuckin’ died for you last time ya wanted some!”

You touched Daryl's arm and took the bottle from his hands, flinching at the reminder of the kid who'd been bitten saving your life just days before. Bob's eyes cut guiltily to you as you hefted the bottle. You tossed it up, flicking your wrist in a practiced move, and caught it as it came down. Bob's eyes tracked it, his shoulders jerking as it took to the air, and you saw the slight, relieved part of his lips when you caught it.

"Wild Turkey's a good label," you said slowly. You slapped the bottle into Bob’s hands and scoffed as he fumbled to grab it before it fell. "Hope you enjoy it."

"Ya take a one sip, and when those meds get into our people? I'll beat your ass into the ground," Daryl growled. "Or worse, I'll let Ace do it."

You flashed Bob a cold smile and followed Daryl along the ledge without another word.

 

 

“Sis?” Daryl’s voice was a hoarse whisper as you swam to consciousness.

Your first coherent thought was that your back was on fire. Your second was that your head was exploding.

Then the fight- Will’s hand around Daryl’s throat, your brother’s unconscious body in the corner of your eye, Will’s knee keeping you pinned down- rushed back.

“Dar?” You gasped out, shoving up from the bed in your desperation to be sure he was ok. Your back exploded into a pain you couldn’t even describe when you twisted from your stomach, eyes searching for him. Blackness with brightly colored spots swirling around in it replaced anything resembling your normal vision, resolving into Daryl’s battered face as a pained whine you hoped wasn’t you but knew was sounded.

Oh god, everything hurt. Your back, your head, looking at your brother’s face- it all hurt.

“Hey,” he whispered, his hand on your shoulder. One eye was swollen shut and the other filled with barely contained fear, searching your face as closely as you searched his. “I’m aight; don’t fuckin blubber. Or move to fast. He fucked ya back up good, sis; I’m sorry. Did the best I could, but I can only see out the one eye, so I dunno how it’s gonna heal.”

“Dar, shut up,” you demanded, fear and guilt making you bitchy. Tears burned in your eyes at the raw sound of his voice and the damage to his face, and here he was talking about you. He would have died, and you’d only barely been able to do anything about it, and he was doing first aid on you while he looked and sounded like that. “He- he was gonna- Darrie, he’d have killed you.”

Daryl sighed and leaned his forehead to yours. “I’m aight. I’d have been fine. Shouldn’t have come at him. What the hell were ya thinkin’?”

You scoffed at that and felt the first tears fall. That was your idiot brother, sure enough. Too damn busy being overprotective to realize- or admit- he’d been fucked. “I was thinkin’ someone was trying to kill my brother and he was gonna have to go through me first.”

“Will fuckin’ tried.”

You shrugged and held in the scream that motion wanted to provoke with difficulty. It didn’t matter. You were alive, Daryl was alive, and your back would heal eventually, so it was fine. As long as Daryl wasn’t more hurt than he was admitting. “He didn’t, so I’ll take it. Didn’t kill you either, which makes it a damn win. You need a doctor?”

Daryl shook his head, the worry still in his one open eye but the blind fear having thankfully faded some. “Naw. Shit, sis, ya back gonna scar. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever,” you muttered, rolling your eyes. Fuck your back. Your back didn’t matter; had he even seen his face? “Don’t matter, Dar.”

“Yeah, it does. Saved my hide,” he answered softly, grabbing your hand and squeezing.

“Course I did. We’re family.”

He grinned at that and flopped backward on your bed. You laid back down gingerly, on your stomach, and studied him. His lips twitched as he studied you right back, and you lifted an eyebrow at him in question.

“Fuckin’ frying pan. That’s pretty badass there, lil sis,” he said, the teasing in his tone at odds with the rough, broken-glass sound that seemed to be all he could manage.

“I’m five minutes younger than you, jackass,” you muttered, but you were smiling faintly. You were ok.

Chapter Text

Shane was back on the fence after a few hours’ sleep, stabbing away with Maggie in strained silence, when Rick's car pulled up. He glanced at her and hooked the crowbar back onto the chain link, heading for the pulley as Maggie went for the gate.

Rick stopped right inside, climbing out of the car alone, and Shane's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"Where's Carol?" Maggie demanded, fear in her voice and in her face. "Rick, where's Carol?"

Rick glanced from her to Shane and took her hands. "She's alive. Maggie, she's alive. But I-"

"You left her out there," Shane said, rubbing a hand over his forehead. Of course he did. Shane had known something was up, and now he wished he'd fucking taken the time to ask, because wasn't this just so typical?

"What? Why would you do that?" Maggie demanded, looking between them wildly. "Shane? Rick? What's going on?"

Rick sighed, shifted on his feet, and met Maggie's eyes with his stubborn bastard look firmly in place. Shane scoffed, crossing his arms and waiting to hear how Rick explained this one.

"Maggie, she- Carol was the one who killed Karen and David. I couldn't have her here. Not after that. Could you?" Rick asked, and goddamn was his friend persuasive.

Shane found himself almost agreeing, even though he knew damn well that abandoning one of their own out there was the wrong fucking choice, even if she had killed people. He shook his head, jaw tight, and tried to figure out what to say as Maggie stared at Rick blankly.

She turned and looked at Shane. "Are you sure?"

"We are," Rick answered when Shane just shrugged. "She told me. She admitted it."

"Then…" Maggie trailed off, looking tortured.

Shane shoved a hand through his hair and snorted derisively. "Naw. Wrong choice, brother."

"How?" Rick snapped, glaring at Shane. "How can you say that? She sacrificed two people."

"For the good of the group," Shane answered firmly. "She-"

"She burned two people!"

"And I shot Otis and fed him to walkers to save your son!" Shane snapped. "I'm still here. Wanna kick me out next? Huh? Without consulting anyone? You decided you weren't in charge of the fuckin' place anymore, Rick. You don't get to make these choices, remember?"

Rick shook his head, jaw working, and stepped closer to Shane. "Brother, what you did, what she did- it's not the same. You did it to-"

"To save Carl. Carol did it to save the whole damn prison. You're right; it's not the same," he said flatly. "Only difference is, it worked for me. It didn't for her. You should have talked to me."

"You've been after me to start leading again for months, now I make a decision and you don't like it and I should be talkin’ to you first?"

Shane scoffed again and shoved both hands through his hair. "She's one of ours. We don't abandon our own."

"We don't kill them and set them on fire, either!"

"Enough!" Maggie snapped, stepping between them when Rick and Shane went nose to nose. "We do not have enough hands around here for you two to start punchin' each other! Carol's- Carol's tough. She'll be fine. Now, we've all got jobs to do. Rick, I need your help on the fence. Shane, go check in with Daddy and the others. We haven't been down in a few hours."

Shane glanced at her and then away, guilt stirring when he remembered she'd known Otis all her life and here he was talking about feeding him to walkers to save Carl. He patted her shoulder awkwardly, the closest he could come to an apology, and nodded, heading up the path.

 

 

He was still fuming when he stalked into the dark observation room. Death row, what they were using for isolation, always freaked him the fuck out- probably because he'd had an arrest he'd been part of go to death row and had attended the execution. It wasn't that Shane was particularly religious or was against killing people who needed it, but the death penalty? Well, he'd told Slugger once it was colder and harsher than just taking a man's life in the heat of the moment. It was still the most brutal thing Shane had ever seen, and he’d been beheading and stabbing and shooting rotting reanimated corpses for the past year and change.

Merle Dixon was one of the last people Shane had expected to find himself checking up on, and he certainly hadn't expected to be worried about the bastard when he came staggering in, coughing up a lung and sweaty. Shane shoved a hand though his hair and stepped closer to glass, waiting for Merle's coughing fit to ease.

"Hey, Dixon."

"Pig," Merle shot back. "How's it look out there? They back yet, my sis and brother?"

Shane sighed and shook his head, worry for Ace he'd been shoving into the back of his mind coming screaming to the forefront again. "Not yet, man. Shouldn't be long now though."

Merle just grunted. "Know ya didn't come down here just to check on my ass. What's wrong up top?"

"Why wouldn't I just come check on you? Practically my brother-in-law," Shane muttered, slightly offended.

Merle laughed until he started coughing again, and Shane saw him spit blood this time. "Ya make an honest woman outta my sister when I wasn't lookin', pig?"

"Shit. I tried." Shane leaned against the glass, thinking about Ace's surprised face when he had, and smiled as he remembered her calling his bluff and turning him down. He'd only partly meant it; he wanted to spend forever with her and damn well would, but marriage was a big-ass deal. She was right, as usual- if he asked her for real, he would damn well mean it.

"Did ya now? Cain't believe she turned ya down. Maybe she don't like ya as much as I thought."

"Didn't turn me down," Shane grumbled. "She had a list of requirements. Said I'd better be sure and we'd better be able to do it right. Happen to know any justices of the peace still living?"

Merle snorted. "I know who you know, asshole."

"Fair point," Shane said with a grin. "How's everyone doin' in there? Glenn, Sasha, Hershel?"

Merle grimaced, coughed some more, and slumped against the window. "Still breathin'. Gettin’ rough. Need that medicine. What's wrong, pig? Spill it."

Shane started pacing again, wondering how much of this to tell Merle. Thing was, the bastard was on the Council too, and with Carol gone Shane was the only Council member left standing topside. And as Rick clearly wasn't listening to him, he needed the advice.

"Rick figured out who torched Karen and David."

Merle's eyebrows shot up. "Who?"

"Carol."

Merle whistled. "Damn. Go Carol."

"Yeah, that's what I said. Only Rick don't seem to agree that she was lookin' out for the group, and he- he fuckin' banished her. Took her out for a supply run and left her out there. Says she's fine, and it's just for a little while, but shit. He ain't in charge of this place. He made that damn clear. Then he just goes off being judge and fucking jury again, kicking people out!" Shane tossed his hands up with a growl of frustration.

Merle started coughing again, and he slid down the glass to the floor as standing became too much effort. He spat blood toward a corner of the room and leveled Shane with a glare. "Look here, ya idiot. Carol's a tough bitch, and Rick had to do somethin'. She killed people; cain't let that go unpunished. Yeah, he shoulda brought it to you, but he didn't. Tough fuckin' nuggets."

Shane sighed. "I know he couldn't just let it stand, but-"

"Shelve the domestic shit," Merle snapped. "Ya pissed he didn't talk to ya after you been up his ass about leadin' for months. Get over it. Got bigger fuckin' issues than ya marital drama."

Shane contemplated being offended, but finally decided it wasn't worth it. "Bigger issues like what?"

"Like those of us doin' an exorcist routine in here," Merle snapped, waving vaguely toward the rest of A block. "Now shut up an' listen. I wrote some shit for Ace and Daryl. It's under my pillow, just in case. Make sure they get it, if they don't get their asses back here and save my bacon."

Shane leaned against the glass and started to speak, to reassure Dixon that wasn’t going to be necessary because they’d be back soon enough, but Merle steamrolled over him.

"Look, ya ain't half bad for a damn pig, and ya make my baby sister happy. Keep it up or I'll haunt ya ass."

Shane stared at Merle blankly for a minute, trying to figure out just what the hell that meant and how to respond. The funny thing was, he didn't doubt for a minute that the older Dixon would, in fact, figure out a way to haunt him. Which was why he was at such a loss. "I don't even know how to respond to that, man," he said finally.

Merle laughed until he started coughing again. "Like I said. Ain't half bad. Take care of 'em if I don't make it outta here."

"Shut up with that. Ace'll kill you if you die on her in here," Shane muttered, not meeting the bastard's eyes.

Wouldn't do for Merle to know his 'ain't half bad' actually meant something to Shane.

"Little sis'll try, that's for sure," Merle said, far too cheerful for someone talking about his own death. "Now get on back topside and keep things runnin'. Gotta go help the old man some more. Doc S ain't doin' so hot. Keep it together, Walsh."

"Yeah, yeah. Get some rest, Dixon."

 

 

Shane spent the rest of the day running around keeping the place standing, ending up back on the fence with Maggie and Rick and an increasing herd of walkers that was really starting to worry him. Evening fell as the three of them worked in stressed silence, Shane stuck in an infinite loop of worry over Ace and Daryl, over their people in isolation, over the walkers, over Carol.

He glanced at Rick when his partner worked his way down the fence to him. “You made a choice,” he said abruptly. “Wasn’t my choice and shit knows I don’t agree with it- hell, I think it’s stupid and hypocritical- but I’ve been asking you to start making choices again for ages.”

“I should have told you before I left. You’re right; I didn’t- didn’t want to be makin’ those decisions anymore,” Rick said slowly.

Shane slapped him on the back once and stabbed another walker.

 

 

“They should have been back by now.”

Shane grunted and stabbed again, trying to pretend he hadn’t been thinking the same goddamn thing. Maggie set a hand on his arm when he started to go for the next one, and he sighed as he looked at his feet instead of at her. He couldn’t let her see how worried he was. Someone had to keep it together, and it looked like that was his fucking job for some reason.

“They’ll be back,” he said shortly.

She leaned in and hugged him, and Shane froze at the unexpectedness of it. Somehow, though, it was exactly what he needed, and he hugged her back hard.

“Sorry about what I said earlier. About Otis. I know he was one of yours,” Shane said quietly. “Sorry I did it, too, but mostly just sorry I said it like that in front of you.”

Maggie shrugged. “Bygones. I mean, I wanted to kill you a few times. But people can change. Banishing Carol- I don’t know if it was the right thing or not. But Rick’s comin’ back, and that’s a good thing, right? We need him. We need both of you.”

Shane huffed and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I guess. We do need him.”

“We need you too. You don’t have to be strong all the time,” she said, shifting topics abruptly. “I know you’re worried too. Ace is out there. You can say it. You don’t have to keep it together all the time.”

Shane laughed harshly. “Aight. I’m worried. They should be back.”

“They will be,” Rick said. Shane glanced behind him as Rick walked up and set a hand on his shoulder. “They will be.”

“Yeah,” Shane agreed, and hooked an arm around Maggie for another quick hug. “They will. Soon.”

Gunshots echoed from somewhere inside.

 

 

“Go.” Shane and Rick said it at the same time, in the same grim tone, and Maggie didn’t hesitate.

Shane looked at Rick and then at the fence, and beyond it to the trees where more walkers came stumbling toward the prison, drawn by the shots. He turned back toward the prison, where more gunfire echoed, and tried to figure out what the hell to do- help their people inside or stay on the fence.

Then the fence started caving in as full dark fell, and that decision was made for him.

“I need your help, brother,” he told Rick firmly. “Grab your gun and come on.”

“At your back,” Rick agreed. “Gotta brace the fence.”

“With what? We’ve already braced it. Rick, we’re gonna- shit,” Shane finished in a deadpan imitation of Ace’s things-just-went-to-crap voice. As he watched, the fence bent under the weight of the walkers and one crawled over and into the guard run.

“Shit,” Rick echoed. “Guns?”

“Here,” Shane answered, reaching into one of the rolling laundry bins they’d stocked with guns and scattered along the fences. “Rick, get Carl. We need more hands.”

Rick caught the two rifles Shane tossed him and looked agonized. Shane chucked extra magazines to him as well and slung two guns over his own shoulder. Pockets full, he glared Rick’s way.

“Don’t have time to argue, brother. Get Carl or we lose the yard,” he said bluntly, and jogged toward the breech.

He had walkers to kill.

 

 

It was fast, though he didn’t realize it until later. To Shane it was all in slow-motion, an endless wave of the dead that swarmed the fence, flowed through the guard run, and boiled into the yard. He planted himself on the path, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and vowed to take as many of the fuckers out as he could before he had to give up the yard or turn this into a last stand situation.

He didn’t know how many he dropped on his own, but no matter how many it was more just kept coming. He emptied one gun and let it fall at his feet, then slung the second one around and got back to it. Two shots in, Carl appeared at his shoulder, Rick’s voice gun range-steady as he showed the kid how the military-grade rifle worked.

Five shots later, Carl took up a good stance, set the butt against his shoulder, and squeezed the trigger.

Shane decided to pretend he didn’t hear the way “holy shit” came out in a slightly awed voice. Carl’d earned it, Shane figured. He spared a second to flash the kid a grin and share a nod with Rick, then it was back to shooting.

When his second gun ran out of bullets, he pulled another magazine from his pocket, slammed it into place, and fired some more.

And just like that, it was over. The last walker fell, the world went silent, and they’d done it. They still had the damaged fence to deal with, and they’d have to go in and make sure all those walkers had been dropped by head shots and were really dead, and that didn’t even begin to cover whatever chaos was happening in isolation, but-

As Shane stared at the dead and tried to decide what had to be done first, headlights swept the gates, coming up too fast.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered. Carl ran for the pulley and Rick for the gate, and Shane shoved a hand through his hair as he tried to wrap his mind around how goddamn fast everything could change.

The van jerked to a stop and Daryl jumped from the passenger side, his eyes scanning the damage to the fence and the bodies of the dead. Shane was pretty sure he saw Daryl give a silent whistle of appreciation at the sheer number of them. Bob, Tyreese, and Michonne practically exploded from the backseat, already running toward the prison with bags over their shoulders, and Shane’s feet finally started moving when the driver’s door opened.

Ace looked tired and dirty and vaguely haunted, but her eyes shot straight to him and her shoulders slumped in relief even as her smile grew. Shane dropped the gun and rounded the car, pulling her close and holding on tight.

“Hey, Dickhead,” she said simply, leaning her head against his chest. He half-laughed and closed his eyes, tangling a hand in her hair.

“Hey, Slugger.”

Chapter Text

"Then Maggie came bustin' in, shotgun blazin', and saved all our fuckin' asses. Especially Glenn's," Merle said. He was still pale, but the IV bag he'd been on all night had done wonders. "That boy'd have been eaten by our own as they turned if it weren't for her- and Miss Lizzy's quick thinkin', leading what was left of Henry away."

Shane shook his head, rubbing a hand across his eyes. "Shit. Should have headed down there with her."

"Hell naw. Lil sis said you, the other pig, and the kid took on a damn herd least a hundred deep up top. Gotta keep them fences intact if this place'll be worth anything. More important than runnin' in to try and save a few of us. With them meds not back yet, there weren't much you could've done. Ya made the right call," Merle told him bluntly.

Shane nodded once, wondering how in the hell it was that this was the same asshole who made camp a living hell outside Atlanta. The ruthless pragmatism Ace showed at times was honed to a razor-sharp point in Merle, and Shane was infinitely grateful for it. Especially right now.

Ace looked like she wanted to disagree with her brother’s assessment of his own relative worth, but Merle wrapped his arm around her before she could speak. She leaned into her brother's side and closed her eyes, her head on his shoulder. "I'm just glad you're ok, asshole," she said after a beat.

"Hell, sis. I told ya. Ain't nothin' can kill me," he declared in a lazy drawl.

Ace opened her eyes long enough to roll them at Shane, and he smiled back at her. He slid from the table he'd been leaning on and kissed her cheek, knowing there was a shit ton to do and he'd lingered with Ace as long as he felt he could. Others were working, so he needed to as well, even if all he wanted was to stay with her and her idiot brothers.

They still had the littlest ones, including Judith, in isolation in the admin building until they got all the bodies burned, cell blocks A and D cleaned up, the fences repaired, and everyone pumped full of the meds Daryl and Ace had brought back. Shane figured if he wanted to cuddle his little girl- and God knew after two days of not seeing her smile, he wanted to hold his baby- he'd better get started on some of that shit.

"I gotta get busy, sweetheart," he told Ace. "Stay here with your brother. Get some rest, both of you. You need it."

The explosion rattled the walls and had Shane going for his gun. Ace shot upright as well, her head coming off Merle’s shoulder and her eyes wild.

“What the hell?”

“Shane!” Rick came barreling out of the tombs, Daryl a grim shadow at his side and Tyreese just behind them. Shane was heading toward the door already, pausing only long enough to shove an extra magazine in his back pocket.

“I don’t know,” he answered both Ace and Rick. “Merle, stay here. You’re barely on your feet; don’t argue.”

Merle snorted and ripped the IV from his arm. “Ain’t the boss of me, pig,” he retorted, pushing to his feet.

Ace tucked her hand in his and turned wide eyes up to him. “Merle. Stay here. Please? I almost lost you.”

Shane would have been amused and proud, but a second explosion echoed. Whatever the fuck that was, it wasn’t good, and they needed to do something about it right the fuck now. “Rick, Dixon Jr, lets go.”

“Fuck you, Walsh, I’m coming too,” Ace snapped.

Shane figured they’d won enough battles when Merle scowled at them both and plopped back down. Rick and Daryl were hitting the doors already, and Ace was packing, after all. Shane sighed and jerked his head.

“Just stay back until we know what that is, please?” He asked her, and converged on the fence with the others.

“Is that-“ Ace hissed, her hand tightening into a vice on his arm as they peered through the fence at the collection of vehicles down near the outer gates.

There was a fucking tank with them. What the damn hell?

“Rick! Come down here! We need to talk!”

“Yeah,” Shane said flatly. He and Rick exchanged a look. “It’s the Governor.”

 

 

"Do not go down there," Shane said firmly to Rick, but he knew a futile effort when he saw one. Rick has already argued that he wasn’t in charge anymore, but the one-eyes bastard didn’t seem to care. Shane knew damn well that Rick was going. Sure enough, Rick shrugged.

"I've got to, brother," he said simply. He met Shane and Daryl's eyes, and Shane knew what Rick was telling them. They had plans for shit like this, even if they'd hoped like hell they wouldn't have to use them. Rick touched Carl's face and nodded. "We can do this. Ok? We can do this."

Shane wasn't sure they could, considering how badly their numbers had been decimated. On the other hand, if anyone could figure this shit out, it was Rick Grimes and his magical ability to do the impossible.

He nodded Daryl toward the rolling bin of guns, and he nodded back. He eased it closer, and Shane grabbed Ace's hand and shifted to a better position with her at his side. "Slugger. We gotta get everyone out, into the woods, through the admin building."

"We're giving up? Just like that?" Ace whispered back, her eyes glued on Rick facing off with the Governor down below. Shane wondered if she was remembering what had happened when that fucking cockroach Malcom fucking Hall had taken her to him, and Shane hoped to hell she too distracted by the current situation to be reliving that shit.

"Don't have the numbers, sis," Daryl muttered. He was passing guns to their people, and Shane accepted the rifle without looking at him. "Anyone check the bus recently?"

"Before the Big Spot," Sasha put in from behind them. "It was low then. Probably lower now."

Shane grimaced. "We'll make do. Get everyone moving. It goes bad, hit the bus or hit the trees. We'll all meet up like we've planned."

Ace's hand turned into a death grip on his. "Shane. Shane, he-"

Her voice held pure terror that had Shane whipping back around and cussing up a storm under his breath. That one-eyed bastard had Hershel and Michonne, hands tied behind their backs and kneeling on the ground. Ace's hand shook in his, and Shane turned his attention to her, knowing he didn’t have another choice. She couldn’t lose it; not here and now.

"Ace, sweetheart, you gotta keep your head here, ok? I should have killed him for you like I said I would, and I'm sorry I didn't, but I need you. Ok? Come on. I need you. Rick's got it under control. Go get people moving. Get them moving," he ordered her in a low voice, not taking his eyes off the scene unfolding down below.

He could tell by the way Rick was standing that he was pleading with the Governor; trying to strike some deal with the bastard, no doubt. Problem was, Shane had a suspicion that he was beyond reason.

When he whipped his gun out and shot two walkers coming up, Shane felt Ace jerk beside him and heard her breath. He spared her a quick glance, and she shot a hard look back at him.

"I’m good. I'm not going anywhere," she said. "I've got your back, Dickhead. Love you."

"Shut up," he muttered. "Don't give me that shit."

"Don’t be an asshole."

"I love you too. You know that. Stick close," he said grimly. He hated that shit; hated the way it sounded like a just-in-case goodbye, but he wouldn’t leave it unsaid. Not if he could say it to her, and he could.

Down below, the one-eyed bastard had Michonne's sword at the old man's throat, and Shane had a feeling shit was about to go down.

As usual, he wasn't wrong. He fucking wished he was.

 

 

This time, Shane knew it happened fast.

For a minute, it looked like Rick had pulled off another miracle. Then the sword flashed, blood sprayed from Hershel's neck, and Maggie and Beth were screaming. Rick fired and Shane did too a heartbeat later, trying to give his best friend some cover while he hauled ass toward the overturned bus.

The Governor's people opened up on the place, but so did everyone on the fence with Shane. Ace had a wild look and her gun on her shoulder, unloading on the one-eyed bastard like everyone else.

He had a moment to think ‘good’, because he’d been worried about her if the shooting started. That incident with her fuckin’ dad made gunplay something that shut her down sometimes, and bullets were flying. His Slugger needed to have it together, and she fucking did, thank God.

Unfortunately, Shane knew it wasn't going to do any good. They had a fuckin' tank.

Sure enough, the tank came into play seconds later, taking out another of the guard towers and blowing a hole in C block's wall. Shane looked around at the swirling chaos, the tank and the Governor's fleet of vehicles taking down the fences and marching steadily forward, and for a moment, he had no idea what the hell to do.

His baby was in the Administration building, helpless to fight back. His brother was down in that field, on his own and about to run out of cover. Ace was at his side, and he had to keep her safe. And Carl was further down on the fence, firing off rounds from a shotgun like a fucking professional.

What the hell was he supposed to do?

"Shane? We have to move," Ace yelled, her eyes wild as she grabbed his arm and started pulling him back, toward the bus and the admin building. "We have to get Judy!"

Just like that, he snapped back into focus. "Go," he ordered her. "Get her, get the other kids, and get your ass to the bus. I'm going for Rick."

"Shane-"

He grabbed her and kissed her hard, his hand on her face for the split second they had to spare. "Get our girl, Slugger. I have to."

"Goddamn it, Dickhead," she whispered. "You stay alive, you hear me? Or I'll kill you myself!"

"Yeah, yeah. Love you too," he told her with a crooked grin.

The tank fired again and cinderblock started raining down around their ears.

"Go. Go!" she ordered, and she started to run.

Shane took a deep breath and hauled the rifle up to his shoulder, ducking out in a crouch and firing off a few rounds as he scanned for more cover. He darted to an upturned table, bullets spraying right on his heels, and dove for it, wondering just how in the hell he was going to get down there to Rick in this fucking nightmare.

Shane had seen some shit on the job, with Rick. He'd been in a firefight or two before. This? This was on a whole new level, and he spared a minute to wonder just how the hell the end of the world kept giving him new definitions of total chaos. Then he popped up, fired, and ducked back down.

Only to see the tank busting open the inner gate and a walker closing on Ace's brother way too quickly.

 

 

Shane took out the walker, Daryl took out the tank, and the bus pulled away. Shane told himself firmly that Ace and Judy were on it, and so were Carl and Merle and Maggie and Glenn and Beth and Sasha and Tyreese.

Thing was, he knew for sure and certain that three people weren't on that thing- him, Daryl, and Rick fucking Grimes.

"Alright, Dixon. We gotta- we gotta get to Rick, down there in the field. Then we gotta make sure nobody else is left behind in this mess, man," Shane snapped, standing at Dixon's back and mowing down the three walkers coming up.

"Ain't gonna get down there to Rick, Walsh. Head back toward Admin, scan for anyone else, and get on the heels of the fuckin' bus. Our only play. Walkers pourin' in this way."

Shane spared a glance over his shoulder into the field and his heart stopped. "Goddamn it. Goddamn it! That's my best friend down there!"

"Wanna see ya kid again? My sister? Let's fuckin' go," Daryl snapped, grabbing at Shane's shirt and shoving him toward the admin building.

And Shane thought about Ace making him a promise, to do whatever it took to get back to him, and he went. Whatever it takes, Slugger, he thought grimly. Whatever it takes.

 

 

They didn't make it very far. Walkers blocked them in, and where the walkers weren't the last of the Governor's assholes would throw bullets their way.

They kept trying, but they were running out of options fast and as far as Shane could tell it'd been all of three minutes and they'd gone forward all of ten feet. He popped out from behind Ace's bar, fired off a couple rounds, and scanned.

It caught his eye as he dove back under the cover, a hail of bullets splintering the wood where his head had just been. He told himself he hadn't seen it; that it was just his fear and worry for their people cropping up and if he just looked again, he'd see that he was wrong.

Only he popped back up, got the asshole who had them pinned down, and looked again.

"Jesus fucking Christ, no," he breathed, shooting to his feet and heading toward the car seat he could see in the middle of the courtyard. "No, no, no, no. Shit!"

Daryl grabbed his arm and pulled him back, firing a bolt from the crossbow into the walker that came out of nowhere right in Shane's fucking face. He tried to tear his eyes away from the grey and pink carrier, but he couldn't. He had to get to it; had to know if his little girl was in there, left alone in this chaos and crying for help.

He couldn't bring himself to think she was dead. She couldn't be. It wasn't-

"Damn it, Walsh, you see the walkers? You see 'em?" Dixon screamed it at him, getting up in his face and driving him back, in the opposite direction from that little infant carrier that had caught Shane in its gravitational pull. "We gotta- fuck!"

Shane whirled at Daryl's wide eyes, mowed down two walkers with a quick burst, and whipped back toward the car seat. He'd shoot Daryl if he had to, damn it.

Then Beth Greene came out of nowhere, with her tear-streaked face and a rifle in her hands, and called his name. "Shane! You can't get to it! We have to go! Please, we have to go!"

Daryl grabbed Shane's arm again and he spun on Ace's brother, ready to follow through with his threat to fucking shoot the man if he didn't get out of Shane's way. But Dixon blue eyes, Ace's eyes, speared into him, and-

And Shane went.

Chapter Text

Get our girl, Slugger.

Shane's face had been agonized as he stood, firing automatically but clearly unsure what to do. He'd been drawn in three directions at once and you'd seen that, but you'd known. You had to get to Judith.

You weren’t losing another baby, damn it.

Dickhead running in the other direction, toward Rick- you felt like you’d ripped your heart out of your chest and left it back there with him, and you knew you wouldn’t breathe right until he was back where you could touch him. But he’d left Rick for dead once in a nightmare, and much like you had to get to Judith, Shane- Shane had to get to Rick. He couldn’t abandon his friend again, and you taking care of his daughter, their daughter, had freed him to do what he needed to do.

You wanted to be angry; you wanted to be terrified. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you felt the Governor's fist slam into your face and knock you to the ground. You could hear his cold, empty voice saying you were pretty, like Maggie. You didn't have time to deal with all that though, so you shoved it aside and ran for the admin building.

The plan was, the kids all stuck together. They'd load Judy in her car seat and carry it to the bus in case of an emergency, where they'd be safe until the bus left. That was the plan.

The plan had never included this, you thought desperately. The plan had been in case the fences were brought down by walkers and the prison was overrun. It didn't have contingencies for tanks blowing up C block, with Merle maybe still inside, or people shooting at you from all directions while Shane and Daryl tried to bring them down and rescue Rick.

The plan was never supposed to go this way.

You were reckless and you knew it, but you had to get to Judith. Shane had told you to; Shane had trusted you with making sure your girl, his girl, was ok. Bullets sprayed at your feet and you flung yourself behind a filing cabinet turned planter, panting and shaking and forcing aside the gibbering terror that wanted to overwhelm you.

This wasn't the time for freezing, and you couldn't talk anyone out of destroying your home. Walkers were already coming in, now, and the Governor's people had broken the inner gate. This was a time for fighting or, at the very least, flight.

You leaned around the cabinet, lucking into a perfect shot at one of the Governor's people, and a bullet winged way too damn close to your head. You spun, eyes wide, and stared at a walker at your feet and two little girls with guns.

Lizzy looked oddly calm and Mika looked fucking terrified, and hell- you didn’t blame her.

"Ok," you whispered. "Thanks. Where's Judith?"

"Back that way. Come on!" Lizzy said firmly, and you followed them. You took one last look at the fence where you'd left Shane, but you couldn't see anything in the chaos. The tank fired again and the sky walk between cell blocks collapsed before your eyes.

You swallowed hard and went with the girls.

Whatever it takes, Dickhead, please, you thought at him, tears burning in your throat. Whatever it takes.

 

 

The car seat wouldn't work. You couldn't carry it and shoot.

You stripped off the flannel shirt you'd thrown on over a tank the night before, after you'd showered and while you told Shane what happened on the road and he'd filled you in on what he knew about here. You handed Lizzy your rifle and snapped for her to cover you, then twisted the shirt into a quick and extremely unsafe sling across your body.

Then you flashed Judith a smile, glad you were in a spot somewhat sheltered from the chaos while you did this. "Hey, baby girl. Come on now, I've got you. We'll find your dads soon enough, but for right now, you're gonna hang with Auntie Ace, ok? Hope you're cool with that," you said to her soothingly as you tucked her into the shirt sling and strapped her as securely to your body as you could.

She grabbed your tank with her tiny hands and you wrapped an arm protectively around her. You didn't think you'd be able to use the rifle, at least not with any degree of efficiency, but you just had to get to the bus. Once you got to the bus, there would be others around. The kids would be safe, and you'd have both hands again to fire.

You took the rifle back from Lizzy and nodded toward the diaper bag on the ground beside the car seat, letting out a hard breath. "Ok. Grab that bag, Lizzy. We're heading to the bus. Stay close and cover each other, ok?"

 

 

You saw Tyreese dive behind the planters, two of the Governor's people lighting his cover up like Christmas fucking day. You covered Judith's ears with one hand and hauled the rifle up with the other, trying to get it steady enough to shoot. Before you could, two shots rang out from beside you and the Governor's people dropped like stones.

You shot Lizzy a look as Tyreese rose cautiously. "Good job, honey. Ty! Come on, we've gotta- damn it."

Tyreese stared with you, his eyes wide and glassy, as the bus pulled away, booking it out of the prison under a shower of gunfire. You handed Tyreese the rifle, but he was staring around him with blank eyes.

"Damn it! Tyreese! Get your shit together!" you snapped. "We've got to get out of here. Girls, come on. Stay close. Mika, give me that gun. Ty! Fuck, man, I will leave your ass here if I have to, but I need your help. Do you hear me?"

He shook himself, blinking down into the upturned faces of Lizzy and Mika and seeming to finally take in Judith in your arms. "I hear you. This way."

 

 

You spent the night evading walkers and doing your best to keep Judy quiet. Mika was terrified of every sound, and you were barely hanging on to your own sanity as you stayed two steps ahead of the walkers who streamed toward the fire you could still see burning, drawn to your home by all the fucking noise.

The only reason you kept from losing it was that there wasn't time to think. There wasn’t time for remembering Mal and the Governor, or Will’s belt. There wasn’t time to think about all the people you’d just killed, or the fact that you’d left both your brothers and the love of your life behind in that nightmare and you didn’t know if they were alive or dead.

There was just staying alive yourself, and keeping Judith and Lizzy and Mika alive too.

Finally none of you could take it any more, and you stopped where it seemed safe enough to rest, at least for a few minutes. Mika and Lizzy both fell asleep immediately, leaning on each other, and you looked at Tyreese. He was taking a turn carrying Judith, who was thankfully sacked out on his shoulder at the moment as well.

"I have to go back," you said softly. "I have to look. For Shane. For Daryl and Merle. For the others. I have to go back."

"You can't," Tyreese told you bluntly. "I can't keep them alive by myself. You know that. I need you. They need you."

"You can. It won't be for long. We'll find somewhere for you to hole up when we have the light again, and I'll go back in alone. I'll find our people and bring them back to you. Everyone's probably waiting for us at the meeting spot anyway, but the walkers are too thick for us to get through right now with Judy. You'll stay with the kids, and I'll bring the cavalry to you," you insisted.

You weren't delusional. You knew it wasn't true. You knew going back into that mess would only lead to you finding walkers you knew, but-

It was Shane. It was your brothers. You couldn't believe they were dead, and if they weren't dead, they'd be looking for you. You had to look for them too.

"You can't," Tyreese said again. "Ace, we-"

A twig snapped nearby, and you shook Mika and Lizzy awake.

 

 

Judith started crying again, and Mika flipped out.

"Make her stop! They'll hear her! Make her stop!" she begged. She latched onto Tyreese as you bounced Judy, humming in her ear and trying to get her to settle down.

"Diaper," you said when she made that face. Your heart clenched, thinking about teasing Shane over his shoulder in the middle of the night, playing with Judith while Shane cleaned her up and grumbled about middle of the night changes and feedings. You'd laughed and said he'd just need to learn to recognize her poop face, and when he'd asked what that looked like, you'd laughed harder as her face scrunched up and she'd shot shit across the cell.

Shane hadn't appreciated your casual 'like that'. He'd appreciated you laying back down and letting him clean up the mess even less.

Tyreese pulled a diaper from the bag while Lizzy mixed formula in a bottle, and you wondered how much longer you'd be able to feed and change her with just what was in the bag. Judy gave you a mournful look when you laid her down and you made a face right back.

"Don't give me that, baby girl. We both know you want your ass cleaned, don't we? So just- let me do it," you grumped at her. She made an unhappy noise back at you and you rolled your eyes. "Just like your father, you know that? Always have to have the last word."

Instant pain slammed into you and had your hands stilling in the process of putting on the clean diaper. Tyreese touched your shoulder gently and you swallowed hard, blinking back tears as you finished changing Judith and gathered her close.

"We'll find him," Tyreese said quietly. "We will."

"Yeah," you agreed. "First we've got to-"

"Miss Ace? Tyreese?" Lizzy interrupted you, holding out her hand with fresh fruit in it. "Can we eat these?"

You glanced around and saw Mika standing excitedly by a bush, a wild grapevine entwinned in its branches. You felt yourself smile slowly. "Yes, you can eat those. Wild grapes are delicious."

You scooped Judy back up and handed her to Tyreese, heading over to the bush yourself. If there were grapes, maybe there was something else you could find. You weren't a hunter, not like your brothers, but you could find rabbit trails if you worked hard enough. Probably. Maybe. Ok, it was a possibility, but possibilities were what was keeping you moving right now.

In the distance, someone screamed.

You went for your gun immediately, turning in place to try to orient yourself to the sound. Mika latched onto your leg and you reached a hand down to her absently, listening as another scream echoed.

"Same person," you said, meeting Tyreese's eyes. "Could be from home. I'll go."

"No, I should go. You know what you're doing with Judith," he argued, but you shook your head.

"I'm a better shot," you said simply. You pried Mika from your leg and stood her back to back with her sister. "Here, sweetie, you can see from both directions. Help Tyreese take care of Judith, ok? I'll be back soon."

"Don’t go! We should just run!" she pleaded.

You sighed and kissed her head. "Running is good when you don't have another choice. I can't run though. It might be some of our people, and I have to help them."

You pulled your knife in one hand and your Glock- formerly Shane's Glock- in the other. You paused to kiss Judith as well and give Tyreese a look. "If you get into trouble, try to come my way. If you can't, you save them and leave me behind. You hear me? Keep them safe."

He nodded and you took off at dead run as the scream started up again, only to cut off abruptly.

 

 

You came crashing through the trees and headlong onto the railroad tracks. Up ahead, two people grappled with a handful of walkers, fresh dead at their feet and blood soaking the ground. You fired twice and took down the walkers not currently engaged, then ran forward into the fight wondering if you were making the right choice here.

You didn't know these two, but right now that didn't matter. They were alive, and they might know something about your people. They might have seen Shane, or Daryl, or Merle. Or Maggie, or Glenn, or Beth, or Carl or Rick. Michonne, though you had little hope that she was still alive. Sasha. Anyone.

That possibility was worth the risk, you decided, and stabbed a walker in the eye.

The younger man screamed as another dead asshole bit into his arm, ripping out a chunk of flesh and spraying you with blood. You took down that walker too, grabbing what was left of long hair to yank the head back and come in up and under the thing's chin. You turned to the man- a kid really, young enough you’d have ID’d him in the Lullaby and pale with pain and fear- as he fell to his knees.

"Lay down. Now, man, do it," you snapped, stripping your flannel off to use as a bandage when it was done. You swallowed hard, trying not to think about what you were about to do, and stretched the kid's arm out along the ground, setting your knees on either side of his elbow. You'd have to take the forearm, just above the joint, and-

Yeah, you were gonna puke a lot later.

A shot rang in the distance and you looked wildly back the way you'd come. "Judith," you whispered.

You grabbed your knife and set it on the kid's arm and he started screaming again, and you turned to snap at him that you were saving his goddamn life. A walker fell to its rotting, oozing knees beside you both, coming in with hands outstretched and jaw open, and you flung yourself to the side and scrambled to your feet.

You killed it with a knife throw you would never in a million years be able to repeat, but it was too late. It had taken a chunk out of the kid's face. He was a dead man walking.

The older man had been doing a decent job holding his walkers at bay and you turned to help him now, hoping you could still save someone. You pulled the Glock back out to pick off a couple dead coming out of the trees, stressing the fuck out about what was happening back where you'd left Tyreese with the kids, and the older man took a bite to the back of the neck.

You fired a split second too late, and the walker fell as silence descended. "Goddamn it. I'm sorry," you whispered, knowing if you'd been focused on the fight in front of you, you might have saved them.

Both of them.

Instead, they were dead. The least you could do, you decided grimly as the older man wept, was put them out of their misery.

Suddenly all you could see was Dale lying with his guts spread all around him way back on Hershel's farm, and tears burned in your eyes. Hershel was gone too, another person you'd failed. You'd convinced Shane to stop looking for the Governor, after all. If he'd stayed out there, maybe he, Michonne, and Merle would have found the bastard and put an end to him before he destroyed your home.

Before he killed Hershel and probably Shane and Rick and Carl and both your brothers, you thought wildly, and the cry ripped from somewhere deep within you.

You aimed the gun in shaking hands and remembered Daryl ordering Shane to make sure you didn't look when he shot Dale. It felt like a lifetime ago, back before you knew how difficult taking a man's life was first hand. Now in one day you’d killed- you didn’t even know how many you’d killed. And today you could add two more to your total, and there was no Dickhead to hold you while you cried this time and tell you you weren’t a killer.

Shit, he couldn’t have told you that even if he was here, because you were one.

"Ace."

Chapter Text

They spent the first night running.

When they finally got ahead of the walkers, the three of them collapsing in a heap and staring at the growing collection of buzzards in the sky, Shane tried to get his brain working. He tried to figure out what to do next; where to go; how to find the others.

All he could think about was a pink and grey car seat, abandoned in a crowd of walkers, and how he'd left it there. He'd just left it there.

"We should do something," Beth said.

Shane pulled his eyes from the small fire Daryl had made and looked at her blankly.

"There's gotta be others who made it out," she insisted.

Shane went back to staring at the fire until Daryl put it out and followed Beth when she stormed off. He sat there a little longer, then climbed slowly to his feet and trudged after them.

 

 

"Could be Luke's. Or Molly's," Beth said, her voice determinedly optimistic as she leaned over Daryl's shoulder and studied the ground. "Whoever it is, it means they're alive."

"Naw," Daryl said, breaking his silence for the first time since he'd snapped at Shane that they couldn't get to Shane's baby and had to go. "Means they were alive four or five hours ago."

"They're alive," Beth snapped.

Shane snorted, but he started walking again, following the tracks even he could see.

 

 

"Ya couldn't get to it."

Shane didn't look at Daryl or acknowledge that he'd spoken. Ace's brother stayed at his elbow, though, and Shane wished he and Beth would just leave him alone. Stop talking about how someone might have survived and who they might be following.

No one could have made it out of that shit.

Well, the bus had. The bus had gone. That thought wormed its way in and gave him the only bit of hope he could cling to. The bus had gone, which meant there was someone on it and that someone had been alive.

"Weren't no way through them walkers, Walsh. Ya'd have just gotten killed, and then what would I tell my sister when we find her? That I- I let ya get dead just to see? Thing was empty, man. Promise. Too damn heavy to carry, so someone scooped her up and left it behind," Daryl continued.

Shane stopped in his tracks, whirling on Dixon and grabbing him by the vest. Daryl didn't move except to toss the hair from his eyes and give Shane a 'go ahead then' look. Shane snarled and let him go, shoving a hand through his hair instead of into Daryl’s face like he wanted. "Yeah," he managed on the second try. "Yeah."

"Yeah," Daryl agreed. Then his eyes narrowed on something over Shane's shoulder. "Wait. Picked up the pace here."

Shane took a breath before turning to see what the hell had caught Dixon's attention, and there were a handful of crushed grapes on the ground beside another foot print. Daryl tossed his head again and kept scanning the ground.

"They got out in a hurry. Things went bad," he said.

Beth sighed. "Wouldn't kill you to have a little faith."

"Yeah, faith. Faith ain't done shit for us," Daryl muttered. "Sure as hell didn't do nothin' for your father."

"Fuck, asshole," Shane said, staring at him. "Too damn far."

Daryl's eyes went wide as he looked between Shane's incredulous expression and Beth, who had whirled to stare him down like a startled deer. Shane shook his head at Daryl as Beth turned to the grapevine wrapped in a bush and started picking grapes with the fervor of someone running away from her problems.

Since Shane could relate, he came over to pick a handful too.

"They'll be hungry when we find them," she declared.

Daryl handed over a bandanna and Shane pretended like he believed they'd find anyone.

He should have kept looking for that one-eyed bastard. He should have made sure he was fucking dead.

 

 

Shane whistled and the other two snapped to attention. "Two dead walkers," he said flatly.

Daryl frowned and reached for the foliage near Shane's elbow, letting go of it without saying anything. Shane saw the look in his eyes and figured he'd come to the same conclusion Shane himself had.

"What?" Beth asked.

Daryl shot Shane a look and narrowed his eyes at the woods around. "Ain't walker blood. Fresh."

"Trail keeps going," Beth insisted, pressing her lips together and stepping forward resolutely.

Trail kept going, but it was just leading them to more dead, Shane thought. But he followed her. What the hell else was he supposed to do?

"Got walker tracks all up and down here. Least a dozen of 'em," Daryl warned.

Shane nodded, knowing what he meant. He was right; they were looking for bodies they could identify. Not people who needed saving.

 

 

Trail led them out of the trees and onto a train track. Shane had his back turned, watching the trees behind the them after that walker had come out of nowhere and grabbed Beth, and he ran right into Daryl.

He turned to ask him what the fuck he was doing stopping in the middle of the path like that and caught their expressions instead. Beth's eyes were horrified, and Daryl had slammed a blank neutrality over his face that told Shane they'd found their bodies.

He looked slowly, not wanting to know who it was. He couldn't do it.

Then again, he couldn't not.

Three walkers were eating a couple fresh dead, two he could identify as not their people. He should have been relieved, but there were three other smears of blood and goop, too eaten on to know who they were.

"Shit," he muttered. He pulled his knife and headed down, both because the tracks led that way and because he had to know. He had to see if there was anything that would tell him who the other dead were.

Daryl's crossbow twanged and the first one went down before Shane reached them. He handled the second, and Daryl ripped the bolt from his walker's head and stabbed it through the last one while Shane searched the ground around their feast.

There was nothing to prove this smear of blood and flesh had even been human, he thought grimly, and headed to the next one. "Got a boot. Could fit the tracks."

"Walsh."

Shane froze, his eyes closing at Daryl's tone. Fuck. Fucking hell. Dixon has found something, and it was someone they knew. He turned slowly, jaw tight, and-

No. No, it couldn't- it couldn't be. It wasn't. There was no way.

He'd crossed the space between them and he didn't remember doing it, his eyes fixed on the blood-soaked fabric in Daryl's hand. Daryl's knuckles were white where he gripped the crossbow, and Shane stared down at the flannel. He told himself to move, to look at it and make sure what they were both thinking was wrong. It had to be wrong.

There were more flannel shirts in the world than just the ones Ace kept stealing from him, after all.

Daryl shifted the thing in his hands, turning it slightly, and Shane started to shake.

"Where?" he managed.

"Right- right here, man." Daryl's voice was thick and rough, and Shane couldn't look at him. If he looked at Dixon he'd see Ace's eyes looking back at him, and he couldn't fucking do it.

He took the shirt from Daryl's hands instead, slowly and carefully, and it was so saturated the blood smeared onto Shane's hands and stained them red. He swallowed hard, not thinking about Rick’s blood in a field or Carl’s blood on a rag in Rick’s hands, and he had to know. Had to.

So he turned it over, and somehow his movements were brisk and precise as he shook it out so he could check the buttons. It wasn't hers, he told himself firmly. It wasn't the same damn pattern, the colors too dark, even under all the blood.

Shane lied to himself better than he lied to anyone in the world, he knew. Except maybe her.

He hit his knees in the middle of the blood and flesh scattered everywhere, the battered flannel missing half the buttons clenched in his fists. Blood oozed from it he gripped it so hard; oozed and ran over Shane’s hands like the blood of everyone he’d ever loved ended up running over them eventually.

He closed his eyes to stop seeing it and clamped his jaw tight, knowing full well if he opened his mouth he was going to jam the barrel of his gun in it and pull the fucking trigger.

"Shane?" Beth asked softly. "Shane, what is it?"

"Ace." Daryl barely got it out, her name nothing more than a whisper.

Shane started screaming, long and loud and ragged, and when the walkers came out of the woods, he was damn grateful.

 

 

He was restless and irritable, so he figured he would hit that bar on Main, see what happened. It was Shane's usual cure for this lonely, dissatisfied feeling- booze, loud music, and a woman.

There was always a woman, after all. And he wasn't bragging about it or anything. It was just a fact.

He tossed a button-down over his tee, grabbed his keys and his phone, and headed to his Jeep. Somewhere between his place and Main Street, he jumped on the highway instead.

Maybe it was the music, pumping out of his car at full volume and filling his ears and his head with drums and guitar and wailing vocals he couldn't help but belt out as well. Maybe it was the way there was practically no one on the road, just Shane and his headlights and the stars wheeling overhead, warm summer air blowing over him with the cover down on his Jeep. Maybe he just fuckin' needed an adventure.

It'd been a long goddamn week, and boring as hell. He'd been stuck on desk duty for most of it, after a close call in which he'd had to fire his weapon. He and Rick had gotten into a bit of a pickle and Shane had shot- at a lock on a door. It'd worked and they'd gotten out, but people wanted to know why officers were shooting up doorknobs. He'd been doing paperwork and answering phones all week, plus he'd had an extra mandatory session with the department shrink.

It'd been fine; Shane didn't mind having his head examined when he needed it. And shooting on the job was a big deal and should be.

He was just bored.

An hour on the road flowed into two and Shane figured he should probably turn around and go home. There was Sunday breakfast at Rick's house in the morning, after all. Shane would need to grab donuts, in his tradition, so he could tease Lori about having a backup for when she burned the waffles.

But Shane kept going.

He hadn't had any particular destination in mind, and it was approaching midnight real fast. Even in the city, things were shutting down soon. If he wanted to do more than just drive around aimlessly, he'd need to pick somewhere to go.

He pulled into that place he'd been with Rick a couple weeks before, admiring the mural once again and feeling his restlessness start to ease at the sound and light spilling from the place. It was rockin' tonight, he thought.

Sliding through the door proved him right, since the bar was slammed and most of the tables were occupied, as was the tiny dance floor space in front of the stage. On stage, a band blasted through a song Shane didn't recognize, the lead singer's voice not half bad, but clearly not right either. Shane could tell the man had a cold, and it didn't seem like the rest of the band was with it tonight either.

The crowd in the bar certainly didn't care, and Shane made his way to the one spot he saw available and let his eyes roam.

A flash of blue came from the kitchen, and the bartender he'd watched punch an asshole out last time he was here came striding down the bar, carrying a tray practically bigger than her and loaded down. The guy with the topknot was at the blender, and Shane watched her roll her eyes when he said something as she slid past him.

He watched her pass out orders and take more, a smile firmly in place and from what he could tell, totally genuine. She had something to say to every customer and seemed to know a lot of them by name. She never, he noticed immediately, stopped moving.

Even when she got snagged into a conversation with one pushy bastard who clearly couldn't take the hint that she was busy, she was still working. She took the opportunity to grab a couple of bottles from behind her and in seconds had whipped up three drinks that she slid along the bar to those close by before she finally broke away from the asshole to finish delivering orders.

Topknot worked with and around her, both of them clearly long-term partners in this war. Shane didn't mind the wait, even though as the minutes stretched on he wondered if either of them had seen him, partly because neither of them had half a second to spare and partly because he was just enjoying watching her so damn much.

He tried to decide if it was the hair. She still had it shocking, in-your-face electric blue, gathered tonight in a complicated looking braid that started at the top of her skull and traveled down her back. Wisps of hair had come loose to frame her face and lay against her neck, and Shane wondered what convinced someone to do that to their hair.

Was it for attention? Rebellion? Was it a cry for help? Shane didn't fucking think so, watching the way she moved and the light in her eyes- blue eyes, he noticed, just as shocking and compelling as the waterfall of hair. The more he studied her, the more he started to think she did it because it just suited her. He didn’t even know her, but he already couldn’t imagine her without it.

He grinned when she snagged a line of tickets from the printer, scanned them, and made a face. Topknot said something, peering over her shoulder, and she smacked him lightly on the arm before handing him half the tickets and pointing at a few people along the bar, including Shane.

He tried to pretend he wasn't staring when she and the other guy exchanged a few more words, a tired-looking fist bump, and started grabbing bottles. He went back to open admiration as she tossed one bottle in the air while pouring with the other hand, added his own applause and cheers, and tried to block out the music.

It wasn't that the assholes on stage were bad. He could tell they were usually damn good. It was just that Shane was nowhere near drunk enough to enjoy them while the lead had that stuffed-nose sound in his voice.

Shane admired how she made drinks by memory, not bothering to look them up in the recipe book he knew from his brief time dating Dianna Henderson was tucked under one of these counters, and he figured she had to be damn professional to know all this shit by heart, be able to think through the noise coming from the stage, and do bar tricks while making them all.

He wanted to know her name. He wanted to impress her. Hell, he probably wanted to fuck her too, but mostly right now he just wanted to see if he could get one of those blinding smiles turned his way and those eyes to laugh into his. He wanted to make an impression, he realized, and reminded himself dating bartenders was a damn bad idea.

Remember Dianna? That was a disaster, Walsh, he told himself firmly.

But Dianna had taught him a few things, including some odd and obscure drinks that he'd thought she'd fucking made up until she rattled off the recipes. The bartender made her way down the bar, dropping off drinks, jotting down orders with the pen she had shoved behind her ear, and exchanging smiles and laughter with practically everyone before she got to him.

She reached him as whoever was onstage started up a cover of London Calling that only really had volume going for it. "What can we get you, honey?" she half-yelled to be heard.

Shane got distracted by the way the boys onstage were butchering a classic song and said the first thing that popped into his head. "Earplugs."

She tossed her head back and laughed, hands busy reaching into the cooler and popping the tops on a couple bottles, and Shane wondered what those hands would feel like on him. Would they keep moving, constantly, or could he make her finally be still? “Rock not your jam?" she asked, bringing him back to earth.

"Oh no, I love rock," he answered her. The restless feeling had disappeared and he was so goddamn glad he'd made this choice tonight when those eyes met his and danced. "That’s just noise."

Chapter Text

You whirled at the sound of your name, eyes wide because you knew that voice. You knew it, but you couldn't believe it.

"Carol?" you whispered, seeing her there with Judith in her arms. Tyreese and the girls were smiling with her, Mika's little hand engulfed in Tyreese's big one. "How the fuck?"

You practically fell into her and she hugged you back hard, Judith patting at your shoulder as you did. You sniffed back tears, knowing just how much of a miracle this was, and all the sudden it hit you.

Shane had told you Carol killed Karen and David. Considering she'd recommended Andrea do a fuck-and-stab on the Governor back in the day, you hadn't exactly been surprised, but-

Well, by the way Tyreese was smiling like the sun had come out in the middle of a rainy day, Rick hadn't gotten around to telling Tyreese. That was going to be messy as hell, you thought in the back of your mind.

The older man started sobbing behind you and you closed your eyes tightly. "Fuck," you muttered.

"I've got it," Carol told you. She shifted Judith to you and pulled her knife, telling Lizzy and Mika to stay back.

You shouldn't have let her, you knew. You should have just handled it yourself. But you curled Judith closer to you protectively and bounced her in your arms as you watched Carol.

"Stay on the tracks," the man said. "That was my mistake."

"But the woods have more cover."

"No, you don't understand. There's a place, up the tracks. It's safe. You can- you can take the children there," he said, eyes on the dead and not on Carol.

You frowned and headed down to join her when Carol glanced back at you. What the fuck was this guy on about? A safe haven, up the tracks?

"Trust me. Please," he said. "You tried to help. I'm trying to help you. Follow the tracks. Go, now." He collapsed over the body of his son, blood slowly oozing from the bite on his neck, and you made a snap decision when Judy started to fuss in your arms.

A look at Carol and Tyreese showed they agreed with you, and you fell into step, heading up the tracks. You'd get the kids to safety, you promised yourself. You'd get the kids to safety and then you'd be back.

For Shane, and your brothers, and everyone else.

 

 

Carol pulled her backpack off a couple miles up the road. "There's some water in there, and some food," she told you.

Tyreese immediately pulled out a canteen and handed it to Lizzy and Mika, getting them to drink first. Carol took Judith from you when Tyreese passed you an old power bar and the canteen. You broke the bar in half and gave him the rest, but you sucked the water down. You could find and boil more pretty easily where you were, now that you had something to put it in. Food was still going to be the tricky part, just like that long winter.

"I didn't see you get out," Tyreese said between bites. "I didn't see you, in all that."

Well, shit, you thought, pausing mid-bite. There it was. This was about to go very badly.

Carol's eyes flicked to you and then back to Tyreese. "I wasn't there," she told him. "I hadn't gotten back yet. Rick and I found a car. He took what we had back to the prison. While I…. Kept looking."

"Did you see it?" he asked softly.

You were busy being impressed by that load of almost Shane-level malarky she'd just dropped on him so incredibly smoothly, but you were curious what she'd seen yourself. She looked grim as she nodded once.

"I saw the end." She hitched Judith up in her arms, her eyes sliding away from Tyreese again. "And then… I saw you running into the woods. You were far away, so I lost you, but-"

"You found us," Mika said, her tone adoring, and you remembered little Sophia, clinging to Carol's hand and to her doll in camp.

Sophia, the daughter Carol had lost and never talked about, you thought sadly. The daughter she had lost and none of you had found, despite how hard you’d all tried. Carol gave Mika a tight smile and nodded. You all started moving again and you chewed on your thumbnail in thought.

"Maybe we can circle around to your car," you suggested. "We could look for others while we're at it. If we made it and found each other, there have to be more, right?"

"Ace, the walkers, and the fire- you can't go back to a graveyard," Carol whispered.

You clenched your jaw tightly shut and took Judith from her arms, kissing her head and trying not to think about that too damn hard.

 

 

"Look!"

Lizzy and Mika had been walking ahead, Lizzy's voice breaking the silence that had fallen after Carol's graveyard comment. You lifted tired eyes from where you'd been studying the tracks, one foot in front of the others and trying not to think too hard about anything at all and Shane and your brothers in particular.

There was a sign posted under an overpass, and curiosity stirred when you could see the handwritten message on it. Thick black marks traced rail lines toward a central star, labeled 'Terminus' in bold letters. Over the map, someone's scrawl proclaimed-

"Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive survive," Mika read slowly.

You frowned, because that sounded vaguely familiar and you wanted to figure it out. But the girl's eyes were shining as they turned from the sign to look at the three of you, and Tyreese looked hopeful as well. Carol looked wary, but you knew which way this wind was blowing.

You shifted Judith and kissed her cheek, passing her over to Carol. "Ok," you said abruptly. "Ok. There's a map, so you guys just follow the tracks to this Terminus place, alright? I'll head back to the prison, circle around and look for others. When I find everyone else, I'll meet you there."

You took the rifle from Tyreese while he frowned at you, slinging it over your shoulder and pulling your Glock. You popped the magazine and checked how many bullets were left in it- not fucking enough- and slammed it back in place. "I'll try to grab Carol's car as well, to make it faster. You should be fine if you stick to the tracks and stay vigilant. Take care of Judy?"

Carol grabbed your arm as you turned to go, adrenaline flooding you with purpose and determination. Plus, you'd learned the easiest way to get your way was to just do it faster than anyone could argue with you about it. You smiled at her.

"I'll leave all the supplies with you guys; you'll need them," you told her easily. Maybe if you babbled enough she wouldn't remember whatever argument she was about to use to try and stop you. You had to go. You had to get back there and look for them.

Or you had to know for certain that they were gone.

"You can't go. Ace, you can't go. There's nothing left," she insisted.

You swallowed hard and shook your head. "I can't believe that. Shane's still alive. Daryl, Merle. They have to be. We are. You are. And we found each other. So the others are too."

"Ace. They might be. They might still be alive. Shane, your brothers- they're damn hard to kill," Carol agreed. "But you will be dead if you go back there. The prison was destroyed. Overrun. The place was crawling with walkers. How do you think you're going to get through? If anyone did survive, they're doing what we are. Trying to get away. Going back is suicide."

You scrubbed a hand over your face and shoved it through your hair. "No. I have to look for them. I have to, Carol. It's my family."

"So is Judith. She's what's important now," Carol said firmly. "It's Shane's daughter. You have to keep her alive."

Tears slipped to your cheeks and you dashed at the angrily. You wanted to scream at her, but you settled for shaking your head and meeting her eyes with a plea in your own. "I can't abandon them. I can't abandon him. I promised I'd get back to him. Whatever it takes."

"That means not doing something stupid and getting yourself killed," Carol snapped, her no-nonsense tone that made everyone on the Council snap to and listen lashing out at you. "You can't come back to him if you're dead, can you?"

No, you couldn’t, but he couldn’t come back to you if he was dead, either. If you’d lost him, for good, you had to know.

You closed your eyes and forced the words out in a whisper. "What if he's dead? Carol, what if- what if my Dickhead's dead? And Darrie and Merle? What do I do then? They’re all I’ve got. All I’ve ever had. What do I do if-"

Carol plopped Judith back in your arms, and Judy promptly smacked her spit-covered fist into your face. "You keep moving. For her," Carol told you bluntly. "You’re all she has, now. Be a mom. Moms don't quit."

"I'm not a mother," you said bitterly. "Not really."

"Neither am I." Carol's voice was cold and harsh, and you shot wide eyes to her hard ones. You read the compassion in them, as well as the rock-hard strength and the depth of pain you could only dimly understand. "But here I am. She needs you. Mika and Lizzy need you. Come on. Follow the tracks, Ace."

 

 

"Mark, listen. I haven't figured everything out yet, but I thought you should know. I'm pregnant." You said it all in a rush, hands clenching on the strap of your battered backpack.

Mark stared at you, his eyes going wide and panicked. "What- what? Uh, how? Who?"

"What the fuck do you mean how and who? You, you asshole, and that night. The party? About a month ago?" You lifted an incredulous eyebrow at him as he started shaking his head. "Oh, you have got to be shitting me. You can't tell me you were blackout drunk for that."

He gestured vaguely. "No, I remember- that. I just- are you sure it's mine?"

"Are you calling me a slut? We're dating, jackass. Yes, I'm sure it's yours," you grumbled. You should have expected that, you supposed, but you were exhausted and nauseous and bitchy, and you so didn't want to have to deal with the idiot who'd done this to you trying to disparage your character. Your reputation was shitty enough in this place just because your last name was Dixon. "Stop freaking. I don't know what I'm going to do about it yet. Just figured you have a right to know. Wanted to see if you have an opinion."

"Oh, I don't give a crap, Ace," he said instantly. "You do what you want with it, just don't- leave me out of it. I can't have anything to do with it. I'm going to college."

Ok, was he serious? It's not that you hadn't expected a reaction similar to this one, it was just that you'd hoped he wouldn't be a total tool about it. You rolled your eyes and did your best Merle impression. "Bein' a parent don't mean you can't go to college, ya know. But whatever. You won't have to do anything, if I keep it."

"Damn right. Shit, I don't have anything but your word that it's mine!"

You nodded slowly. "Ok. Cool. Well, this has been fun and all, but Daryl's probably waiting for me. I guess you don't want to know what decision I make."

"Hell no. I don't want to talk to you ever again. We're through, ok? Shit," Mark muttered, shoving past you and striding away.

You closed your eyes and took a deep breath through your nose, trying not to cry. Fucking hormones, you thought viciously.

"I'll kill him for ya. Or Merle will."

You opened your eyes and snorted. "No, it's fine. I expected him to break up with me. I didn't expect him to be quite such a fucktard about it, but you get what you get."

Daryl tossed his arm around your shoulders and you leaned into him for a minute. "I'll beat the crap out of him, don't worry."

"You will do no such thing."

"Try an' stop me, sis," he shot back, and you glanced at him in amusement. "Ya cain't take me and ya know it. Not anymore."

You sighed and leaned your head on his shoulder as you left the schoolyard. "Just- I don't know, just make sure he takes the first swing. One of us should stay off the school's shit list."

"And ya think that's me?"

 

 

You sighed and squeezed a lime, wondering why you couldn’t just get a bottle of Jack or Jamie like a normal person when you wanted to get deadass drunk. No, you had to make a pitcher of fresh margaritas, all for yourself, and squeeze your lime juice from the source. By hand.

Apparently you liked to work for your intoxication.

-- Hey Ace

You frowned down at your phone when it lit up with the incoming message. “I have lime all over my hands, Dickhead,” you muttered. “What do you want?”

Like he’d heard you- which was impossible, right?- your phone chimed again.

Ok, chimed was putting it nicely. The noise that came from it could at best be described as ‘loud’.

-- Like your new ringtone?

You snorted and cracked a grin. “Hold on, asshole. I’ve got two limes left to do.”

You hummed along to the radio, the kind of sappy love song pop shit you usually adored. Tooth-rotting crack was Shane’s favorite was of describing it, but he liked it and you fucking knew it. Tonight, however, was just making you sad, and you really should turn that shit off. You finished up the limes, including slicing several circles from the last one and hooking one over the edge of your glass. Your phone pterodactyl-screeched at you again and you laughed. “Hang on, hang on!”

-- Come on, Slugger, I’m bored

-- And that’s my problem how?

-- Ha! There you are! Turn your phone on loud.

You poured the first drink and wandered to the couch with your phone in hand.

-- It is. Very loud. My neighbors are going to complain.

-- Do you know how long it took me to find something to get back at you for the fucking pigs? The least you could do is act impressed.

You smiled faintly, clicking off the radio and turning the tv on. Dudes in spandex were running after a ball and you groaned.

—- I’m suitably punished. What’s this on my tv?

—- how the hell should I know? I’m not there, sadly.

That made you smile too, as you flipped channels.

-- Because it’s Sports and I don’t watch Sports. You miss me there, Dickhead?

-- Have you not turned on the damn tv since I was there last week? Shit girl. You work too hard. Eh, don’t get all excited. You have booze and football. I’m working a town hall meeting. Politicians piss me off.

Oh you could only imagine. You settled on a cop show, one of the luridly graphic ones Shane fucking hated, and wished he was there to mock it with you. He’d have been commenting on everything from the police work- shitty- to the female lead’s rack- fully on display- to the ridiculously futuristic lab set up- needs no further explanation.

-- I do indeed have booze.

You snapped a picture of the pitcher of margaritas and sent it to him with a winking emoticon, just to get a rise from him. He hated those things, after all.

-- shit, you having a party?

-- No, just a shitty day. I’m thinking about seeing how much tequila I can put down before I pass out.

The detectives broke into a house with absolutely zero probable cause and nothing even resembling a warrant and you scoffed. “Never hold up in court,” you informed the tv, waving your glass. “Damn it, Shane. I used to like this shit.”

-- What happened? You never drink.

You rolled your eyes. He was wrong. You did too drink, you just knew your limits and knew pushing them tended to turn you into Will- something you wanted to avoid at all costs.

-- That’s untrue. I just don’t drink MUCH. There’s a difference. Nothing happened, really. Just feeling kinda down.

It was just today, you thought. It wouldn’t even have been a big deal, it was just- you hated hospitals every day. And landing in the ER last night, even if it had been because Jason was an idiot and had sliced his hand open on a broken glass while you were breaking down the bar together, hadn’t helped. Antiseptic smell and beeping machinery and busy doctors still looked and sounded and smelled the same, and you didn’t like thinking about that night.

It made you sad and lonely and made you miss your brothers, and since you’d just had a public screaming match with Merle when you’d picked him up from the police station two weeks ago, you figured it was better all around if you just stayed home to drink. Alone.

-- Sorry about that, Slugger. Wanna talk about it?

-- absolutely not. Describe the politicians. I wanna sketch something. See if this police artist crap is worth anything.

-- You’re watching trash TV again, aren’t you? Don’t you know that shit’s fake as hell?

You laughed and grabbed your sketchbook and charcoal sticks.

-- Do it anyway! Pick one person and give me as detailed a description as possible. Let’s play, Dickhead, before I get too drunk to draw straight

-- Shit, girl, you get drunk enough you could be the next Picasso. Alright, picking a target. Hang on.

You grinned and refilled your glass, one eye on the tv and one on your phone. Suddenly your shitty day didn’t seem so bad after all.

Chapter Text

They weren't going to talk about the night they spent in the trunk of the car, three people packed into a space that shouldn't have fit one while the storm raged and the herd stumbled and snarled and crashed into their hide out.

They weren't going to talk about that, and if Shane had his way, he wasn't going to think about it either. He didn't want to think about Beth hiding her face in his shoulder at one point, or how Shane had started to slide his fingers into her hair before he remembered it wasn't Ace curled against him, but Beth.

He wasn't going to think about Ace.

Hell, he figured, walking behind Daryl and Beth. He just wasn't going to think at all.

 

 

Beth picked at her snake; Daryl devoured his. Shane ate what was handed to him and went back to staring at the trees.

Watching for walkers. Watching for food. Watching for whatever.

None of them spoke, but really, what was there to say? Beth and Daryl had both tried to get him to talk, after he'd killed the three walkers on the train track. He'd snarled at Beth, shaking her hand off his arm, and hadn't bothered to look at Daryl.

He couldn't look at his eyes.

"I need a drink," Beth said abruptly.

Shane glanced at her once, then went back to staring at the trees. He didn't twitch when Daryl tossed her a bottle of water or when she started talking about getting a real drink and never having had one. Hell, he didn't move when she scrambled to her feet, pissed that neither of them wanted to do anything about that fact with her.

She stormed off and Shane watched Daryl from the corner of his eye, until he tossed down his section of snake and grabbed his crossbow to go after her. Shane followed him, because despite the way he couldn't see blue eyes in someone else's face, he needed a Dixon around. What the hell else was he gonna do?

Besides, Beth couldn't stay out of trouble for shit on her own.

He knew Daryl was leading her back to their little camp, and he didn't say anything. Frankly, he didn't give a shit. He didn't even know why he was still moving, why he was following them around and trying so hard to stay alive.

Wasn't like he had anything left anyway. His daughter was dead. Rick and Carl were probably dead. Ace was-

"Pretty sure we have to go that way to find the booze," Beth said as Daryl stepped over the tripline and back into camp. She walked right into it and paused, shooting a hot glare at both Daryl and him. "What the hell? You brought me back! I'm not staying in this suck ass camp!"

She tossed up her middle finger and Shane would have snorted if he'd cared just a little more about anything. Daryl grabbed her arm as she whirled to leave, and Beth spun on him again.

"What's wrong with you? Either of you? Don't you feel anything?"

Shane stared back her, because no. No, he didn't. He couldn't feel a damn thing, and he figured Dixon probably wasn't either.

"Yeah, you think everything's screwed. I guess that's a feelin'. So you want to spend the rest of our lives staring into a fire and eatin' mud snakes? Screw that!" She glared at both of them, fire in her eyes, and Shane's heart clenched. "We might as well do somethin'. I can take care of myself. And I'm gonna get a damn drink."

I can take care of myself, Dickhead. I'm not one of your domestic violence cases. I'm not a victim! For the last time, despite all evidence of its futility: Ace can take care of herself.

Fuck it, Shane thought. He looked at Daryl, not meeting his eyes, and shrugged. He wouldn't mind getting blind drunk himself.

He started off after Beth. Cause one thing was for sure: just like his Slu-

Well, she just couldn't take care of herself, no matter what she claimed.

 

 

She found a country club on a golf course and Shane and Daryl got her inside. Shane stared at the walkers, hanging from the ceiling where they'd taken Dr. Jenner's route and opted out. Shane had thought Jenner a weak-ass shithead, back in the CDC. He'd been bound and determined to fight his way out; to live another day. There was always something to live for, right? He'd believed that, at the time.

He hadn't lost it all then.

Thing was, if Shane was gonna opt out of this nightmare, he'd do it permanently. No coming back as the mindless dead. No wandering the earth forever with only the barest ties to his former humanity.

Hell, Shane was already there.

No, if he was gonna go, it'd be one bullet to the head and lights out forever. Sitting up on watch, in the darkness listening for twigs snapping or branches rattling that would mean it was time to wake the others and run, he'd pulled the magazine from his gun and thought about doing exactly that. There was a single bullet in his pocket, so even if he emptied his gun he'd have the option.

Once he got Beth and Daryl someplace safe, he'd take it.

Walkers rattled the doors and it was time to head further in.

 

 

When the clock chimed and drew every walker in the damn place, Shane pulled his knife in the lounge and decided to square off. There were only five or so, after all, and Dixon had paused at his shoulder, Beth behind them further in.

Shane hadn't given a shit about clean clothes, or scavenging, or the one walker Beth had handled on her own, breaking a bottle of cooking sherry in the process. He hadn't given a shit about the walker mounted on a mannequin base and labeled "rich bitch" that Beth and Daryl had covered, or the way Daryl was scooping up every dollar bill in the place and stuffing it into a bag. He could have told Beth it was for kindling when she'd questioned Daryl with a judgmental tilt to her head, but what was the fucking point? She'd see soon enough.

Killing the walkers? That Shane cared about, and he ran right in as the first one came around the corner. He craved the fight; craved the way adrenaline coursing through him drove back everything he was trying not to think about and not to feel, so he grabbed walker number one and slammed his fist into what was left of its face.

He'd done this before. Cleansing his mind and venting his helpless rage by turning into a killing machine, down in the tombs with Rick after Lori had died and that cockroach had taken Ace. He'd done it by beating Ed's face into a pulp when he'd laid hands on both Carol and Ace in Shane's presence. He'd done it to Malcolm fuckin' Hall in the woods outside the prison, playing cat-and-mouse to get a little revenge instead of just shooting the bastard outright and being done with it.

And look where that had gotten him, he thought as he shoved his knife into the thing's eye socket. It had put Ace right back in the bastard's hands, forced her to take his life instead of letting Shane do it.

That thought sobered him, and he killed the next two quickly. They both wore the Governor's one-eyed face, but Shane wasn’t satisfied.

He turned to see if there were more, in time to find Daryl working out some of his own frustrations on the last dead bastard. Dixon took a fucking golf club and smashed it into the thing’s head with a truly impressive amount of power behind the swing, and Shane clapped a hand on his shoulder and headed toward Beth.

He almost felt bad when he saw the blood and brains and rotten shit all over the brand-new sweater she’d picked out.

 

 

"I know you think this is stupid," Beth informed them both. "And it probably is. All I wanted to do today was lay down and cry, but we don't get to do that. So- so beat up on walkers if it makes you feel better. I need to do this."

Shane glanced at Daryl from the corner of his eye and found him staring after Beth with a guilty expression. Fuck that shit, Shane thought. He started after her into the barroom, figuring there'd be pool tables and darts and booze. All the good stuff rich old bastards liked to waste time and money on, before the world ended.

"Come on, Dixon," he said over his shoulder. "You heard the lady. Let's get drunk."

"Somethin' tells me that ain't the best idea ya two idiots have ever had," Daryl muttered, and Shane almost laughed at that one.

Almost.

 

 

Beth and Daryl were snarking at each other. Shane had a feeling it was going to be like riding with Merle and Michonne, except maybe not quite as bad because this Dixon was more of a surly bastard than the other one.

"I found this. Peach Schnapps. Is it good?" Beth asked.

Shane glanced at the label and scoffed even as Daryl said an immediate 'no'. Beth looked crestfallen, her eyes lingering on the bar as she settled into a stool.

She glanced back up at Shane and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Well, it's the only thing left."

"Be fine," Shane muttered. "It'll get the damn job done, anyway."

He took the bottle from her, cracked it open, and took a swig. Beth wrinkled her nose and started looking for a clean glass, and Shane tried hard not to think about Ace behind a bar, laughing as she poured orange juice and asked if he wanted a screwdriver, a fuzzy navel, or a hairy navel.

He definitely wasn't thinking about what he'd been thinking about at the time, even as he cracked a joke about body shots. He'd tried not to, but she'd had on that one tank that rode up no matter what she was doing, and she'd put some dangly dream catcher thing in her own navel, and Shane had been trying to put the way water rolled off the stone she'd had before out of his mind. Trying, but not succeeding, because goddamn that stone glinting had some excellent memories associated with it, even then, and-

Yeah, he wasn't thinking about that now.

He shoved away from the bar and went to wander the room further, looking for a distraction. Dixon was lobbing darts at the photos of the founder's heads, and Shane found that so perfectly in character for Ace's twin that he smiled and went to comment to her about it.

And she wasn't fucking there. She wasn't fucking there and she never would be, because he'd wrung her blood from her favorite flannel, so it washed over his hands and he could still see the red staining.

Like Cain who murdered Abel; like Lady fucking Macbeth driven mad because she couldn't get clean, Shane suddenly itched for a fight, seeing that red on his hands still. Oh, he was always itching for a fight, always ready to hit and pound and break, wasn't he? Just a monster in the shadows, just a clenched fist, just a loaded fucking gun-

I don't care if you're a loaded gun, Shane, just pull the trigger and come back to me!

There was no coming back to her. No coming back because she was gone. She was gone, and it was his fault, and he'd washed his hands in her blood like he'd washed his hands in Rick's when he was shot; like he'd carried Carl's blood so Rick’s hands would be clean; like he'd buried his hands in Lori's hair and destroyed her the same way he'd destroyed the rest. Oh, he was a loaded gun, alright, but when he pulled the trigger he didn't take out the bad guys.

He took out the ones he loved, instead.

Beth started crying behind him and Shane looked up at the wrong moment. His eyes locked with Daryl's, and there it was. Dixon blue, staring at him from the wrong goddamn face and Shane's lip curled. His hands clenched with the sudden, impossible desire to stab those eyes out so they wouldn't keep reminding him.

Daryl tossed his head and scoffed. "Come on then, Walsh," he said, the challenge and the anger in his voice coming through clear as day, and goddamn it that was all Shane needed.

He got the first hit in, slamming his fist into one of the eyes that mocked him with the reminder that despite all his promises and all his plans, he couldn't keep her safe. He'd never been able to keep her safe, and for some reason, right here and now, it was her brother's fault.

Daryl took the punch and jabbed forward himself, bringing his own hand up and into Shane's stomach in a brutal move. Had it hit right, it would have put Shane on the ground in one go, but he'd gotten just far enough out of reach to make it so he lost all his breath and started coughing, but he was still moving. He half-laughed when he had enough air and came back in for more, the arrogant, self-assured tilt to Daryl's head adding fuel to the fire.

Daryl ducked the first of Shane's combo punches, but the third caught him on the jaw and staggered him back. Shane was on him, pressing the advantage and out for blood, when the bottle sailed over both their heads and shattered against the wall.

Shane froze, his hand knotted in Daryl's shirt and the other ready to swing, and looked wide-eyed back at Beth. She had a terrified look on her face and tears in her eyes, but she glared between the two of them and didn't back down.

"Hey! That's enough! I get it. You lost someone. Both of you, and she mattered to you. But we all did. We all lost someone, a lot of 'em. That doesn't mean we get to take it out on each other! So stop it, or I'll- I'll- I don't know; just stop it!"

For a moment Shane wasn't holding Daryl, he wasn't looking at Beth; he was frozen in the middle of a fight with his best friend, getting blasted by Ace for being a dumbass after she'd hurled a pipe wrench through a window. Shane supposed he should be grateful that this time it was something that wouldn't have killed him immediately on contact, but mostly he was just ashamed.

He uncurled his fingers from Daryl's shirt, once again not meeting his eyes as he took a step back. Shane ran a shaking hand through his hair and swallowed hard, forcing himself to look at Daryl.

His eye was going to swell, Shane thought. His stomach churned, knowing he'd done that, and it didn't matter that it wasn't Ace. "Shit. I'm- I'm sorry, man," he mumbled, eyes dropping again. "I'm- I'm just-"

"Yeah. I get it. Ain't nothin'. If tradin' haymakers makes it easier, come find me anytime," Daryl shot back, and clapped him on the shoulder. He glanced over at Beth. "She'd have appreciated the bottle bein' thrown, though."

Shane laughed through the tears that he couldn't keep in anymore. "Shit, man. She lobbed a pipe wrench at me and Rick once."

"That's my sister, aight."

"Yeah, Slugger's- Slugger's- fuck," Shane whispered, and turned to grab onto the pool table hard, fighting to get air to his lungs and not slide back into that blank, black rage. "Fuck!"

Daryl squeezed his shoulder once and scooped up his crossbow. "Yeah. Come on. Ain't gonna have Beth's first drink be no damn peach schnapps."

Chapter Text

"Found this place with Michonne."

Daryl had led them through the woods, Beth talking to him quietly about what he'd done before the turn and other shit Shane found unimportant. They were both giving him a chance to get himself together, politely ignoring the asshole with tears on his face and blood on his knuckles.

"I was expecting a liquor store," Beth said, sounding surprised.

Shane glanced over the shack and had a feeling he knew what Daryl and Michonne had found. It was a home brewery if ever he'd seen one, and Daryl being Daryl- Shane didn't think about toilet wine and Ace curled against him, playing with the buttons on his shirt while she talked freely to him about her past for what might have been the first time ever- there was gonna be some potent and disgusting moonshine in there.

Shane was right. Daryl handed Beth a crate full of mason jars and jug bottles, and Shane half-laughed when she asked what it was.

"Moonshine," he answered for Daryl. "I should arrest your ass."

"Ain't my 'shine, officer. I just found it," Daryl countered. "Come on, let’s hole up inside."

 

 

Inside was exactly what Shane would have expected; dirty and run-down before the world had ended, the kind of dirt-floor-poor place he'd been to many a time with Rick. Usually because the residents had been screaming and whaling on each other, or cooking up shit in an effort to break out of the shit cycle they were in, or someone had left a cigarette lit and the whole damn place had gone up in flames.

Shane wondered if somewhere like this was where Ace and her brothers had been, before their mother died in a fire and they'd moved to the city. Ace didn't remember much, since they were so fucking young at the time, and he imagined it was the same for Dixon. Merle could have told him, but Merle would have snorted and asked him what it mattered for.

Truth was, it didn't matter. Except that Shane loved her. He loved her so damn much, and now-

"Here. That's a real first drink right there," Daryl said firmly, handing over a glass with about three fingers worth of moonshine in it to Beth.

Shane had a sudden thought and grimaced. "Beth, how old are you?"

"Are you serious?" she asked. "World's in tatters. I kill dead people. I think I can have a damn drink."

Well, that was fair, he thought, and turned away with a half-smile when she took a sip and made a horrified face.

"That's the most disgusting thing I've ever tasted," she declared. Then she paused. "Second round's better."

Shane paced toward the windows as Daryl told her to slow down. He peered out into the trees, wondering how long this place would stay standing if they had a herd come through. He figured not long at all.

"This one's for you," Beth told Daryl.

"Naw, I'm good."

Shane looked over his shoulder, curious. Homebrew and Daryl seemed to go hand in fucking hand to him.

"Why?" Beth asked.

"Somebody's gotta keep watch."

That seemed reasonable enough to Shane. "I'll keep watch. Have a damn drink, Dixon," he declared. "I'll be out on the porch. See if I can get on the roof."

He ducked out before either of them could argue.

 

 

Shane decided the roof was a bad idea, given how structurally unsound it looked, so he climbed into the branches of a nearby tree instead. In all honesty, it didn't help with his vantage point, but it did make him feel a little more alone.

God, he wanted to be alone.

That wasn't true, he knew. He wanted her. He wanted his Slugger, his Ace. He didn't want to be near Dixon at the moment, that was all. Just until he got some measure of control back. Until he could be sure he wouldn’t try to kill him with his bare hands just for having the same eyes as her.

He tipped his head back against the tree and sighed, scrubbing a hand across his face. He couldn't- it was worse than when it all started. It was worse than leaving Rick in that hospital, or getting off the highway while they bombed Atlanta, or seeing Ace's battered and terrified face after that cockroach had kidnapped her.

She was gone for good, and Shane knew it. He had her shirt in his pack, in case he ever forgot. And Rick was gone, and Carl, and Judy. Everyone but those two in there, and-

He frowned as Dixon's angry voice came echoing from the shack. He sighed and slid reluctantly out of the tree to go see what was up, because that didn't sound good. It sounded very, very bad, actually. Very bad.

He slipped around the back of the trailer in time for Daryl to bust out the back door, dragging Beth by her wrist and holding his crossbow in his hands. A lone walker was stumbling around in the backyard area and Shane grimaced as Daryl's angry, drunk as fuck eyes flashed to him.

"Doin' a great job on watch, asshole," Daryl snarled, firing off a shot and pinning the walker to a tree. "Beth, here ya go. Let's learn how to shoot the crossbow, aight? Teach ya better'n my Daddy taught me'n'Merle. Not Ace, though. Ace just got fuckin' shot at."

Shane flinched away from that, but Beth looked upset and almost scared and Shane couldn't stay out of it. He wouldn't let Daryl do something he'd regret later, and no matter how much of an asshole he was being right now, Daryl Dixon wasn't this kind of man.

"Ya wanna shoot? Here ya go," Daryl said, wrapping his arms around Beth and aiming the crossbow over her shoulder.

"I don't know how! Daryl, let's practice later-" she started, squirming to get away as Shane started for them.

"It's easy. Right corner." The crossbow twanged and another bolt pinned the walker. Beth half-yelled wordlessly as she shoved away from Daryl, who reloaded and whipped the thing up.

"Daryl, cut it out. Daryl, damn it," Shane snapped, getting between Beth and Dixon.

Daryl tossed his hair from his face and snarled at them both. "Come on, it ain't nothin'. Let's pull 'em out, get some more target practice!"

Shane grabbed at Daryl's arm as he headed toward the walker, and Daryl shook him off and got up in Shane's face. He stood his ground, not backing down but not making the first move, either. Shane didn't make a habit of beating the shit out of drunks, but if Daryl didn't cut it out the two of them were going to exchange more haymakers, as Daryl had put it.

Beth solved the immediate problem by whipping out her knife, shoving between him and Daryl, and stabbing the walker in the head.

"What'd ya do that for? We're havin' fun!"

"No, you were being a jackass!" Beth yelled back, and Shane almost laughed. "If anyone had found my dad like that, or your sister-"

Shane wasn't fucking laughing now, and neither was Daryl. "Don't," Dixon snapped, glaring at Beth hard enough to have Shane wondering how far the apple fell from the Dixon family tree.

Maybe the was uncharitable of him, but he didn't exactly give a fuck right now.

"That ain't remotely the same," Daryl hissed, and took two long steps away from Beth, breathing hard.

"Killing them isn't supposed to be fun," Beth said, calmer now. She glared at Daryl and at Shane equally, and that was fair, Shane supposed. The way he went after them with his bare hands sometimes, it probably did look like he thought it was fun.

"What do you want from me, girl? Huh?" Daryl roared at her.

Beth yelled right back. "I want you to stop acting like you don't give a crap about anything! Like nothin' we went through matters! Both of you! Like none of the people we lost meant anything to you. It's bullshit!"

Shane couldn't believe she really thought that; not with the way both of them had been acting. Then again, they'd been barely speaking, going through the motions of surviving, and Shane at least had been doing his damn best not to feel anything. So maybe it wasn't so out of line, after all.

"That what you think?" Daryl said softly, looking just as stricken as Shane himself was right then.

"That's what I know."

Daryl scoffed. "You don't know nothin'."

"I know you look at me and you see just another dead girl. Both of you. I'm not Michonne, I'm not Carol, I'm not Maggie. I'm not- I'm not Ace. I survived and you don't get it cause I'm not like the two of you. But I made it! I made it and you don't get to treat me like crap just because you're afraid."

"I ain't afraid of nothin'."

Beth's face softened, but she held firm. "I remember. When that little girl came out of the barn, after my mother. You were like me. And now God forbid you ever let anyone get too close. And Shane-"

She whirled on him next, tears in her eyes. "You can't hardly stand to look at either of us. I'm not the right girl and Daryl's not the right Dixon, but I remember how you were too. You act big and tough, but I saw you with Ace and I saw you with Judith. You don't get to turn into a monster just because they're gone. And you don't get to put that bullet through your brain either. I won't let you. They wouldn't want that."

Shane stared at her without saying a word, because he knew damn well that she was right. She was right, and it didn't matter. He'd eat that bullet anyway, because Daryl wasn't the right Dixon, and Beth wasn't Ace, and his baby girl was dead in that tiny car seat they'd drug him away from. Nothing could change that, no matter how much Beth wanted to convince him it didn't matter. Fact was, that was everything.

"Too close, huh?" Daryl snapped, and Shane's eyes widened because he heard the way Ace sounded when she was on the edge in Daryl's voice. "You'd know all about that. You lost two boyfriends and you don't even shed a tear! Your whole family's gone and all you can do is go out lookin' for hooch like some dumb college bitch."

"Oh, screw you, Daryl, you don't get it-"

"No you don't get it! Everyone we know is dead!"

The words made Shane’s fist clench and his stomach roll like he was as moonshine-drunk as these two dumbasses, coming from Daryl in that broken, angry tone. Daryl who'd told him that Judy was alive; that they'd find the others. Shane had known better, of course, but still. Still.

"You don't know that! You two have both given everyone up, and-"

"They might as well be cause you ain't never gonna see any of 'em again! Rick. You ain't never gonna see Maggie again. Merle, Glenn, none of 'em! Governor rolled right up to our gates!" Daryl whirled around and Shane grabbed at Beth to keep her from going after him. He shook his head at her confused expression, knowing from experience how the Dixons were with unexpected touches.

"Maybe if I hadn't stopped lookin' for him," Daryl said, his voice breaking. "Maybe cause I gave up, that's on me. My- my sister- I ain't- 'Supposed to look out for my little sister, damn it. And your dad-"

Beth broke away from Shane then, latching onto Daryl in a hug from behind that had Shane wincing. When Dixon just hung his head, Shane closed his eyes and let his own grief and guilt rise. It wasn’t Daryl who should have kept looking. It was Shane.

"Maybe I could have done somethin'," Daryl whispered. "Maybe I coulda saved one of 'em."

Shane turned and walked away when he heard Daryl start to cry.

 

 

“Let’s burn it,” Beth had said, half-lit and eyes shining. “Come on. Let’s burn it.”

And somehow Shane and Daryl, both sober and arguably in their right minds, had decided that was an excellent idea. So they'd splashed the place with moonshine, tossed Daryl's pilfered cash in for dry kindling, and Shane had handed Beth a match.

It'd gone up in seconds, and the three of them had stood there watching it with their middle fingers up until the walkers had started to come.

Then they'd run.

It'd been pure dumbassery, but Beth was smiling and Daryl didn't look so devastated, and Shane himself almost wasn't drowning in the darkness. Once they'd gotten far enough away from the blaze and Beth had been sobering up- and starting to hurt; that girl was going straight from her first drunk to her first hangover and fast- they'd found a place to set up another 'suck-ass camp.'

Now Beth was curled up against a log, close to the tiny fire, and Shane and Daryl sat far enough away for their night vision not be completely compromised. Shane glanced at Dixon and found him staring blankly into the darkness.

"I'll keep watch. Get some sleep. Probably don't feel too hot there yourself," he said quietly.

Daryl stirred, tossing hair from his eyes and chewing absently on his thumb. Shane tried not to think about pulling Ace's hand away and kissing her fingers, or the way her eyes would go wide and confused when he'd first started doing it. He didn't succeed, and cleared his throat roughly and looked into the night.

"Turn into our daddy when I drink. Merle does too, when he's drunk or high. We both know it," Daryl muttered. "Try to stay away from that shit, most of the time. Beth started- started playin' this drinking game. Never Have I Ever. Strong fuckin' shit, and before I knew it she's sayin' how never has she ever been in prison, and I- I thought about how I's the only one of us without a record, and-" He broke off and jerked his shoulders, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. "Shit. Owe her an apology."

"Yeah, you do," Shane agreed. "She'll be fine, though. She'll get it."

Daryl grunted.

"For the record," Shane added, and glanced back at him. "From what- what your sister's told me, even that wasn't anything like that piece of garbage. You're a good man, Daryl. So was your brother, even if I didn't believe it when you first got to camp."

"Yeah, well." Daryl tossed his head again. "We're gonna find 'em. Merle's out there somewhere. Survived cuttin' off his own hand, he can survive this shit. Rick, the others. We'll find 'em. Just the booze talkin'."

"Mmm. You know, man, I- I don't think we will," Shane said slowly. He slipped a hand into his pocket and found the single bullet with his fingers, a hard and unyielding promise. He looked out into the trees and then turned a half-smile Dixon's way, careful not to look in his eyes. "But we're gonna keep moving anyway. Keep Beth alive; get her someplace safe. Maybe we'll find others out there."

Daryl sighed. "Wouldn't kill ya to have a little faith either, Walsh."

"Faith ain't done shit for us, Dixon. Go to sleep. I'll keep watch."

Chapter Text

"I still think we should check out that smoke," you informed Carol, walking backward with the rifle in your hands.

Carol sighed and grabbed your arm to pull you around a tree. "You know that's a bad idea."

"Why? It might have been some of our people."

"Ace."

You shot Carol an annoyed look. "What? We can leave Tyreese and the kids alone while we look for water, but we can't leave them alone to look for our people? Shane's out there. And Daryl and Merle. I believe it."

She gave you that patient look that clearly said you knew better, and the thing was, you did. You'd been telling yourself for days now that they were ok, and they were out there. You'd look for them soon, and find them.

But you knew why heading toward that smoke was a bad idea.

"Fine," you snapped. "But after we get to Terminus and get it checked out, I'm going back. You can't stop me." Even if it was just to put down walkers, you had to go.

Carol said nothing, and you walked on in silence until she stopped abruptly. You stood with her, studying the house in the clearing. It had wire fences around a garden plot, and pecan trees with branches loaded down with nuts. Carol's head tipped slightly to the side, her eyes narrowed, and you knew what she was thinking.

"We need to keep going," you objected. "That's the whole argument, isn't it? Keep going until the kids are safe?"

"Tyreese has a fever. His arm is infected. Lizzy and Mika are exhausted. We're exhausted. I know you're not sleeping even when you're supposed to be," she countered.

Your eyes slid from hers and you jerked one shoulder in a shrug. She was right; you hadn't slept more than a couple hours a night since before Merle got sick. "I kept odd hours before all this."

"Yes, but you still slept. Come on, Ace. We'll hole up for a few days. Not too long; just enough to rest, roast a supply of pecans, maybe bring down a deer. Resupply and get our strength back. Then we push on."

You studied the house, chewing on your thumbnail and hating the delay. Every day of travel was another day you didn't find your family. "Damn it," you whispered. "Carol, how much longer?"

"As long as it takes," she answered firmly. "As long as it takes."

 

 

"Girls, you stay right here. Lizzy has Judith, so Mika, get out your gun. You have to keep watch," Carol told the girls in a whisper.

You and Tyreese were already on the porch, peering in the windows and getting ready to go in. You banged your fist on the door to attract any dead inside, and sighed. "Feel familiar?" you asked Tyreese.

"This won't go like the Big Spot," he assured you.

"Yeah. Well, let's hope not. Aight, Carol, that's long enough. It's not that big a place. Let's go."

Carol nodded and shoved the door open, ducking left as she went in. You went right, knife in one hand and gun in the other, and wished to God it was Shane at your back and not these two. Carol was the toughest bitch on the planet these days, and you loved her dearly, but she wasn't your Dickhead or your brothers.

You cleared the first room with no issues, giving the trilling whistle that was the all-clear your people had developed over that long winter. Carol whistled back from the kitchen, and you started toward the closed door further in when you heard a crash and a scream from the girls outside.

"Shit!" you yelled, and charged toward the door as Judy wailed and Lizzy screamed.

You vaulted the porch railing to get to the walker clawing his disgusting way toward Lizzy and your girl. You landed wrong, because of course you did, and yelped as your ankle bent, rolling with your momentum before scrambling practically on your hands and knees to get there faster.

"Mika, gun down!" you yelled as you grabbed onto the walker. The little girl held the gun in shaking hands, and if she fired she'd miss wildly and hit you, her screaming sister, or Judith. You managed to get a hand under the walker's jaw and plunged your knife into its temple, twisting for maximum damage as you pulled the knife out again.

You let the walker drop immediately and turned frantically to Lizzy and Judy. "Are you ok? Girls, are you ok?"

"We're ok," Mika said in a shaky voice. Lizzy had stopped screaming, and you pulled Judith from her arms and into yours, checking her over rapidly for scratches or bites even as you started trying to soothe her.

She curled in against your shoulder, her crying settling down into unhappy grumbles as she grabbed at your hair and wrapped it all around her fingers, and you closed your eyes and let out a breath of relief. "Thank God. Thank God. Lizzy, are you ok?"

"I- I'm ok. I'm sorry, Miss Ace. It came out of nowhere and it scared me. I couldn't think," she said tearfully.

"You did fine." Carol's voice had both girls scrambling toward her, and her eyes met yours over their heads. "Ace?"

"Well. Walker's dead. But I think I fucked up my ankle," you said with a grimace. "Inside clear?"

"It’s clear," Tyreese called from the doorway. "Let's get everyone in."

"Easier said than done," you muttered as you shifted Judith in your arms to try to climb to your feet. "Any more of them?"

"Give me the baby." Carol took Judith from you and you used the porch railing to get the rest of the way up. "Take a step."

You tried. Your ankle screeched at you and you hissed as it buckled. "Damn it!"

"Guess we have to stay a few days," Carol murmured to you as she wrapped an arm around your waist. You leaned on her shoulder and limped your way slowly toward the steps.

"Yeah, guess so." You kept your face still, but you had a feeling Carol knew what you were thinking anyway.

There went your plans to sneak out and check on that fire once they were settled.

 

 

There was a shallow grave and a homemade cross in the yard, baby shoes hooked over the cross. You stared out the window toward that grave and the ones beside it, wondering if the walker you'd killed had been the last member of whatever family had lived here. Wondering if he'd buried his baby, his wife. His whole family gone and in the ground, and he was the only one left.

You wondered if he'd opted out, when they were all gone.

You wondered if your whole family was gone too.

Tyreese coughed lightly behind you and you knew you should be sleeping. Exhaustion crept up on you, weighing you down in more ways than one, but when you closed your eyes-

Carol was out on the porch on watch. The rest of you had piled into the living room together, just like in the days before the prison, for comfort and for safety. You’d taken the couch when Tyreese kicked back the chair, and you leaned your forehead against the glass and didn’t think about hard floors and a pack as a pillow, Shane’s arm around your waist the only blanket you had some nights.

Judith slept in the wooden cradle that probably belonged to whoever had worn those tiny baby shoes out there. In the darkness, thinking about that grave, you let yourself wonder if she was an orphan now.

Rick had been down there in the field when the attack started. He was dead, you had little doubt. There was no way he could have gotten away from the fucking tank.

You closed your eyes and tried to piece together your memories, searching for some clue about what might have happened to Shane. He'd kissed you at the fence and gone for the gate, and you- you hadn’t- you hadn’t seen him since.

You bit the inside of your lip to keep from crying, knowing he couldn't have made it down there. And if he had, there certainly wasn't any way he could have made it back.

Which meant your Dickhead was probably dead too.

You curled tighter around yourself, biting down on your thumb until you tasted blood as you lost the battle with the tears you’d been holding back for days.

 

 

"Would you hurry up in there? How many damn dresses are you puttin' on?"

You stuck your head out through the curtain and rolled your eyes at Shane. He made a face back, looking uncomfortable as hell in the boutique second-hand store, staring at the mannequin sporting a truly hideous sweater over a floor-length velvet gown. You almost didn’t blame him for the look on his face; you didn’t get it either. "It's formalwear, Dickhead. It takes awhile to get into- especially vintage formalwear. Hang on; then you've got to tell me what you think."

"Don't you have a boyfriend for this shit?" He grumbled as you ducked back behind the curtain and returned to your losing battle with the zipper on the dress you'd spied in the window.

"Mal's busy. We were here. Come on, help a girl out. It's my third showing; and Maria's gone full-tilt with this roaring 20s, art deco theme." You finally gave up on the zipper with a groan. "Shit! Ok, I need your hands."

Shane snorted. "Well, all you have to do is ask, Slugger, but I think that jackass might have a problem sharing."

"Shut up. I can't get the zipper. The faster you help me, the faster we can leave," you informed him, pulling back the curtain and facing the wall. "Zip me, Dickhead."

"I'd like to remind you that we're supposed to be at your place drinking and watching sports. That was the price of my lugging three duffle bags and a ladder just to stand around watching you paint,” he said dryly, even as you felt him tug the zipper the rest of the way into place. Then he paused. "Where'd you get this bruise? Jesus, Ace."

His fingers ghosted lightly over your bare shoulder and you winced internally. You'd forgotten about that one, since it was damn near a week old. It’d been worse when it was fresh, worse enough you’d considered an ER run. "Ugh. Feet slid out from under me at the bar the other night and I caught the edge of the counter just perfectly. Look, men in spandex and all the drinks you could ask for are on the way, but Gatsby is not my jam and I need your help. What do you think?"

You turned to face him, looking down at yourself and smoothing the dress. It was far from your typical style or color, a blush pink silky slip dress covered in a layer of silvery beading and fringe that fell to your knees. Thin straps and the plunging V neckline left your shoulders and more of your chest and back bare than you'd usually be cool with- especially with your tendency toward ugly bruises and the scar down your back you were sure was at least partly visible- but shit. Maria insisted and you needed a damn dress. You could get creative with your hair styling or use a shawl or something to cover the scar.

Plus, this was one vintage, which the elite would know and appreciate, and it fit you pretty damn well, and-

You looked up and found Shane staring at you, an odd expression on his face. "What?" you asked. "Is it bad? Damn it!"

He shook his head and shoved a hand through his hair. "Naw, Slugger, it ain't bad. Opposite of bad. Nobody's gonna be looking at the art, honestly. It's perfect."

You grinned. "You think? I bet it'd look great on the dance floor, too." You did a hip swivel and the fringe flew. "Yes! We should totally go out dancing after the showing. Not that night, but you know, soon. You need a fedora and a fat cigar."

Shane laughed and herded you back into the changing room. "We'll see. Come on, Slugger, this is not my kinda store. Get your clothes back on and let's go."

"Yeah, yeah," you muttered as he drew the curtain closed. You turned to pull the dress off and sighed. "Shane! Zipper, damn it!"

 

 

You slept a few fitful hours and woke up exhausted, crabby, and in pain. Carol immediately refused to let you do anything on your ankle, claiming if you didn't stay off it now, it would never heal.

You'd limped around the house anyway until Carol had muttered an 'alright, Shane, get off that damn thing' and you'd been frozen in place, thinking about him on the farm and realizing you loved him while you screwed each other's brains out in the backseat of the Hyundai. Carol had given you a stricken look and reached for your hand, but you jerked away from her touch and made your way back into the front room.

You curled on the couch and stared out the front window at nothing, tears sliding down your cheeks again. You fought hard to keep your mind blank; to bring back the belief that they were out there waiting that you’d held to you like a shield.

When Judith started to cry, you picked her up and cuddled her close, holding on to all you had left of Shane.

 

 

"What the hell?"

You scrubbed your eyes at Carol's startled exclamation, looking up as she dashed toward the back door. You climbed to your feet and laid Judy down in the cradle, grabbing the rifle and slowly making your way toward the door to see what the hell was going on.

Outside, Lizzy was being chased by a walker.

"Shit," you muttered, raising the rifle to aim. She was so close, and-

You shouldn't have worried. Carol tackled the thing and had her knife in its eye in a blur, and you dropped the rifle and sagged against the door with a sigh of relief.

"No! No!"

All the sudden Lizzy's cries registered, as she shoved at Carol and sobbed. What the ever-loving fuck? You thought, confused as hell.

"She was playing with me! She wanted a friend!"

Carol climbed to her feet and yelled back at the crying girl. "She wanted to kill you! It wanted to kill you!"

"I was gonna lead her away!" Lizzy sobbed.

"You could have died!"

You stared back and forth between the two of them, sick fear churning in your stomach at Lizzy's words. She thought the walker- one of the shambling undead creatures who killed your friends and family and tried to eat anyone and everyone they could- had wanted… to play?

What the fuck?

"It's the same thing. You killed her! You killed her!" Lizzy screamed, her face contorting into rage and grief that baffled you in its intensity. "What if I killed you? What if I killed you? You don't understand! You don't understand!"

"Carol?" you called, and she tossed a hand up even as she reached for Lizzy to calm her down.

"Go check on Judith, Ace. I've got this," she called to you. "Lizzy, calm down. Lizzy, look at the flowers. Look at the flowers, Lizzy."

“You killed her! She was my friend, and you killed her!”

You shuffled back into the house, the sound of the kettle whistling and Judith half-crying drawing you away from the scene outside. Tyreese ducked into the kitchen, Judy in his arms, as you made your way to take the kettle from the heat.

“What’s going on out there?” He asked with a nod toward the yard.

You dropped into the kitchen chair with a thunk and looked up at him, baffled and honestly? A little freaked the fuck out. “I have absolutely no idea.”

Chapter Text

Carol came in with her arm around Lizzy and there was no chance for you to ask her privately just what the fuck had been up with all that. You were ordered to stay put and watch Judy and the girls while Carol and Tyreese went for water, and after an attempt at walking you reluctantly agreed.

Mika, bless her sweet heart, brought you a book and peaches and a bottle for Judith, saying she and Lizzy would be right outside. To give you some quiet.

"Stay close," you warned her, and she nodded earnestly.

Somewhere about two sentences into the book, Judy on your lap, you fell asleep.

 

 

"Carol! Ace!"

The screaming jolted you out of a dream about Daryl and Merle, and your arms tightened around Judith when you bolted upright and she slipped. You scrubbed at your eyes, trying to figure out where you were and what the hell was going on, and-

"Lizzy! Lizzy, help me!"

Mika.

You put Judith in the cradle and ran for the back door, all worries about your ankle forgotten at the fear in the sweet little girl's voice. On the porch, you stared at the burned walkers stumbling out of the woods, coming toward the house and the two girls under your charge. Lizzy tugged on the prone Mika, who must have gotten caught in the barbed wire of the fence. Grabbing at her leg was a crispy critter who was way too fucking close for comfort.

"Shit," you muttered, setting the rifle to your shoulder. This was the kind of shot you never would have taken, given any other choice. A hair off and you could hit one of the girls. If they moved at the wrong time-

You let out a slow breath, shoving aside past trauma because you were an adult now and you weren't your drunken father taking risky potshots for the hell of it. If you didn't shoot they were walker bait for sure.

And you couldn't lose any more kids.

A squeeze of the trigger and the walker dropped, a round dead between it's eyes. You let out a relieved breath as did two others walkers fell and Carol and Tyreese charged in from the side. You set your jaw grimly as they got the girls behind them, already shifting the gun to the next of the shambling horde. Some of them were still smoldering, you noticed. You glanced at the column of smoke as Lizzy and Mika started shooting too, and it burned white. So the fire was out, but the walkers were fresh from it.

Meaning it wasn't very far away at all. Hell, you thought angrily as you nailed the second to last one, you probably could have gotten there and back in one day to check it out. If you hadn't fucked up your ankle, that is.

In the sudden silence when the last walker dropped, Tyreese turned to you and nodded, smiling. You nodded back, but your attention was on the way Carol hugged Lizzy, and Lizzy's hands shook as she shoved her gun back into the holster.

 

 

"I had to help stop them," Lizzy said slowly.

She and Carol sat at the table, Carol shelling pecans and Lizzy staring into space instead of working on the puzzle she and Mika had started. Tyreese slept in the chair, or at least had his head tipped back and his eyes closed, while Mika and Judith played on the floor and you sat looking blindly at the pencil and paper Mika had brought to you with an excited glow in her eyes.

"Miss Ace, look! I found you stuff so you can draw!" She'd beamed as she said it, so pleased with herself that you'd swallowed the lump in your throat and pasted on a smile as you said thank you.

So far you hadn't sketched a line. You didn't know if you would. Hell, you didn't know if you could.

"Do you understand now? What they are?" Carol asked Lizzy, which had your eyebrow lifting. What they were? They were the dead. They wanted to eat you and yours and turn you into dead bastards with them. It was basic, primal hunger.

They weren't friends. They were the enemy. Fighting your way out of a hospital while you yelled 'what the fuck?' at Daryl over and over had taught you that pretty damn quickly.

Lizzy sighed and you watched the two of them, trying to figure out what was going on in that girl's head. You'd long since given up on getting a read from Carol when she looked like that; her poker face was the best you'd ever seen. She'd tell you what she was thinking soon enough anyway.

"I know what I have to do now," Lizzy said finally. "I know."

"It's ugly. And it's scary. And it does change you," Carol told her bluntly. "That's how we get to be here. That's the cost. That's- that's growing up now."

You shifted and set aside the paper and pencil, knowing you wouldn't be making art tonight. You had a feeling, if your Dickhead was gone, you wouldn't be making art ever again. "It's not easy. The first few times, it's- it's like you're in a nightmare and you can't wake up. I had baptism by fire, fighting my way out of the hospital while I was still messed up from the beating Mal gave me. I'd have died there if it hadn't been- hadn't been for my brothers. But Lizzy, I can promise you- it is not the same as killing a living person. You know that. You saved me and Tyreese, back at the prison, taking out that one-eyed bastard's people. You know it's different."

"I don't wanna hurt anyone. I don't wanna be mean," Mika said quietly.

Lizzy gave her sister a long, sad look. "You have to be sometimes. But just sometimes."

That, you disagreed with. It wasn't mean you needed to be, but hard. And it wasn't just sometimes.

 

 

"Ace, clean ya shit up, damn it!"

You blinked, struggling to pull your eyes away from your project. You finally got your hands to still, taking the pen from the paper and looking up at your older brother. He towered over where you sat cross-legged on the floor, glaring at the mess scattered around your small bedroom.

"I'm working. I'll clean it up when I'm done," you told him snidely, already being drawn back in.

The project was only half-done, after all, with the crumpled book pages that finally dried to the canvas and the background colors and graffiti all layered in. Watercolors, acrylics, and some pen and ink gave it texture and interest, the mixed media perfect for the dark, gritty feel you wanted for the self-portrait. You'd just started inking in the silhouette finally and you-

"Hey! Lil sis! Focus!"

You groaned and glared back up at Merle. "What? What do you want? This is for school, asshole. I'm getting graded. I'll clean it up when it's done."

"Ya'll clean it up now unless ya want ya ass beat. Will'll be home soon, and if he sees this shit everywhere it'll be hell to pay."

You grimaced and looked at the clock in the corner. "Fuck."

"Wash that mouth out, girlie," Merle shot at you as you started frantically gathering up your supplies. You flipped him off and he chuckled, but he crouched and absently began sorting your shit into mediums the way you stored it. "What's this gonna be, anyway? Looks like street art, but inside."

You beamed at him. "Thank you! That's exactly what it's supposed to look like. It's for the showcase at school. I was assigned a self portrait, so that's what this is."

"Self-portrait, huh? When'd ya fuckin' start smokin'?" he demanded. "Ya fourteen. Too damn young for lung cancer."

"Pot, fuckin' kettle," you fired back with a roll of your eyes.

Insistent banging on the front door had you pausing, eyes shooting to Merle's in surprise. Will didn't knock, and no one ever came to visit except the building manager looking for rent money you didn't have to give him. Merle's face went hard and something like lead crept into your stomach. He knew who it was, and your brother was not happy about it. He almost- he almost looked worried.

"Stay here," he ordered, handing you the stack of dictionary pages he'd been straightening. "Clean up." He rose and headed toward the living room, and you slid your project under your bed to finish drying, giving him a couple of heartbeats before you followed him. Fuck staying there; nothing good would come of that look on your big brother's face.

"The fuck ya think ya doin', showin' up here?" Merle's voice was low and dangerous.

You half-hid behind the hallway wall as you tried to see who he was talking to. At eighteen, he was getting into gang life a little too deeply, and you were worried. He was an adult now; if he got busted it wouldn't be a stint in juvie and right back home.

It'd be jail.

"You don't talk to us like that, asshole. Not when you're fresh blood. We caught something that belongs to you. Thought we'd do you a favor and bring it back. Maybe leave you a little message."

"Get ya hands off my brother right now. He ain't got nothin' to do with this," Merle snarled.

Daryl. You rounded the corner in an instant, heart in your throat and hands shaking with adrenaline. Everything in you wanted to run and hide like Merle had told you, but it was your twin and it was Merle. Dixons looked out for each other, damn it.

"Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?" you yelled, seeing some Vatos punk at your door with his hand around Daryl's throat. Daryl had a black eye, which wasn't exactly unusual for him, and his arm twisted up behind his back by another jackass in gang colors. A third hovered just behind them and all three turned interested eyes toward you as you faked confidence and strode toward Merle.

"I told ya to stay put, girlie," Merle snapped, not taking his eyes from the leader. "Do what I say."

"No, no," the asshole with his hand on your brother's throat disagreed, eyes raking up and down your body. "She should stay. Hello, beautiful. What's your name?"

"None of your goddamn business. Let him go," you snapped.

"I fuckin' told ya-"

"You shouldn't speak to the lady like that, newbie. We respect our women in this family. Ain't that right, boys?" The head asshole licked his lips and raised his eyebrows at Merle. "Especially when they fine as hell and got balls too. Come on now. What's your name, lil mama?"

"She's fourteen," Merle said, an edge of something like fear in his voice. That couldn't be right, though, because Merle wasn't scared of anything. Not Will, not jail, not the cops; nothing.

But it sure sounded like fear when he continued, shifting so he half-blocked the leader's view of you. "Look, message received. I'll be there tonight, jus' leave 'em outta this. They kids."

The asshole leaned around Merle to rake his eyes over you one more time, making an appreciative noise. "Damn shame. Call me in a couple years, honey. I don't do jailbait." He turned his attention back to Merle and poked a finger at his chest. "Better be there tonight, fresh meat. Or we'll come back for another visit."

The prick holding Daryl's arm gave him a shove and he stumbled forward, catching himself easily and standing shoulder to shoulder with Merle. Both of your brothers crossed their arms and glared, filling the doorway as the spokesman blew you a kiss and jerked his head at the others to go. No spoke again until they were out of sight.

Merle slammed the door and whirled, eyes wild. "Ya aight, lil brother? They ain't hurt ya none, did they?"

"M'fine," Daryl muttered. "Grabbed me just outside. Was on my way in. Merle, what the fuck ya into?"

"Yeah, I wanna know that too," you agreed, giving Daryl a quick once over as well. He rolled his eyes at you and you stuck your tongue out before looking expectantly at Merle.

He glared at you both. "Nothin' ya need to go stickin' ya noses into. Ace, when I tell ya to fuckin' stay put, ya stay put, hear me? Those ain't the kinda people ya wanna attract attention from, sis."

"Then maybe you shouldn't be hanging around them either!" you fired back, anger warring with worry at Merle's evasions. "Seriously, the Vatos are-"

"Are my ticket outta this hellhole, an' yours too, through me. Don't ya worry about it. Go get our room cleaned up 'fore Will gets back."

"Merle-" you pressed, and he glared at you.

"Do as I say, Ace! Damn it!"

"Fine," you muttered, flinching back when he yelled. "Don't need to be a dick about it."

Merle's face softened and he scrubbed a hand over his eyes as Daryl's fingers brushed yours. "Sorry, sis. Ain't gonna be a good night, an' I don't like 'em showin' up here. Imma- Imma have to move out faster'n I'd planned, you two. Just so ya know, I may not be able to bring ya with me right away. Ya gonna have to deal with Will on ya own. You'll have to look out for each other."

Daryl scoffed, his hand gripping yours now. "Think we don't do that already? We been watchin' out for each other every time ya ass gets tossed in juvie."

"It'll be different, if I leave," Merle warned. "Take care of ya sister, ya hear me?"

"Merle?" you whispered, fear rushing in at the finality of his tone. "You doin' something stupid tonight like getting yourself killed?"

He flashed you a cocky grin. "Naw. Just makin' sure ya ready, in case. Gotta stay hard, baby sis. Be prepared. Watch ya backs."

You bit at your lip and clutched Daryl's hand as Merle pulled on a battered leather vest and headed toward the door. You had a sinking feeling he wasn't coming back, and you were scared.

"Merle."

He turned in the doorway and lifted an eyebrow. "What?"

"Be careful?" you whispered. "Love you, you idiot."

"I'm always careful. Don't get sentimental now."

 

 

The next morning you swore up and down that your ankle was fine and you could go do something, like hunt or look for water. You were informed by a mutiny of all hands that you would take it easy for one more day.

"Maybe sleep, damn it," Carol muttered, giving you a look that said she knew you'd been up all night staring out the window in the kitchen with Mika's paper and pencil on the table in front of you.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," you shot back pleasantly. Ok, if that look she shot you was any indication, it was more bitchy than pleasant. Oh well, you were tired of being cooped up and treated like an invalid. You wanted to hit the road, find Terminus, and get back to looking for your family.

Tears sprang up and dripped onto the paper now propped on your knees. You muttered a curse and swiped at them, annoyed with yourself for messing up the only paper you had. Maybe you couldn't bring yourself to draw on it yet, but goddamn it you wanted the option. Supplies were limited, and there was no need to waste them because you couldn't control your emotions.

All you did was streak the tears and rip the page in one place. You stared at the damp spots, mind swirling with your brothers and your best friend and painting in the sunlight while Shane watched you- in Atlanta, in your apartment, in the prison. Somehow Shane had twinned himself up into the art that had always been your escape, and his eyes when he looked at your work warred with Merle's satisfied smirk when he handed you your first sketchbook and Daryl's grumbled bitching about keeping your shit on your side of the room as your vision blurred with more tears. Grief threatened to swamp you until you thought you might explode with it; with memories of them tied up in your need to create and bring beauty into the world. Rather than let it out, you ground your teeth together with a snarl and set pencil to paper.

You couldn't handle facing it, so you'd use it and shape it instead, and maybe then you could control it.

 

 

It was quiet when the art finally let you go. Too damn quiet, since there were supposed to be three children in the house with you, including a baby. Purged and spent, you tossed down the pencil and stretched upward with a groan before the silence hit you and your heart started to pound.

Shit. What a mother you were. Getting so lost in a drawing you didn't know where any of the kids in your charge were, including Shane's baby.

Drawing clutched in your hand out of habit, you searched the house for them frantically but silently. There was no sign of them inside, and you snatched up the rifle, mind racing with everything that could have gone wrong as you flung open the door and saw-

"Oh my god," you whispered, horrified. The gun fell from your hands, and you stared at the sight before you, as frozen as Carol and Tyreese, holding the water pail between them.

"Don't worry. She'll come back," Lizzy said, voice cheerful and bright in the horrified silence. Blood dripped from the knife she held and coated her hands to the elbows, and she stood in the wet grass at her sister's side and smiled at all three of you. "I didn't hurt her brain."

On a blanket, where you could see blood beginning to seep onto the edge and creep slowly toward her like it was trying to take her too, Judith started to wail.

Chapter Text

After torching the cabin, they wandered for a couple days. Daryl seemed better somehow, after his drunken meltdown. Like maybe letting all those emotions out had done him some good. Beth bounced back from her first hangover pretty quickly, all things considered, and seemed as cheerful and optimistic as ever. And Shane- well, somehow Shane kept on keeping on.

He put one foot in front of the other, listened with half an ear as Daryl taught Beth about the crossbow and tracking, and tried not to think too hard about anything in particular. He washed Ace's shirt out, in a stream they found, and puked for awhile like he was the hungover one when the water turned red and murky. That night on watch, he pulled the bullet from his pocket and actually loaded it in the chamber.

He didn't pull the trigger. He put the flannel on instead, woke Dixon up by nudging him with his foot, and slept for the first time in more hours than he wanted to think about.

If he dreamed, it was of her, and he sure as hell wasn't going to remember it.

Now Daryl had Beth leading the way on the trail of something- probably a walker, if Shane had any tracking skills whatsoever- and they were talking quietly. Shane trailed them, lost as usual in his own thoughts, but Beth's whispered "it has a gun" sure got his attention. So did her pained cry when she hit the bear trap in the clearing and went down.

He pulled his knife and darted forward at the same time Dixon did, and he snorted when the girl fired a bolt through the thing's jaw. "Close," he told Beth dryly.

Daryl took down the walker while Shane took a look at her ankle. "Think it's just twisted."

"Aight," Daryl grunted. "Shot wasn't half-bad."

"I missed his brain," Beth disagreed, grimacing as Shane manipulated her ankle.

Daryl heaved a bolt back into place. "Hit ya target. Better'n Ace did, first time she shot. Missed the whole thing, broke the bolt, and-" he cut off abruptly.

"And what?" Beth asked, eyes wide and innocent.

Shane snorted. "And probably got beat by their bastard father. Am I right?"

"Mmhhmm," Daryl said softly. "Hit Will's truck. His fault, for puttin' the targets facin' that way. He don't see it like that, though. Beat her for a bit, refused to teach her anymore. We was seven or so, I think. Merle was in juvie at the time."

Shane nodded, his heart clenching, and pulled Beth to her feet. "We need to keep moving. Find a place to let Beth get off the ankle."

 

 

They found a funeral home. Daryl piggy-backed Beth inside and Shane cleared the place alone and tried not to think about clearing houses with Rick at his back.

Like that time they’d been on a missing kid call, and they’d gone to question the dad. It was almost guaranteed to be family, see, and Shane hated it but Rick hated it worse. They’d both been silent when they pulled up to the house and heard the kid screaming bloody murder.

They’d saved the kid- who was screaming “I wanna go home” at the dad he saw once a year and didn’t fucking remember, poor little dude- and arrested the dad. The little boy’s mom had called them heroes, and it’d been a good day.

Funny, Shane had saved that kid but he couldn’t save his own.

"It's so clean," Beth said when he gestured her and Dixon into the front room, looking at the swept floors.

"Someone's been tendin' to it. May still be around," Daryl agreed. He shoot Shane a significant look that had Beth glancing between them in confusion.

Shane nodded without saying a word and headed downstairs.

 

 

In the embalming room, Shane barely spared a glance at the walkers stretched out on shiny metal tables. Someone had dressed them neatly and cleaned them up, which Ace would have had a comment on, but Shane didn't give a shit. They were dead; that's all Shane cared about.

He kept clearing while Daryl wrapped Beth's ankle and they argued about the walkers. Shane tuned out the bickering like he seemed doomed to tune out Ace’s brothers while on the road and focused on looking the place over, because Beth and Daryl had been right. This place was too well tended. Someone was living here and maintaining the place, and they wouldn't be far away if they were still alive.

Or, more likely, there was a walking corpse waiting around a corner they just hadn’t gotten to yet.

 

 

Back upstairs, they found the kitchen and scored big.

"Peanut butter and jelly, diet soda, and pig's feet. That's a white trash brunch right there," Daryl said, tossing Beth a slight smirk as they scanned the filled shelves.

"This is somebody's stash," Shane observed. "Ain't any dust on it. "

"Means they just put it in. Could still be alive," Daryl said slowly. "Aight, we'll take some of it and leave the rest."

Shane wandered to the window and peered out across the graveyard toward the trees. If the someone was still alive, where the fuck were they? And how many someones were they talking here?

"I knew it," Beth said, the smile in her voice audible even without looking her way. "It's like I said. There are still good people. Oh, gross!"

Shane glanced back at the last bit to see Daryl scooping jelly straight from the jar with his fingers and grinning at Beth, his eyes dancing. Daryl glanced over at Shane at the right moment and laughing blue eyes met his, and-

Shane turned on his heel and strode out the door. "I'm gonna check the perimeter."

 

 

Beth played the piano softly by candlelight, singing under her breath as she did. Shane had stretched out over the chairs in the parlor, gathered and waiting for mourners that would never come.

Funerals these days were a quick hole dug and a body rolled in, maybe a marker if you were lucky. It wasn't family and friends crying and talking about their lost loved ones, dressed in fancy clothes and gathered around a coffin.

Hell, Shane thought viciously, reaching into his pocket and fingering the bullet. Sometimes, you didn't get even that much. Sometimes, the ones you loved just got fucking eaten by the dead, until there was nothing left of them but a puddle of goop unrecognizable as human and a blood-soaked flannel shirt.

Beth stopped playing abruptly and Shane looked up to see Daryl hopping into the coffin and stretching out. He snorted and closed his eyes again, not caring where Dixon chose to lay his head.

And maybe not willing to think about Dixons and coffins anymore right then.

"Place is nailed up tight. Only way in is through the front door," Daryl said. "This is the comfiest bed I've had in years."

"Really?" Beth's voice sounded mildly disgusted.

"I ain't kidding. Why don't you go ahead and play some more. Keep singin'?" Daryl asked, sounding amost shy.

"I thought my singin' annoyed you," Beth countered.

Daryl scoffed. "Well. Ain't no jukebox, so…" he trailed off and Beth laughed softly.

Quiet music filled the air again and Shane opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling. Maybe the cracks in the unfamiliar plaster would banish the image of Ace's living room, her voice lifting with some sappy love song and the smell of paint and charcoal filling the air as she worked. Maybe the sight of the chair backs he'd pulled together for a bed would clear away how her couch cushions felt against his back, or the pattern of the throw she'd started keeping tossed haphazardly over the couch for him to use.

Maybe the flickering candlelight would erase soft morning sun hitting his eyelids, her curled in a chair with a sketchpad on her lap and a pencil moving in her hands, earbuds on and lips silently mouthing the lyrics. Maybe the lingering taste of baked beans and warm soda would drive away her teasing him about gold dust coffee and him yelling at her about fruity yogurt looking shampoo in her shower.

He was still thinking of maybes when Beth blew out the candles and curled up on the floor nearby, a pillow from one of the other coffins beneath her head.

Shane clenched the bullet in his fist and promised Ace he'd see her soon.

 

 

"I'm gonna leave a thank you note," Beth declared the next night.

Shane glanced over at her, wondering what the fuck good that would do. Whoever had been holed up here hadn't come back all that day, which he considered a good thing what with the current state of the world and all. Even better had been an absence of walkers.

Only time they'd been disturbed was the stray dog that morning.

Daryl glanced over Shane's way and he lifted one shoulder in a shrug, choking down another bite of canned chili sauce rather than have either of them try to draw him into the conversation. From the corner of his eye, he watched Daryl watch Beth and wondered what the hell they were going to do next.

Beth bent back over her notepad, already writing, when Daryl finally asked. "Why?"

"For when they come back," Beth answered, like it was the most obvious thing in the universe. Like there was a chance they would come back, and Shane's mood turned like mercury. He shoved the can away and rose, heading for the door, before he said something he'd regret.

Why the hell should some random jackass who dressed walkers for funerals get to come back, no matter how beautiful Beth found it that someone cared, when his Slugger and his baby girl didn't?

Neither Daryl or Beth said anything as he left the room, but he heard Daryl's sigh. He didn't fucking care. Dixon could kiss his goddamn ass for all he cared.

Shane leaned against the wall, tuning out their voices as Beth and Daryl started talking again, and closed his eyes. His fingers wrapped around the bullet in his pocket and he didn't remember reaching for it.

Judith was a baby. A fucking infant. She hadn’t even gotten a chance to live and she had it ripped from her. Had she been scared? Had she cried?

Jesus fucking Christ, of course she had. All that terror and pain in her short, tiny, beautiful life- it was almost enough to make Shane wish she’d never been born, if only so she never had to suffer.

Why didn’t she get to come back? Why didn’t Shane get to rescue her, be the hero for his own child?

Because he was never the hero for the ones he loved, he thought savagely. He never saved the ones that mattered. Like Judy. Like Rick and Carl. Like Ace.

Ace had put real beauty in the world. Not Beth’s fake ‘caring for the dead’ ‘find something beautiful in this hellscape’ beauty. Who gave a shit? They were dead.

Ace had created. She'd made magic out of a blank, bare surface and a can of spray paint, or charcoal, or pastels, or chalk, or whatever the hell she put her hands on that would leave a line where she told it to.

Fuck, Ace had been real beauty in the world. She could make anyone smile and feel better after a moment of her time, and she had-

He jerked like he’d been gut punched. She had.

The cans rattled at the door and he shoved the bullet back in his pocket, pulling his gun as Dixon came from the kitchen.

"Just the dog," Daryl offered, gesturing with the jar of peanut butter and pretending not to notice the tear tracks Shane could feel on his face. "Heard it bark."

He jerked a shoulder. "Better be safe anyway."

“Yeah, fine."

Shane waited a couple paces back, gun loose in his hand, as Daryl yanked open the door. "Fuck!"

 

 

"Hey, what can I- Officer." The cheerful greeting fell flat when she looked at him and Shane's shoulders hunched.

Yeah, ok, he'd earned that- and the tongue lashing he'd gotten last time he was here. In his defense, he hadn't been trying to insult her, but there was no way she'd ever believe that. Not that he’d blame her for it. But still, he didn't like the way those blue eyes had cooled when they met his, or the way her tone shifted abruptly.

He didn't know why he was back. Hell, he hadn't intended to come back. Certainly not on a Thursday night, even if he was off tomorrow. He'd just waved goodbye to Rick outside the station and thought- yeah. He'd go to Atlanta. If the blue-haired bartender was there, he'd apologize. If not, he'd get a drink, maybe grab a room up there and hit the stores the next day. He needed some shit that was a little harder to come by in King County, like a suit for that wedding next month and a gift for his mother for her birthday. He never knew what to get her, but he knew he wouldn't find it in King County.

So here he was, and here the bartender was, and he bit his lip and gave her a hopeful half-smile. "Guess you remember me, huh? Listen, I want to apologize. Don't know what the hell I was thinking. You were clearly busy, and- well, I swear I'm not usually an asshole. Not right away, anyway."

Her whole face softened as she shifted, her eyes staring to dance. "You were a dickhead. But you were hardly the first and you won't be the last. Water, bridges. What can I get you? Draft?"

"Damn. You forgive easy," he said, surprised and pleased.

She laughed, and he found himself smiling at the sound. "Not always, but in this case, why hold a grudge? It was a rough night; you hit a nerve. Not entirely your fault- though stump the bartender is a shit game to play."

"Ah," he said, tapping one finger on the bar as he leaned toward her. "The question is, did I succeed though?"

She laughed again, clear and delighted. "Wouldn't you like to know? Come on, what can I get you? And don't say that Lonely Island bullshit."

"Jack and Coke," he answered, sitting back in his chair. "If that's alright with you, that is. Or you can just give me something and tell me to like it again. Worked pretty good last time."

"Oh God." She paused, hands stilling for a moment as her eyes went wide. "God, I did do that, didn't I? Jesus. In my defense, it was a bad night."

"Well, in my defense- actually, no, I have no defense. Shane Walsh," he introduced himself, accepting the drink from her with a smile and an extended hand. "So you don't have to just call me 'dickhead'."

She grinned and shook his hand. "I know your name. What if I like calling you dickhead? YN Dixon, but just call me Ace. Everyone does."

"I manage to introduce myself last time before I made a fool of myself? Damn, I don't remember that," he said, surprised. "YN. Pretty name."

She scoffed, rolling her eyes and leaning on hip against the counter. She scanned the bar as they talked, checking on her people and making a face at the waitress on the floor. "Nice line. No one uses it; if you call me that I might not even know who you're talking to. You left me a note, remember? Along with way too high of a tip."

Shane sipped the Jack and Coke and shook his head. "Naw, it wasn't. Ace it is then. How'd you get the nickname?"

She rolled her eyes and made a vaguely rude gesture in the direction of the kitchen as someone in the back called her name insistently. "I'll be right there! Jesus, it's fuckin' dead here and they act like we're swamped. It's a long story. Childhood nickname. Want anything to eat before I go back there and see what all the screaming is about?"

"The nachos were good, first time I was here. Could handle a plate," he decided, already determined to get her to tell him that long story.

"Coming right up," she said with another easy smile, and shoved a strand of blue hair behind her ear as she turned to the kitchen.

 

"Beth!" Shane yelled, firing off a shot as Daryl tried to use his back to slam the door closed.

She came skidding into the hallway, Daryl's crossbow in her hands, and Daryl gestured for it. She tossed it and he met Shane's eyes, letting out a stressed breath and bracing himself.

"Beth, get back. Go! Get your shit and pry open a window," Shane ordered, nodding to Daryl.

Daryl sprang away from the door and Shane took another shot, wondering how many bullets were left in his damn magazine. It couldn't have been many. Walkers boiled in after them, and Daryl turned and fired a bolt over his shoulder as he passed Shane.

"I'm not leaving you two!"

"Get out to the road! We'll meet ya up there!" Daryl yelled as Shane used the butt of his gun to smash in a walker's head that got too damn close for comfort. "Run, Beth!"

Daryl grabbed him by the back of the shirt and pulled him out of the way of a dead bastard's snapping teeth. "Down?"

"Yeah, whatever," Shane agreed, and they lead the walkers on.

 

 

It was a big enough herd Shane got worried. He saved Daryl from a bite at the last second, and between them they got a break and made it out through the window Beth had pried open.

Problem being, she wasn't there.

Her gear was, bag spilling out on the road, Daryl's cash for kindling and a couple of cans laying on the pavement. Daryl stabbed at a dead fuck who came out of nowhere while Shane cast a terrified look around, hoping she was nearby and just had to drop the bag to handle a walker or something.

Tires squealing had Shane's head whipping to the road, feet already in motion, as a car with the white cross on the back windshield sped off into the night.

"Beth! Beth!" Daryl yelled, but Shane saved his breath for the run.

Chapter Text

They ran until they couldn't run. Then they walked.

Neither of them spoke as the sun rose and they followed the road, trying to catch up to a car both of them knew was gone. Trying to catch a girl both of them knew was gone.

Shane shut his mind down and put one foot in front of the other, until they came to the crossroads and Daryl-

Well, Daryl collapsed.

Shane scanned the road, empty of all signs, and collapsed beside him. They still didn't say a word.

 

 

There were six of them. Shane sat beside Daryl and counted feet as they slowly made a ring around him and Dixon. Twelve feet, boots and frayed denim and mud and blood stains. Weapons in hands, guns and a compound bow. Weapons were clean enough, even if the people weren't.

He should probably care about being surrounded, right? But Dixon obviously didn't and Shane found himself thinking how maybe he could be spared that bullet in his pocket if these pricks just did what they wanted, and Daryl wasn't moving an inch.

Shane had a feeling Dixon had come to the same conclusion he had. They couldn't do it without Beth. What was the point in still moving, still surviving, when everyone they tried to take care of just died?

"You're gonna miss me so bad when I'm gone, Daryl Dixon." Beth had said it drunkenly to Daryl, sitting on the porch in the dark, before they'd burned the shack. She'd said he'd be the last man standing, and hell. Shane agreed with her.

Cause if these assholes didn't kill them both, Shane would take Jenner's opt out. He couldn't do it anymore. He missed his baby, and his brother and his nephew, and God help him he missed his Ace too damn much to keep trudging through shit and loss and death for no reason. Not even for her brother.

"Well, lookit here."

Shane didn't move when the voice spoke, but when he reached for the bow and Daryl decked him, Shane exploded into motion as well. He had his gun up and trained on one fucker, right between the eyes, and his back to Daryl's.

"Dammit, hold up!" the leader called, and the other four- Shane's four, thanks for those odds, Dixon- paused.

"I'm claiming the vest. I like them wings," the one with bow said, smirk on his lips as he met Shane's eyes.

"Hold up." The head asshole started laughing, and Shane shifted when Daryl did. He kept Dixon at his back and his eyes on his target, but they were outnumbered and Shane knew they couldn't take them all down, if things turned.

"A bow man," head asshole said. "I respect that. See, a man with a rifle, he could have been some kind of photographer or soccer coach back in the day. But a bowman's a bowman, through and through. And your friend back there. He might not be a bowman, but we won't hold that against him. Way he's standing, grip on that gun. He ain't twitched once and was on your back like a burr on a hog. Professional, I tell you. Thinkin' military. What have you got there, 150 pound draw weight?"

Shane's teeth ground together. He didn't like this asshole, and he'd stake a fair claim Daryl didn't either when he didn't respond to the other man's question. The others in the group were rough, wild, and Shane's cops eyes pegged them as petty crooks and dregs of society types. Like Merle and like Daryl himself, but missing what made those Dixon boys alright under it.

Missing something like Ace, he thought before he could stop it.

"I'll be donkey-licked if that don't fire at least three hundred feet per second," head asshole continued. "I've been lookin' for a weapon like that. Course, I'd want one with a bit more ammo and uh, minus the oblongata stains."

So would Shane, considering he figured he had about five rounds left in his Glock and he knew Daryl had three bolts for that damn bow. And this guy, the head guy- he spoke with authority and the jerks he had in his sight listened, even the one who wanted Daryl's vest. Shane pegged him for a gang leader of some sort, back in the day, but not like the Vatos. Motorcycle gang, he decided without any real evidence.

The dick who wanted Daryl's vest laughed, and it was mean. Something about it set Shane's back up and he almost switched to aiming at that guy. But Shane could see him clearly without taking his eyes off his target, and the asshole held the bow in a way that suggested he was more thunder than lightening, whereas Shane's target never wavered and never broke eye contact. Compound bow asshole was a first class poser and the least threat of all of them.

Shane's opinion was only confirmed when the asshole opened his mouth. "Get yourself in some trouble, partner?"

Head asshole ignored the bow prick too, which Shane might have found amusing if it weren't for the gun in his face and the other one trained on his head.

"You pull that trigger, these boys are gonna drop you and your friend several times over. Oh, you'll take me and I have no doubt military man there will drop Tony like he's a hot potato, but the end result will be the same. That really what you want?"

Daryl didn't say anything and frankly Shane was just following his lead, because going down and taking one of these pricks with him sounded like a decent idea all things considered. Head asshole sighed.

"Come on, fellas, suicide is stupid. Why hurt yourself when you can hurt other people?" There was a pause, and his tone changed when he continued. "Name's Joe."

Shane felt Daryl drop the crossbow and he did the same, lowering his gun but keeping it in his hand.

"Daryl. Shane."

Guess Dixon had decided they weren't going down in a blaze of glory after all. Shane shot a glance his way as the assholes all lowered their weapons and started walking again. Daryl lifted one shoulder in a shrug and jerked his chin.

Shane stuffed his gun back in his holster, reached into his pocket and touched the bullet, and put one foot in front of the other.

 

 

A walker rattling the cans had him starting upright, hand on his knife.

"I got it." One of the assholes- Shane hadn't bothered to learn their names and had no intentions of doing so- used a bayonette on his rifle to take out the dead guy as camp started to stir.

Shane saw Dixon was gone about two seconds before someone else made the observation about the 'Robin Hood cat' lighting out. Eyes in camp turned to him and he ignored them all.

"Left his shit and his girlfriend here. Probably just went out to drop a morning deuce," the poser with the compound bow said, staring at Shane to see if the 'girlfriend' comment would get a rise from him.

Shane closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep.

 

 

Daryl and Shane hung back. Silence reigned, but Shane glanced at the set of Daryl's jaw and knew something was up.

"What are we doin', man?" he finally asked, voice low and rusty. "Should be looking for Beth."

Daryl flinched. "Beth's gone. Stick with these assholes, for a bit. Joe's aight. Got some rules'n shit , keep 'em in line."

"Like what?" Shane scanned the trees, on the lookout for walkers, as Joe glanced back toward them.

"Got this- this stupid system. Gotta say shit's 'claimed' and when they claim it, it's theirs. And they punish people somehow."

Shane sensed a story there and almost asked, but he had a feeling their time to talk was about to be limited. "Punk ass with the bow's gonna be a problem."

"Yeah, no shit," Daryl muttered. "We'll stick with 'em for a bit. Branch off when we feel like it. Less ya gonna use that damn bullet ya keep holdin'."

Shane slid his hand from his pocket. "Thinking about it."

"Well, don't. Nobody can survive alone out here. Need ya help, asshole, and my sister loved ya. So I'll keep ya ass alive, for her."

Shane shot a look at Daryl's profile, surprise flickering through him. "What are you gonna do, take my gun?"

"If I gotta. Shut up, Joe's comin'," Daryl muttered, and hitched the crossbow on his shoulder.

Shane went back to scanning the trees, barely sparing Joe a glance as he dropped back to join them.

"Boys ok back here?" Joe asked, all affable.

Daryl grunted. Shane said nothing.

"Your friend's a tough nut to crack, Daryl. I get it. Hard world out here. Lost someone, didn't you? My apologies. So what's the plan, Daryl?"

"Whatcha mean?" Dixon asked.

Shane was wondering why the fuck they were following these railroad tracks, but he didn't feel like asking. And hell, it was as good an idea as any.

"Well, you're with us now, but you ain't soon, right? So what's the plan?" Joe pressed.

Daryl glanced at Shane. "Just lookin' for the right place is all."

"We ain't good enough for you, huh?" Joe smoked a cigarette and Shane tried not to think about Ace stubbing one out on a whiskey label wall, laughing with her friends.

"Some of ya ain't exactly friendly."

Joe chuckled. "You're not so friendly yourself. Shane even less so."

Shane flipped him off. Joe laughed harder. Shane went back to staring at the tracks at his feet.

"You need a group. Everyone does."

Shane and Daryl snorted at the same time. "Maybe we don't," Daryl countered.

"Yes, you do. You know that. Everyone does. People don't gotta be friendly. They don't gotta be nice. You just gotta follow the rules."

Up ahead, the assholes took down a walker, three of them working together with the easy rhythm of those who'd done this shit before. Shane thought about working with Rick, with Carl, with Daryl and Ace and even Merle, and his fingers brushed the bullet in his pocket again.

"You claim. If you steal, you keel. I know it sounds funny, but nobody's laughing when things go missing. And you don't lie. 'Cause that's a slippery slope indeed," Joe said, that friendly, fatherly-leader thing firmly in place.

Shane almost asked the question, but Daryl beat him to it. "What happens if ya break 'em?"

"Oh, you catch a beatin'. The severity of which depends on the offense and the general attitude of the day."

That one got Shane to snort out a half-laugh, 'cause well- the general attitude of the day was shit, and always would be.

 

 

"Give it here."

Shane opened one eye. Len- compound bow asshole- stood over Daryl, eyes pissed and body language spoiling for a fight. Shane sat up and glanced at Dixon, waiting for his cue. He was just following Ace's brother right now, and if Daryl wanted a fight, Shane was good with it.

Especially this prick.

"You step back," Daryl warned.

"My half was in the bag. Now it's gone. Ain't nobody around here interested in a half a damn cottontail but you!"

When Daryl climbed to his feet Shane did the same, confused as fuck but not unwilling to fight over half a rabbit. Shit, he'd fought over less before. Joe stepped toward them and Shane shifted so he could keep one eye on Joe as well as on Len.

"You're the only one still thinkin' about that crap!" Daryl yelled, his gestures big and pissed in a way Shane hadn't seen since the camp in Atlanta. Dixon's own temper was rising to match this asshole's and Shane shot a look around at the others as he wondered if this was the best idea after all.

No one else was moving, so he did a mental shrug. They'd deal with it if it came to a fight.

"Empty your bag."

"I said, step back," Daryl snarled when Len made a move in his gear's direction. Shane moved to block Joe when he started forward and the bastard smiled at him slightly.

"Oh, you don't wanna do that, son. Daryl, hand over the bag. We'll just take a look and see what's what," Joe said slowly and reasonably.

Shane waited until Daryl kicked the bag over to Joe before he stepped aside, Joe’s eyes on his amused and considering. He bent and grabbed the bag, sighing as he straightened back up. "Did you take his rabbit, Daryl? Just tell me the truth."

"I didn't take nothin'," Daryl snarled.

Joe nodded. "What have we got here? Come on."

He upended the trashbag Daryl had been hauling shit around in, and out fell Daryl’s small collection of possessions- including the front half of a rabbit. Shane's eyebrows went up and he shot a glance at Daryl. Daryl's hot eyes met Shane's and he tilted his head in question, but he knew by the look in the other man’s eyes Daryl had no idea how the rabbit had fucking gotten there.

"You put that there, didn't ya? When I went out to take a piss!" Daryl was up in Len's face and Shane started to back him up, but Joe reached out a hand and grabbed his arm.

Shane looked from the hand on his arm to Joe while Daryl and Len yelled at each other. Joe let go and lifted both hands in silent apology before stepping around him to get between Daryl and Len.

"He lied and he stole! Are we gonna teach this fool or what?" Len yelled.

"Whoa, whoa." Joe's voice was soothing and reasonable. "Now Daryl says he didn't take your half of the rabbit, so we got a little conundrum here. Either he's lying, which is an actionable offense, or…." Joe chuckled, turning to Len. "Or you didn't plant it on him like some lyin', pussy, punk-ass, cheatin' coward cop, did you? Cause while that wouldn't specifically be breaking the rules, it'd be disappointing."

Daryl looked at Shane and Shane lifted one shoulder slightly. He didn't have a fucking clue what was going on, and he honestly didn't care. He just wanted to know if he could punch anybody today, was all.

Something flickered in Len's eyes, in the way he swallowed, and Shane laughed. All eyes turned to him, including Joe's, and Shane nodded Len's direction. "He planted it."

"You lyin'-"

Shane was in Len's face in a blink, one hand on his throat and the other in a punch he pulled barely a breath from Len’s nose. Someone muttered a curse and in the back of his mind, Shane registered the click of a hammer bring pulled back on a gun. He figured that was Dixon’s problem to deal with and tightened his grip on the dick’s throat. Shane stared Len dead in the eyes and waited for him to make another move, holding onto his temper by a thread.

"He speaks!" Joe declared after a long whistle. "And he can move; holy shit. Now, look here, Shane. I'm going to need you to let go of him now."

"Or what?" Shane snarled.

"Or, we have a little more justice to mete out today than I thought. Step back now, son, and let's get us to the bottom of this, shall we?" Joe clapped him on the back and Shane knocked his hand away, letting go of Len and rounding on Joe.

Joe was as good a target as any, and would probably put up a better fight than the punk ass Len.

"Again, that's a bad idea, son," Joe warned softly as Shane’s fists clenched.

"Shane."

He glanced at Dixon and Daryl shook his head. Shane scoffed, but he walked away, leaning on a car just behind Daryl and crossing his arms. He jerked his head in Len's direction, where the guy was rubbing his throat and glaring between Shane and Dixon. "He did it. Look at him."

"Oh, I am. And we will get to the bottom of this. So, Len," Joe said companionably. "Did you?"

"I didn't." Len snapped.

"Good." Joe declared firmly. "Well…." He turned and looked at Daryl and Shane tensed. "Teach him a lesson, boys."

Joe's fist slammed into Len's face and Shane jerked in surprise. The others fell on Len like rabid dogs, the smacks and almost wet sounding impacts of fists on flesh filling the air alongside Len’s moans.

Joe smiled at Shane. "Join in if you like. You look like you're gonna go ape if you don't hit something. He's a lyin' sack of shit and I'm sick of it. Teach him all the way, boys!"

 

 

Daryl picked up a sheet and started to toss it over Len's body the next day. One bolt through the eye and dumped over the railing, after they'd beaten him to death- Shane almost felt a flicker of pity, cause that was a shit was to go.

Then Daryl dropped the sheet with a sneer and hitched up his crossbow, heading down the steps. "Come on, Walsh."

Shane put one foot in front of the other.

 

 

Joe and Daryl were talking some bullshit, passing a flask of White Lightening back and forth. Shane gave Daryl a look of mild concern, but Dixon was a grown ass man. He wanted to get lit and fight again, that was fine with Shane.

"Getting closer," Joe said, nodding to a sign.

Daryl and Shane looked at it and then each other. "You've seen this before?" Shane asked Joe.

"So, you do talk. I didn’t just dream that one up. Yeah, they're all over. Tell you what it is, though. It's a lie. Ain't no sanctuary for all. Ain't gonna welcome guys like you and me with open arms." Joe started back up the road as Shane scoffed.

"I'm nothing like you," he muttered. "What are you thinking, Dixon?"

Shane and Daryl fell into step, following the others along the tracks. "I don't know. Maybe. Hey, Joe," Daryl called.

Joe paused so they could catch up, and Daryl jerked his head back toward the sign. "So that where we're headed?"

"Oh, now you're asking?"

Shane snorted. "Yeah."

"We were in a house. Minding our own business and uh, this walking piece of fecal matter was hiding in the home. Strangled our collegue Lou and left him to turn. Lou came at all of us. He lit out, we tracked him to these tracks, one of those signs, and thus we've got a destination in mind. Now that you're talking, Shane, maybe you could tell us a little about yourself." Joe smiled at Shane, eyes hard, and Shane grunted.

"See his face? Guy that killed your guy, I mean."

Joe sighed. "So no to telling us about yourself. Just Tony. That's enough for a reckoning."

Tony, just ahead of them, paused and frowned at something. Shane looked too, and turned away again immediately from the Big Cat wrapper on the tracks.

"Claimed," Daryl declared.

Shane jerked, but Dixon stepped just off the tracks and snatched up a plant, pulling two wild strawberries free. He offered one to Shane as they kept walking and Joe watched them with that expression Shane didn't like.

 

 

"My man!" Shane cheered as Carl slid into home seconds ahead of the ball slamming into the goalie's glove.

"Safe!" the ump declared, and the stand went wild with screaming from Carl's Little League team parents.

Rick and Shane shot to their feet at the same time, pounding each other on the backs as they yelled wildly. Carl, out on the field, climbed to his feet and looked over with a massive grin. Shane tossed a thumbs up his way and collapsed with a laugh.

"Aw, man. That's your boy, brother," he told Rick.

His friend was watching the game, still smiling. "Yes, it is. Worth the hangover?"

"Hmm?" Shane lifted an eyebrow and Rick gave him a dry look from the corner of his eye.

"Whatever trouble you got into last night. She worth the hangover?"

Shane rolled his eyes, which Rick couldn't see behind his sunglasses- a necessity, thank you very much- and went back to watching the kids play. "I was just hanging with Ace, man."

"Really? Goin' back tonight?" Rick asked.

"Yes, really. Naw, I'm stayin' here tonight. Live music and she- get this, brother. That jackass she won't stop takin' back? He can't stand me, right. So whenever he's there and so am I, he goes home and gives her shit about hanging out with me. Wants to know if she's sleeping with me behind his back. Every damn time, she says." Shane scoffed, shaking his head as he leaned back against the step above him and watched some pint-sized asshole try to wing one by Carl's friend at bat.

Bat connected with a crack and Carl's friend took off, and Shane whistled.

"Are you sleeping with her?" Rick asked.

Shane glared at him. "The hell kinda man you take me for, brother?"

"Had to ask," Rick said placatingly. "You've just been spending a lot of time with her, is all. Texting a lot too."

"We're friends. That's all. Had fun, that one night, but she's all hung up on this bastard and I wasn't lookin' for anything serious anyway. Friends," he said firmly, tired of the same conversation when it came to Ace. Every damn time she came up, for months. Jesus. "So anyway, cause of all this, she asks me if I'll steer clear when he's playin'."

Rick whistled this time. "Shit. He give her that much trouble?"

"Yeah. She looked- man, I've never seen her embarrassed before. But she looked so miserable and like she'd rather chew her own foot off than ask- course I agreed to it. She's my friend. But she deserves better than that asshole, brother, let me tell you." Shane's lip curled in a sneer and he shoved a hand through his hair.

"Like you, maybe?" Rick muttered, and Shane shot him a look. But Rick had said it queitly enough Shane didn't know if he was supposed to have heard or not, and on the field the ref blew the whistle.

Carl's team had won, and Shane stood up to cheer and clap with Rick, letting the comment pass. Carl came running over after the coach's huddle, face bright and sweaty.

"Did you see me? Did you see me make the slide, Dad? Uncle Shane, did you see?" he yelled as Rick and Shane came down the bleachers to him. "Coach says I won the game!"

"We saw," Rick said, giving Carl a hug. Shane held up a hand for a high five as Rick continued. "But your team won the game, bud."

"Yeah, but because I made a that home run!" Carl said cheerfully, hand slapping into Shane's. "So I won it for them!"

"He's not wrong, brother," Shane said with a laugh. "Let him have his glory. And, my friend, as a reward- if your dad agrees- I happen to have in my possession a super size Big Cat bar, and I'm looking for someone to help me eat it."

"Yes! Dad, please?" Carl begged, grabbing Rick's hand as he groaned.

"Thanks, brother. Lori's gonna kill me. Yes, you can have it," Rick said reluctantly, and Shane grinned as Carl punched the air and took off for Shane's Jeep.

"Sorry, man. Tell Lor it's my fault."

"I will. It is your fault. Shit, I might send you home with him and go to your place," Rick threatened.

Shane just shrugged. "Don't drink all my beer."

"Why not? You're gonna drink all of mine tonight."

Shane didn't really have an argument for that, and Carl was waving the Big Cat at him excitedly anyway.

Chapter Text

"What the fuck, Carol?" you asked, eyes wide and heart pounding with adrenaline that wouldn't settle down. "What the fuck?"

In your arms, Judith squirmed. You were probably holding her too tightly, you thought with the tiny part of your brain not currently drowning in screaming lunacy. But you didn't loosen your grip.

She killed Mika. While you slept inside, Lizzy had killed her sister, stabbed her four times in the stomach and left her to bleed out, and was planning to do the same to Judith. So they'd turn. So that you would all see that the walkers were just like people.

"I'm with Ace. What the fuck indeed? Carol, she can't be around people," Tyreese said slowly.

Carol stood with her back to the two of you, staring out the window toward the blood-soaked blanket now covering Mika's body. "I know."

"So…" you trailed off and shook your head, unable to process what you were contemplating. "She's a child. But-"

"I know," Carol snapped, finally turning. Her face was hard and cold, and your heart broke worse for her.

She'd lost one daughter already, and now here she was losing two more, in the worst way possible.

"I'll do it," you offered quietly. "You're not the only one who can make hard decisions."

Tyreese rubbed a hand over his forehead. "You're talking about killing her. Like you killed Karen and David. Ace, did you help with that?"

You glanced between them in surprise. "You know?"

"Carol told me, while we were getting water. Figured I had a right to know," he said softly. "I understand. I don't approve, but, ah. I understand."

"I wasn't involved. Carol, I'll do it. I can't- I can't imagine-" you started, shifting Judy when she cried out and squirmed some more.

Carol shook her head and sighed. "No. No, I'll do it. It's my job. I said I'd look out for them. I promised their father."

You nodded as she turned and headed for the back of the house, where they'd locked Lizzy in one of the bedrooms. Carol's shoulders were stiff and her back straight, and you blocked out the sound of a voice in your head saying this was why you didn't have kids.

Because you couldn't keep them alive.

You pressed your face into Judith's hair and tried to be as calm as Carol.

 

 

Machinery beeped. Voices and movement trickled in from behind the curtain separating you from the rest of the emergency room, and you lay in the hospital bed in one of those dumbass open-backed gowns and tried not to think or feel. At least the pain had stopped.

And hell, you thought bitterly. Your problems were solved, right? You didn't have to figure out how to be a single teen mom, or have to worry about anyone getting hurt but you while you were dodging Will. Daryl could stop doing shit with the Vatos and Merle, and maybe not go wasting his life following Merle into crime because he had to take care of his dumbass sister who'd been too stupid to use a condom.

You hadn't wanted a baby anyway, right? So it was no big deal that you weren't going to have one anymore.

"Hey, sis," Daryl said softly, slipping back through the curtain.

You lifted one hand in a lazy wave and closed your eyes again. He looked too fucking sad, and you couldn't take it.

"Talked to a nurse. Said it was aight to bring ya somethin' to eat, so Merle's goin' to rustle up some food." He brushed the back of your hand with his fingertips and settled into the chair at your side.

You opened your eyes and smiled slightly. "Thanks. Sorry about this. Really."

"What the hell ya sorry for? Ya didn't do nothin'."

He sounded genuinely bewildered and you chuckled humorlessly. "Making a mess. Scaring you so bad you called Merle. Needing a ride to the hospital."

Killing the niece or nephew you already loved more than I did, you thought, but you shoved that aside and looked away from him, swallowing hard.

He snorted. "Shut up. Messes clean up. More worried about you. Nurse said they were waitin' on some test results, and I don't know what that means. What is there to test?"

The curtain opened and the doctor on duty walked in, nose in his clipboard. "So, Miss Dixon. You had a miscarriage."

Your teeth ground together and Daryl tensed. "No shit," you said snidely. "I figured that one out about the time I started bleeding from the vagina. Can I go home now?"

"You'll be discharged shortly." The doctor didn't bat an eye at your bitchiness, which shouldn't have been a surprise. He was an ER doctor after all. "We ran some tests. The end results are, you're going to be fine. Your body is discharging the fetus on its own, so no medical assistance is required. The bleeding will slow in the next few hours and be gone in a matter of days. That's the good news."

You frowned. "So what's the bad news?"

"Well, that's where things get difficult. I'm sorry to tell you this, but due to the traumatic nature of the miscarriage, sparked as it was by injury to the abdomen, you've suffered irreversable uterine damage. The tissue-"

"What do you mean damage?" you interrupted.

Daryl grabbed your hand when you groped for his, muttering something under his breath. "And what do ya mean, irreversible?"

The doctor lowered his clipboard and looked you in the eyes for the first time since he came in the room. "I'm sorry, Miss Dixon. But it's unlikely you will be able to carry any children to term."

 

 

"We're going to go check on Mika," Carol told Lizzy as she walked down the hallway with the little girl, hand in hand. "See if- if she's back yet."

Your eyes met Carol's as nausea rolled through you, and hers were carefully, painfully blank. You swallowed hard, carefully not looking at Lizzy as Carol lead her toward the door. If you looked too closely, you'd see a little girl who needed protecting, not the psychopath who'd killed her sister.

You couldn't afford to feel anything else, you decided, and tried to swtich your emotions off the way you had when Malcolm was being particularly difficult.

"I bet she's back. If she isn't, we just wait a little longer, right? Sometimes they take awhile to come back," Lizzy said brightly, just before the door banged shut.

You breathed deeply through your nose and went to the window. This was going to hurt Carol.

Thing was, you remembered her from the camp in Atlanta. You remembered her in the CDC, and on Hershel's farm before the barn opened. You remembered her from before the winter when she turned into a badass, and you knew what had given her that strength and the raw determination to do anything to protect your people.

It was what had gotten her through Ed, the same as you'd gotten through Malcolm, but it was brittle around the edges. Unlike you, she hadn't made the choice to leave Ed; he'd been killed. And so had Sophia.

Loss had made her hard, but it was fragile strength, the kind that could be cracked if it wasn’t taken care of. Killing Lizzy might just be enough to shatter it- shatter her- completely.

So you shoved everything you were feeling into a corner of your mind, watching as Carol lead Lizzy out of the yard and into the clearing beyond it. The two of them paused, Carol hanging back as Lizzy wandered ahead, looking at a cluster of flowers in front of her.

"They out there?" Tyreese said softly from behind you.

"Mhhmm."

"You don't have to watch, you know."

You sighed and shifted Judy on your shoulder. She'd fallen asleep while the debate raged over what to do about Lizzy, and she was dead weight in your arms that you still couldn't bring yourself to lay down. "Yes, I do."

Tyreese stood beside you as Carol's gun rose. Her face contorted in a grief so clear it speared through you and washed away all the walls you had built up, a damn cracking in your mind same as had in hers, and you have a strangled cry and spun away from the window. You leaned your forehead on Tyreese's massive shoulder, a shudder running through you as the single shot echoed outside.

 

 

"Sis?" Daryl said after the doctor left. "Ya- ya hear all that?"

You shrugged, not looking at him. "Heard enough. He's going to start the discharge paperwork; I'll be fine in a few days; and I can't have kids."

"I mean, he said-"

"I got it, Dar. It's fine," you snapped, leaning back and closing your eyes. "I'm tired."

"Yeah. Yeah, I bet." His hand was still wrapped around yours and he squeezed tightly. "Ya know, in history last week, Mr. Johnson was talkin' about the Trail of Tears, ya know. When they rounded up the Cherokee tribes to take 'em to the reservations?"

You cracked an eye open to shoot him a look. What the fuck did that have to do with anything? "Ok? And?"

Daryl shrugged one shoulder, staring off into space. "That story about the roses, right? Like the ones on the nurses' station. Been thinkin' about it."

"I have absolutely no idea what the hell you're talking about. I must have missed that class. Probably puking," you muttered.

He snorted. "Yeah, ya been doin' that a lot. Anyway, the children of the tribe, they was all dyin' and goin' missing along the way, and the mothers- they was sad and shit."

Well, duh, you thought snidely. Of course they were, if their children were dying. Where the fuck was he going with this?

Daryl gestured vaguely. "The elders got together and prayed for a sign or something, to lift the mothers' spirits and bring 'em hope. And the next morning, all along the trail where the mothers' tears fell, Cherokee roses bloomed."

You stared at him, still confused as hell and frankly, getting annoyed. "And?"

"And, I dunno. I'm thinkin', maybe them roses on the desk, me hearin' that story- maybe it's a sign."

"A sign of what?" you demanded.

He looked sad and uncomfortable. "A sign that- that the doc's wrong and you'll still have kids, I guess. That everything'll be ok."

"Shit, Darrie. Why the fuck do you think I care about some flower for mothers? I'm not a mom, and I'm not going to be a mom. Tests don’t lie, and the doctor sure was certain. I didn't want this baby to begin with. So what if I can't have others?" you snapped the words at him, harsh and cold, and he looked so sad you had to close your eyes.

You turned away, pulling your hand from his and wondering why you couldn't even muster up a tear of your own.

 

 

"Look alive, Dickhead," you called, slinging a glass down the bar with a flick of your wrist.

Shane didn't bother looking up from his phone, but he held up a hand and the glass smacked right into it. You laughed as he lifted it and took a drink while typing with the other hand. Jason snorted and shook his head.

"Ridiculous. Both of you. There's no one here, just walk it down the bar to him," Jason complained.

You flashed him a grin. "More fun that way. Even more fun if he misses."

"Yeah, it's fun 'till Ellie starts taking money from your check to pay for glasses, or that bar back she hired wants to do that too."

"Spoilsport." You winked at Jason and he rolled his eyes, but you put the Jack bottle away and ambled down the bar.

Jason was right, the place was dead. But it was early yet, and the only reason Shane was even there was because he'd been hanging at your place all day. You hopped up on the counter and leaned against the wall, one leg swinging.

"Talk to me. I'm bored," you whined, poking at Shane's shoulder to get his attention.

He batted your hand away and kept texting. "Shut up. Almost done."

"Who could possibly be more important than me?"

He sipped again and put his phone face down, rolling his eyes at you. "My date for Saturday, Slugger. Ok with you if I try to get laid?"

You sighed. "Well, I guess someone should."

"You two could just bone each other and solve everyone's problems," Jason put in as he headed into the kitchen. He ducked when you kicked out at him, winking at you while Shane snorted.

"Whatcha say, Slugger? We going another round?" he asked, flashing you a shit eating grin.

You rolled your eyes again. "Sure, baby. My place or yours?"

"The bathrooms are empty!" Jason yelled, and you heard the kitchen staff laughing.

"Would you just shut up?" you yelled back, but you grinned as well.

Shane snorted. "You know, if you'd-"

His phone started buzzing against the bar and he frowned at it, picking it up and frowning harder at the screen. "Shit. That's dispatch. I gotta take this, Ace."

You waved him off and he answered with a so-professional 'Officer Walsh' that you bit your lip and made a mocking face at him. He stuck his tongue out at you, but the laughter in his eyes turned serious seconds later.

"Of course. I'm in Atlanta right now, but I'm on my way. ETA two hours," he said briskly, glancing at his watch as he rose. "Yes, sir. Fast as I can."

He hung up and tossed money on the bar while you frowned at him. "What's wrong?"

"Gotta go, Slugger. Sorry. Little boy's gone missing and they're callin' everyone in."

Shane's face was grim and you leaned across the counter and caught his hand. The kid cases always hurt him, and you'd had a drunken, rambling Shane curled around you on your couch and in your bed more than once after they found a body instead of a child. "You ok?"

He shrugged, but kissed your cheek. "I'll be alright. Call you if I get a chance?"

"Please? Or text me when you get home, at least. Stay safe, Dickhead," you called.

He shoved the door open with his back and slid on shades as he sent you a strained smile. "You know I always do."

Yeah, that was a lie, you thought, chewing on your thumbnail as you stared at the closing door. Shit.

You picked up the Jack and Coke he’d barely touched and knocked it back yourself.

 

 

No one spoke as you prepared to leave. Tyreese had dug the graves the night before, and you'd fashioned a couple more stick crosses. Carol had stayed inside with Judith, unable to handle it.

You didn't blame her. Hell, you almost couldn't handle it yourself.

But you did.

You glanced at the other two, Carol's back to you as you strapped Judy into the backpack carrier you'd found in a closet. "Terminus?"

Tyreese nodded. Carol turned when you finished securing Judith and gave you a slight, strained smile.

"Terminus," she agreed.

One foot in front of the other, you thought as you closed the front door behind you. Get Judith safe.

Chapter Text

It was damn near dark when Tony whistled. Shane watched impassively as Joe walked over to see what he’d found while the rest of them scanned the clearing near the road. They’d been gaining on whoever had killed one of Joe’s boys over the last two days, and Shane had a feeling they were right on the ass of whoever it was.

Shane was more interested in this Terminus place, and so was Daryl. They’d held a couple low conversations out of the others’ earshot about their plans, and they’d pretty much decided. They’d stick with these assholes until their path and Shane and Daryl’s didn’t work anymore, or until they crossed a line Shane and Daryl couldn’t tolerate.

Things had been quiet since Len got beat to death. Everyone but Joe basically avoided the two of them, and Shane was cool with it. Daryl didn’t seem to give two flying shits either, so there was that.

Joe whistled and the group gathered around him. “Alright, boys, we got us some fresh sign! We’re gonna press on, real quiet like, and see if we can’t sneak up on ‘em. Let’s go.”

Daryl jerked his head and Shane nodded, and both of them hung back as the group got going. “Let ‘em get hot on the trail, then slip off. Don’t want no trouble.”

“For all Joe’s calm and reasonable and shit, he don’t seem like the type to take runnin’ well,” Shane agreed. “Sounds good. Wait for dark and strike out on our own.”

“Yeah. Gonna use that bullet in your pocket?” Daryl asked. “Cause imma need help still. Till we get to Terminus.”

Shane took his hand from his pocket and grunted. “Naw. Not gonna use it. Not till Terminus.”

Daryl nodded. “Aight then.”

 

 

"Today is a day of reckoning, sir! Restitution!"

Shane rolled his eyes hard. Joe's voice carried to where he and Daryl hung back, ready to disappear into the darkness. Something had caught Dixon's attention, and Shane scanned the night watching his back and wishing Joe would just shut up already.

"A balancing of the whole damn universe. Shit, and I was thinkin' of turning in for the night on New Year's Eve! Now who's gonna count down the ball dropper with me, huh? Ten Mississippi!"

"Are we leaving or what?" Shane hissed at Daryl, not wanting to hear Joe count down some asshole's death.

Daryl grabbed his arm. "Shane."

He turned, irritated, and caught a look at Dixon's face. Daryl seemed panicked, pale like he'd seen a damn ghost, and Shane-

Holy fucking shit. No way. There was no goddamn way.

"Joe!" Daryl snapped it while Shane was still trying to fucking process what he was seeing, interrupting Joe's countdown at eight.

Everyone's eyes- Joe's boys and those of the two he had a gunpoint- cut to Daryl and Shane as Shane's feet finally started to work and he followed Dixon into the middle of the ring of assholes they'd been planning to ditch.

Shane met Rick's eyes and saw his brother's flicker toward the broken-down truck, and Shane's blood ran cold as he glanced that way. Carl was inside, and one of Joe's assholes was looking at him with a knife in hand a predatory smile in place.

"Hold up," Daryl said softly.

"You're stopping me on eight, Daryl."

Shane pried his eyes away from Carl's terrified ones to focus on saving Rick and Michonne first, since they had guns to their heads and Joe had that coolly affable tone of voice he'd gotten right before he ordered Len beaten to death. Shane hadn't liked these bastards, but he had a feeling he was about to like them even less.

He and Daryl were outnumbered and out gunned here. What the fuck were they gonna do?

"Just hold up," Daryl repeated, edging closer. Shane held his ground, wondering how fast he could pull his gun and drop Joe.

Answer was pretty damn fast, but not fast enough to keep Rick and Michonne from taking bullets to the brain.

"This is the guy that killed Lou, so we got nothin' to talk about!"

Shane snorted, meeting Rick’s eyes. Killed in the john? Shit, Shane should have known. "Course he is."

"Shut up, Walsh," Daryl snapped, but Joe chuckled.

"Thing about nowadays is, we got nothin' but time. Say your piece, Daryl. Shane. Anything that gets our silent military man talking is enough to spark my interest.”

Shane said nothing, focused on Rick and on the barrel of the gun against his best friend's temple. When this was over- if he survived it- Shane knew he had a mental breakdown of epic proportions heading his way. Rick was alive. For the second time in far too short a time span, Shane had thought his best friend was dead only to have Rick prove him wrong. And he'd brought Carl back from the dead with him this time, and Shane-

Well, Shane couldn't dwell on it right now because they were in imminent danger of being dead for real, and he needed to deal with that before he freaked the fuck out entirely.

"These people," Daryl started, sounding like he had about as much idea what to do as Shane did, "you’re gonna let 'em go. These are good people."

"Now, I- I think Lou would disagree with you on that one." Joe's tone wasn't so friendly anymore, as he laid a hand dramatically on his chest. "I'll of course have to speak for him and all, cause your friend here strangled him in a bathroom."

"You want blood. I get it," Daryl said quietly. He dropped the crossbow to the ground at his feet. "Take it from me, man."

"Crazy bastard, thought I was the suicidal one," Shane muttered, shifting to get some space. The stalemate was about to break, and he needed to be ready.

"This man killed our friend. You say he's good people." Joe sounded so fucking disappointed. Shane tensed cause he had a feeling he knew where this was headed. "Now that- that is a lie. It's a lie."

"Fuck," Shane muttered. Two of them closed on Daryl and started swinging. Daryl shot Shane a wild look as he ducked one, but he took the next in the gut.

Shane wasn't sure what Dixon was trying to communicate, and it didn't matter much anyway, since the fat bastard pulled Carl from the truck. Shane's gun was in his hand and aimed before he thought.

"Don't think you want to pull that trigger, Shane," Joe warned. "You can still scrape out of this one. Far as I can tell, you haven't lied to me."

"It was me. It was just me," Rick's voice had that same tone he'd gotten when the farm fell and he declared that it wasn't a democracy in their group anymore, and Shane's nerves fell away into cool calm.

Then the asshole licked Carl's ear and chuckled, holding the knife to the kid's throat, and Shane's blood roared in his ears and filled his brain with hate and fury.

"See, that's right! That's not some damn lie! We can settle this. We're reasonable men. First, we're gonna beat Daryl to death. Then we'll have the girl. Then the boy. Then I'm gonna shoot you, and we'll be square." Joe laughed and the bastard tossed Carl to the ground.

Hell no.

"Rick!" It was the only warning Shane gave before he fired, popping a round into the bastard's shoulder as he started taking off his belt.

Shane wasn't trying to kill him. Not yet, anyway. He was going to bleed first.

The fat bastard fell backward and pain exploded in Shane's leg, but he didn't have time to think about that. He turned and dropped Tony with a headshot as he started to kick Daryl, but Shane missed the next shot entirely when his target dove into Dixon and bulled him into the side of the truck. The gun clicked when he squeezed the trigger again, so he tossed it aside and ran to Dixon’s rescue.

Joe ran his mouth some more behind him, but Daryl shook off his opponent and shoved him toward Shane. Shane's knee caught his chin as he fell, and Daryl's booted foot drove into the bastard's head.

With Dixon good now, Shane turned back and found Rick pulling a knife from Joe's guts, Michonne holding the fat asshole at gunpoint, and Carl looking fucking terrified, but not of the man who'd held him. Rick had blood all over him, and Shane's eyes widened.

Joe's throat had been ripped out.

"He's mine." Rick stalked toward the fat bastard, knife clenched in a bloody hand, and Shane watched in approval as Rick ripped him open, straight up the middle.

"Uncle Shane!"

Carl slammed into him and Shane staggered, almost going down before he caught the both. "Hey, kid. Hey," he whispered, holding onto a fistful of Carl's jacket. "Shit. Shit, Carl, I missed you."

Carl shoved back as Rick took the fat bastard to the ground and kept stabbing, wet sucking sounds punctuated by Rick's grunts of effort making Shane wince. Carl's eyes were wide and his face pale, and he when he tried to turn and look, Shane wouldn't let him.

 

 

Shane rubbed a hand over his face and tried to figure out just what the hell to do first. Michonne had taken the kid into the truck to get some rest, and the adrenaline was fading now, leaving sick fear churning in its wake.

But they were alive. Rick, Carl, and Michonne were alive, and he and Daryl had found them.

"What the fuck? What the actual fuck?" he whispered to himself.

"Yeah," Daryl muttered. "That about sums it up. Hey, took ya long enough to come give me a hand, asshole."

Shane snorted. "Figured you could handle two on one in a fistfight."

"Shit," Daryl said lightly. "Aight, let's get these bodies out of the way, strip 'em of gear, and then- do somethin' about that."

Shane followed Daryl's nod in Rick's direction and winced. His friend leaned against the hood of the truck, bloody to his elbows and fucking everywhere else, and Shane glanced at Joe's body again. "Ripped his throat out?"

"With his teeth," Daryl agreed. "Some badass shit. I wouldn't've thought of that."

"Carl," Shane said softly. "It was for Carl."

"Yeah." Daryl smacked him on the arm. "Come on, let's get busy. Shit to do."

"Yeah, yeah." He rolled his eyes and turned, taking a step toward Joe's body, and his leg promptly buckled. "Fuck!"

Daryl crouched as Shane yanked the leg of his pants up and groaned, staring at the bleeding gash with more annoyance than anything else.

"Dumbass, why didn't ya say somethin'?" Daryl shot at him, tossing the hair from his face and grabbing Shane's leg to take a closer look. "Looks like it's just a graze, but still. Gonna fuckin' bleed to death now instead of eatin' a bullet?"

"Fuck you, Dixon. I didn't realize," he growled back. "And you know what? I've about had it with your comments. I'm here, aren't I? Only fuckin' reason is cause you're her brother, and she'd be pissed at me if I checked out and left you alone. So just shut the fuck up about it, why don't you?"

Daryl scoffed, ripping part of a shirt off the nearest body and pressing down on Shane's leg. "How you fuckin' not know ya been shot? Seriously, you're a dumbass." He sighed. "Sorry. I'll leave it be. Just wanna do right by her, which means keepin' your idiotic ass alive."

"Why?" Shane muttered, eyes on Daryl's hands as he wrapped a strip around the makeshift bandage.

"Just in case we find her again. Or someone else ya care enough about to live for. Like Carl or Rick or-" Daryl didn't finish whatever he'd been about to say, sitting back instead and smirking at Shane. "She'd call ya Shanizzle over this one. Go get in the damn truck. I'll clean up and handle Rick."

 

 

Ace was working already when he got to the address she'd texted him, and bit his lip and glared at the sling on his arm. She was gonna be pissed that he hadn't said anything for two days.

Oh well, better face the music. Or in this case, the artist. He slid out of his Jeep and pulled his phone from his pocket, snapping a picture of her as she eyed the wall made vague gestures like she was already painting.

He loved it when she did that, and most of the time she didn't even know she was.

"Hey, Slugger," he called.

"You're late," she said without turning, leaning close to the wall and running her fingers over it lightly, like she was checking the surface for something.

He snorted. "Shit happens. Hey, I need you to not freak out, ok?"

As expected, that had her turning with a frown and her eyes narrowed. They shot wide as soon as she saw the sling, and she was at his side in four long steps. "Oh my God, Dickhead, what-"

"I'm fine, I swear," he cut her off, grabbing at her hand and squeezing it. Her fingers locked in his and she swallowed hard, tearing her eyes away from the sling and the visible bandage with obvious difficulty. "Rick did something stupid a couple days ago, and I had to bail his ass out of trouble. Took a knife to the shoulder, that's all."

"That's all?" she snapped, yanking her hand from his to plant them on her hips and glare. Her hair was a red so dark it was almost black, and it flashed in the sunlight and surrounded her with a hazy orange glow.

Shane figured it matched the fury in her eyes pretty well, and he smiled and shrugged his uninjured shoulder. "Yeah. Missed everything important, promise. Already went to the doctor and got my orders. It's just a flesh wound, Slugger."

She glared harder, but he saw the humor dancing in her eyes and gave her his most disarming smile. She held it a beat before she cracked, rolling her eyes and grabbing his hand again. "Fine, Monty Python. You sure you're ok? They do blood tests, too? If it was a knife, you could-"

"Have picked up something, I know. Yeah, they drew blood and took all kinds of samples and shit. I'll be off the desk in a week, sling off on Monday. I'm fine. Promise," he told her. "Unless you wanna play doctor.” He winked at her and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Any excuse to take your shirt off, huh Walsh? I'm thinking Mal wouldn't appreciate that too much. Not that he likes anything I do these days." She rolled her eyes and held up a hand, cutting him off before he could speak. "I know, I know, he's an asshole. It's not that bad, we just had a bit of a dust up this morning, is all."

"He not want you hanging with me?" Shane asked, irritated as usual when she talked about that asshole. She'd already headed back to her wall and the bag of paint, and Shane handed her the black can while she frowned at the wall with her head tilted.

"Don't worry about it. Tell me how you got yourself stabbed," she demanded, taking the can and making the first pass.

Shane smiled slightly, leaning beside her and knowing he had about five minutes before she was so absorbed she wouldn't know what he was saying or that he was even there. "Yeah. We were on a call, see, a drunk and disorderly outside a bar. The assholes were going at each other and Rick waded right in, and one of them clocked him on the jaw. Now, that's about the time I rolled my sleeves up and went in too, 'cause they were too close for me to risk a shot and nobody punches my best friend and gets away with it, right?"

"Right," she agreed absently, rising onto her toes.

Shane smirked and grabbed a white can, knowing she'd want it next. He tossed it up and caught it as he kept talking, handing it over before she asked and moments before he lost her to the piece completely.

 

 

Shane sat in the gloom Daryl had created by covering the windows of the truck, thinking about Rick's bloody face and hands and wondering why he wasn't out there helping his friend. Carl stirred in the backseat, his breathing hitching, and Shane's eyes cut to Michonne.

She offered him a small smile, her hand resting on Carl's shoulder where he lay with his head in her lap. Shane sighed, scrubbing a hand across his eyes. Yeah, that was why. Because Daryl had fucking bullied him into it, citing Carl and trauma and shit, and Shane had found himself agreeing and cursing damn Dixons and their persuasive abilities as he went.

"We should save it to drink," Rick's muffled voice came from outside.

"You can't see yourself. He can."

Thanks, Dixon, Shane thought, and once again made up his mind to go out there and check on his friend.

"I didn't know what they were," Daryl continued. "We didn't. We were with Beth. We got out together, the three of us. We were with her for awhile."

Shane froze. He didn't want to think about Beth, or about what had come before.

"Is she dead?" Rick asked.

Shane's heart clenched, thinking about a black car they chased all night; about Beth flipping off the burning shack and Daryl snorting and joining in. He thought about her writing a thank you note and himself being an asshole about it, and about her yelling at him and Daryl when they’d started throwing punches.

"She's just gone. My sis- Ace is- Ace is dead. We're pretty sure. Shane's convinced anyway, and well... most time I am too."

Shane's hand locked into a fist against the back of the bench seat, and he reached automatically for the bullet in his pocket. Gentle fingers, cool and firm, closed over his fist and his eyes shot open.

"Fuck. How- how do you know?" Rick asked, voice broken.

"Found her shirt. Soaked in blood. With walkers, eatin'- eatin' what used to be humans. Couldn't tell who, there wasn't enough left," Daryl said softly.

Shane met Michonne's horrified, sympathy-filled look, lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and closed his eyes again. Daryl's voice droned on outside, but Shane was done. He was so done.

Michonne's hand stayed on his when his shoulders started to shake and the tears slid down his face.

Chapter Text

"I don't like it, brother."

Rick grunted, his eyes on the buildings beyond the chainlink fence. There'd been hardly any movement since they'd made it to Terminus a few hours ago, spreading out among the trees to scope the place out. "That's why we're watching. That's why we buried the bag."

"Yeah, well. I still don't like it," Shane muttered. He scanned the buildings with the scope from one of Joe's rifles. "Don't know why, but it feels wrong."

"Yeah. But if it's not…" Rick trailed off and sighed. "Shane."

"No."

"Shane-"

"I said no, Rick," he snapped. "We're not talkin' about it. About her. Either of them."

"I think you need to," Rick disagreed calmly.

Shane pulled the scope from his eye and glared at his best friend. "Why? They're dead, Rick. All I've got left of- of my Slugger is this damn shirt, and Judy-" He scoffed, shaking his head and shoving a hand through his hair. "I just- I don't get it, man. How the hell do you keep comin' back? Don't- I'm glad. I'm- I'm so glad to see you, brother."

"But it's the second time I've come back from the dead and you want to know why I am but she's not. Either of them," Rick said quietly.

Shane sighed and dashed tears from his eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, that. I miss the shit out of her, Rick. Out of them both."

"It's- you'll never get over it. Not really," Rick said, setting one hand on Shane's shoulder and waiting until Shane met his eyes. "It doesn't go away. But it does get easier."

Shane nodded, thinking about a single bullet still in his pocket, and turned back toward Terminus. "Yeah. Thanks. So, we gonna stare all day, or are we gonna make a move here?"

 

 

"We're going in," Rick told the other three when they'd gathered back at the meeting point. "We're gonna make it quick and quiet, and see what we see when we get inside. Stick close, ok?"

Shane watched the trees and wondered why the hell there weren't any guards posted in the woods. Or on the rooftops, or frankly, anywhere that they could see. Something was off about the place, but damn it, Rick was right. It was their best chance.

They went over the fence, Rick and Shane first with Daryl watching the rear. Shane covered Rick's back like he had a thousand times before, leading the way into the back door of a warehouse. Voices filtered down the hallway, repetitious and just this side of comprehensible at first, and Shane watched for rick's cues as they cleared a side passage and checked locked doors.

When Rick help up a closed fist, Shane stopped dead and waited. The voice was clear now, a woman's calm, professional tone repeating a message.

"Terminus. Those who arrive survive. Follow the tracks to the point where the lines intersect. There are maps at the crossings to guide you on your journey. Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Terminus-"

Rick glanced back at Shane and jerked his chin forward. Shane eased an eye around the corner for a quick scan, taking in the massive room before ducking back into the hallway and huddling up with everyone.

"See the maps?" he whispered to Rick.

Rick nodded. "Yeah. And the radio. This is the command center."

"How many?" Daryl asked.

Shane shrugged. "Counted five. Probably more."

Daryl chewed on his thumbnail and nodded. Michonne looked thoughtful and Carl just looked damn determined. Shane shrugged one shoulder when Rick met his eyes again.

"Your play, brother."

 

 

"Hello," Rick called.

Shane followed him into the warehouse floor, gun in hand but lowered, and wondered just why the hell he'd said it was Rick's play. Cause this one sure felt like shit.

All activity in what Shane dubbed the recruitment hub stopped, heads whipping around to stare at them as they stepped into the light. One man was clearly the boss, at a table in the middle of the room with people swarming around him. He set the map in his hands down with a sigh, glancing at his people and making a calming gesture.

"Well, I bet Albert is on perimeter watch." He rounded the table and strolled toward Rick, eyes sweeping the group. "You here to rob us?"

"No," Rick answered. "We wanted to see you before you saw us."

The head asshole nodded once and looked around again. "Makes sense. Usually we do this where the tracks meet. Welcome to Terminus." He gestured with both hands, voice slipping into a practiced rhythm that had Shane wanting to roll his eyes. "I'm Gareth. Looks like you've been on the road for a good bit."

"We have." Rick's flat tone told Shane his partner wasn't ready to trust these assholes just yet, and Shane thought that was a pretty damn good idea. He left the leader to Rick and started scoping out the others in the room while Rick introduced them.

They were painting signs. The voice they'd been hearing had been broadcasting via the radio in front of her. It looked like equipment that had been in the depot when the world ended. Shane counted six heads, including the lead asshole, and none of them looked particularly concerned at their appearance. More cautious and, in the case of Gareth, annoyed.

"You're nervous, I get it. We were all the same way," Gareth said when silence fell after Rick delivered their names. "We came here for sanctuary. That what you're here for?"

Rick didn't blink. "Yes."

"Good! You found it. Hey, Alex!"

Shane's hand tightened on his gun as another asshole came forward, smile in place like he was delighted to be called on by the teacher.

"This isn't as pretty as the front," Gareth continued. "We've got nothing to hide, but the welcome wagon is a whole lot nicer. Alex will take you, ask you a few questions. Uh, but first-"

Shane tensed at the shift in tone, wondering where this was headed.

"-We need to see everyone's weapons. If you could just lay them down in front of you?"

Shane glanced at Rick and lifted an eyebrow. After a pause, Rick gestured with his gun and a nod, and Shane sighed. This is a real bad idea, brother, he thought Rick's way, but Rick was already laying down the Python.

Shane shoved his hand through his hair and dropped his Glock to the floor reluctantly. Guess they were all in now.

 

 

Picnic tables with umbrellas littered the patio space, as did flower beds and laundry lines and a massive grill tended by an older woman. It looked so much like the prison that Shane had to take a deep breath, wrapping his fingers around the bullet in his pocket.

He couldn't believe they'd gotten their weapons back, but gift horses and all that shit, right? Now at least when things went sideways- cause they would, Shane was certain of that shit- he'd at least have a gun and a knife.

The others were talking to the woman manning the grill, but something was bothering Shane about the courtyard. He kept scanning, trying to figure it out, but-

Rick knocked the plate out of Alex's hand, grabbing at something in his pocket. Shane whipped his gun out and shoved Carl between him and Dixon, covering the people in the courtyard and using himself and Daryl to shield the kid. He frowned at one woman, wrapped in a poncho that looked damn familiar and holding a gun ready in her hands now.

"Where the hell did you get this watch?" Rick's voice was a snarl behind him and Shane felt something cold trickle down his spine.

The poncho had been Daryl's, in the prison. There was only one watch that would set Rick off like that- Hershel's watch, that he gave to Glenn all the way back on the farm. Shane's eyes raked the courtyard again, his heart pounding in disbelief. There was no way. No way more of their people were alive, right? And had made their way here?

But if Glenn's watch was in someone else's hands, Glenn was dead now. There was no other way, Shane knew. Glenn would never have given it up.

That bastard there was wearing riot gear, he realized. Prison riot gear. Carl stepped out from between him and Daryl, gun up and trained beside Shane, and he grabbed for the kid and tried to pull him back. Carl shook his hand off and kept his gun rock steady, and Shane had to give in. There were too many of these guys for them to take, and Carl was a badass these days.

"Sniper on the roof," he called to Rick.

"How good's his aim, huh?" Rick asked his prisoner. "Where'd you get the watch?"

"I have this! Don't do anything! You put it down!" Alex yelled to the sniper Shane had spotted. The man lowered his gun slowly and Alex continued. "You wanna listen to me. There's a lot of us."

"Where. Did you get. The watch?"

Hurry it up, Rick, Shane thought. The standoff couldn’t last, and the longer they stood here exposed, the more time these assholes had to get their people in place. He and Rick were already on the losing side, exposed and in someone else's unfamiliar territory. "Rick?" he called.

"Got it off a dead one!" Alex stammered. "I didn't think he'd need it!"

Despair flooded through Shane, twisting like a knife. Glenn. Goddamn it.

"What about the riot gear? The poncho?" Rick snapped. "The backpack?"

Shit, Shane had missed the backpack. He shifted when Gareth appeared, Glock aimed right between that lying bastard's eyes. Something wasn't right, and Shane didn't trust this guy one bit.

"Got the riot gear off a dead cop. Found the poncho on a clothesline," Gareth said easily.

"Gareth, we can wait-" Alex started to speak, but Gareth cut him off with an order to shut up.

"You talk to me," Rick commanded, that stubborn bastard voice Shane had missed so damn much almost making him smile.

"What's there left to say?" Gareth folded his hands, looking calmly past Shane toward Rick. "You don't trust us anymore."

"Never trusted you," Shane snapped. "Where are our people?"

Gareth ignored him and held up a hand, palm up. Shane wasn't an idiot. He knew a hand signal when he saw one, and knew Rick would too. He adjusted his grip on his gun, ready to grab Carl and haul ass as soon as he knew which direction the trap was going to spring- cause it was coming.

"Rick, what do you want?" Gareth asked.

"Where are our people?" Rick repeated. Shane saw the flicker in Gareth's eyes as he sighed.

"You didn't answer the question." Gareth's fist clenched and Shane exploded into movement.

 

 

It didn't take long to figure out they were being herded. Shane snarled when bullets tore up the concrete at his feet yet again, ducking back behind a corner and pulling Carl with him. The other three huddled up and Shane shot Rick a look.

"Trapped, man. Shooting at our feet."

"Rats in a fuckin' maze," Daryl agreed. "Comin' up behind us. Gottta move."

"I got it," Shane snapped as Rick rubbed at his forehead, clearly working through any and everything he could come up with to get them out of this. Trouble was, they were fresh out of options.

Good options, anyway. Shane shoved off the wall and rushed the corner with a primal yell, unable to believe this shit.

Here they were, at the fucking promised sanctuary for all, and these bastards were trying to herd them somewhere. Glenn had made it, at least to here, and he'd been sick and in C block when the prison fell. If he'd made it this far, who knew who else might have?

But not Judith. And not his Slugger. Of course not them, he thought bitterly as bullets tore up the ground at his feet.

Shane kept running, straight into them, until-

There. The sniper poked his head up a little too far, trying to keep his gunfire at Shane's feet and not ripping through Shane's body, and Shane dropped him with one bullet. "Come on!"

 

 

Freedom from the maze didn't last long, and Shane cussed up a blue streak under his breath as they tried doors and found them always locked.

"What the hell was that?" Daryl demanded when they crashed into a room filled with candles and shit painted on the walls and the floor.

Shane shrugged, eyes narrowed as he took it all in: "Never Forget. We First. Always" on the wall, names on the floor, and- "Rick, door," he called, starting toward it.

He wasn't even surprised when it slammed shut in his face. He was pissed, but not surprised.

"This way!" Daryl yelled.

Shane reversed direction and brought up the rear, taking one more look at the candle-filled room and wondering just what the hell they'd landed themselves in this time as he ducked through the door.

 

 

The fence was lined with gunmen. Snipers covered them from the roof. Shane counted three that he could see, and then that fucker Gareth stepped into view.

"Drop your weapons! Now!" Gareth yelled.

Shane sighed and glanced at Rick. "No way out, brother."

"Yeah," Rick said softly. "I know."

Shane dropped the Glock and pulled out his knife. Clatters came from all around as the rest of them did the same.

"Ringleader! Go to your left," Gareth called. "Train car. Go."

Shane and Rick both looked at the train car and then back at Carl. Rick didn't move.

Gareth heaved an audible sigh. "You do what we say, the boy goes with you. Anything else, he dies, and you end up in there anyway."

Rick started walking.

"Now the archer," Gareth instructed, and Daryl went. "And the samurai."

Michonne stepped slowly to join them, and Shane knew it was coming. He stared at Gareth as he waited, hoping he got a chance to kill the smug bastard someday.

A small smile played on Gareth's lips as he looked back at Shane. "You got one of mine, I'll give you that. Didn't expect you to rush my sniper's fire. Must have some kind of death wish. Or maybe you're just too damn heroic for your own good. Don't get the boy killed. You go on now, hero."

Blood rushed in Shane's ears, and he twitched for the gun at his feet before he could think. Carl's eyes went wide in his pale face, and Shane stopped the motion as abruptly as it began, turning it into a staggering step to the side.

Gareth laughed. "Good choice, hero. Good choice. Stand at the door! Ringleader, Archer, Samurai, Hero- in that order."

Shane stared, only half-seeing, at Carl alone in the courtyard, weapons trained on him from different angles. Gareth, he promised fiercely, would learn soon enough that Shane wasn’t a fucking hero. He was a monster, and he was coming for Gareth just as soon as Carl was safe.

"My son!" Rick yelled.

There was a long pause, filled with the echo of Ace playfully calling him 'hero', and Shane took a slow, deep breath and tried to banish her voice from his mind.

"Go, kid," Gareth said finally, and Carl started toward them. "Ringleader, open the door and go in."

"I'll go in with him!" Rick yelled back. Shane kept his eyes on Carl, knowing full well there was nothing they could do. This was Gareth's show, as long as those guns were pointed Carl's way.

He wondered if there was a way to change that, but he suspected it wouldn't matter what Shane did or how much of a distraction he caused. Gareth would shoot Carl first, damn it.

"Don't make us kill him now!"

Rick opened the door and went in.

 

 

The door slammed shut behind Carl, plunging the car into darkness. Rick reached for Carl and for Shane at the same time, and Shane ducked Rick's hand, closing his eyes and leaning against the car wall as he tried to get it together.

Something moved at the other end of the car and Shane snapped back upright, turning to stare as a figure came out of the darkness.

"Rick?"

Shane turned away, swallowing hard and pressing a hand to his eyes when Glenn appeared.

"You're here. You're all here," Rick said slowly. "They're gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out."

"Find out what?" Merle's dry, half amused voice had Shane sucking in a hard breath.

Of course Merle was alive. Every damn Dixon except his, and he should have been happy. He knew that. He was happy. Merle and Glenn and Maggie and Sasha and Bob, he saw when he opened his eyes again. All alive and well, and looking no worse than Shane and his group.

But no Ace.

Several assholes he didn't recognize, but not his Slugger. Goddamn it all.

"They're screwing with the wrong people," Rick declared, his stubborn bastard expression fixed when he met Shane's eyes.

Chapter Text

"Glenn and I, we got out together, see. Good thing we'd had us some bonding experiences down there in isolation while we was all practicing dyin', cause we wouldn't'a made it very far if we weren't workin' together. Leanin' on each other and hackin' up a couple a lungs between us, and then the damn- damn bridge exploded," Merle said, gesturing with his one hand. He clapped the girl with the ponytails on the back and she smiled at him slightly, but her eyes were worried as she watched Rick. "Tara here? Tara saved our lives."

"I'm grateful," Rick said solemnly, and Shane had a feeling he was missing something.

Tara swallowed hard. "I figure I should be honest. I was with the Governor. He- when we found him, he was going by Brian. My family took him in. We helped him, and he helped us. Then Dad died. Our building that we were hiding in got overrun. My sister, my niece, and I- we followed Brian. I didn't know he was going to- I'm sorry."

Merle squeezed her shoulder and glared over at Shane and Rick like he was expecting them to kill her right there. Shane raised an eyebrow and shrugged a shoulder. "You're fine by me, honey. Rick too."

Tara's smile grew a little stronger at that. "We got out, but then Glenn passed out on me, and Merle wasn't much better. Next thing I know, these three come roaring up. I'd promised Glenn I'd help him find Maggie, and Merle was looking for his brother and-"

Merle shifted and sniffed, and Tara shot him an apologetic glance.

"This fellow here with the fantastic hair can fix the world. I have a duty to get him to Washington." The redhead was ex-military, named Abraham. He, Rosita, and Eugene sat together, Abraham clearly in charge and Eugene the mullet-wearing scientist Abraham was talking about. "We weren't exactly up for trying to find anyone, but- Tara and Glenn and our one-handed bastard here, they insisted.”

Maggie smiled and patted his shoulder. "That's right. I got out with Sasha and Bob. I was lookin' for Glenn, and when we found the signs, I started leaving him messages. It worked."

Glenn pressed a kiss to Maggie's hair and Shane looked away, swallowing hard. It wasn't that he wasn't happy for them. God knew he was. They deserved the world and each other.

He slipped his hand into his pocket and clenched the bullet in his fist as he rose and paced restlessly to a gap in the train car's side. He looked out, scanning for Gareth and his jackasses. "How'd you end up in here?"

"They seemed nice enough when we arrived, but I was ready to go," Abraham said. "We just got here, but damn. It was time to go. When I told them about DC, a wink and a nod from the head asshole in charge, they pulled their guns and it was right back to our regularly scheduled shitstorm."

Shane grunted. "Sounds right. Rick."

Rick rose and joined him, leaving the others to keep playing catch up. Shane tuned them out, especially Daryl and Merle's low, rough voices, and kept staring out the gap. Rick leaned against the car and looked too, waiting for Shane to speak.

"Gotta get out of here, man."

Rick scoffed and glanced at him from the corner of his eye, hooking a thumb over his gun belt. "I know."

"So what's our play?" Shane demanded impatiently. "Just sitting around trading war stories ain't helping."

"We're catching up. It's important. We lost each other, and now we've found each other again."

Shane shoved his hand through his hair. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. Look, we need weapons."

"I'm open to suggestions on that, brother." Rick's tone said reasonable, maybe too reasonable, and Shane shot him a glare. The tightness to his eyes, the set to Rick's shoulders and tilt of his head that told Shane he was irritated.

Shane didn't care. He gestured vaguely. "We need to do an inventory. See what all we got. We know how to make homemade shit, and if you think the Dixon boys haven't got something we can use on them somewhere, you're not payin' attention."

"Brother, we need to talk about it," Rick said slowly, reaching for Shane's shoulder.

Shane jerked away from Rick's touch and glared. "No, man, we don't. I'm as good as I'm gonna be locked in this damn train by a bunch of assholes. I'm gonna kill Gareth nice and slow when we get out of here."

He turned before Rick could say anything else and found Daryl watching him. Shane jerked his eyes away from cautious, worried Dixon blues and whistled. "Ok, people. Enough chatter. Most of us are old friends, and the new friends'll do just fine. We can worry about fixing the fuckin' world later. Everybody empty your pockets. Let's see what we've got to take these sons of bitches down."

 

 

"Alright. Got four of them pricks comin' our way," Daryl said.

Shane snatched up his makeshift knife- a hunk of wood he'd pried off the train car and wrapped a strip of Ace's shirt around to make a handle- and headed to Carl's side. He nodded at Rick as the group took up positions, weapons in hand and ready to fight.

"Y'all know what to do," Rick told them grimly. "Go for their eyes first. Then their throats."

"Put your backs to the walls at either end of the car now!"

Shane looked up in confusion along with everyone else when the roof opened instead of the door. The canister dropped through and Shane lunged for Carl, shoving the kid aside and covering him even as he yelled. "Grenade!"

"Move!" Abraham called at the same time, right before the world erupted into chaos.

It wasn't a grenade, not really, but flash-bangs in close quarters packed a disorienting punch. Smoke and light flooded the car, and he pulled Ace's shirt over his face as he backed Carl into the corner and covered him, searching for the enemies Shane knew were in there.

He'd heard the door open, heard the hiss of gas masks over the coughing of his friends, but he never got a shot at anyone before the doors closed again.

 

 

Shane paced, glaring out through the cracks and muttering under his breath. They'd taken Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Bob. Maggie's face had been pale and pinched when the smoke cleared and Glenn was gone, and Merle had kicked the train wall and screamed.

Carl did nothing except set a hand on Shane's shoulder and squeeze, a move so like his father's that Shane's throat had closed right there.

He was so tired of this. He was exhausted, soul-deep, from all of it- the running, the fighting, the endless wash of fear and adrenaline as they looked for those they loved. The inevitable heartache and black despair when someone was gone. He couldn't fucking take it any more.

He should have eaten the goddamn bullet in his pocket when he found Ace's shirt.

"They'll be aight. My baby brother's a tough bastard, and so is your Rick Grimes," Merle said. "Just keep ya chin up."

Shane whirled, temper snarling and snapping like it had when he'd taken a swing at Daryl. "That what you think? Huh? Your sister was the toughest person I've ever met, and she's dead, asshole. So how about you take your platitudes and shove them up your ass, or find me a way out of here."

Merle's eyes narrowed and he stared when Shane got up in his face. "Careful, Officer Walsh. My sis loved the shit outta ya, but that don't mean I ain't gonna put ya on your ass you keep talkin' like that. How's about ya take a breath and go back to starin' out the window. Think before ya open ya damn mouth again. That's the kid's dad ya talkin' about."

Temper drained away as suddenly as it had come, and shame replaced it. Shane shoved a hand through his hair and stepped back from Merle, sucking in a hard breath before meeting the oldest Dixon's eyes. "Sorry."

"Ain't nothin'. All on the damn edge. Come on, how's about we figure a way outta this joint?" Merle answered calmly, jerking his shoulder and nodding toward the door. "Gotta be a way to pry that bitch open."

"Merle's right, Uncle Shane," Carl said firmly.

Shane glanced at him and mustered up a half grin for the kid, his heart hurting at the serious look in his nephew's eyes. "Yeah? What's the lump right about, little man?"

Carl smiled at his nickname and the guilt eased. "My dad's in there. They'll be fine."

 

 

His head was throbbing and he hadn't even opened his eyes yet, much less considered moving. Shane wanted to groan, but that didn't seem like a great idea right then either. He settled for pressing his face into the pillow he only half lay on and drawing in a deep, slow breath. Maybe his stomach would stop churning and-

His pillow sure didn't smell like that.

He shifted- sitting up wasn't an option just yet- and cracked open one eye cautiously. Thank God for blackout curtains, he thought. It was gloomy enough that he could open both eyes without wanting to die.

The sheet- what little of it was covering him- slid further away when the woman beside him rolled over, and Shane lay flat on his back and stared at a vaguely familiar ceiling.

He'd killed a man on the job the day before. It'd been Rick or the perp, and Shane chose Rick. Every time. It'd been a righteous shoot, and he'd be off desk duty in two weeks. Hell, he was considering just using some vacation time while they did the required inquiry. And he'd see the shrink.

But still. He'd been a mess the night before, and he'd taken one step into his empty, dark kitchen and gotten right back in his Jeep instead. He'd shown up at Ace's door at three in the damn morning, leered at her when she answered it in her underwear, and-

And gotten shitfaced and handsy, he thought, closing his eyes again with a grimace. And somehow ended up in bed with her.

That was the part he really wished he could remember clearly, because they'd decided to be friends, and he liked her, damn it. He didn't want to fuck up the friendship by treating her like a middle of the night booty call. Shit, the thought had his stomach rolling with a fresh wave of nausea. That wasn't why he'd come, even if he'd never have been able to say what it was that had drawn him here. He'd been upset, and she'd let him in and let him hold her.

She shouldn't have even answered the damn door. He definitely had no business being in her bed.

He suddenly realized he was wearing clothes still and let out a breath of relief. Good. Memory trickled in faintly, just a flash of cool fingers in his and Ace's shampoo filling his nose, her soft voice telling him it was ok.

"Just sleep, Dickhead. Everything will look better in the morning."

He leaned on one elbow and smiled. Her hair was a tangled plum-colored mess, strewn across the pillow and her face. He brushed a strand back from where it had to have been tickling her nose, and her forehead wrinkled. He curled up facing her with a sigh and closed his eyes, thinking maybe a couple more hours would get rid of the worst of the hangover.

Slugger shifted, her toes worming their way under his knee, and Shane smiled. Yeah, she'd been right. It was already looking better this morning.

 

 

An explosion rattled the car, sending most of them off balance. Shane caught Carl when the kid fell into his side, standing him back upright before running an eye over the rest of their group.

"Everyone ok?"

"Just fuckin' peachy. What the hell was that?" Abraham demanded, fists clenched and looking ready to attack the train wall with his bare hands.

Shane could relate, but he didn't have the answer to that question at the moment, for all that he wanted it. He peered out the gap in the wall, searching for something, anything they'd missed.

"Someone hit 'em," Michonne said.

"Maybe our people got free-" Sasha started, but cut off when Eugene shoved his way to beside Shane. Shane eyed the scientist curiously. Mr. Smarty-pants had been quiet so far, and it was obvious from Abraham and Rosita's protective behavior that he couldn't take care of himself.

But he was definitely smart, Shane thought, eyes narrowing on the flash-bang canister in Eugene's hand. Smart enough that Shane crouched when he did and looked over his shoulder. "What are you doin'?"

"I might be able to use this shell to compromise the door. From the sound of things, there may not be anybody left to open it," he answered.

Shane grunted in agreement and interest, trying to figure out how exactly he was planning on doing that. Because that would be a useful trick.

"Hey," Carl said over the others beginning to argue behind him. "My dad's gonna be back. They all are."

"They are," Maggie agreed as Shane looked over his shoulder. She held Glenn's watch in her hands, and had the kind of calm control Shane himself had never been able to feel when Ace was in danger.

How the fuck did she do that? He wondered while she informed everyone they needed to be ready to fight their way out. How was she not screaming and breaking her knuckles on whatever was closest like Shane himself would do- and had done before- in her shoes?

He wished he'd have the chance to panic over his Slugger again, and for a moment, as grief twisted in his stomach and gnawed at his bones, he hated her for the confident conviction in her voice. Then she looked down at the watch in her hands and drew in a shaky breath no one was supposed to see as she crouched and started sawing a chunk lose from the car wall.

Shane turned away as movement outside the car caught his attention, and satisfaction had him shaking his head with a grim twist of his lips. Michonne had joined him, and she met his eyes now with the faintest of smiles.

Walkers were flooding Terminus.

 

 

Gunfire echoed, mixing with the snarls and growls of the dead outside, and Shane shoved a hand through his hair and tried to force away memories of a tank at the prison gates, Rick walking into a field, Ace kissing him goodbye and disappearing into the smoke. He wasn't doing to well, and the need to have an enemy he could take down- preferably with his bare hands- had him practically shaking with rage in the gloom.

"How's that door comin'?" he snapped at Eugene, who gave him an annoyed look.

"Go faster if you get off my ass."

Shane snarled and started to respond, but Sasha interrupted him. Probably for the best, Shane decided as he turned back to staring through the gap at the walkers wandering by.

"What's the cure, Eugene?" she asked.

Activity in the car stopped, but Shane ignored it. To be honest, he didn't fucking care. Apparently, however, everyone wanted to know, and they pressed for details until Eugene sighed and stopped working on the empty flash-bag canister he was trying to use on the doors.

"I was part of a ten person team with the human genome project that weaponized diseases to fight weaponized diseases. Pathogenic microorganisms with pathogenic microorganisms. Fire with fire." Eugene rose and Shane shifted to watch him from the corner of his eye as he continued. "Interdepartmental drinks were had, relationships made, information shared. I am keenly aware of all the details behind failsafe delivery systems to kill every living person on this planet. I believe with a little tweaking on the terminals in DC, we can flip the script. Take out every last dead one of 'em. Fire with fire. All things being equal, it does sound pretty badass."

Silence greeted that announcement until Shane scoffed. "Look, man, I don't care if the cure is your fresh blood on Washington's grave on a full moon night in October. We get out of this, I'll haul your ass there. Ain't like I got anything better to do these days. But first, we gotta get outta here. Now, can you blow that damn door or not?"

Before Eugene could respond, the door slid open and Rick was standing there, screaming for them all to fight their way to the fence and over.

Shane muttered about Rick fucking Grimes doing the impossible as he stabbed walkers with his wood-chunk knife until Rick tossed him a gun. That worked better.

 

 

He crouched in the bushes and swatted yet another Georgian mosquito the size of a sparrow off his arm. "Seriously, man, hurry it up," he muttered, squinting out at the empty view.

The sun was starting to paint colors across the sky, and if Rick didn't get on with this Shane and his camera weren't gonna be any good to him. Light was kind of a crucial element to taking pictures, after all, and if Shane spent all this time getting eaten alive, then Rick better show up so he could do his job.

"The shit I do for you, brother," he mumbled and swiped sweat off his forehead. "I cancelled a date for this."

It hadn't been a serious date, and Shane didn't think he was going to get very far with her anyway, but still. It was the principle of the thing.

Rick's car pulled up and Shane lifted the camera, zooming in and starting to snap as Rick took a deep breath and huffed it out. He adjusted his button up as he rounded the car to open the passenger door for Lori, and Shane took a picture of Rick staring blankly at the ground behind her back while he closed the door again. Shane didn't really know what he was doing here, what with his only photography experience being that course in basic on long-range surveillance photos, but that hadn't mattered to Rick when he'd shown up in Shane's house with panicked eyes and this absurd request.

Rick held Lori's hand and Shane kept snapping as they wandered to the water, determined to discharge his best friend duty as well as could despite his obvious limitations. Rick talked to her for a minute, one hand in hers and the other stuffed into his pocket, looking nervous as fuck. Lori was smiling up at him, and she when she laughed at something Rick said Shane got that picture, and the one of Rick's adoring smile seconds after, too.

The Rick went to one knee, not looking nervous anymore as he opened the little jewelry box and held it up, his eyes on Lori's and shining. Lori covered her mouth with one hand, clearly in shock, and started nodding vigorously before Rick's lips had stopped moving.

Shane got that picture, and the one of Rick sliding the ring on her finger, and the one of her with her legs wrapped around his waist and her mouth busy on Rick's. Then he stood up, camera still to his eye, and let out a piercing whistle.

The shot he took of Rick and Lori looking at him and laughing, faces close together and Rick looking dazed, was still framed in their living room, as far as Shane knew.

 

 

"Here," Daryl said, pointing between two trees.

Shane stalked forward and found the collapsible shovel Rick had hidden. He tossed dirt with hard, angry motions as he squinted toward the column of smoke rising from Terminus. "Ok, people. When we get the guns, we spread out along the fence. Take anybody breathing down."

"Why?" Glenn asked slowly. "We made it out."

Shane snorted and hauled up the bag. Rick crouched beside him, unzipping it with a relieved expression. Everything was still there, which was good since they were missing all of the gear they'd taken in with them. "Because they're drawing people here and butchering them. They don't get to live."

"The place is overrun. If anyone else follows the signs, they won't even go in. It's over. We made it out," Glenn argued.

Shane passed a rifle to Merle, who hefted it and shrugged like he didn't give a shit one way or another. Rick handed more to Abraham and Rosita while Shane tossed the compound bow in Carl's direction.

"I don't give a shit, man. I'm fuckin' sick of assholes who think just cause the goddamn world ended they can do whatever they want. That snake Gareth ain't dead. I left a man who needed killing alive once, and it came back to bite us in the ass. I ain't gonna-"

Rick grabbed his shoulder, cutting him off mid-rant as he stared beyond Shane to something, eyes wide and face pale. "Shane."

Chapter Text

"We're close," Carol said quietly.

You nodded, shoving a hand through your hair as you studied the sign and tried to figure out how to tell them what you'd decided. "I'm not- We'll check it out. Make sure it's legit. But once we know, I'm going back."

You met Tyreese's eye first and then Carol's, reaching out to run a hand over Judy's head. Carol shifted her in her arms and nodded.

"You have to know," she agreed. "I'll go with you."

"Thanks," you whispered. You turned to Tyreese. "You'll take care of her while I'm gone, right? It won't be forever."

Tyreese nodded, and you saw the lingering horror and sadness in his eyes. Hell, it was in all of you, you knew. None of you had spoken much since-

Something moved in the woods and your hand dropped to your knife. A walker came staggering onto the tracks, a handcuff dangling from one wrist, and you swallowed hard. You weren’t thinking about Shane in your shower, lifting his eyebrows suggestively when you asked where his handcuff key was. You weren’t.

Tyreese leaned over and took Judy from Carol's arms. "I can't. Not yet," he admitted.

You sighed and headed for it. You heard Carol's murmured response but you weren’t sticking around for a conversation. There was work to be done.

Half of its face hung in bloody tatters, and you grimaced as you took it down. Of course, as you did, the ankle you'd messed up twinged and you lost your balance, falling with the thing. Oh well, you thought with disgust, shoving back up and rotating your ankle to test it. At least it was dead.

For a moment, as you pulled your knife from its skull, it looked like Mika. You flinched, closing your eyes and taking a deep breath. Putting that little girl down had been the hardest thing you'd ever done, but neither Carol or Tyreese had been in any state to handle it. Someone had to; you couldn’t just let her turn.

So you’d done it, though your hands shook and you tried not to see what you were doing.

You opened your eyes and sighed when you saw the herd coming out of the trees. Scrambling to your feet, you gestured wildly toward the woods with your bloody knife and made shooing motions at Carol and Tyreese.

Carol glanced from you to the trees and snatched up Judith's diaper bag, leading the way off the tracks to crouch behind a nearby hillock. You reached out a hand to Judy and her little fingers curled around yours, but she didn't make a sound. You glanced at Carol and she shook her head, shoving upward to lead the way further, cause it was a damn big herd filtering onto the tracks now. They'd notice you for sure, even with Judy staying quiet.

Gunfire echoed from the direction of Terminus, and the three of you froze. The walkers turned and stumbled their way up the tracks.

 

 

You headed east to another track after a hurried conference with the others. The gunfire meant Terminus was under attack or was attacking someone, and for a minute you agreed with Tyreese. Did you even want to know which it was?

Then Judith had picked her head up and looked at you, sucking on her thumb in Tyreese's arms, and yeah. You needed to know.

"Ten minute count. You screw up, you're on your own, Martin."

The voice came from a radio, and you glanced at the others and lifted an eyebrow. Carol had that carefully blank expression she got when something was going down and she wasn't sure which side she was going to land on, and you go that.

You studied the shack and the car in the clearing, but mostly the man on his knees fixing fireworks onto the ground. He grabbed for his radio as he answered the voice.

"You don't have to tell me. I wipe my own ass." He rose, heading over to the bag of fireworks as he continued. "Alex didn't get it. See, I knew the chick with the sword was bad news. Bitch looked like a weapon with a weapon."

You turned wide eyes to Carol. He couldn't possibly be talking about Michonne, right? There was no way. You hadn't seen any sign of any of your people, and there had to be more than one person running around with a sword these days. Hell, you wanted one yourself most of the time. Carol held up a hand for caution and you forced yourself to focus.

"He was always a sloppy-ass mother," the radio answered with a crackle.

Martin laughed, setting another firework in place. "Yeah, I told Albert I want the kid's hat after they bleed him out."

That was enough. Chick with a sword? Kid with a hat? That wasn't a coincidence. That was Michonne and that was Carl, and this asshole was talking about bleeding Carl out. Whatever the fuck this place was, it wasn't safety.

You slipped from your hiding place and leveled your gun at Martin's ear, clicking the hammer back so he knew it was there. Shane had taught you not to touch someone with the gun barrel, cause then they'd know exactly where it was. You’d looked at him blankly and asked just how often he thought you mugged people, but now it was useful information. "Keep your finger off the button," you ordered coolly when Martin lifted both hands in surrender. "And drop it."

Martin dropped the radio and you slid it away with your foot. Carol scooped it up and you gave her a nod as she leveled her tiny revolver at his head. You scanned the trees and checked to make sure Tyreese and Judy were ok as Martin spoke.

"Listen, ya'll don't have to do this," he said. "Whatever you want. We got a place where everyone's welcome."

You felt like your scoff was eloquent enough of a response, but Carol spoke dryly. "We're friends of the chick with sword and the kid in the hat."

 

 

"They attacked us. We're just holding them," Martin informed you while you bound his hands in the shack.

Carol was taking inventory of your weapons and his, and you eyed the fireworks in the bag when you walked over to join her. "Who else do you have?" you asked absently.

"Just the boy and the samauri, that's it. We were just protecting ourselves!"

"I don't believe you," Carol informed him flatly. You snorted agreement and slung a rifle over your shoulder.

"There's a bunch of us out there. In six different directions. There was a lot of gunfire back home." Martin was a talkative bastard, apparently, trying to get himself out of trouble. "We need to set off our charges all at the same time to confuse the dead ones away. That's good for you too!"

Carol pulled a blanket from her pack and you felt a slow smile spread over your lips as you met her eyes. You nodded and she grabbed her knife, cutting the thing in half as you zipped Martin's bag of fireworks and slung it over your shoulder.

"No, it isn't," you told him. "There's a herd heading toward Terminus right now."

"We don't want to confuse them away. We're gonna need their help," Carol agreed. "Ready?"

You nodded, taking your half of the blanket from her and pulling it over your head. "Ready."

"You two are scary like this," Tyreese informed you when you stepped to his side and kissed Judy's cheek. "How are you gonna do it?"

Carol paused in the doorway. "I'm going to kill people."

Tyreese looked vaguely queasy as she headed out. You kissed Judy again and looked the big man dead in the eyes.

"You keep her safe. She is all that matters to you."

He shifted her up in his arms and nodded, and you followed Carol out the door. You had people to save.

 

 

Walkers were easy enough to find and even easier to take down. Smearing the guts and blood all over you was gross and took some time, but when you stopped thinking of it as dead person parts and started thinking of it as elaborate living-art finger painting, your stomach stopped threatening to rebel and let you do your thing.

There was a real possibility you'd never be able to finger paint again, but that was ok. Worth it if everyone survived this.

You followed Carol through the woods, wondering who they had and trying desperately not to get your hopes up. Even if Martin had been telling the truth and the only people of yours were Carl and Michonne, that was a miracle. After everything, the distance and the walkers and all that stood between you, to find even two more of your people?

It was unbelievable.

Something went off, an echoing bang, and you paused. "Sounded like the flash bangs Shane and Rick geeked out over so bad," you whispered to Carol.

She smiled at you slightly, but her eyes were worried. "First time you've said his name in awhile. Come on, we're at the fence."

You started to chew on your fingernail as you followed her, but you grimaced at the blood on your hands. That'd break the habit, you thought.

You glanced at the impaled walker and considered putting it down, but movement through the fence caught your eye. People swarmed four prone bodies outside a train car, and the next thing you knew, two men where lifted a bound and gagged Rick from the ground and hauling him away. You clutched at Carol's arm before going for the rifle when you recognized the other three as well. Glenn, Bob, and your brother struggled against their captors, but they were bound hand and foot and there was nothing they could do.

Daryl. And Rick and Glenn and Bob, of course, but that was your twin brother those bastards had tied up like an animal, and you were sighting down the scope at one of them when Carol's hand closed over the sight.

You glared at her, but she shook her head silently, gesturing toward the trees. You planted your feet and jerked one shoulder in clear refusal, turning back to the fence, but-

"Damn it," you breathed. They were gone.

With no other choice, you followed Carol, glaring at her back in silence until you were far enough away to risk speech. "What the hell was that? I could have taken them! Shit, you could have too!"
"We need to bust open this place and let walkers in. We'd have just gotten them killed. Michonne and Carl weren't with them."

Ok, damn it, she was right. You pressed your lips together and shoved a bloody hand through your hair. "That's my brother."

"I know. Let's go save him."

 

 

"Hey, sis. Lookit what I found."

You looked up from your sketchbook, squinting in the sunlight at your brother. He was covered in dust and dirt, his tattered jeans hanging off his hips cause they were two sizes too big and now sporting rips you’d have sworn hadn’t been there a few hours ago. You frowned, suspicious. He looked too excited about something. "What'd you do? Will's gonna be back any time now."

"Shit. No he ain't. He's hooked up with some junkie he met at the bar last night," Daryl said with a scoff and a dismissive toss of his head. "Come on. Ya'll like this."

You left your supplies on the half-rotten steps of the cabin’s back porch, where you'd been sketching broken-glass-and-old-nails wind chime you’d made years ago. As usual, you were unable to resist that look. And besides, you were curious. "How d'ya know that? About Will? He said he’d be back this afternoon."

"Merle went into town this mornin'. Used up most of the first aid kit after- shit, ya know. Ran into one of Will’s drinkin’ buddies. We ain’t goin’ home tomorrow. Probably not this week, if the money holds. Look, though- found these in that barn, couple miles down? Thinkin' someone stashed 'em." Daryl held up a bag with a grin on his lips that had you beaming back before you even looked in.

You pulled out a Roman candle and whistled. "Oh, man, Darrie. This is a bad idea."

"Yeah," he agreed. He flicked the lighter in his hand and raised an eyebrow at you in question.

You thought about it, chewing on your thumbnail, but holy shit would fireworks be a great project for when you got back home. Seeing some live and in person would make painting them easier, and-

And, hell, Daryl looked too damn excited and last night had been bad. Merle was pretty fucked up, even if he didn't want to admit it, and Daryl had gotten that bruise around his eye for trying to shift Will's shotgun out of the way while he raged. You'd been terrified, for a minute, that Will would shoot them both, but Merle had come at him again and distracted him. At fifteen, Merle was getting bigger, but he still wasn't a match for Will. No one was, and he'd gotten his ass handed to him for trying.

"Light 'er up," you declared, grinning when Daryl whooped. He light the fuse and you pointed the firework at the trees, cringing back in nervous anticipation until it went off with a bang. You screamed in delight and laughed along with your brother, turning to him and grabbing his arm. "Your turn! I'll light it!"

Daryl pulled one out, laughing with you, and you flicked the lighter to life.

"Ace! Daryl! Put that shit down right the fuck now!" Merle yelled, sounding pissed as hell.

You flinched, jumping a little, because for a second you'd thought it was Will. But you turned with a scowl for your older brother when you got your breath back, ready to yell at him for scaring you like that. Merle gripped the broken railing in both hands, face pale under the spreading bruises along his jaw and on his cheek. You planted your hands on your hips as you glared his way."What? We're just havin' fun! Darrie found them."

"Don't care if the queen of fuckin' England gave 'em to ya. Don't ya dare light another one, or I'll tan both ya hides!" Merle snapped.

You took an involuntary step back and Daryl's hand landed on your shoulder. "Don't threaten us, asshat," he snapped at Merle. "You ain't our boss."

"Hell yeah, I am! Ya hit that propane tank with one of those shits, ya blow this whole damn place up. Wanna die in a fire like ya mama? That right there's a good way to do it!" Merle spun on his heel and stalked back into the cabin.

Tears burned in your eyes as he limped away, and you handed Daryl the lighter back without saying a word. You walked back over to the steps, ready to just sketch again, but Daryl caught your arm.

"He don't mean it, sis. He's just hurtin' damn bad."

You gave Daryl a tight smile. "I know. Pretty dumb to shoot them so close to the cabin, though. And he's right- he is the boss of us."

Daryl snorted. "Yeah, I guess. Still an asshat."

"Well, yeah," you agreed with a grin. "Obviously."

 

 

"We need a way to get the gates open. Let the walkers in," Carol said.

You crouched with her beside the fence, scanning the gate through the rifle's scope. On the other side, Terminus residents stabbed through the fence much like your crews had at the prison, and you swallowed back the homesick feeling before it could cloud your judgement too much. Panning further, you saw the tank and smiled.

"I've got an idea. Set one of those bottle rockets in the barrel of the rifle," you instructed. Down below, screams echoed as the fence people saw the herd approaching. Clearly, these were not the hardened teams you'd had, you thought with disdain. "When I tell you, light it and shoot it at the gas."

"You're going to blow the tank."

"Yeah," you agreed with a smirk, setting the scope back to your eye and taking aim at the cap covering the release valve on the tank. "It's Merle's idea."

Carol made a confused noise, but you ignored her as you took a deep breath in through your nose. This was a ridiculous shot. Daryl would have been better for it. Shane too. Merle, even.

But it was up to you to get in there and save your twin brother's dumb ass, so you shoved aside Will's voice in your head telling you you'd never make the shot, adjusted the rifle minutely, and fired.

And missed.

But you didn't miss the second time, and you fist pumped the air silently when gas began to hiss in a cloud that engulfed the oncoming walkers. "Carol, now."

Carol lit the rocket, and you covered your ears.

Chapter Text

Flaming walkers, you thought with a grimace. Definitely one of your least favorite things. You barely turned your head to keep Carol in sight, staggering along in the herd near you. You both paced your movements to match the dead you'd waded into the middle of, and you tried not to breath to deeply.

Rick and Glenn had told you about doing this in Atlanta, and Glenn's disgusted face had cracked you up at the time. After everything he'd seen since then, wearing walker guts and moving with the herd had still grossed him out beyond belief. You'd done something similar with Andrea, escaping from Mal and the Governor, but she'd taken Michonne's version, and gone walker-on-a-stick.

You liked that version better, but you needed to fool the living as well as the dead.

Screaming and gunfire echoed from Terminus, filling the air along with smoke, lingering gas, and the scent of fresh-spilled blood. People were dying in there, by walker and by fire, and to be perfectly honest- you didn't care. They'd brought this on themselves, in your opinion. You shuffled along, impatient to get inside and find your people. For all you knew, they could still be in danger, from the walkers or from the people who'd been talking about fucking bleeding them out. Walker-pace was wearing on your nerves, and you shifted the rifle you were hiding under your gut-covered blanket poncho, trying to get ready. When you broke free of the herd, the two of you would have to do some killing.

Ahead of you, walkers started dropping as careful head shots rained from the roof. You bent, ducking out of sight beside a walker, and headed for an open doorway with Carol on your heels. It was time to get off the main highway, and away from the dead so you could actually move. Thank God.

Carol paused and lifted her rifle, and you raised an eyebrow at her in surprise.

"Time for some fun?" you asked.

"Killing people isn't fun."

In the scope, the man on the roof collapsed as the recoil jerked your shoulder. "No, it isn't. Beats dying, though."

Carol fired a spray of bullets into the crowd, and you kicked back a walker who finally noticed that the two of you were warm blooded members of the living world and got too close. She slammed the door and started down the hallway. "Maybe. Come on."

 

 

Tables filled the open warehouse-style room, overflowing with clothing, jewelry, weapons, and- and toys. You swallowed hard, forcing down the sick churning nausea the sight of all of it caused, eyes lingering on the table of stuffed animals and dolls. This was a trophy room, in a way, but in another, it was a memorial. This stuff had to have come from victims. There was no other explanation.

"He wanted Carl's hat," you whispered, running your fingers across a stuffed bear with a suspicious stain on one leg. "After they killed him. Jesus. Remember the good old days when I painted buildings and mixed drinks and only had to worry about cops and being hassled assholes, and you-"

You broke off, hating yourself immediately, and looked at her with an apology already on her lips. She waved a hand, brushing it off.

"Cops and assholes weren't all you dealt with, but they were simpler days. Or at least appeared more civilized." She frowned at the watches as you moved to the weapons. "We know better than that, though. This is Rick's watch. He gave it to- to someone we met."

"When he ditched you, you mean?" you asked, curious. "I'm still pissed about that decision, by the way. So was- Shane wasn't happy when he found out, either. Tore Rick a new one."

"It's fine. It was the right decision. I wouldn't have allowed me to stay, either," she muttered, still studying the watch. Then she sighed and slipped it into her pocket. "We'd thought he was dead before we even left the neighborhood. Did you find anything?"

"Oh yeah." You held up Daryl's crossbow with a grin before slinging it over your shoulder. "And the Python. Rick would be pissed if we didn't grab it. Carol, you don't- you don't see anything of Shane's, do you? Maybe with the jewelry.. like his necklace? If the others..."

You looked away from the pity in her eyes as you trailed off, hating yourself for the letting hope grow inside you. If you didn't find him here, it would be that much harder to accept that your Dickhead was gone, you told yourself firmly. But you brushed past her to scan the table anyway, because hope was a fickle bitch of a thing. There was nothing, you could see that, but you couldn't stop looking. For a shirt, or a weapon that you knew was his, despite the fact that Shane liked Glocks and so did most of the rest of the world, and really, you went through so many shirts these days there was no recognizing one of a thousand plaids as his.

"We need to move."

"Just give me a minute," you mumbled, shoving through the jewelry again, hoping for a gold 22 to let you know he'd at least made it out of the prison.

Carol's hand closed on your arm and you jerked, shaking her off. She grabbed you again, spinning you around when you snarled. "Hey. Do you want to save them? We need to move. He might be here, he might not. Your brother is."

You passed one more agonized glance over the table, but you nodded.

 

 

"Ok, what the fuck?" you muttered, stopping dead in the doorway to stare.

Candles littered the empty room, some hanging in lanterns, some on display shelves, some stuck in bottles, and some resting on the cement floor. You took in the names painted in concentric circles on the floor quickly, your brain picking out the patterns in what looked like chaos of words and candles. "Never Again. Never Trust. We First, Always" was spray painted in block letters on the walls, and you blinked.

"This is a shrine," you said.

Carol was already halfway across the room, picking her way between the candles and looking completely unphased by everything around you. She paused when you spoke, glancing over her shoulder and waiting for you to catch up to her. "Why does it matter?"

"I mean, it doesn't," you said, frowning down at the name at your feet. "But it makes me curious."

"Drop your weapons and turn around." The voice came from behind, scared but firm, and accompanied by the click of a round entering the chamber. "I wanna see your face."

You sighed and dropped your gun as Carol did the same, then unslung Daryl's crossbow as well. You turned with your hands up and studied the older woman who held you both at gunpoint. She shifted the barrel between you and Carol like she couldn't decide who the better target would be, and you wanted to roll your eyes. It would have been better for her to pick one of you, instead of giving you the split-second opportunity she was providing for you both to duck to either side.

One of you might get hit, but not both of you.

"You should have just shot one of us in the back," you told her. 'This is just unprofessional."

You watched as the gun shifted from you to Carol and started to waver back again, and in the moment where it hovered between you, you moved. You snatched the knife from your waistband and hurled it at her, diving to the side as you did.

The woman was quick, you'd give her that. She got off a shot as she dodged the knife, but she tripped on her skirt and hit the ground. When she fell, the gun slid from her hand.

You shoved yourself back to your feet, ready to sprint for it, but Carol was way ahead of you. She kicked the gun from the woman's reaching fingers, sending it skittering across the floor. Unfortunately, the Terminus woman slammed into her, taking Carol down and into a wrestling match that knocked candles everywhere and had you muttering curses as you tried to get a clean shot but kept failing.

Carol got free and you covered her with the rifle as the other woman snatched up a candlestick and whirled, candlestick raised over her head. When she saw you standing there and your gun trained steadily on her, she let it drop from her hands with a long sigh. She looked at you and let out a hard breath, unshed tears gleaming in her eyes.

"The signs? They were real. It was a sanctuary. People came and took this place."

"Just tell me where-" Carol started, tone flat as she scooped up Daryl's crossbow and her rifle.

"And they raped and they killed and they laughed… over weeks!" The woman's voice was hard and echoed with old pain, and you swallowed against a suddenly dry throat.

You knew how that felt. Pain, while someone laughed. It was almost enough to make you not want to burn this place down around her ears, but then she kept going.

"But we got out and we fought and we got it back! And we heard the message." Her eyes never left yours as a small smile played around the corners of her mouth. "You're the butcher, or you're the cattle."

Carol strode across the room and swept up your knife and the woman's gun. "The men they pulled from that train car. Where are they?"

She said nothing, her eyes not leaving yours, and Carol sighed. A single shot rang out and she stepped back to your side, handing you your knife as the woman writhed in pain, clutching her knee.

"Damn," you whispered. "Ok then."

"Where are they?" Carol yelled it this time, and you eyed her warily. You had absolutely no idea what she was about to next, and honestly? You weren't mad. Just waiting for your cue.

You'd never had much of a problem with torturing the bad guys, and tragic backstory aside, this woman was definitely one of the bad guys.

She laughed. Clutching her leg and bleeding, Carol's gun on her, she laughed. "Now aim it at my face," she demanded.

You snorted when Carol's gun lowered and trained your own on her face, like she'd asked. "Where are our people, you psycho bitch?"

"You could have been one of us. Both of you! You could have listened to what the world is telling you!"

"You lead people here and you take what they have and you kill them? Is that what this place is?" Carol asked quietly.

The woman shook her head. "No, not at first. It's what it had to be." Her voice had gone breathless with the pain, and pity almost crept in again. Then her eyes got hard and she snarled. "And we're still here."

Carol lowered her gun and tapped you on the shoulder. "Come on."

"We not gonna-" You cut off and sidestepped rapidly as Carol threw open the side door and four walkers staggered in.

The woman on the ground started screaming as you followed Carol out the door. You looked back once, and you really wished you hadn't.

 

 

How Carol found her way through the maze of walkers and buildings and the occasional live asshole to the train car they'd been tying your people up in front of, you did not know. You were just grateful she had You eyed the bodies scattered all around, the wide-open door, and the tarp tossed over the fence and did some rapid math.

"They got out," you told Carol, gesturing to the tarp with the knife in your hand. Blood sprayed at your gesture and you groaned. "I want a bath. They climbed the fence there. I can follow their tracks, in the woods."

Carol gave you a dubious look, then slashed out at a walker. "You sure?"

You frowned at her and rolled your eyes. "Ok, I can probably track them. Maybe."

"Good enough. Go over first," Carol instructed.

You hauled a walker away from the tarp, stabbed him, and tossed your rifle over. "Better be on my ass," you warned Carol, and flipped less than gracefully over the thing.

 

 

--- Hey, Slugger. Thinking about you. Just got off work, and- see, usually I'd be calling you right about now, cause this was one shit day. But I'll bet you've had worse. Just wanted you to know I'm here. I'm always here, and I'm always gonna be here.

You stared down at the message on your screen and sighed. You should have known. It'd been four days since you'd heard from Shane last, a quick 'I miss you' that you'd stared at in the bathroom at Mal's place and wondered why you were there. You backed out of the message chain you couldn't bring yourself to delete without scrolling back up, because you'd read them all a thousand times and seeing your laughing conversations with him from months before hurt too much.

His picture stared out a you from the little circle beside his name- plaid shirt you'd promptly stolen from him partly unbuttoned, necklace visible underneath, shades on, arms crossed… and middle finger up in your direction. You'd taken it one day when he'd come to hang and you'd ended up in the middle of downtown, both of you day drinking beer from travel mugs as you worked on a commission wall and people dropped money into your gear bag, like you were a street performer looking for tips. You'd snapped the picture right after telling him you'd gotten a hundred dollars from passersby, and how much money had he made in his spare time today?

You darkened the screen and shoved your phone back in your pocket, pulling a cigarette from behind your ear and staring at the blank slab of drywall in front of you. You'd already opened the window and put your favorite playlist on shuffle, but as the song registered, you gritted your teeth and headed straight for the docking station on your bookshelf.

"Nope," you informed it snidely. "I am so not in the mood for Sheeran tonight."

Not when you were missing your best friend so badly. Not when you were worried about him having a shit day, because that usually meant someone had died and sometimes meant Shane himself had done the killing.

You wanted to call him. You wanted to drive to King County- you abruptly realized that in five years you'd never been there, not once- and apologize. Make sure he wasn't hurt.

You dashed angrily at the tears on your cheek and hissed when you hit the bruise Mal had left earlier.

Yeah, you weren't going to King County. You couldn't deal with the smug 'I told you so', or worse, him treating you like a fucking victim. You weren't a domestic violence case. You weren't a victim, and you didn't need Shane and his- his goddamn hero complex to come save the day.

You stabbed viciously at the screen, changing the music over from your usual pop syrupy shit- as Shane would have called it- to wailing, drum-heavy punk rock. Angry music, you thought as you turned back to the slab and squinted at it. It fit your mood and the piece you had in mind.

Grabbing the air compressor, you hooked up the first pot of paint and got to work. Sex Pistols clicked over to Green Day to the Ramones and by the time you forgot about Shane and Mal and everything but the painting, you were humming along as Fall Out Boy said thanks for the memories. You just wished you could put aside a few of your own, you thought.

Well, that's what art was for.

By four am, the music had stopped, you were exhausted, and the draft piece was finished. A zombie cop stared out at you from the slab, eyes dead and somehow hungry at the same time, with blood dripping down his chin and 'police' written across his hat. You scrubbed a hand over your eyes, stripped off your paint-splattered shirt and leggings, and pulled the plaid button up you'd stolen from Shane from the back of your closet before you curled up in bed.

Goddamn, you missed him.

 

 

Tracking wasn't hard, since there were so many of them. You stared at the number of prints, the wide swatch of disturbance in the forest floor, and felt tears blur in your eyes.

"Carol. There's… there's eight individual tracks that I can make out. Eight of our people at least," you said with a watery laugh.

Carol smiled at you and jerked her head toward the trees. "Well. Let's go find them."

You kept an eye out for walkers as you went, putting down a few individuals drawn by the continuing smoke and gunfire from Terminus. Over the sounds echoing from behind you, something drifted through the trees. You froze, your hands starting to shake.

You'd know that voice anywhere.

You took off at a dead run, shedding the gut-covered blanket on the fly and only slowing down when you smacked yourself in the face with a branch and it stung badly enough to have you checking for blood. Not that you could tell one way or another, what with the walker blood still smeared over your cheeks and all on your hands.

You pushed forward, Carol on your heels, and there they were. They were right there, all of them, and you fumbled for Carol's arm as you stared at the impossible sight in front of you.

"I don't give a shit, man. I'm fuckin' sick of assholes who think just cause the goddamn world ended they can do whatever they want!"

Shane's back was to you, his voice angry and gestures jerky as he half-yelled at Glenn. Shane was there. He was there, you thought, and willed your mouth to open or your feet to move or something. You couldn't do anything, instead looking blankly around at all the faces you knew and loved as you tried to take it all in. Maggie stood at Glenn's side, Sasha and Bob near her. She and Glenn stood so close their shoulders practically brushed, and you wanted to cry with sheer delight that they were together and safe. Glenn had been so sick last time you'd seen him, even with the medicine. But he didn't look sick now.There were four people you didn't recognize were clustered together as well, but you skipped over them as something to worry about later. Carl and Michonne leaned tiredly on trees nearby, Carl's eyes closed under his hat and his cheek scraped raw. Michonne clutched the sheath for her sword, with wooden chunks sticking out of either end, and had her eyes on Rick like she wasn't sure what to do right then.

Your brothers stood together, Daryl with his arms crossed as he leaned against a tree, staring blankly at the ground at Merle's side. He still had his vest, tattered wings looking dirtier. And Merle, you thought wildly. He'd been almost as sick as Glenn, and you'd begged him to stay inside C block. You'd been certain, in a grim little corner of your mind, that you'd killed him by asking him that. When the tank had blown part of the wall, you'd known he was dead. But he wasn't. He was alive too, and looked up about the same time Rick, pale and wide-eyed, grabbed Shane's shoulder.

"That snake Gareth ain't dead. I left a man who needed killing alive once, and it came back to bite us in the ass. I ain't gonna-"

"Shane," Rick said urgently.

Chapter Text

"Shane."

"What?" he snarled, glaring at Rick. Rick swallowed hard and didn't say anything else, and the whole damn group seemed to have frozen.

"Dickhead?"

Shane closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. He could have sworn he'd heard Ace whisper, and he had to keep it together. He reached into his pocket and clenched his fist around the bullet somehow still there, promising that once Gareth was dead and these guys were safe, he'd take himself out of the equation before he developed Rick's post-Lori brand of crazy and became a problem for the others to deal with. He opened his eyes and shoved to his feet, ignoring the stillness and utter silence of the group around him. "Fine. You're right, Glenn; we got out. Gareth still needs to die, so-"

Rick grabbed his arm and Shane whirled, fist clenched and ready to go as the temper he could barely contain on a good day- much less the day he finally lost his mind with grief- snapped free and started to run like wildfire.

Movement caught in the corner of his eye and he turned, clenching the bullet so tightly he felt the bones in his hand grind together. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening, damn it. He had things that needed doing; didn't she know that? Didn't she want him to make sure everyone would be safe before he joined her?

Shane didn't look directly at her, instead frowning at Carol. Carol couldn't be here either, he thought. Not really. Rick had banished her, and Shane didn't have a clue why he'd be hallucinating her with Ace, and certainly not with them both covered in walker blood and guts, all the way up to their hair and smeared across their faces, bristling with weapons and-

Daryl sucked in a harsh breath beside him and Shane froze again. Daryl saw- Daryl saw them. Daryl saw them?

He took a shaky step toward her and she made that noise, the one he'd first heard after Carol's jackass of a husband punched her by the quarry; the first time she'd ever really broken down in his arms. Shane snarled and he found he didn't care what the others thought anymore; if she wasn't there and he was insane, so be it.

He had to find out.

"Slugger?" He cursed the way his voice cracked, hated the raw, desperate neediness he heard in it.

She smiled, tears spilling from her eyes and leaving tracks in the blood smeared on her cheeks. "Who else would it be, Dickhead?"

 

 

Shane's phone rang, some sound he didn't recognize through the haze of sleep. He slapped at the nightstand until he found it, answering without opening his eyes. "What? Walsh."

"That's a nice way to say hello." The voice sounded amused and slightly off, and Shane scrubbed a hand over his face and cracked one eye to squint at his clock.

"Ace?" he asked after a beat. It was four thirty in the goddamn morning. What the hell?

"Who the hell else would be calling you a four am? Listen, Dickhead, thing is, I had a rough night and I'm just on the wrong side of tipsy, and, um…" She trailed off and Shane sat up, swinging his feet out of bed.

"What? How drunk is tipsy? You got someone in Atlanta you can call?"

She laughed, long and loose and thick with what Shane thought might have been tears. Tears seemed at odds with her tone, though, so maybe he was wrong about that. "Calm down, Officer Walsh. I'm fine. I'm home now."

"Now?" he asked suspiciously. Ace was never drunk and he'd never known her to even approach tipsy, either. She definitely was tonight, though, it had him wondering if he needed to be finding some pants and heading her way.

"Yeah, now. Had a date tonight."

That was surprising. "Oh?"

"Yeah. Sucked. Thanks a lot. You said dating might make it better. It didn't."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?" He settled back in bed, arm up behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. He didn't have a clue what she meant, but he was kind of an expert on bad dates, and knowing she was home made him less worried. She wanted an ear, he could lend her one, even at this ungodly hour. "Get your ass in bed, ok?"

"Dirty, Shane," she said, tone sultry. "You've gotten my ass in bed before. Suppose I'd let you do it again."

"Alright, settle down, girl." He was grinning now, picturing her with a flush on her cheeks and her eyes even brighter than normal. "I meant go lay down so when you pass out telling me all about the damn date and whatever I said dating would make easier, you'll at least be comfortable."

She sighed heavily into the phone. "God. Sex sucks."

"No, it doesn't," he said mildly. "So, you slept with whoever you went out with? Ain't like you."

"I went out with Mal."

Shane's lip curled in distaste and he rolled his eyes. "And the sex sucked? Shit, sweetheart, how many signs you need to get you to dump him for good?"

"Yeah, well. Look, I'm just- I left his place a couple hours ago and drove home and started drinking and you left your shirt here, and I don't know. I miss you. Sex with you didn't suck."

"Jesus, Slugger. Thanks, and I'm glad, but you need to shut up and go to bed now," he said, biting the inside of his lip to keep from laughing. And maybe to ignore the way talking about sex in the dark while in bed was doing things it shouldn’t be considering it was her on the other end of the line. "Seriously, if you ain't laying down yet, do it now."

"I am, I am. Why's he so mean to me, Shane? I swear, sometimes it's like- like he only wants me around when I'm not around. That make sense?" She sounded so tired and so sad Shane almost got up again.

He really hated that bastard she was in love with, he thought tiredly. "You aren't gonna like what I have to say about that," he warned her.

"Bleh. I know. Sorry. You always want me around, right?"

She yawned on the other end and Shane could picture her curled up around her pillow. He could almost feel her toes under his knee, and the thought of it made him smile. "Yeah, sweetheart. I always want you around. I'd say come over here now, but I'm thinkin' I'd have to arrest you as soon as you got here."

"Again, dirty," she mumbled.

He grinned and closed his eyes, rolling to his side and stuffing the phone between his ear and the pillow. "Yeah, yeah. How about we both catch a couple more hours and then I come to you instead?"

"Mmm. Sounds good. Hey, Shane?"

"Yeah, Slugger?"

He fell asleep wondering if she was wearing the shirt she said he left there and waiting, but whatever it was she'd been planning on saying, Shane never heard.

 

 

Shane's face pressed into her neck and he held on tight enough he heard her gasp. Her fingers threaded into his hair and he- he fucking lost it. He wasn't crying, and dimly he wondered if he should have been. He wanted to speak, to tell her he loved her and how much he'd fucking missed her, but he couldn't form words. Hell, he couldn't form a thought more coherent than thank god.

Thank God.

He'd never been what anyone might call a man of faith, before the end of the world or after, but he thought he might be now. He stared blankly at the trees behind her, eyes wide and dry, and sent up the closest thing to a prayer he'd said in years as he clung to her.

His Ace. His Slugger. She was- she was dead. He'd known it; he'd felt it, all the way down to the bottom of his soul. Like the sun had gotten darker, he'd seen the loss of her everywhere he looked.

But here she was, and he wasn't crazy. He wasn't hallucinating this. Or if he was, he was doing it well enough he no longer fucking cared. If he was crazy, so be it. He was fine with it as long as she was in his arms like this.

"I knew it. I knew it. I knew you'd made it out," she mumbled into his shoulder, and she wasn't close enough to him. He snarled and picked her up off the ground, her legs locking around him like her arms were as soon as her feet left the ground. He took two steps to the side and pressed her back into the nearest tree, framing her face in his hands and staring at her with his forehead pressed to hers.

Dixon blue eyes he'd thought he'd never see again stared back, shining and wet and impossible. "You really here, sweetheart?" he finally whispered.

"What do you mean? Come on, hero, of course I am," she answered, looking confused.

He shuddered, and that was it. He crushed his mouth to hers with a small, pained cry, his hands shaking as he ran them over her face, down her neck and arms, and back up to tangle in her hair. She kissed him back, knotting handfuls of his shirt to draw him closer, and he tasted salty tears and the copper tang of blood on her lips. She was here.

She was alive. It wasn't- it wasn't possible, but she was.

"How?" he whispered, not taking his lips from hers. "How? You- you were dead. We saw the walkers, what was left of the bodies, and your damn shirt was soaked in blood, and-"

"What?" she asked blankly. She tugged on his hair until he pulled back enough that she could give him a confused look, her forehead wrinkled and head tilted slightly to the side. "What are you talking about?"

"Walsh ain't makin' any sense," Daryl said quietly from Shane's side. "He ain't the only one thought ya was dead, though. Found ya shirt, soaked in blood beside the fuckin' train tracks. Walkers all around. We thought-"

"Oh. Oh, holy hell," she whispered, face going pale beneath the smear of blood. "God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Shut up," Shane ordered. He ran his fingers under the bleeding cut on her cheek. "What happened? Did fuckin' Gareth- if those assholes laid a hand on you, I swear-"

She snorted, her fingers tangling with his as she pressed his palm to her cheek. "I ran into a tree branch running when I heard your voice."

Merle laughed raucously and Shane shook his head, smiling as she looked beyond him to grin at her brothers and the rest of the group. "Idiot. Be more careful."

"Don't need rescuing, hero," she shot back. "Especially since we're the ones who rescued you."

"You two do all that?" Rick's voice had Ace's eyes going beyond Shane again as she smiled and shrugged.

"Rick. Shane. You need to come with us," Carol said quietly.

Ace's eyes went wide. "Oh God. Yeah. Shane, put me down. We need to go, now."

He scoffed. "I thought you were dead. You think I'm lettin' you go any time soon?"

"There's gonna be walkers all over the damn place, ya pig bastard, and maybe some of the rest of us wanna chance to hug on her too," Merle said dryly. "Come on, man. Put my lil sister down and let us say hello."

Shane started to refuse, but Ace was already dropping down out of his arms and ducking around him. Her hand locked into his, and he decided that was going to have to be good enough as she tugged insistently. "Shut up, Merle. No, Dickhead, come on. We have to go, now."

 

 

Shane stepped through Rick's back door and toed his shoes off automatically. "Hey, Slugger. Yeah, I just got back."

"Why the hell didn't you text me or call me like you said? I was worried!" she bitched in his ear.

Shane rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, but he couldn't stop the smile when he caught Lori's voice in the living room. "Because I literally just walked through the door at Rick's."

"You went to Rick's before you went home?"

"Sure. I missed his birthday last week," Shane said easily. He wandered over to their fridge, opening it up and pulling out a soda. "Besides, you said you were too busy to hang out today and I want company. Got anything else you wanna bitch at me about?"

Rick came around the corner from the living room, Carl following right on his heels and practically vibrating when he caught sight of Shane. Shane waved at Rick lazily and rolled his eyes when Rick nodded at the phone in amusement and raised an eyebrow. "Ace."

"I don't bitch. What? I'm right here. I'm not painting, I swear."

"Uncle Shane! You're home!"

"Hey, little man. Yeah, I'm home," Shane told Carl, ruffling the kid's hair when he latched onto Shane. "Sure, you're not painting. I totally believe that. Look, I'm here; I'm alive. I'll be up to see you day after tomorrow. I gotta go, Slugger."

"Fine," Ace said, drawing it out dramatically until Shane grinned. "Maybe I'll make you a Lonely Island. If you're nice to me."

"I'm always nice to you," Shane argued. Rick snorted and Shane flipped him off. "Rick disagrees with me."

"Rick sounds like he's not an idiot. Tell him happy late birthday for me. Go play with Carl. I'll see you soon, Dickhead. 'Bye."

"I will. Bye, sweetheart."

"Sweetheart?" Rick asked immediately.

Shane rolled his eyes and took a sip from the soda he'd claimed. "Ace said you sound like you're not an idiot."

"That's- thank you?"

"She also said happy late birthday. I'm sayin' it too. Sorry I was gone," Shane continued, setting the soda can down and rising to study Rick with his arms crossed.

"It was your dad's funeral. I'm not mad. Just wish I could have gone with you," Rick said quietly. "You ok?"

Shane shrugged. "I'm cool, man. We gonna hug or what? Ain't seen you in three weeks."

Rick laughed and grabbed Shane in a backslapping hug. "I missed you, brother. Glad you're back."

 

 

Her fingers gripped his tightly, her other hand curled around his arm, and Shane was too busy with the miracle of that to care where she and Carol were leading them or why. The whole group was beaming at each other, even the new red-headed bastard and his people, though they stayed quiet as they made their way through the trees.

Carol had found them, and Ace was fucking alive.

Then they emerged into a clearing with a shack and a broken-down car, and for a second Shane didn't understand what all the fuss had been about. He frowned when Ace stopped, squeezed his hand once, and let go, standing off to the side and turning that smile on Rick and Carl as well. He opened his mouth to ask her what she thought she was doing, going so far away from him, when the door to the shack opened.

Tyreese stepped out, and in his arms-

Shane was half a step behind Rick, and it was only because he'd already had one major fucking shock today. He skidded to a stop as Rick took Judith from Tyreese, the big man smiling at both of them and surrendering her willingly. Shane had one hand on Judy's back and the other on Carl's, the kid joining them with tears streaming down his cheeks right on Shane's heels. Rick wrapped his arm around Shane's shoulders and Shane leaned into his best friend's side, unashamed to admit he was overwhelmed and lost.

Judy was alive. Ace was alive. His baby and the love of his fucking life, both of them, here with everyone else he'd thought he'd lost.

Everyone except Beth.

The thought slammed through the wildfire joy, sobering him briefly as he glanced over their group. Sasha and Tyreese were talking, smiling at each other and teary eyed as the rest of the group, and Shane was glad for them. Maggie leaned her head on Glenn's shoulder as she watched the reunions, and Shane offered her a guilty smile when her eyes met his. Tara looked like she was about to cry as well, and Shane wondered briefly how much she'd learned from Maggie and Glenn and Merle. Carol stood at Daryl's side, watching everything and everyone, but mostly Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene, who ran the gamut from confused to happy as they eyed what was going on.

And his Slugger stood between her brothers, her cheek pressed to Merle's chest and engulfed in her older brother's arms. Daryl had her hand in one of his, staring down at the ground with his jaw tight and his knuckles white on the strap of the crossbow she'd somehow managed to save for him.

Because of course she had, he thought as Rick passed Judy to him. Carl leaned into Shane as they followed Rick back to the knot of their people, and Merle let Ace go with the same reluctance Shane had felt.

Judy reached for her when they got closer, and Shane hadn't thought he could feel joy so strong it hurt, but he could. When Ace cuddled his little girl and smiled at Carl, he thought he was going to break into pieces from the wild, unstoppable happiness bubbling over. He pulled them both to him, tangling his fingers in Ace's hair as she leaned against him like she had against Merle. Judy squirmed and made and annoyed noise at being sandwiched in their arms, so Ace shifted her with the ease of practice to balance on her hip. Shane stroked his fingers down Judith's cheek and she gurgled at him, and he chuckled.

"You got her," he whispered to Ace. "You got her. I thought- I thought she was dead too. We saw her car seat sitting there, and- but you got her. You got our girl."

Ace brushed her lips to his cheek as Shane drew in a shaky breath. "Of course I did. I had to. I promised you, didn't I?"

He closed his eyes, holding both of them a little tighter. "Oh, Jesus, Slugger, I love you. I love you."

Chapter Text

It didn't take long for Carol to casually mention that there was a very large fire behind you and maybe staying close by wasn't the best idea in world. Despite the way Shane held you like he never wanted to let you go again, his hands shaking slightly as he combed through your hair and traced patterns on your back with his fingertips, she was right. None of you wanted to be wandering again, not when you'd only just come together and there were stories to tell and tears to shed.

But survival came first.

You held Shane's hand tightly, his grip hard enough to bruise, and walked between him and Daryl. You couldn't fucking believe that the two of them had gotten out together, and had made it all this way without killing each other.

"Beth kept us straight, to start with," Daryl said quietly.

Shane's hand in yours clenched, and you looked between the two of them. "What happened?"

"She got taken. Picked up by a car, white cross on the back, while Dixon and I were handling walkers," Shane told you, shoving a hand through his hair with a tormented look.

"Damn it," you whispered. "I'm sorry, hero."

He offered you a faint smile and lifted your joined hands to press a kiss to your fingers. "We'll find her."

You didn't think so, but shit- You'd never have anticipated finding all of these guys either.

Twigs snapping to the side drew everyone's attention, and a lone walker came staggering toward you.

"I've got it," Michonne announced, reaching over her head for a sword that wasn't there.

You sighed, guilt spearing through you that you hadn't been able to locate her sword for her. Daryl's crossbow and Rick's Python had been gratefully received, Shane shaking his head and muttering that you and Carol were in charge of all expeditions from now on. But you hadn't seen the samurai sword anywhere, and as Michonne bashed the walker's head in with the rifle you wished again that you had.

"Shit, sugar, ya a damn sight messier without that sword," Merle called. "Got brains all over ya gun."

Michonne shot him a an enigmatic look. "What else was I supposed to use?"

"I dunno," Merle said with a shrug and a grin. "Ain't got any other kinda blade?"

"I had a sword. Why would I need a knife?"

You bit your lip to keep from laughing at the sheer disgusted annoyance in Michonne's voice. Shane glanced down at you and rolled his eyes, and you leaned into his arm as you walked. You'd missed them so much, you thought as you looked around at your crazy family. You'd missed them all so much.

 

 

 

Rick called a halt and jerked his head for Shane and Daryl to join him for what you assumed would be a leadership conference. Hopefully decisions would be made and plans would follow, since you found yourselves back in a pre-prison hellscape of a situation, but with the added fun of a baby. You needed the Rick you'd had before the prison, and you suspected, looking at him with his head together with Shane and Daryl, that he might be back. They had given you the quick and dirty version of them finding Rick, Michonne, and Carl, and holy shit. Rick had ripped someone's throat out. With his teeth.

They could get you to where ever it was you were heading next. And honestly? Unlike Merle's new friends- Abraham the military man, tough-as-nails Rosita, and Eugene the scientist who could apparently kill all the walkers collectively and officially zero of them individually- you didn't give a shit where you went next.

Merle's arm landed around your shoulders. "So, the pig bastard decided he could stand to let go of ya after all, then?"

"Don't be an ass," you chided. "He has a name. And he thought I was dead."

"Yeah, I done got told. I'm real glad ya ain't, baby sister," Merle said softly, bending and planting a kiss on your cheek. "But I gotta tell ya- you'n Miss Carol sure don't smell- or look- too damn pretty. Why don't the two of ya head down to that there stream and clean yourselves up a bit."

You lifted an eyebrow. "This really the time?"

"You do have walker innards in your hair. And your eyebrows. And I want to check that cut on your cheek. It's hard to tell what's walker blood and what's your blood," Shane said, coming back over from his huddle with Rick and Daryl. "Besides, Judy's been giving you odd looks."

You snorted. "Bullshit. Judy's seen me look worse and been fine with it. We stopped for awhile?"

"Yeah, we're gonna set up a camp here," Shane agreed. "Far enough out from Terminus we shouldn't see any herds. Got the stream and shit. Daryl said it was a good spot; Rick agreed."

"Then fine. Come with me. Stand guard, I guess," you said with a shrug.

"Shit, baby sis. Ain't no privacy down there. Don't scar the rest of us for life now, ya hear?" Merle drawled, winking luridly in your direction.

You groaned loud enough that Daryl looked over in your direction curiously. "You're a dick. Go play with your new best friend and leave us alone. Now that you two have brought it to my attention, I feel disgusting and I want to get clean."

 

 

Shane scrubbed at the walker blood in your hair. Eyes closed, you leaned against him, sitting on the bank and enjoying the sensation of being relatively clean.

"This isn't watching for walkers," you said slowly, exhaustion you'd been barely holding at bay since seeing the Governor's face starting to creep in. Funny, you had a feeling you'd be able to sleep tonight.

Shane's lips brushed your neck, his arms wrapping around you and drawing you into his lap. "Don't exactly give a shit, Slugger."

You cuddled in against him, listening to his heartbeat and fiddling with the 22 somehow still around his neck. "Fair enough. God, Dickhead," you whispered. "I didn't- I didn't know what to do. Carol kept telling me I couldn't go back. Not until Judith was safe, and I knew she was right. But- I didn't know if you were alive or dead, or my brothers, or anyone else."

"I should have gone with you," he said. "When you wanted to get to her. I should have gone with you." Shane's lips found yours, and you clung to him, losing yourself in it for a long time.

"Ok, you two, share the stream. Ace isn't the only one who needed to get clean." Carol's amused tone had you breaking away from Shane to make a face at her. "Hey, I'm doing you a favor. Merle wanted to come down and get you."

 

 

You woke up warm, something heavy draped across you and holding you in place. For a split second you had no idea where you were or what was going on before panic faded when Shane's arm twitched over you and his hand clenched into a fist. You smoothed his fist out gently, until his hand lay flat against your stomach and he sighed. You cuddled closer under his arm, opening your eyes reluctantly since if you really woke up you'd end up getting up. It was dark, the fire crackling lowly in the middle of the clearing. Other sleeping bodies lay around, the air disturbed only by soft breathing and the occasional shuffling movement.

You lay still for a moment, feeling Shane's steady breathing on the back of your neck.

He was alive. He was alive, and you'd found him. It was something you'd never take for granted again. He shifted again, mumbling unhappily as he pulled you tighter and pressed his face to the back of your neck. You couldn't help but smile as he held you like you were a damn a teddy bear.

How many times had you woken up like this with him? Shit, even before the end of the world had shoved how much you loved this man into your face, you'd been here more than a few times. You'd both laugh it off the next morning, but if Shane slept in your bed, he reached for you. And you let him.

You turned and squinted up at the stars, trying to figure out how long you'd been asleep. The spiderweb edge of exhaustion that had been hanging over you for so long you’d almost forgotten it wasn't normal had faded, so clearly you'd actually gotten some rest.

"I don't wanna talk about it."

You lifted your head and looked for the source of Carol's soft comment, smiling when you found her and Daryl sitting side-by-side on watch. Daryl's chin rested on the butt of his crossbow as he stared at Carol in silence, and amusement had you watching and listening in. You'd been on the receiving end of your twin's silent, patient waiting more than once. It'd be fun to see how long it took Carol to crack.

"I can't," Carol added firmly. "I just need to forget it."

You knew what she was talking about and your heart twisted. Yeah, you needed to forget it as well- Lizzy holding a knife, Mika's blood creeping along the ground and staining Judith's blanket, one single gunshot and the sick squelch of a knife sliding through a skull. You shivered, wondering if agreeing to keep it quiet was the best idea the three of you had ever had.

You'd tell Shane. Probably Daryl and Merle as well. But like Carol, you just- you just couldn't. Not yet.

"All right," Daryl finally said, sounding as utterly unconvinced as you were.

You closed your eyes again, settling back down into Shane's arms, when you heard the snap of a twig in the trees. You were on your feet in an instant, gun in hand and scanning the night. Daryl scoffed lightly as he joined you.

"Thought ya was asleep."

"I was," you whispered back to him. "Till I wasn't. There's nothing there."

"Yeah," he agreed. He gave you the same look he'd turned on Carol as you followed him over to the tree they'd chosen for watch.

You touched Carol's arm and she smiled at you faintly. "You should be sleeping," she informed you.

"So should you. It's Darrie's watch," you shot back.

"Stop callin' me fuckin' Darrie."

You grinned and leaned into his side, head on his shoulder. "No."

"Somethin' happened out there," he said after a moment of quiet among the three of you. "Somethin' bad. I can see it, in ya both. Don't wanna talk about it, that's aight. We all got shit. Just sayin', I'm here. If ya do."

"Awww," Carol said with a chuckle. "Thanks, Pookie. We're ok. I'm ok, anyway. Well, since Ace is up, I'm going to sleep."

"Sounds about right," you agreed, and she rolled her eyes at you. You stayed leaning on Daryl's shoulder, partly because he was there and so were you, but mostly because you'd missed him. You'd been certain Merle was gone. He had to have been, sick as he was and in C block when the tank hit it? You'd known, even if you hadn't admitted it to yourself.

But you'd been fairly certain Daryl was gone, too, and he wasn't. He was back at your side, and you'd missed him being there.

"Hey," you whispered, setting your chin on his shoulder until he jerked it out from under you with a scowl.

"Fuckin' bony chin, Ace, that hurts," he grumbled. He glanced over and the healing black eye hurt your heart, but he could take it. "What are ya grinnin' at?"

You kissed his cheek and lay your head on his shoulder again. "You."

Daryl's snort was eloquent, but he slung his arm around your shoulders. "Missed ya."

"Missed you back," you told him. Silence fell again and you watched Shane, now on his back, in the flickering firelight. "Thank you."

Daryl twitched like he'd forgotten you were there. "For what?"

"You and Shane, getting out together. You kept him alive. I can't- shit, Dar, I can't say thank you enough," you said, sniffing as your eyes filled.

Daryl scoffed. "So he told ya, then? He take the goddamn bullet out of his pocket and put it back in his gun?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

He grimaced and rolled his eyes as you sat up and stared at him. "Course he didn't fuckin' tell ya. What was I thinkin'? When he wakes up, ask him about the fuckin' bullet in his pocket. He was keepin' one. Ya know. For himself."

You stared at Daryl as pure panic ran through you. Your hands shook as you reached one up to shove your hair back, swallowing hard past the lump in your throat. "He what? Darrie, he what?"

Daryl sighed. He grabbed your hand and squeezed your fingers. "He wasn't gonna do it. I wouldn't'a let him anyway."

Somehow, that didn't make anything better.

 

 

You didn't say anything to Shane about it the next morning, since you were busy with Carl and Judith, breaking down camp, and riding herd on your dumbass brother and his new dumbass redheaded friend.

"That ain't how ya bank a fire properly," Merle insisted, looming over Abraham as he crouched. "Ya wanna add a forest fire to the world's list of problems? Ain't no damn firefighters to come handle it."

"This is- look here, jackass. You cover the fire with dirt. It ain't exactly hard," Abraham shot back, rising with his chest puffed out and his jaw set to stare at Merle. "Therefore, it is, in fact, the proper way to do it."

"Yeah? Then why's there smoke comin' from it still?"

Abraham looked like smoke was about to come from his ears when Michonne stepped over, looked down at what had been the fire, and kicked more dirt on it. "There," she said simply, rolling her eyes at you.

"Thought you were Army, Sergeant!" Merle barked. "That kinda slipshod work never would have flown in my platoon."

"Oh you wouldn't have lasted two minutes in one of my squads, you-"

"Boys!" Michonne snapped, stepping between them. "Put them away. It's time to move."

You snorted when she stepped over toward you, shaking her head as she clearly prayed for patience. "Now there's two of them."

"I noticed," Michonne said dryly. "Overgrown children."

Judith gurgled at her as if in agreement and you laughed.

 

 

Rick led, big surprise, heading through the trees with the purposeful stride of someone with a destination in mind. That was fairly amusing, since you knew for a fact from Shane that you were mostly just picking a direction to get as far from Terminus as possible before you maybe committed your group to Merle's new buddy's Washington mission.

Shane had told you he'd offered to go with them, if they made it out of the fucking train car. He'd added in a fierce voice, watching the camp with his arms crossed, that you weren't splitting the group up again, though. If Rick got on board, so would Shane. That was it.

You'd go where Dickhead went.

You hesitated, thinking about a bullet in Shane's pocket and wondering if now was the time to bring it up. You couldn't- Shane couldn't- Your hand clenched around his and he looked at you, concern in his eyes.

Something rustled nearby and the whole armed lot of you had weapons out and ready to go when your brothers came around a tree. Merle eyed the group with a smugly satisfied smile- like your level of alertness had anything to do with him- and Daryl scoffed.

"We surrender," he said dryly, hitching a string of squirrels up on his shoulder. You rolled your eyes and stepped closer as Daryl fell in beside Rick. "No tracks. No nothing."

"So whatever you heard last night…" Rick trailed off, giving him a confused look.

"Was more what I felt," Daryl said reluctantly. "But if someone was watchin' us, there'd have been something."

You started chewing on your thumbnail absently, considering. Daryl could track anything in the woods, damn it, and if he couldn't find sign? There was no sign to be found. Problem was, you'd felt- and heard, damn it- the same thing he had. And you were about as convinced as your twin.

Shane grabbed your hand and pulled your thumb from your mouth, kissing your fingertips. "Keep close," he told the rest of the group. "Tighten it up, everyone, come on."

 

 

"Help! Please, anybody, help!"

Rick threw up his hand and everyone froze as the cries carried faintly through the trees. You slung the rifle from your back and looked down the line, finding Judith in Carol's arms and Merle covering her with his own gun out and face serious. She set one hand on Merle's back, and you knew Judy was in good hands with the two of them. You focused back on the trees as you waited for Rick and Shane to decide what the hell to do.

Carl wasn't so patient. "Come on. Dad, come on!" he urged as whoever it was kept yelling for help. The kid turned irritated, urgent eyes Shane's way, and Shane shrugged. Rick nodded.

Your group took off at a run.

 

 

Five walkers were dispatched with brutal efficiency while whoever it was screamed on top of the rock. Shane grabbed your arm and turned you toward him, eyes raking over you urgently. You lifted an eyebrow and shook blood from your knife blade.

"Seriously? I'm fine," you muttered to him, brushing a light kiss to his lips. A couple of walkers were no big deal.

He ran his fingers down your cheek and wrapped his arm around your waist as the man scrambled down from the rock. You blinked, taking in the black suit and the white collar, as well as the terrified eyes.

"You okay?" Rick asked, sounding just as confused as you felt.

The man leaned over and started puking, and Shane scoffed.

"Well, Slugger," he said dryly. "Found you a priest."

Yeah, that had you laughing.

 

 

Shane didn't even need to say anything to have you taking Judith and waiting outside the church while he and the others cleared it. Father Gabriel watched you closely enough that you were uncomfortable, but you figured it was probably just the shock of seeing a baby.

He was weird, you'd decided pretty much immediately. And he was hiding something. But he seemed harmless enough.

He'd said he had no weapons of any kind, and when Rick had searched him that turned out to be true. You'd leaned into Shane when Rick asked Gabriel how many walkers he'd killed, how many people he'd killed, and why, and you'd blinked in disbelief when the answers were none, none, and 'because the Lord abhors violence'.

Shane hadn't needed to do more than shoot a glance your way when you reached Saint Sarah's Episcopal Church, that look in his eyes that made you want to argue with him making your teeth grind together. Instead, you nodded and took the baby from Carol, smiling slightly when Shane's expression softened into a thank you.

Rick came striding out not long after they'd gone in, handing the priest back the keys.

"I spent months here without stepping out the front door. If you found someone inside- well, it would have been surprising," Gabriel said, another ill-attempt at humor that your people- especially Rick- largely ignored. Rick's thousand yard stare had you pressing your lips together and trying not to laugh, especially when Gabriel looked away from Rick and then back, laughing nervously at his own joke.

"We found a short bus out back," Abraham told Rick.

The words popped out before you thought about it. That was your only excuse.

"Good, you probably need it." You slapped a hand over your mouth as Merle cracked up and all eyes turned to you.

Abraham grinned. "Your brother found it, and he seemed right at home. It don't run, but I bet we could fix that in a day or two. Father here says he doesn't want it. Looks like we found ourselves some transport."

Rick said nothing, giving you and Shane a significant look as he came and reached for Judith. You handed her over easily as Abraham asked if Rick understood what was at stake. "Yes, I do," Rick said quietly.

"Now that we can take a breath-"

Abraham interrupted Michonne. "We take a breath, we slow down, shit inevitably goes down."

Well, you found that one hard to argue with, you thought. But Rick and Michonne were right- you needed supplies. As Shane said, priorities were food, water, ammunition. Abraham looked pissed as Rick and Michonne headed into the church with Carl and Judy, Daryl on their heels and promising him some baked beans.

"Rick's a good man. He'll come around," Merle told Abraham. "Give him a minute. They all just dealt with some shit."

Abraham started to speak, turning a hot glare Merle's way, but Merle just raised his eyebrows. "We've been dealing with shit since the world got broke, and the only way to make the shitstorm stop is to get Eugene's hairy ass to Washington."

"We're not splitting up," Glenn said as he headed inside. "We all go, or none of us do."

"What he said," Maggie agreed.

Tara paused on her way in and shrugged. "What she said."

You liked Tara, you decided. You liked her a lot. Your eyes narrowed on Merle. "Why are you so into going to Washington?"

Merle snorted and grabbed your elbow, steering you up the stairs. "Sugar, does this world look fun to ya? Smartypants back there with the hair can fix it. I ain't exactly havin' the time of my life, and I know you ain't either."

"That's fair," you agreed, taking in the church as you entered. "We're not splitting up."

"Hell naw. Just found you two shits, ain't lettin' ya get in trouble without ol' Merle to watch ya back," he agreed. "Gotta watch out for my baby siblings."

"Shut up, asshole," you told him, but you were smiling. Shane held out a hand to you from the front of the church, and you headed up to join him and the others.

"How'd you survive here for so long? Where'd your supplies come from?" Rick asked Gabriel intensely.

"Luck. Our annual canned food drive," the priest said, giving you a nervous smile as Shane pulled you close. "Ended just before. I was alone, so it lasted quite a while. I've cleaned out every place nearby since, however. Except for one."

"What kept you from it?" Rick asked.

"It's overrun," Gabriel said. "A dozen or so, maybe more."

"We can handle a dozen," you put in.

Shane grunted. "Not you."

"Excuse you?" you asked, eyebrows shooting up as you turned on him. "Not who now?"

"Ain't ya learned nothin', Walsh?" Daryl muttered, sounding disgusted.

"Not you. Not me. We're staying here. Keep a watch over Judy and Carl," Shane said easily. He ignored the others in favor of giving you the damn puppy eyes, his fingers twinning with yours as he did.

Your eyes narrowed and you were ready to tell him exactly what you thought about him making unilateral decisions- even ones you agreed with; you didn't actually want to do, you just didn't like being told what to do- when Merle let out a loud groan. "Shit, y'all. Get out while ya can. They gonna fuck!"

You slapped a hand over your eyes as laughter rang out from all around the church, feeling your cheeks heat up immediately. "We are in a church, you ass! I hate all of you. You're sickos."