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Rumor Has It (All Wrong)

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The sun was rising quick over the horizon, as it had been doing lately in these days fast-approaching summer. Glenn mumbled something and rolled over, shoving his face tight into the crook of Maggie's neck. Maggie mumbled a half-hearted complaint against his cold nose, but she settled sweetly back against him, body soft and warm in his arms.

When the sunlight poking into the guard tower could be ignored no longer, Glenn forced himself to sit upright, blinking around the quiet space. His hand drifted down to Maggie's thigh, stroking it in a gentle nudge for her to wake up.

“Yeah, yeah,” Maggie mumbled, face still pressed into her pillow. “What's it look like out there?”

Bones cracking in the still-cool morning, Glenn pushed himself upright and peered out of the tower. Walkers were piling up against the southwest fence, like they were looking for a morning snack. No one was out there yet on fence duty, but their numbers were nowhere near large enough for that to be a worry just yet. Rick was on the move, getting his gear together to work in the garden. Carl was trailing sleepily after him, dragging a hoe on the ground as he stumbled over the uneven earth.

Over in the yard, Carol was just heating up the grill, pulling out her supplies to serve the rest of the camp breakfast. He couldn't smell it yet, but Glenn was sure the aroma of grits and maybe some of that freeze-dried sausage they raided from a military outpost a few weeks ago would soon be reaching even their height in the tower. His mouth watered at the thought.

Off on the other side the yard, Daryl was just slinking out of the cellblock, hands shoved in his pockets and glancing around like he half-expected to get jumped. When he got to his destination—Carol's grill, to pick at the food as she cooked it and get his hand smacked, like he did every morning—his posture relaxed, as much as it could ever be said to, and he leaned up against the grill. Glenn couldn't hear what they were saying at this distance, but it was obvious from their body language that it was some easy conversation, something nice and teasing between friends. Or whatever those two thought they were to each other.

“Early birds are out,” Glenn reported back to Maggie.

“Daryl stealing my breakfast yet?” Maggie wondered. Glenn glanced back at her to the sight of Maggie tugging on her jeans and buckling her belt. Temporarily distracted by the view, Glenn could only reply:


Pants securely on, Maggie laughed and hopped to her feet to join him at the railing. Her hair escaped from behind her ears as she leaned forward to press a kiss to Glenn's cheek. Glenn beamed back at her.

Daryl,” Maggie repeated herself. Leaning against the railing next to Glenn, Maggie peered out to the yard. “Is he stealing my breakfast?”

Glenn nodded with sudden understanding, twisting back around to look out with Maggie. “Oh! Uh, yeah. Just came out a minute ago to talk to Carol.”

Maggie nudged her shoulder into Glenn's, smiling mischievously.

“Do you think Daryl knows Carol's sweet on him?” Maggie wondered.

Glenn snorted. “I don't think Daryl knows Daryl's 'sweet on' Carol. Forget the other way around.”

Maggie's hand slipped over Glenn's where it was resting on the railing. Together they watched Daryl and Carol talk soundlessly across the yard.

“You think those two'll ever get together?” Maggie asked.

Glenn's mouth twisted a little sadly. “Maybe not before it's too late.”

“Don't be a pessimist,” Maggie chastised. She then sighed and rested her head on her crossed hands. “I think it's sweet.”

Glenn pushed off the railing and headed for the hatch to head down. “Won't be sweet if one of them gets bit before they get around to anything,” he grumbled. Maggie just shook her head as he lowered himself down the ladder.

Maggie played with Beth's hair, brushing it smooth like she had when they were girls.

“How're things with your husband?” Beth teased. Her voice always had that lilting, bell-like quality to it—a quality Maggie had envied when they were younger, but could love now.

Maggie smiled softly as she brushed Beth's hair. Her fingertips slid through the untangled locks, pale yellow silk beneath her fingertips.

Gooood.” Maggie drew out the word teasingly. Beth laughed, head bobbing beneath Maggie's hands.

“But what about you? Has someone caught your eye yet? You know I think Patrick would be-”

“Patrick's a baby,” Beth complained. “Besides... Zach's been making eyes at me.”

Zach, huh?” Maggie had to think for a moment before she remembered who that was. Not too old. Sweet face—seemed like he'd be nice to Beth. Maggie would have to undertake a more extensive investigation in the future, but for now she couldn't see anything to object to. Not anything that was immediately apparent.

“Dunno if I like him back,” Beth commented. “I'm thinking about it before I start flirting.”

“Good girl,” Maggie praised her. Beth snorted and socked Maggie on the thigh. Maggie laughed and just kept brushing her hair.

“So you thinking you two'll be the next big hook-up?” Maggie prompted, wanting to get Beth to keep talking about this boy.

To her surprise, Beth laughed and shook her head. “Us? No: I'm not going to give him the time of day for weeks yet, even if I do decide he's worth being interested in. There's sure to be others who get together before us. Like...”

Maggie snorted when Beth trailed off, struggling to think of another future-couple. “What about Daryl and Carol?” she asked. “They're awfully cozy every morning. And you know how Carol flirts with him.”

“The problem with Daryl and Carol is Daryl. Do you think he'll ever notice Carol's interested?”

Maggie shrugged. “I think so. And if he doesn't, Carol might just tie him down one of these days until he does notice.” The tips of Beth's ears turned a little bit red at that. Maggie scored herself a point for embarrassing her annoyingly unflappable baby sister.

“I just think it's going to be a long time before Daryl gets the idea in his head, is all,” Beth finally replied. “You know he's kinda... repressed?”

“Emotionally constipated, more like,” Maggie grumbled. Sighing, she sat back, examining Beth's hair. She leaned forward and passed the brush to Beth, peering over her shoulder at her. “All done.”

Beth turned her head to look at her, smiling as she took the brush. “Thanks.”

Maggie wrapped her arms around Beth and squeezed tight, resting her chin on her shoulder. “Anytime, munchkin.”

Baby Judith was being fussy today, not wanting to go down for her late-morning nap, which meant Beth was pacing up and down the cellblock, singing songs as she bounced her on her hip. Daddy came in and gave Judith a look-over, but declared her fussiness to be nothing more than a bad mood and maybe some sleepiness. Beth could understand that. Daddy settled in to watch, leaning against the wall to take some of the weight off his one leg, as Beth resumed her pacing.

“How are you doing these days, sweetheart?” Daddy asked.

Beth shrugged, shushing little Judith as she turned to walk back towards Daddy. “Just fine.”

Beth continued to sing at Judith as Hershel watched her, eyebrows drawn low over his eyes. He was thinking on something: Beth could tell. But he wouldn't talk unless it was in his own time. So Beth waited and sang. Judith was quieting, slowly but surely.

“That Zach: is he a new boy of yours?”

Beth rolled her eyes. First Maggie, then Daddy. Was she acting that flirty with Zach? She didn't mean to be—not yet at least.

“No, Daddy. Not yet, at least.”

Daddy hummed at that: a low, rumbly sound that always made Beth feel like a little girl about to get in trouble. She tensed and glanced at her father.

“Well. If he does become your boy...” Daddy hummed and blew some air out, huffing a little. “Make sure you two are safe.”

Beth glanced down at baby Judith, falling asleep against her shoulder. “Yes, Daddy,” she replied. She wasn't a silly little girl. She knew the consequences of unprotected sex. Beth shifted Judith on her hip. Had seen those consequences first hand, in fact.

“Because you know, all you have to do is ask one of the folks heading out on a raid.”

“I know, Daddy,” Beth sighed, not over-exasperatedly. Her father was just looking out for her, was all. It was because he loved her.

A beat of quiet, during which time Judith finally managed to settle enough to close her eyes. Beth kept up her easy bouncing, quieting her touch just a bit. When Daddy spoke again, his voice was softer, in deference to the sleeping babe.

“Well, if you ever do, make sure you prepare beforehand. Daryl'll pick you up something if you ask, and you know he wouldn't judge you or tell no one.”

“I'm okay for now, daddy,” Beth reassured him. Judith cooed contentedly in her arms as Beth rocked her back and forth.

“Besides...” Beth mused, after a pause, “he might be needing to pick up his own protection, sometime soon.”

Daddy's eyes widened and his mouth formed a little surprised “oh”. Beth giggled. “Oh?” he asked. “Is that right?”

“Not yet,” Beth corrected. “But maybe. Soon.”

“Carol hasn't said anything,” he mused. Then he stopped and turned to Beth. “This hypothetical lady of Daryl's we're talking about: it would be Carol, correct?”

“Maybe,” Beth teased. “If Daryl ever was smart enough to realize Carol would be his, if he just made eyes at her.”

“Daryl makes eyes at Carol all the time,” Daddy commented. “And they're already each other's, the way I see it. Daryl is Carol's and Carol is Daryl's. The only matter now is if they'll ever make the relationship a physical one. All the rest of the love is already there.”

Beth hummed and carefully stepped over to Judith's crib, shifting her in her arms to settle her in.

“Way I see it, there could be a lot more 'love' 'tween the two of them,” Beth grumbled, but not unkindly.

Daddy snorted at that, leaning harder against the wall as he shifted his weight from his remaining leg to the fake leg and back again.

“Time'll tell. Those two'll figure themselves out. So long as no nosy young ladies start sticking themselves into other people's business.”

Yes, Daddy,” Beth sing-songed.

Judith suckled softly in her sleep, far, far away into her formless dreams already.

Little Judith was clamping down on the nipple of the bottle, sucking the daylights out of it. Hershel smiled down at her as she sucked, eyes half-closed in the contentment of getting fed her late lunch. Funny how the end of it all brought those simple moments back in full-force, those basic needs being met the height of happiness: food, shelter, warmth. Those were each cause for celebration, nowadays.

“She's getting bigger.” That was Carl, looking on carefully as Hershel fed his baby sister. Hershel glanced at him, trying to find if there was any deeper meaning to the slightly worried tone that seemed buried behind the words. Not finding any he could put to words, Hershel replied to the surface of Carl's observation.

“That she is. Soon enough she'll be walking, talking. Get her on solid foods and she can eat with the rest of us.”

Carl nodded, expression unreadable, as usual.

Hershel tried again. “She's a healthy baby. Good weight. Good lungs. Perfectly normal little girl.”

Again, Carl nodded. Hershel swallowed a sigh and instead turned his focus back on Judith, rocking her gently as she sucked and sucked and sucked at her bottle.

“It'll be good when she can eat normal food,” Carl finally piped up. Hershel glanced at him, saw that a little worried frown had appeared between his eyebrows. “No more runs just for formula or diapers.”

Hershel smiled and leaned back, preparing a napkin for Judith's burping. “She may be the only baby here right now, but I'm sure she won't be the last. Where there's grown folk, there'll be babies. Sure as anything in this world.”

Carl's head snapped up at that. “Is Maggie-”

“No, no.” Hershel hadn't even been thinking of Maggie, though surely the possibility was more real every day. There was only so much contraceptives would work, especially given how hit-and-miss the runs were at acquiring them. And the longer their situation lasted, the worse the contraceptives were going to get. Condoms, and everything else, did have an expiration date, after all.

“Maggie's not pregnant,” Hershel reassured Carl. “Not as far as I know, at least. Just thinking about all the coupling up we've got here. Maggie and Glenn, sure. But Tyreese and Karen have been getting close, too. Michael and Jessica, over in cellblock D. And...” Hershel trailed off, thinking about Beth gossiping about Daryl and Carol, and if they'd ever get together in the carnal sense.

“Who?” Carl jumped on the hesitation like a dog with a bone.

Hershel smiled at him, taking the empty bottle from Judith's still-questing mouth and setting it aside. “Nothing, nothing.” But Hershel knew Carl wasn't about to let it go, so he went along with it easy enough. “Carol and Daryl. There's nothing yet, not as far as far as the rumor-mill goes, but someday soon it might not be too surprising to see one of them bunking up in the other's cell for the night.”

Carl wrinkled his nose at that. Hershel smiled. The boy was still young, no matter how mature and responsible he might think he was. Seeing horrors like he'd seen, doing the things he'd done: they grew you up, but they didn't give you the wisdom that age did, or the right mind to process them. Carl was still a little boy in many ways, whether he liked it or not.

“You think? Really?”

Hershel moved Judith up to his shoulder and started patting her back gently. He smiled at Carl's incredulous tone. “Well, sure. Why not?”

Carl shrugged. “Dunno. Guess I thought maybe...” he glanced almost nervously up at Hershel. “Michonne?”

Hershel laughed. “Naw, naw. There's love there, sure as can be. Just like there's love between Daryl and your father, Daryl and my Beth, Daryl and you, even. Plenty of love, between the all of us, and Daryl feels it more than most, since he never had a family to love him the proper way, like you and I had. But when it comes to who Daryl needs? To lean on when times are tough, and to lean back on him, to take care of? Well,” Hershel raised his bushy eyebrows pointedly at Carl, “you seeing Michonne do much leaning, any direction?”

Carl laughed a little at that. “No. Michonne never leans.” Then he frowned. “But I don't get what that has to do with... you know. Daryl and... a girlfriend.”

Hershel nodded to himself, patting Judith's back gentle and sweet. “That's alright. That understanding'll come with time.”

Carl huffed the way he always did when some deigned to point out his youth, but he let the matter drop.

Judith spat up on the burping rag and Hershel smiled at the chubby little princess. Judith gurgled and started to drift off to her afternoon sleep.

“He caught a half dozen rabbits, you know. In one day! And then Carol made us all rabbit stew, and you remember how delicious that was? I don't know how Mr. Dixon did it. He must've been some sort of wilderness expert before. Like, a park ranger or something? Or maybe he led a boyscout troop!”

Carl rolled his eyes so hard they probably were gonna stick that way one of these days, just like his mom used to say.

Patrick yapped on some more, apparently oblivious to Carl's indifference.

“You think he would teach me, if I asked? Not how to use the crossbow—I'm way too young for that. I probably couldn't even draw it if I wanted to. But like, how to trap and stuff, you know? Live off the land? I bet he knows all sorts of stuff like... like how to look at branches and know that something went through there, or what kind of animals make different footprints and stuff. I mean, I'd never ask him, because I wouldn't want to bug him. But maybe... I don't know...”

“You know he's dating Carol, right?” Carl snapped, just to shut Patrick up.

It worked, for about two seconds. Patrick's mouth opened and closed all gormless-like. He shoved his glasses up higher on his nose from where they had slipped down during his excited chattering.

“Oh. Well.” Patrick's mouth worked like a fish's. “That's good. I mean. That's nice for Mr. Dixon. Carol's real nice, and cooks up all the food Mr. Dixon brings in good and tasty. It's like... you know. A perfect match.”

Carl sighed and trudged over to Patrick, where he was standing against the pig fence. Standing on his tiptoes, Carl slung an arm around Patrick's shoulders and patted him comfortingly. “Sorry. Thought you should know.”

Patrick shrugged, smiling good-naturedly. “Naw, I mean. That's good! It wasn't like I thought Mr. Dixon was... you know. Like me. And besides, even if he was, he's way too old for me.” Patrick laughed, a little sharp but mostly alright.

Carl gave Patrick one last pat on his shoulder, then removed his arm and nodded over at the pigs. “Come on. You can help clean up the pen. Take your mind off things.”

Patrick rolled his eyes, but started forward to help. “Great. Fantastic. No, really,” he flung a hand out to the pigs, “perfect way for me to forget about my crushed dreams: shoveling pig shit. Really puts things in perspective.”

Carl snorted and shoved his shoulder against Patrick's as they got to work. He was kind of a nerd, and kind of a loser, but he was mostly alright. At least, given the other options Carl had for company in this place.

“Hey, Carol!” Patrick jogged forward, maybe a little bit too enthusiastically, because Carol got a look on her face like “Oh no, why is this nerdy kid running at me.” Patrick ignored it: he was pretty used to seeing people greet him with that expression. Instead, he soldiered on, coming to a stop at her grill.

“Yes, Patrick?” Carol asked. She was real patient and nice with everyone—even Patrick, who knew he could get annoying at times. She wasn't no push-over or nothing, either. Patrick could see why Daryl would like her. You know, if you were into that whole... female... thing.

“Yeah, uh. Hi! Uh. So.” Patrick flailed. Shoot. What was it he wanted to say to her? Congratulations, you won, enjoy kissing Daryl? That'd be kind of out of the blue. And kind of weird. And kind of bitter. Oh, and kind of outting himself in a major way, when the only other person who knew about him right now was Carl. He was sure Carol wouldn't mind: see his earlier observation that she was totally nice and all. But still: if Carol and Daryl really were an “item”, like Carl seemed to think, then anything he said to Carol might get back to Daryl. And Patrick wasn't so sure such a rugged, outdoorsy-type southern guy would be so understanding. Even if Daryl was way awesome and totally a good guy and all.

“Uh...” Patrick was still standing stupidly in front of Carol, nothing but blubbering nonsense coming out of his mouth. Shoot. Uh.

“How are you?” he finally settled on.

Carol shot him a look, like she knew Patrick was up to something. She flipped some onions and noodles together on the stove, then, instead of answering, asked: “Something on your mind?”

Patrick shrugged, eyes sliding away from Carol and focusing on the food she was making. Ramen noodles, it looked like, with freeze-dried onions. She was adding in canned veggies now. Stir-fry.

“No. No... uh. No ma'am.” Fleetingly, Patrick's eyes darted up to Carol, then back down at the food on the stove. “Just... taking in the fresh air! That food sure smells good.” An idea occurred to Patrick. “Hey!” His eyes darted up to look at Carol again, for real this time. “Could you teach me?”

Carol blinked. Apparently this was not the way she thought the conversation was going to go. “Teach you... how to cook?”

Patrick nodded eagerly. Just to be clear: this wasn't an attempt to steal Daryl away from Carol. Patrick wasn't young and stupid enough to think that if he could cook like Carol, Daryl would suddenly be interested in him. Different equipment and all that. And Carol was nice: she deserved someone as awesome as Daryl. Patrick wasn't jerk enough to try and screw that up, even if he thought he a had a snowball's chance in the Georgia summer. No, he just thought maybe it'd be a good skill to learn: cooking and all. Someone had to do it, and let's face it: as much as Patrick fantasized about going on long hikes into the woods with Daryl, hunting and trapping and whatever, it wasn't his disposition to be the outdoorsy type. He wasn't like Daryl. But he could be like Carol. Maybe. One day.

Carol was looking at him like she was still trying to figure out what he was playing at, but after a moment she nodded. “Sure. This isn't even cooking: this is just... heating stuff up together. The onions... well, if they were real onions, they'd go on first, on a low heat to caramelize them. But since these are freeze-dried, we put them on with everything else. We got some oil from the last run,” Carol splashed some oil onto the grill, “though pig fat, crisco, butter, those sorts of things would all work, too. Then you just get the noodles good and wet, put the veggies on...” Carol stood back and poked at the food with her spatula, shrugging. “Stir-fry's easy. I'll teach you something harder next time Daryl—or anyone—brings home some fresh meat.”

Patrick watched Carol carefully the way she hurried to correct her preferential treatment to Daryl. Personally, Patrick though the preference was warranted: not many others were bringing in game like Daryl was, and sure as heck not as consistently as he was.

Before Patrick was able to confirm that he'd like to take Carol up on the offer, the man himself strode over, leaning against the counter in front of the grill like he owned the place. Patrick scooted back and dropped his eyes, cheeks flushing. He kinda did own the place by virtue of what he brought in, if anything could be properly owned nowadays.

“Hey.” For a split second, Patrick thought maybe Daryl was taking to him. But then he chanced a glance up—mercifully before he said a word—and saw Daryl only had eyes for Carol. Which, sure, right: of course he did. Patrick flushed and stared back down at the grill, pretending like watching Carol absently push noodles and string beans around was the most absorbing thing ever.

“'Hey' yourself,” Carol replied, and her voice was all light and happy. Teasing, was what it was, and a lot less stressed than Patrick ever heard her.

Right then and there, Patrick really, definitely knew that Carol and Daryl were definitely the best thing for each other. And they totally deserved to be together. Definitely.

“Congratulations!” Patrick blurted out. Then he went beet red, when Carol and Daryl both turned to look at him like he had grown a second head.

Stupid stupid dork! It wasn't like they had gotten married, or had a baby or something! Patrick's mouth fell open and he tried to force some words, any words, out through it.

“Uh. I mean. … On the food! And catching it? Cooking it, what was caught. It's... You two make a really great team, is all I'm saying. And it's great. That you're a team.”

Daryl's face was squeezed up so tight and confused you couldn't even see his eyes. Carol's expression was a little bit more knowing, a little bit more amused, but maybe not quite getting everything Patrick was saying.

Tactical retreat. That's what he had called it when he would play Risk with his friends in the board game club at school. Now was definitely time for one of those tactical retreats.

“Right, so, I've got some stuff...” Patrick jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

Daryl nodded stiffly, whole body kinda leaning toward Carol. “Right. Best get to it then, son.”

Patrick definitely didn't freak out about the term of endearment Daryl just dropped on him. Definitely didn't. Not right that second at least. But he fled to go find Carl, because he seriously needed to have a freak out. Just not where Daryl could see him.

“What was all that about?” Daryl asked. His hand shot out to snap up some of the noodles frying on the grill. Carol smacked at the hand with her spatula, laughing as Daryl narrowly avoided a reprimanding singeing.

Carol smiled sweetly at Daryl as he dropped the noodles he'd manage to steal into his mouth, then licked sloppily at his fingers. “I don't know,” she mused, looking after the corner Patrick had disappeared around.

“He sweet on you?” Daryl thought out loud.

Carol laughed. If she had been a younger woman, a blush might have spotted her cheeks. Because really: a boy, barely old enough to be called a teenager, had a crush on her? With her grey hair and short cut and boney ass? The thought was a sweet one—and of course Daryl might be thinking it—but it just wasn't likely.

“I don't think so,” she replied. Then she glanced slyly at Daryl. “Maybe he's sweet on you.”

Daryl went stock still for a moment, brain taking a while to catch up to Carol's suggestion. Then he snorted, cheeks turning red the way Carol's were too jaded to anymore.

“Naw, no. No way.”

“I don't know: he calls you sir, he's always hanging around...” Carol grinned, warming up to this line of thinking, now that Daryl's embarrassment was so obvious. “I think somebody's got a crush.”

“No, it... he can't. Even if he was...” Daryl glanced around, then leaned forward into Carol. “You know. That way. Don't those kind like their men all... all fancy? Cleaned up and nice clothes. That gel shit all up in their hair?”

Carol hummed, eyes crinkling with mirth. “I don't know... A pair of nice arms goes a long way towards seducing folk, woman or man.”

Glancing around again, Daryl snuck up behind Carol and wrapped his arms around her. Carol relaxed into the embrace, a shiver of anticipation going down her spine. Daryl's rough hands groped at her biceps. “Mmm,” he breathed into the crook of her neck. “I guess you're right about that. Can't resist a nice pair myself.” His fingers tickled at the sides of her breasts for a moment, just long enough for Carol's nipples to harden and breath to hitch, before he returned them to the more appropriate position on her arms.

“Oh, stop,” Carol protested, with no heat behind the words. Daryl's scruff tickled at her neck where he snuffled little soft kisses against it.

A scuffling sound a ways away, and Daryl was off her in a moment, back to leaning casually against the grill a safe distance away. Carol didn't miss the way he adjusted himself as he moved, kept his body tilted away from whoever was coming around the corner. Daryl was like some kind of young stud, in those ways, and it made Carol feel nothing short of sensual and sexy herself. Carol hid a too-happy grin as she ducked her head back to the stir-fry. Done enough for sure, now.

As Carol served the dinner into bowls and set it out along the counter, Daryl stayed close by the whole time, watching her and stealing bits of food when he thought he could get away with it. Mostly Carol knew it was an excuse to get close to her in public, to slide his fingers against her fingers, hand, wrist, where everyone else could see. Carol tried reprimanding Daryl with several looks, shot at him beneath her eyelashes, but she was afraid her eyes were betraying her. At least, if the smouldering looks Daryl was shooting her back were any indication.

But that was alright. He'd keep until tonight—or until they found some time in the afternoon to sneak away together. And for now, the secrecy and anticipation of it all would just make their tacitly promised alone time all the sweeter, when it finally comes.