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service

She sees him differently, now.

Not in the way he fears, of course.  Not in the way that shines in his eyes when Negan comes to visit them, as he is forced to stand there holding his awful bat while that fiend laughs. As he watches strangers confiscate what his family’s worked so hard for without a second thought.

Not in the way that puts a quiver in his voice whenever he must stand in front of his community, in front of these people who ignore him when he succeeds and hate him when he fails, and tell them that this is the way it is now, there’s no second chances, there’s no other option, there’s no way out.  When his son glares at him as he tries to get through his young, rebellious mind that this is way it is now and everyone has to accept it, because there’s no going back.  When he stares at her with hollow eyes and mumbles that this is the way it is now, that they can’t fight, that they don’t have the numbers and they’d never win.

Not in the way that slumps his shoulders when it is late and dark and they are alone, when he can barely look at her because he’s afraid of what she’ll think and he’s afraid of what he’ll see in her eyes.

Not in the way that etches lines in his face that cry out to her when the two of them are draped in silence.

This is my fault, I know I am weak, I know I am irresponsible, I know I have failed, please do not hate me, please do not think less of me, please do not think I’ve given up on you, on our family, I’m trying to protect us, this is my fault, please do not hate me, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

She sees him differently, but not in the way he fears.  She could never see him that way, because that is not who he is; the version of him that exists in his head is a lie.  It is a product of self-loathing and doubt, of exhaustion, of attempting to carry the entire world on his shoulders and the devastation that overcomes him when he fails.  You are not Atlas, she wants to ask him, who made you carry the world in the first place?

She wants to ask him, wants to hold his head in her hands as he pours out his shame to her and then rub out the crease of worry between his brows with her thumb, run her lips over his skin and tell him that he is wrong, that is not who he is, that is not who she sees.  He may be lost to himself right now, but she never doubts his strength.  They may be on different pages regarding what to do with Negan, but she never questions his courage or his heart.  Not even for a second.

She wants to show him that.  She wants him to look into her eyes and see the truth that resides there.

You are strong, you are so strong, the strongest man I’ve ever known, you take abuse, you swallow pain, you lay at the feet of those who have cut you open and left you to bleed and thank them if that is what it takes to shield the ones you love, if that is what you must do to keep them safe, you put others first, you place yourself last, and that is not weakness, that is the greatest strength, you are the strongest man I’ve ever known, you are strong, you are strong, you are strong.

She wants to tell him he’s wrong, that the monster who exists in his head isn’t real, but she knows he would not believe her, so instead she caresses him and cherishes him and tries to love away his self-hate.  She tries to find a way to stretch across the chasm between them and hold his hand.

She prays she can reach him.

She prays he can feel her when she does.

*             *             *

go-getters

She sees him differently now, after they kiss, when she really touches him for the first time since their lives were shattered with the swing of a bat, save for the few hours they spent wrapped together immediately after the clearing, clinging to each other with the relief that the kids were alive and she was alive and he was, too. 

She reaches out first because she knows that he won’t, that he doesn’t see himself as worthy of her love.  He never has and probably never will, and this breaks her heart but it is who he is and who he is etched into her bones.  She will never be rid of him and it makes her smile.  He is etched into her bones and she is glad.

She kisses him because his body is heavy – heavy in a way that reveals fear and fatigue and loneliness.  He thinks he is losing her, that she is slipping through his fingers.  He thinks that the current pulling them apart is too strong, that she won’t come back to him, that they’ll never recover.  She knows this because she knows him, knows him like the back of her hand, knows him like she’s known him forever.  She knows because she can hear it in the cadence of his voice, in the sound of his breath passing unsteadily through his lungs.  She can almost smell it on his skin.

She kisses him to remind him.  I’m still with you, she’d told him once, and she’d meant it, with every fiber of her being.  She still means it, will mean it until the day she dies and even longer, until Earth falls away and the universe collapses in on itself.

She kisses him and a wall falls down.  The last wall that stands between them crumbles and they are laid out before each other bare.  They are naked, vulnerable in a way they’ve never shown another person, and it is strange and terrifying, but air rushes over her in a way it never has before, and she’s never felt more alive.

Here I am, they say to each other, I’ve been destroyed.  I am just broken shards scattered on the ground, but here I am.  I can hardly breathe, but here I am.  Take me or leave me, but please take me, take me, please don’t leave me.

He takes her.  Of course he does, as if there was any doubt.  For her, he is as solid as a rock in a storm.  She clings to him and he never wavers, not once.  He picks up every ruin that Negan leaves behind, holds it, regards it as the most treasured jewel and vows to protect it with his life.

She takes him, and this was always just as sure as him taking her.  She holds him just as carefully, but he cannot see it, is blind to his worth.  If she was trying to explain it to Judith, she would say that her father saw her as a princess, thought himself the frog, and forgot that the point of the story is that the princess is in love with the frog despite everything he hates about himself.

They take each other, pick up every damaged piece.  They cut their fingers on the sharp edges of their hurt and pain, but they do not care because people suffer and fires burn to make way for something new.  Blood drips from their hands but they do not care – he because he loves her so much and would do anything to make her happy, she because she loves him too and she knows they will heal together.  They do not care because fires burn to make way for something beautiful.

She sees him differently after they kiss, and it is a revelation.  It is a light that illuminates the darkest corners of herself, that leaves her in awe and roots him more deeply into her heart than anyone who’s come before him.  To cut him out would be to cut out a part of herself.  She would die without him, and that fact is terrifying but somehow she isn’t afraid.  Somehow it fills her from head to toe, brings about a certain freedom, and she feels so light that she thinks she might float into a softness she’s never experienced before, one from which she’ll never recover.

She kisses him and tries to love away his self-hate, and when she pulls away and runs her fingers over the graying stubble of his beard, he looks at her in a way that makes her think maybe she’s finally started to succeed.  A hushed thank you falls from his lips, and she almost asks him to stay home from his run, to kiss her again and then slip away into their room, to crawl under their covers and hold her and forget everyone and everything else, if only for a moment.  But she knows that he couldn’t even if he wanted to, so she lets him walk from her and she stares after him longingly as she grips the walkie talkie he gave her in her hand.

She spends each second of his absence thinking of him, worrying about him, even though she’s busy with her own endeavors.  She hasn’t been away from him this long since after the prison, and since she let herself admit how important he was to her, how much and how deeply she cared for him.  She has to talk herself out of following him every couple of hours, and she spends the night without him clutching the walkie in her hand like it’s her only lifeline, her skin stretched tightly over her knuckles as she tries to close her eyes and find sleep that doesn’t come.

*             *             *

hearts still beating

The next night, she falls asleep to the sound of his heartbeat.

She smiles softly as she lies pressed against his side, her bare skin against his, his arms wrapped around her, hands settling possessively in the dip of her lower back, just skimming the curve of her ass.  Her cheek rests against his chest, so she can also feel the steady pump of blood running through his veins, giving him life.

We’re the ones who live.

She can’t pinpoint that exact moment she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to do what she thought she could.  The feeling crept over her, rather than hitting her all at once.  It began in her toes and slithered up her skin before it planted itself in her chest, its roots twisting through her heart.

She had thought this would be just like all those weeks she spent looking for The Governor, and that this time she would succeed in her mission.  She would not let Negan destroy her home, as The Governor had destroyed the prison.  She would not let him kill anymore of the people she loved.

But the more time she spent in the car with the strange woman beside her, the closer she got the The Saviors’ camp, the better she came to understand that this wouldn’t be the same.  That it couldn’t – not anymore.  She couldn’t retreat inside herself like she had done months ago.  It was impossible, because there were parts of her heart that weren’t her own anymore, that would forevermore exist outside her chest.  One belonged to a baby girl with gentle blonde curls that eased the pain of losing Andre with each coo directed her way, with each tug of her hair and swipe of small, soft fingers across her cheek.  Another belonged to the most resilient boy she’s ever known, one she’s watched grow up before her very eyes, the first person she allowed herself to love wholly and completely in this new, dead world.

The other is held by him.  If someone had told her that first day they met – that day full of hostility and suspicion – that he would come to mean to her what he does, she would’ve laughed.  She would’ve thought they were crazier than her, and she had regular conversations with her dead boyfriend.  But he had snuck up on her, wormed his way into her hardened heart slowly and persistently, without her realizing it.  And now she couldn’t bear the thought of life without him.  He was her best friend, the love of her life.

He was her partner, in every sense of the word.  She wanted him here, beside her.  She wanted to do this with him.  She wanted them to be together and united, always.

She couldn’t be by herself anymore.  She didn’t want to be.

So she’d gone home.

She’d turned the car around, drove back to Alexandria.  She found Carl and Judith, the children that were hers in every way that counted, and held them.  And then she set out to find him.

And when she did, she poured out her heart and her soul.  She grabbed his hand and pulled with all her might, tried to free him of this darkness Negan had heaped upon him.  She entreated him passionately, desperately, with the only words she had left.

Me and you, she’d said.  The two of us.  She needed help from the rest of her family too, of course, but he was her first priority, as always.  She needed him with her on this, before she could even begin to think about anyone else.  She couldn’t do this without him.  She wouldn’t.

She needed him to find his spirit again, to find himself.  She needed him to come back to her.

And he had.

In the back of her mind, she supposed she’d always known he would, but that didn’t reduce the sweet relief that washed over her when she saw that fire that she loved so much back in his eyes.  It didn’t stop tears from filling her eyes, but she welcomed them, embraced them with open arms.  For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, they came from something other than sadness and grief.  They came from the same joy that lit up her face with a wide smile that mere hours ago she feared she’d never experience again.

He’d reached for her at the same time she reached for him, and she kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.  She conjured up every bit of emotion coursing through her being and poured it out of herself and into him, and then she took him home and made love to him.  And when she’d held his face between her palms as their pulses slowed and breathing steadied, firmly telling him, “We’re going to be okay,” she truly believed her words for the first time, and she could tell by the glint that shined in his eyes even in the darkness of their bedroom that he did, too.

She smiles again now, remembering it and everything else, from the couch to finding him and Carl after the prison to standing at the back of an SUV with him as he tossed her the keys to the vehicle with some cheeky remark that almost sounded friendly, and she thought for the first time that things might work out differently with him than she’d expected.

We’re going to be okay.

Her words echo in her head, and with every passing second she believes them more.  She twists herself closer to him.  The world that still had enough good in it to give her this – to give her him – would not be so cruel as to take it from her.  To take her entire life, heart, and soul away from her again.

We’re going to be okay.  We’re the ones who live.

She feels his steady breaths blow against the top of her head, and before she joins him in slumber, she lifts herself from him, props herself up on her elbow and hovers over him.  The peace she sees on his beautiful face makes her heat swell.  She brings her hand up to brush a stray curl from his forehead before trailing it down the side of his face to caress his cheek, her thumb sweeping across his skin gently.

Her love for him overwhelms her as she gazes down at him.  This man, who can be so rough and savage and ruthless, who she’s seen covered in blood more times than she can count, is so precious to her.  So dear.  This man that lies under her is so gentle and warm and loving and good.  That is his heart.  The brutal, hardened man who fights and kills so often is who he has to be, to protect his family and himself.  But the man who is before her now – this good, good man – is who he is.

He stirs under her touch, and she freezes.  She regrets rousing him from the first restful sleep he’s gotten in a while, but before she can pull away, one of his hands shoots up to hold hers in place against him.  He hums softly, his eyes still closed.

“Don’t stop that.  It feels nice.”

His voice is deep and gravelly, as it always is just after he wakes, and a wonderful chill runs down her spine.  She smiles as his eyelids flutter and reveal bleary blue eyes that stare up at her.

“What are you doing awake?”

She shrugs, drops her face almost bashfully.

“I…I just wanted to be with you.  Look at you.  I guess…”

She trails off, laughing self-consciously.  She hasn’t done this in such a long time, cared for someone so deeply and openly.

“Hey,” he whispers, and she lifts her head to look at him again.

The emotion she sees on his face knocks the breath out of her.  Because it is what she feels, mirrored back to her.  They’ve always been good at communicating without words, and she can see what he feels for her etched into his expression as plainly as if he’d carefully written it out on paper and then read it to her word for word.

She’s not alone.  He’s in this with her.  They’re together, and there’s no reason for her to be shy.

“I missed you so much,” she murmurs, and her voice cracks as she feels tears well up behind her eyes once more.

He embraces her then, locks his arms around her and crushes her to his chest so tightly that it almost hurts, but she doesn’t mind.  If anything, she wants more, she wants him closer.  She’ll always want him closer, and she’ll always want more because she will never tire of him, never have enough of him.

He buries his head in the crook of her neck, starts to drop soft kisses against her collarbone.

“I missed you, too,” he whispers against her skin, and she winds her fingers into his hair, presses her face against the top of his head.

They lay like that for a few moments, enjoying the comfortable silence between them, the contact their bodies make, the feel of being together physically, emotionally, and intellectually once again.  But he moves, pulls her down his body slightly so that their faces are aligned, and leans back into the pillows so that he can look into her eyes.

“But you’ll never have to miss me again,” he promises, and she knows that he means it with everything he is, and a few tears escape and fall down her face before she leans down and kisses his nose, and then presses her lips against his.  When she pulls away, she nestles her cheek against his.  She turns her head, moves her lips along his jaw, the stubby hair of his beard pricking her lips.

“I love you.”

The words slip out of her mouth before she can stop them, before she can even think about them.  But they’re true and she’s so overcome by him in this moment, by the solace of having him back in her arms, by her affection for him that fills every cell in her body.

Still, her heart skips a beat and she gasps sharply in surprise and fear; she doesn’t do this.  She doesn’t put herself so far out there, she doesn’t say it first, she refuses to be so vulnerable, even did in her life before.  When she had no reason to be afraid or anxious.

But she feels his arms tighten around her and his head turn so he can bury his nose in her hair and inhale her.  And she’s reminded that there’s nothing to fear, that he is here and he is hers.  This is different – different than the old world, different than anything that’s come before.

“I love you,” he declares back to her.  “Always have, and always will.”

And the statement is so blunt and direct and him.  It’s perfect.  Her life before had been filled with so much art and poetry and opulence, that she’d sometimes forgotten the value of just telling things the way they are.  Sometimes the most important things are best said in the simplest of terms.

His words are perfect, and he is perfect.  Perfect in his imperfections, and perfect for her.

She smiles, somehow intertwines herself with him even more and in some strange way – despite everything that’s going on, despite their mourning, despite the danger and death and fight that is ahead of them – she thinks this may be the happiest moment of her life.

Neither move.  They hold each other, fingers running like feathers over skin intermittently, reveling in each other.  Their heartbeats slow, they match their breathing, and soon both are on the cusp of sleep.

And she feels it again, that profound conviction, curling in her stomach.

They’re going to be okay.  All of their family, Alexandria and The Hilltop, are going to be okay.  But especially the two of them – him and her.  Rick and Michonne.  The world wouldn’t take him from her.  She wouldn’t allow it.

We’re the ones who live.

*             *             *

rock in the road

Their bedroom becomes their sanctuary.

It starts the night they return from their whirlwind outing.  They’d gone to The Hilltop, visited The Kingdom for the first time, cut down a herd of walkers, put up with a visit from the Saviors, and found yet another new community in the process of getting back Gabriel, all in the span of two days.  She’s tired just thinking about it.  Her head is still reeling from all they’ve seen and learned, thoughts racing with the new possibilities and strategies for their upcoming war with The Saviors, and she quickly voices one to him.  Rather than responding, though, he freezes, with his button-up halfway down his arms.  She looks at him strangely as he pulls it back up and snaps it up quickly.  He walks across the room and grabs her robe from a hook inside the closet, tossing it to her before moving to the doorway, since she’s already stripped out of her dirty clothes.  He cocks his head towards the stairs in a silent request for her to follow him.

She slips the robe over her body and ties it at the waist quickly before padding down the stairs after him.  She finds him in the kitchen, grabbing a glass from the cupboard and walking over to the sink.

“Is everything okay?” she asks, the puzzled look that came over her in the bedroom still on her face.

He turns on the faucet and fills his cup with water, then lifts it and drains the liquid in one gulp.  He sets the glass on the counter and wipes the leftover moisture from his lips with his forearm before turning to her, nodding his head slowly.

“Yeah.  Yeah, it’s just…”

He trails off, dropping his head with a heavy sigh before lifting his eyes to look at her.

“If we’re gonna talk about him – Negan, I mean…”

She doesn’t even let him finish before she moves over to where he stands, placing her hand on his back and rubbing in gentle, soothing circles.  She frowns slightly as she stares at him, his head turned towards the floor once again.  All this information and planning, the weight of what they’re preparing to do, has been going non-stop for hours on end, and after two long days away from home, it’s no wonder he needs a break.  She does too, if she’s being honest.

“We don’t have to talk about it anymore tonight,” she assures him quietly.  “I’m exhausted.  I’m sure you are, too.  And it’s been a lot to take in.  So we should breathe a little and just…not think about it for a while.”

“It’s not that, although I do agree that we should call it a night for now,” he murmurs, lifting his head up and looking at her as the left corner of his mouth rises up for just a moment before he becomes all-business once again.

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it.  I mean, we’re gonna have to talk about it.”

He pauses, his eyes flicking towards the stairs.

“Just not in there,” he tells her.  “Not upstairs.  I want to be able to forget about it in there.  Or try to, at least.  I need to have a space where none of that stuff exists.  Where it’s just me and you.  I really need that.  I think we need that.”

He lets out a dry chuckle, and then turns and falls into her, gathering her against his chest in a tight hug.  She wraps her arms around his back and burrows her face into his chest, as she feels his lips press against the top of her head.

“I might go crazy if I don’t have that.”

She rests her chin on his chest and tilts her head up to meet his gaze, and his eyes are warm as they stare down at her.  She drops a kiss on the underside of his jaw and then lifts up on the balls of her feet.

“I love that idea,” she whispers.

“As much as you love me?”

She giggles at the wry smile on his face, and pretends to consider this for a moment.

“That’s a tough question.”

He pouts, and she can’t resist reaching up and running her fingers over his pursed lips as she laughs again.

“Ouch, Michonne.”

“You’re the one who asked.”

“Still…”

She lets the quiet linger a bit, and makes sure she captures his full attention before answering.  His blue eyes bore into her brown ones, anticipating her next words.

“I don’t love anything as much as I love you,” she murmurs lowly, seriously, and she waits to catch a glimpse of his smile before leaning in and kissing him slowly.

When they part, she brings up her hand and runs her fingers through his curls.

“So when we’re in our bedroom, no Negan, and no fighting.  No Saviors or anything like that.  Just us.”

“Just us,” he agrees.

She smiles and places one more quick peck on his mouth before stepping back.  He reaches out, entwining their fingers, and she nods towards the stairs.

“Take me to bed.  I’m tired, and I want you to hold me.”

He smiles once more, and lifts their hands between them, kissing the back of her wrist before pulling her along.

And that’s how it starts.  They stick to their agreement with ferocious tenacity, as neither of them have ever been known to do anything halfway.  They keep their room pure from any mention of death and destruction.  As soon as they lock the door behind them each evening, and cocoon themselves into their heap of blankets on the floor, they let all their stress and fear rush from their bodies until nothing but joy is left between them.

No matter how gloomy or bleak their prospects may seem outside, in their room – their place – where nothing exists except him and her and their love for each other, everything seems brighter.

And again, she thinks that when everything is said and done, and the final minutes of her life are wasting away, she’ll look back on those nights spent with him as some of the best times of her life.

Chapter Text

Their lives falls into some strange pattern of domesticity as they prepare for war.

Everyone wakes up in the morning, eats breakfast and then kisses each of their loved ones goodbye, before heading off to complete whatever task assigned to them.  They work diligently into the hours of the early evening and then call it a day, heading home to spend the remainder of the night with their families and friends.

In their house, some combination of her, Rick, and Carl make dinner, and then they sit around the table with Judith and eat, discussing all they had accomplished today and their plans for tomorrow.  Sometimes they talk strategy, but they try not to.  They silently vow to keep their family time free of those kinds of topics.  They can’t keep it as pure as her and Rick’s bedroom, but they work to keep it as pure as they can.

The minutes tick by.  Judith coos and babbles and they all laugh at her, Carl tells her what’s happening in his latest comic book, Rick nudges her foot with his under the table, or reaches out and finds her hand once they move into the living room after they’ve cleared the table.  Carl makes a disgusted sound in the back of his throat at any sign of PDA, which Judith adorably attempts to imitate as they laugh again, and a deep blush never fails to color Rick’s cheeks even though he knows Carl’s repulsion is all in good fun.  She squeezes the fingers that are laced with hers.  He turns his head towards her, the corners of his mouth turning up into a mischievous grin, and she has to look away as a wave of heat begins to roll over her own skin.

The day dwindles to a close.  They each take turns tucking Judith into bed, and then Carl retires to his room for the night.  Her and Rick settle into the kitchen and do the dishes before heading up the stairs and making their escape.

There are exceptions to the routine, of course.  There are the occasional overnight runs, and Negan comes to visit every couple of weeks, and they put on calm, resigned masks to hide the fact that they’re all scrambling around in the background, ensuring none of their battle plans are discovered or even suspected.

But more often than not, their days follow that same, strange pattern, and the monotony of it is comforting, in a way.  Familiar in the way it brings back the taste of a way of life long abandoned and forgotten.  In fact, the days could classify as normal – normal in the old way – if their jobs didn’t constantly revolve around preparation for a war against a sadistic man wielding a barbed wire-covered bat and his legion of disciples.

On one of these ordinary evenings, she and Rick stand at the sink in the kitchen, as they always do.  The only sounds are the swishing of her hands in warm, soapy water, the clank of him placing dry dishes onto the counter, and the faint sound of crickets filtering in through an open window.

They don’t talk much, which is hardly unusual.  Words aren’t always needed between them.  Sometimes the calm of being together, the sound of one moving and breathing around the other, is enough.

But there’s something off about him tonight.  There’s the slightest edge to the silence that even she might not pick up on, if she were the tiniest bit more tired or distracted.  But she’s not, and she notices.

It’s not an angry off.  Not a worried or upset one.  It’s just…

Off.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” she asks, bumping his hip with hers gently. 

He hums, hesitates, before pressing his lips together and tossing a half-smile in her direction.

“Nothing.”

She rolls her eyes playfully as she hands him a freshly-scrubbed fork.

“Well, I know that’s not true.”

“Oh yeah?” he questions as he dries the utensil, shifting and bumping back into her.  “How?”

“Your eyes are all squinty,” she informs him.

He chuckles softly, but the sound gets louder when he glances over and sees her face, her eyes narrowed at him and her lips pursed in an attempt to mimic his expression.

“So that’s what I look like when I’m thinking, huh?”

“Mmhmm.”

He laughs again, but goes back to wiping off dishes without another word.  She frowns, and sighs.  She wishes he would tell her, but she won’t push him.  He never fails to respect her independence and give her the space she needs, and she can do nothing but extend the same courtesy to him.  So she puts her hands back in the water that’s gained the slightest chill, now, and drops the subject.  If it’s important he’ll tell her in his own time.  She knows that.

They fall back into their comfortable silence, and finish the dishes shortly after that.  He places the plates and pots and utensils into the dish drainer on the counter so they can finish the last of their drying overnight, and she drains the sink, wiping her hands and then the area around the sink with a dishtowel as the water swirls and gurgles away.  She’s about to grab the baby monitor so they can head upstairs when his voice stops her.

“Michonne?”

She turns, and finds him still in his spot by the dishes, that pensive look still on his face.  She puts the monitor down and walks back across the room, stopping mere inches from him.  A faint frown rests on his lips now, and the corners of her mouth turn down too at the sight, in a form of solidarity.

“What is it?”

He reaches his arm out and places his hand on her shoulder before letting it trail down her arm.  His fingertips are pruned and slightly cold from their time spent covered in water, and goosebumps raise on her skin.

“We never would’ve met before, would we?”

The frown on her face grows.  His question throws her, gives her an uncomfortable feeling as it rattles around in her brain.  It’s something she’s never really considered, other than the passing thought of how lucky she was to have found him.  She never qualified if she meant lucky in this world or lucky in the last one, too.  It didn’t matter.  She was just lucky to have found him at all.

She tilts her head slightly, a trait she’s picked up from him.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

He shrugs, dropping his eyes to the floor and grabbing her hand, twining their fingers together.

“I don’t know.  It’s just…we never would’ve met before.  If it weren’t for everything that happened, we would’ve never known each other.”

He’s still staring down, so she peers at the top of his head curiously, wondering what could’ve made him think of this.  His thumb rubs nervously against the back of her hand.

“No,” she confirms.  “Probably not.”

And as the words leave her mouth, her stomach drops.  The weight of that realization hits her as she admits the truth of his words out loud.  It almost knocks her off her feet.

“We lived very different lives,” she says flatly, as if her brain must offer up some sort of explanation as it processes this new information.  “It’s unlikely that they ever would’ve…intersected in any way.”

A loaded silence settles over them.  She imagines a life without him, and an unpleasant shiver runs through her.

“And even they did, you never would’ve looked at me twice.”

He lifts his head, a wry smirk playing on his lips.  She scoffs and lets go of his hand, taking a step back.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Come on now,” he implores, leaning and wrapping his arm around her waist.  He pulls her back into him and she doesn’t resist, even as she glares at him.

“I doubt that I was exactly your type.  A scrawny, white, small town sheriff’s deputy with a stupid southern accent who’s never been out of the state of Georgia?”  He laughs, and shakes his head.  “Nah.  Not for a refined city girl like you.  An artistic, well-traveled, big-time lawyer.  Even if we somehow had ended up in the same room, you wouldn’t have even noticed me.”

She meets his gaze.  His eyes are light, because he’s mostly teasing her, and she knows this.  But she doesn’t miss the small glint of sadness that shines in them too.  He believes his words.  And she wishes she could do something to take that away, wishes she could tell him that he’s wrong.  But she can’t, because he isn’t.

“Your accent isn’t stupid,” she mumbles, and now she feels stupid, but it’s the only honest thing she can think of to say that doesn’t taste bitter on her lips.

She brings her hands up to his chest and begins to fiddle with the top button on his shirt.  A pang of hurt thumps in her heart.

“And you don’t have much room to talk,” she declares, tearing her eyes away from his.  She stares straight ahead instead, watches his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallows.

“I mean, you married your high school sweetheart, babe.  I didn’t date anyone in high school because I thought it would never work out and they would just end up being a distraction.  And you.  You fit the popular country boy stereotype to a tee.  You were a police officer.  You went around protecting the streets, were probably everyone’s hometown hero.”

She smiles softly as she envisions it, him riding around in his patrol car dressed in his deputy uniform, Carl’s hat on his head.  Chaperoning his son’s field trips.  Mowing the lawn, and putting up Christmas lights.  Waving to the neighbors as he walked out to get the paper every morning. 

She wishes she could see it, for real.  That she could get a glimpse of him in his old life, even if it was just for a second.

“You had everything,” she murmurs as she continues.  “The kind, sweet wife.  The perfect little boy.  I just don’t fit the part.  I don’t exactly look like your typical, small-town girl next door.”

She pauses, feeling the slight pressure of tears begin to build behind her eyes, but she blinks and pushes it away.  Her fingers still play with the buttons on his shirt.  Her stomach churns.

“No.  You’re wrong.”

She tilts her head up to find him staring down at her.  A smirk still plays on his lips, but it’s changed from the cynical one he’d worn earlier.  It’s sweeter.  It gives off a certain fondness.

“I would’ve noticed you.  Trust me, I would’ve noticed you.  And I would’ve remembered you, too.”

His words are candid and sincere and she does trust him.  She believes him, despite all her skepticism.  She can’t help but smile, and she feels the tears come again, but she swallows them as he pulls her into a hug, wrapping himself around her, swaying their bodies back and forth.  He drops a kiss onto her forehead, and she reciprocates by pressing her lips against his chest, right over his heart.

“Some of the people were talking today while we were taking inventory of the weapons,” he begins, his voice rumbling against her cheek.  “Tobin and Tara, and a few people that are over from Hilltop.  And someone asked what we would give up to have this all never happen.  To go back to the way things were, to our lives before everything.”

“We never would’ve met,” she whispers, echoing his previous statement, and she feels him nod.

“I don’t have to wonder what I’d give up.  I know what I’d have to give up.  I’d have to give up you.  And I just…I don’t know, Michonne.”

He releases her and takes a step back, shrugging and looking at her with an expression that’s almost embarrassed.

“I know that I should want it back,” he begins with a sigh.  “I should want to prevent the pain that we’ve all suffered.  I should want it back for everyone we’ve lost.  For all of friends that we’ve seen die.  I should want it for Lori, and for Carl.  So he could have some sort of childhood.  I should want it for Judith, too, although…I don’t really know if I’d have her either.  I don’t know what would’ve happened with Lori and Shane.”

She can detect the subtle ache in his voice when he mentions the names of his dead wife and best friend, and she goes to stand next to him, snaking her arm behind him to rub circles over his back, and rests her head on his shoulder.  She wishes she could soothe that hurt for him.  Find some way to banish that uncertainty lingering in the back of his mind when he thinks of Lori and Shane.  Figure out how to stop him from always having to wonder.

“I should want it for you, too,” he starts again, and the shame in his tone is profound.  She snuggles further into his side as he runs a hand over his face.

“Fuck, I feel like an awful, selfish person.  I should want it for you.  I should want it for Andre and Mike.  So you’d never have to go through the pain of losing them.  So your baby could be alive, having the life he deserved.  But, shit, I just don’t know.”

She inhales sharply when he mentions the names of her son and old boyfriend.  She thinks of them, takes a moment to love them and mourn them, and then ponders Rick’s question some more.  What would she give?

And she feels the first hints of guilt begin to come together inside her, too.

He slings an arm around her shoulders, and brings his head down to rest on top of hers.

“I really love you, Michonne.”

Her heart skips a beat, as it always does when he tells her that.  She extricates herself from his embrace, and then comes to stand in front of him.

“I love you, too.  So much.”

The corners of his lips twitch up involuntarily, and warmth floods her veins, traversing every inch of her body.  She knows she’ll never tire of seeing any hint of his beautiful smile, especially when she’s the one to put it there.

“You’re not an awful person,” she assures him.  “And you’re not selfish.  I don’t know, either.  It’s a little hard to admit, and if someone had asked me a year ago if I’d ever answer that question with a word other than ‘anything’, I wouldn’t have believed them in the slightest.  But I never expected…you.”

She takes his hand again, closes her eyes as he squeezes.

“I never expected Carl and Judith.  I never expected any of our family, but I definitely never expected you.”

“It’s a hard question.  A lot to think about,” he says.

She nods as she looks up at him.

“It is.  Feelings are hard.  Love is hard.  What you though were the simplest things get complicated.”

He hums in agreement.  They stand there for a moment, playing with each other’s fingers.

“You want to go to bed?” he asks, breaking the silence.  She smiles, and lifts herself on her toes to kiss him.

“I do,” she answers, and he smiles back at her, placing one more kiss on her lips.  They separate, and she grabs the baby monitor and he turns off the lights, and they both head upstairs.

After bedtime rituals are performed, they settle onto their meager pallet, which has become more comforting and warm than they’d ever imagined was possible in these past weeks.  They lay on their sides and face each other, and talk about nothing, about silly and frivolous things, their conversation interspersed with soft giggles and lazy kisses.  They continue this way until his blinks become progressively longer and heavier, and she lets out a series of yawns so big her eyes water.  He reaches over and turns off the lamp, kisses her once more, and then closes his eyes, falling asleep in record time.  Gentle breaths and light snores fill their room.

She resists the urge to close her eyes for a moment, though.  Ever since their reconciliation in the prison cell, she’s had a habit of watching him sleep.  She tries her best to stay awake a few minutes longer than him every night, just to catch a sight of it.  There’s something about seeing him so peaceful.  He takes on so much, bears the weight of everyone’s expectations, hopes, and lives.  And seeing it melt away as slumber overtakes him calms her, gives her one more happy moment before she shuts her eyes.

She lifts one of her hands and places it on his face, trailing her thumb over his cheekbone.  She inhales slowly and lets herself drown in how right this feels.  It’s like nothing she’s ever experienced before.  Being with him – loving him – is so easy.  It’s as natural as breathing.  This is where she belongs.  In this house, with him and his children, living in this home they’ve built despite every odd being stacked against them.  She belongs next to him.  With him, always, in every aspect, loving him with all that she is.  She’s never been so sure of anything in her life.

What would you give to go back to before?

“Rick?”

She doesn’t really expect him to open his eyes, as he seems so lost in his slumber, but he does.  His face is just illuminated enough by the faint light of the full moon shining in through the window, so she can see his eyes open and looking at her.  Barely open, his eyelids still heavy and begging to close again, but open all the same.

“Yeah, gorgeous?”

She laughs at his pet name.  She learned very quickly, when they started all of this, that he had a hopelessly romantic side to him, underneath all his jagged cynicism, that only shone through in his most unguarded moments.  Thus, all those moments belonged to her.  She fell for this new facet of him just as hard as she had fallen for all the rest of him.

Precious.  To see him like this was an absolutely precious thing to behold. 

He was so precious to her.

She loved him so much.  More than she could fathom.  More than she’d ever dreamed she could love someone else.

She’d always considered herself lucky to find him, lucky to be able to call him hers, but that crushing feeling of belonging and adoration and rightness had enveloped them so completely, from that first brush of his lips against hers, that it made her pause.

She’d thought it luck.  But maybe it was more than that.  She’d hardly believed in that sort of thing in her previous life, but everything was different now.

Maybe it was more than luck.

“I think we maybe would’ve met before,” she says tenderly.  He stills under her hand, and then she sees the flash of his teeth in the moonlight as a slow smile spreads over his face.  He wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her flush against him, burying his face in her neck and placing a kiss on her jaw.  In a matter of seconds, it seems, she feels his steady breaths start back up against her skin.

She runs her fingers through his curls, and closes her eyes.

*             *             *

She’s on a run with Rosita, technically looking for ammo, but as always, keeping their eyes peeled for anything that might be of use to the community.  They see a supermarket and park their car, not expecting much but checking it out anyways.

The place is clear of walkers and pretty much everything else, as is the case with most grocery stores at this point.  The grab a buggy and find a few stray items: five cans of soup, a pack of diapers that are miraculously Judith’s size, some bottles of shampoo and seven bars of soap.  Rosita pauses to grab a handful of bottles of ibuprofen and a box of band-aids as Michonne rounds the corner of the aisle.

Her face lights up at what she sees sitting on the ground, in plain sight, almost as someone had placed them there just for her to find.

Rosita looks up when she hear Michonne walking back to her and the buggy, and she almost laughs at the four bottles of wine she’s cradling in her arms.

“Where’d you find that?”

“Just around the corner,” she informs her and she gingerly places the bottles in the metal cart.  “They were just sitting there like they were waiting for me to find them.”

“Who would leave them behind like that?” Rosita asks, genuine confusion in her voice.  “Honestly, if it weren’t for all the other people we’re looking out for, alcohol would be the main thing I’d scavenge for.”

Michonne smiles and shrugs her shoulders.

“I don’t know, but I’m certainly not complaining.  They’re all mine now.”

Rosita lifts an eyebrow.

All yours?”

Michonne hesitates, biting her bottom lip.  Officially, they were supposed to share everything they found with the community, but people swiped things they found for themselves every once in a while.  And she knew once Alexandria got wind that there was wine in the pantry, the alcohol would be gone in a matter of minutes.

“I’ll split them with you,” she concedes, as an idea pops into her head.  “But you owe me a favor,” she quickly tacks on.

Rosita eyes her suspiciously.

“Do you have an idea what this favor might entail?”

“Take the kids tonight,” Michonne exhales quickly.  “I’ll tell Carl to bring over his Xbox so he and Tara can play.  And I’ll send over Judith’s pack-and-play and a few toys.  She’s easily entertained.  It’ll be a breeze.”

She sees Rosita hesitate, so she continues.

“You know, you’re actually really good with Judith.  I know you don’t have that much practice with her, but she’s an easy baby, I swear.  Plus, Carl will be there if you need him.”

Michonne holds back a deep sigh as she’s once again met with silence.  Her expression softens when she sees the trepidation on Rosita’s face.

“I think you pretend sometimes you don’t enjoy your time with her, but I think deep down, you do.  You just don’t want to be around her too much.  And I’m not faulting you for that.  I totally get it.  I did the same thing when I first found everyone back at the prison.  I’ve heard you mention your nephew before.  And I know that being around babies can bring up some…memories that hurt.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  But also trust me when I say that being around babies again can be the best thing to start and heal those wounds.  It can be cathartic, in a way.  Take it from someone who knows.”

Rosita looks at her with wide eyes as Michonne takes a deep breath.  She’s only told Rick and Carl about Andre, but lately there had been a general assumption among their closest family that she’d probably been a mother.  It doesn’t bother her, exactly; like she told Carl all that time ago, it wasn’t really a secret.  She’s still getting used to actually acknowledging it in front of everyone, though.

Rosita still hesitates, and Michonne closes her eyes and steels herself for disappointment.  But then Rosita’s voice rings through the air and pleasantly surprises her.

“Okay.”

Michonne can’t hide the smile that lights up her face.

“Okay.  Great.  Thank you.”

Rosita nods, and they make one more quick trip around the store before they’re satisfied that they’ve grabbed everything.

“So,” Rosita starts, her voice full of implication as they walk to the front of the store.  “What are you doing tonight?  Got a hot date?”

Rosita turns towards Michonne and wiggles her eyebrows.  Michonne laughs, and spots a pack on M&Ms on the floor next to a pop machine.  As Rosita shits her focus back in front of her, Michonne grabs the candy and stuffs it in her back pocket.  That was one thing she wasn’t sharing.

She chuckles again as she thinks of Rosita’s question.

“Yeah, Rosita,” she answers, still unable to wipe the smile off her face.  “Yeah, I think I might.”

*             *             *

She hears Rick walk into the house forty-five minutes after she returns from her run, closing the door behind him rather loudly, letting out a deep sigh.  She hears him kick his boots off in the foyer, and her stomach twists in anticipation as his footsteps approach, another smile spreading across her face.

His lips quirk up as he enters the kitchen and finds her leaning against the counter, arms crossed in front of her.

“Thought I’d beat you home.”

She shrugs.

“Run went well.”

An immediate look of satisfaction takes over his face.  She can’t help but grin at his reaction.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she confirms, nodding her head.  “No herds or complications or strangers, or anything like that.  Found a pretty good amount of bullets.  A handful of guns, too.  And then we stopped in a supermarket, and found some food.  A few first aid things.  Not very much, but at least it’s something.”

“Something is always good,” he assures her. 

She smiles again as she looks at him, her heart filling with love and her belly tightening as she thinks of the evening they’ll have.  He tilts his head and peers at her curiously, his eyes narrowing into slits.

“What’re you up to?  Standing here all by yourself, looking at me like that?”

“I was waiting for you.  I missed you.”

She can see his cheeks begin to flush even from her spot across the kitchen, and she shakes her head slightly, almost laughing at his bashfulness.  It’s still odd to her at times, seeing that timid side of him, when she’s spent so much time with bold and powerful version of himself that he wears for everyone outside of the walls of their home.  He can be so confident so often, even coming across as cocky at times.  At yet here he is, standing in their kitchen, blushing like a middle school boy who just talked to his crush for the first time.  All because she told him she’d missed him.

Her heart beats with so much affection for him that it’s nearly painful.

“Come here,” she commands softly, opening her arms.  He walks across the kitchen in a few large strides, leaning into her, pinning her body against the counter with hers.  They wrap their arms around each other, and he drops his head onto her shoulder.  She rests her face against his curls, slightly damp with sweat from hours spent working in the sun.

They stay like that for a few moments, enjoying the feel of being in each other’s arms after spending the day apart.  Before long, though, she tugs on his hair gently.  He lifts his head up, and she waits for his eyes to lock with hers before speaking.

“Hi,” she whispers.

“Hi,” he says back, the tips of his fingers beginning to trace imaginary patterns along her back.

She stands up on her tiptoes and presses her lips to his, sucking the bottom one into her mouth before pulling away from him.

“I missed you, too,” he tells her, tightening his hold on her as he leans down to kiss her again, more deeply this time.  His tongue slips into her mouth and strokes hers, and when they separate both of their chests are heaving slightly.

He bites his bottom lip and shakes his head, laughing under his breath, the way he always does when he’d rather keep going but doesn’t want to risk either of the kids finding them making out in some dim corner of the house.  But after a moment, he pauses, and glances around.  She can practically see the wheels turning in his head.

“It’s awful quiet in here,” he remarks finally.  “Where are our kids?”

Her breath hitches at the use of the word our.  He’d taken to addressing Carl and Judith with it a few weeks ago.  It started one morning while he was scouring through his dresser for a clean t-shirt as she put her headband on, the two of them mindlessly talking about the day ahead of them.

“Oh,” he began, as he pulled out a dark gray t-shirt he found tucked away in the corner of the bottom drawer.  “Our kids keep asking about that bean casserole thing you made a few weeks back, with the crackers.  Well, Carl keeps asking about it, and he just goads Judy to nod along and clap her hands.  I can make it if you don’t have the time, or don’t feel like or anything.  Just write down the instruction, and whatever ingredients we don’t have, and I’ll stop by the pantry and try to scrounge them up.”

She vaguely heard what he said, but she couldn’t really process it because she was caught up on the first two words that slipped from his mouth.

Our kids.

She turned towards him and froze, styling her hair all but forgotten as she clutched her headband in her fist.  The only part of her that seemed to be moving was her heart.  It was pounding so violently that she was convinced he could probably hear it.

He looked at her when he didn’t receive any sort of answer or acknowledgement from her, his eyebrows knit together.  But his eyes widened when he saw her stiff body, the unreadable expression on her face.

“Mich, what’s wrong?”

She stayed still for another long moment, before forcing herself to take a deep breath.  She dropped her gaze to the floor, extending her arm to place the piece of cloth still clutched in her grasp on top of his dresser.  She hoped he’d miss the way her hand shook as she reached out.  But she knew he wouldn’t.

“Michonne,” he murmured.  She heard the floorboards squeak as he took a step towards her.

“You said our,” she managed to choke out, and she hated the way her voice broke as she finished her sentence, and hated the pressure of tears she could feel building behind her eyes.

It’d been that way for a while, if she were being honest.  It’d been that way with Carl ever since she found the two of them after the prison.  She’d started out as his best friend, and she still was, but it became something deeper than that.  Something more.  She hadn’t realized it right away, not until she stood on the porch with him on the night that turned her life upside-down in the best way.

It should be someone who loved her, someone who’s family, and I…I’d do it for you.

They’d always loved each other, and they’d always been family.  But somehow, stating it plainly like that – having it out there in the open.

Something shifted.

With Judith, the feeling came over her more gradually.  Once she’d allowed herself to engage herself with the baby girl, to swallow her pain and open her heart, she’d fallen in love with her just as quickly as the rest of the group had, and quickly became a trusted member in Judith’s babysitter rotation.  Her role hadn’t been any different than Carol’s, or Maggie’s, or Beth’s, or Tyreese’s.  Not at first. 

But then there had been moments, small ones, that didn’t even register until she looked back on them.  Like when she was the first one to join Rick and Carl to fawn over a relocated Judith after Terminus, or when Rick had kissed the baby’s forehead and placed her in Michonne’s arms as he marched off to Grady, trusting her enough to leave both of his children in her care.

Then, of course, when they settled in Alexandria, as everyone broke off into groups to move into their own homes, she had stayed with Rick and his children.  It hadn’t even needed to be discussed or decided.  She simply stayed.  And it was good and it was right and no one questioned it.

And now, Michonne was just the collectively-assumed second guardian of Judith Grimes.  When something concerning Judith came up and Rick wasn’t around, all questions went to her.  The baby girl’s parentage was universally known, even thought it had never explicitly stated.

Until that morning.

Our kids.

He didn’t respond to her stammered observation immediately, instead giving her a moment for her head to clear and breathing to steady.  But after a minute, he approached her, placing his hand on the small of her back, leading her back to their blankets and settling her on the floor next to him.  He reached out and grabbed both of her hands.

“Yeah.  I said our.”

“Why?” she whispered, and he laughed quietly, shrugging his shoulders.

“Because it’s true.  Because they are ours.  They’re yours.  I mean, you love them like they are.  I can tell that every time you’re with them.  And you take care of them like they’re yours.”

He laughed again, and shifted closer to her, dropping her hands to wrap his arm around her shoulders and pull her into his side.

“Carl adores you.  I hope you know that.  I know boys aren’t always the best at expressing their emotions, especially teenage boys.  And especially ones who have me as their father.  But he loves you with his entire heart.  And Judith can’t really sit me down and tell me she loves you, but she lights up whenever you walk into the room.  And you’re always making us all jealous with the way she’s constantly reaching for you over everyone else.”

They both chuckled together at that, and he squeezed her shoulder before exhaling slowly.

“Michonne,” he cooed, and he reached over with his free hand and grasped her chin, turning her face towards him.  He gazed into her dark eyes, his thumb passing over the tip of her chin again and again.

“You’re the only mom Judith’s ever gonna know.  Of course we’ll tell her about Lori.  We’re gonna make sure Judith knows as much about her as she can.  We’ll let her know how much Lori loved her, and how we’ll always remember her and love her.  But…Lori is Judith’s mother.  None of us will ever forget that.  But you’re Judith’s mom.”

He closed his eyes suddenly, and bit his bottom lip before continuing.

“At least, I want you to be.  If that’s something you want, too.”

She felt tears begin to build behind her eyes, and he moved his hand to wipe one that managed to escape with his fingers before cupping her cheek.

“If it’s too much right now, that’s okay,” he assures her seriously.  “I’d understand if you wanted to avoid that after everything you lost.  And if it’s something you don’t think you’ll ever want, we can…try to figure something out.”

And her heart, which had already been on the brink of bursting, swelled three more sizes.  Because he meant every word he said.  He wanted Carl and Judith to be both of theirs so badly, but refused to forget about her Andre, about her loss and her pain.  He refused to force her into something she wasn’t ready for, or anything she didn’t want at all.

But he didn’t have to worry, and she reached up and grabbed his face between both of her hands, pulling him down and planting a kiss on his lips before resting her forehead against his.

“I want that,” she told him, and more tears fell down her cheeks when she saw the wide smile that immediately broke out on his face.  “I want that with you.  I want Carl and Judith to be ours.”

“Our kids,” he declared softly. 

She smiled back at him, and repeated his words.

“Our kids.”

And even though it had been a few weeks since they’d made that decision together, she’s still not quite used to hearing it, is still knocked breathless by the immense joy that floods her at the thought of Carl and Judith belonging to both of them.  She takes a moment to revel in that, and to hold him to her a little tighter, before answering his question.

“They’re spending the night at Tara and Rosita’s.”

He looks at her questioningly, but the corners of his mouth already begin to turn up.

“Oh yeah?”

She hums, and then points in the direction of the refrigerator.  He turns his head, and she can tell when he spots the bottles of wine, because a grin stretches his lips over his teeth.

“Where’d you find that?”

“Sitting in the middle of the floor of a supermarket, like it was waiting for me,” she tells him, chuckling lightly.  “I agreed to split them with Rosita if she and Tara babysat.”

“Not passing them around?”

She scoffs.

“Hell no.  I earned those fair and square.”

“Yeah, sounds like it was real hard work, Miss ‘It was Sitting on the Floor like it was Waiting for Me.’”

She slaps him on the chest lightly, and then rolls her eyes when he purses his lips into a pout.

“You better shut your mouth,” she warns him, “and don’t you tell anyone about it.  If we don’t follow the rules, no one will.  It’s our secret.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” he promises her, and then an impish glint creeps into his eyes.

“So, what are you planning on doing with all that wine?”

“I have a date.”

“With who?” he inquires, his fingers slipping just under the hem of her shirt.

“Tobin,” she deadpans immediately, and he scowls, pushing away from her.  She laughs, and then reaches out and grabs his arm to pull him back to her.  He’s able to feign his anger for just a moment before he concedes, bringing his arms around to embrace her once again.  A frown still rests on his lips, though, and she smirks as she brings her hands up and pushes at the corners of his mouth with her forefingers.

“You’re such a baby,” she teases, and then takes one of her fingers and taps the bridge of his nose.  “I have a date with you, silly.”

He takes one of her hands from his face and brings her pointed finger to his lips, biting it softly before pressing a kiss to it, and then places the hand into her lap.

“What do you have planned?”

“It’s a dinner date.  Wining and dining.  Can’t go wrong with a classic.”

“And what’s for dinner?”

She hesitates slightly, looking towards the fridge.

“Um.  I think there’s still some leftover quiche from yesterday.”

“You’re giving me leftovers on our romantic dinner date?”

“Shut up,” she grumbles, slapping him again.  “Besides, that’s not even the most important part.  The wine is what really matters here.  That’s the most important part.”

“That does sound good.  I haven’t had a drink since we stole that beer from The Saviors, and it was way longer before that.”

His hands slip underneath the bottom of her shirt again, reaching up further this time, and he ghosts his fingers over her spine.  Goosebumps rise over her skin, and she smirks.

“I was wrong.  The wine isn’t the most important part,” she tells him abruptly, tugging him closer and reaching up to lace her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck.  He closes his eyes and groans just slightly. Her stomach flips.

She brings her face to his, kissing his temple and then speaking into his skin.

“The most important part is that the kids are gone, and we have the whole house to ourselves all night.  No crying babies, no teenage, wandering eyes, no distractions.  Just you and me.”

She kisses down his cheek and to his jaw, and he pulls her closer, his hands already starting to lift up the back of her shirt instead of hiding under it.

“Just you and me?” he asks.

“Mmhmm.”

“And the kids are already gone for the night?”

“Yep,” she confirms.  “Already took their stuff over and everything.”

He pulls her tank top over her head, tossing it over his shoulder as his eyes immediately go to her chest.  She laughs, and he snaps his head up quickly to stare at her, that impish glint back in his eyes, multiplied tenfold.

“Well, then,” he begins, lunging forward and pressing his face into her neck, kissing and licking at her soft skin, until she tilts her head back to give him more room to work with.  “I think we should get started on that most important part right away.

She giggles again, grabbing and lifting his face so he’s looking at her.  She leans in and sucks at his bottom lip before pulling back and pushing his disheveled hair back from his forehead.

“Me too,” she tells him, her voice low.

He beams, and crashes his mouth against hers.

*             *             *

They end up cuddled up together on their couch, a few half-plates of quiche and whatever other random food items they found tucked away in the cupboards sitting on the coffee table in front of them.  The pack of stale M&Ms rests on the arm of the couch, just a handful of the candies left at the bottom of the package.  The two bottles of wine, now empty, sit on the floor just in front of the couch.

She’s clad in his boxers and his button-up, with just the middle few buttons latched together.  Her hair is loose and splayed out over his chest as she lies against him.  He, meanwhile, is as naked as the day he was born under her, running his fingers absentmindedly over her thighs and dipping below the fabric of his stolen pair of underwear every so often.  The clothes they aren’t using are discarded haphazardly in a path from the kitchen to the living room.

The house is dim, the only sources of light being the small lantern they left burning in the kitchen and the one on the table.  She gazes up at him, and watches the way the yellowish light dances and cast shadows over his skin.  Smiling slightly, she brings one of her hands up to gently trace the planes of his face with her fingertips.

He’s beautiful.  Undeniably so.  She hadn’t noticed it at first, when they’d met back at the prison, but once she’d realized it, she was almost dumbfounded at how she hadn’t seen it before.  Everything about his face is set just so, from his expressive bright blue eyes, to the perfect slope of his nose, the fullness of his pink lips, and the strong line of his jaw.

She hadn’t noticed it at first, but she makes up for that now.  Sometimes when she gazes at him, the pure beauty of him knocks the breath out of her.

She thinks back to their conversation the other day, and how he said she wouldn’t have registered his existence in a room full of people back in the old world.  She’d solemnly agreed with him; he wasn’t remotely close to any type she might’ve had before.  But now, as she takes this time to admire him, she think that even then, if she had just taken a moment to really look at him, she wouldn’t have been able to stop looking at him.

He stirs under her touch after a few moments, his nose twitching and a slight hum coming from deep inside his throat.  He’d been half asleep, dozing as they’d both been doing on and off for the past hour.

“What are you up to?” he mumbles, a moment before opening his eyes.

“Just watching you,” she whispers.

He smiles, tilting his chin up to press a kiss to her palm as it ghosts over his mouth.

“Like what you see?”

“I do.  In fact, I love it,” she amends, lifting herself from his body slightly so she hovers over him.  “I love you.  I love this – being here with you like this.  I…I love it.  With all my heart.”

She can’t help but smile again, because she’s so happy.  She’s warm and safe and fed and tipsy and so in love with the man beneath her.

She settles back down onto him, nuzzling her face into the crook of his neck.  She can’t help but think of their road trip some weeks back.  It had been the closest they’d probably ever come to going on some romantic vacation together.  And she’d adored every second of it.

“I wish it could always be this way,” she breathes, as if she’s admitting some deep, selfish secret that she’s ashamed of.  “I want it to always be this way.”

“It will be,” he says, bringing his arms up and wrapping them tightly around the small of her back.  “As soon as we win this thing, it will be.”

He tugs on her head gently, tilting her face up so they can gaze into each other’s eyes.  The blue of his irises is so deep, even in the scant light.  They’re like the ocean, and she feels like she could get lost in them.  Like she could drown in them.

“I’m going to spend the rest of my life making you happy,” he vows.

Her eyes well up, and it’s all she can do to lean in and give him a deep kiss.  She feels the truth of his words echo in every cell of her body.  It’s overpowering, the way her chest constricts with her unending affection for him.

Once they separate, she lays her head down next to his on the pillow he’s resting on.  Their cheeks touch, and the rough hair of his beard rubs against her skin.

After a few moments of silence, he speaks.

“I’ve always wanted to have sex with you on this couch.  Ever since that first night.”

She laughs once, and reaches out to grab the pack on M&Ms.  She sits up, straddling his waist, and then shakes a couple of candies in her palm and pops them in her mouth.  Then she takes one and presses it against his closed lips until he opens up and accepts her offering.

“What took you so long?” she asks.

“I didn’t exactly have the opportunity,” he says around the chocolate in his mouth.  “What, with two kids and Daryl roaming around our house.”

“True,” she concedes with a smirk, and eats two more pieces before feeding him the last one.  She crumples up the wrapper and deposits it on one of their empty plates on the table.  She leans back, and lays her hands flat on his chest.

“Well, you got your wish.”

A devilish grin spreads across his face, and he reaches up and takes her hands.

“Yeah, I guess I did.  It took me awhile, but I got there.”

She chuckles, and then settles back down onto him.  His fingers go back to stroking her legs.

“You know, I would’ve had sex with you on this couch that night.  You’re the one who had to go and remind me that someone could’ve walked in on us.”

She snorts.

“Yeah, sure.  There’s no way in hell you would’ve let our first time be on the couch.  You’re too romantic.  You would’ve spread rose petals all over the bed if I’d given you the time.”

“You think I’m romantic?”

“Hopelessly so.”

“Huh.”

She lifts her head, her eyebrows pulled together.

“What?  You don’t believe me?”

“No, I do.  It’s just…” he hesitates, letting out a long sigh.  “Lori never thought I was romantic.”

“No?”

“Nah,” he chuckles, glancing at her bashfully.  “I tried sometimes.  It just never came across, I guess.”

“What’d you do?” she probes.

“I don’t know.”  He takes a moment to think, pushing a loud breath out between his lips.  “Well…okay.  So, when I was gonna propose, I was trying to figure out where to do it.  I could’ve taken her to some fancy restaurant in Atlanta or something, but I felt like everybody did that, you know?  I thought it should be different.  Special.  So I decided to do it where we had our first kiss.  Which was, admittedly, not a glamorous place.  It was under the bleachers at the football field.  We kissed during a Friday night game on a dare.  So not your traditional romantic spot.  But, I don’t know.  I thought it would be cute.”

He pauses, and bites his lip.  A look comes over his face that seems regretful.

“Lori didn’t think so,” he continues.  “She reacted okay when I actually proposed, but later on I found out she wasn’t such a big fan.  I should’ve just taken her to a fancy restaurant.”

He laughs once, and turns his head to look at her.  Again, his expression conveys just the slightest hint of guilt, and she frowns, bringing up her hand to rest on his cheek.

“That sounds romantic to me,” she tells him fervently.  “Of course, no one’s ever proposed to me, so I don’t have anything to compare it to.  But it still seems pretty romantic.”

“No one’s ever proposed to you?” he asks, his tone rising with curiosity.

“Nope.”

“Why’d you and Mike never get married?” he wonders, taking hold of her hand.  He brings it to his mouth and kisses her fingers before placing it back on his cheek.

“We talked about it a few times, but we just never thought it was necessary,” she explains.  “Neither of us had this strong desire to do it.  I mean, we were together, and we loved each other.  We were committed.  Going through a ceremony and getting a piece of paper to confirm it wasn’t going to do anything to strengthen or weaken that bond.”

“You don’t have to,” he agrees.  “I thought you did.  Growing up where I did, in a small town like that, I definitely thought you did.  I know that you don’t now.  That you still love each other just the same, with or without it.”

“Yeah.”

She rubs her hand down his face before bringing it down and curling herself into him.  She can feel her eyelids getting heavy.

“I’m tired,” she admits, after a few minutes of just breathing each other in.

“Want to go to bed?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Head upstairs.  I’ll put the plates in the sink and then be up.”

“No,” she shakes her head.  “Let’s just stay down here.  We’ll get the plates in the morning.  Everything feels so perfect.  I don’t want to move.”

All of a sudden, the room gets even dimmer than it was.

“The light in the kitchen must’ve burned out.”

“See?” she says, the corner of her mouth turning up.  “It’s a sign.  We’re supposed to stay right where we are.”

He laughs lightly.

“Yeah.  Okay.”

Still, he reaches over to extinguish the lantern sitting on the table, and then darkness overtakes them.  He rolls back into her and they maneuver together so they are both laying on their sides, facing each other, her tucked between the edge of the couch and his body.  He feels around for her face, and places a kiss to her lips, and then one on her forehead, before settling his head down into the pillow.

“Goodnight, love,” he whispers.  “Thank you.  For all of this.”

She presses a kiss to his chest.

“Goodnight, Rick.”

She closes her eyes and relaxes into him, letting exhaustion from her long day and the incredible peace she feels whenever she’s in his arms overtake her.  Just as she’s on the brink of sleep, she hears his voice.

“Mich?”

“Yeah?” she mutters drowsily.

“Marry me.”

Just like that.  He says it just like that.

She’d never fantasized outright about getting engaged, not to Rick or to Mike.  But somewhere inside her, she supposes she had subconscious expectations.  Not about where or when it would happen, or what her ring would look like, or what the man in front of her would say leading up to it.  They were more rooted in what she would feel, and she couldn’t even say that those expectations were good.  They didn’t concern the love that might fill her heart, or excitement to start this new chapter of her life that might overtake her.  They were closer to fear.  To the apprehension that would stir deep in her gut at the thought of making such a strong and final commitment, at the prospect of giving herself over to someone else so completely.

And in the half second before she fully registers his words, she finds herself expecting all those reservations to bubble to the surface and spill over into her brain.

But they don’t.

Rather, she finds the peace is still there.  If anything, it grows at the thought of spending the rest of her life with him, at being tied so closely to him until the day she died.  At the thought of being his, and him being hers, clearly, for everyone to see.

“Yeah?” she whispers breathlessly.

“Yeah,” he answers, and his voice is so soft and gentle that she almost cries on the spot.

But instead, she swallows them back, with surprising ease.  And a resounding, unequivocal joy begins to grow in her heart and pump through her veins.

She discovers that the decision she though would be the hardest, most daunting one she’d ever have to make, is turning out to be the easiest.  Her answer is clear.  Obvious.  She loves this man so much, so fiercely, that she can really only answer one way.  Her heart won’t allow her to even entertain the other option.

She is in love with him.  That truth rings more strongly than it ever has before inside her as a slow grin forms on her face.  And her answer is easy.

“Okay.”

It’s as simple as that.  And she remembers what he’s taught her: sometimes the most important things are best said in the plainest of terms.

His lips press against the top of her head.  And she can hear the smile in his voice when he speaks.

“Okay.”

*             *             *

She wakes up with a pounding headache.

She groans and rolls her neck in vain, because she knows the pain isn’t from an odd sleeping position or a kink in her spine.  It’s the fucking wine, and she could roll her eyes at herself if she’d been willing to open them and face the harsh light of day.

Thoroughly hungover from two shared bottles of wine.  She’d become such a lightweight.

She feels Rick shift under her, and she hesitantly drags open her eyelids, lifting her head and resting her chin on his chest to peer up at him.  She finds him gazing back at her, a small smirk on her face.

“Hey, sleepyhead.”

His eyes are groggy, but he seems slightly more aware than she is.  He’s been awake for a while.

“When did you wake up?” she asks him.

“I dunno.  About half an hour ago, maybe.”

“Why didn’t you get up?”

“You were layin’ on top of me,” he explains, his accent more pronounced than usual, as it always is after he just wakes up.  “You looked comfortable.  Didn’t want to wake ya.  Plus, I figured you were gonna need your sleep.”

She does roll her eyes this time, making a show of it, and he laughs lightly when he sees the look on her face.  But she can’t feign her annoyance for long, because it’s so sweet, the way he’s always thinking of her.

She stretches slightly, placing a chaste kiss to his lips and then to his cheek.

“Do you have a headache too?”

“A little,” he says with a shrug.  “Nothing too bad.”

She hums, and then lays her head back down on his chest, listening to the whooshing of air moving through his lungs, letting her mind drift back to the night before.  Warmth fills her as memories flit through her brain in rapid succession, replaying their evening like a movie.

When she reaches the end of the night, and recalls the moments right before they’d both fallen asleep, her stomach drops.

She’d agreed to marry him.

Her stomach twists, and her insides churn like the ocean during a hurricane, but it isn’t regret that weighs on her and pulls her down from her blissful mood; it’s uncertainty.

Had he intended to ask her, or did the question just kind of slip out of his mouth when he wasn’t thinking?  They’d both been slightly drunk, and exhausted, and that wasn’t really ideal circumstances for making a life-altering decision like this.

Were they engaged?

She squeezes her eyes shut briefly, and then slowly maneuvers her head so that she can look at his face, nervous butterflies swarming within her.

She finds his eyes focused on her, but a timid glint shines in them, and she automatically knows the same questions she has are running through his mind.

And yet, neither of them seem to be able to be able to voice them.

She feels awkward in his presence, for the first time she can remember.  Even in those earliest days of their relationship – those days full of mistrust and muted animosity – she’d never felt awkward with him.  The emotion unnerves her, and she clears her throat, sitting up.  She feels cold now that her body isn’t pressed against his, and the cool morning air sends a shiver through her.

“I’m going to go look for some ibuprofen,” she tells him.  “I think there might be a bottle hiding in the bathroom somewhere.”

“Yeah,” he mumbles, nodding slowly.  “I’ll clean up.”

“Okay.”

Their gazes linger on each other for a moment longer, before she throws him a tight smile and gets up.  She’s halfway to the stairs when she hears his voice calling her name.

“Michonne?”

She freezes, the anxiety that had abated a bit as she put more space between them coming back full force.  She takes a moment to collect herself, inhaling and exhaling deeply before turning on her heel.

She finds him standing in the living room, holding his worn jeans in his hand, an indiscernible look on his face.  He takes a moment to pull his pants up and over his hips before taking a deep breath, shaking his head slightly and rolling his shoulders before starting towards her purposefully.

He stops mere inches from her, but keeps his eyes trained on the ground.  She watches his back rise and fall as he once again breathes heavily, and then he reaches out and laces his fingers with hers.

“What I said last night,” he starts quietly.  “When I...when I asked you to marry me.

His voice breaks, and her pulse doubles in time as he voices those words, and she feels his fingers tighten infinitesimally around hers.

A quiet beat passes between them, and she waits for him to continue.  She can barely breathe.

“I meant it,” he blurts out suddenly, finally, and when he lifts his eyes to meet hers, what she sees nearly stops her heart altogether.

The lines of his face are set so sincerely, so severely, but in the most beautiful way.  His eyes are full of unshed tears, and he looks so vulnerable, more vulnerable than she’s ever seen him.  It’s as if his entire life hinges on her next words.

Her own eyes begin to water, so many emotions stirring inside her.  But she finds that the most powerful one is that peace.  The same peace she felt laying in his arms last night settles over her like a quilt.  Any hint of discomfort or tension she was feeling is expelled completely and nearly instantaneously, and she steps into him.

I meant it,” he repeats ardently, and she feels his breath wash over her face as she wraps her arms around the back of his neck and pulls his forehead down to rest against hers.

“I meant it, too,” she murmurs to him, and she’s unable to stop an unabashed grin from overtaking her face.  She feels him inhale sharply, and he pulls back from her.  He studies her expression, and then beams as the devotion and love he sees in her eyes begins to seep into his heart.  His tears spill over and begin to run down his face, and she feels dampness on her own cheeks as his smile somehow seems to grow, and a light laugh escapes his throat.

They reach for each other simultaneously, their lips crashing together in the sweetest kiss she’s ever tasted, their mouths opening and his tongue stroking hers with near desperation.  Their chests heave as they break apart, and he wraps his arms around her immediately, crushing her against him and lifting her off the ground.  She curls her fingers into his hair and pulls him as close to her as she can manage.  She never wants to let him go.

“So,” he drawls, his voice so light it’s almost buoyant.  “You’re gonna marry me.”

“Yeah, sheriff,” she tells him, the tenor in her voice matching his in its joy and levity.  She rests her cheek against his head.  “I’m gonna marry you.”

They both laugh, and he pulls back to press his lips against hers again, before adjusting their positions so he can trail incessant, hungry kisses up her jaw and along her cheekbone.

“I love you so much,” he whispers into her skin.  “I’ll love you until the day I die.  I’ll love you forever.”

Her heart clenches, and she closes her eyes, focusing on the feel of his lips and skin, of his body pressing into hers.

“I love you, too,” she murmurs back, craning her neck so she can place her own kisses over his face.  “Forever.”

She loves him so much.  More than she ever thought she could love anyone again.  She loves him with more love than she even knew existed in this world.

She’ll love him everyday, every moment for the rest of forever.

Chapter Text

Carl is the first to know, of course.

She hadn’t given him any specific time to bring himself and Judith home, just told him to mosey on over whenever he felt like it.  She even encouraged him to have a lazy morning, hoping that her and Rick could get in some more alone time before having to face the world again.

But after they confirm the decision they’d made the night before, realize that they’re going to marry each other, they can’t wait to tell him.  The dress in a hurry and then jog to Rosita and Tara’s, Rick taking Judith and Michonne grabbing Carl’s arm and practically dragging him back to their house.

Carl barely has time to cross the threshold and close the door behind him before his dad and Michonne corner him, the four of them still in the foyer.  Carl frowns and tries to rub the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand.

“‘Chonne, I thought you said to be lazy today.”

“Yeah, well.  Change of plans.”

She can barely hold back her smile, and Carl notices.  He looks back and forth between her and his beaming father, Judith resting her head against his shoulder in his arms, looking just as groggy as her brother.

“What’s going on?” Carl asks slowly.

Michonne doesn’t even have a chance to open her mouth before Rick speaks.

“Michonne said she’d marry me,” he blurts out, a hint of awe in his voice, as if her wanting to marry him is so improbable, an honor he can’t believe has been bestowed on him.  She smiles at the same time it puts a pang in her heart.  He still can’t see his worth.  His beauty .  She wonders if she’ll ever succeed in changing that, and smiles again knowing she’ll have the rest of her days to try.

She’s lost in her thoughts, and it takes Rick saying his son’s name to pull her out of them and register the fact that Carl hasn’t yet responded to the news.  She blinks, turning slightly to see the blank look on Carl’s face, and fear starts to stir in her gut.

She’d been so caught up in the prospect of marrying Rick, in marveling at how natural the whole thing felt, that she hadn’t even considered the possibility that Carl might not approve.

She and Carl had cared about each other for so long that she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t cared for the boy, even though she knew it really wasn’t all that long ago.  He had accepted her long before his father had, perhaps even loved her before he did, too.  When her and Rick had finally gotten together, she got the sense that Carl had almost expected it.  That he’d been waiting for it.  She’d always known him to be wise beyond his years.

The transition from friends to lovers had gone over so smoothly in their household, that she hadn’t considered the transition to husband and wife might not be that simple.  In an instant, so many thoughts flood her brain that she can barely keep track of them.

She supposes it hasn’t been very long at all since his mother died.  Judith had just turned one by their best estimation, meaning that barely a year had gone by since Lori passed.  That year felt like a lifetime, but it wasn’t, and she considers the old world, of a widower remarrying in such a relatively short time after the death of his wife during childbirth.  It seemed sudden to the part of her that still remembered how life before felt.  Did that matter in this new world, when days sometimes felt like weeks and a year could seem like a lifetime, even when it wasn’t?

And if Carl didn’t approve, what would they do?  Would his feelings make them call the whole thing off?  She would love Rick just as wholly and desperately no matter what Carl thought.  Nothing could change that.  But Carl’s rejection of this next step would undoubtedly cripple that all-consuming joy and peace that flowed through her now, and she hates the idea of that.  She hates it.

But then Carl smiles brilliantly, and she feels so light.  Like her feet will lift off the floor.

“Took you long enough to ask, Dad,” he says with a smirk, and Michonne grabs both of her boys and pulls them towards her without thinking, wrapping her arms around them and leaning over to nuzzle her face against Judith.  The little girl babbles and bounces, sensing the happiness of the three people around her.

“You’re really happy, then?” she asks, tears filling her eyes and spilling down her cheeks.  She has to be sure.  To know that her happiness, that this rightness flowing through her veins is safe.  Carl reaches up and touches her cheek, wiping away the moisture and then glancing up at his dad with a knowing smile.

“Yeah.  It’s cool.”

Rick laughs, and then Carl laughs, and then Michonne laughs because they do.  Judith keeps babbling and bouncing.  She tightens her grip on all three of them, stands in the middle of the foyer and holds her family.

Her family.

*             *             *

“When are you guys gonna do it?  You know, actually get married?”

Michonne looks up from the eggs she’d whipped together for all of them once they finally managed to move from the doorway.  She finds Carl staring back at her, a half-smile still on his face.

“We didn’t set a date,” Rick answers from behind her, where he’s refilling Judith’s sippy cup with water.

“Got any suggestions?” she asks the boy, scooping up a bite of eggs on her fork and reaching to her right, where Judith sits in her highchair, remnants of her breakfast smeared across the tray.  The little girl accepts the food, and Michonne smiles.

“What about today?”

His words make Michonne pause, and when she turns to look at him, Carl shrugs.

“What?”

“We just got engaged last night,” she says, as Rick hands Judith her drink and then walks around the table, pulling out the chair next to Carl and sitting down.

“So?” Carl asks.  “I don’t think there’s anything big going on today.  If you can postpone anything, or hand off duties to someone else, I think you should do it.”

“Should we really be postponing anything at this point?” Rick offers.  “I mean, you never know – “

“One day isn’t going to change anything in the long run,” Carl interrupts.  “Negan and The Saviors – they’re not the only things that matter.  We can’t stop living while we’re fighting them.  At least not completely.  Stuff like this is important, too.”

Carl drops his gaze towards the table, and Michonne sees the briefest hint of sadness flicker across his face.

“It’s just that you can’t be too sure of anything anymore.  I mean, I know we’re gonna be here tomorrow.  And I know we’re gonna beat the Saviors, and we’re gonna have a lot more tomorrows after we win, but…I can’t know anything one hundred percent.  No one can, especially now.  So if you really want something, if something’s important – and this is important – I don’t think you should wait to do it.”

Michonne can only stare at him, mouth slightly open, wetness slightly stinging the corners of her eyes.

This kid.  He was going to be the end of her.  She was sure of it.

“You’re too smart for your own good, Carl Grimes,” she declares after a few moments, as Rick leans over and ruffles his son’s hair before placing a quick kiss on the top of his head.

“I can move things around and pass things off.  Clear my schedule,” Rick tells them, turning to look across the table at Michonne, a smirk on his face and mirth in his eyes.

“What do you say, Mich?  You want to marry me today?”

The smile she gives him nearly takes up her entire face, and she reaches across the table to take his hand in hers.

“Yeah, Grimes.  I do.”

He laces their fingers together, and she sees his eyes begin to shine.  She has to turn away to keep from crying herself.  She can’t remember a time in her life when she’s been so happy and cried so much.  Maybe the day Andre was born.  It’s almost exhausting – feeling so much, loving so much – but she wouldn’t change it or trade it in for anything in the world.

She looks towards Judith, and the girl stares up at her, homemade blueberry jam from The Hilltop smeared around her mouth.

“What do you say, Judy?” Michonne asks.  “You want to come me and your dad’s wedding today?”

Judith reaches towards Michonne to pat her cheek with her chubby, sticky hand, and laughs.

*             *             *

Carl, rather unexpectedly, turns into the wedding planner Michonne never got the chance to hire, and the one Rick and Lori couldn't afford.

"Okay," he says, his tone curt and purposeful, "you two go get ready. I'll take Judith and go tell Father Gabriel and invite everyone. Or, wait..."

He trails off, eyes darting around the room almost nervously, as if someone was listening in.

"Are we inviting everyone ?" he asks quietly. "Or just us?"

The three of them exchange a look, and know they all agree on what to do without needing to have a conversation. Carl speaks for all of them.

"Just us. Got it."

He moves to lift his sister out of her highchair and then walks over to the sink to wash her hands. After he dries her off, he grabs his and Judith's shoes from their spot by the door and sits down on the couch.

"Like I said, just go get ready," he instructs them again as he ties Judith's tiny sneakers. "The rest of us will take care of everything else."

He slips on his own shoes in a flash and then scoops up his sister, turning to Rick and Michonne.

"Meet everyone at the church in about an hour?"

They barely have the chance to answer him before he's out the door, talking to his sister as she chatters back brightly.

"I think I'm just gonna put Carl in charge of everything from now on," Rick says after the sound of the door shutting behind their children has left the room. Michonne laughs and walks to him, standing in front of him and grabbing both of his hands, twining their fingers together.

"He's always very determined. It's a good thing."

Rick laughs lowly as he nods in agreement, eyes locking with hers. It takes only a moment for his laughter to fade, and for everything else to fall away except the two of them. Their eyes gleam as if they're kids who have just realized it's Christmas morning, except that this is the best Christmas morning they've ever had, and there will never be a better one. They both know what they're getting, and it's the one thing they want most in the world.

She wants to kiss him, wants to lift herself on her toes and press her lips against his until she can't breathe. But she knows if she kisses him once, she'll kiss him again, and again and again and again until all thoughts of weddings and churches and guests are far away from her mind and the only thing she cares about is his voice in her ear and his heart beating with hers and how good he feels pressed against her and how much she loves him.

She can see the same desire in his eyes, so she bites her lip almost bashfully before speaking.

"Well, you heard him," she tells Rick quietly.

"Yeah, I did. We better go get ready before he comes back and yells at us."

They both chuckle, and then almost freeze as they catch each other's gazes again. As the gravity of the moment, and of what they're about to do, sets in and suddenly knocks them off their feet.

But then, in an instant, they're off.

They chase each other to their room playfully, hands wandering and grabbing the other all the way, soft curses and jokes and the other's expense mumbled back and forth as they trip up the stairs in their eagerness, light laughter filling the air. She's reminded of the night they first kissed, and how the journey they'd taken from the couch to their bed had felt much as this one does. It buzzed with the same nervous, excited energy, and her heart had pounded the same beat with each step she took.

She knew that night, as they ambled up the stairs, that her life was going to change forever. She knows that again in this moment, and the prospect fills her with the same delight she felt all those weeks ago.

They stumble into their room, and she opens the closet while Rick walks to his dresser.

"I don't have a tie," he tells her from across the room, and she shrugs as she runs her fingers over the clothes hanging before her.

"I don't have a dress. We don't need them."

He hums, and she hears a few drawers open and shut. Then, his footsteps travel back across the room to where she's standing. He presses himself into her back before she can turn around.

"I'll see you in about an hour, yeah?" he asks softly, brushing a kiss against her cheek. Her eyebrows pull together.

"Where are you going?"

He scoffs playfully as he moves from her and steps out of the room, turning to walk backwards down the hall and towards the stairs with clothes bundled under his arm.

"Don't you remember? It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding."

*             *             *

Wearing white wasn’t very practical anymore.

Not in this world, when days typically ended with clothes covered in dirt, sweat, guts, blood, or some combination of the four.   Usually some combination of the four.  Not only was white harder to clean - it also made it easier to remember.  Color could hide things; it could absorb the splatter of your own blood across your chest, soak in the sweat that gathered in beads on your back as you ran from walkers, collect the dust of dirt that settled on your shoulders and swirled up your nose and into your lungs as you dug graves to bury your loved ones, or holes to hide weapons for an upcoming war.

She can still think of their first trip to The Hilltop, remember Rick on his back with a blade at his neck.  She can remember following him into the bathroom and helping him remove his coat and shirt, and sitting on the counter as he scrubbed the white fabric together in the sink.  She can see the blood mixing with water in whirling patterns and rippling down the drain, can feel his stubble under her fingers as she wiped the sticky, red film off his cheeks and chin.

Killing that man was justified - it was necessary - and she’d want Rick to do it again in any type of similar situation.  Hell, she’d do it for him one million times over, again and again, without hesitation and without regret.

But it was still someone’s blood.  Someone’s life .  And that t-shirt sat in the bottom of his dresser and it was still stained and every time she caught a glimpse of it she saw the knife and the still-warm body that fell on the ground with a thud.  She saw Rick’s face and fingers coated in red.

White didn’t hide anything.  White made you remember .  And it didn’t make sense to wear it.

And yet in those first few days, when Deanna told them about her ridiculous parties and took them to a room full of spare clothes, encouraging them to pamper themselves - as if something like that could exist in this world - she had taken the white blouse that hangs in the back of her closet now.  She had chosen to wear the black dress she grabbed over the shirt, of course, but she kept both of them.  She took something extra, and it hadn’t sat quite right in her stomach, because extra had no place in their lives anymore.  She and her family had spent so much time without anything extra.  They’d barely had enough to survive .

But she took the blouse anyways.  Maybe she hoped for more parties that would feel less and less preposterous as time went on.  Maybe she thought there might come a day when they didn’t return home in the evenings covered in guts and death.

Or maybe she had felt Rick in her heart even then, nestled deep behind her ribcage, small and secret, but there all the same.  Maybe part of her had known all along.

Whatever the reason, she took it, and it had hung unused and almost forgotten, buried behind practical things.  But now she pulls it off its hanger, the delicate chiffon smooth against her fingertips, and slips it over her shoulders before moving to the bathroom and closing the door behind her.

She stands in front of the full length mirror hanging on the back of the door, studies her reflection, and smiles.

The shirt isn’t exactly a style she would’ve gravitated towards before.  The thin bows that close the sleeves are a tad too sweet, the flower-patterned lace that covers her shoulders and upper chest kind of darling for her tastes.  But she looks at the way the fabric lays and flows over her body, the striking contrast between the light fabric and her dark skin, and she feels pretty .

She turns to the drawers under the sink, takes out the few elastics and bobby pins she’s collected over the past few months, gathers the top half of her locs and pulls them back and then secures them.  She pauses, and then feels her heart jump as she quickly goes for the bottom left drawer, suddenly remembering the handful of cosmetic supplies Tara had found in a makeup bag left in the corner of a walk-in closet in one of the empty houses.  She swipes a wand covered with half-dry mascara over her eyelashes lightly, and then grabs a tube of wine-colored lipstick and runs it over her lips, rubbing them together before examining them in the mirror.

She feels beautiful .

It’s only the second time she’s felt that way, unreservedly, since the world went to hell.  The first was when she and Rick had made love for the first time, after she removed her panties and bra and laid back on their bed, completely naked before him.  His gaze had raked over her unabashedly, reverently , and goosebumps raised on her skin.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he whispered, the awe and adoration in his voice palpable.  Her heart swelled.  She felt loved, and wanted.

She felt beautiful.

She feels beautiful now, and she wants him to see her.  She wants to watch the look on his face as his eyes take her in for the first time, wants to see his skin twinge pink and his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows slowly.  She wants to see his eyes shine in that way that makes her insides twist in the absolute best way.

She smiles again, and then turns for the door,  stopping in front of the full-length mirror once more before leaving the room.  She takes a deep breath, and runs her hands down her blouse.

White holds no secrets, leaves nothing to the imagination.  White makes you remember .

And she wants to remember this day.  This moment, the way she looks, how she feels, all the details of the events that will take place in the next few hours.

She never wants to forget them, and she vows that she never will.  She’ll hide them in her heart, where no one will ever touch them.  Where no one will ever take them from her.

For the rest of her life, they’ll be hers.

*             *             *

When she arrives at the church, she finds Rosita standing outside with a bouquet of flowers.  She smiles widely as Michonne approaches, and pulls her into a gentle hug once she’s within reach.  Michonne freezes for a moment.  She’s never known Rosita to be very physically affectionate with the group, and she barely has time to clear her head and return the embrace before Rosita pulls away.

“Sorry,” she says quickly, looking past Michonne, a slight blush beginning to color her cheeks.  “I hope I didn’t mess up your outfit or anything.”

“Rosita, you don’t have to apologize for hugging me.”

“Yeah, I know.  Ignore me.  I’m just...I’m glad you and Rick are doing this.  After everything, you deserve something good.”

She brings her gaze back to Michonne, and worries her bottom lip with her teeth before speaking.

“I never thought I would end up being this happy for you guys.  I know that sounds kind of insulting, but I don’t mean it like that.  But after we met up with Glenn and Tara, and when the four of you walked into that train car at Terminus...I never dreamed that I would’ve gotten close to any of you.  But here I am, still with you guys.   Alive because of all of you.  I found a damn family at the end of the world.  After my first one died, I never thought I’d have one again.  Never thought I’d even want a family if one managed to show up.  But I’m glad you guys showed up.  I’m glad that I’m still with you.  And I’m happy for the two of you.”

Rosita takes a deep breath, and averts her gaze again, suddenly finding something interesting in a patch of grass.

“And if Abraham was still here,” she continues slowly, “he would be too.  I know he would.  He and Rick didn’t get off to the greatest start, to say the least.  But at the end, he really respected him.  He cared about him, and the rest of you.”

Rosita laughs lightly, and then looks at Michonne, tears shining in her eyes.

“He was happy for you and Rick.  Shit, the day you guys went to Hilltop for the first time, he came home with this giant ass grin on his face, and the first words out of his mouth were, and I quote, ‘Guess who finally pulled their heads outta their asses and started ‘uggin bumplies.’”

“Oh, God,” Michonne groans, covering her face with her hand.  “‘Uggin bumplies?”

“Who knows,” Rosita says with a chuckle.  “That’s Abraham for you.  Or, I guess, was Abraham for you.”

She pauses for a moment, letting the air settle between them and the mood drop a beat before continuing.

“The point is, he cared about you and Rick.  He cared about all of us.  And I know if he’s somewhere right now - watching us, or looking down on us or whatever - he doesn’t regret dying for us.  And he’s glad you’re doing this.”

Rosita sniffs, wiping at her eyes and muttering an expletive under her breath, and Michonne reaches out to grab her hand, squeezing it softly before dropping it again to wipe at one of her own tears that escaped from the corner of her eye.

“Damn it, I’m not supposed to make you sad on your wedding day.  I’m not supposed to make you cry.  You’re supposed to do that in there,” Rosita says, motioning with her head towards the church.  “And they’re supposed to be tears of joy and shit.”

Michonne shakes her head.

“No.  I’m not sad.  I miss Abraham, but I’m not sad.  I’m glad I got to know him, and that I was able to call him family.  Rick is, too.  And I’m glad he’s happy for us.  Thank you for telling me all of that.  Honestly.”

Rosita gives her a closed-mouth smile and nods, before glancing down at the bouquet in her hand and handing it to Michonne.

“This is for you,” she says, and Michonne grins widely at the colorful wildflowers she’s holding.  “Me, Tara, and Judes picked them from that little patch that’s right outside the walls.  I know they’re not much - “

“They’re perfect,” Michonne interrupts, and she means it, with every fiber of her being.  “They’re absolutely perfect.”

Through everything that’s happened, through the end of the world, these flowers have survived.  They’re still there, and still growing, bringing a bit of light to such an ugly world.  Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, they’re mostly insignificant, but they matter .  They’re proof that regardless of how grim things seem, there can still be good things.  There can still be beautiful things.

She brings the flowers to her nose and inhales their sweet scent before holding them in front of her and looking towards Rosita.

“So, how are we doing this?”

“You’re walking in the church and then walking down the aisle.”

“Everyone’s here already?” Michonne asks.

“Yep,” Rosita confirms.  “We were just waiting for you.”

Michonne frowns.

“Shit, am I late?”

Rosita laughs, and shakes her head.

“No, you’re right on time.  We just got everything ready.  We wanted to do this for you.  We wanted to give you this.”

Michonne feels her eyes well up again, and Rosita grabs her arm and pulls her towards the door.

“Nope,” she says.  “I refuse to make you cry twice before we even get into the church.  You look gorgeous, by the way,” Rosita tells her as they reach the entrance to the church.  “Rick’s going to die.”

“After everything we’ve been through, he better not even think about dying on me now.”

The two women laugh, and take their final few steps towards the church.  Rosita pauses once more, glancing back at Michonne.

“You ready for this?” she asks, cocking an eyebrow.

Michonne inhales, and smiles tenderly.  Her fingers toy with the stems of her flowers.

“I’ve been ready for this for a long time, I think.”

Rosita nods, turns around, and pushes open the heavy sanctuary doors.

*             *             *

She doesn’t look at rick when she walks into the church because she knows that once she sees him, she won’t be able to see anything else.  And she wants to remember every detail - every inch - of this moment.

All of her family’s eyes are on her as she enters the sanctuary.  She smiles as she observes them sitting in the pews, everyone who’s been invited, everyone who Carl’s deemed as theirs .

Tara and Daryl sit next to each other, and when their gazes meet Tara throws a playful thumbs up and Daryl gives her the closest thing to a smile that Daryl has.  Rosita slips into the pew right behind them, smoothing her hair and looking at Michonne fondly, the weight of their conversation still heavy in both their minds.

Aaron and Eric sit across from them, Aaron with his camera in hand and Eric resting his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder.  Aaron has an eager grin on his face, and Michonne’s heart fills with gratitude as she looks at him.  He brought them here, and while Alexandria has been far from perfect, it’s become home .  It’s the place that she will fight for as long as she’s able.

It’s the place where she found herself falling in love.  The place where she realized she could have that, even in this world.  And she could have it stronger than it’s ever been before.

Her eyes move to Father Gabriel, standing at the center of the altar with his Bible in hand.  His expression is so peaceful, and she wonders how often he stood like this in his past life, and if it brings him comfort to practice his calling again.

She thinks of how much he’s grown in the time they’ve known him, how he’s transformed from a cowardly priest holed up in his lonely church, into a survivor.  A fighter.  An asset .  She’s proud of him, and she’s come to care deeply for him.

Then, she takes a moment to remember everyone who should be there, but isn’t.

She thinks of Maggie, Sasha, and Enid at The Hilltop, and Carol and Morgan at The Kingdom, loved ones that are farther away than it seems they should be.  But their world is growing, and that means their family is, too - not only in numbers, but also in distance.  And it’s right - it’s good - but it’s not easy.

And then she thinks of all those who can’t be there.  All the people they’ve lost.  She thinks of Beth and Noah sitting next to each other in a pew.  She thinks of Denise, who should be sitting next to Tara and holding her hand.  She thinks of Tyreese, standing in the back of the sanctuary with his electric smile on his face, Bob standing next to him and already starting to treat him as a brother.

She thinks of Deanna, finally getting to see Michonne figure out what it was she wanted for herself all this time.  She thinks of Andrea, watching with her heart beating fondly in her chest, as she sees how much her group ended up meaning to her friend.  She thinks of Abraham, trying to hold back the colorful remarks he already thought up when it’s time for her and Rick to kiss at the end of the service.

She thinks of Hershel, looking at them with warm eyes, glad that they’ve found their way.  That they’ve found their place in the world.  And that they’ve found each other.

And she thinks of Glenn, one of the dearest people to her, standing in his rightful place at Rick’s side.

She remembers all the people she still holds inside her.  She takes a moment to mourn them, and to miss them.  To love them.

She reaches the head of the center aisle and finds Carl, carrying Judith, a miniature version of Michonne’s wildflower bouquet clutched in her tiny fists.

Carl Grimes.  The boy wearing an oversized sheriff’s hat and a face dusted in freckles, who was willing to take on a restaurant full of walkers by himself just so he could show his baby sister a picture of their mother.  The first one who accepted her into the group at the prison.  Someone who’s seen so many horrible things, and has yet remained thoroughly good .  Her dearest friend, whom she loves completely and irrevocably.

And Judith.  A baby - a baby - who reminded her of everything she lost and everything she blamed herself for.  The little girl she avoided for as long as she possibly could.  But Judith wore her down, and as soon as Michonne opened herself back up, Judith cemented Michonne’s love for her in a single heartbeat.

And now they stand in front of her, brother and sister, wide grins on their faces as they prepare to accept her into their immediate family, and readily claim her as the closest thing they’ll ever have to a mother again.

Carl and Judith.   Her Carl and Judith.

“I told Judy we couldn’t throw flowers until you got here,” Carl whispers to her as they approach each other, “but she didn’t listen to me.”

She looks down and sees Judith picking at what is now mostly stems in her hand, petals scattered on the ground near her brother’s shoes .  Michonne laughs lightly and sweeps a hand over the girl’s soft, blonde hair.

A silence falls over them, and Carl looks at her expectantly as she tries to think of something to say.

“You ready for this?” she asks after a moment.

“Hell yeah,” Carl answers quickly, a smirk placing on his lips.  “The real question is, are you ready?”

“You better believe I am,” she tells him, and his smile grows.

“Let’s do this, then.”

He turns with Judith and begins to walk down the aisle.  She takes a deep breath, then turns towards the front of the church, closing her eyes.  She counts to three in her head, and then opens them.

Her gaze finds him instantaneously, like he’s full of some sort of magnetic force and she’s made of metal, she a moth and he the only flame in a pitch-black night.

Rick.

Rick Grimes.

Her last and greatest love.

He’s wearing a light blue linen button-up, and a pair of navy denim jeans that barely look worn, and she chuckles to herself as she sees he’s changed out of his beloved, ratty black jeans for her and their special occasion.  His dark brown hair is neatly slicked back, and her favorite, silky, thick curls lay in multitudes at the nape of his neck, as they always do.  Two days’ old stubble covers his jaw, and her stomach flutters as she imagines the delicious way it will scratch at her skin when he kisses her and when he makes love to her.

His blue eyes gleam, his smile shines so brightly it could light up a starless sky, and she can hardly hold herself back from running to him.  She wants nothing more than to be by his side, and the short aisle suddenly feels six miles long.

But she walks it, and she gets to him, finally .  As she comes to stand in front of him, he reaches out and cups her face, his calloused fingers caressing her soft cheek.  His touch sends pinpricks of electricity over skin and down her spine.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmurs, his thumb tracing her cheekbone, and he hand that’s not holding her flowers takes his hand from her face, hold it to her lips so she can kiss his palm, and then brings down their hands and twines their fingers together as Gabriel begins to speak.

The ceremony is mostly a blur, because now that she’s here with him - touching him, seeing him, breathing him - she can’t focus on anything else, just as she’d predicted.  But it doesn’t matter, because the words aren’t important.  He, and she, and the fact that they are here together - those things are important.  And they are truer than anything has ever been.

Their vows are short and simple, because so much has already been said between them.  And although there is still so much left to stay, they will whisper those things to each other in quiet moments they steal from the world - in times that are purely theirs , and no one else’s.

For now, they say what they can.

“I lost everything,” she says, tears gathering in her eyes, and he squeezes her hand.  “I lost everything I loved, and after I did, I didn’t think there was anything good left in the world.  And I thought I was only alive so I could suffer, as punishment for failing the people I cared about.  But after I found the prison, I realized that there were still good things left in the world.  Carl, Judith, Glenn, Maggie, Hershel, and the rest of our group - they made me realize that I could have a family again.  And you.  Meeting you and knowing you.  You taught me that I could trust someone again, and believe in someone.  You showed me that loving someone in this world was worth it, even though it’s dangerous.  I laugh with you.  I look forward to every day, because I know you’ll be in it with me.  And I promise to spend every one of the rest of my days with you.  I promise to help you find the beauty that’s left in the world, like you did for me.  and I promise to love you every moment for the rest of my life.”

He reaches up to wipe away a tear that’s fallen from the corner of her eye, and he trails the backs of his fingers down the side of her face.  His eyes well as he speaks.

“You saved my life,” he says earnestly, the slightest tremble in his voice.  “You’ve saved it over and over again, and you keep saving it.  You support me, and you tell me when I’m wrong.  And no matter what I do - no matter if I win or lose, or what mistakes I make - I know you’ll still be here for me.  You prove to me that there’s something more than just fighting to survive, and that I don’t always have to be a warrior or a leader.  You show me that we get to live , not just survive, and that I still get to be just me .  And I want to live with you, for as long as I possibly can.  So I’m going to fight for you.  For us, and the life we can have.  And no matter what happens, I’m always going to protect you.  I’m always going to take care of you.  And I’m always going to love you.  I promise you that.  As long as there’s breath in my body, I’m going to love you.”

It happens very quickly after that, and Father Gabriel can only get out “You may kiss…” before his arm snakes around her waist and he pulls her towards him as his other hand cradles the back of her neck.  Her hands grab the collar of his shirt and tug as he presses his lips against hers, before moving her fingers to their favorite spot - tangled in his hair.  She opens her mouth and his tongue dips inside, and they drown in each other.  It is only when she reluctantly resurfaces for air that she registers the cheers and applause from their family.

As they part, Carl and Judith approach.  Judith reaches for Rick and he takes her, as Carl throws his arms around both Rick and Michonne.  She hears the snap of Aaron’s camera somewhere in the noise of the crowd.

Soon, the others come up to them and laud them with hugs and words of congratulation.  Aaron hands her two polaroids: one of her and Rick lost in each other, in the middle of their kiss, and one of the four of them - her, Rick, Carl, and Judith - wrapped in an embrace just afterwards.  Tears fill her eyes once again, and she hugs Aaron fiercely, telling him thank you over and over.

When she lets him go, she kisses each photo lightly, and then holds them both over her heart.

*             *             *

Carl takes himself and Judith back to Tara and Rosita’s for the second night in a row, stuttering out that he wants to give her and Rick alone time as a deep brush colors his cheeks, and she’s momentarily mortified that one of her best friends, her adopted son , just made reference to the fact that he knows she’s most definitely having sex with his father tonight, but Rick only laughs as Carl stumbles with his sister out the door.  Rick pulls Michonne into his side as the sound of his laughter still echoes in the empty foyer, and she can’t help but be warmed by the sound.  His laughter is her absolute favorite song, and she couldn’t stop the smile that creeps up on her face and twists up the corners of her mouth even if she tried to.

They turn towards each other and bring their mouths together, kissing lazily in the middle of the room, appreciating their alone time and relishing in the fact that they are together, and that they belong to each other.  They always have, and getting married today only confirmed that bond.  It’s an outward expression of an internal, emotional commitment that they’ve now made known to everyone around them.

They keep kissing until their breath is short, and Rick presses his lips to her forehead before taking her hand and tugging her towards the stairs.  She stops in the kitchen to retrieve an almost-empty package of blue tack from a drawer.  When they reach their room, she pulls the two photos Aaron took from her back pocket and kneels, hanging them on the wall with the tack, right next to her pillow, so she’ll see them every morning when she opens her eyes.

She stays there, admiring the photos as her heart flutters, and runs her fingertips over the smooth film of the images.  Suddenly, one of Rick’s arms wraps around her from behind, and she smirks softly.

“Gotcha something,” he whispers, his lips pressing against her ear before moving to trail down her neck.

“Yeah?” she breathes, tilting her head to the side.

He hums against her shoulder, reaches around to take one of her hands, and drops two small, cool objects in her palm.  When she opens her hand, her breath catches in her throat.

“This is what I spent most of my hour doing.  Now, rooting around through old, leftover jewelry isn’t how you typically go ring shopping,” he says, his voice holding the slightest tinge of nervousness, “so i know it’s not much - “

“It’s perfect,” she tells him, quickly interrupting him as she gazes down at the two rings in her palm.  The engagement ring has an array of flat diamonds set into the silver band, while the wedding one is a smooth, simple, silver ring.

“Yeah?” he asks, as she turns around to face him.

She nods fiercely, and then holds the rings out to him.

“You’re not going to make me put them on myself, are you?”

Her voice breaks as her question comes to an end, and he chuckles.

“Nah.  I think I can do that part for you.”

He begins to slide the rings down her third left finger slowly, first the wedding one, and then the engagement.

“I didn’t know what size you were, so I just guessed,” he cautions.

“They’re just right,” she assures him, as the rings slip easily over her knuckles and sit on the bottom part of her finger with just the right amount of snugness.

Once they’re in place, he brings her hand up to his mouth and kisses her rings before running his lips over her knuckles.  She laughs, even through the tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Well, where’s yours?” she questions earnestly, and he smiles as he digs back into the front pocket of his jeans, pulling out a plain silver ring to match Michonne’s.

She looks at his left ring finger, where the tan line from his old ring has finally faded, and she grins as she slides on his new piece of jewelry, knowing that now, a new one will begin to take form.

She keeps her hold on his hand when she’s done, and they gaze at each other, his eyes beginning to gleam with unshed liquid.

“Michonne Grimes,” he says, his voice proud, and awed.  “My wife.”

Her heart and stomach leap at his words, and she brings her hands up to caress his face, and she wipes at the moisture on his cheeks as he gently begins to cry.

“My husband,” she murmurs reverently.

A short beat passes, and then they lunge at each other, pressing their mouths together and each moving their lips with the other’s.  She giggles against him as he pushes her back onto their blankets and pulls her legs toward him.  He breaks their kiss and rakes his eyes over her.

“You didn’t need a dress,” he tells her.  “You were still the most stunning bride there’s ever been.”

She flushes at his compliment, reaches up to push a few stray strands of his hair out of his face.

“And you were my handsome groom.  Especially in those new pants you found.”

He throws his head back as he laughs.

“I did that just for you, you know.”

“I do know.  And I appreciate the gesture immensely.  Although,” she says, her voice lowering slightly as she runs her foot over his calf, “I think I’m ready for them to come off now.”

He smiles at her mischievously.

“If you insist.  But only if I get to take clothes off of you, too,” he says, his hands already slipping under her blouse.

She looks up at him from under her eyelashes, playfully tapping her chin with her index finger.

“Hmm.  I think I’ll make that deal.”

They undress each other slowly, taking their time to reveal every inch of themselves to the other.  And though they’ve done it an uncountable number of times before, it feels different, after the promises they made today.  It feels like more.

Once they’re both naked, she reaches down to grab him, but he stops her hand before it reaches its goal.

“Wait,” he tells her, moving down to lie on their pallet and pulling her with him, so they’re facing each other, their legs tangled together.  “I just...I just want to hold you for a little bit.”

He wraps his arms around her to caress her back.  She nods, and bites her lip, trying to temper the overwhelming love swelling inside her once again, as his fingers begin to trace up and down her spine.

They lay quietly, her hand trailing over his forearm as it rests against her.

“Rick?”

“Yeah, baby?”

She sighs, and snuggles closer to him, resting her head on his chest.

“I know I don’t need a dress,” she says softly.  “And you don’t need a suit.  And we don’t need a bunch of guests or a huge party, but I think...I think I want it.”

She tilts her head up to look into his eyes, and he brings his hand up to move one of her locs from her face, before resting the hand on her cheek.

“I never did,” she tells him, one corner of her mouth turning up.  “At least, I never thought I would.  But I don’t want the world to take that from us.  I want it.  With you, I want it.”

She wants everything with him.

His eyes become bright, and the sweetest smile graces his face.

“Then let’s have a wedding,” he says, and she leans in to press a kiss into his shoulder.

“After this war is over - “

“After we win this war,” he corrects, and she nods against him.

“We’ll have a real wedding,” she continues.  “We’ll invite everyone - The Hilltop and The Kingdom, too.  I’ll wear a dress , and you’ll wear a suit.”

She can’t help but giggle gently at the mental image.  She never dreamed she’d see herself wear anything like that again.  Not in one million years.

But here she is.  Happy.  In love.   Married .

“It’ll be beautiful,” Rick declares, as he takes her left hand to kiss her rings once again.  He studies them, and takes a deep breath, the slightest frown slipping onto his face.

“You know,” he begins, “we probably shouldn’t tell anyone else we’re married.  Which also means we shouldn’t wear our rings.  If Negan finds out…”

“Negan will use it against us,” she finishes.

“Negan will use it to hurt us.”

She exhales, and closes her eyes.  She knows he’s right - they can’t wear their rings yet.  But she doesn’t want to take them off.  She never wants to take them off.  She’s only had them for a matter of minutes, but they’ve already become such a part of her.

“Maybe we can wear them just for tonight.”

He smirks, and then rolls her onto her back, and presses his lips to her nose as he settles on top of her.

“Yeah,” he agrees.  “Let’s wear them tonight.”

They kiss, and as his hands roam all over her body, his ring leaves a pleasantly hot trail against her skin.

*             *             *

A few days later, a group of them travels to Hilltop to help with weapons training.  Their family greets them at the gate; Carl and Enid run off together, Sasha eagerly takes a look at the rifles Tara and Scott found in an abandoned cabin last week, and Maggie goes to Rick, giving him a hug and then updating him on the overall status of the community and the progress they’ve made.

It warms Michonne’s heart, to see Maggie lead these people.  She’s so smart, and loving, and capable of such amazing things.  She’s leading, and thriving , and she wishes more than anything that her family was here to see it: her mother.  Hershel.  Beth.

Glenn .

When they’re given a quiet moment, Michonne pulls Maggie away from the group, and they end up standing on the back porch of the mansion, looking out over the thriving sorghum fields growing under the afternoon sun.

“Rick and I got married three days ago,” Michonne tells her, once the two women are alone and settled.

Maggie’s arms are around her immediately, and she kisses Michonne on the cheek before speaking into her ear.

“That’s so amazing , ‘Chonne.  If anyone left on this earth deserves to be happy, it’s the two of you.  I wish I could’ve been there to see it.”

“I wish you could’ve been there, too,” Michonne says as they separate and look back over the horizon.  “It was just us: Carl and Judith, Tara and Rosita, Daryl, Gabriel, Aaron and Eric.  You, Sasha, and Enid, and Carol and Morgan - you all should’ve been there.  It felt incomplete without you all.  I missed you.  And there’s a good chance we would’ve waited to do it until you all could come, but then Carl reminded us that you shouldn’t really delay anything these days.”

“He’s right,” Maggie says.

“He is.  He’s smart .”

“Well, he grew up in this world.  He’s had to be smart, to survive.”

Michonne nods, and then closes her eyes.

“Glenn should’ve been there,” she whispers.  “We’ve lost so many people during the time we’ve been together.  I should’ve seen so many faces in that church that I didn’t.  Faces I, and nobody else, will ever see again.  But Glenn...I felt his absence the most.  His hurt me the most.”

She sees Maggie’s head drop out of the corner of her eye, and she swears under her breath, mentally scolding herself.

“Maggie, I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have - “

“No,” Maggie interrupts with a shake of her head, looking up at her friends with tears in her eyes.  “Don’t be sorry.   Please don’t be sorry.  I think a lot of people assume I don’t want to talk about him, but I do .  It hurts, but I want to talk about him.  He was here.  He lived , and he touched all of our lives.  And he deserves our conversations, and our memories.  He deserves to be remembered.”

MIchonne nods, and her vision begins to blur as her own tears form.

God , Maggie, I wanted him there.  I wanted him there more than anything.”

“Oh, he was there,” Maggie assures her, sending her a tiny smile.  “You might’ve not been able to see him, but he was there.  He wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Suddenly, Maggie laughs.

“You know, Glenn told me back at the prison that you and Rick were gonna end up together.”

“The prison ?” Michonne asks, her face scrunching in confusion.  “Rick tried to kick me out of the prison every three minutes.”

“Must’ve been a bunch of unresolved sexual tension driving him up a wall.  Tension that is very resolved at this point.”

Michonne groans, and covers her face with her hands as she feels blush rise up into her cheeks.

“You’re not wrong,” she mumbles, and the two women laugh.

“Whatever it was, Glenn knew,” Maggie says, a wistful smile appearing on her lips.  “Glenn saw it.  He was good at that - seeing things.  Seeing people .  A little while later, I saw it too.  Then eventually, everyone saw it.  I think the two of you might’ve been the last ones to see it, in fact.”

“I think we were hiding from it, a little.  The idea of it was scary.  Letting yourself feel like that, knowing how much you could lose.  Especially after you’ve lost so much already.”

“Do you ever regret it?” Maggie asks softly.  “Or maybe wish you’d never found it in the first place?”

“No,” Michonne answers.  “I found the love of my life.  Finding Rick, and being with him, brought me back to life.  He’s the greatest thing I’ve ever had in my life.  How could I ever want to give it back?”

“Me either,” Maggie agrees.  “Even though I lost him, Glenn is the best thing that ever happened to me.  I’m grateful I’m got to have him for any time at all.”

Michonne slips her arm around Maggie’s waist, and squeezes her closer as Maggie lays her head on Michonne’s shoulder.

“We didn’t tell anyone we’re married, other than the people who were there,” Michonne says.  “You can tell Sasha, obviously, and Enid, if Carl hasn’t spilled it to her already.  You can probably let Jesus know, too.  But we’re not telling anyone else, and we’re not wearing out rings yet, either.  Because if Negan finds out, he’ll use it to hurt us however he can.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Maggie swears.

“It’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Michonne tells her, and then pauses for a moment.  Maggie tilts her head in question.

“But after we win this was against The Saviors, Rick and I decided that we want to have a real wedding.  With guests, and a reception, and an actual wedding dress.”

Michonne turns so that she’s facing Maggie, and grabs her hands.

“Maggie, you’re one of the most important people in the world to me.  And I can’t imagine getting married, or throwing any part of a wedding, without you by my side.”

“Are you asking me to be your maid of honor?” Maggie asks, her eyes lighting up.

Michonne looks at the ground bashfully.

“Yeah.  I am asking you that.”

Maggie squeals, and throws her arms around Michonne in a tight hug.

“Of course I will be!  I love you all so much, Michonne - you, Rick, Carl, and Judith.  You’re the closest family I have left, and I wouldn’t dream of missing this, or passing up the opportunity to be there for you and help you with this.”

But Maggie laughs as she pulls away from Michonne and motions to her finally-noticeable, ever-growing baby bump.

“This little one might be the size of a basketball by the time the big day comes, so who knows if I’ll even fit in a bridesmaid’s dress.  Of course, I guess I’m a matron, not a maid.  Ooh, yikes.  Matron makes me sound so old .”

“Maggie, you are the furthest thing from old,” Michonne promises her as she pulls her in for another hug, and over Maggie’s shoulder, Michonne sees Rick walking across the backyard, and she manages to catch his attention.  He stops, and meets her gaze.

The smile on his face shines as brightly as the sun behind him.

Chapter Text

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.

"'Chonne?"

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.

"I'm fine."

"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? DarylFather 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.

"Michonne?"

"Hmm?"

"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.

Her children.

"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?"

"Car!"

"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?"

"Me!"

"That's right! It's Judy!"

"Dee!"

"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.

"Dadadadadadada…"

"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.

"Mich?"

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?"

"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.

Their baby.

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.

"Michonne?"

"Yeah?"

"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.

Just theirs.

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.