Judith starts to talk.
Nonsensical babbles gradually turn into sounds that resemble real words. Jumbled names are assigned to everyday objects. And the little girl tries to copy every noise she hears.
Her favorite things to say are hellos, goodbyes, and names.
The boys have it easy. Carl's name is a gently grunted 'Car' that can't quite tack the L sound onto its end just yet. And Rick is just an endless stream of 'Dadadadada's until he turns and gives Judith his attention.
Names are a conundrum for Michonne.
Her name is just a touch too soft and a touch too long for the baby to remember or pronounce. Plus, just 'Michonne' doesn't feel right for Judith. Not in her heart.
(And it scares her, a little bit, what that feeling could mean.)
So when Carl and Rick start the classic point-and-name game when they're all at home together, Michonne always jumps in quickly in case she needs to redirect, makes sure to show Judith innocuous objects that won't cause any awkwardness, and avoids that ever-nagging matter of names.
She can't do that forever, though.
It happens one afternoon when Rick is waiting at the gate for a visit from Ezekiel, and she's at home with Carl and Judith.
Carl is sitting on the couch, and Michonne is on the floor at his feet, Judith in her lap. Michonne keeps making funny faces and airplane noises, and Judith is squishing her cheeks and laughing, laughing, laughing.
She looks up at the boy and gives him a small smile, before nudging his knees with her shoulder. She can tell he has something on his mind. He and his dad act the same when they're thinking: quiet, brooding, and squinty.
"What's up, bud? You've been quiet."
He laughs nervously, and looks away from her as he wrings his hands together.
"Enid problems?" she teases.
"Oh my God, no. And why would I tell you, even if there were?"
"Who else are you gonna go to?"
"I don't know," he mutters, biting his lip as he looks down at his sister. "Aren't I supposed to go to Dad for that kind of stuff?"
"Come on, Carl Grimes. Don't lie to me. You would come to me way before you went to your dad. And if not me, or your dad, who else? Daryl? Father Gabriel? I'm all you got, kid."
"It shouldn't have to be you or Dad," he groans. "Besides, that's not it."
"Okay, okay," Michonne relents, trying to hold back a laugh. "So it's not Enid."
She sings the girl's name, and Carl blushes and frowns, causing Michonne to chuckle again.
"What is it then, Grimes? Spit it out."
Carl takes a deep breath, and opens his mouth only to close it again a moment later. He frowns, and purses his lips, and the expression on his face immediately amuses Michonne to no end.
"You know," she says, as Judith reaches up and grabs a loc of her hair, "your dad gets the same exact pout on his face when he doesn't get his way."
Carl turns and glares at her, but she can see the mirth hidden deep in his eyes. He turns his face quickly, before his stern expression can break and give him away, and Michonne sighs before devoting her attention to the younger Grimes child once again, unsure when he'll let out whatever he's got rolling around in his mind, but knowing she won't be able to pull it out of him until he's ready to share.
She gets through two verses of "Bushel and a Peck" with Judith before Carl speaks again.
"Have you decided what you're gonna have Judy call you?"
She freezes, and her heart drops into her stomach. She's thought about it, a lot. She's tried not to, but it still rattles around in her brain incessantly, like a fly buzzing in her ear. And she's yet to come up with a good answer.
(Or maybe she has come up with one - a name that feels right in her heart and her soul - but is afraid of what that means for her. How much hurt it brought before, and how much it could bring again. Or maybe she fears Rick and Carl won't feel the same.)
Michonne blinks hard, once, then plasters a smile on her face a begins to bounce Judith on her knees, just a tad too fast.
"Hmm, I don't know, Judes," she says, working hard to make her voice sound light. "Your dad calls me 'Mich', and he's the only one, but I bet we could convince him to share with his Cutie Judy."
It's the best thing she can come up with on the spot, and she hopes it will satisfy Carl, at least for now. She bends her knees to lift Judith into the air, and then straightens them onto the ground again quickly. Judith squeals in delight, and reaches out for Michonne's face again.
"I think Judith should call you Mom."
Carl's words stop her world.
It's not that she doesn't want Judith to call her Mom. She does want it. Desperately. And that scares her - how much she wants it.
It scares her because that's it. It's the last step in claiming the Grimes children as unequivocally hers. Children that love her, and count on her. Children she would do anything for, protect to the ends of the earth. Children she would die for, without a second thought. Children she loves, with every cell in her body and every inch of her soul.
She's felt that way for them a long time, of course. But nothing - not even marrying Rick - has the power to solidify it like that name.
And here is Carl - this sweet, precious boy that she adores with every atom in her body - laying his heart and soul bare before her. Offering her not only his sister, she knows, but himself as well, in a way that's even independent of their father.
She wants it, but it scares her. Because she remembers what happened the last time.
She can still see Andre's blood on her hands. She can feel what was left of his body limp in her arms. She still remembers standing over the makeshift grave of her brilliant, brave, beautiful baby boy.
She's healed, but she's scarred. She can still feel that missing piece of her heart. The pain has dulled, but it's still there. It will always be there, and that's okay. It's even good, in a way. It's what she has to remember him by. It's proof that he was with her. That he was real, and he was here, and he was hers.
If she were to lose a child again, she didn't know if she could come back from it.
"I've heard you and Dad say that Judith and I are your kids," Carl says, his voice pulling her from her thoughts. "And I don't mind it. I like it. It feels right. You're part of our family. An important part. You have been for a long time, but now you're officially a Grimes."
He pauses, and she chances a look at him. He's gazing at her with a soft smile on his face.
"I think it would be nice to call you Mom, sometimes."
She can't help but smile at that.
"And Judith…" he continues. "Okay, so Dad's, like, super crazy in love with you. You're not going anywhere, unless he screws up big time. Or if you want to leave for some reason."
"You're gonna have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming if you want to get rid of me, Grimes. I'm super crazy in love with your dad, too. Lucky for him, right?" she teases.
"Right," he agrees, and they smile slyly at each other, before Carl takes another breath.
"But, 'Chonne...you're the only mom Judith's ever gonna know."
Michonne smiles gently, her heart swelling as he repeats the same exact words Rick had said to her, not that long ago.
"Your dad told me the same thing."
"He's right," Carl tells her. "And I talked to him about Judith calling you Mom, and he agrees. He thinks it's a good idea, and that it feels right, you know?"
He drops his gaze to his sister.
"I think Judith should get to call someone Mom."
She doesn't realize she's crying until Judith starts to wipe at her cheek. She turns and finds the little girl looking up at her with an uncertain frown and a quivering bottom lip.
"It's okay, Judy," she tells her, pulling the baby closer and rubbing a soothing hand up and down her back. "I'm happy, not sad. I'm happy."
"So, is that a yes?" Carl asks from behind her. "To Judith calling you Mom?"
And Carl's voice is so hopeful that she could never say no. Not that she wants to. It's dangerous, and scary, but it's worth the risk. These kids - this entire family - will always be worth every risk and every battle she must face for them.
"Yes, it's a yes! Now get up and get over here."
She stands with Judith and then wraps her free arm around Carl and pulls him into her.
And she stands in the middle of the living room and holds these two children who she loves with her entire heart. These children who helped save her and continue to save her every single day.
"Now I probably won't only call you Mom, because you're my friend, too," Carl says.
"That's fine," Michonne tells him, "but don't think you can go around calling me 'Mom' when you're in a good mood and 'Michonne' when you're mad at me. 'Cause that ain't gonna fly."
They both laugh, and then Judith starts to whine and push them apart. Michonne smiles at her and says, "Okay, Judes, you need your space. We get it."
"Oh!" Carl exclaims as they take a step apart, with a snap of his fingers. "Judith and I have something we want to show you."
He turns to his sister in a flash, and Michonne watches the two of them, curious and amused.
"Judith, who am I?"
"And what's that?" Carl asks, pointing towards the ceiling.
"Sky!" Judith shouts, lifting her hands over her head.
Carl pokes Judith in the belly and asks, "Who's that?"
"That's right! It's Judy!"
"And who's that?"
Michonne is still laughing at Judith's last answer, and it takes her a moment to realize she's the only person left in the room.
When she does realize it, her heart stops. And she doesn't have time to prepare herself for what comes next. Doesn't know if she ever could prepare herself, even if she had all the time in the world.
"Ma!" Judith exclaims. "Ma, ma, ma!"
Michonne closes her eyes, and all she sees is Andre.
The first time he said Momma. Putting him to bed at night, reading him stories and singing him songs and leaving his room with his delicate, 'Goodnight, Momma, I love you,' still ringing in her ears. His voice as he came barrelling into her and Mike's room on Saturday mornings. How it felt to see him after she came home after a long day of cases and paperwork.
How it felt when she saw him after she came back from that run.
And it hurts. It hurts, and she lets it hurt, for a little while.
But when she opens her eyes, she finds a baby girl staring up at her who just called her Momma.
She never thought anyone would ever call her that again. And now that she has it back, she's not letting anyone ever take it from her. They'll have to kill her first.
"That's right," Michonne coos, as she bursts into tears. She pulls her closer and presses a kiss onto Judith's forehead. "I'm your Momma. Momma's here, Momma's here…"
"What'd I miss?"
Michonne, Carl, and Judith are so wrapped up in each other and in the moment that they don't even hear Rick come home, and all three of them jump when they hear his voice in the living room.
But as soon as Carl recovers, he tells his dad eagerly, "Judy called Michonne Mom!"
Rick answering smile is brilliant. He looks so damn happy, and it makes Michonne cry even harder. He walks over to stand behind the three of them, wrapping an arm around Michonne's stomach.
"Is that right, sweetheart?" Rick asks gently. "Is this your Momma?"
"Ma!" Judith shouts again. "Ma, ma, ma, ma!"
Rick laughs, which makes Judith laugh, and she reaches out for him.
"Yeah, I know. Dadadada," Rick says, a smile still in his voice. He reaches out for Judith, but makes a face.
"God, did your noses stop working while you were having your moment? She stinks."
Michonne leans down and sniffs.
"Oooh," Michonne groans. "Sorry, Judes. He's right. You're smelly."
"Go change your sister," Rick instructs Carl, handing Judith to him.
"Why do I have to do it?"
"Because I just got home, and I want to talk to Judith's mom. She's beautiful, and I want to see if she'll give me her number."
Carl sighs and rolls his eye and he turns to walk out of the room, muttering under his breath, "You're the cheesiest person on Earth," as he leaves.
Rick and Michonne laugh as Carl starts up the stairs, and then they turn towards each other and press their lips together. When they separate, Rick still has a slight smile on his face, and brings his hand up to wipe at some leftover tears under her eye with his thumb, before he cups her cheek.
"So. Momma, huh?"
"Yeah," she whispers. "Momma."
"How do you feel?"
"Happy," she answers immediately. "I'm so happy, Rick."
He nods, and then leans in to kiss her again, softly.
Me, too," he murmurs against her lips.
* * *
She loves watching Rick with Judith.
Rick is the best man she's ever know, and not just for the way he protects, or leads, or fights, or sacrifices. Not just for the way he gives himself - his time, his energy, his care and concern, his safety and well-being, his blood and his sweat and his tears - for, often, so little in return.
It's for the friend he is, and the brother he is. It's for the husband he is. It's for the way he always thinks of her, even when there are one thousand other things running through his mind. It's for the way he smiles at her when they're home and alone at night, and how he makes her laugh, no matter how hard or tiring their days have been. It's for the way he knows her, inside and out. Knows her voice, and her body, and her heart and her mind and her soul. Knows when to encourage her, when to console her, when to challenge her, and when to simply lay down and hold her, for hours on end, whispering sweet words against her skin that seep into her heart and strengthen her.
And it's for the father he is.
She's only known Carl for the smallest fraction of his life, but she wishes she had been there for all of it. And not for just having the privilege of knowing him, and loving him.
But also to see Rick care for him.
She's heard stories from the others, of times before she knew them. Of the way he'd traveled all the way to Atlanta, alone and having no idea what he'd find, from his small town to get to him and Lori. She's listened to them tell her about Rick racing with his son in his arms to Hershel's farm after he'd been shot, and how he'd sat unwaveringly at Carl's bedside, pouring his own blood from his arm without hesitation so that his son could live.
She'd watched him limp back to a burning prison, badly injured and barely able to hold himself up, the thought of retreating without finding Carl not entering his mind for even a second. The concept of losing him not one he was willing to entertain in the slightest.
She'd watched him rip a man's throat out with his teeth, because it was the only option he had. It was what had to be done. And then she'd watch him gut another man, brutally and thoroughly and without mercy, for trying to harm them.
And she'd heard him accept it, that this was the way things were now. That he had changed. That he was different now, but there was no other way for him to live, anymore. It was who he needed to be. He was different now, but that was okay, if that was what it took to protect his child. To protect his family.
(And when she looks back on it, she thinks that was when she'd fallen in love with him. She didn't realize it for a while, of course, but in that moment, he'd cemented himself deep in her heart.)
She remembers clearing a path through a horde of dead for him, as he ran behind her with his son in his arms. His son, shot and bleeding and barely clinging to life. She remembers the fear that twisted his features and settled into the lines on his face as he sat at Carl's side. But she also remembers the determination there. The resolve, to make things okay again.
And she can still see so vividly, that horrific day in the clearing. See Carl spread out on the ground, vulnerable and helpless. She can feel her heart in her throat, as she knelt there, powerless to help the two most important people to her, the ones she loved most in the world. She can feel her chest constrict and her breath leave her as Rick is put in that impossible position.
She remembers how he plead, and how he begged. She can hear him offer himself in his son's place, his anguished voice yelling out into the still, early morning. She can see the tears fall down his face in torrents, see sobs wrack and heave in his chest as his body trembled.
She can see him bending, and surrendering, and she remembers thinking it was the strongest, bravest thing she'd ever seen anyone do.
After she'd lost Mike at the refugee camp - Mike, along with everything else she loved - she thought of him often. For God's sake, she used to talk to him. But then she'd found Andrea, and she'd found the prison, and she stopped talking. She started thinking of him less. And then, she'd befriended Rick, and she started thinking of him less. There were pieces of him she stopped holding onto. And during that night on the couch, with Rick, she'd finally let the last of him go.
But before she did, she forgave him.
She'd loved Mike. She had been happy with him, and she'd loved him, wholly and undoubtedly. And maybe in the world before, they could've made it to forever.
But he wasn't built for this world. Not him, and not Terry. He didn't know how to cope, and he didn't know how force himself to change - not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Because it was the only way to survive now. It was the only way he could help care for their group.
It was the only way he could protect Andre.
But he couldn't see that, and he didn't change. He couldn't, and perhaps somewhere buried inside him, there was a part of him that didn't want to.
Andre had died.
She missed Mike terribly after he was gone, but there were moments, both long and short, when she hated him. Sometimes, her heart beats with a sharp pang, and she thinks she might still hate him, even through the clemency she's given him.
But the pain always leaves, along with the animosity. Most of the time, it takes seeing Rick with Judith for that strange peace to settle over her. A peace that, at a time not so long ago, she'd never thought she'd feel again.
She loves watching Rick and Judith.
She loves the way he holds her, hands that are capable of so much violence caressing the little girl with the gentlest of touches. She loves the way he smiles with her, and is silly with her, and laughs with her in a way that almost could make her forget of the horror outside their home, if she were to simply close her eyes. She loves watching him play with her. She loves hearing him talk with her, often in full conversations, as if the baby could understand every single word coming out of his mouth. She loves watching him read to her, and rock her, and sing to her softly as she falls asleep.
She loves the adoration that shines in his eyes as plain as day, whenever her looks at her, or talks about her. When someone so much as mentions her.
She loves how much he loves her, above anything else.
How much he loves her, despite the circumstances of her conception, and the conflict that had grown out of control, simply because she existed. Despite her arrival to the world, and the trauma it brought. The loss it had heaped upon both him and his son.
How much he loves her, even though she is not his blood. Even though she was created and born out of the greatest pain of his entire life.
In spite of everything, he'd taken her. He'd cared for her. He'd adopted her and raised her as his own.
She is his child. She is his daughter, and he loves her, with everything he is. He'll protect her to the ends of the earth.
The beauty of it takes her breath away. And often, she'll find herself taking a beat and simply watching them, letting the overwhelming affection she feels for both of them thump in her chest.
Sometimes, in quiet moments, she'll let her thoughts drift to her son. Her Andre. She'll look at her love, and their daughter, and she'll allow herself to imagine that things had been different.
And that is what happens, now, as they sit next to each other on their bed on an increasingly rare ordinary evening. Carl has retired to his room for the night, and even though it's well past Judith's usual bedtime, she lays on Rick's chest instead of in her crib. Her little mouth hangs open as she breathes deeply and steadily, and her eyes have long fallen closed, but Rick still hums softly over her, some twangy country song that Michonne hadn't listened to before, or probably even heard.
She watches them, quiet but focused, and pictures her baby boy. She remembers the times he fell asleep in her arms, his mouth open in the same way as Judith's. She thinks of how it would be, if he was here now, cuddled next to her, sleeping the same way as the tiny girl.
She thinks of what could have happened, if he had lived. If he had made it here, with her.
She imagines Rick with him.
She pulls in a sudden, rough breath as the image fills her head, and her eyes blur with tears before she can even register what's going on.
She nearly jumps when she hears Rick's voice, and blinks twice, wiping at the few tears that manage to escape her eyes before lifting her head and focusing on him. He's stopped his song, and looks at her now with concern darkening the blue of his eyes, a crease forming between his eyebrows as his lips turn down into a frown.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?"
She shakes her head, and rubs at her cheeks again.
"Michonne," he murmurs lowly, reaching out and running his fingers down her arm before settling his hand over hers as it rests on the mattress between them.
He doesn't say anything else, but the silence between them is loaded, and heavy. She can tell he's waiting for her to continue. Hoping for her to continue. And there's a loud, stubborn part of her that doesn't want to. That wants to bury this ache in her chest, and hide her son away for as long as she's able.
But she finds the larger part doesn't want to keep anything from Rick. She doesn't want there to be any secrets between her and her husband, and she wants to give him this final piece of her. To give him all of it, and not just passing references and vague allusions.
She starts to play with his fingers, slowly, as more tears well in her eyes.
"I was just...thinking about Andre," she whispers. "I was imagining what it would be like if he was here, with us now."
He doesn't say anything for a bit, and she keeps playing with his fingers as an irrational nervousness begins to crawl into her bones.
But then, he begins to gently tug on her hand.
"Come here," he says, and she goes to him immediately, closing the small space between them and burrowing into his side. He wraps his arm around her and begins to rub circles into her shoulder with his thumb as she brings one of her hands up to rest on Judith's back.
She feels his lips press against the top of her head, and then his voice rumbles in his chest.
"Will you tell me about him?"
The corners of her mouth turn up the slightest bit, and she nods against him, inhaling and exhaling deeply before she starts.
"He was beautiful," she says, and doesn't even try to stop the tears from falling now, as they roll down her face and onto his gray shirt, soaking into the soft cotton. "He had Mike's skin and his nose, but he had my eyes and my smile. Everyone said he looked just like me. Mike used to joke that he was jealous, that I'd gotten a little mini-me, despite the fact that he was a boy."
She lets herself laugh lightly, just for a second, and she feels his arm tighten around her.
"He loved books. He loved to read. He had only just turned three, but I was already starting to teach him how to read. He was the smartest kid in his preschool class. He was so smart, Rick."
She pauses, running the back of her hand down Judith's spine before moving it to smooth over her blonde curls. Somehow, she manages to twist herself further into Rick.
"He loved animals," she tells him. "We had a cat, named Milo, and they were best friends. He loved trains. He loved to paint. His favorite color was green. He was always moving, and we were always headed to the park, or the museum or the aquarium. He told me that when he grew up, he was going to be a lawyer, like me, but a baseball player, too. And he made sure to let us know that he didn't want to work in a boring office like Daddy."
"Of course not," Rick chimes in, and she can hear the smile in his voice.
"He was funny, and he loved finding jokes that he could tell to Mike and me," she whispers. "He was kind, and thoughtful, and brave. He was the best kid I knew, and I swear I'm not just saying that because he's mine. He was amazing, Rick."
She takes a shaky breath, and shifts, turning her face up to him.
"And I miss him. I miss him every moment, of every day."
Rick's own eyes begin to shine, and he bites down on his bottom lip as he tilts his head down to rest his cheek on top of her head.
"I wish I would've met him, Michonne," he says, and the longing in his voice rings and echoes over her eardrums. "I wish I could've known. I wish he was here with us, and with Carl and Judith."
She nods, and moves her head out from under his so she can look at him, and she can't help the bittersweet smile that breaks out on her face as she reaches up and cups his jaw.
"He would have loved you," she says, and she means it. She believes it, with her entire being.
She knows it. There isn't a doubt in her mind.
Rick's lips twitch up.
"Yeah," she confirms, the smile staying with her. She begins to run her fingertips over the long stubble on his face. "He would have seen your boots, and your gun, and Carl's hat and your denim shirts, heard your accent, and thought you were a real-life cowboy protecting us from all the bad guys."
It takes a moment for her to realize what she's said, but when she does, the smile drops off her face, and all the air flows out of her lungs.
And she thinks she can feel her heart literally begin to break apart.
Neither of them speak right away, as the atmosphere in the room takes on a weight that wasn't present before. But then, he begins to move, being careful not to wake Judith as he rearranges them, so that his face lies only inches from hers.
"I would've protected him, Michonne," he tells her softly.
She nods her head with a jerk, and shuts her eyes forcefully, trying and failing to keep the liquid that's threatening to fall furiously down her face inside her lids.
"I would've kept him safe," he breathes. "I wouldn't have let anything happen to him."
"I know," she says, her voice breaking. "I know."
He manages to pull her into him mere seconds before she falls apart, and she buries her face in the crook of his neck and begins to sob.
She cries for her baby, who she misses with everything she is. For her angel, taken from her far too soon, given a fate that he absolutely didn't deserve. She cries for the part of her heart that is gone. The part that is dead, and will be for the rest of her life.
She cries, and he holds her, whispering against her temple and ghosting his lips over her skin. She doesn't know how long they lie together like that, but eventually, her tears begin to slow, and she starts to breathe again. When her heart returns to its mostly-normal rhythm, she pulls back to look into his eyes, and finds them red and wet and swollen. She frowns, and rests her hand on his cheek once again, feeling the ever-present, automatic urge to comfort him.
She tells him, gently, "You would've loved him."
He smiles sadly, his lips pressed together, and brings his forehead forward to rest against hers.
"You would have loved him so much, Rick."
"I already love him, Mich."
Her heart jumps at his words, and she pulls back just enough to find his gaze, her eyes widening as he stares back at her.
"He's part of our family," he tells her passionately. "He's part of you, so that means he's part of us, too. And I love him. I've loved him from the first day I found out about him."
And she can see the sincerity in his eyes. He's not just saying it to comfort her, or placate her. He means it.
He loves him. Her Andre.
"I love him," he murmurs again, moving his forehead to rest against hers once more. "I love him so much, baby."
She expects to cry again, to feel the pressure behind her eyes as water gathers once more.
But she doesn't.
Instead, that same peace she feels when she watches Rick and Judith washes over her, stronger than it ever has before. She drowns in it. It fills her entire soul.
Andre lingers there with her, but he feels different, suddenly. It's like she's not alone with him anymore. Instead, he's there with all three of them - cuddled up with her, Rick, and Judith.
And it's different. It's warm.
She closes her eyes, places a gentle kiss on Rick's lips before lacing her fingers through the curls that gather at the nape of his neck.
She breathes with him, feels Judith snuggled between them. She feels Andre settled in her mind, and in her heart.
And for the first time since she lost him, he doesn't hurt.
* * *
She can't exactly pinpoint when her thoughts begin to shift.
Judith starts to spend more and more long evenings in their room, as their schedules become increasingly hectic as they continue to inch closer to war with each passing day. They'll send Judith to Hilltop soon. All three of them - her, Rick, and Carl - are dreading the moment they'll have to part with her, but they know she will be safer there. They know it's the best way to protect her, so it's what they decide to do, without a question or a single breath of hesitation.
But they can already feel themselves begin to miss her, and so they begin to steal away any time with her they can find. And when the sun sets and Alexandria begins to settle as another day dwindles to a close, they're given a perfect opportunity.
They take turns holding her at night, the one who doesn't curling into the other's side and letting their hands wander until they're wrapped comfortably around the two people lounging with them.
And there are some nights, of course, when Judith crawls into their bed with energy to spare, and she'll bounce back and forth between the two of them, cooing and babbling and clapping, until she tires herself out and settles on one of their chests.
And it is in those quiet moments, after Judith has fallen asleep, as her and Rick sit together and breathe each other in, occasionally passing sweet whispers and kisses back and forth, that her thoughts typically drift to Andre, now that she feels free to remember him without that white-hot pain forcing itself through her veins. She thinks about what he would be like at this age, how he would feel nestled beside her, how he'd look sitting and smiling with Rick.
And she can't exactly pinpoint when her thoughts begin to shift. They move so slowly at first, that she doesn't even know they're moving at all. She doesn't notice anything's changed until one ordinary night, as she watches Judith sleep on Rick. She imagines Andre sitting between them, his head lolling on Rick's shoulder. And it makes her smile for a moment, before her eyes close and her mouth opens in a wide yawn. She shakes her head back and forth, as if trying to rid herself of her tiredness, before she opens her eyes.
And her stomach lurches, as she finds that Andre replaced by someone she doesn't know.
She frowns and sits up slightly, blinking again and again, rubbing her eyes and trying to will the stranger in her bed to go away and give her back her baby boy. She feels the bed rock as Rick shifts, but she can't bring herself to acknowledge him because she can't tear her eyes away the child before her.
"Michonne?" she hears him ask, picking up on the slight edge of worry in his voice. She closes her eyes and shakes her head once more, in a last ditch effort to remove this mirage from her brain.
But she has no such luck, and the child lingers in her peripheral vision as she finds Rick's gaze, his mouth slightly open and his blue eyes swimming with concern as they search her face.
She grows nervous, suddenly, under his intense stare. She drops her eyes almost on reflex, before she can remember that's what she's trying to avoid. And by the time she realizes it, it's too late.
She sees the strange child sitting in front of her, his body pressed against Rick's. And now he's turned around, so he can stare at her, with a curious pair of bright, blue eyes.
Bright blue eyes.
Her heart stops. She moves her gaze from the child to Rick, back to the child, back to Rick, before she leans back so she can take in both of them at the same time.
Two boys - one she knows, the other she doesn't - looking back at her with two pairs of shocking blue eyes.
With the same pair of bright, clear, beautiful blue eyes.
"Michonne," he says again, more forcefully, grabbing her arm and shaking gently for a moment, trying to pull her out of her thoughts. It still takes her moment to look at him, to pull her eyes away from the ghost sitting between them. But once she does - looks at his lovely face, his expression lined with love and concern for her. That face, which she's come to know so well, and adore so dearly, that she's convinced she could just close her eyes and trace her fingers over its features and still be able to identify as belonging to the man in front of her.
And suddenly, she knows the little boy beside her.
She reaches up and strokes her hand over his forehead before trailing it down his cheek, while she brings her other palm up to rest over her stomach, without even thinking.
He stays quiet, turning his head slightly for a moment so he can plant a light kiss against her skin before straightening and looking back at her, his face curious, but patient. He's waiting for her to speak, she can tell, to share what's come over her so suddenly and weighed so heavily on her heart.
Her mouth goes dry, and there's a part of her that doesn't want to share this with him, that's afraid to conjure up demons from his past that will haunt and hurt him.
But she doesn't know how to keep things from him - especially this - and the words slide up her throat and push past her lips before she can even think of stopping them.
"Do you...ever wonder what our baby would look like? What they would look like, if we ever had one?"
His face goes blank, and she curses herself internally. She shouldn't have said anything. She knew she would hurt him.
"Rick…" she begins, trying to come up with a way to fix this.
But then, a beaming smile breaks out onto his face, and her words trail off as butterflies do somersaults in the pit of her stomach. He reaches up and holds her hand against his cheek with his, nuzzling his face against her skin before speaking.
"Yeah. Yeah, Mich, I do."
And now it's her turn to smile at him, scooting closer to his side and curling her fingers around his jaw.
"So?" she prompts. "What do you think?"
"Well," he begins, drawing out the word for an extra beat. "Hopefully, they'd look exactly like you, with little to no interference from me."
She rolls her eyes and takes her hand off his face to punch him in the arm playfully. She bites back her grin at the tiny exclamation of pain that escapes him.
"Be serious, Grimes," she scolds, trying to hold back the smirk that threatens to turn up the corners of her mouth as she watches the smallest pout form on his lips.
"I am serious. But really, it doesn't matter to me what they look like, as long as they're ours."
His words make her whole body sing, especially the last one that falls from his lips - ours. She can't stop her smile from bursting back onto her face as she looks at him, his voice echoing in her ears. As she thinks of their child.
His face softens suddenly as he gazes at her, and his eyes brighten. He reaches his hand out, pushing a loc of her hair behind her ear and then tracing his fingers along her cheekbone.
"Except that smile," he murmurs gently. "I definitely want them to have your smile."
She takes his hand from her face and laces their fingers together.
"I want him to have your eyes," she whispers into the stillness of the room, so softly, as if someone outside could hear her and steal away their dream if she wasn't careful enough. "And I want him to have your nose."
"My nose?" he questions, his face scrunching in confusion. "Why my nose?"
"You have a perfect nose."
She leans forward and presses her lips across the bridge of it to emphasize her point, and then runs her index finger along its smooth, perfect slope and down his face to rest on his full lips.
"And he?" he asks, taking her hand from him and pulling her into his side. "Why he?"
She shrugs, and leans her head on his shoulder. The little boy pops back into her mind.
"Just a feeling."
He hums, and then they let the quiet settle back over the room. She settles her palm on Judith's back again, playing with the ends of her blonde curls that seem to grow inches every day as the little girl continues to sleep.
"Do you want to have a baby with me?"
Her breath hitches at his question, even though it's the one she's been hoping he'd ask throughout their conversation, if she was honest. She sits up again, and turns to him. That soft expression has returned to his face, and it makes tears well up in her eyes.
She's nodding before she can even think about it, and it scares her - to want that again. She never dreamed she would. Not after what happened to Andre. But she'd be lying if she said she didn't want it.
God, how she wants it.
She doesn't realize she's actually started crying until she feels his fingers wiping under her eye, and she glances up at his face and finds that his own eyes have begun to shine, and when he shifts and catches her gaze, he smiles tentatively.
"I want that, too," he tells her.
She nods again, more forcefully this time, and then she crashes her lips into his, barely managing to mind their daughter still laying on his chest.
She kisses him until she can't breathe, and then for a few more moments after that. They finally separate and rest their foreheads against each other, their lips parting with a smack and their chests heaving.
"But we can't," she nearly whimpers, her tears still falling, the words shattering her heart as they form and leave her mouth. "Not with Negan. Not with the war. We could never risk their lives like that. It's too dangerous."
"It is too dangerous," he agrees, and she feels her heart break a little bit more. For some reason, she almost thought he would contradict her and manage to change her mind, even though she knows without a doubt that she's right.
But he keeps speaking.
"Now it's too dangerous. But after the war is over, Mich. After we win this thing."
He pulls back so that he can catch her gaze as he speaks, and the fire and determination she sees in his eyes is so resolute and unwavering that it makes her heart flutter.
"After we win this, we can have our baby. We can have our wedding, and we can have our baby."
And she believes him. She closes her eyes and pulls his face back to hers, and she loves him and she trusts him and she believes him.
"We can have our baby," she repeats.
Their baby. Something that they made together, just the two of them, all on their own. Something that no one else can own or touch or claim.
They kiss again, slowly and deeply, and after they pull away she settles back into him, laying her head on his chest, right next to Judith. The baby's soft exhales wash over her face as she breathes, and then she feels Rick snake his free arm around her middle and rest his large, strong hand right over her stomach, and she smiles.
"We're gonna have everything we want," he says. He swears.
And she believes him.
* * *
The next morning, a Savior with burns on his face, named Dwight, shows up at their front gates.
Their first instinct is to shoot him, and they nearly do, but he swears that he's on their side, that he hates Negan too, that he can go back to The Sanctuary and be their inside man. That he can be their spy.
So they don't shoot him, and after hours and hours of interrogation, they opt to trust him.
Every cell in her body rebels against the decision, but by that point, they don't really have any other choice. Dwight could be lying, still be aligned with Negan, and be here to gather information about their plans for war. But if that's the case, they're already fucked, and there's nothing they can do about it.
They could kill him, but if Dwight is as close to Negan as he says he is, The Saviors would be sure to come looking. They would tear apart Alexandria trying to find a trace of him. And they would uncover all their preparations.
So they trust him, and hope and pray that he's telling the truth. And then they send him on his way. But before he goes, he warns them that Negan is bringing men to Alexandria tomorrow, and not for a simple pick-up.
And just like that, before any of them even have a chance to blink, it's decided. Their war will start tomorrow.
They spend the rest of the day taking all the last-minute measures they can. They put weapons in place, send messengers to the other communities to tell them to get ready. They take Judith to Hilltop, where she will stay for the duration of the war, as long as it remains the safest place.
They work until there's no more daylight, and they assign guard shifts. Then, those who are free go home to get as good a rest as they can before tomorrow's first battle.
And as she lays in bed with Rick, facing him, skin against skin and heart against heart, she does her best to take in every part of him - every inch of him - and cement and seal it in her soul. To memorize him so thoroughly that no one will ever be able to pull him from her, no matter how hard they may try.
He holds her close, running his lips over her face continuously, occasionally pausing to press them harder to a specific spot. She rests her hands on his chest, smoothing her fingers over his scars and inhaling him again and again.
"We're gonna have our wedding," he breathes. "And we're gonna have our baby."
She nods, and kisses the scar Morgan's stab wound left on his chest all that time ago.
"We're gonna spend the rest of our lives being happy," he says.
She kisses that spot again, and then tilts her chin up so she can look into his eyes. His blue eyes - so full, so fierce, and so resolute.
"We're gonna win," she tells him. "And we're gonna live."
We're the ones who live.
He pulls her closer to him, somehow, nudges his leg between hers and buries his face in the crook of her neck, but she grabs his face between her hands and pulls it away from her, taking a moment to rake her eyes over his face before she brings his lips to hers, trying to pour everything she feels into kissing him. It's an impossible task, but she tries anyways, and he kisses her back like he's been wandering in the desert and she's the first water he's seen for weeks.
They part, and he places one more peck on both her top and bottom lip before moving his mouth to her ear.
"We're gonna have everything we want," he whispers.
She smiles, tightens her arms around him.
And she believes him.
We're the ones who live.