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breathe now, you're almost home

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1. the hardest thing to do



 

Michonne is holding a big, sparkly blue poster with his and Carl’s name written on it. It’s embarrassing, they are a train station, for lord's sake, and even if it’s a small one, there are people all around them.

He loves it.

The trip was so much more comfortable than it was leaving, seventeen years ago. Rick tries to convince his mind it is because he can afford first class seats now, but his heart really knows it’s because there is nothing like knowing he's in St. Marys again. And a five hours ride did nothing to calm his nerves. He spent the time thinking about what he was going to say when seeing Michonne for the first time in over a decade (almost two), while pointing things from out of the window to a tiny Carl, who was sitting on his lap and feeding off his own fists. Actually, Rick was thinking what he would say to all his friends.

And his mind also kept continuously pacing through the old apartment, trying to imagine how it looks like now, with all his mother things there, covered in dust, and no more of her laughter to fill the rooms. It hurts thinking about how he left everything behind, even if he feels really proud of himself for remembering his mother without dissolving into a puddle of angry and grief. He smiles now when he thinks about her.

But now Michonne is right there, Jesus, she's right there with a big, dumb smile on her face, still holding up high that stupid (awesome) poster. 

The station is busy. People probably going to bigger towns, preparing themselves for the holidays, just a handful of weeks ahead. For brief seconds, it seems like Atlanta again. The glass roof is blurred with the snow falling outside, the air warm inside. There are children running everywhere, wrapped in so many clothes that Rick can’t see their faces as they pass him. He holds Carl closer, making sure he’s still warm and not so scared. It’s all new to him, too.

“Everything alright, bud?” he asks when the little boy snuggles closer to him, hiding his face in his dad's neck. Rick kisses his temple.

The constant whispers of conversation are present in every centimeter of the station. The old man wearing a brown coat is there too, - seems to be always there, still playing a broken guitar, with a shabby hat turned upside down next to him to collect some coins. Rick gives him a pat on the shoulder and a fifty dollars bill. Carl mumbles in his ear something that Rick can’t make out. “What’s that?” but his son just shakes his head.

So, taking a deep breath and hooping Carl a little higher on his side, one hand holding the strap of his backpack, Rick finally makes his way to Michonne. After a few steps, she puts down the poster and enters their space, pulling him into a tight, sideways hug.

“It’s so good to see you again,” Michonne says while placing a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, and who’s this gorgeous little man?” The tips of her fingers find Carl’s ribs, tormenting him with a soft tingle. Carl giggles. “I’m Michonne, and I’m an old friend of your daddy.”

"This little one is Carl. C'mon buddy, can you say hello to my friend?" The boy says nothing in return, just waves a tiny hand and then, in an act of shame, he climbs closer to his dad, hiding his face again.

Michonne smiles breaks through her face again when she looks at Rick. With a hand on her chest and the other taking the backpack out of his shoulder, she murmurs, “I can't believe you, Rick Grimes, managed to make something this cute. I can tell he’s already brilliant. And a sweetheart.”

Carl is all that and so much, much more. Rick has to control himself for a minute, because once he starts talking about his son- Rick feels like passing out. And exploding with happiness. Or regret. (About leaving.) Maybe both.

They hug again, for long minutes and without words, just holding each other like they used to do until Michonne ends the embrace and holds him at an arm’s distance.

Rick can see her better now after the fog inside his mind cleared a little. She’s still beautiful, of course, she’s Michonne after all, and Rick remembers discussing with his other friends if she was a real goddess or something like that. Her hair is still made of locks, but she doesn’t have the baby fat on her anymore. No, now her body is tall, lean, strong.

“Look at you, Grimes,” she says while squeezing his shoulder, seeming to be assessing him, too. “How are you?” Rick smiles and shrugs - if he talks right now, he might apologize non-stop or start bubbling with no end, but he’s sure she doesn't want to hear any of it. Instead, he sees her smiling back at him. “Seems like a cat got your tongue, hum? Alright, alright. I have thousands of things to tell you anyway. Let’s go, Grimes. St. Marys has been missing you, too.”

# # # 

Michonne has a nice car, and she even got a child seat for Carl. She made out of her for something she didn’t have to, with not seen Rick for seventeen years and only knowing about his kid about a month ago.

“Looks like you’re doing alright, ‘Chonne,” he speaks after a few blocks in total silence, he's now trying to distract his heart from all the loops its doing. He also looks behind to check on Carl’s, but his boy is already asleep. Rick can only imagine his tiredness, since he refused to take a nap before, preferring to chat Rick’s and other passengers' ears off. “This clunker is way cooler than I ever gave credit for,” he comments, which is true.

He remembers looking at Ford Mavericks (V-8 engine, year 1974) on the internet with Michonne. They always looked like if you closed the door a little bit too hard, the car bodywork would crumble. “I’m really glad you could buy one.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” she responds with a laugh, pouching his bicep. “It took a while, tho, but I had my savings, remember?” Rick nods.

Since they were eleven years old and Michonne decided what car she wanted, she’d look at the streets full hope, trying to find coins and maybe a dollar or two lost somewhere. She often did found them. Rick recalls Chonne getting home all excited, showing her mother what she had found. Her ma would smile and congrats her with a kiss. Then she would look at Rick and do exactly the same.

And in Wilson’s household, there was a giant glass jar with the words Chonne’s ugly old car written in Rick’s handwork. Everybody, every single person to ever visit the house after the creation of the jar, would leave some money in there. Their other friends, Carol, Glenn, Maggie, sometimes Shane, but mostly Daryl, turned into a habit giving Michonne money as a gift for birthdays, Christmas, and any other day or holiday they could - by the time they finished Freshman Year, she had more than two thousand dollars in paper and almost six hundred dollars in coins. Michonne’s mother decided it was a good idea to make her daughter a bank account.

And in high school, they were able to work, mainly during summer. Michonne always found two shitty jobs for herself. She and Daryl always working so, so hard for the things they wanted. They almost had no life because of that, and Rick argued countless time about it, but the reason within him floats away everytime Michonne gets those dreamy eyes of hers wide open and talked about the goddamn car like it was the best thing mankind was capable to create.

She saved every single cent from her payments. Probably saved all of it from jobs after school too, Rick doesn’t know, he wasn't here anymore.

He closes his eyes and takes a big breath.

“I had enough money for a long time, it just seemed that the Old Car fairs were conspiring against me. They were all over here when we were kids,” she continues, looking times at the road, times at Rick. “Maggie’s Pa said he could arrange one Maverick for me. I denied, of course. I had dreamed of this car for years, wanted to buy one myself.”

Michonne stops at a red light and both of them look behind when Carl’s lets out a little sneeze. So cute, she murmurs, then stretches to the glove compartment, opening it and pulling out a white envelope. She throws it at Rick, and he opens while looking at his friend with a smile on his face. There are photographs inside.

“Three years after you were gone, this massive fair came to Cumberland. All those beauties by the beach, Rick, I was in heaven. All the gang went with me, obviously. We walked and walked and walked. Glenn got sunburnt, Maggie was beautiful wearing that straw hat. Then, out of nowhere, Daryl slapped me on the shoulder so hard I stumbled on my own feet. He pointed somewhere in the distance. Well, you can imagine what he was pointing at. It wasn't for sale, though. I’ll be the first one to admit I was this close to crying when the previous owner said that.” Michonne makes a small space between her thumb and index finger.

Yeah, she was never one to cry. Rick only saw it once, and he never forgot how she looked like. 

“Carol tried to convince the man with that innocent face of hers. Daryl offered a ton of money that any of us would never, ever, have. That boy made us look like we were filthy rich.” Rick smiles a little at that. He also remembers Daryl’s capacity of keeping his face straight while telling people the most absurd shit. Almost always. Rick is afraid some expression of his friends will haunt him forever.

“Nothing helped." Chonne keeps on. "So Maggie puts her flip-flops again, raises her sunglasses to her hair, places a hand on the owner's shoulder and says 'Care to join me for a walk?'

Rick can only imagine the scene, Maggie in all her glory, being just awesome as always, doing her best to see her friends happy.

“They were gone for almost one hour when they returned, the man shook my hand and said congratulations. I paid him every last penny I saved. Jesus, I did cry then. We all cried.” She looks at Rick and points at the photographs. “We look fucking stoned in those pictures, but... so many tears Grimes. So. Many. Tears.”

Feeling a courage he really doesn’t have, he takes the photographs to look at them. His heart is a beat away from jumping out his chest, his hands tremble a bit. He knows this is the moment he's going to question himself if leaving St. Marys behind was really a good idea. Well, he knows the answer already, because leaving gave him Carl, and Rick will never, ever, ever, ever going to regret this. Carl is the best thing to ever happen to him. But he can’t help wonder.

There are four photos in there.

The first one is obviously Cumberland. The lighthouse in the background is a great indication, the grass and sand have a special touch in Rick's memory. He remembers a child Daryl throwing a handful of that sand into his eyes and Carol eating the grass to win a bet. She did it with her head held high, and it was at that moment that Rick decided they should be her friend.

In the first photograph Maggie, Carol, Daryl, Glenn (as red as a shrimp) and Michonne, are wearing summer shorts and sunglasses. They have this big, bright smile on their faces, so so happy that Rick can see wrinkles in them. The sun is high in the sky, sunrays hitting the black car with force, making light reflect on glasses. They all are propped up in front of the Maverick, arms thrown in each other's shoulder.

In the second picture, Chonne is inside the car, a smile so open and content that makes Rick thinks her face is about to split in two. She has one arm propped on the car's window, the other showing the photographer her keys. Her eyes are really, really red. Rick tries to remember some memory where she’s just as happy as she looks like in the photo, but nothing comes to his mind. It’s such a beautiful picture.

The third one is of Michonne hugging the Maverick’s hood, belly down on the metal. Carol and Maggie are sitting cross-legged on the car’s roof. Glenn and Daryl are inside, Daryl’s holding the steering wheel, mouth open is an ‘o’ even if it is a grin, and Glenn is making a classic Home Alone face.

Rick laughs real loud; trying to memorize every detail of this one, but stops shortly after, looking in the rearview mirror. Carl just mumbles, keep his eyes close.

Michonne glances at him, then at the picture. “It’s my second favorite, this one. Every picture was taken by a different stranger, they kept taking photos, kept instructing us in stupid poses in it, but I didn’t want anyone taking advantage of my new Baby.”

The last photograph, though. It felt like a punch right in Rick’s heart.

The Maverick is the background, not the focus of things anymore. The sky was darker, the sun lower on the horizon. On the left side of the image, Carol and Michonne stand with their hands in their mouths, narrowed eyes showing their smiles. Daryl is on the right, hands were thrown up in a sign that clearly screams finally! There are tears in all their eyes.

In the center of the photo, with one knee on the sand and hands holding a tiny box, is Glenn, who seems to be crying; and standing right in front of him is Maggie, with her hands on her waist, imitating a tough posture, but her face makeup is blurred and the velocity marks in the photo indicate her nodding.

They are married, now.

Two of his best friends are married and Rick wasn’t here.

He puts the photographs back into the envelope. His throat's dry and uncomfortable, a strong pull in his belly making him wants to cry. And thrown up. And yell a bit.

I’m going to marry this girl someday, he remembers his friend saying. He remembers making a similar promise to someone else.

“They are married.” He says out loud, just to be sure. “Maggie and Glenn, they ar-” Michonne cuts him out with a nod.

“We tried to find you, you know, but there was no phone or home address. Shane said you were in Atlanta, but that city is too big for us, Rick. We went there one weekend, but-”

They went after him. All his good, good friend went after him, still wanting him to be part of their lives. And he can only imagine their big eyes looking the skyscrapers, searching for him. He can see Daryl, uncomfortable among all those people pumping on his shoulders, talking loudly in his ears.

“Carol and I were the maids of honor, Daryl was best man. He even bought a tux, Rick. All black and well cut, he looked so awesome,” she snorts while remembering. “Then he got drunk out of his ass, danced with all the old ladies from church and thought toilet water was champagne. Glenn made him believe he actually drunk it, none of us said otherwise. It’s kind of funny, the face he makes when that story comes around.”

Drunk Daryl had been something else, so different from his dad and brother. Not a mean drunk like them, but a happy one; with jokes and stupid dance moves, a wicked tongue and a dirty mouth.

Rick shakes his head. “How's he doing?” Rick knows he shouldn’t ask, but he wants an answer so bad. Michonne did good, Maggie and Glenn too. Rick wants a confirmation if life has been good to Daryl Dixon like it has been to him.

“He owns a bakery now,” is the first thing she tells him. Rick snorts and laughs, he doesn’t know if it's true. “But he was angry at first. Dixons you know, that’s how they work things out. Then when it was clear you weren’t coming back, he just became kind of sad, even adopted a stray cat with only one eye. It died a few years later. Missed you like crazy. We all did, Rick. But we understood why then and understand it now. I promise.”

“Even him?” he whispers.

“Even Daryl, but it’s going to be hard, you being back and all, Rick. With him, especially. You have to be extra patient. It will be like we are kids again, trying to find our foot around the others. And you two went through all that stuff to be together, and in the end, you got less than two years as a couple. If it did hurt us to see that break up, we can only wonder how it hurt him. You too, of course, yet he was the one being left behind. But Daryl is still Daryl, he gets angry as a bull for little things. Didn’t change much, really. However, we're not the same we were before.”

Yeah, none of them are.

"He heard about Carl?" he asks a little after in a small tone.

"Yeah. I've told them all after you called. Everybody went crazy with the idea of him, but Daryl just rolled his eyes and reminded us of how you were as a child, said something like Grimes 2.0."

Rick smiles and looks out the window. A pause, another deep breath. "Wait, why? You said 'him, especially', why?”

Michonne looks at Carl and then at Rick, her smile completely gone, but her eyes shining with a sentiment Rick can’t place.

“Because he was taking you for your promise, Rick.”

And that right there, those simple words said with such certainty, is what makes Rick’s breaks.

“I’m sorry I left,” he finally sobs. “I shouldn’t… I should’ve…” He tries to explain why. Why he went away for so long and why he’s back now because there is a reason he missed all that. There is. It is just so hard to verbalize.

“Hey, no. No. None of that. Really, Grimes. We understand. We do, no one blames or judges you for anything, okay?”

It doesn’t make things any easier.

Rick was seventeen when his Ma died. It was expected, but no less brutal and heartbreaking. And Rick did the first thing that crossed his mind after her death - he took money from the bank, put some clothes in a backpack, stocked all his art supplies in plastic bags, and went head first into the world.

He was so scared, never had left St. Marys before. Somehow he ended up in Atlanta and he’ll never really know how he sold pieces and more pieces of his art there. Once a redhead girl told him people likes seeing political expressions in forms of art, even though people never talked about politics.

Rick never considered his art a political expression until then. He only painted watercolors on A3 sheets. Transformed the things he read in books or saw around the places he stopped for a few days, he painted things from his own life or his friends - poor kids with almost no clothes during long winters, homeless people fighting to get a bit closer to the fire barrel. He was so shocked when people started paying attention to his art, because it was just reality for him, and yet it fascinated another human beings.

By the time Rick got hold of himself, he had good money, a name of sorts, and an offer to portray other life's stories. That’s how Rick Grimes met the world. He traveled to the poorest countries in Africa, to those countries living in a civil war or dictatorship of any kind. He went to the Middle East, where he saw the wealth and misery living together side by side. Rick went to South America, learning and living with Indians in the desert and in the forest, in other big cities. He saw hardwork and exploration, the search for a better life.

Everything. Rick saw everything.

Then he met a beautiful, sweet, soft woman named Lori. And even if it only happened for one night, and one night only (because he kept seeing blue eyes where it should be brown, tanned skin instead of pale. Heard thick accent and searched for roughness in soft touches).

Only one night that gave Rick the most important thing ever.

And seeing Carl for the first time made something inside him snaps, the empty hole in his heart that never quite healed now gained another dimension. Suddenly he kept catching himself thinking more and more about those who he grew up with. His friends and their families, those who helped raise him, shape him into the man he's now.

He so often dreamed about Carl running across the green fields of the Greene’s land, or playing in the streets with kids his age, without having to worry about cars and accidents. Walking through the woods like he won the place, sleeping under trees and starry skies.

Rick wants to give Carl the life he had.

And he wants to give Daryl the life he promised, all those years ago.

That’s why he's back in St. Marys.

"C'mon," Chonne speaks in a murmur, getting him out his daydream. He notices now the car has stopped. "Let's get you and your boy inside. They are going to be here soon."

Rick Grimes doesn't break promises anymore.

 

Chapter Text

2. it's so good to see you again



  

It takes Rick a few minutes to convince his son to get out of the car.

Well, it takes way more than a few minutes actually, because Carl is faking his sleep right now - one eye closed and mouth making barely- there snoring sounds, the other one - bright, electric blue, just like his daddy’s - is open wide, responsible for making sure his act is working. He’s imitating how his dad sleeps, being playful and probably thinking about himself as a bit of a funny dude. And it would be funny if it wasn't for the redness appearing under his eyes.

Rick is concerned. The train they took was the first one in the morning, at a time where even the sun hadn't made his appearance yet; much earlier than Carl ever woke up. This combined with his excitement and anxiety made him talk, play, and try to escape all the time during those long hours. And the drive from the station to Michonne’s house was fast, less than twenty minutes - too fast if someone asks Rick. Sure Carl slept a little, but he can’t call it a rest.

And yet, here they are.

“You must have made a good first impression,” he says to his friend without looking directly at her, he’s busy tickling Carl’s side. He gets out a snore-giggling sound that makes him laugh louder and Carl squirms more. “He's being comfortable enough to be playful near you. He’s always suspicious of new people.”

Michonne still in the car with them, upper body turned so she can see the interaction happening in the back seats. Rick has left her side only to make his way behind, opening and closing the door as quickly as he could. The boy was already awake when Rick first touched his belly, but his energy wasn't fully charged again.

“Aren’t you tired, pal?” Rick says with a smiley tone, resting his hands on the boy's knees. Carl fakes a yawn. Rick rolls his eyes. “I mean really tired, smarty pants.”

He's a hundred fifty percent certain that his son still exhausted. He also knows how kids get when they are like that - Rick remembers when Carl was only a year old and he got the flu. His irritated nose and coughing lungs would make him so angry that even with his eyes closed in a light sleep, Carl screamed in his weeping. Rick doesn't want things to come to that, once was already enough. Plus, and has a memory of himself almost crying with his boy, frustrated, not knowing what to do besides waiting for the medicine to do their job.

Today is snowing, the wind probably can cut skin and they both are hungry; Rick fed him a bottle and some chips, but couldn't persuade Carl to eat anything with more sustenance. All Rick wants is to get Carl inside where is safe, warm and he can rest properly.

(And Rick doesn't want to just pick him up. He could, but he doesn't want to. Rick has been learning how to be a single dad every day; he already knows Carl has a killer puppy eyes already and he’s not afraid to use it.)

(Yeah. Rick knows what people think about it, okay.)

“C’mon, kiddo.” Carl giggles again.

“Well," Michonne says, coming to rescue Rick. "If I remember right, I must have some peanut butter cookies somewhere in my kitchen.” She’s looking at Carl, holding a finger near her mouth like she's thinking about it. “Hmm. I wonder how good they taste with some chocolate milk,” her tone is calm, casual like he's talking about the weather and not trying to bribe a kid.

Carl’s eyes (yep, the gorgeous two of them) are wide open in the next second, fixed straight to the woman. “‘m wake now,” his son says, looking briefly at Rick but returning his gaze to her's.

Rick groans. A friend of Rick from D.C. once said that it was undeniable Carl’s adorableness, but according to his dictionary, that meant he was probably going to grow up to be a little shit. A good little shit, Rick. A cute, adorable little shit.

He unbuckles Carl from his seat. “I do hope you have those cookies,” he whispers, helping Carl sit and looking at him. Rick checks over him. “If not, he’ll never even look at you again, Chonne. You just put yourself on probation.”

Michonne snorts and waves him off. “Yeah, he’s a Grimes and all that jazz. I’ve already been warned by you and some other people.” She looks at Carl then, now serious. “But you have to take a nap, too, so we can have loads of fun later.”

And after tilting his small head to the side in a copy of his dad's oldest habit, assessing her words for short seconds, Carl smiles. “Okay,” he nods. “Cookies good.” Then he scoops himself to Rick’s lap.

Rick makes his way out the car, holding Carl close to shield him from the cold wind, Michonne by his side in a flash. “How?” He asks. “Oh, thanks, by the way, I’m not trying to spoil him or anything but p-”

“You don’t have to explain shit to me, Rick. I get it.” Her smile is bright and sincere as she waves him off one more time. “I was a parent, too.” She complements, briefly locking their eyes together.

Rick tries his best at not letting his face express his sudden squeeze in his throat. Without noticing, instinctively, he squeezes Carl against himself until he feels the boy's breath on his neck.

“Okay,” he whispers.

And he has yet to see another five of his friends.

# # # 

Rick has this memory from when they were sixteen years old, soon after they had established a routine of staying home during weekends. Bizarre, his mom used to say, the bunch of you. They were teenagers with little money in their pockets and a cheap bottle of wine to drink stolen from Maggie’s old man stash. It's a shame no one has thought about it before, in fact. There were hardly any parties in this town, and the few that happened was thrown by them. They got tired after a while.

Michonne was the one to come up with an idea, and everyone agreed without thinking twice. Her house was huge, the biggest one among them all. It was spacious and the lack of furniture made every room look endless. The living room, right at the entrance, was immense, with only a four-seat sofa and two very, very old armchairs. The television was a tube, ancient thing, they never cared much about it because they had so much free space.

When they were kids with a million dollars imagination and endless energy, they would build a fort in that living room. Their afternoons were spent playing kings and queens, fighting cardboard shields and swords made of wood, or doing scenes from favorite movies and cartoons. Rick’s favorite one was Dungeons and Dragons. And when they got older, Daryl would bring inflatable mattresses and Michonne would drag down the one from her bedroom and the guest. Their night was all about cards, UNO and poker. Monopoly was banned after an incident which ended with a Glenn sporting a shining black eye.
.
But this memory, this specific moment burned into his mind for a reason he never managed to understand; was such a simple thing, something that happened countless times. Just a single moment where he entered Michonne’s crowded living room and no one batted an eye in his direction, but he saw every one of his best friends interacting in their messy and loudly was. And Rick remembers feeling so, so overwhelmed. And happy. So damn happy.

Such a simple, normal, random thing that they used to do all the time. Together. And in that one, he stayed by the door and just looked.

He saw how Maggie sat comfortably on the ground in the space between Glenn’s legs, leaning into him. And Glenn, who was sitting on the couch with Carol at his side, reading a comic together, pointing things to the other. Carol, with a smirk on her lips, seeming like she knew something at that moment that nobody else did. Shane, sprawled face down on the ground, but grumbling with Maggie about a football game and talking shit the bad season their time was in. Michonne with her elbows resting on the tables, looking down at a catalog of pizza’s flavors, one hand holding the phone and the other showing the middle finger toward Daryl direction. Daryl, sitting opposite to Michonne’s.

He and Rick weren’t DarylandRick yet, but Rick’s stomach flipped at the sign of him, rolling a piece of silk in his fast fingers; face carrying a purple left eye and a split lip, but he was smiling that crooked smile of his, anyway.

He remembers Daryl muffled voice. “It’s pizza.” Or something like that. “You can ask for a liver flavored one and we will eat the same way. Even lick our fingers clean afterward.”

Then he brought the joint to his lips and raised his head to light it up, eyes catching Rick’s and taking his breath away with that stormy, dark shine on them. Crooked smile turning another shape as his face softened in a weird way.

(Rick didn’t know by then, he swears he didn’t.)

And this memory comes crashing into his brain in a harsh, triggered by the second he steps into Michonne's home, the same living room; but oh so, so different, that it forces the air out of his lungs and he does stumble a step, then two. The house with spacious rooms. The house where he left a money jar and certainly a bunch of personal things. Rick feels so weird to be here again because he dreamed about this place all those years away, wishing himself into teleporting. But it was just that - burning, fierce wishing.

Yet, here he is, Michonne pushing him further inside so she can close the door, dropping his backpack beside it.

Wow, he notices Carl’s surprise. Their old apartment back in Atlanta was a good, fancy four walls and a roof, but small. He made sure his son had a place to play and run around (after weeks safe proofing every single corner and whatever he judged necessary). However, it was never something like this.

“Dad,” Carl wiggles in his arms. “Down.” He puts both hands on Rick’s chest, pushing away, ready to explore and probably destroy the place. “Please.”

He doesn’t put Carl on the ground because he knows he will lose the kid for a while and, “Just a second, bud. We need to do something first.”

Rick has to use the bathroom and change Carl's diaper. He has already begun the long journey of teaching him to use the child's pot he bought, but with the trip and their last (and next) days, Rick thought leaving the boy all day again with diapers would be safer. He feels that the weeks he has managed some progress and all the persuasion will serve nothing. The process has begun once again.

He looks for Michonne, but she’s no longer in the room with them. Carl tries one more time to get away from his father and says his pleas twice. "It's going to be super fast," Rick says, giving the kid a kiss on the nose to distract him. "Promise."

Before he can go to the kitchen, Michonne comes back, carrying plates and cups in her arms, depositing them on the coffee table. “Upstairs,” she speaks out loud, returning to the room she came without quite looking at them. “Second door on the right. Shout if you need anything, but everything pretty much is the same place as always. Feel free to snoop if you must.”

“I’m glad I have your permission,” Rick shouts at her, then he grabs their bag and holds Carl in a tight hug, bouncing the boy up at every step, throwing him a little in the air. Carl chuckles so loudly that he gets a bit of drool at the corner of his mouth and chin.

Ever since he called Michonne, first as a casual conversation (because Rick can to be a dickhead, sometimes, calling as if nothing happened), but he can keep his act for so long, and soon after he told her his true intent. Michonne almost punched him through the phone when he asked for some motel’s number. They will spend the night here, instead (in a room Rick slept thousands of times). You can stay here as long as you want, Rick. She said. I can’t believe you considered another place. That didn’t stop him from looking for a motel, and it certainly didn’t stop Michonne from calling him three in the morning because somehow she had to find out.

The room is nothing fancy, a double bed and a closet, the sufficient.

Rick drops the backpack on the floor and puts Carl sitting on the bed. He gives his son his old keys and runs to the bathroom to do what he has to, door left wide open and talking all the time to distract the boy. Carl puts the fluffy alpaca miniature in his mouth and basically ignores Rick.

“Hey, we haven’t made our list yet, bud,” Rick comments as he rinses his hands, watching Carl wet the plush and his little, green sweater. “Christmas is almost here, have you thought about what you are going to ask Santa for?”

“North,” is all Carl says back.

“Yeah, do you think Bunnymund will help him this year?” And with that, he catches Carl’s attention long enough to change him into a new diaper and clothing with no problem. He does try to put the shirt on his own, but tangles everything in his arms, then he jumps up more than he needs to put his pants on, all while he tells his dad why Sandy deserves all the Christmas gifts.

He sets the bed and gets everything ready for when it's time to just place a passed out Carl under the covers.

Rick lets Carl walk until they reach the stairs, where he picks up the boy. Halfway down he hears Michonne’s shout. “Did you two get lost? C’mon, if I'm not mistaken, I promised someone the dream snack." He barely balances Carl in his two little feet again and the kid already away, running toward the living room where Michonne waits for them with food set on the coffee table.

"Do you mind turning on the TV?" Rick asks as he sits; legs stretched out in front of him. He puts Carl on his lap, leaning the boy onto his chest, one hand firmly on his belly and the other brushing the dark hair out of his eyes. It’s too big already, but Rick loves Carl hair this way. "We like cartoons, don’t we, buddy?"

Carl agrees. "Masha," he whispers, writhing in search of a more comfortable position. He elbows Rick in the ribs.

"Yeah, Masha and the Bear."

Michonne watches them quietly as she opens a sippy cup and starts to prepare some chocolate milk. Rick finds her eyes for a moment, then divert them immediately to look around.

The walls are no longer a tacky salmon, but navy blue - a strong color that doesn’t leave the room dark, the windows help to illuminate the place, even when the outside is not a sunny day. It's not the same place if his memory, of course. For starters, there's more furniture filling the space, and the ragged sofa once capable to hold half-dozen energy balls in form of children have disappeared, giving room to a larger, more beautiful, and judging by where Rick is propped up against, comfortable as well.

But the difference that strikes him harder than anything is the treasure chest set beside the fireplace. It does look like a lost pirate’s chest, but instead of gold and precious stone, it1s filled to top with toys, there’s so much it’s practically overflowing.

Rick is surprised that Carl didn’t find a way to escape from him and tries to explore that thing.

He turns his gaze to Michonne, who is still looking at him, almost in the same position as before, now with only a control in her hand. Her face opens with a sad smile and Rick wants to ask but doesn’t know if he should. Yes, he wants to know what happened and why she spoke in past tense. He sees no other child here, but that doesn’t mean shit, Rick knows this too. Being a parent is a title to carry forever, doesn’t matter what, it’s something you never cease to be. Even if-

Even when-

Michonne, however, still able to hear the gears of his head working, and with that sad (broken) smile on her face, she says, "Just spit it out, Rick. Ask what you gotta ask."

There is no manual on How To Talk To Your Friends After A Life Away From Them, but somehow he feels like he knows the answer, so he shakes his head and locks their eyes together. This time he doesn’t break contact and tries his very best to sending her every single emotion and support and whatever he can.

He reaches for her hand and places his upon her open palm.

Michonne’s the one who looks away. Then, with the other one, she hands him the sippy cup. Rik will make sure they are extra careful with those things.

He thanks her with a nod. And says something more in the gesture, too.

“Lady,” Carl says, breaking their contact. He’s making grabby hands towards Michonne and seems to be doing it a while now. “Share.” He’s pointing at the bag of cookies on the table.

“Lady?” Michonne clears her voice and her smile shift to another one. Rick can’t explain exactly, but it makes his heart squeeze all the same. “Well, aren’t you a gentleman? Thank you, but you can call me Michonne, little man. Or whatever seems more like it.”

And Carl had taken his drink from Rick’s hand already because he pushes his sippy cup into his dad’s and holds out both of his pressed together. “Please.”

She looks at Rick again. She keeps doing it like she’s surprised every time Carl says or do something right. He knows being a father was never in his plans, a lot of things weren’t actually, but he can’t be that bad of one to keep surprising her with stuff like his boy saying his please and thank yous.

He just nods, pretending she’s asking his permission to pump Carl full of sugar. So, in the spider-man plastic plate, she puts four (giant) cookies, placing it in the boy’s palms. Rick helps him right away, holding it in front of his son until he grabs one, shoving it into his mouth way to quick, swallowing it almost without biting. “Hey, calm down. They are not going away, kiddo.”

Instead, as if trying to make Rick shut up Carl takes another cookie, turns his upper body, and shoves it into Rick’s mouth. “Yummy, daddy.”

Michonne snort and shakes her head.

Rick does eat the cookie, and it’s a damn good cookie by the way. “Hmm thanks, buddy. Good, right?” Carl nods, taking the extra one and holding it in a fist, biting one then the other. “What do we say to Michonne, for feeding us good cookie?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart. They're-” She’s interrupted by a doorbell. Her eyes glued to Rick’s once again.

“They are here.”

Rick stands in a jump, Carl safe in his arms; already hiding the same way as when they saw Michonne in the station. Rick’s heart palpitates and leaps and stops and starts beating so hard that he feels the vibration all over his body. The tip of his fingers are numb, his legs sway from side to side. He puts a hand on his son’s nape, and the left half of his body turns unconsciously, now in evidence, putting a barrier between them and those outside the door.

It's natural, he supposes. Instinct. Rick knows who's on the other side and he knows - oh heavens, he sure hopes so, so much - that nothing's going to happen to Carl. But Rick saw things and heard things from all over the world. Sometimes it's hard, even when they have been doing alright with Michonne so far, however, it was him and Carl from the moment his son came to be, screaming and crying and wide-eyed. Just the two of them.

(It occurs Rick that perhaps this is why Michonne is always watching him like a hawk - not because he’s bad or whatever, but because he is always close and always touching, calling by affective words and making clear, explicitly clear, that Carl is his.)

He takes a step back as the door opens, the brief, icy wind hitting him.

Suddenly the voices out there are so loud, his brain doesn't even register a sound.

And all his senses multiply and amplify,

Rick the other step back.

(Seventeen years.)

Vertigo.

He's a few feet away from his best friends (they always were, they always will be). He's so close to them and he can’t, he just can’t- Carl whimpers against his neck, as if he’s a wolf cub who feels his father's feelings through scent, and he wraps himself closer.

“Hey, shhh. You alright. Dad's got you, okay? Shhh.”

Maggie is the first to come in, and if Rick wasn’t holding his son, he would be in the ground now. Maggie walks through the door and she looks so beautiful. It's almost like a slap, she was pretty before too, breaking all kinds of heart in high school; but something in the few steps she gives toward them screams that she's someone totally different. Rick still looks in the mirror and see the same person. Older, but without much difference. But not Maggie. She is taller, and her hair (the last memory he had of her, her hair falling on her shoulders and over her green, green eyes), her hair is short now, giving everyone a chance to see the wrinkle in the corner of her eyes and the frown of her forehead.

Rick sees her pause for a second, her eyes moving over his body in the same way Michonne had earlier, but faster and more discreet. Then her eyes fixed upon the child in his arms. Carl's hand lifts up and grabs his shirt; fist clenched over his heart - a warning. And all at once Maggie takes another step and suddenly she's in front of him. She lost her coat somewhere in the microsecond he totally lost.

Rick lets out a sob.

Maggie lets out a sob.

Before long Maggie's arms wrapping around him and Carl, hugging them tight and strong. Her breath hits the other side of his neck and he senses the movement of her hand passing through his son's back. He holds her by the waist and closes his eyes, sucks the air and still smells the same - of grass and earth. Freedom.

They don’t speak a word, staying like that for long, long minutes.

"Let the man breathe a little, Mags," says a voice at his side.

She agrees and squeezes him once again, then let go of him. Maggie places a kiss on the small of Carl's back before parting. Rick's throat tightens and maybe he chokes on air and emotion - a gesture so, so simple, but more than that, a confirmation that Carl is their family now too.

The person next to him. No, the man who is also Glenn comes into view. He’s hugged sideways, not making full contact as his wife, but still close enough to make Rick feel refreshed. It's Glenn’s special power. It always was. It’s the gentle smile that makes a home in his mouth and eyes that squeeze in joy, is how he transpasses calm and comfort.

Glenn is much different from what Rick remembers, too. His face, once round; now’s thinned to his chin and his hair nearly falls over his brown eyes. Seeing his hair is almost as shocking as seeing his mustache. He used to wear a baseball cap during all day, every day. And nothing grew on his face except the redness that came when Maggie touched his shoulder, often unintentionally.

It worked out for him at the end.

"Hello, Rick," Glenn says, then he slips his index finger where Carl still holds his father's shirt, stirring him a little so he is between them, wagging his finger up and down as if in greeting. “Hello, little man.”

Rick hears the lowest hi in return. "Do you want to come out here?" Carl shakes his head. "Okay."

Rick catches sight of bright colors and the sound of bags slamming into each other. Knowing what it is already, he can’t help but rolls his eyes in exasperation goddamnit Carl is not going to sleep anytime soon.

Another blur, now gray and black and white take over his eyes. Rick is face-to-face with Carol, her hair locking his attention for seven seconds (because oh, that’s new). Then he changes focus and Carol is suddenly whole and ohmygod still so Carol that Rick feels good for being Rick. But not, just not.

In a coarse comparison, Carol is the same as Michonne’s living room. At a first glance, it gives him memories and a sense of nostalgia. In the next second though, when he realizes that the foundations are not even the same anymore, he crumbles.

Yeah. In the following moment, Rick Grimes is crying. Desperately sobbing.

Carol was a small thing, shoulders raised in a frightened gesture like she was constantly trying to hide; her head lowered, looking at the world with uncertain eyes and a shy posture. Her voice constantly lower than the others, forcibly even low when strangers were in the same room they were. Carol was always avoiding drawing attention to herself.

And Rick remembers how good she was with Daryl, even though Maggie was his best friend. How they communicated without words and sometimes she just needed to nod and they suddenly were standing outside, heads lifted towards the sky and pulling hard all the air in their lungs. Rick had never seen marks or bruises on her, but he had seen them in Daryl so many times that he knew. He always knew. And perhaps the biggest clue was how Daryl wrapped his arms around her shoulders and they never, never shed a tear, even though storms grew in their eyes.

But now-

Now it seems that somebody took her and shook all those insecurities, fear and dread, to hell. Now she’s something that Carol Peletier always should’ve been. Bright. Beautiful. Herself.

(She looks so good now that Rick wonders, he wonders-)

It's a quick squeeze they share, but she kisses his forehead and she kisses Carl's little hand as well.

As she walks away, Carl comes out of his hiding place, both chubby hands rise and he put his palms in each corner of his dad's mouth. "Cry bad," he says, then pushes, making Rick's mouth open in a smile parody. "Be happy, daddy."

Rick barks a loud laugh that mingles with another, very similar to his. He looks from his son toward the sound, and Shane is there, standing tall and tough, wearing a cop uniform. Rick kisses Carl's wrist, his next wave of laughter is laden with a sob.

Shane’s embrace engulfs Carl as well, taking care not to crush the boy between them. Shane’s hug is also a special power, the methodical way he does it - a hand clapping his shoulder and the other firmly in the nape of his neck, almost by the line of his hair. Close and firm and familiar. Shane.

His own hand grabs the officer's shirt too, pressing into a fist. “Hey, brother,” Shane says. Rick pretends not to notice that there’s no one else entering the room, that he didn’t see Michonne check the door twice and frown. Rick pretends that the tightening in his chest has nothing to do with the minus one number of people he expected to see. “It’s so good to see you again.”

# # #

They are sitting in a similar configuration from Rick’s memory.

Shane is sitting next to him, huge in comparison to Rick, who remains slim and slender. Michonne’s by the table, her arms propped on the glass, the phone in hands as she aggressively texts someone. Carol is on the couch, the gifts they brought to Carl at her side. Rick barely manages to convince them to open tomorrow. Honestly, he still wants to make the boy sleep a little, even if the possible has been thrown out of the window hours ago.

Maggie and Glenn are sitting side by side, pushing each other off playfully, and feeding Carl all the cookies he wants. It’s the only way they found to get the boy's attention. And Carl only gives it when Maggie offers him a peanut cookie, not the pink one Carol brought. Carl took a bite of it, the rest he shoves in Rick's hand. Ew, he said. Carol seemed quite offended.

After Rick returned the position he had been before, his legs stretched out; Carl squirmed and complained until he stood up, both feet resting on Rick's thighs.

They stay in a comfortable silence for a long while, just looking at each other.

Rick thought the air would all wrong and the conversation would be strange, forced. He admits even considering the possibility a misunderstanding, a fight perhaps. Michonne was right when she said they are not the same, anymore.

"Hungry," Carl says when the cartoon he was watching went into another pause. He pats his belly and falls into Rick’s lap like someone cut his strings. There's another cookie in his hand in a lighting velocity. Rick glares at Glenn, who shrugged in return.

Rick takes it from Carl’s hand and hides behind his back. "What about some apple, hm? What do you think?"

"Apple ew." Rick snorts.

"How old is he, Rick?" Shane asks, staring at them with a huge interest.

Rick stretches to pick a bowl Carol left there after she cut the fruit for him. "Two years, he was born on September 15." He brings a slice to his mouth and makes noisy bite, "Nhom-nhom," he murmurs. "This apple is very good, thank you very much, Carol."

Carl looks back with narrowed eyes, seeing if Rick is actually eating the fruit - he doesn’t fall for the trick of pretending anymore. He turns around with some difficulty until he is sitting facing his father. "Nhom," Rick offers the bowl Shane, who takes one and eats making a humming vibration. Carl eyes him too. That’s proof enough to him because he sneaks Rick’s slice and put the rest in his mouth.

Maggie laughs at that.

“He’s premature, in fact, wanted to join the party nearly two months earlier. He had to stay in the incubator for a while and almost gave me a heart attack. But we're good now, aren’t we, bud?” Carl gives him a thumbs up. “That's why he’s so small.”

Maggie sighs again. “He’s amazing, Rick.” And with that he agrees one hundred percent.

"What about his mother?" Carol asks. "Is she, like - Are you-" Rick tilts his head. “Are you a widow, Rick?”

"Oh, no. No, no. I never married or anything,” he laughs a little, a bit uncomfortable. “She's definitely not dead. Lori just didn’t want that responsibility you know, but not having the baby was not an option too. He’s legally mine, guardian and all that. She calls whenever she can, Skype or Facetime. Comes to his birthday and sometimes Christmas. She's more like his aunt.”

Carl takes another slice of apple.

“But, I want to know from you all.” He points at Shane. “I see you made into the force.”

Rick then discovers all sorts of interesting things.

Shane is a Sheriff now, and basically, everything that happens in town is bar fights and old ladies’ cat that disappear. Some drug cases and once a year someone dies murdered, but you know how it is, to die just have been alive and all that. St. Mary doesn’t have more than twenty thousand inhabitants, although it is still a large number of people, it’s like everybody knows everybody. And well, Shane has always had a reputation for toughness, and now as head of the local police, it’s understandable why things are so calm.

He also discovers that Shane was the only one of his friends who left town to live some time away from the same houses and well-known names. In college, he met a blond woman named Andrea, whom he brought to spend Christmas at St. Mary. It didn’t work out for Shane, apparently.

Andrea and Michonne have been a couple for over a decade.

Rick is extremely surprised he didn’t hear any grudge and malice in the man’s voice. He and Michonne push each other a little, but not something Rick would expect with that story.

It is then that he takes courage and asks Michonne about what she said earlier. "In vitro fertilization," she says. The best thing that ever happened in her life was taken away by a car accident. Andre was just four and Andrea's younger sister was barely twenty-five. Happened three years ago.

(Rick holds Carl close and buries his nose in the boy's hair, palm over his heart and he counts the beats, the space between them. Feels the rise and fall of his breath.)

Rick asks why she kept some things in the house, noticing he’s being rude and apologizing soon after, guilt burning his chest. "Sophia likes it," she shrugs like it’s okay. This question, at least. Then he asks who Sophia is.

Carol's daughter. Seven years old. With red hair and a sweetheart. She’s in a friend’s house, right now. Rick repeats the question she asked him before. "Yes," she says and Glenn comments: we drink to that. Everyone raises their chocolate milk glass and drink in a toast. Rick's eyes almost pop out of his face, but Carol looks at him and smiles sincerely. "Promise I’ll to tell you, it’s just a story for another time." Rick thinks it's a bit unfair, especially after Michonne told them tough things.

Then the conversation passes to the Wonder Couple, as Shane calls them. Maggie and Glenn tell Rick how it was the week they spent in New York for their honeymoon. Terrifying, it seems. Rick laughs and shakes his head, talks about his wanderings around the same city.

Maggie took over her father's land and started planting some things that she sells on the local market. She works at the city hall too, an important position, and Adviser or something like that. Diplomatic work, it goes well for her. Glenn has a pizzeria and, according to Michonne, between him and Daryl they have never been so well fed in life.

Rick tells them about his work and the places he met.

Carl enters the conversation and talks about his favorite cartoons and plays, comfortable enough to interact without being bought with a cookie, but without leaving his father's lap.

Maggie's father has retired and now voluntarily coordinates the small town’s hospital. Beth, Maggie's younger sister, performs in local bars, sweet voice and old guitar. "She's going to be big one of these days. Someone will find out about her and Beth will discover the world."

Michonne's mother died. Daryl's father too. They drink to that too, and this time Rick joins them.

And they talk and talk and talk. Some moments they laugh hard and loud, others the fall into complete silence.

Then it’s six o’clock and Michonne gets up, calls them into the kitchen. “Mac and cheese," she declares. “Then it’s bedtime for the little guy.” Rick gets up and holds Carl in his arms, tummy down, almost like when Rick plays Plane with him. But he’s quiet. It's his position of defeat. Carl will just listen and observe each one of them. He’ll doze off, but won’t sleep. Everyone apologizes to Rick for the noise and Rick waves them off. There is nothing to apologize for.

“Stop looking at the door, Rick,” Carol whispers in his ear as they walk side by side toward the kitchen. He thought no one had noticed. “He’ll be here in time for dinner.”

# # #

“How can it be?” Daryl asks in a whisper. Rick kisses the corner of his lips, the tip of his nose, his closed eyes and his forehead. It’s a stupid thing to think about, Rick argues. Daryl shouldn’t be wondering how they could be together. It’s how things are, isn’t it? Some fixed point in the universe always programmed to happen.

Rick answer, to his own mind first. He thinks, quietly: well, you are kind of a brat, sometimes arrogant and a total little shit. You are sixteen and have already smoked and used more drugs than you should, but you save your money for important stuff. You hear music too loud, and you judge people before you even met them. I know you all my life, I accidentally broke your nose once and you broke mine twice. Fuck you, by the way. You cheat on cards every single time we play, even when we are on the same team, and you laughed so hard when I was nine and broke my arm trying to impress you. You say stupid things, you do even more stupid shit. You are quite a genius, too. I sometimes hate your thick accent, but

"I wanted to be in love," Rick whispers back, kissing his way down Daryl’s chest, trailing a path into his heart. "And I was so lucky you were in the way." 


Daryl doesn’t know what to fucking do. It's been a damn long time, and yet the hairs of his arms are suffering a severe case of stupid goosebumps. Really, he's been happy with the news that Rick was coming back, and despite everything he does his best to forget, he cannot deny that Rick was his best friend once.

And if Daryl grew up to not a total dumbass like he thought he would, certainly Rick did too. And he wants to see, to look at a man and not a broken boy anymore because it’s been a fucking millennium and that still is his last image of Rick. He wants to see him and be sure that everything is alright. Make sure Rick knows everything is alright. He also wants a confirmation that all these years have served for something because he still remembers that disastrous moment in at the station.

But Daryl is lost.

He doesn’t know what to do because there are a million situations exploding inside his head and oh lord in the heaven, Rick has a little kid now and Daryl curses worse than a sailor.

And he wants so, so bad to not fuck things up. Because you see, he still a Dixon and all that. Christ, he's been trying to get past this blood business and everything, but maybe, in this case, it's actually a curse because even though he's done well, the surname goes like a haunting ghost.

He’s so scared that Rick will not like what he’s going to see. More scares and more roughness, an even thicker accent.

Dinner in 30. Says a text he receives from Chonne.

Damn it.

His chest has been in a constant tightening or pulsing as if it were to stop ever since she walked into the bakery with a smile from ear to ear and eyes teary, speaking a thousand words a minute. And Daryl listened to them all, he always listens.

And suddenly he’s seventeen again and everything just hurts. In reverse this time, as if his chest is open and he’s being filled with foolish hope. Or maybe put something else back there, but still. Even so...

Daryl doesn’t know what to do.

He stands in the doorway of his apartment, clean and well-dressed, smelling like cinnamon because that's how things are now; his helmet in one hand and the other holding the door handle. He just needs to open it.

But he can’t, his feet are stuck to the ground and the air is compressing everything around him, leaving the least of the movements impossible. Maybe telling Michonne he'd be there was a bad idea. Maybe considering going to her house was a catastrophic mistake - he can handle a mad Michonne, but if he’s having a break-down now...

Shit.

Fuck it.

Daryl shakes his head and opens the door; he descends two steps at once. He runs his fingers through the leather of the motorcycle in his usual ritual before mounting it.

He’s on the streets after a long breath.

Merle said he needed extra help in the garage anyway.

  

Chapter Text

3. this must be the place 



 

Merle is sitting on the doorstep, hunting knife slicing orange, juice dripping from his greasy fingers. He doesn’t look up, says nothing either, just hums and points with his knife towards the garage door, but Daryl leaves the bike parked in front of the house.

The sky is already dark, although it's relatively early. The streets are desert because of the snow, which still falls lightly. The lights from the houses along the street illuminate the way, and if he pays close attention, he can hear loose words of conversation in front of fireplaces and even dislocated laughter. He can also hear the sound of a pan vibrating on the stove coming from inside his brother's house.

Daryl pushes Merle to the side with his legs, then drops down and sits next to him. He closes his eyes, feels the wind on his face. The air around where Daryl is sitting smells different from salt and ice from the road.

“Is it corn?” he asks.

Merle sucks loudly at a slice of orange before answering, voice hoarse and failing. “Ain't you got somewhere else to be, baby brother?”

Daryl shrugs, let his head falls back. Merle snorts, taking a piece of cloth in the back pocket of his pants, nudging Daryl on purpose, then wiping his hand on the dirty cloth. “The kids at the bakery today were talking about the fair next weekend,” he reasons. “Promised to help me if I doubled the money during their extra hours. Tara's been doing an Economic's course online and that shit is biting me in the ass.”

He expects his brother to comment ‘you’re a good employer’ or something like this because everyone knows he gives more money to those demons than they actually work for. Instead, Merle only says his name.

“I'll see him sooner than later.” He murmurs. The town is shaping up and preparing for the festivities coming around the corner. He particularly dislikes this time of the year, but he participates every year because no matter how much Daryl can deal with a mad Michonne, he doesn’t stand a chance with Maggie. “I don’t know why I agreed to go there. Was pretty stupid.”

“Hm, don’t care, you know; as long as the Nubian Queen doesn’t come after me like last time.” Merle lay the knife on his side and takes his pack of cigarettes from somewhere behind him, puts one in his mouth and offers another to Daryl. “Pff, like I'm the bad influence between the two of us.”

“You should stop calling her that,” Daryl grabs his brother's lit cigarette to light up his. “She hates it.” Merle's laughter is all wrong, as if his throat isn’t shaped to let out this kind of sound, - it vibrates corrupted and cruel, even when his motives’ are nothing like that. “And you are a bad influence. Not that it makes much difference in the end, I don’t need anyone making my decisions for me.”

“It's what I tell her all the fucking time!” his brother exclaims, dropping cigarette ashes on the orange peels at his feet.

They are silent after that, smoking and staring at nothing, lips cutting through the wind, but none of them rise and retreats into the house. His cigarette ends and he accepts another. Some stars begin to appear and Daryl is weirdly missing when he was a kid and to escape from his father, he hid in the local library and spent hours reading astronomy books. Memorizing their positions up there. Star-gazer, the librarian used to call him. Later, when the town had fallen asleep and his father too, he convinced Merle with some sweets and coins he had found on the streets. Together they spent the night in the forest. Daryl's putting the things in the book into practice and Merle complaining about anything that went through his head, even when it made no sense at all.

Suddenly he's startled by Merle, who arches his eyebrows and gives him something that definitely isn't a cigarette. He closes his eyes as the smoke burns a path down his throat and finds a home in his lung. He coughs because it's been so long. In a hoarse whisper, he confesses. “I thought he would never come back, you know.”

Silence comes back. Daryl burns his fingertips because he’s not paying attention. Merle points to a risk of fire that runs through the sky.

“I know,” Merle says after what seems like hours and he came back from turning off the stove. “You looked like a lunatic, standing in front of the newsstand and reading the obituary pages from every journal there. Just the obituaries’ page. Fucking morbid. Weird as hell.”

“I thought he had died,” Daryl defends himself, although he admits that those were not the best of his days. “We all did, after so long without knowing shit. He’d promised to call and give any news. Maybe he had fallen into a ravine or something, he never knew how to walk on his own, the idiot.”

“Nah,” Merle laughs again. “That was only when you were around. Remember that time he came to the old hut looking like he went to war; clothes torn and dirty with mud. Limping!” Daryl shakes his head and Merle stands up, holding out a hand to his brother. “C’mon, make me some food. I’m fucking starving.”

It was corn after all, and because he’s tired and is no slave to his brother, he just gets butter in the fridge and two bottles of beer. They sit outside again.

“Half the kids working in the bakery is the same age as the time he has been away,” Daryl says when opening the drink. “And the things they say, Merle. The thing they say they do; let me tell you, it gives me shivers.”

“Ain’t my damn problem either,” Merle devours the food in a few minutes, burping at the end. “I feel like you want to say something, baby brother.” Damn you, Merle. “Are you chickening out? Twice, just today, hm. Christ, you’re in a run.”

For someone who has never done this for a lifetime, well, he's certainly hitting a record.

He considers whether or not to speak, and even though his brother can see between the loopholes he opens on purpose, it's not always that they are on the same page. The other people he can talk to are busy right now, and the clock is ticking down.

“They wanted to sell the building after a few years,” Merle certainly knows what he's talking about. “Said it was abandoned or whatever. Empty. So something should be done with it.” He takes a sip of his beer and frowns. It's not cold enough. “Doesn’t matter in the end, it would happen sooner or later.”

Merle hums and turns to face his brother; the corner of his mouth pulled down, his eyes lucid, fixed on him. Daryl knows he has one hundred percent of his attention. He continues, “The bakery was doing good and- Maggie appeared out of nowhere one day, sweating and face as red as chili. Fucking angry, scared half of my clients.” He shrugs, bites the skin of his thumb. “I already had a good money saved, and Michonne, Shane. Glenn. Everybody really, they helped with the rest.”

Merle makes a sound with his throat as if he had understood and reached the conclusion even without knowing the end of the story. “So that pile of bricks is yours now.”

“I was renting, the money was going to Sophia and Andre, but-”

But life happens in ways that no one anticipates and well- Merle nods. He knows, he was there too. Daryl closes his eyes again, tries not to think about it too much.

“So that's why you moved, then; put the bakery downstairs.” Daryl agrees with a head shake, scratches his nose. “Damn, and I thought- Nothing, nothing.”

Daryl narrows his eyes and watches his brother for a moment. Merle looks him straight in the eye and a dirty grin appears on his face. One, two. Three. Four. It's like he can hear the pin falling inside his head.

“Fuck you. You were selling shit there, weren’t you? Jesus Christ, Merle.”

Merle shrugs and they fall silent. Daryl's hands are clenched into fists and he's breathing fast. He can hardly believe it. Or he can, that is even worse. “C’mon princess, finish your story. I have things to do.”

Thirty-four years of existence and he always forgets his brother is a giant, massive asshole. (But he knows the turn the conversation was taking and maybe, well... Merle remains an asshole.)

“Like I said, I'll see him sooner than later.” Daryl lets five minutes pass, waiting for his breathing return to normal and his mind to leave dangerous places. “I thought he'd never come back, Merle, I just wanted to, I don’t know… Stay close I think, I spent half my childhood in that place.”

Merle takes one more cigarette. They share this one. “Was always your favorite place to hide.”

They sit for another hour on the doorstep, talking about anything. Dale's RV broke. Shane's jeep is once again in the garage because he doesn’t know how to change a damn tire. Daryl promises to make fun of him for this one. The department continues to send the car wrecks to him.

Then they go back inside and drink some moonshine just so they don’t lose the habit. (Pfft.) Daryl almost chokes on the taste, Merle finishes his glass for him.

Later, he crashes on the couch, head stuck between the stinking pillows and his right arm falling out, touching the floor. He ignores the messages he receives without stopping when it’s past midnight, doesn’t even take the phone out of his pocket to silence the damn thing.

Merle makes a lot of noise for anything he does. It wouldn’t be Merle if he didn’t. It's almost two o'clock in the morning when he finally turns off the lights, disappears into his bedroom, then returns immediately, throwing a blanket over his brother. Daryl can barely show him the middle finger.

He’s one blink away from completely pass out when he hears Merle's whisper, as he walks away.

“You're in for a world of trouble, ain’t ya?”

And the last thing that goes through his head is: yeah, I am.

 

Chapter Text

4. this and this and this



 

When Rick was twenty-five years old and spending his days walking through arid lands, silent, just observing the daily life of a small village in the northwest of Peru to immortalize it in paint and water, he acquired a habit - he would sit on a fallen, lifeless trunk under the pitch black sky and look.

The first time it took his breath away, he drew shaky lines and blurred face, but he knew at that moment - eyes wet and mouth dry, - he’d never, ever, be capable to put in paper such… beauty. The sky was darker there than back home, more starry. Infinite, as Rick defined in his mind. He looked at the horizon and saw infinite.

Shades of blue arrived first, opening the show. Then it got gradually clearer with each passing minute and slowly, oh so slowly, breaking the tranquility that only a soft darkness can bring, the sun rises - shy as if deciding his willingness to appear or not. In the count of a troubled breath, an orange-red-yellow ray breaks the infinity and suddenly, if Rick only stretched his hand, he could touch the sun.

Before long the second ray appeared, now a mix of purple and pink. So is the third ray, this one is harsh, cruel, cutting the sky and resting on his shoulder. And the sky was still starry and the icy wind of night in the middle of the desert made his body shiver. But a new day was there. Closer. Promising. Just waiting for him to reach and touch and get it.

(His thoughts are racing at a million per second and his chest is aching with some kind of despair even if everything feels calm, too calm - how many times had he and his friends been awake to see the same sun rise through the trees? He never stopped to count, but right now he thinks he should have.)

The second time he sat and watched the sun breaks through the sky, it somehow broke his heart, too. Rick must have cried. Maybe he sobbed, he can’t remember., but he got up before the sun every single morning to follow the metamorphosis of the sky during the seven months he stayed there. And from that moment on and on and on. He always did it, watched the sunrise.

Everywhere.

Anywhere.

Then everything shifted after Carl was born, and this habit mingled with another. When they were in Atlanta, Rick would get up, walk barefoot to Carl’s room and leans against the wall by the big window there. He crossed his arms and occasionally his legs.

At thirty-two years old Rick stopped to watch the sun, just to watch its reflections - how the first rays danced over the sleeping figure of a baby boy.

It's his ritual.

And doing it at Michonne's house is difficult because he doesn't know his way around the place, but old habits are hard to die. They’ve been here for only one day and Rick is tired, so damn tired.  

It's a bad night, with an unfamiliar mattress and too soft pillows. The constant fear of Carl moving too much and rolling out of bed; Rick putting his hand on the boy’s cheeks and neck, checking because he doesn’t know if he's warm or cold. It’s a bad night because Rick can’t close his eyes for half an hour straight - thoughts running and running. It's all so different now. God, he feels so, so stupid for considering such things, for letting his mind believe everything would be just the same as he left them, years and years ago.

The town. This house. His friends.

It was during dinner that he realized how far away from the lives of his friends he had stayed, how much he didn’t belong among them anymore - in every time they had to explain something that was internal consensus, a joke or a moment. Watching them laugh and giggle and smile, whisper and point fingers, shake shoulders while all he did was pinch a plate of food and persuade Carl to eat more than two bites. Of course, Rick would laugh and giggle and smile along, but he was just a spectator, looking from the outside and thinking, daydreaming what his role would be in all those memories.

And he kept looking at the door, looking at the door, lookingatthedoor .

By the end of the night, he was so exhausted that it was no surprise to himself the panic attack he had on the way from the kitchen to the stairs. How he held Carl against him so tight when Michonne tried to take the boy from his arms. How he couldn’t breathe and his chest was burning and what is he even doing? Why he had set a trap for him like that, for Carl.

(His head was a mess, what's going on? He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know why things are not happening the way he planned. Stupid. Stop being stupid, Rick, nothing ever happened according to his plans - but he hoped, he still hoped to come here and meet his friends again and go back to living in his mother's old house - and he knew, he did, but still, still-)

He tries to forget the rest because he can feel another coming on. So he shields Carl’s eyes to see what times is it. His phone shines blinding. 5:37 a.m. Rick remembers how the sun felt in him that first time. Brand new. Maybe this will make him feel a little better.

Three minutes later he sits on the bed, taking care to get his arm out from under Carl's head. Rick then rises and without waking the boy, he picks him up. Our sun , Carl says when he's awake to see with him. It's theirs this moment, and with a bitter pang in his chest, Rick thinks this is something he doesn’t want to share with his friends.

He takes the thickest cover off the bed, throws it over his son and then, tiptoeing, he leaves the room and makes his way down the stairs.

The best place to see the sunrise is behind the house, where the terrain is flat and nothing prevents the view, except for a few trees scattered here and there. But it's winter, going out there is not an option, so Rick goes to the second best place. He pulls a chair from the kitchen table and sits, straight legs in front of him, butt in the middle of the seat.

Rick holds Carl the same way as when he was a baby, head resting on his arms, belly up - he puts his hand on his chest that goes up and down, murmurs to himself an old song and lets his fingertips dance in the rhythm of Carl's breath.

And so he waits.

Sunrise in Georgia is simple, the sun emerges in its usual colors and in a slower way because of the season. The rays aren’t strong enough to reach Carl, and that’s okay because it's only now that the boy has fallen asleep for sure, deep breath and over-relaxed body. During the long minutes that the sky opens and the colors show up, Rick’s mind finally clears, almost to a state of blankness - that's enough for him.

And there, tired and bathed in the first minutes of a new day, he manages to close his eyes and in an uncomfortable but worthwhile position, he sleeps. 

# # # 

Sundays in Atlanta have been spent away from home, especially after Carl came to be. In the early months his life, Rick just walked through town, letting Carl's curious chubby hands and blue eyes get to know his surroundings,  and when he started walking and talking a few words, Rick spent hours in colorful places, in parks and open spaces where Carl's little legs could run repeating names and explaining things. Then, after Carl grew up enough to stay sitting still for an hour without a problem, he and Rick watched all the animations that were being played. They would always go home tired enough that Rick showered the boy faster than ever and soon they were both deep in sleep.

But Sundays are different in small towns, and the depressing morning he’s having makes Rick wonder how he forgot this detail. Shops don’t open, the only movie theater has two sessions during the day and displays the same movie for a week. St. Mary doesn’t even have a mall, meaning the recreational options for the weekend are the playgrounds - which are now worthless since practically everything is covered in ice.

Rick feels trapped with nothing to do after so many years with no time to stop and rest. And Carl feels that way too, judging by how moody he is since they woke up - with a blonde woman placing the cover upon them again. Rick was so disoriented by the sudden foreign touch and aching from sleeping in the kitchen chair, that all his brain was was capable of was a hoarse, almost inaudible ‘good morning’. The woman just laughed and nodded, disappearing from view and up the stairs.

That's how he first saw Andrea.

They talk, however, only when she comes down an hour later accompanied by a Michonne still in pajamas. Andrea shakes Rick's hand tightly but has a gentle smile on her face as she starts up a conversation with Carl. And well Carl, being himself, just nods and like with Maggie and Glenn the day before, interacts only when the woman offers him a cupcake decorated with car-shaped sprinkles for breakfast.

After that, all of them sit on the couch and Carl opens one of the gifts left for him - a large box of Lego Duplo. The boy opens the box and spreads the pieces all over the place. He gets frustrated with things not going the way he wants, the towers falling down because he doesn’t squeeze them together with enough strength or cannot reproduce the image on the box cover, even with Rick helping him. Half an hour from that, and he's putting everything away, pouting and staring at the window.

"Maybe we can go somewhere," Michonne suggests after lunch, replaying  Cloudy with Chance of Meatballs for the second time.

Rick snorts, maybe she got annoyed with him repeating Steve’s speeches. "Where?" he asks.

"I don’t know, just around."

All four of them are inside the car minutes later, and Rick discovers a lot of things about Andrea while Michonne drives through the empty streets with nowhere in mind. Andrea is a lawyer, to begin with, and even if curiosity almost gets the best of him, Rick doesn’t ask what her line is because if she wanted him to know, she would have said. Michonne looks at him through the rearview.

“You’re too easy to read, Grimes,” she smiles. “It's domestic violence or family-related cases.” He tries not to think too much about it then because Michonne proceeds to inform how busy Andrea’s office is.

“I helped Carol with legal things, you know.” Andrea turn around to look him in the eye. “I think it was the only way I gained the trust of all your friends.”

Oh. “What happened to Carol? ” He remembers the toasting, and maybe he has a vague idea.

Both woman answer at the same time, just a single word, “Ed,” and they leave him to that.

“That’s very informative, thank you,” he mumbles.

“It’s not our story to tell,” Andrea says. “I was assuming you already knew. I’m sorry. Sorry I brought it around, but you’ll have to wait until she tells you.”

They talk about other matters after that, a few things about their relationship, very little about the son they had (and even if Rick knows how delicate this subject certainly is, he'd love to know more about Andre, he must’ve been such a bright kid, sharp-minded just like his parents are. But he also knows how difficult it must be for them to have a child around again - especially when Carl is using things that belonged to their baby.)

He learns other things as well, about other people. Like how the first arrest Shane ever made was actually Merle Dixon's drunken ass. How, against all the paths laid out for them, the brothers did far better than life planned. Merle bought Dale's garage after the man decided to spend the last years of his life traveling in an RV with his wife. And Daryl, well...

Michonne takes them to the place he recognizes in a blink of his eyes - an exposed brick building, which once was the tallest one in the block but now almost disappears with all the houses and things his mind doesn’t take much effort to look and pay attention. The windows are closed, but still the same ugly brownish color. The door is hidden on the side, at the top of a metal, noisy stair.

Jesus, Rick fell from that so many times as he ran up or down when he was a kid - and sometimes even after he grew up. He and his friends sat so many, many times on those steps and did nothing but eat stinky cheese Cheetos. Or when his mother was at work or sleeping late at night, they would make use of the broken cigarettes that Daryl stole from his father or something Maggie took from Hershel. They used to think themselves so sneaky and rebellious when they were only a bunch of damn punks.

"We bought the place," Michonne interrupts his thoughts.

Rick frowns, doesn’t say anything but pleads for her to stop the car. He doesn’t go out - it's snowing again and he doesn’t have the key. He takes Carl from his seat and puts the boy on his lap. He points outside. "That's where we're gonna live, kiddo." Carl looks from him to the window. He frowns, too.  "Up there, see?” Carl nods then. “It's where Dad used to live when he was little like you, and then when he grew up to be very big, too."

He’s done telling his son a story about the place when Michonne speaks again.

"Aren’t you going to ask why, Rick?"

"Do I need to know? ” the sound of his voice is charged with sarcasm. “Maybe it's something that someone else has to tell me." He’s referring to Carol’s story early on.

"Uhm.” Michonne raises her eyebrow. “You know, I think you're right," and her tone is the same as his. "But maybe you will want to look a little lower." She points out as well.

So look down he does, and he doesn’t know what he needs to be seeing at the beginning because the same black french door is still there, peeling paint and everything, just like the glass wall that had long been covered with brown paper - but not now. Now the glass is clean and exposed and-

And on top of it is a word, a small word, written in lowercase letters and bold dark. At first glance, it looks like a poorly done sign, but as he read, all he sees is a crooked smile and sharp tongue.

.dixon.

This is how his heart stops.

---

Rick doesn’t have another panic attack, but it surely almost happens, so he gets out of the car and walks around in the cold, waiting for his heart to calm down. He stands with his back to the place and after a while, Michonne gets out too, puts her arm around his shoulders and pulls him into a hug.

None of them says anything.

Andrea suggests that they return home when he and Chonne are back inside. Carl is in his seat and looking at Rick with his big eyes that see everything and he holds out his little hand. Rick almost breaks again, but he mirrors the gesture and lets his son hold his hand, somehow trying to comfort his dad. It works, so he denies Andrea and asks Michonne to take him somewhere else, which had not even crossed his mind until they came here.

His mother is buried near the trees in the Cemetery Park, farther away and in total quiet. He’s the only one standing in front of the tomb, and he promises himself that when the weather is better, warmer, he will bring his son to meet his grandmother.

Rick was here only once, two days before he left. Yet, he can see how it is well cared for, clean and full of flowers that are now wilted in the face of bad weather. But there are a lot of them, still colorful despite the snow watering the petals.

Rick didn’t remember the photograph on the tomb, and his heart skipped a beat before stopping and then spreading all over his chest. He had forgotten her beautiful face, so desperate that he had been in the early years of getting rid of that pain. In the small portrait is his mother, posing to her side and with a cap underneath her arm, a giant smile illuminating the picture along with her shining eyes. She’s wearing a dark uniform, her golden star-badge pinned against her chest.

"Hey mom," he whispers. "I think you're trying to play a trick on me for being away for so long. You've never been as funny as you thought you were." He doesn’t look at the dates and not even the epigraph. "I missed them so much. I missed you so, so damn much." Rick puts his hand on the icy stone and lets out a  sobbing-relief-despairing laugh. "But I'm here now, and I have every intention of staying."

A single tear. “I promise you again what I promised that last day.”

A deep breath. “And I'm going to keep it this time.”

(Sundays had never been this tiring for him.) 

# # #

Monday is the day that their things for the house arrive, the moving trucks and everything else. Rick watches the sunrise at the same spot as last night, but this time he doesn't go back to sleep, but Carl is there with him, drooling in his neck where he hides from the clarity, sloughed against Rick’s chest like a ragged doll.

The women come down about an hour later, bathed and ready for a boring day of work and long hours of wishing to be somewhere else.

Breakfast with Michonne and Andrea is something Rick will miss, he’s sure, even if it happened only twice. They are funny together and Carl seems to like Michonne enough now, seeing as he even risks a few minutes sitting on the woman's lap. She looks so surprised when he stretches his arms towards her and refuses the PB&J sandwich she offers because that’s what she’s eating and maybe he just wants a bite? But Carl makes some grabby hand and throws himself at her. Michonne's eyes fill with tears. She kisses Carl's hair at the same time Andrea kisses her shoulder.

Three minutes later Carl is back with his father, but no one really cares about the time.

They give him a ride to the apartment, and Rick promises them that he will arrange transportation for himself later this week. Andrea waves him off and says it's not a problem. Rick truly believes her, but still.

At nine o'clock in the morning, he and Carl are alone in the empty house, staring out the window at the street below, waiting for the trucks as Carl steams the glass and hits it a little hard with the tips of his fingers to draw abstract lines. Rick teaches him how to draw a smiley face. At nine-thirty, a truck stops in front of the building, only one of them containing boxes and furniture. A van is right behind, this one with those who’ll help set the place - Rick wants the house ready as soon as possible, so he paid for everybody that said they could build stuff.

He’s downstairs in a second, holding the door open as he talks with the driver, setting a time for him to come back. The other men start to take everything inside.

The furniture is new, although they are not that stylish. Rick doesn’t need a place to be photographed and showed in architectural magazines, just space where they are comfortable and able to build a home.

Carl's bedroom is a priority, then is the kitchen. The rest is not so important, as long as it’s done one moment or another.

The men are nice, good people. Some of them stop to talk to Rick and some stop to play tickle with Carl. Rick tries to help as much as he can with the boy on his arms - there are nails and bolts on every surface, hammers, drills, and tools he doesn’t even know the name of. He takes them from one side to the other, and also whatever he can - holding doors in place, keeping shelves in level.

Carl doesn’t care much about not staying on the floor, despite trying to escape a few times. Rick hands the cell phone to him and lets some songs play, then switches to an educational game of colors and simple words.

At eleven-thirty, he calls lunch for everyone. It arrives midday sharp. Everyone stops to sit and eat. The team seems to have known each other a long time, and soon they start sharing stories with Rick. Carl convinces two of them to play with his toy cars after a look and a whispered languid blink.

By three-seventeen everything that has to install is done, the house is filthy and there are enough dismantled boxes to burn for a month. Rick pays each one of the workers some extra money while they walk away, sweaty despite the weather, but with a smile on their faces because Rick is not ‘one of those’, whatever that means.

With the house just for them once more, Rick begins to sort things out in Carl's room. He leaves the boy in bed and puts a dozen toys around him, along with a sippy cup full of apple juice. It's not enough to get him settled, but he waits until the ground is clean to come down and help. Rick leaves him with the task of putting a few pieces of clothing in the drawers under the closet (which he will organize later). Then, at Carl's nap time, he quietly moves to his own room.

Carl is up and about an hour and a half later. Together they eat a toast and Rick plays Lion King on the tv, they sing along every single music as he starts arranging the kitchen.

Then it’s seven o'clock and the sky is already dark. Rick stops when he hears the sound of a motorcycle engine going away. Hmm, maybe Rick will have to exercise his memory more -  he had forgotten what they have downstairs.

When he takes his place at the window, the only ones in the street are a group of teenagers talking loudly, laughing hard, all of them wearing the same uniform.

This is now their new home. 

# # #

Rick wakes up Tuesday morning to the sound of bursting a door, he blinks and grunts, but is at his feet when Carl's shrill voice calls out to him. He’s up and out of the room so fast that his brain doesn’t keep a record, staggering once while he looks around, eyes huge and heart failing. His mind is suddenly thinking about the worst possibilities.

"Carl," he roars, entering his son's room only to find the bed empty. The bed is empty, but Rick always lifts the bars after Carl falls asleep, and checks once more before he goes to bed.  And oh Christ the bars are still up, and Carl is nowhere in sight and what if-   Please, son, just answer me . “Carl!”

He leaves the room and hurries down the hall. The bathroom door is open, the light is on. Maybe he went to the bathroom to do what the fuck ever and he fell, got hurt. Carl is clumsy still, not in full control of his tiny body yet. Rick rushes in and Carl-

Carl is sitting on the toilet. The big one, not the small, green and plastic one set by the wall just for him. His diaper is dirty and opened on the floor. And- Rick can’t believe it. And he’s currently being swallowed by the large opening in the seat.

"Oh my god." Rick falls to his knees on the floor, his laughter comes out a strange, like a breath of relief and a sob. "Oh my g- Carl!" He sure feels one step from crying, his heart is pumping so, so hard.

"I need poop," is all the boy says, calm and composed - well, as much as he can in this situation. He makes grabby hands towards Rick. "Help, daddy."

Rick sighs and walks on his knees to him. He has to take a deeper gulp of air before he holds Carl under his arms and pulls him up. The sound that comes out is a plug being pulled out. Rick wrinkles his nose with the smell while he transfers the child to the small potty.

"Why didn’t you call me if you needed to so bad?” He passes his hand in Carl’s dark mop, gently forcing a little to make eye contact. “My door is always open, you know that." But Carl just folds his arms and keeps doing his things as if nothing had happened. "Do not do that again, buddy. Please. It scared Dad very much." He pouts and nods to make a point.

Carl just pats his arm as saying ‘there, there’. After that Rick is silent, waiting for Carl to finish. He pinches his nose until something pops into his head. "Wait," he pokes at Carl's knee. "Does that mean you jumped the bars?"

Carl tilts his head, then he unfolds his arms and puffs his chest out. "I brave," he smiles proudly.

If he told someone how Carl really is when it’s only the two of them, nobody would believe it.

Rick lies on the floor and laughs.

---

They eat cereal with yogurt and banana for breakfast. He didn’t watch the sun because he had a hard time finding his sleep. He's tired and even if there are too many things to do, Rick decides to play with Carl instead. It’s something he never regrets, it's never a waste of time, so he pushes the coffee table away, turns on the tv and sets a lower volume, then he takes an old wooden box from the mess in the studio. Carl’s eyes shine when he sees it - coloring is his favorite thing to do.

He’s barely sat on the floor and the box is already being open, pencils and crayon and sheets rolling and flying everywhere.

That is how they spend their morning. After a while, they lay down on their stomach. Rick draws a bear, themselves, a bowl of candies, some trees and clouds, random things that come to his mind or stuff his son asks for. And Carl colors the first purple and orange, the second green and blue. He colors with extra care the candies, and Rick promises to hang it by the fridge. Together they create stories and talk about movie trailers they’ve watched to pass time.

Things turn into a real mess when Carl starts to do finger paint. It doesn’t last long, after a particularly harsh scold he stops pretending to not listen to his dad. He pouts a little, but Rick keeps his face firm.

“What we should do now?” Rick comments after they return everything to place. He makes sure to establish a half/half responsibility after they’re done playing together, whatever it is. The boy has paint on his clothes and arms. The floor is a mess. Carl's stomach rumbles loud enough for him to hear. “You hungry?”

“Tummy Monster,” it is the answer he receives. Rick never discovered who taught him to describe it that way, but it's a good description.

“Really? And how long has he been there?” Carl lifts three fingers. It's a number he learned to do after his last birthday when he was already asking about the next one. He uses it every time Rick asks about time. “Wow, all this time. We have to do something real quick, or he’ll come out and get both of us.”

“I brave,” Carl says for the second time this day as he puts his hand on Rick’s cheek - he leans against the touch until the boy retreats. He does kiss his palm before, though. He’ll never know how Carl ended up being such a sweetheart, but Rick will never complain, even if someday his chest will swell too much and probably explode.

“I love you, buddy,” he whispers and Carl beams at him. “Alright, so here’s the plan. We’ll clean up all these paints, then we’ll defeat Tummy Monster with some awesome food, right?”

“Right,” Carl responds with too much conviction for a two-year-old. Rick shakes his head.

They shower. They have to because a wet cloth wasn't helping, just making the boy skin an awful red. Carl squirms in his arms, trying to get down and he stops only when Rick sings ‘In the jungle, the mighty jungle’. They both are horribly off key. Carl also complains when they have to get out of the water. Rick knows showering this early is not a good idea because of the weather, so he dries Carl's hair with a dryer and puts him in almost all his winter clothes.

When they are ready to leave and buy some actual food, in an actual grocery store, he picks Carl up and puts the wallet in his jeans pocket. Michonne said that everything in this neighborhood remains the same, so Rick can walk around without getting lost.

But Carl is back at being the chimp monkey baby he is sometimes, and he puts his feet on his father's chest, hands grabbing everywhere as he tries to climb onto his shoulders. “High, daddy,” he fists Rick's hair.

Rick hisses in pain. “Calm down,” hands briefly releasing the boy’s waist to detach him from his head.

“Up. Up.”

“I understand, but as long as you don’t keep acting like a worm, all squirming and stuff, we're not going to do it.”

Carl stops and narrows his eyes. “I not worm.” He sounds outraged.

“Of course you are. Look at this," but before Rick holds Carl in a safe grip for tickles, the doorbell rings. Carl stops immediately, body rigid and playfulness gone. And of all the things that he expects as he opens the door (and he expects a lot of things), he forgets them all because he can only see one thing standing there.

Broad-shoulders and helmet in hand. Longer, darker hair. Ripped jeans and-

It's Daryl.

Blue eyes that could summon natural disasters. Shifting from one leg to another, fingers twitching as if he’s playing piano.  

It’s Daryl standing in his doorway.

(He looks so nervous yet so damn stunning.)

“Hey, Rick.”  

This is how a new life begins.