Actions

Work Header

How A Cop Got His Wings

Work Text:

His ex-wife is probably his best friend, Rick Grimes isn’t dumb enough to dilute himself into thinking he has anyone other than Cassi who would literally drop everything in a heartbeat and come to his rescue. Cassi aside, he had a girlfriend, who should have been here in the hospital waiting for him to wake up from his shot-to-the-chest-inducing-coma, and a best friend. His mind works over where Shane and Lori are, and finally settles on the fact that they are probably together, judging by the look Cassi is giving him. Her big brown eyes wide and startled in a stilted and concerned sort of way. Rick adores Cassi, they divorced because the were better friends than lovers. Hell, they had three kids together, wonderful kids he might add. “So, let me guess, my best friend took off with my girl.” Rick coughed, his voice rough and wheezing.

 

“Shane does have that reputation.” She responded in kind, fidgeting slightly over his gown. “Dr. S says you can leave this afternoon if you're stats are still good and you're breathing a little better.” She has her arms crossed over her chest, and for a moment he just studied her. Long brown hair, tumbling down her shoulders with pink and blue streaks through it - Cassi had always been a very free spirited girl. The Led Zeppelin shirt ending just below her ribs, cut into a crop top, and her high waisted skinny black jeans with holes ripped in the knees, red converse on her feet, a blue sapphire dangling from her belly ring, and her nose ring the same gemstone.

 

“Not with you.” Rick grumbled sitting up in his hospital bed.

 

“I’ve actually got taste in men.” She quirked, soothing out his gown again. “The kids are at Hershel’s before you ask. Maggie and Bethany are watching them. Reckon Glenn is probably ‘round there too.” Rick sighed, looking heavenward. “Look, I don’t know how much you're nurse told you, but Lori was supposed to be taking care of payin’ ya’lls apartment, and she didn’t. Marcy called me about three weeks ago and had me come clean out you're things. I took everything that looked important, and got the spare bedroom situated for you at my house.” She gives him a soft smile. “Rick, I love you, you know that right?” She asked, looking for a long moment like she might do something crazy like hug him, then she’s hugging him, squeezing way too tight.

 

“I’m not dead.” He wheezed.

 

“But you almost died.” She debuted, holding him a little tighter, kissing his temple. “Now, I’m going to go get all the paperwork, and call Hershel - see if Maggie can bring the kids to my house and just meet us there, pick up some food on the way home.” Rick groaned, and dropped back against the pillows. He had woken up two days before, and only just had the tube removed that had helped him breathe, now that he was holding his own in most regards, he was going to be released.

 

Cassi’s house was her parent’s old house. It had belonged to the Foundry’s before he and Cassi had ever met. It had been in their family for so long, he was fairly sure it was older than the town. Three weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday both her parents and older brother had died in a car wreck, she’d had no one, and Rick had been her seventeen year old boyfriend at the time. He married her, against his parents wishes, and moved into the plantation house, finished out his senior year, and went straight into the Police Academy, it was there he met Shane.

 

“I ain’t going anywhere, babe.” He promises, and lets her ruffle his hair as she pulls back. “You and the kids need me.” She doesn’t in fact, out of the pair of them she is the one more apt to survive if the world ends, she’s more likely to rip up roots and regrow wherever she damn well pleases - that used to scare him, but now he thinks maybe that’s what they both need.

 

By the time he is released, Cassi has already called Maggie, and is talking very animatedly about dinner. Rick is just relieved that he knows the Foundry house as well as his own shitty apartment. “Your momma and daddy are coming down next weekend.” That hits him like a sack of bricks. “You and Lori were going to announce your engagement, remember?” She tones, almost bored, as she settled behind the wheel of her truck, casting him a careful look. “But that obviously isn’t going to happen.” She sighed.

 

“So, they are going to come here.” Rick grunted. “To your house, to the house that we called home.” Rick looked out the window. “My life is so fucked up.” He grumbled. “Thanks for saving my ass, again, Cassi.” She burst with laughter, as they pulled into Horvath’s pizza, she shifted the truck into park, then climbed out of the cab. She darted inside, as Rick pushed his head against the window pane, a beat later Shane’s familiar jeep pulled into the parking lot, and both Shane and Lori climbed out, Lori tucked under his arm, like she’d never been anywhere else.

 

Rick didn’t miss how Cassi gave them both a glare as she came out of the diner, balancing three pizzas, two orders of breadsticks, and a sack full of drinks. Shane didn’t even bother to open the door, which made Rick grit his teeth, it was all he could do to lean across the cab and push open the drivers door for her. “Ain’t they pretty.” She hummed, already shoving him and the food back to his side, she pushed the drinks at him next, then climbed into the cab again. “Fuckers.” She hissed, shifting the truck into reverse. “Guess they’ll find out that you got out of the hospital in a day or two when they remember to hold up the ‘best friend’ and ‘fiance’ roles.” She turned onto the main road, and hit the gas.

 

Rick snorted, “So what, they’d pop in weekly?”

 

“Something like that.” Cassi snorted. “Hey, really though, Rick, you can stay at the house as long as you need to, ain’t never really expected ya to move out anyway, sorta hoped Lori’d just move in with us.” That was something Rick had tried hard to avoid. Cassi and Lori were like mixing oil and water, dangerous to the end. Cassi was hard and determined where Lori was dainty and sweet.

 

The house sits on its own, far removed from the rest of town, out past the horse fields, with the twilight behind it, it feels like a movie scene. She parks the truck beside the old bronco that Maggie drives, already the kids and dogs are on the wrap around porch. The set of large Cane Corso’s he bought her for her eighteenth birthday that they had dutifully named Bo and Luke Duke almost knock him off his feet before he ever gets out of the car, then the kids are barrelling at him. Carl and Boone are almost six, and Jude is two, the three of them crying out in excitement “DADDY!” Chorused off key behind them by Maggie and Beth’s excited cries of “RICK!” Then he’s being slobbered on and hugged, and Cassi is somewhere behind him laughing, as she grabbed the last of his duffle bags and the food, using her hip to slam the door.

 

Rick manages to untangle himself, and scoop Judith up in the onslaught, Luke still hovering close to his hip. “I missed you all too.” The back forty of the Foundry fields lined up with the left side of the Greene farm. Cassi used to babysit both girls when they were younger and she and Rick had attended school with Shawn Greene, the eldest of Hershel’s kids. Bethany held the door open, and Maggie ushered the children inside. Cassi shooed Luke back onto the porch with Bo, shoving the large beast out and uttering something to the effect of, “When the foods gone ya mangy mutts can come snuggle with yer damn father.”

 

Boone and Carl are shooting off so many questions Rick is struggling to keep up. Jude just keeps kissing him better and asking about booboos. Cassi corrals everyone around the table, and has the kids eating before Rick has a chance to blink. Cassi tugged her hair up into a bun, and pushed Rick into his chair at the head of the table. They always had a good working relationship. Instead of dragging the kids out of school, they agreed to leave them with her through the week, and Rick had the kids every single weekend - an agreement he managed to work out with his boss - Abe Ford. “I ought to call the station and see about my job.”

The look she gives him makes him wonder if he’d just said something stupid. “Rick, Abe has been by about every other day at the hospital, talking about how pissed off you are going to be on desk duty the moment you come back.” She snorted. “Don’t worry, he and Sasha are going to come over tomorrow. They’ll have Noah with them.” Noah was Sasha’s son from a previous marriage, and Abe the red headed irishman had adopted the boy. Sasha was an african queen from Bon Temp, Louisiana.

 

“Ah, ok.” Rick hummed, just as Boone reached across and grabbed his hand. “Yeah, buddy?”

 

“I missed you.” Boone said carefully, and then Carl, “I missed you too daddy.”

 

Cassi just watched the exchange, then moved to clean up, Maggie and Beth headed out the door, and the dogs rushing in. By the time Rick had settled into her bed, not the one that she had originally told him to use. Her’s is much longer than a normal bed, taking up more space and probably more comfortable than any other bed known to man. Cushioned up on the pillows, the kids and dogs climbed up around him, his chest was starting to ache. “Cas!” He managed, hands itching to claw at his chest. She was there a moment later, pulling out the lortabs and producing water. Swallowing down two, then chugging the water, he passed out in a heap.

 

When he woke up the only person in the bed was Jude. He checked the clock, and it read almost eleven. Jude had her baby dolls and was watching television with a cereal box beside her. Outside he could hear Bo and Luke barking at something. Realistically the kids were in school and Cassi was at the diner - Carol’s Place. He grunted. “Hungy?” Jude asked him, handing him some fruit loops, then pointing at the lamp, “Vit’mins!” She cried out next. Rick nodded, in a grumpy sort of way, taking the proffered pain killers and the glass of now warm water.

 

“Mommy at work?” He asked, watching the little girl, who was already dressed, a purple dress with black bloomers under them, and black strappy sandals on her chubby legs. Her blonde hair curling as it got longer. She didn’t look much like Rick or Cassi if they were being honest, instead she looked a lot like Rick’s mother. She had two dolls that she loved - Katie who was a darker toned baby doll and Emma who was a creepy doll if Rick was being honest, one that cooed and said ‘feed me’, repetitively.

 

“Mhm.” The little girl smiled. “Go?”

 

“No, sorry baby, daddy can’t drive right now.” He huffed, it was almost four miles to the diner out on the gravel road that led to the end of the county line, and there was no way he could walk that far. Walking from the kitchen to the bedroom had left him winded last night, and honestly Jude would want to be carried most of it. They ended up in the living room, with the television on and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse blaring, he’d just settled in, when the old house phone startled him, he grunted, and tried to stand, only to feel his chest tightening. “Jude.” He grunted, motioning for her to get the phone. Pudgy little hands brought the ringing device to him.

 

“You doing ok?” Cassi asked carefully. “Carol is going to let me come home in about an hour, want me to bring food?”

 

He checked his watch, “Yeah, Cas that would be great.” He huffed. “Jude let me sleep late.” He muttered. “Were in the livingroom now.”

 

“You sound out of breath.” She muttered, unimpressed with him. “Did you carry Jude to the living room?”

 

“Maybe.” He hesitated, “Cas don’t…”

 

She huffed out a sigh, he could hear her hand covering the receiver, “Hey, Merle wanna do me a favor?”

 

“Oh god, no.” He begged to anyone who would listen.

 

He heard her snort, “Can you go check on Rick for me? He just got out of the hospital?” He heard Merle make an affirmative noise. “See, Rick, everyone loves you.”

 

“You did not just sick the biker goon you call a house dog on me?” Rick moaned.

 

“Jude loves him, and now I can work the rest of the day. Merle can get Boone and Carl off the bus.” She seemed positively too happy with her solution.

 

Rick grunted, “I will never understand you're relationship with him.”

 

“Love is strange.” She muttered.

 

“Ew.” Rick hung up on that, hearing her shot something into the receiver.

 

It was almost thirty minutes later he heard the rumble of the old triumph, he groaned, just as Jude stood and toddled towards the door, “Mer’bird!” She shouted her little hands making grabbing motions as the leather clad biker wrenched the door open.

 

Rick hadn’t been lying when he said he would never understand her relationship with the leader of Savage Sons Motorcycle Club, but it had paid in the end with Merle helping the King County police force crack more than one case, the former military man had a volatile temper and a vicious right hook. Rick wasn’t going to call them dating, instead he would much rather call them best friends, but he doubted that was where their friendship ended. Merle had blow into town one day, fresh out of prison, and looking for a sponsor, he’d found Carol’s diner purely by accident, and by virtue found Cassi.

 

Merle scooped Jude up and continued his approach, somewhat reluctantly. “Hey, Officer Friendly.” Merle winked at him. “Hi Princess, Mer’bird missed you.” He kissed her forehead. “Mommy’s been busy with daddy, huh?”

 

“Is it going to bother you that I slept in the master bedroom last night?” Rick started, itching to stand and trying hard not to wheeze while doing it.

 

Merle shot him a look, “Ah know where ya slept, dumbass. Cassi told me the bed was more comfortable ‘fer yer heart. Is it always gonna be like this?” Jude had laid her head on his shoulder, her face pressed against the leather of his vest. “Can’t we just be friends?” He muttered, “I’m sober, clean, and dealin’ with the past.” He grumbled.

 

“Fine.” Rick huffed, “Could you maybe help me up?” He wheezed, “I am not supposed to be out of bed.”

 

Merle quirked him a smile that made him wonder what the hell his ex-wife found attractive in Merle Dixon. “Come on Princess, we have to get daddy off the floor.” Merle reached down with his free hand, took Rick’s in his and hauled him off the floor. “By the way, Ricky, my kid brother and his kids are gonna be in town in a couple weeks, Cassi promised ‘uhm the cabin ‘round back, ain’t gonna be a problem is it?”

 

Rick couldn’t answer, struggling to breathe, Merle settled Jude to the floor, and scooped Rick off his feet. “Meds…” He huffed.

 

Merle deposited him back on the bed in the master room, and hurried to get him a glass of water and the five different bottles of pills, then he fetched Judith, and dropped her on the edge of the bed. “Cassi sent you some food, and me too.” He looked at Rick for a moment, then shrugged his vest and boots off and climbed up on the bed beside him, sorting the food between them.  Jude instantly crawled into his lap as Rick caught his breath, his chest no longer feeling like it was constricting.

 

“You love her, don’t you?” Rick finally managed, as Merle was handing Jude his french fries, and chewing on his sandwich.

 

Merle made a startled noise, “Friendly, I’ve been in love with her since she punched me in the throat.” He huffed. “Ya might wanna mention ta her ya figured it out.” Merle snorted.

 

“Shit.” Rick laughed, “Please tell me you and her… she hasn’t been waiting for me to figure out my life first has she?”

 

Merle raised an eyebrow. “Rick you and her divorced for she ever figured out she was pregnant with Jude, I’s been in her life for her whole life. A’most three years. The whole time I’s been around, takin’ odd jobs ‘round town, helpin’ yer ass out when able, an makin’ sure all of ya’ll had food, even keepin’ tabs on Lori ‘nd Shane when they’s in messy areas. Got the Sons lookin’ after ya in tha hospital room, ‘nd got uhm guardin’ Hershel ‘nd his girls.”

 

Rick took a long look at Merle, then nodded, he started eating his burger, just as Jude climbed up between them. He wasn’t sure what they were watching - some program about motorcycles, he fell asleep his head on Merle’s shoulder, with Jude curled between them. Which is exactly how Cassi found them that afternoon, Merle asleep with his head against the headboard, and Rick with his head on Merle’s shoulder, food scattered on either side of them, and Jude curled up between them.

 

“Holy shit.” She grumbled, as the dogs, Carl and Boone darted in, a strange course of “Dad” and “Merle” sounded through the house and Rick groggily woke to see his dogs confused about who to snuggle with the most. Bo ultimately decided on Rick, while Luke landed on Merle, the older man letting out a startled ‘oomph’. “Are you alive?” She asked the pair of them, eyebrow raised.

 

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me how in love you were with Merle.” Rick growled, “Shit, you couldn’t have married him already.”

 

Cassi laughed, loud and joyfully. “Well, that’s noted, going to file that moment away forever.” She smiled, “How about you two clean up this food…” She motioned between them. “And I’ll go start dinner. Merle, can you help Rick into the kitchen?”

 

“Sure, momma.” Merle pulled Rick up with his help, to a standing position, “They told ‘er that once ya got home you’d hurt more. Reckon I’s yer full time babysitter.” Rick sighed, loudly.

 

Merle muscled him into the kitchen, and for the first time Rick really noticed Merle. He wasn’t young, or at least he didn’t look young. He knew vaguely that the man struggled with alcohol addiction, and had dabbled in crystal meth, knew he had more scars and rough points than any other person known to him. He also knew without a doubt that Merle loved his kids and his Cassi. As she was cooking, Rick was settled at the kitchen table, the kids around him - Boone and Carl working on first grade homework, Merle interjecting his knowledge now and then, but the older man’s eyes stayed glued to Cassi or Jude, as he dumped cheerios on her highchair. Merle muscled both the dogs out of the house just as Cassi announced “Spaghetti!” and started serving it to everyone.

 

Merle settled the cups of tea, and sippy cup of milk, making sure Jude had an extra spoon and fork. Merle took the other head of table seat, directly across from Rick - and it hurt Rick’s heart in a good way, feeling every bit like a family. “T’morrow I’s gotta work on my bike, ya feel like sittin’ under the willow tree with Jude, Rick?” Merle asked, his tone hopeful.

 

Rick could be an asshole, if he was another man he probably would be. “That sounds good Merle, we can get the boys off the bus together, right?” Merle shot him a sly smile and nodded. “Cassi, did you bring all my clothes?” He felt a little grimy.

 

“Yeah, it’s all in the spare bedroom.” She hummed, sipped her sweet tea then looked at Merle, “Rick’s parents are going to be here next weekend, do you think you can have the cabin squared away by then?”

 

Merle looked her over, thoughtfully, “Of course, I don’t see why not.” He looked at his plate for a moment. “Might need ya ta leave yer car here so I’s can drive Rick and Jude out to it the rest of the week, can work on the floor ‘nd stuff.” Merle gave her the same sly smile, “Ya can ride my bike.”

 

Cassi’s face blushed deep, a flush settling on her cheeks and neck, “Ok.” She winked.

 

Abraham and Sasha joined them about five minutes after dinner started, with Noah running head long into Carl and Boone. The three first graders a flurry of activity. Sasha and Cassi embraced. Merle and Abraham shared a tight nod, the biker looking more out of place than Rick felt, and his heart hurt for that fact, because this was where Merle belonged, not Rick.

 

“Glad to see you up and moving.” Abe clasped Rick on the back harder than he needed to, making Rick cough. Instantly both Cassi and Merle locked eyes on him, Cassi looking ready to chew Abe up and Merle looking concerned, like he was seeing someone else. Rick sighed, there was a story behind Merle’s stormy green-grey eyes, something dark and twisted, and something that would probably make Rick regret ever having disliked the sometimes brash man.

 

“Me too.” Rick finally wheezed out.

 

Sasha reached across the table and hooked her hand over his. “I am sorry about the Shane and Lori business.”

 

For a moment the whole adult end of the table (Merle was at the kid end) froze, even Merle looked decidedly awkward about the conversation, Rick plastered a lackluster smile on his face, “It’s better it happened now then after the vows, Sasha.” He squeezed her hand back, “Beside, Cassi always catches me.”

 

“I’m you're lucky charm.” She teased, “And you're trophy.” She tossed the last sentence towards Merle, who hummed his agreement, and returned his attention to trio of boys who he was in the process of telling a probably raunchy story about squirrel hunting to.

 

“When the doctor releases you to come back to work.” Abe started, “I wanna put you on desk duty for a month, get you evaluated and all that stuff. Shane already went through counseling with the ordered psychiatrist, but you have to do that too.” Abe piled more spaghetti on his plate as he spoke. “And we have to get you through some physicals, make sure you're body is up to snuff. You look a little thin.”

 

Rick hadn’t wanted to admit it but some part of him was hoping that Abe was going to tell him he couldn’t be on the force anymore. There was certainly still a chance his cardiologist would bench him for life, he didn’t completely understand but from what he learned from Cassi on the drive home, it all depended on scar tissue location, and chest wall pressure. It sounded a lot like ‘we have no clue if you're going to be ok or not’ but he chose to ignore that nagging feeling.

 

He felt eyes on him, “What?”

 

“I just asked if you thought living here was going to work out?” Sasha meant well, Rick knew she did, she hadn’t been around for the Rick and Cassi Grimes show, and hadn’t even witnessed the very team friendly divorce. She knew how vicious divorced couples could be - her ex-husband Bob was apparently satan, and Abe was constantly worried about having to murder him.

 

“Yeah, Cassi and I are best friends.” Rick didn’t miss how her eyes darted to Merle, “I even like Merle, kind of have to when my kids, dogs, and my Cassi like him. He’s good people.” He hoped the sentiment he was attempting to make met his  eyes.

 

“Its nice ta have ‘im round, someone ta help me fix shit.” Merle declared. “Cassi ain’t shit for hand’in me tools.” His joke brough the table to laughs, and Rick thanked God for small mercies, namely for the fact that his ex wife and kids had found a safe haven in Merle Dixon. After that the focus of the diner table became more mundane things. Abe talked briefly about a bike he was thinking about getting - Merle told him the man was asking too much for it, and he needed to test drive it first. Sasha asked Cassi about preacher cookies, and Cassi hastily wrote down the recipe. Noah asked to spend a weekend, Rick said he was fine with it at the same time Merle did, both men looking at Cassi who laughed and agreed. With tentative fishing plans, Sasha checked the time, and made a choked noise.

 

“We have to head home, we’ve got… some baby making to practice.” She whispered low to Cassi. “Prime ovulation day.”

 

Cassi rolled her eyes, but whispered back, “Good luck, woman.” After Cassi led them out, homework and kids became the focus of the men. While Rick helped Carl with science, Merle helped Boone with his math, humming his approval when the boy figured something out on his own, then they switched and Merle helped Carl with geography and Rick helped Boone with spelling. All the while Cassi and Jude played peek-a-boo with their food and made a huge mess.

 

Rick found himself being pushed into the bathroom by Cassi, around the time Merle started wiping the table down. “I’m going to help you take a bath.” She declared. “I gotta keep your bandage clean.” Rick must have made a face because she burst with laughter. “Or Merle can help you?”

 

“You love him?” Rick asked as she tugged at his shirt, pulling it over his head.

 

She gave him a long look, “Yeah, I do. The man has his flaws but he wears them like badges, lets you know up front what is wrong, and who he is. He and his brother, Daryl, they had it hard growing up, and somewhere before his last prison sentence Daryl got married and Merle got incarcerated.” Rick waited while she unbuttoned his pants, he still didn’t have as much strength in his arms as he had hoped - being in a coma for almost four months would do that to a person, he supposed. “This visit - from Daryl - is more like Daryl moving here, he just lost his wife to an overdose a couple months ago, no matter how much he tried to help her, in the end it didn’t work. He thought Merle was still in jail and it took him a while to really track Merle down.”

 

“That’s why the cabin means so much to Merle.” Rick looked down at his sunken chest, his ribs showing, and his hip bones protruding. “I look like a zombie.”

 

“I’ll fatten you up in no time.” She promised, prodding him in the stomach, before grabbing the special gauze the nurses had given her, and wrapping it over the bandages over his heart, he’d had a wound vac secured to his chest for a long time, and it was still healing. Once she had it settled, she pulled his underwear down, then helped him climb into the tub. She took care with gentle hands scrubbing him down. “Merle’s a good man, under it all.”

 

“How old is he, anyway?” Rick asked, deflecting where their conversation was no doubt headed.

 

“That’s a good question.” She said thoughtfully. “Daryl is your age, Rick, or maybe a couple years older, and Merle raised him from the time he was about nine, so I’m not really sure.”

 

“Does he know how old you are?” Rick asked, cautiously.

 

She gave him a look, “All he asked was if I was eighteen.” her eyebrow quirked up and lip pursed in a seductive way.

 

“Sounds like something he would say.” Rick chuckled. “I can tell he’s good, you know now. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked to him, much.” Rick let her wash his curls, then she left him soaking. He heard the nighttime rituals, and sighed, with all the kids in their rightful beds, it was Merle who peaked his head in.

 

“She asked ifin ya needed ‘er or if I could help ya out.” Merle had his eyes down cast, and he actually looked like he was unsure, but the look was fleeting. A moment later, Rick had nodded that Merle could help, and the burly man was raising him out of the tub, and helping him dress. Rick took his nighttime pain meds, and let Merle literally carry him to the spare room, where Bo and Luke were waiting for him, Merle tucked him in, and slipped out.

 

Cassi came in a few moments later and removed the protective bandage, and changed the ones over his heart. “Love you.” Rick muttered sleepy as he tumbled into sleep. She covered him up, and silently backed out of the room.

 

Jude and Merle brought him breakfast in bed, accompanied by Bo and Luke - the slobber kings of King County. Merle laughed when Rick blinked confused at him. Merle helped him to the bathroom, and gently settled him back in bed, all the while Rick was thinking whatever deity was listening for burly angry bikers needing to start over in small Georgia town. Jude had started playing with the dogs by the time he was settled back in. Merle looked like he needed to tell Rick something, “What’s on you're mind, Merle?”

 

“Cassi has me stayin’ over until yer better, but when yer parents are ‘ere we might have to rethink it.” Merle didn’t meet his eyes.

 

“No, you live here, I know you do.” Rick sighed. “This was you're bedroom wasn’t it?” Merle nodded. “Move into Cassi’s room, it's where you belong. My parents can suck it.” He leaned back against the pillows as Jude wiggled from Merle’s arms to his. “Morning Princess.”

 

“Morn’n daddy.” She winked at him, all gummy in her smile, and then stole one of his pieces of bacon. “Mer’bird made yummy.” She motioned towards the food, and then wiggled from his grasp to lay across Luke, whilst Bo licked her chubby little face.

 

“Ya a’ight in here for a spell, Friendly, gotta run down to the garage ‘nd fetch what ‘ah need for my bike.” Merle didn’t look like he wanted to leave Jude or Rick alone, but Rick couldn’t see him being very productive without the tools he needed.

 

Rick nodded, letting Jude climb over him, Merle was up and moving before Rick really could think about it. He didn’t know how he would feel in Merle’s shoes - actually there wasn’t much he knew about Merle to accurately gauge how Merle would respond to anything. When Merle returned, Jude was fast asleep. Merle grabbed a spare blanket - Rick’s heart hurt a little with the knowledge that Merle knew where the ‘yard’ blankets were. A beat later he was back in again, this time putting Jude on Rick’s chest, then scooping Rick into his arms bridal style. The big burly brute of a man carried him across the threshold and onto the porch, a sway of memories - he carried Cassi across the entryway after their tiny wedding, carrying the puppies in, carrying Carl and Boone in the first time, meeting her with Jude here, and carrying them both in - Cassi laughing at his antics.

 

Merle deposited him on the stretched out blanket under the willow tree, Rick settled Jude next to him, then pulled the tools and bike from where they’d been deposited in the gravel. “Hey, Merle.” Rick muttered, “Can I uh, can I help somehow?”

 

“Muh kid brother usta ‘elp me.” Merle grunted, pulling the bike further towards the blanket, “Reckon ya can, just hand me tools as ‘ah as fer them, and ‘ah can explain what I’s doin’.” Merle scooped up the tools an dropped them all on the blanket, grease already smeared on his hands, he wiped them down his shirt, and smiled. “Start’r is messed up.” Merle muttered.

 

“So, uh, tell me about yerself.” Rick chanced.

 

Merle raised an eyebrow, then grabbed the socket wrench. Rick had no clue what he was doing, but after a bit of grunting Merle sighed. “Ah was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains ‘ah Georgia, up round the Appalachian Trail. My paw was mean as a snake, liked ‘is dogs, ‘is friends, ‘is whores and ‘is bike more’n he ever liked me or my mom, er my brother, when he came ‘long.” Merle grunted again, as something broke free from the bikes frame. “Grew up knowin’ I’s poor white trash, when I got ‘round twelve, started messin’ with my paws moonshine, started runnin’ it at fifteen, turned twenty-one in prison, next time ‘ah got arrested, judge said prison er Army. Chose the Army - got a first class tour overseas, ended up in the desert, hated it by the way.” He handed Rick the part that had broken free, “Clean that off.” Then he was twisting on something, and muttering under his breath. “Had this command’n officer who was a real first class piece of shit - we had a disagreement, ended up with me Court Marshalled, and Dishonorably Discharged.” Merle pointed to a screwdriver, which Rick quickly handed him. “When ah got out, my momma was dead, ‘nd my paw was runnin’ more’n moonshine.” The accent slipped out of him more surley and butchered. “He’d managed ta start makin’ meth and runnin’ heroin fer some not so savory Latinos. Took ‘muh place with ‘im. Ended up usin’ more’n I’s sellin’. Managed ta get Daryl outta the house, and we hit the road, but what no’ne tells ya is once ya hooked on somethin’ it consumes ya.”

 

“I know the feeling.” Rick muttered, looking down at his hands. “Used to think Cassi was a drug.”

 

“She’s the best kind.” Merle muttered. “Scrub a’lil more hard.” He motioned at the next part he handed Rick. “Make it shine, bruther.” Merle didn’t seem to notice he’d called Rick brother, for a long moment, when he did look up again he sighed. “Daryl met ‘ah pretty girl named Skyy in Vegas, somehow he ended up married to ‘er, bout the same time I realized ‘ah was draggin’ ‘im down. Ended up robbin a liquor store outsid’a Henderson. Problem was ‘ah had about ten differn’t warrants out fer my arrest. Ended up spendin’ ten years in jail.” Merle grunted, “Got out, planned on head’n back up to the mountains, when my bike broke down on the outskirts of King County, walked ta the first store ‘ah saw which happened to be Carol’s Shake Shop, and ended up meetin’ Cassi. Ya know she offered ta load my bike up and drive me the rest’a the way home. Reckon ya had the boys that weekend, and she was probably ‘bout five months ‘long, but ‘ah couldn’t see makin’ ‘er do that.” Merle paused, this time because of the sound of gravel churning under tires. “Would ya look at that?”

 

Rick looked up to see Shane’s flat army green jeep tearing up the drive, Lori in the passenger seat. “The hell you think they are doin?” Rick wondered aloud, as Jude started to wake up.

 

“Reckon they’s come ta check on ya, musta just found out ya was released.” Merle chanced. “When they’s leave I intend fer ya ta tell me yer life story, Friendly.” Merle snickered as Rick leveled him a disparaging look. The Jeep’s engine cut off.

 

“Rick!” Shane shouted, clearly headed towards the house, not even paying attention to the burly redneck, who was shirtless in Cassi’s yard. Rick didn’t even bother to care that both his flannel and folded up leather vest had been under Jude’s head whilst she napped.

 

“I’m over here, Shane.” Rick called back, watching as his friends head whipped around, eyes wide taking in the sight of Merle sitting on the grass next to the ‘yard’ blanket, with his bike in front of him, Jude chewing on the discarded flannel shirt, and Rick sitting as close to Merle as he could without disrupting the man's work ethic - Rick still in his PJs.

 

Shane quirked an eyebrow, something dark settling on his features. “You're bitch of an ex-wife was supposed to call me when you were discharged, so we could come get you and take you home.”

 

“Watch yer mouth, dickhead.” Merle growled, “Cassi ain’t no bitch.”  Merle shifted enough to look at Shane, which allowed Rick a full view of his scared back, long faded strips of white ran up and down, across, diagonal, marrying his skin like someone didn’t care enough to strike him in a pattern, instead he had been hit wherever the instrument landed, over and over again.

 

Shane visibly stiffened. “Whatever, Rick let’s go.”

 

“Nah, I’ma stay here with my wonderful children, Cassi, my dogs, and my brother in arms against the deadly combination of my children, Cassi and the dogs.” Rick snorted, shifting, as Jude clung to him. “See, I didn’t wanna believe you and Lori took up with one another, but I reckon seein’ ya at Dale’s the other night really cemented it for me, Shane you always did like what ya couldn’t have.” Rick flexed his fingers, and resumed cleaning the part that Merle had thrust at him last. “And, you know, Cassi always lets me come home, reckon ya didn’t know that I lost my apartment or ya might have told me, left a note or something?”

 

“About that.” Lori had joined Shane on the yard, both walking towards them. “That’s on me, Rick. I don’t wanna ruin your friendship with Shane, but I thought you were going to die - we all did.”

 

“Not true, Cassi wouldn’t let ‘uhm unplug ya. Told ‘uhm she was still legally yer wife, seein’ as ya never signed the divorce papers, she’s still got uhm on the mantel.” Merle hummed, Rick looked at him stunned, and realized that yeah he never actually signed those papers, but that had been more of an oversight, he’d completely forgotten the day she helped him move into his apartment. “Said they just needed to give ya enough time to get yer head outta yer ass.” Merle grumbled.

 

Rick gapped, Cassi had definitely not mentioned that. “Well, remind me to bake her a cake would you.” Rick almost whispered at Merle, then turned his attention back to Shane. “I live here, ok? This is my home, and seein’ as I apparently ain’t divorced, uhm, I’m stayin’ round? I wanna be here. Merle and Cassi done made me a room and squared my stuff away.”

 

“Is it healthy for you to be here?” Lori demanded. “Living with you're… questionably divorced ex-wife and her criminal boyfriend?”

 

“Fiance.” Rick corrected automatically. “They are engaged.” He added. “And, uhm, yeah. It’s nice here.”

 

“We are?” Merle whispered, looking utterly confused. Apparently the man hadn’t thought about that, as an option.

 

“You are.” Rick agreed, “Which means, Lori I need that engagement ring back - you see it was my momma’s, which I told you, but it was also the one I gave to Cassi, she loaned it back to me because I couldn’t afford a new one for you and we all know how much you like shiny things.” Rick did have the decency to look a little sorry about it.

 

Not that it mattered, the noise Lori made, and her exaggerated gesture of flinging the ring at Rick’s head, only to have it hit the front wheel of the motorcycle and bounce straight into Merle’s face, was enough to make Rick laugh, wholeheartedly until he was out of breath, and Merle was coaxing him into a more comfortable position, and digging around in the toolbox for the pain medication that he had thought to bring out with them. Rick’s hands were clawing at his chest, and his breath coming in shallow swallows as Merle pushed two pain pills between his lips, then the water bottle, squeezing an ample amount in, then forcing Rick to swollow them down.

 

When his breathing slowed down, and he could feel again, Jude was holding a socket wrench and the engagement ring, giggling, “Daddy ok.” She declared as she almost beamed Merle in the head with the socket wrench.

 

“Had a lot of practice gettin’ folks to swallow shit.” Merle muttered. “Namely my bratty kid brother, but thats ok.”

 

“Remind me to thank him, for being a brat.” Rick wheezed. Still unsure of himself, and clutching at Merle’s arms. “I think Merle has this under control.” He managed to say a few moments later. “Would either of you known what to do if that happened while you were watching over me?” Neither Shane nor Lori spoke. “It would be best for you lot to disappear before our sons get off the bus.”

 

Merle’s face at Rick’s usage of ‘our’ made Rick’s heart twist and he wondered if Merle had any kids, anywhere. “Bye.” Merle waved as they climbed into the Jeep and left in anger. “Thanks for that.” Merle didn’t meet his eyes, instead he focused on the bike. They spent a few moments in silence before Merle spoke again, “Got me a son - somewhere near Tucson, Cassi is gonna help me find ‘im, once yer divorced or whatever.”

 

Rick made a noise. “What? I can help ya look for ‘im.”

 

“In theory Daryl has custody of ‘im. Daryl ‘nd ‘ah ain’t talked much about who all kidwise is comin’ with ‘im from Vegas.” Merle sounded sad, “Matter ‘a fact, he’s only talked ta Cassi.” Rick let it drop, and soon the bike was back in one piece. Merle had dropped him on the swing, and put the baby gate across the staircase opening on the front porch, blocking Jude and the dogs into the wrap around porch, when the house phone rang. “Gonna go get that.” Merle muttered, letting the screen door slam behind him.

 

Rick looked out along the horizon and sighed, Merle had more to tell, when he wanted.

 

The boys got off the bus, as Merle was coming back out, the phone still to his ear, “Ah don’t know shit about that, reckon Rick might.” He grumbled, then helped the boys over the gate. “Rick can ya talk ta Dare, it’s police related.”

 

“Sure.” Rick smiled, and took the offered phone. “Hello?”

 

The voice on the other end sent a shiver down Rick’s spine. “Listen, ‘ah got physical custody of Merle’s son Cash, can ‘ah take ‘im across state lines?”

 

“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Rick hummed. “Are you getting everything together to move here?”

 

“Yeah, yer Cassi’s ex-husband, right, the one that forgot to sign the divorce papers and just got shot or something?” Hearing it stated so simply made Rick frown.

 

“Something like that.” Rick muttered.

 

“Second question - do ‘ah need to file fer custody of my kids, when there momma overdosed or are they mine and ‘ah can take ‘uhm where ‘ah want?” Daryl asked carefully.

 

“Had you or you're wife ever been declared ‘unfit’?” Rick asked as the boys reappeared on the porch, Merle holding armfuls of snacks and lemonades for everyone.

 

Daryl was silent for long enough Rick thought he might have hung up, then the man spoke, “Nah, wife went to jail a lot, didn’t know if child services would be diggin’ round ‘er not, not like they ever did anythang fer us. Let me hollar back at Merle.” Rick passed the phone back, and watched as Merle listened to whatever Daryl was saying, chewing absentmindedly on his thumb.

 

“Yeah, he’s stayin’ ‘ere.” Merle said finally, “Nah it ain’t too cramped, told ya I’s buildin ya a damn cabin.” Merle grumbled. “I’s clean, honest, Ricks a copper, he’d tell ya differnt if I’s lyin.” Rick quirked his eyebrow but something must have changed in the conversation, “Love ya too, baby.” Merle said after a long thoughtful moment, then hung up.

 

“He worried about ya?” Rick asked.

 

Merle looked at Rick questionably, “Lied ta ‘im before about bein’ clean.”

 

They didn’t talk after that, just waited on Cassi to get home. When she did they ate on the wrap around porch, and laughed as Merle and Rick told the story of their day, and the twins talked animatedly about school. “Hey boys, Jude.” She stepped over the gate, and scooped her daughter up. “How are you princess?”

 

“Me helped daddy and Mer’Bird.” She grinned, clapping her hands together excitedly.

 

“Good job, princess.” She kissed her head. “Did you two have a good day?” She looked between Rick and Merle.

 

“Fixed the bike.” Merle muttered, “So it shouldn’t give you any trouble the rest of the week.”

 

She looked at them, really looked at them. “And the cabin?”

 

“Starting it ta’mara.” Merle told her, with a soft smile.

 

She nodded. “Good. Daryl called the diner earlier to let me know he’d be here in three weeks.” She looked at Merle, “And ask for the number here.”

 

Together they made dinner, and gave the kids a bath, and all ended up passed out on the large master bed. Rick woke up back to back with Merle, Jude in his arms, and both Boone and Carl stretched across his legs. He could make out Cassi’s shoulder in Merle’s grasp, and both the dogs were at the foot of the bed. Rick was slightly concerned with his apparent complete acceptance of Merle, he pressed his shoulder back into Merle’s the man returned the gesture, then looked over his shoulder.

 

“Gonna sign the divorce papers.” Rick whispered.

 

“Finally.” Cassi whispered back. “The kids have to go to school, but I’m off today. Rick we need to go into town and get the stuff for your mom and dad. We can take Jude with us, and babe you can work on the cabin - know you like to work mostly alone anyway.”

 

“Send the China man out here from Hershel’s farm, and T-Dog.” Merle grumbled.

 

“He’s Korean.” Both Cassi and Rick responded in kind. “And I’ll call T-Dog and Tyreese see if the boys wanna come out and help ya put the new floor in.”

 

“Thanks, momma.” Merle grunted, pressing his face back into her neck. It was Merle, ultimately who untangled himself and got the boys on the school bus, after dressing them and feeding them breakfast. Cassi and Rick laid shoulder to shoulder in the bed, looking at the television Merle had switched on, Jude had climbed to the bottom of the bed with the dogs, all three were munching on cereal and watching Peppa Pig.

 

“Did you really have a good day?” Cassi asked.

 

“Yeah. I still don't know how old he is.” Rick laughed.

 

Cassi rolled her eyes but shoved out of bed to go shower. By the time she made it back, Jude had started force feeding him cheerios. Rick had never been so relieved in his entire life to see Cassi scoop Jude up and disappear down the hallway, no doubt heading towards Judith’s bedroom. Rick dropped back onto the pillows, and closed his eyes, apparently that was a mistake, because suddenly jeans and a t-shirt were thrown at his face, and Cassi’s sing-song call of, “Wakey wakey Rickey.”

 

Town was a large clusterfuck. He couldn’t walk far enough, not really, to be any help. He ended up in one of the motorized carts in Walmart with Jude on his lap, pushing and shoving the controls. Ahead of him, Cassi with the actual shopping cart. Everyone they ran into congratulated Rick on waking up, some asked how he was holding up, and even more of them asked Cassi how Merle was doing. By the time they had checked out, he was over small town gossip.

 

“I have to work some night shifts.” She said evenly. “The rest of the week.” She helped him climb into the passenger seat of the car. The truck, he had discovered, was Merle’s. Apparently he used to live in it when he first bought it, before he set about fixing it up. She situated Jude in the backseat, buckling her in, the little girl had fallen asleep while they were in the store, then loaded up all the groceries. “I had to take several days off when you were in the hospital.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Rick, it’s nothing, just some overnights. Merle will be at the house, with you, and the kids. You're PT starts this week, so he’s going to have the car, and the dogs are both going to be trained - if they cooperate - to be therapy dogs.” She looked at him for a long moment. “What are you thinking about doing? I mean with the force?”

 

“Honestly, Cassi.” Rick sighed. “I don’t think I want to go back.” The last part was spoken so softly. “I don’t want to see Shane every single day, and any time I go out in the cruiser I’m only going to think about getting shot.” She reached across the front seat, and wrapped her fingers in his, squeezing his hand. “I’m a coward.”

 

“No, you're brave, god, Rick, you woke up.” She looked close to tears. “I don’t know how much you remember of the coma, but there was a lot of me telling you how much I couldn’t survive in a world without Rick Grimes. You’ve been my best friend for the majority of my life, I wouldn’t be who I am now if you hadn’t taught me how to live.”

 

“She wanted you to unplug me? Lori?” Rick had no clue how their conversation became this, but he understood that this was their chance to talk about everything, to get it out in the open, and maybe just breathe for a moment.

 

“Even you're parents gave up on you.” She looked at their hands tangled together. “Merle thought I was worrying myself thin, so he took turns with me, the pair of us and Hershel, sometimes Maggie or Bethany when the other three of us were worn out, even Carol. You never laid in that bed without someone holding your hand. The first two weeks I let Lori do her thing, took the window seal seat with Merle, watched. The more she cried over you the more Shane held her and no one held you. So I made small moves, worked to sit next to you, and eventually Merle would sit in the chair next to your bed, me on his lap, and me holding your hand. When they first started making noise about unplugging you…” Her voice broke, and tears welled up in her eyes.

 

Rick set his other hand over their tangled fingers, and gripped.

 

“I fought it. Lori started talking about how I was your ex-wife, and you're mother chimed in with how she should have the final say, I just sent Merle home to get the papers. The moment he came back and I waved the lack of actual divorce decree… well, the doctors started listening to me, as your wife - even estranged, I have more power than you're mother and your girlfriend, apparently.” She had her eyes closed, the one hand on the steering wheel gripping so tight her knuckles were white. “I told them to give you more time. If you laid there for six months and didn’t… didn’t show signs of waking up, then we’d re-evaluate. The next day, it was a little thing, just a beep on neuro machines, you were dreaming - and it was a good sign.” She looked heavenward. “Carol gave me the time I needed, between my stays in the hospital with you adn working odd shifts at the diner, I didn’t sleep much. Merle… he stayed close, looking after me, as I looked after you.”

 

“I owe him, many things.” Rick hummed. “He has been here for you. How did I miss him?”

 

She laughed, and it sounded almost biter. “You were wrapped up in Lori and Shane. I didn’t mind, I still don’t. Being your fall back has always been my job. I am the single most dedicated person you’ve probably ever loved. I have no intention of ever leaving you lonely. Or letting anything happen to you if I can stop it.” She looked back at Judith. “We are so much more than former spouses.” She waited a bit before she said anything else. “You're parents are going to be here on Friday. How about we pick the boys up early from school, and head out to the cabin to work on it.”

 

“The deadline on the cabin… it’s to keep my parents from pissing Merle off isn’t it?” Rick asked almost sullen.

 

She turned the car on. “Its to keep Merle from saying what both of us should be saying to your parents. Rick they wanted to unplug you three days into you're coma. Wanted to let you die, and then, they were making racket about taking the kids from me. Seeing as how it would be unfit for them to live with me and Merle… Merle who isn’t always the picture of perfect community member, but dammit, he’s trying.”

 

“I know, Cassi.” Rick gripped her hand in his. “I love you, and by extension Merle. The kids love him, the dogs love him. That’s good enough for me. It’s only one weekend, and Carol let you have it off.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “I work tonight overnight and tomorrow overnight. When they come in on Friday I will be getting off  work, then I’m off until Tuesday night.” She headed the car towards home. “On a more serious note, my snippy darling, Merle has bought all the horror movies I never got to watch with either of you, and plans for you two to watch those while the kids sleep, so you can catch me up once you're parents leave.”

 

Rick smiled, “Better watch out, babe, or I’ll steal your man. You know I like the surly grumps.”

 

“Rick, be careful, better pack that sentiment up before you're daddy gets here. You're gay is showing.” She hummed, then burst into laughter at Rick’s face, which looked somewhere between constipated and overjoyed. “No one cares, except you're parents, anyway. Well, Shane and Lori might have, who the hell knows.”

 

The lapsed into comfortable silence then, Rick finally turned the radio on, letting country sounds washover them, the windows down, they headed out of town, eventually the black top gave way to familiar gravel, she stopped long enough to frag the groceries in, then they headed back out to town, towards the elementary school. She skipped in to get both boys out of their classes - the school apparently thought they were too codependent and had sorted them into different classes. Once they were bucked in, and Rick inquiring about their day, Cassi headed them back out towards the county line, past their little farm house, and down a road that was no longer gravel but just dirt.

 

The cabin had seen better days. Probably its best day had been when both Rick and Cassi were still in grade school and weekend camping trips were something her parents believed in. They had completely restored it from its previous decay - before her parents the cabin had been largely ignored except as a hunting retreat. After her parents died, lightening stuck one half of it, destroying it and almost completely consuming it with fire. Part of the original cabin still stood, but it was clear Merle had dedicated a lot of time to fixing it.

 

Glenn Rhee, a lanky nineteen year old pizza delivery boy for Dale, also Maggie Greene’s future husband if he could ever get the nerve to ask her out was on the front of the cabins large porch, using an electric saw to cut boards. T-Dog, also known as Theodore Douglass, and Tyreese Williams were both on the roof - they had been defensive ends back when Rick was QB for their high school football team. Both had served in the Marines, and came home with PTSD, neither made the cut for the police force, which was something Rick hadn’t understood back then, but he did now. He didn’t think emotionally he could be a cop. Instead they opened a after school program, to keep kids off the streets and keep crime down. Hershel Greene, Maggie and Beth’s father, was inside the main part of the cabin, with Merle. Rick only knew that because the two tone Bronco parked on the side.

 

She drew out the four grocery bags she had left in the car, and let Rick get Jude out, as both Carl and Boone took off into the cabin shouting their lungs out for “Papaw Hershel!!!”, she hip checked the drivers door to make sure it shut, then let Rick lean against her as they climbed the two steps to the main porch. “Glad to see you up, Rick.” Glenn gave him a warm smile.

 

“HEY MAN!” T-Dog called as he looked over the edge of the roof. “Merle mentioned you’d be out and about in the next couple days.”

 

“Glad to see you, hoss!” Tyreese called down a second later, the pair best friends, with matching grins.

 

“Hello ya’ll.” Rick smiled back up at them, as Hershel appeared out of nowhere, taking Jude from him, and leading both Carl and Boone towards the pond in the back. “Bye.” He grumbled, but Hershel just waved him off.

 

“I got the fixen for sandwiches, and Merle’s got sun tea makin’ in the back!” Cassi called over the banging that was no doubt Merle in the cabin. Rick made it into the livingroom, in time to see Merle stand, his chest covered in sweat, and sawdust. “Good, you made it in.” She winked at Rick as she handed Merle a bottle of water.

 

“This place is… wow.” Rick scanned it. “You can’t even tell that it almost burned to the ground.”

 

“Been workin’ on it since ‘fore you got shot.” Merle offered. “Cassi was gonna give it ta you and Lori as a weddin’ present.”

 

Rick met his best friends eyes, his mouth gaping as he stared at her. “This was our place.”

 

“You had a new partner, figured it could be our place, and hers, and maybe even Merle’s.” She muttered. “Anyway, letting Daryl crash here makes me feel less icky.”

 

Rick snorted. “I understand you're complete distaste for Lori.”

 

“I don’t think you do.” Cassi and Merle spoke at the same time.

 

They worked until dark, when Merle grumbled in an irritated fashion that he hadn’t yet rewired the inside of the house. Hershel, with Glenn in the passenger seat took off first. Then T-Dog in his beat up chevy, and Tyreese in his old volkswagen bug. Merle crowded into the backseat, letting both Carl and Boone squirm onto his lap, as Rick settled into the passenger seat, Jude fast asleep against him. Cassi drove them home, then changed clothes, and headed to work.

 

“Ty and Carol are gettin’ married in the fall.” Merle announced, once the kids were fast asleep and he and Rick were on opposite ends of the master bed. He’d already loaded one of the ‘Friday the 13th’ movies, and had popcorn divided between them.

 

Rick cocked his head to the side. “Ed and Carol get divorced?”

 

“Shane killed him.” Merle muttered.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Ed was the one who shot you, Rick.” Merle enunciate every word to the best of his hillbilly abilities. “There was a car chase, Ed and Gareth Monroe, they stole a car and robbed a bank or something. Cassi probably remembers more of that junk, but my memory ain’t always the best.” Rick nodded. “But, Ed was the one who came outta the car - Blake was the driver, and Ed shot you, knew who ya was no doubt, but Shane shot him in the head.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Carol and ‘im were already separated, and ‘ah don’t think it really bothered ‘er. She put in hours at the hospital sometimes, watchin’ ya. Sophia was probably more bothered by it, but that kids been through hell. Know what it’s like, matter ‘ah fact, me and Sophia are pretty tight these days, but Ty, he’s sorta stepped up, got Sophia into basketball, she’s tall ya know, and he started help’n round the diner.”

 

Rick frowned. “How long was I in a coma?”

 

“Almost five months total. Don’t know if Cassi counts the first month cause that was a lot of surgery and Lori in the way.” Merle pressed play, and dropped next to him. “Heard ya like horror films?”

 

Rick snorted, “Man I love them.”

 

In the morning, Maggie picked Jude up and took the boys to school. Rick woke up to Merle dropping breakfast and medication on his lap. “Got the crew and some others - Bob Stookey and Father Gabriel lending me a hand out there today, as well as Axel Thomas and Wade Martin. Figured you’d like a day to do nothing, gonna leave you a walkie talkie though, so you can radio me, ifin ya need anything. You're PT man ought to be by here at some point - his name is Aaron Riley, and he’s from Alexandria Memorial Hospital, over in Linden. Cassi refused to let that ass Jane from Grady come out here.” Rick wasn’t sure if that was significant or not.

 

“Ok, well. See you later then, just leave the screen door open.” Rick regretted that when the dogs lumbered in, and promptly took over the bed. He spent most of his morning looking through old picture albums, startled by how many images of him and Lori were backdropped to Merle and Cassi. He knew Maggie or Annette Greene tended to take the pictures - both were photographers, but he never noticed how well Maggie could capture moments. Through the last two and a half years, three birthday parties for the twins, there was only one picture that had both Lori and Cassi as the focal points.

 

It was early in his relationship with Lori, and she was hesitant holding Carl, while Cassi had Boone on one hip, and Jude cradled in her other arm. The pair were smiling behind the presents and cake. It was Carl and Boone’s third birthday, and Jude was only a couple weeks old. Rick and Merle were both in the background, with Shane and Glenn, and Shawn Greene if he could make out the group huddled together. There were distinctly more pictures of him and Merle both playing with the kids, one where Judith was mid launch from Merle’s arms, headed straight for Rick.

 

He was still questioning how he hadn’t noticed.

 

Merle was built for Cassi’s life, for his kids life, hell for his life. The pictures of the two apparent seperate families made him ache. They could have had group photos, in retrospect Lori didn’t like sharing the spotlight, in fact, Lori hated that Rick had a family from before her, hated that he had responsibilities that didn’t include her. Or her need for something new. Merle naturally gravitated towards Cassi. He got caught on a pretty picture, of Merle sitting on the front porch, guitar across his knees and both Carl and Boone staring up at him. Jude was in a bouncy seat, and little Bethany Greene was sitting in the painted pale green rockin’ chair, Cassi was leaning against the porch railing, her hand folded behind her back, a genuine smile on her face, and Merle, his eyes were on her, even in the picture Rick could see that. He was singing for her.

 

Yeah, he as an idiot. His ex-wife was his best friend. He had horrible luck with dating. And he more than anything wanted Merle to be his very best friend. He could maybe make that work.

 

He was interrupted from his thoughts by the screen door creaking. “Mr. Grimes?” Came a familiar shout. “I’m Aaron, we met briefly?”

 

“In here!” Rick called.

 

Aaron wound his way into the living room. “Hey, again.”

 

“Same to you. Merle mentioned you were coming today.” Rick smiled up at him.

 

“Good, let's talk about your injury.” Aaron sounded sympathetic. “You had scans done before you left the hospital, and those scans give us some options, depending on what you want to do.”

 

“What I want to do?” Rick watched as Aaron settled onto the couch and started fiddling with his computer, Rick managed to pull himself from the floor and sink down next to him, with minimal wheezing. “What does that even mean?”

 

“We could throw ourselves into therapy hard and fast, with the intent of you getting back to work, or we could take our time… build you up and prepare you for later issues you may have. You're mindset, Mr. Grimes.”

 

“Call me Rick.” Rick interrupted him. “I want to do whatever keeps me alive the longest, and with my kids.”

 

Aaron looked at him thoughtfully, “I’ve looked over your MRI, CAT scans, and XRAYs, Rick. I don’t honestly see you ever working something other than a desk job on the force. The bullet damaged you're chest plate, it was very close to your heart, and scar tissue is going to apply pressure when you're blood is rushing. Not to mention you lost two ribs, and no one knows how you woke up after almost five months asleep, we aren’t sure if there was any brain damage or spinal injury that we didn’t know about. You were actually shot twice.”

 

Rick knew about being shot twice. Once in the vest, and while he was checking that wound, he was clipped in one of the few blind spots on the vest. “Right. I don’t have to be a cop, I don’t think I want to be one, anymore.” He had only just realized that himself, and expressed it to Cassi, how in the hell was he supposed to tell Abe that.

 

“It is a hard decision. Let’s not make it today. I wanna do a quick physical on you, then we are going for a walk.” Aaron grinned.

 

By the end of their three hours, Rick was pretty sure Aaron was a sadist, he was winded, and he could barely deal with the pain. Merle on the other hand, liked Aaron, after he chewed him out for not making Rick take his medications before putting him through ‘i-got-shot-in-the-chest-by-a-dickbag’ boot camp. Merle even sent Aaron home with a sandwich, for him and his husband. Rick was struggling in his apparently skewed interpretation of Merle being an typical redneck with his racist and homophobic views. Merle was neither, he had his moments, but genuinely he was kind to most everyone he met.

 

“How went the cabin?”

 

“Started on the electricity today.” Merle hummed. “Maggie is bring’n the kids home in an hour. Gonna jump in the shower then start dinner. Yer mom and dad gonna be here in the morning?”

 

“Yeah, right after Cassi gets home.” Rick muttered. “And I am fine.” He tossed a pillow at Merle when the man raised and eyebrow at him. Then Merle disappeared down the hallway muttering about being the only adult in the house.

 

Dinner went over smooth, Rick made the mistake of letting the boys feed the beast, it ended with him wheezing while sweeping dog food out the back door of the kitchen, Merle muscled the kids into bed with a solid assist from Rick. Actually the pair of them read bedtime stories until ten, then realized belatedly that all three kids were asleep in the master bed, again. Rick passed out halfway through ‘Halloween Three’, and Merle tumbled into sleep sometime after that.

 

When Cassi came home in the morning, she got Carl and Boone ready for school, and on the bus. Passed Jude off to Maggie, who was dropping Glenn off. The boy acting as foreman in the early morning since Bob, Axel, and Father Gabriel had things to do in the afternoon. Other than Merle, Glenn had put the most work into the house, learning the skills from Merle that would hopefully land him a job with the construction company that the Chambler sisters owned. Cassi made breakfast, fed the mutts, and then tumbled into bed, as Merle was clambering out. They shared a quick kiss, and then Cassi snuggled up to Rick.

 

Rick could hear Merle in the kitchen, no doubt making coffee, and preparing his breakfast. On a normal day Rick would have tumbled back to sleep, instead he forced himself from bed - after detangling himself from the octopus that Cassi became in her sleep. He dressed the best he could, then lazily made it down the hallway. Merle had set the table for the pair of them, and left two open places on the off chance his parents arrived before they were done.

 

As if his parents knew that Carl Sr. and Maryanne Grimes knocked on the door before Rick got his first sip of coffee down. Merle snorted at his pained face, “I’ll let uhm in Friendly.”

 

“Thanks, MerlyBird.” Rick grumbled into his coffee, making the older man grunt, as he stood and headed for the living room. When Merle reappeared, both his parents were behind him, and his mother looked concerned. “Morning, mom, dad. I would stand, but I just sit down.”

 

“Morning, son.” Carl Sr. grinned at him, then quickly shuffled into a seat.

 

Maryanne gracefully situated herself next to Rick. “Where is Cassi, sweetheart?”

 

“Sleeping, she worked last night.” Rick hummed. “Came in and got the kids sorted, Maggie is watching Jude, since Merle and I are working on the old cabin.” Merle, thankfully, didn’t seem surprised by Rick’s statement that he was helping. “We are trying to let her get some sleep. I know she asked you guys to come in the winnebago, so you wouldn’t have to sleep in the living room.”

 

“Rick, honey, it's nice of you both to let a criminal in the house, but now that you're married, and back to living right…”

 

Rick glared, Merle made a startled noise. “We were never not married.” Rick growled. “Merle here is her fiance, and I happen to like the future stepfather to my kids, he’s smart as a tack and knows a lot more about fixin shit than I do.” Rick paused. “And this ain’t my house, it’s Cassi’s house, always has been. Merle has been here the whole time I’ve been gone, well.. Most of it,” He shrugged. “I just am living in the spare room, and eatin’ all their food.”

 

At that Cassi stumbled into the kitchen looking exhausted, and dropped into Merle’s lap, making grabby hands for Rick’s coffee. Merle laughed as Rick handed it over, looking sour, since he still hadn’t managed to get an actual sip of coffee, “Morning Grimes clan.” She managed after drinking most of it, then sliding it back towards Rick. “Overheard the conversation, as of… yesterday morning, Ricky and I are formally divorced.” She leaned across the table, exaggerating her movements, and mock whispering, “He finally signed the papers.”

 

“And in the next breath, I threatened to steal Merle from you.” Rick snorted with laughter.

 

“Hey now, Rick, I told you this one is mine, found him fair and square.” Cassi snapped, looking slightly alarmed.

 

“Technically, doll, ‘ah found you.” Merle interjected, a wide smile on his face, clearly amused, and Rick seriously hoped Merle could keep up the conversation. “Now that ya’ll are divorced, ya could just share me, like he gets me every other weekend or something.”

 

Merle didn’t disappoint. Rick and Cassi dissolved into startled giggles as both Carl Sr. and Maryanne frowned. “Joking.” Rick wheezed. “We are joking, not about the divorce, that’s final, but the other.” The older Grimes joined them in stilted giggles. “You two should ride around town, say hi to folks. Merle and I have a date with a cabin.” Rick stretched as he stood. “And you need sleep.” He poked Cassi in the nose, and swatted her hands away as she went for the coffee. “Mine, brat.” He grumbled, headed for the coffee pot.

 

Merle shuffled her off his lap, and stood. “Nice ta meet ya’ll ‘gain.” Then he hooked an arm under Rick’s shoulders and helped him out the front. Snickering together, they made their way to the car, but not before hearing Cassi say, “Don’t worry Mary, they get on just fine!”

 

Merle taxed Rick with helping put the floor in, so he and Axel were busy in the living room most of the day, while Merle and Glenn were on the roof. “Know where learned to do all this stuff?” Rick found himself asking Axel.

 

“Ya know we was in lock up together, right?” Axel looked him over. “Work release program down in New Orleans, they let us out on a leash as long as we were considered non violent offenders. Neither of us ever used a weapon in our crimes, so we counted as nonviolent.” Axel confessed. “Woman down there was rebuilding a community center, and we all got released for a handful of hours a day to help them.”

 

“Oh.” Rick hummed, then resumed hammering. “So… you’ve known him for awhile.”

 

“You could say that.” Axel laughed. “I was doin’ fifteen when he came in, finished out our sentences together.”

 

Rick looked towards the roof. “He brought you here?”

 

“Called and told me about Cassi, about a little town that we could hide in plain sight in, you know, where being a former criminal might not mean complete intolerance.” Axel confessed. “Former cop, you, eh?”

 

“Yeah.” Rick huffed, as Axel handed him another slat to put down.

 

By lunch, Cassi appeared in a summer dress, cardigan tight around her shoulders, Georgia in the fall was still hot, but a cold breeze had started to blow in. Her cowboy boots clinking along the gravel, and a picnic basket under her arm. “Hallelujah!” Wade yelled from his place by the chimney, before dropping hard onto the ground next to Cassi, “The most amazing woman in the world has arrived.” Wade caught her around her middle and squeezed her up.

 

“Put ‘er down, Wade!” Merle shouted as he jumped down from the latter. Rick snorted, and realized that Wade Martin had appeared sometime around the time Axel and Merle had, he figured they all knew each other from lock up. Axel was out next, followed by Glenn and Father Gabriel. Ty and T-Dog hadn’t ‘clocked in’ for the day yet, apparently they wouldn’t be there until almost two.

 

“A’ight, boss.” Which brough Rick back to the reality that Merle really was the Leader of a Motorcycle club - both Wade and Axel wore the wings and brand of Savage Sons. Wade settled her on the porch, then waited for Merle, and Axel to appear. Rick absentmindedly noticed the two motorcycles parked by the car, and realized that Merle was still more dangerous than not, the realization left him unsettled, as Cassi wrapped her arms around his middle, and he kissed her temple.

 

Glenn helped Rick to his feet, just as a car weaved towards them. “You're parents wanted to see the… progress. And Maggie is bringing the kids out.” She paused, “Ty and T-Dog are running late today, there was an issue at the high school.” Rick nodded at her, and grinned when he had an armful of Boone, scooping the boy off his feet, Merle drew Carl up, just as Cassi scooped up Jude. Maggie and Bethany both clambered out of the old pontiac, in shorts and t-shirts.

 

“Ready to help! Mom and Dad are in town, so we figured we’d offer a hand.” A beat later a motorcycle rumbled, and Beth smiled. “Shawn’s home, Merle.”

 

“Hot damn, gonna get the wiring done by morning!” Merle cheered, just as Carl Sr. and Maryanne parked.

 

Shawn’s winged vest was abandoned on the bike along with his shirt, as he tore up the steps, planting kisses on on the women and children, he clasped hands with Merle, then Axel, and nodded towards Wade. “We having a picnic?”

 

While Rick’s parents looked over the house, he watched Merle, Axel, Wade and Shawn they were all standing together, with Glenn beside them. Cassi had the girls working on painting, and the kids were snacking with Rick on the hardwood floor he had just finished laying. It was one of those surreal moments that left Rick wondering where in the hell his life had gone and why out of all the bad he still managed to have Cassi. He caught her looking over her shoulder smiling at him, and he felt like his heart was breaking.

 

“Well, it’s starting to look good.” Carl Sr. said finally. “Rick, wanted a word with you, please?”

 

Maryanne was standing with both Maggie and Bethany looking at the wall they'd been working on painting, Cassi was with Wade and Axel, the kids around them. Rick nodded, letting Merle and Glenn help him to his feet, he shakily followed his father to the front porch. “Yeah, dad?”

 

“Son, tell me the real reason you and Cassi divorced?” He started.

 

Rick looked his father over. “We are better friends.”

 

“Tell me right now if it had something to do with that oversize hillbilly in the cabin.” He demanded.

 

“What the hell? Merle arrived when she was like four months along with Jude.” Rick groaned. “We divorced because we are better friends than lovers, for many reason. Namely we grew up together, and realized that even though we are best friends and rock at co-parenting, we aren’t in love like that.”

 

His father offered him a thoughtful glance. “What happened with Katie?”

 

“What is this some sort of intervention?” Rick snapped, now irritated, his chest was starting to ache. As if Merle knew, he was there a beat later, planting firm hands on Rick’s shoulders.

 

“You ok, brother?” Merle asked softly.

 

Rick nodded, then looked at his dad, eyes narrowed. “Katie was two bit whore, who fucked Shane when I wasn’t enough in bed. Maddison was also more interested in dropping to her knees and sucking Shane’s cock than she was going to the movies with me. Taylor liked skinny dipping with Shane, more than she liked baking with me. Lori liked fucking Shane in our apartment while I was laying a Coma, with only Cassi as my backup. You and mom wanted to unhook me, and Cassi held on, held out, waited for me to wake up. I’m pretty sure I’m fucking gay!” Rick snapped, letting the words rebound, even as he sagged into Merle’s arms.

 

“My kid brother likes dick.” Merle muttered, seemingly unaware that Rick had just outed himself to his father. Rick leveled Merle with a strange look then burst out laughing, Merle joined him, still holding him, and planted a loud wet kiss against Rick’s hairline, “It’s ok, brother, everyone likes differn’t thangs, reckon we got Cassi in common.” Then Merle was hoisting him up to carry him back inside, Carl Sr. still looking completely awestruck.

 

Carl Sr. and Maryanne Grimes left King County that night, neither one saying goodbye to Rick, Cassi, Merle or the kids.

 

The cabin was done a week after Rick’s parents had left. Which was probably the best thing that had ever happened, he doubted they would be visiting for a while. Daryl was due to arrive any day, and Rick was silently relieved that Merle was off babysitting duty for the most part. He was keeping Jude on his own and had Aaron over almost every day of the week for PT. It was the Wednesday after the cabin was completed, that Wade rolled up to the porch, mail under his arm.

 

“Merle asked me ta take ya to yer doctor appointment, and here’s yer mail.” Wade handed him the bills among other things, and instantly scooped up Jude.

 

“When did my life become bikers chaperoning me?” He grumbled. Wade just smirked at him. “Ok, going!” Rick protested loudly when Wade pushed on his shoulder, until he decided to move. Rick laughed as he headed down the hallway, Wade wasn’t someone he normally would have called in a pinch, but hey, at least he had someone to talk to on the ride to Alexandria Memorial. By the time he made it back out, Wade already had Jude settled in the carseat, and was behind the wheel of the pontiac waiting. “Thanks.” Rick said as he climbed inside, “I mean, for being around for Merle, and by extension me.”

 

“Merle saved me from… Merle saved me in prison.” Wade settled on, finally. “I got a pretty face, and lots of folks wanna make someone like me their…” He looked back at Jude then whispered, “Bitch.” Rick made a startled noise, “No worries, Merle just claimed me like he did Axel, and laid protection on me, even managed to get me ‘nd Axel as cell mates. Merle ain’t bad, he knows the life he knows, and just like Cassi says, all the demons will come back eventually.”

 

Rick wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. “Thanks, anyway, man.” Rick smiled at him.

 

“Family is family, Rick. Former piggy or not.” Maybe Wade wasn’t as… domesticated as Merle. The rest of the ride passed in innocent silence, when they made it to the large hospital, Wade got Jude out, then helped him out, and acted more like a cane as they made their way inside the building.

 

Aaron was waiting for him with Dr. S, neither looked very pleased with the files they were going over. “Rick.” Dr. S gave him a half smile. “If you please? Will your friend be coming with us?”

 

Wade started to talk, but Rick interrupted him, “Yeah, Wade and Jude can come with us.” He pushed off Wade, nodded at the man, then took a couple of steps towards Dr. S., straightened up and continued. Wade followed behind, a biker with a diaper bag strone over one shoulder. He might have chuckled about that. Wade caught him when he tripped up, he still couldn’t walk a mile without wheezing, but he was getting better.

 

“So, please sit.” Dr. S headed them into a clinical room that looked like an office more than where patients would normally go. Wade sunk down onto a leather couch, and let Jude out of his arms as Aaron closed the door. Rick settled into the couch not far from Wade, and waited.  “Aaron says you are progressing well with physical and occupational therapy. Even mentioned you were helping your ex-wife's fiance rebuild a cabin, leisurely.” He smiled. “The problem, my friend, is that the scar tissue isn’t… well, we hoped it wasn’t going to be that big of a deal, but as it stands, it's always going to give you some trouble. I am going to try to break this down for you. The thoracic cavity is covered by rib cage in the front and spine at the back. It comprises, heart, lungs and major vascular structures.”

 

“Ok. That part makes sense.” Rick nodded. “But uhm, what?”

 

“The bullet didn’t hit anything of high importance, it did strike a rib, and sort of crash into you're chest plate, however, it did dance around your heart, and left scar tissue in its wake.” Dr. S took a deep breath, “The bullet didn’t fragment, which is also beyond amazing.” He looked tired, the more Rick looked at him, “But there is a lot of tissue around your heart, I worry that another chest related injury would cause a heart attack.”

 

Well, that was unexpected. Rick inhaled sharply and looked at Wade. “Can I have a mostly normal life?”

 

“Just, try to stay away from all the things that make your heart rate increase for a little while.” Dr. S suggested, “Aaron is going to continue therapy with you, and I wanna see you weekly for at least the next month. We need to do some scans.”

 

Rick wasn’t really that in the mood for being poked, prodded, and photographed; but he went. Leaving Wade and Jude in the consult room. When he came back, he found Wade on the phone, with Jude munching on the packed carrots, it made Rick do a double take, because obviously Wade knew enough about his daughter to know she prefered carrots. “Yeah, his heart, fuck Merle I dunno.” Wade hissed, then looked at Rick, “Updatin’ the boss, hoss.” He laughed at his own rhyme, then stood, shuffling his feet, and looking wholly unimpressed with Rick’s exasperated sigh.

 

“Thanks, then?” Rick shrugged. “I’m off the force, indefinitely. Can you take me by the station, so I can let Abe know.”

 

“Dunno if I’s the best for that job.” Wade brushed his bangs from his face, “Me and the law never been friendly.”

 

“Were friends.” Rick countered.

 

“You ain’t a cop no more.” Wade leveled with him.

 

Rick rolled his eyes, and looked heavenward. “I guess. On the flip side, Wade, you don’t have to go in.”

 

Wade shrugged.

 

If only it was that simple, Rick had used a lot of his strength working out at the doctor's office, and was winded when he tried to get out of the car. Wade rolled his eyes, but pulled up to the curb, and stepped out. With Jude on his hip, and supporting Rick, they made their way up the series of steps and into the King County’s Sheriff’s office. You could have heard a pin drop when the police of King County looked up to see Rick leaning heavily against Wade, his neck tattoos and leather prominent. Jude in her frilly yellow tutu and hot pink t-shirt, with the unicorn on the front. “Hello?” Rick called cheerfully.

 

“Need me to arrest him, brother?” Shane snarled from his desk, already glaring at Wade.

 

Rick rolled his eyes. “No, Wade here is my friend.” He cleared his throat. “I uhm, where is Abe?”

 

It was Michonne who moved forward after a moment. “In his office. Eugene is in with him, wanna grab a chair?”

 

“Not really, no.” Rick grumbled, “Just have him come to the house.”

 

Michonne nodded, then surged forward to hug him, and by virtue Wade and Jude. “I’ve missed you, Rick.” She offered. “Nice to meet you Wade.” She winked up at him then kissed Jude’s temple, “Hey Princess. Chonnie will have Unca Abe stop by, kay?”

 

“Kay kay Chonnie.” Jude agreed, her chubby hands holding Wade’s neck.

 

“We can go now.” Rick hissed, the pain in his chest threatening to make him double over.

 

Wade grunted, and turned them, managed to head them towards the pontiac. They were almost there, almost safe, when Rick heard Shane. “So that’s it? Huh man? Ten years of friendship down the shitter? And for what, a bunch of hillbilly bikers just cause their leader is fucking your bitch of an ex-wife.”

 

“Shane if I wasn’t in so much pain I’d beat the breaks off of you.” Rick wheezed back just as Wade managed to wrench open the front door, Rick slid in and jerked at the glove box until he found his pain pills and hungrily ate them. Wade had just settled Jude into his lap, no doubt preparing to open the back door, when Shane slammed into the back of him. “WHAT THE HELL!”

 

Rick watched in what felt like slow motion, and vowed to never ever piss Wade off. The tall blonde who had more hair than Cassi, whirled on Shane, grabbing him by his shirt front just as Michonne and Len made it out the front of the building. Wade lifted Shane off the ground, and threw him away. “Cassi ain’t no bitch, and I ain’t no hillbilly biker, son. I’m the mother fucking Vice President of Savage Sons Motorcycle Club, Rick here is a protected family member, touch me again you son of a bitch and I will kill you.”

 

Shane was up and smashing back into Wade, before Michonne or Len had time to act. Wade threw a solid punch to Shane, his right fist connecting with Shane’s left jaw, the crack might have been his nose or his jaw - Rick didn’t care, Shane stood and spit blood on the ground, a snarl on his lips. Wade literally just grabbed him by the shoulders, and shoved him onto his ass, kicking him in the shin as he went, and punching him another time. Shane glared, but was smart enough to stay down. “He’s a fucking savage Rick, don’t you see that.”

 

Rick shook his head. “I see a man who just defended my honor, my ex-wife's honor, and kicked you're arrogant ass. What about you Michonne? Len?”

 

“Rick’s right.” Len spoke first. “You provoked a man helping a temporary cripple and a baby. You deserved this.”

 

Michonne was looking hard at Wade, “Could use a man like that to protect me, Rick where do you find them?”

 

“Michonne has an unhealthy crush on Merle.” Rick whispered low to Wade. “Watch out, she’s a cougar.”

 

Wade wiped his hands down the front of his shirt, and turned his back on Shane, stooping to draw Jude into his arms, and hook her into the car seat. “Kay kay, Way?” She asked.

 

“I’m alright princess.” Wade promised, he kissed her head as he buckled her in. He shut Rick’s door after helping Rick pull both his legs in, then looked back at Shane. “You know where ta find me, fucker, when ya press charges.” He cracked his neck, then rounded to the drivers side. He took off, speeding from the curb, “Told ya, me and police stations don’t mix.”

 

“That was my fault, shoulda listened.” Rick sighed. “Let’s get some burgers.”

 

“Wanna go by Carol’s? Merle ought to be in there with Axel.” Wade suggested. “Its lunch break at the garage.”

 

Rick nodded. “Sounds good to me. Cassi ought to be working.”

 

The booth was in her section, and Wade deposited Rick in the seat next to Merle, handed Merle Jude, then dropped down between Axel and Glenn. “The hell happened ta yer wing?” Merle demanded, leveling him a glare, and pointing at his shoulder, where one of the feathers was missing from the black leather.

 

“Shane Walsh.” Wade offered, and pointedly looked at Rick.

 

Rick blushed, “You know they told me ‘ah couldn’t go back to work anymore. So figured I’d stop in back at the station and let ‘uhm know. Problem is that ‘ah couldn’t walk by the time we got there, PT and OT beat me up pretty bad, so Wade had to help me, and well… Shane apparently took offense to that.” Rick looked at his hands.

 

“Are you going to jail?” Merle asked Wade, his eyes alive with something.

 

“Not if I have anything to do about it.” Their heads jerked up, and Abe Ford was standing there. “Shane is on desk duty, in records for the next month. He had no right to say those things about Cassi and had no right to attack Wade.” He crossed his arms, over his chest.

 

“Thanks Abe.” Cassi kissed his cheek. “Men like Shane Walsh just grate my nerves.” She dropped into Rick’s lap, kissed his cheek then kissed Merle on the lips. “Anyone who fucks with my boys, well, hell hath no fury.” She gave Abe a very pointed look. “And I mean any of my boys. Now, Wade are you and Rick going to be home in time to get Carl and Boone off the bus?” She asked innocently.

 

“Yeah, we was just gonna pick up some food to go.” Wade assured her. “And maybe Axel, if Merle don’t mind.”

 

Rick took a moment to look at Cassi, she looked more in control than any man at the table, she and Merle shared a look, she nodded her head, and Merle rolled his eyes. “That’s fine Wade.” Merle grunted, “Now, Axel I’d like ya to look at the bathroom sink while yer there, it’s been leakin’.”

 

“Of course, Merle.” Axel promised, not meeting anyones eyes.

 

Abe tipped his hat to them all, “Don’t worry, Dixon won’t nothin’ come of this.”

 

“Good.” Merle growled, eyes stormy as he met Abe’s gaze. Rick felt a tendril of concern for his former boss, then a slight inkling of what was no doubt fear at the monster twisting in Merle’s stormy green eyes. “Now Wade, what have I told you about fightin?”

 

“It was my fault.” Rick grumbled, stubbornly looking at Merle.

 

“Be that though it may.” Merle grumbled. “We got rules, and honor or not, Wade just broke one. We don’t hit cops.” Wade looked like a kicked dog. Rick felt something like fear settle in his stomach. “Don’t worry, Rick, he ain’t in much trouble. Just going to have him repair Hershel’s fence.”

 

“So punishment is community service?” Rick looked utterly confused.

 

“For most offenses, yeah.” Cassi whispered, kissed his nose, then hopped up. “Going to get ya’lls food, now.”

 

Rick ended up leaned against Merle, mostly because he was wheezing again, but also because Jude was attempting to hug them both. Merle was giving Rick a special look, one that Rick didn’t think he had seen for anyone except Cassi. When she came back, Merle kissed her fingertips, where the plates had been hot against them, and whispered into her palm, “I love you.” It made Rick beam with pride.

 

“Love you too, baby.” Cassi kissed his head, then rubbed Rick’s curls, “You need a haircut, baby?” He snorted. “I can cut it when I get home, Carl and Boone both need a trim too.” She laughed at the face Merle was making. “Hey baby,” She kissed Jude, “You snuggling you're men?” The little girl giggled, “Yeah I like doin’ that too.” Rick flushed and Merle laughed. “Well I do.” She hissed, and then walked away.

 

The ride home wasn’t so bad. Wade settled into the backseat with Jude, the two playing some sort of game that wasn’t clear how there was a winner or loser, Axel was driving, cigarette hanging out his lips, hands on the wheel. Rick on the other hand, had questions. “I’m missing something when it comes to the club aren’t I?”

 

“The club was William Dixon’s ‘fore it was Merles.” Axel offered, then took a long drag. “William was his paw, ‘fore you ask. And It weren’t just Merle and Daryl who tore outta Georgia, their uncle, and then president of the club Jesse went with ‘uhm. Jesse died, and the club became Merle’s ‘fore he went to jail the last time. Molded ‘ah group of us ta’gether, us ‘nd Dare - we are pretty much it.”

 

That… that actually made sense to Rick. Merle didn’t seem like the kind to just, start a club out of the blue. “The rules, though?”

 

“You only get those if you join.” Wade grumbled from behind. “Glenn is workin’ up to it.” That also made a lot of sense. Rick had noticed Glenn’s apparent hero worship of Merle. Rick had also noticed the way all the boys acted in regards to Cassi, she was some sort of goddess in their opinion, and frankly he was fine with that.

 

The morning Daryl was set to arrive had everyone on edge. Merle was on the front porch, guitar across his knees, thumbing the strings. Boone and Carl were playing in the yard - both riding their miniature four wheelers. Jude was playing in her sandbox. Cassi in her black t-shirt, and cut off blue jeans was working in her flower and herb garden. Rick was sitting on the steps, working on patching up the boys clothes. Cassi had never been able to sew, Rick had picked it up from his mother. He was hanging out in basketball shorts and a stained white shirt he was fairly sure that Merle used to own, his feet bare, a hat on his head, and watching the world.

 

It was a club cab ford, with a trailer behind it, a motorcycle in the back, and a lot of boxes. Merle was on his feet, shuffling the guitar off his lap, before anyone else moved. The truck lurched to a stop, and the driver threw the door open. The man that stepped out was basically Adonis if Rick was being honest, he was the kind of haunted beautiful that made his heart seize up. He didn’t realize he was crying until the men crashed into each other, Merle catching his kid brother, and pulling him off his feet, squeezing him.

 

Daryl let out a punched noise, “MERLE!” And clenched around him. Cassi wiped sweat off her forehead, and looked at Rick, quirking a smile. And he knew that she knew that he was gone on the man from Vegas, already.

 

“Daryl, damn, baby you grew up.” Ten years was a long time, honestly it was more than ten years, since Merle had actually served out his whole sentence then found his way here. Rick watched, as Jude pulled herself to standing and started calling for Cassi. Cassi stood, wiped her gloved hands on her butt, dropped the gloves in the dirt, and scooped up Cassi, so gracefully that it wasn’t fair.

 

Daryl didn’t move for a long moment. “Merle, think ya ought to meet Cash.” Then he was motioning for the boy in the passenger seat to emerge. “Cash is almost thirteen, Cash this is yer pa, Merle.”

 

“You can call me Merle, reckon Dare’s been your daddy.” Merle looked the boy over, he looked the spitting image of Merle, dark curls and even darker eyes, his sink naturally darker, and his shoulders broad.

 

“I know about you.” The boy settled on, then ducked into a hug, and Rick realized that Merle’s heart was probably breaking.

 

Daryl cleared his throat a moment later, “These are my girls - Mica and Lizzie.” Twins, how interesting. “They’s almost five.” The southern accent laced with Vegas undertones sent chills down his spine.

 

Merle nodded at the two little blonde girls. “This here is my fiance, Cassi.” Merle motioned for her to join him on the lawn. “And… that’s Rick, her ex-husband, and sort of my best friend.” Merle chuckled, “And our kids - Boone, Carl, and Jude.” He motioned to them all in turn.

 

“Nice ta meet you.” Daryl hummed.

 

Cassi dove at him, wrapping him in a tight hug, “Welcome home, Daryl.” She rocked up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “We are so glad to have you here.”

 

“Hi!” Rick waved behind her, and smiled. “Welcome to King County.”

 

Daryl studied him, cobalt blue eyes drinking him up, and his face uncertain. “You the former cop.”

 

“I am.” Rick offered.

 

Daryl just grinned, “Merle called you Officer Friendly, ‘fore ya lived ‘ere.” Daryl smiled. “Reckon it was on account of you not minding he dropped roots and started to grow.”

 

“Somethang like that.” Rick grinned. “Are you a Savage Son?” He motioned to the leather vest Daryl was wearing.

 

Daryl cocked his head to the side, then turned, showing the beautiful wings stitched into the leather. “Sure am.”

 

For a moment Rick was pretty sure that everyone else faded away, then the excited chatter of the two sets of twins as they started playing, and Jude reached for Daryl, the new Dixon took her easily, as Cash looked at them all. “I’m confused.” Cash finally said.

 

“Rick and I got married in high school, we were and still are, best friends. We divorced before we knew that we were pregnant with Jude, then I met Merle.” There was something warm in her voice, “And he sort of wormed his way into my life.” She winked at him. “Rick had moved out, and was dating, but he got shot and spent some time in a coma. When he woke up, Merle and I brought him home, and they finished the cabin.” She smiled at Cash, looking between him and Daryl. “Dinner is in the main house, if you're hungry. We stocked you're fridge, but Merle and I were also pretty sure that you would want to go grocery shopping. Merle already let me know you are going to work at Dixon’s Salvage with him, so until further notice, Rick is the resident on/off the bus afterschool babysitter.”

 

Rick loudly groaned.

 

“You like it.” Merle teased.

 

Sue him, Rick did in fact like being on kid duty. It was much easier than arresting assholes, and writing tickets. His mornings were consumed with feeding the two kindergarten girls, two first grade boys, and the angsty seventh grader. Cash was the one who Rick was worried the most about, he didn’t look like he knew where he fit, but somehow they had forged and easy sort of friendship. Merle and Daryl had immediately went to work at the garage, whatever possible fears Daryl had in regards to Merle had apparently evaporated, and Cassi had went back to regular work. Rick’s days were still mostly just with Jude, which he rather enjoyed, although he wasn’t going to admit that.

 

Lizzie and Mica were both sweet, and stubborn. The kind of mixture that obviously came from their father. Not that he had much of an opinion about their mother, from what he understood about her, Skyy had loved her drugs more than she ever loved Daryl. Over the course of the last couple days with Daryl around, he learned that Skyy had been a friend of the dealer they had lived with in Vegas when they first made it to Vegas, the same dealer that Merle had successfully punched in the face, broke his nose, and cracked his eye socket. Lizzie was string bean like, and Mica more chubby, it was clear that one favored Skyy the other Daryl, but he wasn’t sure which was which.

 

His breathing was coming a little easier, now.

 

It didn’t hurt to laugh anymore.

 

He could move without thinking about how long he would be wheezing.

 

“Rick!” Cassi’s voice pierced through the silent reprieve of Jude sleeping.

 

“What?” He barked back, irritated that Jude was now crying out.

 

“Something happened to Merle at the shop.” Her voice broke at that. “Dare called me at the diner, I already picked up the kids, and now I’m picking you and Jude up. We need to go.” She looked panicked.

 

“What happened?” Rick demanded.

 

“Dare didn’t tell me.” Daryl had been there a month. A month of happiness, and almost ease.

 

Rick rushed then, “Is he at Alexandria or Grady?”

 

“Alexandria.” She hummed. “I already called Dr. S.”

 

“Great.” Rick hummed. “I can check in with Aaron, it’s been a week since PT and OT stopped.” Rick looked at Cassi, really looked at her, “Come here.” He wrapped her up in a tight hug, and felt her heart breaking in his arms. “Daryl would have told you if it was bad.”

 

It was bad. Merle lost his arm, and subsequently his ability to drive his motorcycle, which meant Daryl was now the leader of Savage Sons. Merle was all sorts of twisted out on drugs, and his own kind of angry. Both Cassi and Daryl were raving about the idiot doctors not looking at his long addiction history, among other things. Finally Dr. S appeared and soothed them both, assuring them that he was knocked out on non-addictive drugs, and yes he was the doctor who did the amputation, no he wasn’t sure when Merle would actually wake up, and yes he would be fine.

 

Cassi calmed down a little, after that. Rick managed to sooth her into his lap, rubbing down the center of her back, as she held his other hand. Rick hooked his chin over her shoulder, and whispered, “Merle is going to be fine. Just fine.” He promised against her neck, his lips muttering. “Daryl and I are going to help you take care of him, and Dr. S promised no addictive narcotics.”

 

Daryl looked awestruck, for a brief moment, then nodded. “We gotchya, babe.” He promised, rubbing Cassi’s hair.

 

“This year has sucked.” She declared. “What the hell even happened?”

 

“He slipped.” Axel whispered after a long moment, “He was using one of the machines, and he slipped. We couldn’t get his arm out, without shredding it, and we couldn’t reverse the machine. It was his idea.”

 

“I did it though.” Daryl glared upward. “I am the one who took the metal saw to him.”

 

“While Wade called the police.” Axel sighed.

 

Wade looked pale, and unsure of himself. “Merle can’t ride with his arm missing.”

 

“You talk like that in front of him, Wade Jessup Martin and I will castrate you myself.” She snarled, looking up through tear stained cheeks and leveling Wade with a snarl that made Rick’s skin crawl. “He will ride again, eventually.”

 

“Ah’ll be the president ‘til then.” Daryl snapped. “Savage Sons’ always been ran by a Dixon, no need ta change that yet.”

 

Rick looked startled, “I want wings.”

 

The whole room got silent. “The hell ya on ‘bout Friendly?” Merle’s voice croaked, sounding more fucked out and wrecked then Rick had ever heard it, eyes wide as they all turned to look at him. “A former cop wearin’ the wings.” He snorted with laughter, “Sign ‘im up, Axel.”

 

“You need a sponsor.” Axel met his gaze, eyes clouded with distrust. “Wade sponsored Glenn, Merle sponsored me.” He offered. “A member of the club, an original or at least someone who Merle ok’s when he’s not… messy, has to say they take responsibility for you. And that they can train ya.”

 

“I’s gonna sponsor ‘im.” Daryl chewed hit thumb. “Reckon to an extent ‘ah owe ‘im. Ifin he hadn’t saved Cassi, she’d of never saved Merle, and got us all sorted ‘ere.” Daryl looked him up and down. “Doubt that he’ll make it past the first round, to quote my favorite movie, Ricky you are too pure to be pink.”

 

“Did you just quote Rizzo? From Grease?” Rick snorted with laughter, “You bikers are a bunch of magicians - all smoke and mirrors.” He teased, Cassi was smiling, at least.

 

Rick and Daryl handed all the kids off to Glenn and Maggie. Cassie and Wade had agreed to stay overnight at the hospital, Axel had to work at the garage - Merle out of commission meant more actual labor for the former convict, with his handlebar mustache twitching as he went, he looked completely done with the whole deal.

 

“We are going to go over the rules.” Daryl stated as he sat at the kitchen table. “Maggie taking the kids was nicer than ‘ah expected.” Daryl still looked confused by that.

 

“The Greenes are my cousins.” Rick huffed out, his chest was hurting, but it felt more like a phantom clenching around his heart. “Shit, if Merle had to deal with Cassi that worried over me, I owe him so much more than I originally thought.” Rick looked at the tiled floor. “Merle’s tough?”

 

“Ain’t nobody gonna kill Merle, lest he let them. He’s a mean son of a bitch. Got shanked more times ‘n ‘ah can count in Prison, just kept tickin’. Every man ever tried ended up dead, none tied ta ‘im tho.” Daryl grabbed them both pepsi from the fridge, and smiled a stilted sort of smile at Rick. “Now these rules are from my paw’s time, and he weren’t no angel.”

 

“Why the wings?” Rick asked after a moment.

 

“Was a joke, reckon. My gran - Lottie, was real loud ‘bout tellin’ my pa he was never gonna see the pearly gates ‘er get his wings ta fly with.” Daryl paused, “Pa made it his personal fuck you to both ‘er and my grandpa. He might not make it ta heaven, but he was gonna fly.” Daryl looked thoughtful for a moment.

 

Rick took his time thinking out how he wanted to ask the next question, “Saw his back, that from your dad?”

 

Daryl’s eyes turned dark, and something settled on his features, a mask slipping away, Rick figured, but a beat later his eyes were the soft green unlike the storm that was always raging in Merle Dixon’s, and the tight line of his mouth smirked upward. “Yeah. Got the same kind of marks, even some from Merle.”

 

Rick nodded, and let the subject drop. “How about the rules?”

 

Daryl chewed his thumb for a long moment, then spoke. “Numb’r one: Savage Sons will be yer only active Crew. Any knowledge of yew bein’ active in ‘nother Crew/MC will get an automatic termination of colors.”

 

“Termination of colors?” Rick grumbled.

 

“Get ta that later, copper. Numb’r two. Brothers shall not fight each other with weapons;” Daryl held up his hand to stop the question. “Say you ‘nd Wade disagree ‘bout somethin’, but club rules ya’ll can fight, even if ya are just a prospect. On even footin’.” Daryl shushed him with a wave of his hand. “Numb’r three. If ya don't help out the Club in its activities ‘nd ya use the Club solely for yer benefit, ya will be warned. No second chance.”

 

“So out?” Rick asked.

 

“Later, copper, but yeah, out. And ya won’t like how.” Daryl muttered, something sad danced over his features. “Numb’r four. Members with extra parts will loan ‘uhm to members. They gotta be replaced ‘er paid for. Which means we gotta get ya a bike. Ain’ too worried bout that right now, got enough spare pieces and parts ta put ya one ta’gether.” Daryl sat down, then his hands wide and against the table, palm down, as he breathed in heavy. “The rest are darker, wanna keep goin?”

 

Rick nodded, and itched his wrist, looking at Daryl.

 

“Numb’r five, if ya get busted ‘nd or go ta jail, notify an officer or member so he can arrange for yer bail. In yer case ya can call Cassi, she’s Lady Savage. ‘Ah can explain that later.” Daryl promised. “Next, six, absolutely no talking ‘bout Club business to persons outside the Club. No talking ‘bout Club business over any telephone. We had to add that part after Merle went ta jail tha last time. Seven, during funeral runs, no one will pack a passenger, patch must be seen.” Daryl sighed, “Now the dark ‘uns. Eight, if any brother gets hooked on any drug that is dangerous to the club he will be helped first, if he can’t be helped, he’ll be dealt with.”

 

“Merle?” Rick asked carefully.

 

“Merle.” Daryl agreed, letting his fingers run along the wood surface of the table. “Nine, if a group or individual attacks any member, the whole club shall stand behind ‘im ‘nd fight if necessary. If, however, the member is drunk ‘nd aggressive ‘nd purposely starts an argument, the rest of the members will escort him away, or step between before trouble starts. Ten, no member will disgrace the club by being yellow. We don’t get to chicken out.” Daryl absentmindedly touched his shoulder. “Eleven, if a member dies, there family is taken care of - wife, kids, parens. If a member is killed, we seek justice, any way possible.”

 

Rick blanched at that. “Most of those are ambiguous, why?”

 

“Can’t let all the secrets out.” Daryl sighed. “The colors are worn at all times, with pride, no hippie shit. It’s a smaller logo than the wings. Also all Sons have a tattoo of two demons fighting on their shoulders, Glenn just got his, and is officially a member, you are a prospect, the wippin’ boy, ya do wha yer asked when yer asked.” Daryl looked at Rick for a long moment. “Means ya gotta start lookin’ at yer old friends different. Ya got a kutte you can wear, ‘til ya get yer wings.” Daryl stood and threw the leather he’d had on his lap at Rick. “Get usta the weight on yer back, boy.”

 

“Hey now, is Cassi an ol’lady?” Rick asked carefully, “And if so, what the hell does that mean for me? I’m her ex?”

 

“She is Lady Savage, Merle’s actual equal within the club, my momma never held the title, but my auntie May did. Means she can and will take the reins ifin a Dixon is in jail or can’t handle it. Merle named it aft’r he first met her, probably ‘fore she knew anythin’ bout the boys.” He waited a bit before he spoke. “She ‘nd ‘ah will handle mosta yer prospectin’, and she’s the main one ta go to when ya want Merle’s ear, like a buffer ta the king.”

 

“Ok.” Rick nodded, “The kids safe?”

 

“Safer with us than cops.” Daryl muttered. “Social services knew ‘bout my dad, Friendly, hell the whole county did.”

 

Rick reached for him, slow and deliberate, tucked his hand over Daryl’s and let his fingertips brush the man's knuckles. “Ain’t a cop no more.” He whispered. “Gonna be the best damn prospect, ever.”

 

“Never sponsored one ‘fore.” Rick noticed Daryl’s hand twitch, then lock around his in a vice grip, he linked their fingers together and then sighed. “Cassi needs us ta back ‘er, ain’t worried bout the boys ‘round ‘ere but we got cousins with there own branch of Savage Sons. Rick think ‘bout this ‘fore you start. Some rules, ifin ya break up, it ain’t just yer patch we take, its yer life.”

 

“What happened to yer father?” Rick asked, now aware the conversation was dangerous.

 

Daryl lit up, like a christmas tree in anger for a moment, those wild eyes emerging and a predatory smile on his face. “Killed ‘im, Merle and ‘ah together. Jesse helped us cover it up. Will’d never of let me leave with Merle.”

 

Hearing that Merle was a murderer didn’t bother Rick as much as it should have. “Two lives.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“We all lead two lives, the one the public sees, the one that everyone gets to read about, then the one we do behind the scenes.” Rick hummed. “Its like the flip side of the coin.”

 

“Except ya need to accept the bad before you relish in the good.” Daryl met his eyes, sober glint in his eyes, and a sad twist to his frown, accented his mole, Rick felt the urge to kiss it, but stabbed it down.

 

Rick bowed his head, “Let’s do this.”

 

Daryl choked for a moment, coughing up his own spit as he eyed Rick, “Poor choice of words, Friendly.”

 

Over the next week he learned their other names. It was like codenames, nicknames that you earned in honor. They all called Cassi Lady Luck, a play on her more official title of Lady Savage, and a compliment to who lucky she had made the club. Daryl was lovingly called Hunter, Rick found out why when he caught Daryl with a crossbow slung over his shoulder and hunting on the middle thirty. Wade was Ironclad, which had to do with custom made brass knuckles. Axel was Handlebars - first for his mustache and second for how he ended up in jail, his handlebars had broken on his bike after he robbed a Sip N Go. Merle was Reaver, Rick didn’t even want to know what that actually meant. Glenn so far was being called Speedy, the kid was fast on his feet and fast on his bike. Rick had a feeling Friendly was sticking with him. Shawn when he was around they called Tiny. The man towered over both Dixon brothers.

 

Cash wasn’t much into Merle, but he did adore Cassi, so when Rick came home from grocery shopping on the Saturday following Merle’s second surgery, to find the boy mowing the lawn, he decided it was time to talk to the kid. “Cash, can ‘ah see ya inside?” He called over his shoulder. Cash had taken up with Bo and Luke, who had picked Daryl as their surrogate owner in the last couple months. Cash looked up like a wounded bird. “You ain’t in trouble, kid.”

 

Cash found him in the kitchen. “Yes, Rick?” He asked.

 

“Know it can’t be easy for you. Moving across the country, meeting your dad for the first time, learning he basically has step-kids, and pretty much a wife, then there is me in the mix. I get it, ok? Blended families are hard as shit to deal with.” Rick sighed. “We all want this to work. You know? Merle and I were rocky at first, to be honest I was a shitty friend to Cassi and hadn’t realized she was in love with him, until I woke up from my coma, he’s more trouble than he’s worth on a good day, but he’s my brother in arms now.”

 

Cash looked him over. “My dad is Daryl, but I could learn to love Merle.”

 

“This is me suggesting you give him a chance.”

 

Cash gave him a long look. “Dare gave me the same talk.”

 

“Ain’t givin’ you a talk, just, making a suggestion.”

 

If Rick brimmed with excitement later when Cash offered to go with Daryl to the hospital so Cassi could have a break, he tried hard not to let it show. Cassi had came home looking slightly off kilter, anyways, so Rick ran her a bubble bath, and scrubbed her hair for her. “Wanna talk about it?” He asked gently.

 

“Merle is mad about his arm.” She huffed, as he scrubbed her scalp. “He doesn’t think the MC want him back, ‘n he doesn’t know how to be any sort of happy with the thought that the one thing that has always meant something might be taken away. I feel bad for him, but…” She sighed, “I’m pregnant, Rick.”

 

Oh, lord.

 

Rick paused and reached to cup her cheek. “It’s ok, he’ll be happy.”

 

For a long moment Cassie didn’t move. “Want you to be the godfather.” Her voice wavered slightly, like she as in pain but also she bristled with pride. “I need you in all my children’s lives, Rick - you're the moral compass.”

 

“Don’t know for how much longed, once I get the wings…” His voice dropped off, as he brushed hair from her face.

 

“Then you’ll be Merle’s missing hand.” She said it so easily. “You and Daryl together, don’t act like I don’t see the way the pair of you look at each other. Orbiting always, he’s into both you know. And I’m pretty sure you're just gay.”

 

“Just gay.” He muttered, smacking her shoulder.

 

“Should I tell Merle?” She asked, curious.

 

Before he could answer the house phone rang, “Fuck.” He darted out of the bathroom, and headed for the only corded phone, plucking it up, “Hello?”

 

“Rick?” Shane sounded drunk.

 

“What?” Rick demanded.

 

“Lori’s knocked up.” Shane slurred the words together to the point Rick had to actually think about it to understand.

 

“And?” Rick snapped, still not sure how this had anything to do with him.

 

“I dunno what to do man.” Shane huffed.

 

Rick hung up, and walked back to the bathroom where Cassi was waiting with a raised eyebrow. “Lori’s knocked up, Shane is drunk.” He sunk down on the edge of the tub. “Reckon they deserve it.”

 

She snorted with laughter, then dissolved into tears, her whole body shaking. “I ain’t had a break.”

 

“No you haven’t, if you were half as worried about me for all those months as you have been for Merle this last week and a half, reckon you need a damn spa month.” Rick kissed her forehead, “I could go get Shane from the bar.”

 

“You could have a movie marathon with me.” She countered, wiggling her eyebrows.

 

She made it through the first thirty minutes of the movie, before she crashed, hard, her whole head and shoulders in his lap, and the pair of them on the couch. She was in one of Merle’s oversized t-shirts and a pair of Rick’s police issued sweatpants. When Daryl slipped in in the morning, Rick raised a finger to his lips. “She’s pregnant.”

 

Daryl smiled. “Good, Merle needs a hellan to raise on his own.” Daryl rubbed his hand over Rick’s curls. “Maggie called and is bringing the kids home today, so ‘ah asked Cash if he’d like to make thirty bucks by keepin’ an eye on them so I could do some more motorcycle lessons with you.”

 

“Just what Rick needs, you and a vibrating motor between his thighs.” Cassi murmured in her sleep making Rick flush and Daryl outright laugh. Rick dumped her head on the couch and laughed awkwardly.

 

Thankfully, they didn’t talk about Cassi’s muttered sleep addled brain attempting to assist Rick into Daryl’s pants. Instead they opted to let it drop completely. The lesson of the day was aptly titled “curves” and “cleaning you're bike”. Daryl gave him a rundown of what was expected, then looked at Rick for a long moment. “This time, it would probably be better ifin ya rode behind me, and held on.”

 

“Eh?” Rick muttered, looking utterly perplexed and definitely not staring at Daryl’s perfect face.

 

“To understand curves on the bike, ‘ah think ya ought to ride with me, and just getta feel fer it.” Daryl swung his leg over the metal beast, then settled against the leather seat, gas tank gleaming in the sunlight, he’d already switched the ignition to on, and was preparing to turn the engine over. Rick groaned, he was fairly sure God and Cassi had it out for him, he was rethinking the whole my-ex-wife-rocks thought process, even as Daryl cocked his head to the side like the cute puppy he was.

 

“How old are you?” Rick blurted out, confused at his own mouth.

 

Daryl snorted, “Twenty-nine, Grimes, now climb on.”

 

Rick gritted his teeth for a moment, then tumbled onto the bike behind Daryl. “Closer?” Rick asked, Daryl nodded, and Rick found himself sliding forward until his thighs touched Daryl’s and his crotch with already interested cock was tight against Daryl’s ass. The slightly older man tipped his head over his shoulder, and winked at Rick, before taking off fast enough that Rick yelped and grabbed Daryl’s waist, hard.

 

By the time they’ve driven over every curve King County and Linden County has to offer, Rick is in physical pain - not from learning the sway of the bike, although his thighs are throbbing, and his ass feels like it's never going to stop vibrating, he’s so hard, his cock pressing against the zipper of his jeans, and he’s miserable. Daryl, he adds to his list of sadist, immediately shooed him off the bike and goes into a long winded explanation of how to properly check all the fluids, and clean the hoses.

 

Rick stormed up the front stairs once Daryl headed for the garage, and pushed his way into the house, finding Cassi and Merle both there. “Cash and Bethany took the kids to the Greene’s for dinner.” Merle muttered. “Are you ok?” Rick had to double take, because he was fairly sure Merle shouldn’t even be out of the hospital yet, but the man’s sitting on the couch, bandaged arm in a sling, and looking a little worse for the wear.

 

“Oh, lord, you're brother has my ex-husband sexually frustrated.” Cassi muttered.

 

Merle choked, hard. “Shit, help him. Daryl’s damn slow when it comes to anything or anyone he wants.” Merle grunted. “I’m going to sit here in pain and watch Elm Street, ok?”

 

Cassi rolled her eyes, tossed Merle the remote and looked at Rick, before jerking her head towards the guest room. Rick’s mind was frantically working over several things, but he opted to just follow Cassi. She was the only person he trusted, anyways. “Alright, babe, what do you need?”

 

Rick looked at his feet for a long moment, he knew what he wanted - he wanted the leather clad monster that was Daryl Dixon, which surprised him more than it should. He had an easy communication with Daryl, they just knew what each other needed, except today apparently. “Cassi…”

 

“You want my ass, huh?” She asked, a slow smile on her lips, like she knew him better than he knew himself and maybe she did. When he nodded, he felt his face flush, he drew his eyes up to find her already stripping, then bending forward on her hands and knees on his bed, lube by her right knee. “Go on, Rick, we used to do this, it’s like coming home?” She teased, and he grinned, flinging his own clothes off.

 

After, with his chest aching and him having eaten more pain pills than needed, he settled next to Merle on the couch, and she made them a snack. “Thanks.” Rick muttered, looking at his bare knee, where it rested against Merle’s sweatpant clad knee.

 

“She was yours first, man.” Merle hummed, “And, it’s not like… its not like Daryl and ‘ah are innocent, we like ta share.”

 

Cassi giggled from behind them, probably at the startled noise Rick made, just as Merle’s good hand tangled in his curls. “Noted.” Rick managed, his cock taking an unhealthy interest in that as well. Before he could further comment on that, all the kids and Bethany Greene were in the living room.

 

They played monopoly, then uno, and ended with the game of Life - which had to be played in teams, so Cash and Beth made one team; Cassi and Jude (who had no clue what was happening), Carl and Boone, Lizzie and Mica, and finally Rick and Merle. Daryl, flanked by Wade and Axel came home to Merle announcing “This gay minivan driving biker badass just won life!” As he pointed at Rick and snorted.

 

Daryl’s eyes narrowed, as he met Rick’s gaze, something flashed - predatory like Rick had watched Merle look at Cassi, and his face flushed. Merle nudged Cassi, and both Wade and Axel made their way towards the kitchen. Daryl obviously still reeling from either Merle’s announcement or the image of Rick sitting in just basketball shorts, closer to Merle than needed, stormed across the hardwood floors, and jerked Rick’s head back by his curls, then plastered his mouth over Rick’s.

 

The whole house was quiet, save for the very unmanly moan that fell from Rick’s lips as Daryl drew back. “Tomorrow yer driving, then we’s gonna finish buildin’ yer bike. ‘Mone kids, lets get home. Glad Cassi was able ta break ya out early.” Daryl ran an affectionate hand over Merle’s head, then patted Cassi’s cheek - Rick felt something dark coil up inside him as Cassi pressed a tender kiss to Daryl’s knuckles. “Later little sister,” He winked at her, then looked into the kitchen, “Ya’ll campin’ at the house, ‘er goin’ home.”

 

“Rosita will fuck me in the ass if I don’t go home.” Wade called over his shoulder, already heading back towards the living room with a beer in one hand and cookies in the other. “Axel over here has a date with that woman - Delilah who works for Carol.”

 

Cassi giggled. “She’s a maneater, handsome, watch where she kisses.” She waved them both out after that, Rick still sitting awestruck where Daryl had kissed him. “You ok, baby? Think I should cut those curls?”

 

“Don’t you touch his hair!” Daryl shouted just as the screen door slammed behind him, the girls and Cash pointedly laughing.

 

It should have been easy, Rick figured, once Daryl kissed him, he should have fallen in easy enough with the hunter - instead he was currently gutting a deer in his front yard, while Daryl and Merle drank beer. Aaron watched not far from them, “This is OT, Rick?” The sadist group now included Merle, apparently, who had encouraged his physical therapist to be a ‘friend’ and bring a ‘date’ to dinner. He’d brought his husband - Eric who was inside with Cassi helping her make the sides for dinner. The kids were scattered around the yard, Maggie and Glenn working on the frankenstein bike Merle, Daryl, and Glenn were ‘helping’ Rick build.

 

But that had been three weeks ago, and with Daryl standing as the head of Savage Sons he was more wrapped up in things directly related to the MC, which Rick knew zero about, not that he didn’t want to know more. He was actually fairly sure Cassi knew more than him, and rightfully so - she’d been around longer than him, but still. It made him pout. Sure, Daryl had kissed him a handful of times after that, but he’d been distracted recently. This was the first Saturday that they’d all been together - apparently the rumble of motorcycles let him know that it was a club function on top of a cookout.

 

Wade, with Rosita arrived first. The mexican beauty planted a kiss on his temple, as she danced on toward the kitchen. Wade dropped in the grass near the sandbox, letting Jude climb all over him. Axel rumbled in next, giving Rick a wave as he parked, then looped around the deer and settled onto the porch near Daryl, in a rocking chair. Shawn arrived with Andrea Horvath, which surprised Rick but then again, not much these days didn’t.

 

Abe, Sasha and Noah rolled up not long after, in his old pickup truck. Noah darting into the fray of children, and Abe tipping his hat at Merle. Sasha joined Rosita and Andrea on the steps of the porch, Maggie joining them as Wade finally brushed himself and Jude off, passing the babe off to the women, and heading towards Glenn and the bike. All the boys, except Abe had the leather kuttes on, proudly displaying their colors and patches.

 

The day should have been perfect, instead Cassi’s voice broke the peace, “RICK!” He jerked up to see her face, “RICK WE HAVE TO GO NOW!” She had pushed down the steps and was looking at Maggie, “Tend the stove ‘til we get home. Don’t ya’ll leave.”

 

“What’s happened?” Daryl and Rick asked at the same time.

 

“Lori had the baby.” Rick narrowed his eyes.

 

“Early?”

 

“No.” Cassi looked sympathetically at him. “Shane called, biologically the little girl isn’t his. Dr. S. wants to do a paternity test with you.” Rick paled. “I know you don’t want a kid with Lori - she doesn't’ want to keep the baby, if we don’t go now, it’ll be in foster care.”

 

Rick nodded, and headed for the truck. “Take my bike.” Daryl ordered, the conviction in his voice sending a shiver down Rick’s spine. “And bring our child home, well… in a couple days, you know what ‘ah meant.” Rick knew he meant their child as in a Dixon-Grimes clan baby, but it made him flush anyway. Daryl handed him the keys and drew him into a quick kiss. “When ya get home, we gotta talk.” Cassi had already climbed onto the back of the bike, scooting back to give Rick room. Rick only nodded at him, then settled down in front of her. The triumph was the only bike he’d driven enough to be comfortable on. He spend them towards town, and wondered if the ache in his chest was fear of the two unknowns or his heart acting up.

 

Gracie Grimes.

 

She looked a lot like Judith.

 

Lori was refusing to touch the child, so Cassi scooped the wailing newborn into her arms and hummed a bastardized tune that sounded a lot like ‘Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound’. Shane was nowhere to be seen, and as much as that perturbed Rick, he let it settle. Lori was looking at him, pointedly. “We was tryin’ ta tell you that day, at Cassi’s. That I was pregnant and it probably wasn’t Shanes.” Rick felt the needle sink into his flesh, he hissed.

 

“You didn’t look pregnant.” Rick bit back.

 

“Never showed, not like Cassi did when she had Jude.” Lori looked sad, like there was something else she wanted to say. “Rick, I am so sorry, but I can’t be a mother, I can’t be her mother, and I can’t…”

 

“It’s ok, Lori.” Rick said after a long moment. “I know you got lonely, and any woman other than Cassi would have probably given up on me. Woman is much too stubborn to let me die, or to let anyone die that she cares about.” His eyes wandered to where Cassi was gently bouncing the baby in the nursery across the hall.

 

“She’s good with her.” Lori said, in a low voice. “I’m leaving King County, heading towards New York, once I get out.”

 

“What about Shane?” Rick asked, curious.

 

“Dunno.” She closed her big brown eyes. “Never really liked him anyway, he’s a shitty friend, you know.”

 

“Yeah, Cassi is the only girl I’ve been with who didn’t cheat on me with Shane.” Rick sighed. “It was nice to have known you, Lori Marie Hathaway, you take care of you, ok? If she’s mine, and you sign your rights away, if you ever wanna see her, you know where to find us.”

 

With that he stepped out, crossed the hall and met Dr. S. and Cassi in the nursery. “She’s yours.” Cassi offered, giving Rick a serious look.

 

“She was born this morning, realistically she should stay here overnight, but we both know Cassi and you could take her tonight, all three of you're kids went home the day they were born.” Dr. S. leaned against the counter, his eyes tired. “Cassi, how is your pregnancy going?”

 

“Good, I’m right at two months now, I’m not violently sick like I was with the others, but I’ve still got time to get that way.” She gave him a toothy grin. “We rode out on the motorcycle.” Dr. S. raised an eyebrow, and seemed to only then notice the leather kutte on Rick. “But, we can come get her first thing in the morning.”

 

“No need.” Daryl’s gruff voice caught them all off guard. “Merle mentioned that Jude didn’t stay the night in the hospital and neither did you.” Daryl shrugged, “So ‘ah brought you're car, and one of the girls - Maggie or Rosita dug out an old car seat that would fit the baby.”

 

Dr. S. eyed the dark kutte on Daryl, “Took Merle’s job?”

 

“Something like that.” Daryl huffed, crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side.

 

“You know how to sign her out.” With that he exited the room, and Daryl came to rest behind Cassi, looking over her shoulder, his chest to her back, as he looked down at the little baby. Rick felt his jealousy flare, Daryl must have noticed, because he wrapped his fingers around Rick’s wrist, and drug him in between Daryl and Cassi, Rick’s arms instantly wrapped around Cassi’s much smaller frame, cradling her and the baby, he flushed when Daryl copied his move.

 

Gracie Grimes is named by Daryl Dixon.

 

Not Cassi who is elbow deep in paperwork.

 

Not Rick who is by all rights the little girls father.

 

But Daryl as he talks, “Was in love once, not with the crack whore I married, guy who went by Jesus.” His voice is stiled. “I’ve been doin’ this with ya all wrong. Felt something, something ‘ah never wanted ta feel again first time ‘ah looked at ya, been pushin it down, shove’n it away. Didn’t wanna be hurt again. From Merle ‘nd Cassi ‘ah learned about ya, mostly Cassi. Girl is crazy stupid devote, even ta the man she divorced.” Rick watched as he rocked the baby in his arms. “My relationship with Jesus soured, thanks ta Merle, he weren’t tha one that got Jesus killed, that’s on my pa and my uncle Jesse.”

 

“What happened?” Rick asked softly, watching Daryl, eyes trained to see the man’s every move, from his too blue eyes to the mole that was more a beauty mark than Marilyn Monroe’s ever was, to the slight flex of his shoulders, and the soft sway of his hips as he comorted the baby.

 

“They beat ‘im ta death. Merle took care of our paw, and took off with me and Jess that night.” Daryl looked at him for a beat. “Jesus taught me not to trust Merle with those ‘ah love. We shared whores, of both flavors along the way to Vegas, truth be told Cash could be either of ours.” Daryl frowned, “Merle’s different, ya can see Cassi shinin’ through ‘im now. He ain’t mean, and he ain’t as bad about my desires, ah guess. Guess she’s his savin’ grace.” His face lit up, “Like you, little Gracie Grimes.”

 

It stuck, and Rick understood. “I think you're adorable.”

 

“Huh?” Daryl just looked at him.

 

“We communicate well, don’t even have to talk ninety percent of the time. You're great with my kids, you're brother was basically my babysitter, I did sleep with Cassi after the first motorcycle ride with you… but I won’t again…” Rick flushed and looked at his hands. “Merle told me to.”

 

“Ah know.” Daryl huffed. “We ought to talk more, huh?” Rick laughed, and kissed his cheek, and rumbled with laughter.