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Posted April 16, 2013

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Fan Fiction: and now these three remain

Title: and now these three remain

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: R/Mature.

Summary: Rick didn't have a lot of faith at the moment, 'cept for faith in his people; and hope came and went, depending on the day. But love-- it might just be the one thing that held them together. Got them through it. He wasn't about to turn it down when it came his way. 13,000 words.

Spoilers: Veers away from Walking Dead canon during 2.10, "18 Miles Out".

Notes: Rick takes a different tack in talking Shane down: the Rick/Shane/Lori remix for the end of Season 2. Cover art and fanmix by peculiaritea. Submitted as part of the 2012/2013 Small Fandom Big Bang challenge.

fanmix cover by peculiaritea

Rick shifted his grip on the steering wheel of the green Tucson, shooting a sideways glance toward the passenger seat. Shane didn't look back; his eyes were fixed on the scenery they passed as they searched for a place to drop off their prisoner, lost in his own world. He'd been that way – pulling away from Rick rather than toward him – ever since they'd first met up again at the quarry camp, and as time went on it was only getting worse rather than better.

He'd almost given up trying to get through to him. But he'd known him too long – been his closest friend for too long – to throw in the towel just yet. Even if that meant trying something he never would've dared, before.

Things evolved. They changed. Rick knew that. If he hadn't before, he surely did now; everyone still breathing had learned one way or another, schooled by the apocalypse that had swallowed them all. All the same, he'd never have imagined the dilemma he found himself in, back before the dead had started to walk. He'd been too ... something; too normal, too White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, not that he'd ever thought of himself that way. He just ... was who he was, a straight-up guy who did the best he could with what he had.

Sharing his wife had never even remotely entered into that picture. Sharing more than that – even less. Even the thought made him uneasy, made his palms start to sweat.

But was either that, or ... well. He knew how Shane got; he'd known him more than half their lives. He only got that brittle, that focused on the now to the exclusion of all else, when there was something going on he didn't want to think about. Something that made him feel defensive – and guilty. When they were kids, a mood like that would blow over in a few hours, maybe a few days at most; but this time, it showed no signs of lightening up. He was stuck ... and that meant Rick would have to be the one to end it. Somehow.

Rick liked to think of himself as a good man, striving to be as fair and as just as the law allowed, no matter who – or what – he happened to be dealing with. He still tried, though his hands grew a little more stained every day; he hoped he hadn't been particularly ... well, he didn't think he'd given any of the survivors who looked to him for leadership reason to complain on that score. But he'd never really looked outside the box he'd put himself in, the easy assumption of identity he hadn't questioned since he was a teenager, and that had blinkered him and colored every choice he'd made.

Maybe if he had, this thing with Shane and Lori wouldn't have caught him so off guard. Maybe if he had, if he'd been able to pull the blinders off a little sooner ... maybe he'd still have a best friend, instead of a rival wavering between demanding his approval and poisoning the rest of the group against him. Maybe his wife would look to him with warmth in her eyes, rather than a painful mixture of dread and determination. Maybe a few more of their group would still be alive ... and maybe they wouldn't, but maybe he'd feel a little less guilty about the decisions that had brought them there.

But there was no use crying over spilt milk. And there was no way back to the way things had been before. That simpler world, where his wife and the man who might as well have been his brother had both orbited around Rick Grimes rather than each other, was gone for good. They'd cut out the middle man when Shane had left him for dead in that hospital; all his miraculous return had done was knock them out of the new balance they'd found, spinning all three of them out of control. Lori was right; the situation wasn't going to settle of itself. The only question was: what was Rick going to do about it?

He'd spent the whole week while the boy they'd captured recovered from his wounds thinking about the situation. A week didn't seem like a lot of time to upheave a man's whole world. But then again, it had been just about that long between the moment Rick had woken in a hospital full of corpses and the moment Jenner had whispered the awful truth about the infection that had created the walkers in his ear. He'd lost almost everything dear to him already; what was one thing more?

And yet, if that one thing was Shane....

When it came right down to it, Rick had known Shane, would even say he'd loved Shane, longer than he'd known Lori. And Lori was the cornerstone of his world. If it meant he could keep them both, he'd do whatever he had to, even if it meant taking that step out into the unknown and smudging the lines he defined himself by. Surely that would hurt less than trying to tear out half his heart, like he'd been doing since he saw those scratches on Shane's face at the CDC and put the last pieces of the puzzle together.

He glanced over at his friend again, then at the intersection approaching down the empty backcountry road, and decided it was as good a time as any. Apart from Randall tied up in the back, headphones blaring loud music in the kid's ears, there was no one around bar the odd lonely walker to eavesdrop on their conversation. It might be a long time before they got another chance to speak in private without some fresh disaster splitting the group apart. He eased his foot off the gas, then braked to a halt and got out of the car.

Road repair had come only so far and no further before the apocalypse; the left arm of the intersection bore crisp yellow and white lines, black tar spreading out in streaks where the smooth surface of the fresh asphalt met the older sections of road, but the other three directions had grayed with age, cracked under the bright Georgia sun. Grassy fields stretched out from those four corners as far as the eye could see, broken up by the occasional line of trees. It was quiet, bright, isolated. A safe enough place to talk.

Shane got out of the other side of the Tucson, curiosity finally lighting a spark behind his sullen faηade as he glanced around, shotgun cradled casually in his arms and a pistol tucked into his waistband. "Thought we were going further," he said.

"We are," Rick shrugged, pacing a little way away from the vehicle. "Eighteen miles out." He knew Randall couldn't hear them, but he was still a little anxious about actually broaching the subject. Until he knew how Shane was going to respond, the other option – the one Lori had painted so vividly a week before, pitting him and Shane at lethal odds – still seemed unbearably plausible.

"So why're we stopping?" Shane said, his tone more a statement than a question. He wasn't quite aiming the shotgun in Rick's direction, but there was wariness in every line of his body.

Christ, that they'd come to this. There'd been a time when Rick would never have entertained the thought that Shane might be a danger to him; a time Shane would never have looked at him like that. It seemed like it had been just yesterday they'd been eating lunch in the cruiser, Rick brooding about his latest argument with Lori and Shane bitching about his ex and her aversion to light switches to cheer him up. Hell, even a couple weeks back Shane had still been the one holding Rick together, right after Carl got shot, before Maggie had gone and brought Lori to them. When Rick had desperately needed someone there to be his strength.

Shane was good at being needed ... but not so much at being the one doing the needing. Rick only wished he'd seen a way out of the tangled mess they were in to alleviate that problem a little sooner.

"I want to talk," he said, turning to meet Shane's gaze, keeping his own hands scrupulously away from his holster. "Been waiting a week 'til we were going to do this. Just want to talk."

"We don't need to." Shane looked away immediately, squinting into the morning light.

The stubble on his head looked only a little heavier than the scruff on his chin out there under the sun; he looked almost like a stranger without the short, dark curls his girlfriends had always loved to run their fingers through. And – yeah, what Lori'd said, her suspicions about Otis, the hair made a lot more sense in light of that. Self-punishment, maybe? Rick would have judged the situation a lot more harshly before he'd been forced to kill Randall's buddies, but now the desperation it implied mostly made him ache for his friend.

You killed the living to protect what's yours, Lori'd said. No other choice to be made. It was taking him awhile to adjust to that reality, longer than it had Shane, but that didn't make it any less true.

The baldness actually looked kind of good on Shane, now that he thought about it; stark, showing off the lines of his face, emphasizing his strength. In comparison, Rick's folding away his shirt and badge felt less like an acknowledgement of shifting reality and more like a step back; a giving up. A surrender.

"We do," Rick insisted. Now or never, before he surrendered this, too.

"No, man, we don't. We're doin' this. I get it," Shane shook his head. "He was passed out when y'all brought him back, don't know where the farm is...."

Rick almost laughed, rueful and pained, as he realized what Shane was really objecting to. For all his ability to get under Rick's skin, Shane couldn't actually read his thoughts. Truth be told, he'd actually agreed with Shane's concerns about the risks the kid represented; he'd just weighted the consequences differently. He hoped the conversation they were about to have didn't fall out the same way.

"That isn't what I need to talk to you about," he said.

Shane went still then, dark eyes snapping back to meet Rick's. He didn't say anything, but the quality of the silence immediately changed, right back to wary and on-edge. Stance wide on the pavement, heavy military style boots turned out in a defensive, ready posture, shotgun ready to swing into action: all the telltales were there, even if he didn't consciously identify Rick as a threat to him.

In a less forgiving world, Rick might've responded to that unspoken challenge by throwing his suspicions about what Shane had done to Otis in his friend's face; might've used that as the lead-in to asking if Shane planned to sacrifice him, too. If he truly thought Rick was a threat to Lori and Carl's survival. But he already knew why Shane had done what he'd done at the school, even if he didn't know the details; he knew Shane's tactical abilities, his decision making processes, as well as he knew his own.

If Shane had been able to escape the walkers with the supplies to save Carl and Otis, too, he'd have done so. But he hadn't. And ... it had been Otis' bullet that nearly killed Carl to begin with.

"Lori told me about what happened with the two of you," he said instead, watching Shane closely.

Shane looked away again at that, mouth twisting. Not in denial, or regret; he had that obstinate set to his jaw that meant he wasn't the least bit sorry for what he'd done, but was preparing to bullshit whatever he had to say in order to keep the peace. Rick knew it well. It was actually a good sign; a hint that there was still something left to salvage.

"Look. When it started, it was just ... was a couple of weird stories on the news," Shane said, heavily. "And it was so quick. Everything ... it just happened. Two weeks later, I'm in the hospital, and there's soldiers shooting people in the hall. People. Not walkers, not victims, or nothing; just people. Staff, visitors, patients, everyone. Then the walkers came through. I was going to take you and get out, but they were goddamn bombing us, and – I just – I didn't know what to do, man. Put my ear on your chest after the machines went dead, and – there was no way you could've survived that. No way!"

"I did," Rick said gently, watching the pain and self-justification flicker across his friend's face.

"Yeah. I know that now," Shane replied, almost pleadingly. "But then – I had Lori to think about, man. And Carl."

"And the only way you could make it out of there was if you left me behind," Rick acknowledged. Little as he liked to admit it, he could see how his unresponsive body would have been an incredibly difficult burden to manage during the chaos of a sudden evacuation. If not by slowing them down and attracting walkers, by bringing them to the attention of paranoid, gun-happy soldiers.

"It – I had to! You were dead weight. And If I died there, what would happen to them? That was all I could think. You never should've been shot in the first place; it should've been me that day." Shane slashed his free hand emphatically through the air. "But it wasn't. Didn't matter if I could live with it; what mattered was keeping them safe, since you couldn't. They kept me alive, man. I'd have laid down beside you, otherwise." His voice cracked on the last sentence.

"I believe you," Rick said, heart lurching painfully as Shane turned away again.

It's hard enough accepting what's happened without digging up the past, Shane had said, that day they were off alone in the woods looking for Sophia. Nostalgia; it's like a drug. Keeps you from seeing things the way they are.

He'd meant the jab for Rick's benefit, but he'd been talking about himself, too. Desperation, guilt; every last damn argument they'd had since the quarry had stemmed from that one event. From leaving Rick behind. And Rick could well believe he'd latched onto Lori under those circumstances, half savior and half saved; that kind of bond might not be romantic love, but it could go just as deep, if not as gentle.

"I won't lie to you," he sighed. "When I figured it out – and it didn't take long – I wanted to break your jaw. I would do anything to keep Lori, and Carl, and this new baby safe. It stuck in my craw that you'd been doing that in my place, stepping into my shoes like you'd just been waiting for that day to come. Like maybe that was why Lori and I had been having trouble, before this all happened."

Shane's face twisted up again at the mention of Lori's pregnancy, shoulders still braced and tense – but the last sentence turned him back to Rick again, pale and hollow-eyed. "No, man. No; I didn't look at her before this all went down. You have to know that. Brother, if I could take it all back, I would."

Rick blew out a breath. "Yeah, I figured as much, after I had a chance to think. I don't blame you, you know. Not for that, nor for leaving me behind. You did what you thought was right, what you had to do to survive. That's not what's bothering me."

Shane paced away a few steps, then back again, rubbing a hand over the back of his head. "That's not–? You got to be kidding me. What the hell is it, then? Is there anything I do that measures up to the great Rick Grimes' expectations?"

Rick winced. He wasn't a saint; and he didn't like having his principles thrown in his face, especially when he was the one who'd technically been betrayed. But he had a more important goal to focus on now than his own hurt, or the strained note in Shane's voice.

"Lori says you're dangerous; that you'll do anything to protect what you think's yours. But I knew that already." He swallowed, then mustered his courage and took a step closer. "What I want to know is ... when the hell did 'what's yours' stop including me?"

The question sounded raw; felt raw, as if the words had torn their way out of him. He'd meant to state it more calmly than that, like it didn't matter to him what the reply was, but he could see from the way Shane reacted that he'd fallen short of the mark.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Shane demanded, staring.

"How long have we known each other, Shane?" Rick replied, spreading his arms wide. "No, really. How long? How long've we had each other's back, no matter what either one of us was going through? You really going to throw all that away because of what, three weeks' worth of Lori's undivided attention? What can she give you that's so much more important than our friendship?"

Shane sputtered, caught off guard by the unexpected approach to the argument. "That's not – it's just – it's the choices you make, man. Your priorities are all screwed up! Risking their lives over an old man's superstitions, when Lori and Carl were looking to you for protection; getting Carl shot looking for a little girl who'd already been bit. You can't be the good guy anymore, Rick. Not and expect to live!" He grew more animated as he kept going, repeating the arguments he'd been rehearsing for weeks – but Rick thought he knew what was behind the vehemence, now.

"Shane. Shane!" He raised his voice, cutting the tirade short. "I already said I forgive you. You don't have to keep justifying yourself, like making me out to be the bad guy's somehow going to prove you did the right thing by leaving me behind."

Shane gaped at that, flattening a hand over his stomach like Rick had gut-punched him. "D'you really – do you really think that's what I'm trying to do?" he said.

Rick just shook his head. "I don't think anything. You did the only thing you could do. And it ain't your fault you fell for my wife; nor that she turned to you for comfort. But it ain't my fault, neither, for not wanting to let go of her, or make the best future for us I can. What about how I feel? Why does one of us have to be the bad guy at all? Is it too much to ask that we try to figure out how to do this together, all three of us, instead trying to prove which of us is the better man?"

He let the suggestion lie, waiting for Shane to digest it while the sun pounded down on them both. The trickle of sweat in his hairline, the buzz of the cicadas out in the fields, the tick of the engine cooling – he ignored it all, waiting for Shane's answer.

More than once, back when the only real experience he'd had had been that one date with Sheila – while Shane had been working his way through the substitute teachers – Shane had offered, only half seriously, to show him what he was missing. But there'd been something in his eyes, in the curl at the corner of his mouth, that had made Rick blush to the roots every time. He hadn't known what to do with it, then; and Shane had all but stopped with the comments after Rick had met Lori and started singing her praises. But Shane hadn't stopped looking, soaking up Rick's domesticity by proxy the way Rick had once soaked up the details of Shane's love life. If that meant what he thought it might....

Shane rubbed a hand over his mouth, staring at him, resentment and longing and confusion all jumbled up in his expression, carving lines across his forehead. Then he dropped the hand and started closing the distance between them, slowly. One foot in front of the other, until they were less than an arm's length apart, shotgun still dangling from the crook of one arm.

"You don't mean that," he said, challengingly. "Not like it sounds. Not after all this time."

Rick didn't move; didn't drop a hand to his Python, or flinch away. "I do mean it," he said, firmly. "Exactly the way it sounds. Maybe it just took all this to make me see it."

Slowly, deliberately, Rick dropped his gaze to Shane's mouth, then back up again, as clear a signal as he felt equal to sending at the moment. He might not have let himself realize what Shane was hinting at when they were younger, but it had affected him, and a body never stopped being what they were. They just acquired more detail work with every new experience.

All the things he'd held so tightly to before – society, Christian upbringing, the sanctity of marriage – held no meaning anymore. Society was gone, and all its rules with it. If God existed, he surely didn't give a damn about His creations. And Lori had looked to Shane first. It was time to let go of outdated reservations.

Shane's eyes dilated just a bit at the motion, and Rick felt that familiar old flush starting up somewhere behind his ears. Yeah; it could work. It really could.

... As long as he gave Shane the time to decide he'd had the same idea all along. The last thing they needed was him deciding Rick was trying to manipulate him.

"Think about it, all right? I'm just gonna go check those ropes. We can talk some more after we've got rid of Randall."

He felt Shane's gaze on his back all the way back to the car. And once they'd made sure Randall was secure, and drove off again – he felt it like a brand on the side of his face as he rambled, filling the pensive silence with any and every thought he'd had about surviving the winter. If any big survivors' camps still existed, they were probably up north where a hard freeze would slow down Walkers once temperatures started to fall, but he had to believe there was a way to keep them safe even in the deep South. Ways to supply themselves, to ration bullets, to make it through 'til the world bloomed again.

He finally spotted a place to drop Randall off somewhere around nineteen miles into the trip, at a building marked with a Mert County Public Works sign. From the outside, it looked like a sturdy, red-brick structure, surrounded by chain link fencing; there were several vehicles abandoned in the yard, but no damage that he could see from the road. Might be enough to give the kid half a chance at survival, if he could scavenge some supplies to go with the shelter.

There were all of two walkers visible in the fenced yard, fewest he'd ever seen in a public enclosure, wearing some kind of uniforms. He and Shane took them out with their knives, testing out one of Rick's theories about saving bullets; the scent of blood drew the things halfway across the yard with a minimum of noise, and they stabbed them right through the fence. Unfortunately, Shane also happened to notice a lack of bite marks on the bodies when they opened the gates ... an observation that brought back memories of Jenner again, of all the fucked up revelations of their time in Atlanta.

Rick was maybe a little shorter with his reply than he should've been, a little more brusque as they picked over the salvageable debris in the yard for anything the group might need, and a little rougher than he needed to be wrestling the kid out of the car and into the fenced space. But it wasn't the time to think about it any deeper. There still wasn't any proof; the men could have been scratched. They could've. He wasn't going to believe Jenner without something a little more convincing than that.

Shane didn't seem to notice Rick's distraction, luckily; he just followed at his side the whole time, watching and thinking. Not exactly hopeful – but not dismissive, either. Not yet.

Rick worked on calming himself as he tossed a knife a few feet from Randall's bound hands, mind already miles back up the road, wondering how Shane was going to respond. He was brought rudely back to the present a few seconds later, though; they'd barely got a few steps away before the kid started pleading with them to take him back, dropping Maggie's name in the midst of his babble. Saying he knew her. Saying he'd recognized her father, from before he'd joined up with his gang of thieves and killers.

Shane stepped up close in Rick's personal space again as the significance of that sank in, face turned away from the kid so Randall couldn't read his lips.

"He knows where the farm is, Rick," he hissed. "Where we are. He knows. Say he finds his way back to his people...."

Rick knew without asking what Shane would want to do about that, and closed his eyes. He'd thought they might finally have a chance to put things right, but there were those walkers ... and now this. God might not give a shit anymore, but that apparently hadn't stopped Him from throwing tests in their path.

It was a man's life, something that ought not be treated as lightly as a dropped egg. And yet: you can't be the good guy anymore, Rick.

He sighed, then chided himself for a coward and opened his eyes again ... turning just in time to see Shane draw on the kid and fire.

The gunshot echoed around the yard for a long moment, while Rick took a ragged breath. Randall collapsed bonelessly to the ground, a neat hole punched through his chest, and Rick's stomach rolled at the sight the way it hadn't when he'd plunged his knife into the brain of that last walker. All the fuss he'd made about saving Randall outside the bar, when he'd fallen off the roof and his gang had left him behind for a pack of walkers to feast on, for this? The kid's death was on him. Rick could have stopped Shane, if he'd tried – and he didn't know what to do with the fact that he'd hadn't.

No, that was a lie; he knew. He'd deliberately turned his feet to put them on the same path as Shane's, hoping to moderate Shane's course in the process. He'd been fooling himself on that score, hadn't he?

"That wasn't your call to make," Rick said tersely, clenching his right fist to stop himself from palming the grip of his weapon.

The other man's anger was back, smoldering behind his gaze, as though the entire previous conversation had never happened. "Oh, yeah? Then whose was it then? Yours? Don't make me laugh. You'd have brought that moron back to sleep next to Lori. Next to Carl. I don't think so!"

"I would have put him in the shed and thought it through!" Rick replied hotly. "I would have talked about it. Made sure there wasn't another option I was overlooking!"

"Some option none of us come up with in the whole last week?" Shane snorted. "Get real, Rick. You want me to believe you can keep them safe? Us safe? That was keeping us safe." He jabbed a finger toward the cooling corpse. "If you still can't make that kind of decision, how the hell am I supposed to trust a word out of your mouth?"

"And how am I supposed to trust a word out of yours when you act without thinkin' like that? I would have agreed with you Shane. Hell, I even agreed with you about the walkers in the barn! But these are people's lives we're fuckin' with, and they deserve a little more due process!"

Shane snorted, and Rick gritted his teeth, getting up in his friend's personal space. Grievance after grievance poured out of him, things he'd been trying to find more persuasive ways to share that he just couldn't hold back anymore.

"Maybe you're not thinking about six months, a year, two years down the road, but I am. We can't survive out there just the four of us! Not for long. We're going to need these people in the long term, and how are we supposed to keep 'em close if you keep going off half-cocked? I could have talked Hershel 'round about the walkers. Instead, you about broke the man, and Glenn and I almost got killed bringing him back! We'd never have had to deal with Randall in the first place, if not for that. Or we might could've got more information out of the kid, the way he was begging us to keep him – but you threw all that away! What if that's the kind of short-sightedness that ends up getting us killed?"

Shane wasn't in the mood to listen, though. "Oh, fuck you, man! I've had enough of you judging me," he said, a red flush of rage sweeping across his face as he swung a fist in Rick's direction.

Rick ducked and replied with a fist of his own, abandoning himself to the rush of anger. It had been so long since he'd let himself go, let himself really react to the hell of their world. Shane had the weight on him, but Rick had his share of skill, and they traded blows for several seconds, throwing each other against long-abandoned cars and striking wherever the other man's guard didn't react quick enough. Kicking with the toe of his boot, taking the thick sole of Shane's in his gut.

And every smash of knuckles, every burst of pain, dragged Rick's mood a little further down. Why had he ever thought things were going to work out between them?

... And how had he ever thought none of it had been fueled by another kind of passion? They were never going to be done with each other, not until they died. But Shane had buried him once already; he'd probably even told himself that he – and Carl, and Lori – would find it easier a second time.

Rick tackled Shane to the ground next to an old school bus still full of clothes and gear that had been abandoned in the parking lot, then grunted as Shane turned the tables, rolling them over. But he still hadn't unholstered his weapon, and Shane had dropped his on the ground; nor had they made a grab for the knives they both carried. It was still hand to hand – and body to body.

Shane cocked his fist back for another punch – then stilled, letting it sag as he stared down at Rick's face. His eyes dipped to Rick's mouth, in echo of Rick's gesture earlier, and where their bodies were pressed together the results of friction and adrenaline throbbed along with their racing heartbeats.

"What the hell are we doing," Shane said, voice thick with frustration and not a little lust.

"You think I know any better than you?" Rick replied, shrugging his shoulders against the asphalt.

Shane shook his head slowly, lowering the raised hand until both were braced against the ground. "I had to do it, man. I had to."

"Maybe so. But not like that. You can't just keep thinking that the fact there aren't any rules anymore gives you the right not to think about consequences."

"Oh yeah?" Shane's expression twisted in a lopsided smirk, and he rolled his hips suggestively against Rick's. "And what d'you think the consequences of this are gonna be? This really what you want, Rick?"

There was really only one good way to reply. Rick shifted his hands away from Shane's shoulders where he'd been holding his friend's upper body away from him, then cupped the sides of the other man's face with both palms and called his bluff. He could feel the sharp prickle of regrowing hair against the pads of his fingers, the funny outward-turning lobes of Shane's ears against his lifelines – and the pressure of Shane's mouth slanting over his, the taste of blood on his tongue.

Shane gave as good as he got, biting at Rick's bottom lip and shoving him back into the pavement, rutting against him for several endless seconds. Rick's world dissolved into heat, friction, and incandescent emotion, too jumbled up to even put a name to, until breathing started to become an issue. Then Shane collapsed against him, hard enough to pound nails, panting in his ear.

What had the question been, again?

"Yeah," he finally rasped, senses still swimming. "It's what I want."

"Goddamn, Rick," Shane swore almost reverently. "Where you been hiding that all this time?"

Rick snorted. "Same place you've been hiding your common sense, I guess."

Shane chuckled lowly in his ear, then, and in that moment – those raw seconds, pressed all together from neck to knee, amusement and raw lust reverberating between them – Rick almost felt like things were going to be okay. At least as much as they could be, now. Maybe his wild-assed idea hadn't been such a long shot, after all....

But then a breathy moan split the air, and their brief balance shattered yet again. Shane lifted his head, looking up behind Rick – then scrambled up and back in a hurry, like a teenage boy who'd just seen his date's father coming at him with a shotgun. He reached for his waistband, patting the place where his pistol had been tucked with a look of dismay ... and Rick knew. Even before he rolled and came up on his knees, sweeping his Python out of his holster, he knew what he'd see.

"He wasn't bit," Shane spluttered. "What the hell? He wasn't bit!"

Rick swallowed past the dismayed feeling – almost like vertigo – rising in his throat, and took a moment to steady his aim. "No he wasn't," he said, staring into the glazed-over eyes of the murdered boy as his corpse shambled toward them, life's blood staining the front of his shirt. "I guess Jenner wasn't lying after all."

The recoil, the sharp noise of the gunshot, caught him almost by surprise; he'd pulled the trigger without really registering it. The heat of the moment with Shane was already fading, subsumed by the same numbness he'd felt when he'd put down Sophia, the chill nausea when he'd recognized the empty packets of pills Lori had left in the tent. The denial when he'd first woken in the hospital ... and when the last son of a bitch manning the CDC had passed his terrible burden over into Rick's care.

Randall collapsed to the ground again like a discarded doll, everything that had made him a person splattered over the pavement behind him. It felt like he'd taken the last of Rick's certainties with him.

"Lying? What do you mean, Jenner wasn't lying?" Shane barked, striding across the yard to pick up his gun. "Those cops weren't scratched, were they!" He pointed back toward the unmarked walkers they'd dispatched on their way in.

"He said we were all infected," Rick sighed. It was his turn not to be able to meet Shane's gaze. He'd been telling himself for weeks that it didn't matter what Jenner had said – that he'd surrendered, and Rick was never going to follow his example, no matter what the truth might be. But he'd been fooling himself on that score, too, hadn't he? He didn't know what the hell he was doing anymore.

He shook his head sharply, then got his feet under him and stalked out of the yard.

"He said what?" Shane blurted, then turned to follow him, half-jogging until he caught up. He clapped a hand on Rick's shoulder and pulled him around again, stopping him before he got to the SUV. "Don't you walk away from me. What the hell does that mean, we're all infected?"

"What do you think it means?" Rick said bitterly, eyes still fixed on the ground.

It didn't take more than that for Shane to put the clues together. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me? Don't you think this is the kind of thing the rest of us should know?" he hissed. "And you get on my case about makin' decisions without consulting you!"

Rick looked up at that, suddenly weary to the bone. "That was all he said, Shane: that we were all infected. Whispered it in my ear as we were running for the door. I had no idea what it meant! Was it just us –- just the little group of us he'd tested? Or did he mean everyone left alive? Were we all gonna get sick? Or – what just happened to Randall, all of us turning no matter how we died? Or was he even telling the truth at all? Was he hoping I'd give up and doom us all to burn with him?" He shrugged. "I had no way to know. And with all the burdens we were already carrying – what good would it have done to share, if I had no way to test it 'til one of us got killed?"

Shane stared at him, aghast, a moment longer. Then something shifted in his expression – something unexpected, flowing up from beneath the anger. "Shit, man. Shit. You always were a fuckin' martyr," he said. Then he pulled Rick in closer, wrapping one hand around the back of Rick's head and pressing their foreheads together. "What were you thinkin', trying to carry all that by yourself?"

Rick stiffened at the first touch ... then gave in and let himself sink into the embrace. "I was afraid if I said it out loud, it would make it real," he confessed, dipping his head down to press against the warm space between the curve of Shane's throat and the sweaty olive-green cotton of his shirt.

"And now it is," Shane swore. "No wonder you been so uptight, man. Shit."

"You said that already," Rick snorted, feeling dazed.

"Yeah. 'Cause it bears repeating," Shane shot back, rubbing a hand over the back of Rick's neck.

Rick didn't know if he was in shock or suffering emotional whiplash or what, but without anyone else around to be strong for, his usual defenses just weren't kicking in. It was like when Carl had been shot all over again. He sighed, trying to pull himself together. "What are we going to tell the others?"

Shane pulled back, looking him in the eye, then gave him a ghost of his usual cocky smile. "What, about you and me? Or d'you mean Randall? Ain't no reason anybody needs to know what-all we got up to out here, 'cept for Lori. We just tell 'em Randall ain't gonna be a problem anymore. End of story. We'll deal with the rest of it as and when we get the opportunity."

Rick guessed that was as close as he was probably going to get to an apology. "Fair enough," he said, ruefully. The bruises Shane had given him were starting to make their presence known; he felt a lot older than he had that morning. But-– maybe a little lighter, too, like he'd unloaded a huge burden.

That might be a little inappropriate, considering the fact that he'd just groped his best friend after said friend killed another man in cold blood – but as upset as he'd been at Shane's impulsive action, and as much as he deplored the loss of life, he had to admit there was nothing else they could really have done once the boy had revealed his knowledge. He'd just have liked to have a little more time to come to grips with it first.

"We are gonna finish that discussion about thinking things through, though," he said.

"Whatever you say, man," Shane replied, wryly. "Whatever you say."

In the end, though, Rick only said one more thing on the subject on their way back to the Greene farm. "If you're going to be with us – if there's going to be an us now – you gotta follow my lead, Shane. You gotta trust me. Yell at me in private if you have to; I'll listen. Like I said, I agree with you more often than you think. But we gotta present one face to the others. We can't afford to ignore their concerns."

Shane grimaced, but there was resignation in the line of his shoulders. "Still not so sure that's true; four alone can move quicker than ten if we gotta, or fifteen if you count Hershel's people. Half of 'em are walker bait; fuckin' foot-draggers, and you know it. The odds of all of 'em making it long enough to what, start over after most of the walkers finally rot to pieces, are pretty damn pathetic. But if that's what you want to aim for...." he trailed off, turning to watch a slow-shambling corpse parting the grass in one of the fields along the side of the road. "Followin' you got me into uniform in the first place, and that worked out all right. No skin off my nose, you want to go tilting at windmills.

"One thing, though," he continued, more firmly. "You gotta be harder on shit like this. Real dangers, things that'll get us killed in the short term, never mind down the road. Dance around your fine feelings all you like, but you gotta put Lori and Carl first. No more ifs, ands, or buts about it."

Rick hesitated a little at that; then finally agreed, with a caveat. "Of course. If you think I'm not, though, you let me know before going off on your own again. Maybe I've seen something you missed. Maybe you know something I don't. We discuss it, and come to a conclusion together. You don't just go blowing barns open and shooting unarmed folk without warning."

"And you don't go lassoing goddamn walkers and dragging 'em back to camp," Shane shot back.

"All right. Deal," Rick said, reluctantly. Yeah; there really was no excuse for that, other than that he hadn't seen any other choice at the time. Not with Hershel threatening to throw them out if he didn't – but somehow, he didn't think that would be a concern anymore.

"Deal, then," Shane agreed.

They made the rest of the drive back in silence.

Several of the others drifted out of the house to welcome them back, waiting to hear what had happened. Rick saw relief in more than one pair of eyes, doubt in others ... and several raised eyebrows at the obvious bruise on his chin and the dried blood crusted under Shane's nose. He had no doubt most of those expressions would be reversed if they knew what had really gone down.

For once, he didn't feel guilty about lying, even by omission. It wouldn't help anyone to turn that rock over just yet. Rick followed Shane's suggestion as far as letting everyone know Randall wouldn't be a threat anymore, then caught Lori's eye and jerked his chin over toward the barn.

The direction drew a curious eye from some of the others as he walked away, but most of the people on the farm had been avoiding that part of the property since the walkers inside had been slaughtered; not a one of them had emerged from that event emotionally unscathed. Lori frowned, but told Carl to mind Carol for a minute, then came, Shane trailing in her wake. No one else broke away to follow.

Lori glanced back and forth between the both of them when Rick finally stopped on the far side of the weathered old building, out of line of sight from both the house and the watcher's post atop Dale's RV. She took in the visible evidence of the hurts they'd dealt each other, then braced her hands on her hips and gave Rick a wary look. "What's going on?" she asked. "Something else happened while you were gone, didn't it?"

Rick shared a rueful glance with Shane. If either one had been confronting Lori alone, she probably would have been a lot blunter, clucking over their cuts and bruises and asking what the hell they'd been thinking. Maybe a little gentler with Rick than Shane; she'd been all-fire determined to play the good wife since Rick had come back, a choice he had and still did appreciate very much, but she and Shane used to be friends, too. Before. Rick didn't blame her for either the concern, or the skepticism.

"It's like this," he said, reaching out to tug his wife's hands out of their defensive posturing and twine his fingers with hers. "Me and Shane – we've come to an agreement."

"An agreement?" she blurted, her eyebrows flying up in disbelief as she glanced between them again. "What kind of agreement?"

Rick couldn't have been further from aroused at that moment if he'd poured a glass of iced tea down his jeans, as mixed up as he was, but he gave Shane a pleading look, and Shane chuckled.

"This kind, baby girl," he said, then leaned over and wrapped a hand around the back of Rick's neck again, pulling him in. The kiss was less confrontational than what they'd shared in the yard of the public works building, more an affirmation than a challenge. Like it was starting to sink in that they were actually doing it; that they just might could bend, so no one had to break.

Lori made a choked sound; by the time Rick broke off the brief caress of mouths she'd pulled one hand out of his to clap over her mouth. "Oh, my God," she said from behind the screen of her fingers.

Rick gave her a crooked smile. "Is that a good 'oh, my God', or an 'are you fuckin' crazy'?" he asked.

"What I said last week...." she started to say, then shot a concerned look at Shane. "I didn't think...." She didn't seem to know whether to be happy or alarmed or disbelieving; she settled for wrapping both arms tightly around herself.

... Like she was wondering if they were suddenly about to both turn away from her? Rick wondered.

"Hey, hey," he said, reaching for her, and gave her the exact same kiss he'd just received from Shane. Calm. Reassuring. "So now we're all his. And he's ours," he added, obliquely addressing her concerns. "Hell, I didn't think it either, at first. But it's win, win. Unless – unless you don't want–?"

"Unless I don't? Oh, my God," Lori said again, abruptly bursting into tears. Then she threw herself into his arms, kissing him more fiercely than she had since he'd found her – hell, since Carl was born.

"I just can't believe you want," she added when she came up for air again. Then she turned to Shane, holding out a hand to draw him closer to the pair of them. "And you. Is this new, or something I didn't know about before?"

Shane's expression was – hungry, maybe; a little abashed. Rick had seen a flash of jealousy in his eyes before Lori pulled him in, but that abated as soon as she threaded her fingers through his. "Swear to God, Lori, it's new. Not that I would've turned him down before you married him, but...."

"He flirted with me almost as much as those girls of his before I met you," Rick rolled his eyes, trying to keep the mood light. "Not that I caught on at the time. I just...." he shrugged helplessly. "I don't see any reason why I have to lose either one of you, just because you took care of each other while I was gone. Not if there's another option. Maybe we can't go back – but we can sure as hell go forward."

"You really mean that?" she said softly. "This isn't some kind of cruel joke?"

"Would I joke about something like this?" he told her. Then he took a quick breath, and put the matter to the last test. "Go on," he said, nodding in Shane's direction.

Lori swallowed, looking up into his eyes for a long moment, then smiled wobbily and turned to face Shane. There were tears in her eyes, something that always made Rick's gut lurch – but they must not've been a deal-breaker, because she raised up on her toes and completed the circle, kissing Shane.

He wasn't quite prepared for the warmth that ignited in his gut at the sight. He'd thought that seeing them together would be the part of things that would challenge him the most, but watching his best friend touch his wife like she was something precious – watching her open up to Shane the way she opened up to him – shortened his breath and made him feel like he was listening to one of Shane's stories back in high school again. Only in this one, he got to be a starring player.

When the kiss ended, she licked her lips, then turned shining eyes on Rick. "After all this time, you can still surprise me," she said, softly. "I've had – well, a pretty awful time while you were gone; Beth tried to slit her wrists, and Andrea deliberately gave her the opportunity, so Maggie's banned Andrea from the house. Hershel's still a mess, and – I don't know why I'm tellin' you both all this, but I just...."

She blinked as another tear worked free, then smiled through it. "When I saw you boys all bruised up, I thought the worst. Perfect cap to my day. What did you do, kiss each other with your fists first?"

Rick cleared his throat and exchanged another glance with his friend. "More or less," he said, sheepishly.

"More rather than less," Shane snorted, scuffing the toe of one boot on the ground like a kid called on the carpet. "Though don't let him fool you, Lori; it's at least as much my fault as it is his."

"Same as always, then," she chuckled. Then she turned a soft look on him. "Kiss him again?"

Shane grinned at her, then obliged. Rick leaned into the embrace, aware enough this time to savor the differences between the two – between his two lovers, as strange as that thought still felt. The scrape of stubble against his face, the different shape of their mouths, Shane's oversized nose bumping against his own. Hands joining in this time, wider than Lori's and not as delicate, settling above his waist. Hard versus soft – and yet, the reverse in some ways, too. Lori's tendency to anticipate the worst before it happened had actually made her more resilient than Shane, a thing Rick would never have believed before seeing it happen.

Lori's eyes were wide by the time they broke off again, her lower lip pinned between her teeth. "Do you think anyone'll notice if we sneak up to the hayloft?" she said, speculatively.

Rick weighed the odds a moment, then shook his head reluctantly. "I think someone might come lookin' for us if we just disappear." He was tempted, but – he wasn't exactly keen to lay down where all those walkers had been penned up, neither. Not without a blanket or something between them and the straw.

"Could get someone to watch Carl after dinner, though?" Shane suggested. "Tell the others we're havin' ourselves a family discussion and don't want to be disturbed?"

Lori laughed ruefully at that, looking years younger with the flush to her cheeks. "Brave new world – brave new definition of family, huh?"

"And why not?" Rick shrugged.

"Why not," she agreed ruefully, glancing between them both. Then she lifted up on her toes and kissed them both again, one after the other, square on the mouth. "After dinner, then," she said, then broke away, walking toward the fire circle by the tents. "Don't drag your feet out here; I'm pretty sure you're gonna need the fuel."

Dinner was – distracting; Rick couldn't quite hide his nervy mood, and neither could either of the others. None of the rest of the group seemed to know quite what to make of them. Dale kept shooting Shane suspicious looks; Andrea was avoiding Lori, and seemed confused by Shane's behavior; Carl, proving himself more perceptive than Rick liked to think, was actually sitting still for once, glancing back and forth between the three of them; and Glenn was distracted and jumpy. Carol had taken her meal back to the RV, and T-Dog was on watch, but Rick felt Daryl's eyes on them more than once, evaluating.

Lori did manage to get him alone, out of earshot of Shane, for just a minute as they disposed of their plates. She gave him a serious look, as assessing as Daryl's, and whispered, quick and low. "Was this your idea? Or Shane's? Because if he's forcing you to do this, to keep the peace...."

He could see the same longing and confusion in her eyes that he'd seen in Shane's earlier, and shook his head emphatically. "It was mine. I mean it, Lori. I think this could be the best thing for all of us. But if you don't – you told me you thought he was dangerous. I never asked, but that night at the CDC–"

Lori gave a rueful snort. "Of course you saw that, too. But of all the things I've feared from Shane, that's never really been on the list. Yeah, he got drunk, and I had to get a little forceful to make myself clear, but – he's been in so much pain, and I knew I was making it worse, pulling away from him. But now...."

She bit her lip on a hopeful smile, then turned back toward the fire. Enough said, he supposed.

When they settled down again she curled up close at his side, leaning back easily within the circle of his arms as they waited for Shane to finish his grilled vegetables and roasted mystery meat. Then she took the initiative to put their plan in motion, telling Carl to stay within sight of the watcher atop the RV and giving their cover story.

"Family discussion?" Andrea was the first to reply, incredulous. "Since when is Shane part of your family?"

Apparently something had been going on there, more than just her disagreement with Lori, that Rick didn't know about. There was still a hell of a lot they had to hash out between the three of them – but it wasn't the time. He'd add the subject to the list for later.

"Since always," Shane replied, before Lori could. He'd locked eyes with the blonde lawyer, but he pitched his words so everyone could hear. "I just forgot what that meant, for a while."

"C'mon," Lori said, reaching out to rest a hand on his, speaking to be heard as well. "It's our business, not anyone else's."

Rick swallowed, moved by an impulse to take Shane's other hand – but abruptly unsure how it would appear to the others. The group looked to him for leadership; something he hadn't courted, but hadn't turned away, neither. And despite the fact that society's laws had died with it, it seemed like half the survivors he'd met since had taken the lack as permission to air their ugliest urges and prejudices rather than living and letting live. If the group splintered over his shift in 'preference', would it be his fault?

Fuck it, he thought, and reached out to settle a hand on Shane's back. "We're not gonna kill each other," he said. "If that's what y'all are worried about. We'll be back to take our turns at watch in a bit."

Lori bit her lip as they turned and walked away; Shane waited until they were all out of direct earshot, then elbowed her gently. "What?"

She sputtered out a laugh, then grinned at Rick. "Take our turns watching?" she said, eyes dancing merrily.

He flushed. "Well, that too," he replied, awkwardly. Then he did take Shane's hand and turned to draw them into the barn.

Lori had a blanket folded tight under one arm; she made her way to the ladder, then shimmied her way up to the hayloft, deliberately swaying her bottom from side to side and shooting coy glances over her shoulder.

It felt like they were newlyweds all over again, tingles of anticipation spiking every moment with fresh promise. They still hadn't talked about Lori's pregnancy; she'd said the baby was Rick's, but they all knew timing-wise it was almost certainly Shane's. Or about what they were going to tell Carl, who still hadn't even had The Talk. But it was as if they'd all decided to seize this window of possibility to temporarily shuck off all other cares.

Rick followed Lori up, then toed off his boots and began unbuttoning his shirt as he waited for Shane to join them. Lori spread out the blanket, smoothing it to her satisfaction, then turned to help him, kneeling up in the hay; Shane wrapped himself around her from behind, hooking his chin over her shoulder and watching her undress Rick with hot, possessive eyes.

Rick stopped her hands before they got to his jeans with a shake of his head. "Not yet," he said, hoarsely. Then he met Shane's gaze. "Show me ... show me how you took care of her, while I was gone."

Lori took a shaky breath, staring at him, and Shane's grin took on a sharp, hungry edge. Then he unwound his arms from her waist and grasped the hem of her shirt, pulling upward.

Lori raised her arms to let him tug the shirt free. Then she unclasped her bra and tossed back her hair, leaving her chest bare to Rick's gaze, adorned only by the chain of her necklace. Shane reached around to cup her breasts, teasing her nipples as he pressed kisses along the pale column of her throat, and locked eyes with Rick's as though waiting for a reaction. Still testing, both of them – but slowly relaxing into each other, into the shared trust Rick was trying to build with them, too, he decided.

The world might've ended, but they still had each other. And Rick fully intended to hold on to them with both hands, for as long as he possibly could.

He palmed his cock through his jeans, hissing at the friction and pressure on his heated flesh. He could still hardly believe he was finding them such a turn-on together. He stared as Lori arched briefly in Shane's grip, then squirmed, working at the button to her own jeans; then Shane shifted to turn her in his arms and lay her back against the blanket, pulling at her shoes to help work the rest of her clothes off. When she was down to just her panties, he sat back briefly to tear at his own garb.

Rick watched it all with hungry eyes, taking in his wife's familiar curves, leaner now after weeks on short commons, and the equally familiar, though previously off-limits, muscular body revealed as Shane peeled off his shirt. Old scars, most of them earned in Rick's presence, were littered across the toned landscape; Lori kicked off her underwear, then reached up to trace over a few of those scars as Shane finished stripping his clothes off and stretched himself over her. His own necklace dangled over hers as he propped himself up on his elbows, the silver 22 pendant winking up from the valley between her breasts.

They slowed down for a moment then, staring at each other as avidly as Rick was staring at them, and he realized in a burst of surprise that they'd never been fully naked with each other before. On the road, out in the woods – they'd never been able to be this vulnerable, no matter how many times they might've come together. That made this almost like their first time all over again – and it was happening because of Rick. With Rick. A swell of emotion tangled in him, and for a moment he couldn't breathe.

Then Lori looked over to him, and stretched out one of her hands, smiling. "You're still wearing too many clothes, hon. C'mere."

"Yeah, man, c'mon," Shane agreed, turning his head to grin at him. "We aim to do this thing, let's start it off right. I don't want you complain' later that we didn't include you."

There was just enough bite in the comment to remind Rick that they'd been at each other's throats a few hours before, and could be again if things went badly wrong. But he wouldn't let that happen. It took at least two to fight, and Rick was always one to try every other option he could, first.

"I'd be a fool to turn down that invitation," he smirked. Then he shrugged off his unbuttoned shirt and wriggled out of his own jeans and briefs, squirming over to join them on the near edge of the blanket where his hands could roam over both his lovers as they began moving together again.

It was awkward, no two ways about it; he didn't know if Shane had ever done anything with a man before and just not told him, but Rick's only experiences of that nature had been with his own hand, and manhandling a body bigger than his in pursuit of pleasure wasn't as easy as he'd imagined. They made it work, though; and every gasp wrung out of Lori, every oath from Shane's mouth, every mark of teeth and scrape of nails and warm, wet welcome where he chased Shane's exertions in his wife's body or thrust into Shane's mouth, made all the bumps and messes and stray blades of hay scratching naked skin more than worth it. He knew what Shane tasted like, now; knew what they tasted like together; saw the young wife he'd been missing in the way Lori reveled in both of their touch.

They never did get around to talking. But there would be time, now. There would be time.

And even if there wasn't ... Rick was all out of regrets.

It didn't take the rest of the group long to figure it out, afterward. Glenn looked embarrassed and intrigued enough when Rick and Lori collected Carl for the night that he'd probably followed them out and got an eyeful; Rick wished Maggie joy of his reaction. And the others started cluing in quick enough after Shane carried his sleeping bag and gear into the Grimes tent.

They didn't go so far as to ask Carl to move out into Shane's old tent – they didn't want to make him feel swept aside for adult business any more than he already did, and there were plenty of other places to fuck. They weren't exactly covert about their intentions, though; Rick had never been good at dissembling, and a randy Shane was as different from a brooding, paranoid Shane as night and day. Not to mention the way Lori kept smiling and brushing her fingers over the love bites on her neck.

Andrea's reaction was maybe the least positive: she acted as if Shane had personally offended her, and yeah, Rick was still waiting for that story. Daryl, surprisingly, didn't have much to say; just muttered that it was a damn good thing Merle wasn't there to see it, then shrugged and went off to make arrows. Carol seemed torn between being pleased for their happiness, and hurting still at the loss of her daughter; T-Dog seemed a little grossed out but not actively hostile; and Dale was pretty skeptical, but took Rick's oblique words about 'finding other ways to neutralize threats' at face value.

Rick had always been good at finding alternative arguments to suit his listeners; it wasn't even the first time he'd done it to Dale. That second day at the quarry, when he'd decided to go back into Atlanta for Merle, very few people had agreed the risk was necessary for Merle's sake. Rick had defused Shane by mentioning the bag of guns; Lori by telling her he needed the radio in the bag to warn the man who'd saved his life back in King County; and Dale by promising to pick up his tools. He'd delivered on all but Merle himself, and that only because Merle'd left first; Dale knew the worth of his word. All the same, Rick was careful to repeat it all to Shane, later. The last thing they needed was Dale throwing his words in Shane's face during some future fight, barbed for maximum damage.

Carl hung around one or all of them as much as he could that day, cadging help with the reading Lori'd assigned him and kicking spent brass around in the yard. He was more cheerful than Rick had seen him since Sophia's funeral, though all they'd told him was that Shane was back to being part of the family; proof enough, if Rick hadn't had plenty already, that they were taking the right course. Carl would never have the childhood he and Shane'd had, but maybe he could afford to stay a kid a little while longer.

The last ones to notice were Hershel's people. Evidently some of the fifty head of cattle remaining on his land had broke through a fence, and all but Beth, still laid up in bed, had spent the better part of the day mending fences. Rick wasn't sure what to expect, as conservative as Hershel had been until Shane's attack on the barn and the gunfight at the bar had broken his worldview between them ... but that conversation went better than he'd feared, too.

Lori had asked him to speak to Hershel about maybe moving the group into the house since the nights were starting to get colder, and Hershel agreed without much pressing that that was probably the best solution. The farm's natural barriers – the swampland and the crick – were starting to dry up, and they'd all be safer behind sturdy walls. When they began discussing the rooms, though, particularly the disposition of the master bedroom – Hershel was determined to move on out to the couch and let the pregnant woman and her child use it – he paused for a moment, and searched Rick's face with a frown.

"And from what I hear from Maggie, I suppose you'll want Walsh in there as well. Can't say as I understand that; you know how I feel about the man, and by all accounts he's been nothing but a thorn in your side since you showed up here."

Rick shrugged, wincing. "I know how it must've looked, the last couple of weeks. Shane can be his own worst enemy. But he's been my best friend since we were children together, and I think we've finally settled the problems between us. He's turning over a new leaf; he'll be no more trouble to you, I swear."

"I'll have to take your word on that," Hershel replied, still frowning, "until I see it for myself. I hope you don't regret making that choice."

"I won't," Rick assured him, shaking his head. He didn't think Hershel's worries would be soothed by the explanation he'd given Dale – there was, after all, the lingering question of Otis – but he did have one further thing to say he thought Hershel might understand. "There aren't many things I still hold onto from the good book, especially after everything that's happened – but there's a passage I had to memorize as a kid that comes to mind now. From the Book of First Corinthians, Chapter 13."

"The love chapter," Hershel acknowledged.

"Yeah. 'And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.'"

"And the greatest of these is love," Hershel finished the quote.

"Yeah. I ain't got a lot of faith at the moment, 'cept for faith in my people; and hope comes and goes, depending on the day. But love – it might just be the one thing that holds us together. Gets us through this. I'm not about to turn it down when it comes my way."

"You still think we can get through this?" the old farmer asked him, skeptically. "After everything?"

"I do," Rick nodded. He couldn't allow himself to believe anything else.

"Then I wish you the best of luck," Hershel told him, clapped him on the shoulder, and sent him out to tell the others they could start moving in.

They spent the rest of the day shifting their things inside and making plans for securing the property for the winter. There was only one moment of excitement the entire afternoon, apart from the announcement itself; Rick had put Shane in charge of setting patrols, and the first one just so happened to include both of them, off in the woods toward the swamp.

Plenty of privacy there – but also a lone walker mired to its knees in mud. Shane dispatched the thing with a swift knife to the forehead, the same way they had the ones back at the public works building, then wiped the blade off on its weather-worn clothes.

"We're gonna be seeing more and more of these, you know," he said, frowning at the sprawled corpse. "Herd out on the road was enough to tell us that. We're too close to Atlanta, here. Enough bodies, they could walk over each other through this mud. And once it dries up...."

Rick sighed. "Makes more sense for them to go down the highways – they're like funnels. Less obstacles there. But we'll take precautions. Lookout platforms, move the cattle further away from both the road and the house, whatever we need to do to minimize the risks."

"And when they swarm us anyway?" Shane narrowed his eyes at him. "I keep tellin' you, we ought to've left weeks ago."

Rick swallowed down the urge to tell him it was already settled; there were still some reflexes that would take a while to adjust. "It would have to be just the four of us – no one else seems all that eager to go. We'd be sentencing eleven people to death, Shane. You might say you don't care about that, but you're not as hard as you like to pretend. And even if you were, think about what they do for us. We have a doctor here, of sorts. A nurse. Scouts. People to clean and cook. Other guns to back us up. Without some guarantee of where we'll end up, we'll lose all that when we leave."

"Whatever, man," Shane scowled, shaking his head. "I don't have to like it, though."

"No," Rick said, reaching out to him. "And that's why I need you with me on this. Why I've always needed you with me. While I'm hopin' for the best, you'll be preparing for the worst. With any luck, I'm right. But if I'm not, you'll be the one to save our asses."

Shane seemed a little mollified by that, and more thoughtful, but the playful mood of earlier had faded. He spent the following day building a platform in the windmill up the drive, and kept his distance from the Greenes except at meals and when retreating to the house at nightfall.

Their second and third encounters as a threesome were both more and less exhilarating than the first. What they were doing together might be new, but none of them were strangers to each other, and that thrilling, heart-pounding edge to their togetherness had faded quickly under the weight of reality. But there was plenty of wonder yet to be had in showing each other what pleased them most, and in easing some of the skin hunger they'd all been suffering from for longer than any of them would like to admit. And they were able to steal quiet moments as pairs as well during the day, reaffirming the strength of their individual connections.

Rick was grateful for that, when they found evidence of Shane's predictions a couple of days later – a wide swath trampled through the grass six or seven fields over, made by what must have been hundreds of walkers. They'd been one, sharp carrying noise away from all hell raining down on their unprepared heads, and had never known it; a herd that large could easily have knocked the house down around their ears. The basement Hershel had stocked up for a siege would have been no refuge. It was over that revelation that the first true test of Shane's temper since they'd begun their arrangement unfolded.

"I won't leave my land," Hershel insisted, as stubborn as the earth he'd sunk his roots into. "You can take my daughters, if they'll go; but I'm staying right here."

"We don't need your permission, old man," Shane said. "Rick says we need you for Lori, I'll damn well knock you out and put you in the trunk if I have to 'til we're far away from here."

"Now, now, let's not be hasty here," Dale put in his two cents. "There might not even be another herd that size coming our direction, and what would we do for food and shelter if we left? It's more than a hundred miles to Fort Benning; it was much less than that from the quarry to the CDC, and we were practically starving by the time we got that far. It'll be even worse if Randall's friends weren't lying and the army isn't there anymore. I know we live in a much harsher world now, but we can't afford to go spooking at shadows."

"Shadows, old man?" Shane snarled at him. "Do you even know how many hundreds of thousands of people used to live in just Atlanta proper? Just how many do you think made it out before the National Guard stopped evacuating and started dropping napalm instead? And how many made it through the fires? Ask anyone who was in the city with Rick that first day how many were on the streets. We're sitting ducks, here! We might have to tighten our belts a little, but at least we'll survive."

"And you think striking out with no plan other than head toward Fort Benning is safe?" Carol asked sharply, crossing her arms protectively in front of her. "Do you even have a backup plan? Or any idea whether the roads are navigable? What if we run into another herd on the highway? The last time we did, we lost – we lost Sophia." Her voice broke a little on her daughter's name. "How many more will we have to lose before you're satisfied?"

Color rose, hot and ugly, in Shane's face at that accusation. But it was Lori who calmed the argument down before Rick could try to find some way to defuse things.

"How about this," she said, resting a hand on Shane's chest, making herself a barrier between him and the rest of the group. "Everything we're not using day to day, we pack up in the totes and stow in the cars. We double the watch – even us housewives know enough about guns now to take our turn." She nodded carefully at Andrea at that. "We find some way to preserve more supplies; I know you were trying to save the cattle, Hershel, but like Maggie said, they're like a dinner bell out there. And we could probably try for one more winter crop? In the meantime, the men can look over the maps and do some more scouting; little as I want to send anyone out there again, I know we'll be better off if we know the lay of the land." She nodded to Rick, concession and permission in one. "And whichever comes first – when we're as prepared as we can be, or when they find us – we leave. All of us, no more questions asked."

"That's taking an awful risk," Shane growled. "What if the walkers come in the middle of the night? What if someone's wandered off when it happens, we gonna stick around to look for 'em? How many walkers gotta find us before y'all say it's enough?"

"I didn't say it was gonna be easy," Lori said, quietly but firmly. "It's a risk, yes; but a calculated one. Let us prepare, Shane. Give people time to say goodbye to this place – and what we'll be leaving here. We'll make it. I have faith in you and Rick to protect us 'til it's time."

A few days before, Shane might have stormed off, swearing he'd have none of it and calling the consequences down on all of their heads. Maybe formed an impulsive plan of his own to put things back on the track he preferred. But in that moment, he stared down at Lori's hand on his chest – then glanced over to Rick, and the harsh lines of his face softened.

"I ain't the only one who's gotta say 'yes' to that, you know," he told them, turning a shrewd look on Hershel.

The old farmer glanced mournfully around at the rest of the group, paying particular attention to Maggie's and Beth's expressions, then sighed. "I was wrong before; I suppose some part of me thinks I should be left behind. But for my daughters' sake...."

Shane stared a long moment, then turned to meet Rick's gaze, wrapping his arms around Lori. "I still think it's a pipe dream – but, all right then," he said. "For now."

The road ahead might still be choked with horror – but Rick felt more hopeful than he had in a very long while.



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