Smoke clung heavily to the air around him, blocking his view of the main street of Woodbury. Most of the people who were defending it against his own group had become lost in the smoke as well, making him feel walled in. Rick glanced over his shoulder to see Maggie and Glenn use a vehicle as a booster so they could scramble over the fence and make their escape. The Asian man moved painfully slow as he struggled with his injuries. Once the couple cleared the wall, he would make his move to follow them, but first he would need to get Daryl who had gone rogue since finding out about Merle.

Rick's heart was pounding wildly in his chest as he scanned the street before him, and it seemed the harder he tried to calm his nerves so that he could form a cohesive plan, the more his brain felt scrambled. Maybe he'd inhaled too much smoke or something, but he couldn't seem to catch his breath long enough to form a rational thought that existed outside of a single one: he had to get back to Lori, Carl, and Judith. Part of him regretted leaving them at all, especially now that their plan to slip in and out had gone so awry.

He'd promised himself that he was going to get them all through this, but it felt like the Universe or God or whatever the hell was calling the shots had other ideas. His eyes flicked upwards towards the sky with a question that was answered by the thick smoke forming a wispy canopy that hid the stars. If there was a God, he had not come to this place for a long time.

Rick's head throbbed with exhaustion as he lowered his gaze hopelessly to earth to see a figure charging towards him through the breath of fog. He froze and his brain seemed to slow and speed up all at once as he tried to understand how he could be seeing what couldn't be possible. The ghost took form as it came closer, shifting into a man, an assault weapon held across his chest, his deadly eyes fixed on Rick's.

Shane.

The sound of a phone ringing cut through the town that had gone quiet around him. The jingling pulsed in his ears and it occurred to him that he must be dreaming again. Rick's eyes stayed glued to Shane as he fought the urge to collapse under the weight of his overwhelming confusion.

Is this real?

Rick's lip curled and he felt hatred course through him.

You think you can just come back here and destroy everything?

His eyes settled on the other man's chest as his weapon moved across it to settle into his side. A glint of silver caught his eye and Rick squinted to see it in the unstable light of the flames around them. The small heart-shaped locket glanced off Shane's chest with each undulating step he took, the silver catching the burning red and orange hues of the fire. Rick's own face twisted with the agony of knowing that Shane had torn apart some of the good in them away with him. He'd forced Rick's hand and forced him into a tyrant. From beyond the grave his best-friend had driven a wedge between himself and Lori, he'd turned him cold to her pain- she could have died knowing only his hatred and malice.

Shane's gun lit up his face as he flicked the trigger and Rick rose to his feet. He wouldn't allow this man to come back and take any more from them. He wouldn't lose Lori to him, or Carl, or Judith either. He'd kill Shane a thousand times to save her- to keep her.

The gun in his own hand recoiled as he pulled the trigger, aiming it high at the other man's throat. The bullet hit his target easily, causing Shane's body to reverse direction and fall backwards.

Still in disbelief Rick walked numbly over to the fallen man, his chest heaving as the adrenaline left his body, only to find that it wasn't Shane at all. His mind had created something that wasn't there at all, yet, it still felt so real.

The ringing had stopped and he lifted his head as the world snapped back into motion. He spotted Daryl ahead of him and he called out to him, trembling with confusion and shock. Daryl called something back, and though he could barely hear it over the roaring in his own ears, he interpreted the other man's lips.

-cover you.

Rick hesitated until his thoughts turned back to his family. He needed to get back to them. Daryl would come.

XXXX

The town around him was hidden behind a fog thick, enough that he felt like he was in his own world. He'd pulled away from Rick to push forward, even though he knew that he should be making his escape with the rest of the group. But he wasn't thinking rationally, and he accepted that- his brother had always had that affect on him. As a child he'd broken every rule for Merle: lied, cheated, stolen. Maybe it was because he was the only family he'd ever really had, as shitty a family as that was. Merle hadn't thrown much his way besides scraps to keep him coming back like a pathetic feral cat. But a shitty home and family was better than none as he'd learned during his time in the system before he got dumped up north with his grandparents.

The town around him was a full on war zone. People were firing at ghosts in the smoke, but not really sure what they were aiming for. Daryl knew what he was looking for though as he crouched down low to avoid having his brain splattered. He wasn't sure where he'd find his big brother in the chaos, but he knew that he couldn't walk away now. After a year of believing that he was dead- well, he still wasn't sure that he believed that he wasn't. His lifted his line of vision towards the edges of the roofs of the buildings lining the streets in order to orient himself, since he couldn't see anything at ground level.

Maybe he wasn't even sure that Merle was really alive, but if he was, he wasn't surprised that he'd fallen in with this bunch of assholes. Merle had always found his way into the rough crowd and it had never done him any good. The thing was, he fit in with them 'cause he could be a real shit-head at times. Daryl shook his head. But he was family, and you had to take care of your own.

Daryl glanced over his shoulder, he couldn't see Rick anymore. He figured they had already hopped the fence and he wondered if they were waiting for them on the other side. He wouldn't go so far as to say that he thought of the group as family, or that he was even fond of them, but he'd found a place with them. For the first time in his life he felt like he could contribute, like he was needed. They needed food and he could do that. He could be Rick's right arm too. His thoughts turned to Carol and he cringed at the shit he had said to her before he left. He'd meant it, sort of. It was true that they were all going to die at some point, and so they all needed to be ready to carry on without each other. But maybe that didn't mean that they couldn't find a kinship in the mean-time.

Daryl raised his weapon and pulled the trigger but the empty barrel gave only a dull click. Swearing under his breath, he tossed the weapon to his side. If he had anything between his ears it wouldn't have mattered that he was out because he should have been on the other side of the wall by now and long gone from this shithole. But, Merle had always had a way of getting him into shit. Like the time he'd bunked at Daryl's trailer and left a stash of cocaine for the parole officer to find. That stunt had gotten them both kicked off the pad and straight out of the park. He started to push himself to his feet so he could make a run for it.

Before he could even make it into semi-standing position, though, Daryl froze again as another memory came back to him: the time that Daryl had gotten himself in a jam at the bar. He'd hustled a game of pool and pissed off some of the guys. Before he'd known what happened he'd had a broken bottle at his throat. Merle'd jumped the table like some kind of a damn gymnast and clocked the guy. He hadn't hesitated in coming to Daryl's defence even though he'd roughed him up on the way home for being an idiot and getting them banned from the bar.

"Fuck," he muttered, reaching for his knife. He'd known all along he wasn't going anywhere without Merle. He moved to sprint forward while the path ahead of him was clear, but was stopped when strong arms closed around him from behind, putting him in a choke hold. He shook the person hard to loosen their hold until he felt the barrel of a still smoking gun press to the side of his head.

Panting for breath he raised his hands in surrender.

XXXX

Lori felt like she was being assaulted by her senses as she resurfaced into consciousness: the smell of cooking, the baby whimpering and the feeling of someone touching her, tugging at her clothing. She tried to push the hands away but her own were immediately secured at her sides as someone leaned over her, hushing her in the process. When her eyes opened her view was filled with a soiled neutral coloured shirt, its top button opened to reveal white chest hair.

"Hershel," she rasped, her throat painfully dry.

The man released his hold on her and dropped back heavily into his seat. "You've got to hold still, Lori," he patted the hand that was closest to him. "You're alright, but you need to take it easier."

The old man continued his work on her incision site, and the smell of rubbing alcohol became stronger in the room, overwhelming whatever food was being prepared in their small makeshift kitchen. Lori shifted uncomfortably at the stinging sensation and pressure that accompanied Hershel's work.

"What happened?" she asked, turning to look around the room in confusion. She remembered being with Beth and Carl, and there were newcomers… and she remembered feeling dizzy and then nothing. Her disorientation only increased when she tried to clear her mind, so she turned her thoughts to the present. "Carl? Is he alright?"

"Carl is fine," Hershel tore some fabric from a stark white sheet and laid it over her abdomen. "Worried about you, but he's keeping himself busy…" he finally looked up to meet her eyes. "Asserting himself where he can." His final words her accompanied by a wink.

Lori wasn't sure how to respond to his presumed chagrin. Her own doubt must have become evident on her face because he immediately rested his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of reassurance.

"I remember when my own were his age," Hershel drawled. "They like to take a running leap at boundaries." He chuckled at his memories, though Lori could sense some melancholy in his retrospect. She could relate to the bittersweet feeling that accompanied looking into the past at a life that had dissolved almost overnight. She missed the simplicity of the days gone by, the security that she had taken for granted; that she had never questioned.

She really missed movie nights with Rick, curled up with a cold beer and a bowl of buttery popcorn, their feet tangled up in the space between them as they leaned against opposite ends of the sofa. If he'd already seen the film he would spoil it by nudging her foot each time something interesting was about to happen. Then look over at her to watch her reaction.

Now, she smiled sadly at the memory. In the latter years of their marriage all these things that she had once found endearing had become ammo for arguments. She'd nag that it made her feel weird when he looked at her. That he always ruined the movie for her. By the end movie night became a warzone where the space between them because the battlefield that neither were willing to step out onto. Even to offer a white flag.

Lori closed her eyes and turned her face to the wall where she would be able to collect herself and reign in her turbulent emotions. "Baby hormones," she joked when Hershel squeezed her shoulder.

"You need to take it easier, Lori." Hershel's voice was firm. His cold hand rested against her forehead and then the back of her neck.

Lori laughed humourlessly. "This world isn't one that has much patience for those who can't keep up," she turned her head to look at him, catching his eye as it flicked down to the stump that had once been his leg. She felt her eyes widen as realization set in about what she had said. "I'm sorry, Hershel. That was-," her apology was cut short when he raised his hand to stop her.

The old man wore a knowing smile that crinkled the corners of his blue eyes. "Don't trouble yourself," he said. "I already know and I've accepted these are probably the last days of my life. I only hope that I can use them wisely."

Lori's protest was interrupted by the soft cry of her infant daughter. "She must be hungry," she started to push her self up, but was stopped by Hershel's hands.

"Hold your horses," he spoke softly, grabbing the pillows from the top bunk. He eased them behind her, propping her into a more upright position, though she was still inclined enough that her wound wasn't strained. Once she was settled he lifted Judith and passed her to her mother, averting his eyes politely as she positioned the baby.

Lori looked to the older man, still feeling guilty for what she'd said. She knew that one of her worst habits was letting her mouth run ahead of her brain. She turned her attention back to her baby; she loved these moments when she could just hold her and bond with her. She wondered how different the little girl's life would have been had she died in the boiler room. Who would hold her? Rock her?

By the time she looked up she realized that Hershel had slipped out of the room. She wondered how deeply she had been lost in thought to not hear him maneuvering awkwardly with his crutches.

"How's that, my sweet girl?" she stroked the baby's cheek with her index finger.

Lori had just transferred the baby to her shoulder when Carol came into her cell, a pile of fresh linens in her hands. They looked to be factory folded and fresh out of the packaging.

"Thought you might like some fresh bedding," Carol tilted her head, admiring the baby. "Oh, I could just squish her," she stepped further into the room to place the bedding on the top bunk.

"Do you want to burp her?" Lori offered, alternating between rubbing and patting Judith's back.

Carol nodded and took the baby from her mother.

"I was thinking…" Lori slowly eased her legs off the bed and got to her feet, using the bunk as a support railing. "Maybe it's time that I pick a cell for Rick and me- for when he gets back. Maybe we can push two bunks together… to give us some more space?" Her question came with an air of uncertainty. She wasn't even sure if her husband was ready to sleep with her again. And she also was wary of asking for so much help from the others when she was barely contributing to everyday chores.

"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Carol agreed, moving her chin back to look at the baby's face. She cringed when her neck was splattered by milky spit-up.

Lori gave her a horrified look and reached to take her daughter back. Her advance was waved off by Carol who snagged a towel from the top bunk and started to clean herself up. "I've had one of these before," she chuckled softly. "It'll take more than that to scare me off."

"Where's Carl?" Lori asked, shuffling painfully around her friend, one hand holding the cotton material in place that Hershel had laid over her incision. It hadn't been taped or secured in place and she figured he was leaving the wound over to breathe.

Carol followed her out into the common area. "Outside." At Lori's alarmed expression she nodded towards the door that led to the overpass that connected their building with the adjacent one.

Lori breathed a sigh of relief. "You got her?" She asked, referring to her daughter.

The other woman nodded and headed towards the camping-stove where something was simmering in a pot. Lori left her and made her way outside to find her boy. He was where Carol had told her, sitting on the ground, his back against the fence outside as he looked out over the prison yard and the straggling Walkers that moved around within its fences.

"Hey," he looked her over when he heard the door open. "You look better," Carl commented, turning his eyes to look straight ahead again.

Lori nodded and made her way over to him. "C'mere," she beckoned to him, twitching her fingers to indicate that he should stand. When he did, she tucked the cloth into her pocket and pulled him into a hug. She removed his hat without releasing him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "I love you, you know."

"I know," he assured her.

She sighed and turned her head so that her cheek rested where she had placed her kiss. "I'm sorry that things are hard between us right now. But I need you to know that I only ever want to keep you safe. I don't mean to make you think I don't respect you… I just- I'm your mom. It's my job to worry about you."

"You worry too much," he mumbled, wrapping his arms around her thin waist. "But… you're a good mom. So I guess I can suck it up." He pulled away and looked up at her, snagging his hat back. One of his eyebrows rose at the tears in her eyes. "You know that right? That you're a good mom?"

Lori swallowed hard and nodded, turning to look through the fence at the yard as she tried to bury her emotions.


This chapter concludes Part One of this series. Part Two is posted under "The Benevolent Mask" on my profile. Thank you for reading!