Andrea knew it was coming, had seen it even through her grief-stricken turmoil, and she knew she had to nip it in the bud. Martinez was the closest to a second-in-command Woodbury had, especially if one discounted Merle, and he would try to step into Philip’s role the moment they entered town. But Woodbury didn’t need a paramilitary, gun-happy, aggressive leader like Martinez. It needed Philip. Someone who understood the complexity of leadership as an endeavor to bring people together and balance protection and community.
As they entered through the main gates of town, halted by the concerned citizens that had gathered, Andrea wiped her face with the back of her sleeves, straightened, and exited the vehicle in a firm, confident stance.
“Listen up, everybody!” Martinez shouted into the crowd of people murmuring and asking questions.
“The Governor is dead,” Andrea announced without preamble, taking the reins from Martinez before he could continue. He passed her a look of surprise, but didn’t call her out, maybe recognizing that publicly bickering over how this speech went wouldn’t help either of them. There was one thing they could both agree on: the complete truth would do no one any good. “He and Merle died fighting Biters, protecting us, just as he always promised.”
The talking swelled as people panicked over the connotations. What would happen to Woodbury without their leader?
“So what do we do?” She raised her voice to make sure everyone could hear her clearly. “We honor him by thriving. And years from now, when they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury.” Andrea paused as the clamor petered off and everyone turned to her for leadership. That wasn’t a role she intended to claim, either. “We all know that no one person could hope to fill the Governor’s shoes, so I don’t think we should even try. We’ll make a council, several people, democratically elected, and with any luck, it’ll be enough to fill the hole he’s left behind.”
Andrea didn’t expect any rebuttal to her suggestion, particularly in front of the crowd, but Martinez forged ahead. “That’s all well and dandy for inside our community, but we need decisive leadership when facing what’s out there.”
“That’s why I’m nominating you for the council,” Andrea shot back, daring Martinez to push for authority over democracy in front of their followers. It wasn’t going to work unless he angled to make them all afraid of him. Having him on the council might appease him, and it would also allow them to utilize Martinez’s skills, doubly important without Merle or Philip. “I’m also nominating Milton as one of the Governor’s most trusted and reliable advisors. We’ll put up a list at the town center, and anyone is free to add any names they’d like to vote for.”
The shock was still so pervasive among the group, that there were no distracting questions or demands for her attention as she looped around to the back of the crowd, tugging Tyler into a hug and looking to Carol. “Where is everyone?” Andrea didn’t have to specify who she meant. They’d become deeply entrenched with this place, but she doubted she’d ever stop considering the small group that entered Woodbury with her as family.
“Everyone’s at the clinic. Lori woke up.”
Michonne, who’d been greeting Tyler, turned and headed straight toward the hospital, while Andrea took the extra minute to pull Karen aside from the throng of people. “Can you get the list of nominations started? Lori’s awake, and I’d like to check in on her right away.”
“Of course,” Karen nodded, compassion filling her face and voice. “And if you need to talk…”
“Thanks.” Andrea smiled tightly, finding her composure difficult to maintain. She had to be strong. “Let everyone know that we’re meeting in the town square this evening for the vote. People on guard duty should write their vote down.”
Carol walked beside her as they moved toward the building. “I was starting to wonder if you were coming back at all.”
“We were only gone four days.” The first night had been a blizzard to match her mood as she sat beside Philip’s body. There was no way to track Merle after that, but they still hoped they might find him by chance in one of the neighboring houses. Andrea hoped he might have bled to death, especially when Michonne finally convinced her that they couldn’t leave Woodbury alone indefinitely to search.
“I didn’t mean physically,” Carol commented quietly. She continued, sounding almost guilty, though Andrea couldn’t fathom for what. “That council thing is a good idea. It’ll make us stronger, but you need to be on it, too.”
“Kind of ruins the point of a democracy if I just assign a place for myself,” Andrea reminded, holding the door open for Carol, and following behind.
“Then I’ll be adding your name to the options.”
Everyone was packed into a small room in the back. Lori was, indeed, sitting up in her bed, pillows piled behind her to keep her upright. Carl clutched at her hand, even as she directed her attention around the room. Hershel sat in a wooden chair at the foot of the bed, crutches propped up beside him, while everyone else stood in a cluster.
Maggie was the first to approach Andrea when she entered, pulling her into a hug, any trace of lingering tension between them long since vanished. “I’m so sorry.” Andrea felt the urge to melt into her arms, collapse into tears and let herself break apart. But that wasn’t something they had the luxury of doing anymore. So instead, she tightened up her face, returned the hug briefly and separated. Glenn and Beth followed suit; her whole family understanding first-hand the deep loss she was suffering, but none of that made it easier.
“We just finished filling Lori in on what she’s missed,” Hershel declared. “She wanted to stay up until the two of you arrived back safely. Now that you have, I think it’s best if we said our goodnights and let her get some rest.”
“I think I’ve slept enough for this month,” Lori challenged, waving away his assessment. “I’m more interested in this new addition to our group.”
“Tyler, ma’am,” the boy said, stepping forward stiffly. Andrea recognized the routine from when he was first introduced to Philip and made every effort to be both unobtrusive and helpful at the same time. “Pleasure to meet you. You’ve woken up just in time to vote for our council members.”
“What’s this about a council?” Beth asked.
Michonne cut in before Andrea could explain the new situation of transforming Woodbury into a democracy. “I know you don’t want to hear this again, but we should at least consider our other options. There’s nothing stopping us from walking out those gates now.”
“You want to leave?” Andrea turned to face her friend, incredulous. “Just when these people need us the most? You want to give up the protection of this place Philip built? I don’t know if it occurred to you, but we were not doing well out there.”
“We came here to help our friends. We’ve done that. We don’t owe anyone anything.” Michonne’s tone was clipped, and Andrea was reminded that Michonne never had warmed up to Woodbury or the Governor, despite self-indulgent assurances that she would.
“I can’t believe you would even say that,” Andrea exclaimed, barely resisting the urge to grip her friend about the shoulders and shake her. “We’d have lost both Lori and Hershel if not for these people.”
“Michonne has a point.” Glenn raised his hands, stepping forward to grab everyone’s attention. “Everyone has put in effort to make this place work, but now that Lori is awake, let’s have the conversation. Do people still want to leave?”
“Why would anyone want to leave a place with walls and doctors, that’s kept us safe when we were unwell?” Lori demanded, bewildered.
“This place is fake, full of people who couldn’t protect themselves out there with armored vehicles and unlimited ammo. The people who watch over them would just as soon shoot the living as the dead.” Michonne explained, passionately enough that Andrea could tell she genuinely wanted to leave. “We’re better off on our own.”
Carol picked up where she left off. “The walls need improvement; I don’t know if they’d stand up to a herd, and we make noise, enough to attract all kinds of unwanted attention.
“There are a lot of old people here, children, and people who need care. Keeping this place running… Well, we’re going to need a whole lot of resources,” Maggie continued. “And maybe if Daddy still had his leg, I’d be on your side, but all we do is run. What other option is there?”
“The factory,” Michonne replied promptly. “It’s a sturdy building with no way for Walkers to get up. It’s perfect for a group our size.”
Andrea could keep her silence no longer. She loved Michonne, but her friend was so hurt that she struggled to let in even a few people. She would have to change enormously in order to accept an entire town as her own. “We can make this place whatever we need to in order for it to survive. In order for all of Woodbury to survive. We are strong, and it’s our duty to help those who cannot help themselves.”
“Okay, we’ve heard the arguments,” Glenn interrupted what could easily have turned into a weeklong discussion. “And we all agree that no matter what, we’re sticking together. So, let’s vote. Who wants to leave?”
Michonne’s hand came up immediately, and then, from the other side of the bed, Carl’s joined. Michonne looked over to Carol and frowned when the older woman kept her silence. “I think we can make it work,” Carol defended, unrepentantly.
Lori moved to put Carl’s hand down, but he stepped out of her reach. “This place, these walls, they’ll make us weak, and weak people die. We lost the farm because we let our guard down. It’ll happen here, too.”
“We won’t let it,” Maggie promised.
“All in favor of staying here?” Everyone else raised a hand at this, with the exception of Tyler who looked uncomfortably at the floor. Glenn gave him a nudge with his shoulder. “You’ve got a vote, too.”
“Won’t change the outcome,” Tyler shifted from foot to foot.
“Doesn’t matter,” Andrea chided. “You’re part of our group, now.”
“Then I’ll abstain. Y’all make good points.”
It was clear to Andrea that the boy didn’t want to offend anyone, particularly when nothing would be gained from it, but she didn’t call him on the behavior. He’d learn to feel more accepted, she’d make sure of it.
“Then, we stay,” Glenn announced, like there was any need for the formality. Somehow, the victory felt hollow.
Her gaze raised and locked with Michonne’s. Somewhere, the pebble of doubt that had been lodged in her brain worked its way loose and stumbled to the forefront of her thoughts. Michonne didn’t like Woodbury, Merle, or Philip. Was it possible… could she have somehow been involved in his death? It hurt to even contemplate.
Nodding her head towards the door, she slipped out while Carol outlined the vote that was planned for that evening, Michonne following with a quiet tread. The front room was empty, so Andrea stopped there. “You were the last one to speak to Merle before he went psycho and…” She turned around so she could see Michonne clearly and the words just spilled out. “What set him off? Was there something you saw up there? Did he say something? Did you?”
“I don’t know what set him off.”
Andrea wanted to believe her. She wanted to take her at her word and forget about the whole thing, but there was no way she could let this go. Philip was important to her, and the steady, deliberate way Michonne made her statement was ringing alarm bells inside her head, a skill honed from her years as a lawyer. At best, it was a half-truth. She could feel her jaw tightening without conscious thought. “Not even a guess?”
“No clue. One minute, we were standing in the living room of a cleared apartment, the next, he was taking off down the stairs.”
“You didn’t follow him?”
“Didn’t think there was a need to.”
“Your backup runs downstairs, and you don’t think there’s a need to follow?”
Michonne’s face pinched up, and her famous glare made an appearance. “Starting to sound an awful lot like an interrogation here. You planning to arrest me?”
It was a deflection, plain as the sword on her back, and that couldn’t possibly be good. Andrea sucked in a deep breath at the sudden stabbing pain in her chest. She didn’t know if she could force the information out of Michonne if she tried, and doubted further that she’d like what she found. But Andrea knew Michonne, knew she was a good person. The one thing she could rule out was that Michonne had intended for Philip to be killed. Perhaps Merle, but certainly not Philip. With that in mind, Andrea sucked in a deep breath. “No, not an interrogation. Friends help each other.”
“Then, I guess for the time being, I’ll relocate to the center of town. Maybe some space can help us see eye to eye.”
Michonne nodded stiffly and left. Andrea didn’t see her again all that night, even when she went to their place to grab the few belongings she had left and moved the box of her things to an apartment just across from where Philip had been living, or when all of the residents gathered in front of the steps of the town center. Tyler had run into her, however, which was obvious from the way he awkwardly rubbed at his elbow and let her know that he would just stay with Carl and Lori rather than pick one of their houses. She didn’t blame him for wanting to remain neutral.
“Here’s the list,” Karen reported in, handing off a teal poster board. “I’ve also got the votes from people on shift.”
Andrea had been working closely with the people of the town, concentrating on getting to know them, and none of the faces before her or the names on the list were unfamiliar. She was a little surprised to see so many nominations from her own group. Her name was on there, along with Glenn’s, Maggie’s, and Carol’s.
There were a few squabbles before the vote began on the proper technique and if people were biased. People debated whether or not it should be anonymous or done by paper. It was simultaneously frustrating and invigorating to see so much investment in hope for the future.
In the end, the votes were tallied on the posterboard and the council was officially formed of Martinez, Andrea, Dr. Stevens, Milton, and Maggie.
Tara’s world snapped into focus, and she realized she was staring at Rick as he tried to redirect her gun toward the ground. Her heart pounded at a million miles an hour, and it was hard to breathe, but his familiar face chipped away at the panic. He gripped her gun, flicking the safety on and pushing it down, but he didn’t take it away.
“They tried to come in!” She exclaimed, “I told them they had to stay out, but they tried to come in!”
“Where’s Judith? Is anyone hurt?”
“She’s in the back with Meghan,” Lilly cut in, crouched by the overturned couch which was providing cover for both her and David. She had the spare handgun Rick had given her clutched between both shaking hands. “We’re not hurt.”
Rick nodded. “Was it just the two of them?”
“We only saw two.” Tara swallowed, forcing herself to get it together.
“Okay. Daryl and I will sweep the building for anyone else. Stay here and stay on your guard.”
Part of Tara wanted to beg Rick to stay or leave Daryl behind, but she couldn’t expect either of them to venture out there alone. She was the one that was supposed to protect her family, and she needed to step up. Rick was already eyeing her like he wasn’t sure whether or not to trust her with the task. “Be careful.”
Once they were gone, Tara helped Lilly shift the couch in front of the door and get their father back into his chair. Lilly slid it down the hallway and out of any line of fire, ignoring David’s protests that he could still shoot. Tara crouched by the door, keeping her mass small and her mind at the ready in case she needed to fire again.
Fifteen minutes later, her muscles cramping from tension, Tara heard a knock at the door, followed by Rick’s instruction to let them in. Mindful of her previous mistakes, she put the safety back on first and tucked her weapon away before shifting their barricade.
“It looks clear for now,” Rick said as he came inside. Daryl passed him and headed down the hallway. “You’ve got an hour to pack, and then we’re leaving. Only take the essentials, keep personal items to a minimum.”
“We can’t leave,” Lilly reminded him. “Our father’s too ill.”
“Where would we go, anyway?” Tara added.
“Anywhere but here,” Daryl declared as he came out with the baby, Meghan tailing along behind him before latching onto her mother. “Ain’t safe.”
“We’re going to have to risk moving him.” Rick began to explain. “Those people that came here tonight were a part of a larger group that tailed us. We heard them on a radio out on the street. And if they come here and find out we’ve killed two of their people, we’ll all be dead.”
Guilt swelled up inside Tara. She’d fired first. She hadn’t hit anyone, but if she hadn’t taken that shot, then those two strangers wouldn’t be lying dead in the hallway, and they wouldn’t be forced on the run with a sick man and two children. She bit down on her instinctive response and instead concentrated on packing.
Daryl and Rick disappeared into their own apartment while Tara dragged Meghan into the kitchen where packing would be straight-forward. They’d need all the food they had. She helped her niece climb onto the counter so she could hand down the cans from the top shelves and started loading them into a box.
“Those people that came… they’re dead?”
Tara choked, swallowing hard to clear her throat. Perhaps it hadn’t been the best idea to occupy Meghan while Lilly did the personal packing. “Yeah. They’re dead.”
Meghan was silent for a while as she finished her task. It was too much to hope that she had no more questions. “Were they bad people?”
Tara helped her jump down from the counter and gave her a light box to carry to the door. “I… I don’t know, Meg.”
“But we killed them.” Tara didn’t respond, just went back to the kitchen and packed up the most basic supplies for cooking. A few pots and pans. A canopener. She tried to concentrate on her task. “Are we bad people?”
And wasn’t that the ten million dollar question? It was also definitely a question Tara was prepared to pass off as motherly duties and not something an aunt should address. Still, as she looked down at the large, blue eyes, she knew she had to say something. “You, sweet pea, are the best person I know. We’re all trying to be good people here. It’s just that sometimes good people can do bad things.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Lilly smiled and handed off a pink rolling suitcase for Meghan and a satchel for Tara. “I’ve already grabbed your essentials. You can finish up with any personal items you want and help Meghan pick out which toy she will bring.”
“Toy?” Meghan asked, flabbergasted, all thoughts of dead bodies in the hallway or gunfire from that morning forgotten. “I can only take one?”
“I’m sorry, but we can only take what we need.”
Tara didn’t have much in the way of personal items left. She hadn’t been living with her sister before the outbreak, and there wasn’t a whole lot of things to accrue being trapped inside one building for months on end. She stuffed a few pens and a notebook into her bag, put on the pride wristband her mom had given her when she’d come out, and watched Meghan from the doorway of her bedroom. There were more toys than floor and Meghan sat in the midst of them all with two stuffies in hand, trying to pick between them. Tara watched, thinking about how unjust the world was to ask a seven year old to decide if she liked the pink lamb or the sequined unicorn more.
She stepped over, grabbing the unicorn and sticking it into her own bag, squishing it down until it fit with only minor bulging, and then offered Meghan a hand up. “There. Now you have one toy, and I’ll have one, but you can borrow mine.” Meghan beamed up at her. “But let’s keep it as our secret for now.”
Lilly had dragged the remaining oxygen tanks to the door and packed a bag for their dad by the time Tara returned to help, and they took a minute to look over the apartment they’d spent so much time in. They’d probably never see it again. Tara stole a glance at her sister who was determinedly scanning the room for anything else they may not want to leave behind.
“Can’t believe I almost forgot the first aid kit,” Lilly sighed, heading towards the bathroom.
There was a knock on the door behind them, and Tara let Rick and Daryl inside. Daryl eyed the pile. “Ya need all that?”
“It’s mostly food,” Tara defended, but Daryl was already picking up a large box and heading back out the door. Tara followed quickly, not wanting to bail on the labor, as Rick found a place to settle Judith.
The bodies had been cleared out of the hallway, which was a relief, and Tara scurried to catch up to Daryl’s long strides. “It’s my fault we have to leave. If I hadn’t shot at them...”
Daryl dumped his box into the back of the truck, the door rolled all the way up as they loaded their belongings. Their supplies seemed meager compared to what Tara and Lilly had packed, even more if one discounted the mass of blankets. Tara stacked her box on top.
“I fired first.”
“Good,” Daryl grunted. Tara liked Daryl. He had a sincerity about him that so many people lacked. He said what was on his mind, and he didn’t pretend. And although he tried to hide it behind a tough act, he was an unrepentant softie where his baby was concerned. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t also like that he was most likely gay, and thus could relate to her in a way others couldn’t. That said, she did not understand him at all.
“No, I… I panicked. They could have been good people, just looking for others.”
“Or they coulda wiped out your whole family. They had a warnin’ shot an’ they didn’t leave. ‘S more than most get these days.” Daryl gave her a look and then turned back toward the building, following the same tracks they’d cut into the snow. “Ya did good. Next time ya’ll do better.”
“You killed someone today,” Tara pointed out before he could get much further. Daryl stopped, and she nearly ran into his back. It had come out as an accusation, but all she’d meant by it was a plea for help. “How?”
“Wasn’t about that guy up there. It can’t be. Ya just think ‘bout who you’re protectin’.”
Rick and Lilly joined them in loading the boxes, and they made quick work. Before the hour was up, their task was complete. Daryl carried David downstairs and helped him get settled in the passenger’s seat of the Gorbelli’s truck before climbing into the back with everyone else. Rick took the wheel.
As Rick backed up and pulled onto the street, mindful of the unplowed roads, Lilly brought up an earlier question. “Where are we going to go?”
“We’ll swing by Walmart, and then head to Fort Benning.”
“Benning?” Daryl echoed, looking up from a giggling Judith in surprise. Tara was surprised as well; she’d expected them to already have hashed this out. “Thought ya said it was a dead end.”
Rick didn’t take his eyes off the road. “The Living said it was a dead end, and liars are the best thing I could call them. Maybe the others thought it was a lie, too. At the very least, it will get us some distance from here.”
Daryl didn’t protest, but Tara felt a little indignant on his behalf. She knew Rick was a good man, but she hated the way he took Daryl for granted. This should have been a discussion, but Rick had turned it into a command. “So glad I was consulted before we set our destination to some place that probably isn’t even standing.”
“Tara!” Lilly chided.
“No, she’s right,” Rick sighed. “I shouldn’t have assumed that you didn’t have an opinion. Is there someplace else you wanted to go?”
Lilly passed her an expectant look, but they both knew she was full of shit. The only question was how long she intended to fuck around before admitting it. “Guess not,” she grudgingly confessed. “Whole world’s gone, isn’t it?”
Tara leaned back against the side of the truck in frustrated impotence and glared at her sister as Lilly tried to smother a knowing smirk. Meghan interrupted the standoff a moment later by insisting they play a road trip game, since they were on a road trip, and Tara agreed without complaint. With some cajoling, everyone else joined in as well, although Daryl claimed not to know any of the games. Tara suspected he was just trying to get out of it, but before she could call him on it, Rick succinctly explained the rules and removed any excuse.
They traveled slowly through the dark, snowy night and reached their destination as the sun started to peek through the trees. Rick circled the parking lot before pulling up on the far side of the building where it was less visible from the road and close to the treeline.
Aside from David, everyone piled out of the vehicle, eager to stretch their legs. Tara kept her weapon at the ready, boxing Meghan in between Lilly and herself. Daryl stalked over to a bicycle standing innocuously nearby and kicked it over. He spat on it and then returned to their little group where Rick was struggling to keep the amusement off his face.
“We’ll do a quick sweep,” Rick decided, gesturing for Daryl to come with him. “Stay inside the truck until we get back.”
“Nah,” Daryl disagreed. “Think it’s best if I stay here. Take Tara.”
Tara half expected their leader to protest, but he seemed to understand something that Daryl wasn’t saying, and relented with just a nod. They waited until the rolling back of the truck was shut before drawing their weapons and circling around the building looking for any signs of danger. It didn’t take long for Tara’s curiosity to overcome her reticence. “What’s with the bike?”
“Daryl had a bike. Er… motorcycle. It belonged to his brother. We left it here for a while, and when we came back, it was gone. Someone had left that bicycle in its place,” Rick turned and smiled. “You don’t like me, do you?”
Tara first tripped over her own feet and then over her tongue, feeling an immediate sense of guilt. She knew Rick had done a lot for her family, but she still felt resentment towards him. She didn’t like how he treated Daryl like his personal bodyguard. She especially didn’t like how he’d somehow managed to fall right into the ‘cool uncle’ slot in Meghan’s mind. That had always been her turf and hers alone. Maybe she was just holding him to a higher standard to compensate for Lilly’s rose colored glasses. “I know we’re better off together.”
Rick’s smile didn’t fade or morph, he just kept it up like he’d known that response was coming when he asked the question. Tara wanted to punch him in that upturned mouth. “There’s not much left inside, but I still want to take a quick look to make sure no one else is here if we’re staying for a bit.”
Inside Walmart was as empty as Rick promised and even more looted than Tara expected. Some things remained, like electronics, toys and sports gear, but every canned food item had been cleared, and many large shelves stood barren.
“Nothing’s going on between me and Lilly.”
“I know,” Tara replied dismissively. She hadn’t been completely certain about that, despite her insistence. For all she knew, they’d been going at it while she went on her hunting lessons with Daryl. “Look, I get it. You’re the boss. Are we done?”
Rick looked a little annoyed as they rejoined the others, which Tara took for a win. He looked up at the overcast sky and the snow that was starting to pick up with a frown. “Not a great day for traveling. Let’s see what it does. We may have to tuck in for a day or two.”
“Is it safe to move inside?” Lilly asked, eyeing the main doors. “It’ll be easier to keep warm in there.”
“I saw a back office,” Tara suggested. “Then we’d have a door, too.”
Everyone liked the idea, particularly with how the snow was falling in thick, puffy waves, and they set up camp in the manager’s office. Tara let them work at it while she scoured the store for anything that was useful. Several people must have already combed through because there was little to find save for a few misplaced items tucked away on lower shelves. She stowed a few batteries and other small finds into her bag then returned to the group with her bounty of chips and marshmallows.
Meghan saw the prize and cheered. “Can we eat them today?”
“Well, they’re not getting any less stale.”
Meghan obediently looked to her mom, despite Tara’s proclamation, and Lilly smiled. “I think we could all use some cheering up.”
Daryl swiped the chips, opening the bag to steal the first one before passing them around the circle. They were bordering on stale, but Tara still revelled in eating junk food that had never come within ten feet of a Gorbelli food truck. She would kill for a soda. After finishing their meal, Meghan fell asleep curled around the carseat and Lilly tucked both children in with the same blanket. Their sleep schedule was completely messed up from leaving in the middle of the night, and even Tara was already feeling the call to close her eyes. It didn’t help that the store was mostly windowless which obscured the little daylight.
“Go on an’ lay down,” Daryl invited. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Wake me up in a couple hours.”
Daryl grunted in assent as he shut the door behind him, and Tara made herself comfortable in a sleeping bag beside her niece. Rick and Lilly were whispering, but the room was too small for anything to be strictly confidential. Rick thought their dad needed to be in a separate room while Lilly insisted she’d stay awake to keep an eye on him.
David put a kibosh on the whole argument, leaning forward in his wheely chair to keep his voice down. “I’m not putting my family in any more risk than I already have. Find me a cot, and I’ll sleep in the closet or something, or you find me some rope.”
Tara’s heart clenched at the declaration, one more reminder of how little time with their father remained. They’d already been graced with more than any of them had dared hope for, but it didn’t make losing a loved one any easier. Closing her eyes, Tara feigned sleep, her mind too busy to drift off.
Would her father survive the trip to Fort Benning? If he did, would they even have medical supplies for him there? Tara had no doubt they’d be taken in since they had children and Lilly was a nurse, but there was a long way between them and their destination and winter seemed to go on forever without heated buildings. Daryl and Rick didn’t even know if the place was still running. This could all be for nothing.
A few minutes later, the movement had settled, and Tara contemplated getting up and letting Daryl rest since she still felt wide awake. Then, Rick’s brief whisper of a protest got her attention.
“They’re asleep. Look, I know you’re a good man,” Lilly argued, “It’s what I like about you. But we all have needs, and it’s been a long time. I’m sure it’s been a long time for you. Your wife will understand.”
Tara pinched her eyes shut, wishing she hadn’t been pretending to sleep and silently begging Rick to turn her down. Lilly couldn’t seriously be suggesting they bone right there. Meghan was only three feet away.
Tara was just about to pointedly cough when Rick saved the day. “I’m sorry, Lilly. I can’t. I just don’t feel that way about you.” When the door closed behind him, Tara flopped onto her back and let out a sigh of relief.
Lilly sighed in tandem. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you missed that.”
“I’d say I’m sorry you struck out, but there are some things sisters are never meant to hear.”
“I wasn’t going to do it here.”
Tara didn’t believe her, but she let the matter drop for the sake of getting some sleep or at least escaping the awkward conversation. It was completely silent aside from the sounds of wakeful breathing for about twenty minutes before Lilly sat up again.
“I’m going to go apologize.”
“What? No. Why?” But Lilly wasn’t interested in answering questions, she was already shoving her blankets away and standing, so Tara stood as well, careful not to disturb the sleeping children. Lilly looked determined to right some sort of wrong, but the last time she’d gone after a guy intending to apologize, she came back pregnant with Meghan. Tara had no idea how someone so together always managed to unravel around men she liked. Sucking in a breath, she decided to try the only tactic she could see remaining. “I’ll do it. He’ll be more open with me since he’s not trying to protect my feelings.”
Lilly hesitated for a moment before sitting back down. “Alright. No monkey business. A genuine apology.”
Tara saluted before leaving the room, closing the door and leaning against it. Lilly wouldn’t even know if she neglected to pass on the message, right? The room behind her was silent and there was no sign of the two men who were supposedly out here keeping watch. She was certain they’d have heard if anything had happened.
As she wandered out into the store, a faint groaning sound reached her ears. She drew her gun, shoulders tensing as she passed by the next few shelves. A Walker must have slipped into the building, but where were Rick and Daryl? Were they also hunting it? She swung her head from side to side to look down each aisle as she continued, cautious about letting it sneak up behind her. She couldn’t even be sure how many were inside.
The groaning came again, this time very close, and Tara froze as she identified it. That was definitely not a Walker. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she instantly regretted chasing down the source as the image before her burned into her retinas. Rick had Daryl pinned against a shelf, hand plunged deep into his pants, and while they were thankfully both fully clothed, there was little doubt about what they were doing.
Her brain rebooted, and she quickly decided that she did not want to be seen there and hastily took a few steps backwards, promptly tripping over something on the ground in her hurry. The clatter of an empty can rolling off her foot alerted her travel companions to her presence, and they ripped apart. Daryl didn’t so much as glance in her direction before taking off the opposite way, leaving Rick to face her alone. Unable to ignore the situation, Tara let her anger flow instead. “What the hell, man?”
“I didn’t lead your sister on. I’ve never led her on.”
“You think this is about Lilly?” Tara demanded, incredulously. Rick had been clear towards Lilly from day one, whether her sister had been willing to see it or not. “Do you even know what you’re doing to Daryl?”
“It’s none of your business what Daryl and I do,” Rick replied sharply, glaring her down.
“He’s my friend, and he loves you. And you’re just using him until you get your wife back. It’s not okay to treat people like shit just because they’re gay.”
“That’s not what this is.”
Rick sounded genuinely angry, and Tara thought she might have struck a chord this time. As she turned back towards the office and her family she snapped, “Sure. You keep telling yourself that.”