Title: let no man put asunder

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-13/T + heavy swearing

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Summary: Daryl tilted his head. "You lyin' to yourself, or to me? You know damn well what she expects. It just ain't somethin' you think you can give her." 2600 words.

Spoilers: The Walking Dead, bridgefic for 3.02 "Sick" and 3.04 "The Killer Within"

Notes: Stupid show finally made me start to care about Lori, and then! So, here's me, adding in a little better before the worse, because something like this should have happened.

He found Daryl waiting when he walked back through the door into the shadows of the prison. Just standing there, crossbow loose in his hands, wearing that intent, watchful expression that had been at Rick's back near every step of the way the last few months.

Rick glanced back over his shoulder at the slump-shouldered form of his wife, sleeve brushing over her cheek as she stared down into the prison yard, and sighed. No doubt he'd heard every word of what they'd said- or not said- to each other. Of course, there was never much more than the illusion of privacy in the group anymore, but Rick wasn't exactly proud of that particular conversation.

He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, then met Daryl's gaze again and shrugged. If someone had to be listening, though, at least it was someone with no stake in his marriage. Someone who wouldn't mouth off about it, whatever he might think in the privacy of his own mind.

Daryl nodded, then jerked his head back toward the interior of the prison.

Rick fell in at his side as they walked back toward the cell block, grateful for one uncomplicated thing in his world. The faint murmur of voices carrying from Hershel's bedside was a relief as well; he found himself automatically assessing the tone, and relaxing just a fraction more to find the mood still upbeat. There'd been no setbacks there, at least, after everything else that had gone wrong that day.

Daryl stopped him just short of the last corner before they'd rejoin the others, though, with a light touch to the arm and a gesture toward an empty alcove where sound wouldn't carry.

"Something on your mind?" Rick asked him quietly, brows drawing together as he followed. It wasn't exactly unusual for Darryl to pull him aside, but usually because he wanted to go hunting or something, not because he wanted to talk.

Daryl shook his head, staring at him solemnly. "Thought there might be on yours, though. Been walking around like a bear with a sore head."

Rick closed his eyes briefly, rubbing a palm over his face. So much for uncomplicated. What the hell was he supposed to say? "Not that it's any of your business, but I don't know what the hell she expects from me anymore," he replied, frustrated.

Daryl tilted his head, narrowing his eyes at that response. "You lyin' to yourself, or to me? You know damn well what she expects. It just ain't somethin' you think you can give her."

The unexpected attack jolted though Rick like an electric current. "What?" he blurted. "What the hell are you talking about?" The words were something he might have expected from Shane, back near the end, but what reason would Daryl have to put his two cents in?

One corner of Daryl's mouth lifted in a sort of bitter half-smile, but there was nothing remotely apologetic about it. "You ain't doin' any of us any favors letting her get to you like that. Or her any favors, draggin' it all out this way."

"Dragging what out?" he hissed, stepping closer, resisting the temptation to wrap a fist in Daryl's shirt. That might intimidate most of the others- but it wouldn't stop Daryl. Something Rick usually thought of as an asset, one of the few things that might keep him from going as far off the rails as Shane had, but at the moment was only making his mood worse.

"You know," Daryl said, tipping his chin up belligerently. "Or, hell, maybe you don't. You weren't there those first few weeks, when she was clinging to Shane like he was the only goddamn rock in the ocean."

Rick had known- of course he'd known- that Shane and Lori had kept each other going before he'd found them; had even been sincerely grateful that his wife and best friend had been there for each other. He'd tried damn hard not to think about the form it took, though, especially since he'd been forced to- since Shane had left a void in his world he was still having trouble coming to terms with.

"I don't need to hear this."

"I think you do," Daryl countered. "Maybe it wasn't a problem when it was just you and her, but it's like she don't know how to be strong on her own. She needs someone to stand with her, or she falls all to pieces. But you're all out of give-a-damn, 'cause you been spending it all on the group instead."

He paused then, taking in the expression on Rick's face, and curled his lip; Rick didn't know what he was seeing, but he couldn't imagine it was pretty. "Or maybe it ain't nothin' new to you. Cop, right? How much time d'you spend at work, after you put on that badge? How long'd it take before you were arguin' more than you made up?"

Rick looked away, jaw working, provoked as hell but unable to argue the point. He'd been so relieved when he'd found Lori and Carl, like a miracle in the middle of a world gone straight to hell, he'd blocked out that last while of sharp words and frigid silences. He'd figured there was no use dwelling on it; they'd been given a clean slate to start over.

Yeah, and look what they'd done with it. "Daryl..." he growled.

"Way I see it, you got two choices," Daryl pressed on, stabbing a finger at Rick. "You get the fuck over yourself, start delegating more, and spend some time figurin' how to be a husband again. Or you take that ring offa your finger and tell Lori you ain't got nothin' left to give. No more of this halfway shit; it's got all of us off our game, and we can't afford the distraction."

He wasn't wrong about that, either. But the decision wasn't as black and white as he was making it out to be. "Carl, and the baby..."

"What, you gonna stop bein' their father just because you ain't fuckin' their mother? And how's that any different from the way things are now?" Daryl rolled his eyes.

Rick swatted the other man's jabbing finger aside. "Christ, if it was only the arguing, or... or Shane, don't you think I'd have done something already?" He fumed, shaking his head. Easy to say they should just be grateful they were both alive, and get over themselves- but there was more to it than fretful worry, or a bit of ill-chosen comfort. "You heard the kinds of things she's been saying to me? Telling me she knows I'm doing my best, but..." he spat. "Always, but. Or when I told her I was probably going to have to kill those prisoners. You know what she said? To do what I had to, because she knew there was no malice in my heart. That I wasn't a killer."

Daryl stilled, crossing his arms over his chest, the deliberate challenge seeping out of his posture. Like he'd heard what he'd been waiting for. "Yeah, so? Woman has a point."

Rick gaped at him, knocked off balance before he could really hit his stride. "What? You saw what I did today. What I did to Tomas. And that kid..."

"Tomas had it coming," Daryl shrugged. "He wanted us dead. Not gonna shed any tears over what happened to him. Woulda done it myself, if you'd given me the signal."

"But the kid- I locked him out in the yard with Walkers. Didn't let him in, even when- even when he begged," Rick rasped, looking away.

It had been so easy, with his blood up; had seemed like the only path that made sense. But after... after, the blood on his hands had reminded him all too much of Shane's. He'd chosen the easy solution, the one that preserved his power at the expense of whoever got in his way. He barely recognized himself anymore; what kind of role model did that make him? What kind of husband, to a woman who still tried to hold on to her ideals?

Malice was too mild a word for what had burned in his veins that day. How could he ask her to accept that, after the way she'd reacted the last time he'd confessed to weakness? How could he go to her under false pretences, at all? He wasn't the man she'd married, not anymore.

He stared at his feet, unable to meet Daryl's gaze.

"Fuckin' moron," Daryl sighed. "Least you gave the idiot half a chance. Better than he deserved, you ask me. You think she won't understand that? Hell, maybe she won't, if you throw it in her face like that. But it don't have to be that way. Look, it's simple. Do you still love her?"

"Does it matter?" Rick snorted.

"Christ, listen to me talking about feelings," Daryl rolled his eyes. "'Course it matters. Do you still love her?"

"God help me. You know the answer to that," he finally admitted.

"Then so do you," Daryl drawled, planting a grimy palm against Rick's chest and pushing him toward the open door to the cellblock. "So sack up and go put us all out of your misery."

Rick stared back at him for a long moment, emotions even rawer than they'd been when he'd left Lori outside. "I'm a shitty husband, aren't I?" he admitted roughly.

"I ain't the one that needs to hear it." Daryl snorted, and gave him another shove.

Lori'd already come inside by the time he rejoined the others, only a little redness in her eyes belying her turbulent emotions. She looked up warily from picking through the food he'd bartered for when he stopped in front of the last cell, bracing herself as if waiting for him to hurt her. Again.

He cleared his throat, then glanced over toward the group still gathered around Hershel's bed, and forced himself to speak. "Would you- I mean. Could we talk? Upstairs, maybe?"

There was another row of cells above them, still empty, insulated enough with another layer of steel between them that it would increase the illusion of privacy a little. And he wasn't really interested in any of the others- especially Carl- listening in on what he had to say. It had been hard enough to admit even a part of it to Daryl, with the other man intentionally trying to claw it out of him with the verbal equivalent of a barbed arrowhead.

Lori narrowed her eyes, obviously weighing her options, and curled one hand over the ripe swell of her stomach in an unconscious gesture of protection that sent another stab of guilt surging through him. His baby or Shane's, it really didn't matter in the end, did it? It was innocent in all of this.

"All right," she said slowly. "Just for a minute. These supplies won't sort themselves."

Rick backed out of the cell, then went up the stair to the level above, leaving the way. He felt Daryl's eyes on them as Lori followed him up, slowly; caught Glenn and Maggie looking too, wariness in their expressions. Daryl had been right; he'd been poisoning the whole group with their mess, hadn't he?

She passed him on the landing, glancing into several of the cells before picking one to walk into. Rick followed her in, gingerly taking a seat next to her on the thin mattress of the lower bunk; a careful arm's length away, just as he'd kept between them outside.

"Well?" she prompted him, chin up-

-but for the first time in awhile, he saw a woman trying to protect herself, not an opponent offering him yet another challenge he was expected to fail. "I, uh. I think I need to apologize," he began, awkwardly.

Lori sat up straighter at that. "What for?" she replied, warily.

Rick winced; he supposed he deserved that. "For not being the man you need," he offered. "For not being the man I should be. For fucking up- and because I'm going to keep fucking up, no matter how much I try not to. Because it's been easier for me to keep a distance, than risk getting rejected again."

"Rick..." Lori's eyes had gone wide again, luminous with freshly welling tears. "What are you saying?"

He looked down, clasping his hands between his knees. He focused his eyes on the ring glinting on his left hand; just a thin strip of metal, so little to represent one of the few anchors he had left from his old life. Daryl had told him he had two options- but if taking that ring off had ever been a possibility for him, he'd have thrown it at Shane a long fucking time ago and had done with it.

"For better or for worse," Rick murmured, then looked up again.

He could see hope dawning in her expression at his response: and it was only in its presence that he realized how much the lack had defined their every interaction for months.

"I love you," he forced himself to say, plainly. "Whatever else- no matter how angry I've been, or how hurt, or what I've done, or what you think of me- that much is still true. And I thought... you might need to hear it, as much as I need to say it."

A tear spilled over, tracing a path down Lori's cheek. She stared at him for a long, silent moment, then slowly reached out, hand hovering over his shoulder in an echo of the way he'd reached for her earlier, before dropping to fasten over his fingers where he'd fisted them in the sheets. But she didn't speak.

"So." He cleared his throat, feeling unbearably exposed, but gamely turned his hand over to link their fingers together. "Like I said. I'm sorry. I've been a pretty shitty husband, too."

She sniffed, another tear breaking free, convulsively tightening her fingers in his. Then a thin, watery smile broke over her face. "Yeah, well, it takes two, doesn't it? I'm sorry, too. I know it might not be enough anymore, and I know I haven't always handled things all that well- but I feel the same way. You know I do. That's all I meant, out there."

"I do," he said, with a sigh. Then he gave her hand one last squeeze, and stood. He was far from ready to go any further- there was too much pain between them to set to rest in one conversation- but he did feel as though a weight had fallen off his shoulders. "All we can do is try."

She nodded to him, still smiling tentatively."It is a good day, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he nodded to her, a half-smile twitching up one corner of his own mouth. "It is."

He was still thinking of that moment a week later, after a slow half-dance of days spent reacquainting themselves with who they'd become over the long winter. Testing the foundations of the bridge with an eye on rebuilding. A soft word here, a smile there, letting their fingers brush as they passed the food. He watched her come out into the yard with Hershel, on foot and crutches again, still going; a testament to new beginnings, even in the midst of all their endings.

Lori smiled at him, brilliantly, through the fences between them.

Maybe he still had something left to give, after all.

Warmth prickled through him, hints of spring after a long winter, and he nodded back.