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The Woman He's Always Loved

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WARNING: This story follows canon storyline with an AU backstory. This story also contains non-graphic mentions of racism, spousal abuse, death, and miscarriage. This story also contains a hint of Caryl romance which ultimately ends in friendship, but its a tiny hint. It contains verbatim dialogues from the series that are the property of AMC Network and are only used to interweave the story with canon occurrences. Author doesn't claim property of said dialogues or anything that is recognizable.

 

______

 

He recognizes her as soon as Morgan pushes her in.

Her hair is shorter, there is grey intermingled with dark auburn, fine lines around her eyes, a harder look in her blue irises, but it is her, the woman he has loved all his life.

He tries to find a hint of recognition in her eyes as they talk, but there is nothing. Either she has truly forgotten him or she’s pretending she doesn’t know him. He doesn’t know which option hurts him the most. He can detect the sarcasm in her voice, the fakeness of her disposition to call him King, but he says nothing. Even the smile on her face seems fake, which pains him deeply, for he used to live for her smile.

He doesn’t know what horrors she has faced, what she’s had to endure since the world fell to the dead, but he can see they’ve hurt her, chipped at her very soul. So much time has passed since they last saw each other, but he still loves her, thoroughly loves her with all his heart and soul and wishes for her to be happy even in this desolate world.

He once let her slip through his fingers, didn’t fight for her thinking he was doing right by her and her future. As he watches Morgan wheel her away, he knows he will not be doing the same mistake twice. He will not let her leave without her knowing who he is. If afterward, she decides she wants nothing to do with him, he will leave her alone, let her go and be nothing to her but the King of The Kingdom. If she ends up giving him a second chance, he will not hesitate, not for a single second, and simply become her Ezekiel again.

___

He knew she would try to slip away in the middle of the night. Carol has done that before, whenever she wanted to sneak away from her parent's house. She is stealthy, fast and ever the observer. When they’d been young she had never gotten caught, but this time he catches her as she tries to take some of the fruits from The Kingdom’s garden before leaving. He knows this is his only chance to jog her memory before he loses her forever.

He’s a bit dramatic, he’s quite aware of it, but he knows he catches her off-guard when she gives a slight jump after he lights up the fire, the fruit clutched in her hand. She seems angered that he caught her, if not a little bit surprised someone was paying close enough attention to her to realize her plan. He aches to tell her that he knew he’d find her trying to leave because he knows her, but instead keeps those words inside and confronts her about leaving.

She seems jagged, uncaring, uninterested in anything he tells her. Whatever she has gone through has deeply affected her. A look into her blue eyes, however, tells him that she is still there, hiding behind the facade she has presented to him, clinging tightly to it and wearing it as a second skin. Still, there is no recognition in her eyes or in her words.

She tells him that she doesn’t care.

He knows better than to believe her.

He decides to open up to her, tell her about the life he has led ever since they went their separate ways. She softens besides him, listening to his tale and taking a good look at him. For a second he is transported back to the many times they sat side by side, hands clasped together, looking at the sky in the middle of the night, imagining what their future holds, or the many times they went to the woods, laid down by the creek and simply enjoyed each other’s company. He thinks he’s almost broken the icy exterior she has erected, even got her to chuckle once, when she informs him she doesn’t care what he does or doesn’t do and brings his desperation even higher.

She just wants to go, she wants to be alone.

Perhaps she does remember him. Perhaps the reason she wants to go is because he is here. Perhaps she has a lover or perhaps she still has a husband even though she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. There are so many things that could be the reason as to why she doesn’t want to stay and no reason at all for him to insist to her that she can stay, but he does so anyway.

“I know you, Carol.” He finally declares as he gets up from the couch they’ve been sitting at.

It stops her from leaving the garden but she doesn’t turn to look at him. Her back squares up though, her muscles tightening. She’s on alert and it pains him that she’s adopted such posture with him.

“You don’t.” She answers with a sharp shake of her head.

“I do.” He repeats.

He knows that if she leaves the garden he will never see her again, that he will have let her slip through his fingers a second time. His heart thunders in his chest. He’s barely able to catch a breath. What he has kept silent since he saw her again suddenly barrels out of his mouth, the desperation he feels quite plain to see. “Your name is Carol Alexander. You were born in Texas but your family moved to Atlanta soon after. You are a single child but you always wished to have more siblings so that you could have someone to play with. You love the arts and you wanted to major in History of Arts even though your father insisted on wanting to marry you. You love chocolate, the darker the better, and coffee, especially if both are combined. You have a tender heart and love easily. You want to protect everyone, make everyone happy, especially your future family. You wanted to have children, so many children, and teach them all what’s right and what’s wrong...”

“You don’t know what you are talking about.” Carol interrupts him, turning to look at him slightly over her shoulder.

“I know you, Carol.” Ezekiel insists. “I love you.”

“That Carol is dead.” She declares sharply, turning her whole body towards him. Her eyes are fire. For the first time since she got here, he knows that she remembers him but something tells him that she might remember things differently.

“She’s not.” He insists. “I can see her in your eyes. You cloak yourself, hide behind the veil of one who is uncaring, but that which you portray is far from who you are. She has not yet perished, you have not perished, not to me.”

Her eyes fill with tears, tears that appear to surprise her and that she quickly reaches to wipe away.

“Stay,” he begs. “Remain at The Kingdom, things are good here. It might not seem that way, it might seem that all the world has fallen to the wasted, but we aren’t, not here. Stay.”

“I can’t.” She shakes her head, her arms raising to embrace herself.

“You can.” He promises. “Embrace the contradiction. Give The Kingdom a chance... you can go and not go.”

She´s prepared to turn away even before he is finished speaking, he can see it in the way that her whole body vibrates. His words stop her movement though and she ends up partly turned towards him, partly ready to bolt ¨What do you mean?”

“There is a cottage nearby. It is close enough to Kingdom that we can provide sustenance to you on a daily, or weekly basis,” he adds quickly as he sees she’s about to protest having people from The Kingdom near her every day. “But it is far enough that no one will bother you. It stands abandoned, hidden from the world. I occasionally took advantage of its solace to shed the King without having my people see it. You can go and not go, stay as long as you need to stay there. Only my knights and I will know of your location.”

He can see she’s considering it. He knows Carol and knows that she needs to be surrounded by others, to tend to others, to truly be at peace. He’s not sure where the need for solitude comes from, but he knows it is not her and he knows it's tearing her apart.

“I can show you the way.”

Again she reacts to his words. “No!” She says, quickly raising her head and shaking it, fire once more lit in her eyes. He needs to know why she’s having this reaction to him, needs to understand where her apparent anger stems from, but he knows he also has to give her space and that if he pushes further she will only decide that leaving is actually better. He has to pick his battles and today is not a day for taking this particular one.

“You can tell Morgan.” She offers although he knows he has no choice but to accept her option. “Morgan will take me there.”

“As you wish.”

They awkwardly stand by each other, not knowing what else to say, pain and confusion muddling the space between them. It is then that he remembers the spark of recognition that slipped through her hardened armor and before he can stop the words from spilling from his mouth he’s pushing her to admit they know each other, had a past together.

“I am still your Ezekiel, Carol.”

He knows he’s said the wrong thing when she instantly turns away from him, rearranging her backpack which has slung off her shoulder. She starts walking away from him in the direction of the infirmary, her back straight and her steps strong. She never turns back to look at him. “You were never my Ezekiel.”

_____

He’s been unfocused all through the day, ever since he woke up from the horrible nightmare in which he was forced to watch as Carol was ripped apart by the wasted. He fights with his need to rush to her side, to make sure she is safe and protected in her little cottage, forcing himself to remain at The Kingdom. It is only when the sun is low in the sky that his need to watch out for her finally wins and he mounts his steed, a bag of fruit hanging from the side. He is followed only by Jerry who helps keeps his nerves in check with constant and interesting talk and by Shiva. When they near the cottage, he fights against his need to gallop to the front gate as fast as he can. Instead, he slows down the horse by tugging gently at the reigns and secures it where no one passing by the front of the cottage will see it.

“Remain with the steeds.” He tells Jerry as he dismounts. “Keep a watchful eye for the wasted.”

With Shiva by his side, he pushes the rusty gate and walks in. To the untrained eye, the cottage is empty, but he knows better, she is there. Everything seems perfectly normal, no walkers trying to gain entrance nor carcasses strewn about. He can see that there is a new grave and has no doubt that Carol has gotten rid of whatever might have found its way in since he was last here. He reaches the porch, practices what to say under his breath, then raises a hand to knock.

He pauses.

He’s 100% sure she will not be happy to see him, not by the way she acted last time they saw each other. He will just make sure she is fine, that she has enough food, and if she wants him to leave he will. Still, he stalls in knocking, not wanting to be sent away. Shiva eventually bumps him on his lower back, as if to urge him to knock. He can’t help but send a look her way, to which she makes a chuffing sound and wiggles her ears.

“All right, all right.” He mumbles and finally knocks.

There is no answer to be heard: not the shuffling of feet approaching the door, not the click of the door’s handle unlatching, not even Carol’s voice telling him to go away.

He knocks again. Same results.

“Milady?” He tries.

He practically holds his breath to hear her, to catch any shift of her weight behind the door. He hears nothing. Visibly deflating, he gives one last knock but he already knows she will not answer. Instead of waiting for her to open, he turns and starts making his way back to the horses. Jerry already has the supplies prepared by the time he makes it back. He takes the satchel before shaking his head as Jerry gives him a pointed look to ask if she’d open. “I will deliver the provisions, prepare the steeds for our return.”

“You got it, boss.”

He’s careful to lay down the satchel of fruits and bread by her door so that whenever she does open it she will find them right away. Shiva gives it a sniff before making a chuffing sound again. “Not tonight, Shiva. It appears Lady Carol needs more time to find peace and we shall not besmirch her of the opportunity. Come, girl, it is time for us to go back home.”

Shiva follows him, walking beside him and stopping to wait for him whenever he stops to look over his shoulder. He hopes Carol is still safe within the cottage and hasn’t left and vows to himself, and to her despite her absence, that he will do everything in his powers to make her happy. Whatever she needs he will help provide. Whatever she desires he will help come true. He hopes that next time she will open the door, open her heart once more to him, but he knows it will take time and that his hope is unrealistic. He just wants to see the Carol he knows; strong, beautiful and magnificent, with sparkling blue eyes, freckles he had counted more than once, and warmth in her heart for all living creatures.

He mounts his horse and with a pull of the reigns, he turns away from the cottage, away from the woman of his dreams and towards a home that doesn’t quite hold his heart anymore.

—-

The next few days are the same; he rides to her home, sometimes only accompanied by Jerry and Shiva, sometimes by the whole of his knights, and delivers a satchel or a wooden box to her doorstep, he knocks but never receives an answer. He only hopes that she hasn’t left the cottage in the middle of the night, without a word and only her shadow as her traveling companion. The fact that the next day the satchel and crates are gone gives him hope.

Again he brings a crate of food and again he knocks with no welcoming answer. He lets out a sigh of defeat, Shiva letting out a rumble, and turns to leave. That’s when he hears the door creak open. He panics for a second, grabs the first fruit he sees and pretends to be calm and collected instead of jumping from joy at the hope that she’s finally letting him into her world.

“You really gotta try one of these.” He wants to kick himself as soon as the words spill out of his mouth. It was the most stupid thing to say, especially since Carol has been ignoring him, and yet that’s all that he could think of in such short notice. Where had the community theater actor gone to, the one who was able to improvise quickly? When had he been replaced by a love-sick fool who grows nervous as soon as he sees her?

He’s prepared to hear her telling him to leave, to stop being silly and stupid. Rejection will hurt but it will not set him back in his quest of finding the woman he’s thought of every day of his life. Instead, he gets a raised eyebrow, a half a smirk and her taking a step back, inviting him in.

Shiva walks in ahead of him, not even giving him the chance to back down. She lounges in front of the sofa, her tails swatching back and forth as she busies herself in cleaning her front paws.

He bends down to pick up the crate of fruit before walking into her cottage. She’s been there for a short time but already he sees the difference in the space. She’s brought life to the room, even if life is the one thing she’s trying to run away from. “I brought the best fruit the Kingdom’s garden has to offer.”

“Why are you here?” She asks, her voice still as icy and strong as it was last time he saw her.

“To bring food.” He replies though he knows that she’s very aware of why he’s busted. “And to make sure you are safe.”

“I don’t need you to check on me.”

“Everyone needs someone to lean on, Carol. I once promised you I would always be there for you, I don’t intend to stop now.”

That warrants a reaction from her but it isn’t the one he's learned to expect, which once more surprises him. Instead of bitting back a reply, she wraps her arms around herself in an embrace. “You stopped long ago.” She whispers in the softest, most broken tone of voice he has heard from her.

It breaks his heart to remember they’ve been separated for so long when they’d both wanted to be together for eternity. It breaks his heart to see the raw pain that she still carries inside, even if it is for a glimpse of a second.

“Then let me be your support once more.” He begs her.

She shakes her head, grabs the crate, then turns away from him. He stands in the middle of her tiny living room, awkwardly passing his weight from one foot to the other as he waits for her to come back.

When she does walk back she has slipped the mask back on, her eyes are hard once more and her back is straight as a rod. “You’ve delivered the food, you can leave now.”

A knot develops right away in his throat. He wants to beg her to let him stay, beg her to talk to him, but he is unable to utter a single word. He passes saliva but even that has a hard time moving down. “May we converse?”

“And say what?” She replies right away in a sharp tone of voice.

“There are so many things I wish to tell you.” He explains. “Many things I wish to explain.”

“What is there to explain your Majesty?” Carol challenges him. “That you left? That all the soft-spoken words of love meant nothing to you? That the dreams of the future we shared with each other were nothing but illusions you created to sleep with me? That the world ended and somehow we found each other again? That you don’t know the monster I’ve become? What exactly do you want to explain?”

He doesn’t relish in her words, not even if they show that she does remember what they had lived together. Instead, he finds his heart breaking into even tinier pieces as he realizes that she’s not only angry at him but that she has completely misunderstood their past and twisted it into something that has never been true. She’s hurt, deeply hurt, and that’s even stronger than whatever anger she’s pushed away for all these years.

“Please, leave.” He hears her request once more.

At a loss of words, Ezekiel finds himself agreeing to her request and calling Shiva over to him. She opens the door for him and Shiva slips through followed by a weary-looking Ezekiel. He’s almost at the other side of the door when he turns to look at her. “I may not fully understand what this world has made you become, but if I know one thing is that you aren’t a monster.”

He can see that she bites the inside of her cheek, something she has done ever since they were young in an attempt to stop herself from speaking whatever is in her mind. She takes a deep breath, her eyes slipping closed, watery. “I am a monster, Ezekiel. Just let me be. I want to be alone.”

She doesn’t give him a chance to reply and quickly closes the door between them. He can hear her pressing herself against the wood of the door, a sob half coming out of her and half being swallowed and tightened by her throat in an attempt to stop it from bursting forth. He physically feels the need to go to her, to embrace her and promise her things will be all right, but he stops himself. He knows Carol, he knows that pushing her right now that she’s angry and hurt will only result in the opposite of what she needs which is to talk about what has been giving her such pain, he knows he has to be patient, to allow the bitterness that has grown in her soul to slowly seep out, to heal, to finally see the sweetness.

He’ll be the most patient man on earth because she deserves it.

He simply has to remind her how much she deserves it.

And if at the end of it she still wants him to go, then he will go with the promise to always love her, even if it means leaving her alone.

——

Benjamin has spotted her out walking about in the woods. It brings him happiness to know she’s still around, going without going, but it also makes him worry. The woods are not for a lone person to travel through, she knows it and he knows it. Yes, there are wasted out there but more worrying is the fact that there are saviors that wouldn’t doubt to hurt her anyway they could. He battles all night with the knowledge of the risk she has to take on her own and by sunrise, he’s made up his mind to visit if only to make sure that the property is secure and that there are no breaches in her safety.

This time he goes without his entourage, accompanied only by Shiva who by now knows that him picking up a satchel of fruit or a crate of food means he will visit Carol, whom she was taken a particular liking to, and refuses to leave his side. He also carries a container full of peach cobbler which Jerry made specifically for Carol, stating that she loved it. Ezekiel couldn’t remember her ever mentioning a particular inclination for peach cobbler, not as she did for chocolate, but they’d been separated for a lifetime so perhaps it was something else he doesn’t know about her.

When he arrives at her home he is still battling with himself on whether or not to disturb her so he takes his time in checking the surroundings, making sure the gate remains strong and that there isn’t a breach in the perimeter. He’s so deep in thought that he trips on a wire Carol has set up to alert her of approaching company, whether it is the life or death kind. He tries to stop it from alerting her but the opening of the door tells him it’s too late.

“I told Richard no more visits.” He hears her warn to whoever is visiting her. How she knows that it isn’t a member of the wasted or someone she doesn’t know, he will never ask

Forgetting the wire, he quickly moves to the front of her home, pack over his shoulders, hand raised in mock surrender. “I am aware of your desire for solitude.” He explains, though he already sees her expression changing, relaxing as she notices that it’s him at her home. “But my mind plays tricks on me and my worry has brought me here to make sure that the Wasted aren’t inconsiderate to your desire to remain alone.”

She observes him with her hands on her hips, relaxed but still somewhat protective. “I thought my efforts were silent enough to slip under your radar, I hadn’t made up my mind yet about bothering you, but you opened the door.”

She sighs and refutes him. “You tripped my wire.”

“And for that, I am deeply sorry.” He promises. He wants to move closer to her but stands his ground.

They stare at each other for what feels like an eternity and for a second he gets his hopes up that she will not dismiss him before she turns to leave. “Goodbye, your Majesty.”

His heart plummets to the ground. She still has no desire to see him and he knows why it is; he knows part of her is protecting herself from the horrors of this world and he can’t blame her, but after debating it long and hard in the middle of the night, he suspects that the other half is because she has a different view of their past relationship. That’s the only thing that could be and he knows that he needs to clear things between them if they are to be friends.

“Hang on, hang on.” He begs her, taking a step forward, letting the King character slip for a second. He manages to stop her retreat, if only for a couple of minutes. “I wish to speak to you.”

“About?”

He swallows, knowing that things could go south right away, especially if what he suspects is right. Instantly he reverts back to being the King. It is his own defense mechanism. “The past.” He squeezes through the lump that has formed in his throat. “The Carol and the Ezekiel that once was.”

Carol shakes her head right away, diverting her eyes from his. “There is nothing to talk about.”

“Just a chance.” He continues. “To understand why you hate me.”

“I don’t hate you,” Carol whispers softly. Had he not been near her he would have surely missed her words. “I never have.”

“Yet you aren’t pleased with my presence either.”

Carol shakes her head once more, though this time it seems it’s more to clear her head than to negate. “Ezekiel, your majesty,” she says in an attempt to distance herself from him even though she doesn’t physically move away as he closes the distance between them. “I don’t see the point of rehashing the past. We met, I fell in love, we planned a future, you left. It’s that easy.”

He pauses for a moment, her words telling him that he had been right in thinking she didn’t have all the information, or at least not the correct information. “And if I were to tell you that it’s not that easy? If I were to explain the reasoning, the motivation behind my departure? If I were to explain why the future we planned didn’t come to fruition? What if I were to tell you that I left so that you wouldn’t suffer?”

Her eyes quickly find his; they are as blue as they’ve ever been, misted by tears that have come out of nowhere and that threaten to break her icy mask.

“Please.” He begs, taking a risk and reaching for her hand. Her skin is not as soft as it once was but he doesn’t care. He can’t believe that after all this time he’s holding her hand yet again. “You have the right to dislike me, I am not begrudging you that, and as much as I wish I could erase the past and never put distance between us, the truth is I have thought about you every single day of my life. I swore that I would mend things if I was blessed enough to face you once more. Now that destiny has brought us together I must right my wrongs. Perhaps you are right and the Carol I knew, the Carol I loved, is long dead, perhaps I had a hand in her demise, but if you allow me the honor, I wish to get to know the Carol I now face, the Carol I can now befriend.”

He almost misses Carol’s other hand rising to discretely brush away a tear. She breathes through her mouth for a second before closing her eyes in defeat, a couple of stray tears making their way down her cheeks.

“Please.” His voice breaks as he hates his very soul.

This is the moment he’s most looked forward to and most dreaded. If she gives him the chance to tell her why he left, to explain, he will be the luckiest man in the world. Yet, if she denies him the opportunity and asks him yet again to leave and never come back, he will do as she requests and live the rest of his days a miserable man.

When her eyes open once more they are followed by her fingers interlacing with his and giving him a squeeze. “I can’t... not today.”

“I will be at your beck and call waiting for the opportunity.” He promises, hanging on to the horizon of another day. “All you have to say is when.”

“I don’t... I don’t know when I’ll be... ready.”

“Then I shall wait an eternity if it means someday I will get the opportunity to spend time with you.”

"I am not whom you think I am." She whimpers and tries to take her hand away from him but he holds on, knowing that if he releases her, if he lets her go, he will never get this chance again. Carol will lock away, once more, whatever it is that's swimming beneath the surface of her mask and will close herself to his explanation of what happened to their relationship. "I have done terrible things! I am a monster!" She exclaims but he continues on his tender hold. "Ezekiel... you will not like who I became, who I am."

"Let me be the judge of that." He begs, raising their interlocked hands to his lips. He presses a gentle kiss on her skin, his eyes closing for a second before finding hers yet again. "You don't have to explain anything to me if you do not wish to do so. I only ask for the possibility of an audience to explain why I failed you."

A sob gets caught in Carol's throat but he hears the squeak that it produces. He tugs at her hand gently, bringing her closer, close enough for him to embrace. He takes his time, giving her every chance to escape if she doesn't want to embrace, but Carol only moves closer, molding her body to his and resting her forehead against his shoulder. He doesn't say a word, simply holds her, letting her cry for as long as she needs to. When she finally raises her head, she sniffles and takes a step back. He instantly misses the warmth of her body, the way her heart beat against his chest. "Okay." She whispers. "Not today, come in a week."

"Waiting will feel like an eternity, but I will relish in the warmth of the promise of a reunion." He declares before bringing her hand to his lips once again and kissing the skin he finds. "I shall return in a weeks time, Lady Carol."

It is only when he's on his way back to The Kingdom, Shiva hunting in the woods beside him, that he remembers that the didn't give her the Peach Cobbler. He grunts and redirects his horse. "Shiva!" He calls out in warning so that she doesn't think that he's still riding by her.

When he hears the rustling stop then change direction, he continues on his way. Wanting to keep her cover, he dismounts somewhere behind her cottage and reaches for the food he is supposed to deliver. He walks the outskirts of the fenced area but ultimately pauses as he notices someone standing at her door. Quickly he puts the food down and swiftly brings out the thin sword from his staff. He has to be quick on his feet and as silent as a doe if he wants to get rid of the danger before Carol opens the door thinking it is him.

He's ready to storm through the fence when Carol opens the door. Something in her expression halts him right away. It's almost as if the very breath, as if her very soul has left her body. Or perhaps it's coming back. She obviously knows this person and by the sudden embrace he witnesses he knows that it is someone she truly missed, perhaps even loves. His heart starts pounding in his chest, his hands growing wet as he pushes back the sword into its shaft.

Is this why she pretended not to recognize him?

Is this why she refused to acknowledge she was the Carol he had loved for most of his life?

Is this why she had pushed him away over and over whenever he wanted to talk about what they'd gone through, what they'd suffered?

Did she love this man and if she did, why had she suddenly seemed so tender moments ago?

Uncertainty quickly takes hold of him.

He remains frozen in his spot, watching as the embrace ends and they exchange words. He tries to hold on to hope, his heart begging him to not jump to conclusions, but when he sees Carol take the strangers hand and guide him into her home he knows he has just lost everything he has ever wanted. He doesn't know what Carol and this man have gone through, but he knows her enough to know that it is important, strong and unbreakable. He also knows that this man, whoever he is, hasn't abandoned Carol the way he has, even if he did it for her own well being.

Looking down at the food, he seems to still be in a trance, unable to think, unable to move so that he can deliver it. Slowly he forces his body to obey and he walks almost robotically to the front porch of the cottage. He places the crate of food at her doorstep along with the Peach Cobbler. He can't bring himself to knock and interrupt whatever it is that's happening inside because he knows he runs the risk of her opening and having to face the man whom Carol has chosen. He can't even bring himself to listen to the mumbled tones. All he wants is to go back to the Kingdom, lick his wounds and force himself to forget and simply be her friend.

He turns and leaves as silent as he came, leaving behind his torn up heart.

 

____

Benjamin is dying, right in front of his eyes.

He still doesn’t understand what has happened, he’s not sure he wants to, all he can do is pray that God is merciful and that his son, one of the boys he’s adopted, pulls through.

“It’s okay... it’s okay.” Ben keeps saying as they huddle around him. He’s dying and he knows it.

He stays at his side until the blood has stopped flowing, until Benjamin falls still and his eyes grow cold. Someone places a white sheet over him, red fingers full of blood closing his son’s eyes before covering his face. He hears a knife making its way into Ben brain but is unable to see it under the sheet. It is only then that he realizes where they are.

Everyone is in shock, including Carol whose home they’ve trampled over. “I’m sorry for coming to you.” He mumbles as he looks at her before turning away, looking back at Ben’s covered body before returning to stare at her wide-eyed. “We had no choice.”

She doesn’t answer him, instead focusing on Morgan, her friend.

Broken, he lowers his eyes to the ground.

What is he going to tell Henry? How is he going to explain that his brother, like his father, has been taken from him by this cruel world? Will Henry understand? What will he do if Henry is consumed by the need for revenge, much like Ben had been when his father had died?

“We must go to The Kingdom.” He breaks the silence of mourning. He doesn’t quite register what else happens. Grief consumes him entirely and he doesn’t fight against it.

Ben is gone. His Carol is gone. Henry is all he has left and he’s gonna do everything in his power to make sure that he remains alive.

This world has already taken too much from him.

——

He doesn’t see her again, not until she slips into Kingdom and joins Henry and him at the garden. Gardening calms his son, soothes his pain, and if he’s 100% honest, it calms him as well. They used to do it often, before the war reached his doorstep, hoping to somehow find a way to bring life when so much devastation has already happened.

It also helps him focus on what needs to be done. For so long he’s refused to be anything but peaceful, but Ben’s death has shown him that The Kingdom can’t hide forever. They must join Rick in his crusade against the Saviors, fight a war they very well might lose, and he must do it all with a smile on his face. He has to smile for his people, to boost morale, even though his heart is thoroughly broken.

He's planting with Henry when she arrives. His body reacts to her without him even turning to look at her, but he suppresses the feeling with a large sigh. In front of him Henry is patting the ground around the sprout they've just laid down. It is only when Henry gets up that he gets up as well and turns towards her.

He acknowledges her appearance by saying her name and instantly notices that something has changed in her yet again. She seems stronger, resolute, and no longer wishing to hide.

He’s been battling his inner demons, the ones that tell him that he could have done so much more to save Ben, battling the ones that tell him he has no idea what he will do with Henry, how he will raise him to be a good man, and he’s been battling the ones that remind him he’s lost Carol forever. He has tried to convince himself that he still knows Carol, but everything he witnesses reminds him that so much time has passed, that she is right, they are practically strangers, and seeing this change yet again only serves to remind him of it.

“I’m sorry.” She finally tells him, though he’s not sure if she’s telling him sorry for pushing him away, for Ben’s death or for interrupting his time with Henry.

"I thank you." He says with a nod.

"I'm gonna be here now." Once upon a time hearing her say that would have brought elation to his heart. He would have grinned, would have even teased her, but the pain in his heart prevents him from doing anything but stare at her with a withdrawn gaze. He can see the pain in her eyes, her own and pain for him. He understands this is a huge step for her, a painful one but a step she is deciding to take, a step away from isolation. "We have to get ready."

"We do." He agrees with her. "But not today."

Once again he turns his attention to Henry who has switched places to plant yet another sprout. He can see that Henry feels broken, just like he does, and decides to focus entirely on the well being of the boy. If Carol wants him around as a friend, even as she stays in The Kingdom, he will be there for her, but now he needs to focus on Henry.

He's surprised to hear her drop her backpacks and even more surprised to hear her steps approach. She sits beside them and instantly starts working on rebuilding the garden with them. They work in silence, doing whatever Henry feels like doing. Their hands brush every once in a while, the contrast in the color of their skin bringing him back to moments of their youth when holding her soft hand brought him so much happiness and worry. He sighs, reaches for another plant, and continues working.

When they are done they have a good start for a future garden. Henry asks permission to be excused and Ezekiel lets him go, not before giving him an embrace. "I am proud of you boy." He tells Henry. Henry gives him a half a sad smile before moving away, leaving only Carol and him in the garden.

"I will have Nabila assign quarters for you." He promises Carol, breaking the heavy silence that has fallen between them. "She will take you there..."

"You never came back." Carol interrupts him.

He raises his head to look at her. Her eyes are still sad but they also show her confusion. "I didn't believe you’d appreciate my presence intruding your home.” He admits.

A frown takes over her features. "Why wouldn't I? I told you to come back, so you could explain."

"I don't know Carol." He admits, another defeated sigh springing forth as he lowers his head, his chin touching his chest. "You demand solitude and I tried to provide it, I didn't always excel at leaving you alone, but I tried. How am I to judge if you truly wanted my presence when all you’ve wanted is for me to remain away“

"Perhaps I don't want to be alone anymore." She whispers. "Perhaps I never wanted to be, not really."

His mind goes a mile per hour; if she doesn't want solitude anymore then why has she come to Kingdom? Why has she come to him? Wouldn't she rather be with the man that she had so readily welcomed into her home? Should he think there is still a chance of something more than friendship because she has chosen Kingdom?

“Don’t you want to explain what happened?” She asks, her voice going soft and low.

He turns up to look at her knowing that the confusion he sees in her eyes is being reflected in his. "I do if only to heal the wounds I have inflicted upon your soul."

Carol brushes her hands on the sides of her pants before standing up and walking towards the nearby bench. She pats the space besides where she sits and waits for him to join her. "Please." She begs and it instantly launches his body into movement, following her and sitting beside her.

"I don't know what you were told." He finally admits. He doesn't look at her, doesn't want her to see how much of a broken man he is at the moment, how much Benjamin's death affected him or how his hope for a future was dashed away the moment he saw her with the man. He also doesn’t want her to feel bad for him, doesn't want her to do or say things she truly doesn't mean or want just for the sake of not hurting him. Perhaps insisting on telling her what had happened so long ago had been a mistake.

"That you left." She replies, her voice painful and dry. "Father said that he confronted you about your intentions with me and you told him you were using me in order to have a future. He said... He said you believed I wasn't worth your time and that him confronting you had given you the out you were looking for. He didn't say it in those words, but that's what he meant."

His stomach drops as he realizes that she has lived all this time thinking that he never loved her. At the same time, his anger flares knowing that her father had lied to her. He shakes his head and closes his eyes tightly. "That is untrue.”

"Then what is the truth? Because you left one day and I never saw you again."

He remains silent as he thinks about how it must have looked to her, how it must have hurt to suddenly never see the person you've been spending most of your time with. Not for the first time he berates himself silently for not having reached out sooner, for not having talked to her, for letting her believe the lie her father had told her.

The sound of a door slamming shut makes them jump. For the first time, he realizes how ill-timed this conversation is. "Perhaps we should discuss this at a later day.”

"Ezekiel," Carol says with a shake of her head. "We are going into war with a man who doesn't care whom he kills. Who has killed a dear friend of mine and tortured another. If we don't discuss this now we may never find the time again. Tell me, tell me what the truth is. Don’t hide behind the King, just... be the Ezekiel I once knew."

He slumps against the backrest and takes in a deep breath. He's about to tell her that perhaps it is best if they never have the time when Carol takes his hand in hers and gently squeezes. He owes it to her.

"I loved you from the moment I saw you during the play. You were the only one listening, truly understanding what was happening.“ He starts. He needs her to see that he always had good intentions towards her, that he had always felt something for her. "I couldn't look away from your blue eyes for the longest time. Fumbled my lines more than once. Got called an amateur afterward. You were the prettiest girl I had ever seen and when we did the curtain call and I saw you leaving I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't follow you and ask you out on a date."

"Which you did." She reminds him.

"Only by the grace of God," he admits. "I was surprised when you accepted. The south never looked kindly at a black boy courting a white girl, much less a white girl that came from an important family."

"You know that never mattered to me." Carol squeezes his hand again to give him the strength he currently lacks.

"I had never been happier to go out on a date, or more scared that something would happen." He could still remember making a list of all the places he could take her where they wouldn't be bothered by people who thought it was beneath her to date a black man and coming up short. In the end, he had prepared a picnic for her, taken her to the woods, showed her the place he liked to meditate in and unknowingly started a tradition of visiting that area every time they wanted to go on a date. "By the end of the date I knew that you were the woman I was meant to marry, but I also knew that I had nothing to offer you; I wasn't rich, didn't come from a well-positioned family, didn't have many aspirations in life other than working with animals and being happy."

"You wanted to become a zookeeper, and you did it."

"Only to prove to myself that I was worth something... Anything. Back then I told myself that I would keep asking you out on dates, no matter the consequences or the beatings I was opening myself up to, and if you kept accepting I would strive to make you the happiest woman in all of Georgia for as long as you wanted me around. A date turned to two, then three, then I was asking you to go steady and you kept surprising me. The day you said you loved me was the happiest day of my life."

Carol squeezes his hand and moves it slightly, urging him to look at her. Her eyes are brimming with tears he hasn’t realized existed and her chin quivers just barely. "I did love you."

"And I, you." He assures her. "A year into our relationship I was ready to make it official, to ask you to marry me. I was ready to fight the whole world for the girl I loved, to fist fight my way if I had to. I started saving every penny I could find and told you it was because I wanted to go to an expensive college when in reality I was saving to buy us a house, buy you a ring, give you the wedding you deserved."

"You should have told me."

"I couldn't." He explains. "How could I tell you that when not even your parents knew we were together? How could I tell you that when I knew that everyone would frown upon our relationship? We had kept it a secret because we both knew what awaited us and neither of us was ready to face what would happen. I wanted to give you everything, all that you deserved when I had nothing. Even now, I still have nothing but a fake title in a fake kingdom."

"You aren't a fake King, Ezekiel." Carol tries to tell him but he shakes his head right away.

"I have always been a fake Carol, always. Only when I was by your side, loving you, was when I felt real."

Carol shakes her head at him and turns her body completely towards him. The tears that had previously gathered at her eyes are now falling freely. "You are real to me Ezekiel, always have been and always will be. I may not understand why you do things this way, but you are real."

He raises a hand to gently wipe away a fat tear that falls down her cheek. Carol leans against his hand almost instinctively, closing her eyes and taking in a deep breath. "Three years I loved you in secret, two years I worked and saved. When I thought I finally had enough I went and purchased a ring, it wasn't fancy but it was perfect for you, or so I thought. I gathered my courage, dressed in the best clothes I could find and made an appointment at your father's firm."

"You met him?" Carol asks him confused, almost panicked.

"I did. I introduced myself and told him I loved you. I asked for your hand in marriage, told him of my plans to buy you a home, to make you happy. He... He told me you had been accepted at a prestigious school and it was in your best interest to attend. He told me his daughter would never marry a black man, that it would give you a scarlet letter in society, that people would shun you and that all you knew, all that you were accustomed to, would be taken away, told me I had nothing to offer you, told me that if he ever saw me with you he would make sure I was put away in a cell for the rest of my life."

"What?" He can see that her breathing has become faster, that her gaze has even more confusion and disbelief swimming in it. He knows how much she loved her father despite his shortcomings and knows that this must have come as a shock to her.

"I told him I loved you with all of my heart and I didn't care what he or anyone else thought. That as long as you were happy I was happy. That's when he told me you were happily engaged to Edward Peletier and nothing I did would break that engagement."

He feels her shiver with anger, her brow furrowed as if she's trying to piece things together. "I didn’t want to believe the engagement was real so he called Edward in. They both reminded me I would never amount to anything and that you would suffer if you were to marry me, that you would be looked down upon for marrying a man of color, that I would ruin your future and you'd be anything but happy. I was escorted out of the offices by the guards but I still held on to the hope that things would change, that we'd be allowed to show to the world the love we felt for each other. I didn't believe the engagement to Ed was real, not until I got out of the hospital."

"Hospital?"

"That night I was beaten so badly that I had to stay in the hospital for a month. I was unconscious most of the time, never saw who did it and the police who came to the hospital didn't seem to care about what I was able to tell them. The first thing I did when I got out was to look for you, but whenever I called I was told you didn't want to see me. I finally found out that you had married Ed, I saw the notice in the paper. You were smiling in the picture as he held you tightly against him. I don't know what happened, I knew that you loved me and that I loved you but somehow you had ended married and happy with someone else. I... I couldn't destroy that happiness, your future, so I left. I traveled here, studied and became a zookeeper.“

Carol is about to tell him something when Jerry's voice interrupts them to tell them that Rick is at the Kingdom's gate. He slowly gets up, twisting their hands around so that he is now holding hers. He brings it up to his lips as he leans down to kiss her hand.

"Duty awaits, Lady Carol." He says, slipping back into the persona of the King, a King who has everything under control, who always looks at the sunny side of reality. He abandons the unsure man, the hurt man at her side. "We have a war to win."

_____

He’s a broken man.

Her father had been right all those years ago; he was no one, would amount to nothing and would only bring grief to Carol.

For the longest time he had been in denial, pretending to be a King, smiling even when the world seemed to be against him, pretending to be larger than life, to know how to be a hero and lead his people to victory. Now that he has lost everything he knows the truth and it’s as bitter as anything he has ever tasted.

He has lost his son, Benjamin, who had stood by him and helped him cement the beginnings of Kingdom.

In the blink of an eye he lost his knights, his people, the ones he had trained with and confided in. Some he had even lost because they had selflessly given their lives for his.

He has lost his beloved Shiva, the tiger whose life he had saved once and who had saved him more times that he can count. She has protected him until her last breath.

Carol’s father had been right and now more than ever Ezekiel wishes he had listened. Now he has to show to her that he has nothing left to give, nothing to offer her.

“You are their King.”

“Because I said I was the King. I played a part. At the stakes were people’s lives... and I still played the part.” He hates himself, now more than ever hates the fake confidence he portrays, hates the speeches he’s told, hates everything because he has nothing left to love. He even hates the pity he sees in Carol’s eyes and the pain he has caused. “I knew and yet I smiled. I can’t be what they need... so please just leave me alone.”

Carol turns and leaves so Ezekiel curls into himself again, his hold tightening on the chain in his hands, Shiva’s chain. It is only when he hears her steps coming back that he turns to look up once more.

“Why did you keep coming to visit me?” Carol questions, her voice quivering just enough for him to know she’s trying hard to hold things in.

He wants to lie to her, he tries to lie to her, but Carol sees right through him. “It was my duty, to make sure you were okay.”

“I was okay. Why did you really?”

He closes his eyes and attempts to swallow the ball that has formed in his throat. He wants to tell her that he still loves her, that he never stopped and that he visited her with the hopes of finding her again, of having the chance to love her after all the time they spent apart. He wants to tell her that she gives him the strength to face whatever life throws at him and that he visited her to clear his mind, to center himself in the real Ezekiel, the one she had known before she met the King. He can’t though, not entirely, not when he knows he has nothing to offer her but the grief that embraces him so tightly. “I’ve told you... you just... you made me feel real... not fiction, real.”

She approaches him further, her eyes completely misted by tears. Once more he hates himself for bringing her grief, digs his own nails into the soft skin of his hands as punishment for causing her grief. “You are real; to the Kingdom, to me.” She walks around the stage, quickly taking up the stairs so that she can reach him, crouch beside him and look at him straight in the eyes. “Your people need their King to lead them.” She tells him softly.

He bows his head in shame, looking away from her. “You... you could lead them.”

From the corner of his eyes, he catches her hand moving, then he feels the soft caress of her fingers under his chin before she applies the tiniest of pressure so that he will turn to look at her. “It has to be you. You’ve inspired them to build this place. To believe in something... you’ve... you’ve made me believe in something. You’ve given me hope, just like you’ve given it to them.”

“I am no one.”

“You are wrong.” She states a little louder. “You have to help them grieve, you owe them that. They need you, they need King Ezekiel and if you can’t be that then you need to play the part, just like you’ve told me. You play a part until you believe it, until it becomes a reality. I play a part every day. It used to bother me but its who I am. I’m still standing. You need to play that part as well, for them, for Henry, he needs you too...”. She pauses as if to ponder if she should say the rest. He can see the storm in her eyes then he releases as she finally whispers. “I need you.”

“You need me?” He asks his voice containing a hint of sarcasm and disbelief and so much pain.

“I need you.” She repeats, leaning forward and pressing her knees to the wooden floor of the stage. “I need you, Ezekiel.” She presses her forehead against his and he can’t help but breath her in. He wants nothing more than to rise to the challenge, to be the man she thinks he can be. But he’s broken beyond repair and has fully let go of the charade.

“I can’t,” He whimpers as he feels her breath fanning his face. She’s so close yet he has never felt so far away. “Your father was right, all those years ago.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Carol assures him, her thumb sweeping back and worth on his chin. “I would have married you. I loved you so much and continued to fall more and more in love with you every single day. And if society would have ostracized me for loving you because of the color of your skin, I wouldn’t have cared, not if I had you by my side. Ezekiel you... you are real, you’ve always been real, to me, to Henry, to your people. You only have to allow yourself to feel real, please Ezekiel. We need you.”

Before he can understand what’s happening, Carol has leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. It’s so soft yet so powerful, serving to bring warmth and life into him. He’s too astonished to reply to her kiss before she’s leaning back, brushing away stray tears and looking at him straight in the eye. “I need you, Ezekiel. Please, please try. For Henry? For me?”

He later hates himself for failing her once more. “I can’t.”

——
He didn’t think he’d get to see her again, not after she’d left the theatre and definitively not while he was doing one of the most stupid things he had done to date. Yet there she is, running towards him, weapon in hand while he prepares to close the gates to Kingdom one last time.

“Your Grace!” She calls out, stopping mere feet away from the entrance.

“Go! Save them!” He instructs her.

He wishes he could tell her so much more; how much he still loves her, how he would go back and change everything so that they could have the family they wanted, the future they had planned, how he wishes her the best with the man she’d chosen, how he wants her to live, to never isolate herself, to feel and stop running from all she needed to work through. He can’t, there simply is no time. He can already hear the heavy footfalls from the saviors' boots and he refuses to put her in any more danger.

“Save then like you saved me!” He begs. He gives her a half a smile before closing the doors further.

“Ezekiel! No!” Carol pleads but he continues closing the gate.

“I love you, Carol Alexander, and I always will.”

He finishes closing the gates and secures them with Shiva’s chains and a padlock. He takes a deep breath and makes peace with the fact that he might not survive the night.

Turning he comes face to face with the Savior. It then all turns black.

——

They do see each other after she helps save him. They fight side by side, they plan strategies and help defend Hilltop. They worry about Morgan and Henry’s well-being and even fight when Henry disappears.

He can’t understand how this strong woman, a woman who has faced Saviors and won, can’t seem to face the fact that Henry is out there, probably lost in his attempt to show them his worth. He calls her a coward to try to get her to act, to help him find the young man he considers a son. It seems they can’t understand what the other says, like they are on different frequencies. He feels lost, everything he knows to be true turned upside down, his purpose once again slipping through his fingers and leaving behind only a sad man.

It isn’t until Carol brings Henry back home, back into his arms, that they catch a breath. He joins her silently in front of the small fire she has started, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand, ready to beg her forgiveness for the way he has treated her. He hands her the cup and slowly lowers himself beside her. He knows what he must do, beg her forgiveness no matter the cost.

“What I uttered before, calling you a coward,” he starts, his voice low and soft, full of regret yet full of faith in her. “I pray you forgive me. I was wrong not to have faith in your bravery... in your strength.”

She replies by shaking her head. “You were right, I was afraid.”

“Oh yeah, you were,” Ezekiel agrees with her then quickly adds. “I saw it... but you are no coward.”

He pauses, hoping she will say something, hoping she will forgive him. Having her mad at him is something he simply can’t conceive, can’t live with, and if there’s anything he can do to alleviate the anger he will do it.

“I said it, but I was afraid for Henry.” He finally admits to her.

Carol pauses and he respects the silence she lets wash over them. He wants, more than ever, to connect to her but once again he just doesn’t know how to do it. Once he would have dropped his arm around her and pulled her close, he would have kissed her temple and softly reminded her that no matter what as bothering her they would deal with it together. Now he doesn’t feel like he has a right to do it, he is no one to her except perhaps a bothersome fake King.

“I had a daughter.” She whispers to him as if the mere mention of her daughter pains her to her soul.

Something suddenly clicks about the way she treated Henry, about the way she seemed to want to keep him safe yet at arm's length from her. She’d had a daughter and had lost her.

“After I lost her I... I was nothing, but the people I was with, being with them, I found myself, some version of myself, a better self. Still, it always feels like it could... be swept away again.”

He watches as she brushes away her own tears, as her eyes fill once again with unshed tears, as she tries to keep everything inside. Losing a son the way he has lost Ben hurt immensely, but even then, even with the bond he’d created with the young man, something tells him his pain pales in comparison to what she has gone through. It is then that he realizes how she’s trained herself to keep everything inside in order to survive. He can recognize she’s already struggling with the emotions and defaulting into keeping them hidden from the rest of the world. He knows she must not do it, knows she must open up about the pain she has burning inside of her, consuming her against her will.

Slowly he reaches for her hand and though they’ve had moments where touching each other has given them strength, he’s not sure whether she will take his offering. She surprises him by not only accepting his touch but intertwining their fingers. She squeezes his fingers with her own but remains silent. He searches for something to say, anything that will bring her peace, but something holds him back. This is her time to speak, not his. All he can offer her is the same courtesy she offered him; to listen.

“You were wrong.” She finally whispers as she finally directs her gaze at him. “When you said I was happy with Ed... you were wrong.”

He narrows his eyes at her words, trying to understand them and compare them to the only glimpse he ever got of her during her marriage. She had seemed so happy in the newspaper picture that he had simply assumed that Ed had been good to her, loving and able to provide everything she had ever needed. To hear from her that he had been wrong, that she hadn’t been happy, was something he simply wasn’t expecting.

“When Father told me you had left, that you’d told him you never loved me, I was hurt... I lov... I loved you so deeply and truly wanted what we had planned.” She pauses to brush away a tear from her face using the hand she isn’t holding his with. Her chin quivers just slightly before she takes a deep breath. “I wanted the tiny house in a neighborhood where we wouldn’t be gawked at, I wanted to be your wife, I wanted to become someone you were proud of and I wanted... I wanted to have your children. I wanted the three babies we had planned; two boys who would dote on and protect their baby sister. I wanted to form the family, I wanted the life we’d always dreamt off.”

Not for the first time he feels anger at the mention of her father, a man who he now knows had kept them apart. Perhaps he had been naive in thinking he’d accept to give him Carol’s hand in marriage but to separate them so cruelly and make her believe a lie despite her unhappiness, angered him to the point of tears.

“Ed... he had made plans with my father, plans I wasn’t aware of.” Carol’s eyes beg him to believe her, beg him to understand that when her father had told him she was engaged, it wasn’t because she had been living another life but because the men in her life had decided to not to include her in the plans of her future. “My father agreed to a marriage I didn’t want.”

“I never believed you did,” He promises her. “The Carol I loved never would have acted so poorly. It falls upon my shoulders that I didn’t fight harder for your hand.”

Carol shakes her head, tightening her hold on his hand even further. “They told me over and over that you were simply using me, that you never loved me, that you had simply played and taken advantage of me. At some point, I started to believe them and I fell into depression. They all thought I was refusing to eat, refusing to go out, refusing to socialize simply to protest not being able to see you. They didn’t understand that I truly loved you, deeply loved you.”

She falls silent again, the crackling of the fire and the murmurs of conversations around them washing over them. He wants to remind her that he’s always loved her, that he has kept loving her until this very moment, but before he can say anything she is already talking.

“Next thing I knew, a wedding was being planned but it wasn’t the wedding I wanted, the wedding I dreamt of. The night before the wedding Ed paid me a visit.” He feels a shiver journey through her and dread fills the pit of his stomach. He knows right then and then that what he’s about to hear will make him hate Ed even further. “He... he told me that I was lucky he had agreed to marry me, that I was tainted and no one else would ever love me and that’s why they were rushing the wedding. He kept talking about the sacrifices he was doing and how I would forever owe him. He told me it was my only chance to not be alone for the rest of my life for being a black lover. He... he warned me, told me to act in love and happy or... he would make sure you were miserable for the rest of your life. I... as much as there was pain in my heart because I had started to believe you hadn’t loved me, I couldn’t let him hurt you, I still loved you. I agreed to the wedding, exchanged vows I didn’t believe in and posed for the pictures. I pretended to be happy while Ed verbally abused me.”

Carol takes a deep shuddering breath, her tears falling rapidly down her cheeks, uncontrollably reflecting her pain. What she says next drives a hot knife through his heart, leaving him almost breathless. He had never hated Ed or her father the way he now does.

“There was a baby.”

“Wha...what?” He stammers, not sure he understands. She was pregnant with his child? They had a daughter or a son?

“I found out after marrying Ed; the doctor said I had already cleared my first trimester and was halfway through my second so I knew it couldn’t possibly be his. I never showed, it was like the baby was hiding inside of me, trying to stay away from Ed. Ed knew it wasn’t his child.” She shivers once again and this time he does nothing to stop his instinct to embrace her.

Ezekiel releases her hand, taking it with his opposite one then smooths an arm down her back, his hand finding its place on her waist. He brings her closer, letting her tears and silent sobs wash over her. For the first time since they started talking, he realizes that they are outside, surrounded by everyone they know and that their conversation is private. However, they are too far in and he knows that if he interrupts her now she might never talk about it again. “That’s when the beatings started. He hated I was pregnant with your child. Told me I was tainted and used. We lived in a two-story house and one night he... he pushed...”

She doesn’t have to finish telling him what happened. His chest practically deflates as he understands that their child had been a victim of Ed’s rage and racism. As Carol melts into his embrace, sobbing over the child that could have been, he finds himself tearing up along with her, loving a baby that never was simply because it was half of her and half of him. How can he love something so deeply when he’d just found out about it? How can he grieve so strongly for someone he has never met?

“She was a girl. I had just started to feel her move when it... when it happened.”

“Is she the daughter you mentioned?” He asks against her hair, slowly breathing in her scent to calm himself. There is a mirage of feelings swelling inside of him but the last thing Carol needs is for him to unleash the anger and pain he feels. She needs him to be strong while she tears herself down by speaking of a past she had survived.

“No,” Carol replies with a shake of her head. “I named her Savannah after the city we met in. I... I never got to see her but I loved her. The beatings...didn’t stop, not even after I got pregnant with Sophia. He wasn’t happy she was a girl. When he wasn’t home beating me he was out in bars and strip clubs. He would bring his conquests home and tell me that a prostitute had more worth than I did, that he could get them pregnant and they would have boys. He said I was defective, a waste of space, a sorry excuse of a woman. He said he got saddled with the ugliest woman in order to please his boss.”

“Please assure me he is deceased or I will tear all of Georgia to find him and give him what he deserves.” He mumbles under his breath, his hand letting go of hers for a second in order to gently caress her cheek and tilt her head up so he could see her blue eyes. “You are none of those things; I have never gazed upon a more loving and beautiful woman than you. You are smart, strong, and caring. I would deliver my very soul to the devil to be damned for all eternity if it meant I could have been your husband.”

Carol’s chin trembles yet again and he smooths his thumb over it. Her eyes fill with tears which she doesn’t stop, doesn’t even try to contain. She’s baring her very soul to him, letting him see the pain she withstood, letting him understand why she had been so jagged when they’d reunited, so protective of her heart, so willing to isolate herself. He wants nothing more than to keep her in his arms and promise her nothing will ever hurt her again.

“A hoard of walkers took care of him. Sophia and I managed to survive thanks to the group and then... I lost her. She was so bright, so caring and tender-hearted, and just like that she was gone.” It is obvious her pain is still raw because she curls herself completely against him. He can feel her chest rising and falling as sobs take over her. In response he tightens his hold around her, bringing her as close as he possibly can. “She ran into the woods and never... never came out, not like my Sophia. We found her in a barn. I... I thought I had lost all meaning to keep going, but I did, I forced myself to survive. We lived in a prison for some time. I grew stronger, learned how to protect myself and my people, even... even took over caring for two girls.”

“What were their names?” Perhaps he is being too bold in assuming the girls aren’t alive, but he knows Carol and he knows she loves completely. If the girls were still alive they would have been by her side from the moment she arrived at Kingdom.

Carol takes a deep shuddering breath and slowly releases it. Her sobs slowly disappear, as if she’s somehow cried herself dry where these girls are concerned. Or perhaps it is that this is the moment in time where she started hardening herself. “Lizzie and Mika.” She replies. She then grows very quiet, too quiet, as if she wants to tell him something but she’s not quite sure how to do it. What is she so afraid to say? Does she not know that nothing will scare him away? “I... I told you I had done things... I told you I was a monster.”

“You did, but I do not believe it to be true.”

“I am, Ezekiel.” She states, the firmness in her voice not allowing any space for him to argue against her words. “A horrible sickness swept through the prison and I tried... I tried to contain it by burning the infected. They were drowning in their own blood and vomit, begging me to just end it, so I did. Rick, he... he banished me for it and separated me from the girls, but I found them, in the woods, and I tried to give them what they needed to survive.”

Ezekiel burrows his nose between the curls that naturally form on her hair, his lips pressing to her scalp yet again. He can feel the pain radiating from her in sharp waves and he knows she’s having a hard time telling him this by the way her body shakes in his arms. Again he is floored by the amount of pain she has gone through. He deeply admires her resilience, even if it has made her take hard decisions. “What fate befell upon them?”

“Lizzie didn’t see the world as you and I do. She didn’t understand the danger of the walkers.” Carol explains. Her voice is somber, low, as if it is the greatest secret she carries, a secret that weighs her down and threatens to drown her in the murky waters around her. “She thought they could come back, that they were somehow still alive, that they could feel and reason, that they were her friends. She... she killed Mika to prove it to us, to me and Tyreese. She was going to kill Judith as well, she told us, but... I couldn’t let it happen. Judith was a baby and Lizzie... I loved her but Lizzie wouldn’t be able to survive this world. I had to make a decision and I decided to protect Judith.”

He knows right away what has happened. Perhaps he doesn’t know the details, and perhaps they are important, but he knows that Carol has had to make a life-altering decision that came with a heaviness that crushed her very soul.

“I shot her.” She finally declares, her whole body practically sagging against him. She doesn’t sob. She doesn’t cry out. She simply releases her innermost secret, the thing that she was sure would condemn her in his eyes. “I told her to look at the flowers and I shot her.”

It suddenly makes sense; why she had been so scared to look for Henry, why she had been sure that he was dead. Twice her daughters, for he is sure she considered Mika and Lizzie her daughter as much as Sophia had been, had gone into the woods and twice she had come out without them. Henry, unknowingly, had followed a pattern that showed Carol that the end result was loss and pain. He instantly feels worse for accusing her of being a coward. She had wanted to protect herself and he had begrudged her that.

“I know what you are thinking.” He hears her mumble as she pulls back, moves away from his embrace though her hand quickly finds his yet again and their finger intertwine. “Henry... I tried so hard to keep him away but he...”

“Grew on you?”

“Yeah.” She says with a half a smile and a sniffle. “Although after this you might not want him to be around me.”

“There is no one I trust more with young Henry than you.” He promises. “You saved him, Carol. He is as afraid and terrified as you and I are, but he is but a child and his impulses take over. He grieves for the loss of his brother and he doesn’t know what to do with that grief. But he is right, you taught him and I believe you will continue to teach him the ways of this cruel world, and thanks to you tonight he is back home.”

“I do not think of you as a monster.” Ezekiel continues assuring her. “You are a mother, and a mother protects. A mother also has to take hard decisions, decisions that bring pain beyond our physical beings. I do not think of you as a monster but as a mother, a mother who chose the best for her children.”

“I killed a child.” Carol reminds him.

“And saved another by doing so.” He offers.

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“It does not,” He agrees with her. “But a monster it does not make, not if your heart was guided by the love you felt for that child and her sister. Nor does it mean that you will endanger Henry.”

Carol looks away from him then, her hand rising to brush away tears that have dried on her face. It will take a while for her to heal from the pain she feels, he’s sure of it, but if she allows him he will gladly be by her side.

“I can do nothing about the past but lament the fact that we were separated.” He finally whispers to her, his hold on her hand unwavering but even he can feel the tremors going through his body. He’s lying everything at her feet; they now both know the truth of the past, have told each other what they haven’t told others, and he still loves her despite not knowing whether her heart is already taken. “Yet, if you deem me worthy, I would do nothing else but make sure that you are never forced to do something you do not wish, I will ensure your days are filled with hope and healing, that you have reasons to smile and never shed a tear. What I told you still stands as true Carol, I love you and I always will. Life hasn’t been kind to us, it has taken away the very foundation of our lives. I refused to believe that I didn’t know you, but your words were true, we have both changed, we’ve both grown harder, tougher, more hesitant. I want nothing else but the chance to get to know this new version of you if you will give it to me.”

Carol turns to look at him right as he finishes talking. Her hand, the ones whose fingers are intertwined with his own, gives his a little squeeze. There is still sadness in her eyes but there is also a glimmer of hope that he believes will grow as she finds her footing once more.

She’s about to answer when the sound of the gates opening distracts them. Ezekiel turns to look towards the gate to find the rest of Carol’s family filtering in. In a second her hand has moved away from his, leaving him feeling like she’s gone to a place he cannot follow. She’s up in a flash moving away from him and towards those that have given her life meaning, who have propelled her to be who she is today.

And though he feels forgotten, left behind as part of her past, the smile on her face as she sees the members of her family that have survived, is enough for him to let her go.

———

He keeps to himself and his people whenever they are not in the battlefield and when they are, he plays the part of the King as he inwardly prays that they all get to see the end of the war.

He’s so focused on making sure everyone survives that he doesn’t broach the subject of their future, or lack of, to Carol. To be honest, he’s not quite sure there is a future with her, whether based on friendship, a mutual understanding, or what they once had. He wants it to be, he desperately does, but he respects whatever she decides and has promised to follow her cues. Carol, however, is as busy a he is and he simply won’t distract her.

“You’ve been quiet.” Carol’s voice comes out of nowhere, making him jump and making the stone with which he sharpens his sword slip harshly against the metal.

“I thought I had bored you quite enough with speeches.” He attempts to joke. When he only receives half a smirk he sobers up. “We’ve both been occupied.”

“Not always.”

He gives her a nod of agreement then quickly adds. “Silence has also been your protective cloak.”

“I guess it has.”

It is that same silence that now stretches between them. It feels heavy, like it has never felt before, not even when she was trying to keep him as far away as possible. He doesn’t like it, it’s not them. He quickly searches for something to say, but finds he can think of nothing but the shame of having pushed himself into her life when she didn’t particularly want him.

“I have approached you strongly, and for that I am sorry.” He finally breaks the silence. “I never meant to force you to talk of things you didn’t want to.”

“Ezekiel, you didn’t,” Carol quickly tells him, moving to stand right in front of where he sits on the log. “I needed to talk about it. It was festering inside of me and making me do things I shouldn’t have.”

“I still beg your forgiveness.” He tells her, giving her an unsure smile. “If not for the way I have pressured then for not having fought for you when your father took you away.”

“That’s in the past, Ezekiel.”

He swallows roughly, trying not to let her reply settle in his gut. “Then so are we.”

“What’s brought this on?” Carol asks him, taking a step back and settling her hands on her hips.

“I realized in my eagerness to keep you in my life, to rekindle the love we once had, that I failed to understand the importance your new family brings into your life.” He feels like he’s not properly explaining what he wants to tell her, which is sadly funny since he’s known for being a King who speaks with flowers in his words. “I never asked, and I should have, if there was someone in your life...”

“There isn’t.” She interrupts him with a shake of her head.

“I will not lie to you, I made you that promise long ago and I intend to maintain its meaning until my final breath. You promised the same.” He reminds her. His eyes go down to his current task of sharpening the slim sword that lies concealed in his staff, focusing on the way the sharpening stone slides against the steel. He is doing everything in his power to avoid seeing the rejection in her eyes. “You requested solitude and I was unable to keep away. It was during one of those visits that I was entrusted with the delivery of a Peach Cobbler from Jerry. You caught me if you well remember, and I departed before I could deliver the sweet bounty.”

“But you didn’t return to give it to me.” Carol theorizes and he can’t fault her, after all, she never saw him.

“I did.” He sends a quick glimpse her way only to find a confused look on her face. “I believed an introducer had breached your perimeter and stalked towards him fully intending on ridding you of the thread, but I was mistaken; he was a welcomed visitor.”

“Daryl.” Carol breathes out his name in a way that sends a dagger through his heart. It is quite obvious that he means the world to her.

He falls silent, unsure of what to say.

In the end, he settles in letting her know he’s aware he has no claim on her. “I have spent this time trying to rekindle a love that may have already been extinguished all along, to court you while failing to realize that you might already be partial to someone else’s affection. I have no claim in your life, I never did, nor do I pretend to have had. Your happiness is all that has ever mattered to me and if your true happiness falls away from The Kingdom, away from me, then I shall learn to live and respect the decision you take.”

It seems to be Carol's turn to fall quiet. He glances at her from the corner of his eyes before going back to his sword. When he's happy with the sharpness of the steel, he lays down the sword on his lap and turns to look at her. Carol seems to be staring ahead, her eyes misted over with a faraway look. He remains quiet, letting her think of whatever she is putting in order on her mind.

"When I got to Kingdom I was in a very bad place," Carol tells him before closing the distance between them and sitting down beside him on the overturned log. "I didn't want to be around people because I didn't want to have to suffer their loss. When I was injured I had been fleeing from my family because I couldn't take it anymore, I couldn't take the pain and being around them and being with them when we were attacked meant that I would be forced to face that pain, so I was ready to die. I begged the savior to kill me. It was a dumb decision but I don't regret it because it brought me to you."

Ezekiel can't help but let his lips curl upward. He is happy that his presence brings joy to her. He is in a place where just having her around him, in any capacity, means that he feels strong and overjoyed. Her words soothe an ache within him that he hadn’t been aware he had, an ache that was telling him she wasn't happy to see him at all.

"I wasn't mad at you." She whispers as she looks down. He follows her gaze and sees it land on his hands. "I know I was rude, harsh and cold to you when I got here. I... I wanted to run to you and hug you and tell you how much I had missed you but... I couldn't, not if it meant that I was going to lose you again down the path. I wasn't even mad at you when my father told me you had left, even when I started to believe their lies. I think the part of me didn't believe him and the part of me that was hurting soon got snuffed away by Ed. I think that while I was with him I stopped feeling anything but fear and hate towards him."

He is glad to hear that she never harbored any ill-will towards him and that her initial reaction had nothing to do with their separation but more to do with the circumstances she was living in. Her words again sooth his soul but tell him nothing about the man he saw her with or about their future.

"Daryl... he's my best friend. He's been with me through some serious shit." She admits. He raises an eyebrow at her curse word but ultimately chuckles when she gives him a shrug. "When Sophia went missing, he was the only one that continued searching for her, that never gave up on her being alive. For the longest time, I felt I owed him because of it so I kept close, as close as he would allow me. He was the one who taught me how to defend myself and in his weird introvert self showed me that it was all right to laugh and flirt and just be whom I thought I was at the moment. I... I think at some point I did feel I was in love with him."

He feels his whole body stiffen at her admission, not with anger or surprise, but with the sudden wave of sadness that slams into him. Her words pretty much have broken his heart. Carol must have noticed it because she quickly reaches for his hand, placing hers over his closed fist and easing his hold on the sword before he can hurt himself.

"But that was back in the prison," Carol tells him with a strong sure voice, even in the whisper that she delivers it. "I won't lie to you either, Ezekiel. I think I did love him but... life pulled us apart. I was getting more and more lost with every day and he... he said that we would try to continue living together but he pulled away as well. Before I knew it we had stopped talking and when we did talk it wasn't the way we used to. I... I feel like he’s not the man he used to be, something has changed and I have changed as well and we just... don't belong together."

He feels a squeeze around his fist and he relaxes his hand fully, turning it upside down. It is his way of asking without having to use his voice, which has suddenly completely abandoned him, if she sees them belonging together.

The seconds it takes for her to answer are the longest of his life until finally, she slips her hand into his, her fingers threading with his and holding on to him tightly.

"I wish I hadn't felt the way I felt when I saw you again." She admits to him before scooting as close as she can and resting her chin on his shoulder. "Maybe then you'd know that my place is by you, not because of the past or what's happened since then, but because I never stopped loving you."

"You didn't?" He asks her, his eyes already misting with tears that fall as soon as he blinks.

"No," Carol answers clearly. "I've always loved you; I loved you when you suddenly disappeared, I loved you when I found out I was marrying Ed, I loved you when I found out of our baby and when I lost it. I've loved you through the years of torture and my pregnancy with Sophia. I wish you could have met her, she would have loved you."

"As would I love her." He answers right away. He has no doubt in his heart that he would have loved the little girl, would have seen her as his daughter.

"I've loved you even when I thought I loved Daryl and I loved you when I saw you with your Shiva for the first time." She finishes by adding. "I just love you, Ezekiel, I love you with all of my heart and knowing that you love me as well, enough to put yourself out there for me to reject if that's what I wanted, has helped me heal and has allowed me to explore even more of my strengths. It has helped me see that staying away so that I won't be hurt is just wrong... because I can lose everything I love in a heartbeat and I'd rather say that I enjoyed with you as much time as I could than to say I was a coward and chose to keep away."

"You are not a coward, my love." He adds the term of endearment in the softest whisper he has ever uttered. It is bold of him but it naturally slips from his lips.

Carol smiles at him brightly, the little lines around her eyes becoming more prominent before she bumps his cheek with her nose. "I know I am not."

"Kingdom will always be your home as long as you wish for it to be, as long as your love for me continues and far beyond if its where you wish to remain."

"It is. The Kingdom is my home." Carol assures him as she gives his hand another little squeeze.

"And Henry?" Ezekiel asks, pulling back slightly to look at her. " I have adopted him as my son and being with me means that he will be around you. I don’t want you to be in any kind of pain by having him near. Neither he nor I would wish to unearth painful memories.”

“For the longest time I tried to stay away from him,” Carol admits looking at him straight in the eye. “And from other kids but... I can’t. I already love him and he’s right, he can survive this if we teach him. There is no reason for me to keep away because he will survive this.”

“He will.” Ezekiel agrees with her.

Unable to keep himself from embracing her, Ezekiel pulls back so that he can swing his arm around her, letting it rest on her waist and bringing her a little bit closer. Carol takes him by surprise, pressing her hand against his cheek. She looks at him, her blue eyes sparkling just like they used to sparkle in their youth.

“I love you.” She whispers before leaning forward and pressing her lips to his. It starts as a gentle kiss but soon he’s pulling her as close as he physically can and she’s pulling him towards her with gentle pressure on the back of his neck. Her mouth opens slightly, her tongue teasing his lips before he grants her entrance. He loses himself in her so easily, just like so many years ago. Once they are done with the kiss she breathes heavily, their foreheads pressed against each other, just like they used to rest after a good make-out session so long ago. “I love you.”

“And I love you, beloved.” He seals his words with a gentle kiss.

Carol smiles against his lips.

——

With the war behind them and Negan taken care of, the group reunites one last time before they break off to go to their communities.

Ezekiel and Carol spend the time mingling with her family. Carol introduces him to everyone, let’s him joke around and even allows him to say a couple of embarrassing stories from their youth. They spend a wonderful time, hand in hand, smiles on their faces, unafraid for the first time to show their love for one another. It’s refreshing; times have changed and no one bats an eye to see a man of color hand in hand with a white woman. If they want, they can kiss without having to worry that someone will be angry and attack Ezekiel simply because their skin colors were different.

Ezekiel has never been happier.

When the time comes for them to part, Carol says goodbye to everyone. She takes her time and Ezekiel doesn’t rush her, choosing instead to prepare the steeds and make sure that Henry has everything he brought with him.

He knows Carol takes more time saying goodbye to Daryl because of the strong bond between them that survival has created. He doesn’t even flinch when Carol leans forward and kisses Daryl on the forehead.

Once she joins them again, Ezekiel gives her a gentle smile. “I won’t insult you by doubting your love.” He says with a grunt as he helps Henry up on the horse. “But I do wish to reaffirm what I’ve said before; if you wish to remain for a longer period, to make sure Daryl is settled in Hilltop, I will not begrudge you that time. Your friendship with Daryl is important and I wish to honor it.”

Carol turns to give Daryl a glance. He is bitting at his cuticle, looking at them underneath a mop of hair. Ezekiel gives him a nod of acknowledgment.

“There are many things Daryl needs to work on. He... he’s had a tough life and in many ways, he still needs to emotionally grow up. There’s only so much I can help him with, but I think Hilltop will be good for him. He will be out of Rick’s shadow and Maggie trusts him.” Carol informs him before turning to look at him, giving him a half smile then leaning forward to kiss him tenderly. “This is good for him. He doesn’t need me here and I don’t feel the need to stay here.”

“What do you feel the need of, beloved?”

Carol gives him a huge smile before walking over to her mare. “Going home, helping my... boyfriend?” She asks unsure.

It is something they haven’t talked about, not yet. Ezekiel has always called her with terms of endearment and slipped right into it once she showed her interest in continuing their relationship. Carol used to call him ‘my love’ and her ‘boyfriend’ but he understands her hesitation; it’s been so long since that time and they aren’t young anymore so the term ‘boyfriend’ seems outdated for them. They’ve been lovers before and he has no doubt they will be again, but it somehow doesn’t quite fit them either.

“What about fiancée?” He asks her completely out of the blue.

“Is that a proposal?” She asks with a raised eyebrow. She knows it’s not, he’s aware of it, which is why she simply looks at him with mirth in her eyes before continuing checking her horse’s saddle.

“Not quite.” He admits then holds the reign of her horse while she mounts it. “Not yet.”

“Let’s talk about it when we get home.” Carol offers before giving him a quick wink then giving her horse the signal to advance. “Are you coming?”

He lets out a laugh before shaking his head at her. Quickly he mounts his horse then holds the reigns that Henry offers him. He makes a clicking sound to his horse before declaring to everyone else. “We advance to The Kingdom. Tonight we will be home.”

——-

The sun shines above them. The only sounds he can hear are the birds up above, the water traveling down the creek and her soft breathing as it hits his chest. He’s at peace, he always is when he’s with her, but here, laying down in the middle of the woods, without having to hide the love he feels for his girlfriend, brings him an elation he has never felt before.

“What are you thinking about, my love?” She whispers before tilting her head and turning up to look at him.

He tilts his head down and gives her a smile. “Just wondering how long we will be together.”

Carol pulls back and rests an elbow on his chest, prompting up her head enough to look down at him. Her hair cascades down her back and curtains over his chest and her arm in beautiful curls. “Well... we are quite young right now,” Carol playfully teases, “and I plan to be by your side until we are old and grey, until we need each other’s help to stand up or to roll out of bed.”

He chuckles and pulls her closer prompting her to cuddle against his side once more. “So an eternity?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” She agrees with him.

“Won’t be easy.” He reminds her as he trails his fingers against her arm.

“I don’t care for easy.”

“Your parents won’t like it nor will your friends.”

“I don’t care, Zeke,” She promises. “You and I... you and I are going to change the world.”

He doesn’t doubt her for a single second.