A Breath of Hope
"I know you're in here, come on out." The fact that this person is hiding in the bathroom tells Rick that they are more afraid of him than he is of them, which wouldn't be the case if he were dealing with the more degenerate types surviving on the road these days. He quietly steps to the first stall and gently swings the door inward. He sets a foot on the commode and grasps onto the top edge of the stall, pulling himself up to look over the wall separating the two booths, feeling slightly like a pervert.
In the space of two heartbeats, his flashlight reveals a thin young girl with huge brown eyes full of fear, perched over the toilet while trying to make herself as small as possible to keep hidden from the horrors of this world. Before Rick can speak any words of comfort, she throws the door open, freeing herself from the trap she'd inadvertently put herself into. She is out of the bathroom and running into the restaurant before Rick can stop her. "Wait! I'm not gonna hurt you!"
Not trusting him, the bony waif runs toward the doors to escape, matted dirty blonde hair flying behind her until it falls abruptly to her lower back when she runs headlong into 190 pounds of muscled redneck, dropping the flashlight that she'd been carrying.
"Woah!" Daryl grabs the girl's shoulders to steady her and is rewarded with a thunderous kick to the groin, placed perfectly for a would-be victim, bringing the hunter to his knees. "Fuck!"
Rick advances on her left with his arms outstretched, trying to calm her down while Daryl tries to catch the breath that had been painfully kicked out of him. "Settle down, we're not gonna hurt you. We can help you."
In a quicksilver move, a short blade slices across Rick’s left forearm, stunning the former sheriff as he watches her dash into the play area on her right.
"Shit!" Somebody taught her well.
He automatically covers the wound with his right hand, blood seeping between his fingers. He removes his gray tee shirt and ties it tightly around the gash, hoping to staunch the flow until Maggie can sew him up.
Now in the play area with nothing but bright colored tubes, slides, nets and balls, she realizes that she has trapped herself again with no exits to the outside parking lot. She scrambles up the closest tunnel and lodges herself into one of the highest tubes with mesh covering the sides, leaving her fairly visible.
Rick follows her into the room and stands at the base of the enormous habitrail for small humans, looking up at the terrified child. His heart breaks for her and in the most soothing voice he can muster, he begins… "Listen, sweetheart, my name is Rick Grimes. I'm a police officer. Or I used to be anyway. My partner out there is Daryl Dixon. He's a close friend of mine, he's a good man. What's your name?" When she remains quiet he continues, "I don't know what you have been through, but I can imagine. I promise you that we will not hurt you. Do you have a family? Is somebody taking care of you?"
The single word was spoken so softly he's afraid he imagined it. "Kristy? Is that your name, or is that the person you're with?" he asks for clarification that he hadn't dreamt it for wanting to hear something, anything, so desperately.
"How old are you, honey?"
"Are you all by yourself here?"
She hesitates for a few moments before answering softly, "Yes."
"Did your family leave you here? Are they coming back?"
Rick hears her sniffling and his heart aches even more for this child. "Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry. Listen, I know you're scared and you don't know us, but you can't stay here by yourself. We have a group of people, very nice people who live on a farm about forty minutes from here. Why don't you come back with us?"
"Sure you can. We can take care of you. We have women and children there. I have a fourteen year old son who I'm sure would be happy to meet you. I also have a nine month old daughter who could really use a nice girl like you to play with. What do ya say?"
"What about him?" she asks skeptically, pointing a finger through the netting toward Daryl standing in the doorway of the play area.
"Daryl. What about him? He wants you to come too."
"No, he don't. He's gonna hurt me cause I hurt him and he looks mad."
"He's not mad, honey. We scared you and you were just trying to protect yourself. He knows that." He glances at Daryl who is still slightly hunched over and clearly unhappy. Rick shakes his head slightly, warning his friend to keep his murderous thoughts to himself. "Tell her Daryl."
Daryl glares at his partner but understands what he is trying to accomplish. "I ain't mad and I ain't gonna touch ya." He smiles at the girl to make Rick happy, but it comes out more of a smirking grimace.
"Really? Do you promise?"
"Sure," Daryl promises in his gravelly voice. "Come back with us and you can help take care of the horses."
"You have horses? What are their names?"
The excitement in the girl's voice replaces the fear and anxiety that Rick had been trying to breach. Should have mentioned the animals first.
"Flame is a brown stallion with a patch of white between his eyes. He's Michonne's horse. Big guy, but gentle." Daryl explains as Kristy starts to make her way back through the piping. "Nellie is Beth's horse. She's also brown but with a longer strip of white down her face. She's known as Nervous Nellie 'cause she scares easy. I think she'll like you though," he adds as Rick nods his head in approval. Nicely done.
Kristy slides down a bright orange tube to land at Rick's boots. She stands up and looks him square in the eye. "Okay, I'm ready."
After Daryl jumps over the counter to retrieve all the bags of coffee that Rick had overlooked in his preparation for The Big Date, they lead Kristy back out to the truck parked out front where Bailey's big black head pokes out the driver's window as she guards their belongings.
"Wow! Who's that?"
"That's Bailey. Is it alright if she rides with you in the backseat?" Rick's heart swells at the look of pure joy on the filthy child's face. He sends his thanks to the God who didn't seem to be listening to anyone's prayers these days, grateful that he and Daryl were the ones to find her, and not some deviants who would have given her a very different future.
~ / ~
Carl and Michonne listen intently as Tyreese gives them a lesson in energy. The son of an electrician, he is explaining the use of solar panels when the sound of tires on the dirt lane disrupts the quiet afternoon. The trio looks up to see the blue pickup truck kicking up a plume of dust as it approaches the house. They greet the returning men with relieved smiles as Rick and Daryl climb out of the truck.
Rick gives his son a quick hug. "How's everything here?"
"Fine. Except Judy's been cranky all afternoon. Maggie's on the back porch with her 'cause it's cooler back there."
"Where's Carol?" Daryl asks nonchalantly, but Rick sees the strong emotion in his friend's eyes when he mentions her name.
"She went to put flowers on Sophia's grave," Michonne answers.
Daryl immediately heads in the direction of the cluster of trees that keep watch over their lost family members, waving to Sasha on the platform of the windmill on his way.
"So how'd you guys make out? Find anything good? More Twizzlers?" Carl asks his father with a hopeful smile.
Rick puts his arm around his son's shoulders. "Sorry, kiddo, no Twizzlers. Come here, there's someone I want you to meet."
~ / ~
Maggie paces the back stretch of the wraparound porch with a finally sleeping baby in her arms. She'd heard the truck pull up and is waiting, praying, to hear the sound of boots approaching from the front of the house. After several very long minutes, the sound of Rick's footfalls reach her ears, allowing her to breathe once again. She closes her eyes as he comes up behind her, engulfing her and Judy inside his strong arms. She leans back against him, letting his hard body take some of the burden off her lower back and arms. "Mmmm."
"Hi," he whispers against her ear. "Rough afternoon?"
She leans into the kiss that he presses against her hair. "She's cutting a new tooth, been miserable all day," she whispers back quietly, praying the baby won't wake up. "How'd you- Rick, where's your shirt?" she asks, suddenly aware of his bare skin against her cheek as she lays her head back on his shoulder.
He lifts his arm to her eye level as a way of explaining why the gray shirt he'd walked out with that morning is no longer on his back.
"What happened?" The concern in her voice is undeniable.
"It's not too bad. Long story though. I'll tell you everything as you patch me up. Any chance she'll stay asleep if you put her down in the crib?"
"I'll go find Beth then."
"No, she's in the shower now. Go get Michonne."
"Really? I don't know - she always seems a little nervous around Judith." Rick questions Maggie's idea of a decent babysitter as he rubs his chin lightly over her shoulder, his whiskers sending goosebumps down her arm.
"She's fine. We had a long talk the other day when we took the horses out, while you were out hunting with Daryl. She told me all about her son, Andre. I think it helped her to talk about him. She actually spent quite a while with Judy this morning."
"Alright, I'll go ask her. Don't go anywhere." He kisses the side of her neck, and then moves around her to place a very soft kiss to the crown of his daughter's petite head.
~ / ~
While Michonne sits with Judith on the porch, Maggie tends to Rick's injury upstairs. Sitting together on the edge of their bed, near the temporarily shadeless lamp, his arm lays across her lap as she closes the gaping slash with eleven stitches while he fills her in on the events of his day. By the time he's finished, she is really looking forward to meeting the young lady who had nearly sterilized Daryl Dixon and lived to tell about it. By the time Maggie had made her way around to the front porch after Michonne had taken Judith, Carl had already taken Kristy over to see the horses, delaying their introduction.
"That poor kid."
"I know. Thank God we found her today before someone else did. The guys that killed her father and uncle last night may not have been too far away."
"But you didn't see anyone around, right?" She leans her temple against his bare shoulder, seeking comfort in the fact that he was right there with her.
"No, honey, we were safe." He kisses her forehead. "The town was empty." He didn't mention the small herd of walkers at the mall, not wanting to worry her any more than she already was. She knew how dangerous it was out there, she didn't need any help in visualizing it.
"Good." Maggie wraps some gauze and first aid tape around the wound to prevent infection, and lifts his forearm to her lips, sealing it with a kiss.
As soon as she raises her head, his mouth finds hers as his right hand cradles the back of her neck. "Thank you."
About to respond with the standard you're welcome, her words are absorbed by his lips as he continues to kiss her tenderly. Soft touches become more passionate as she opens her mouth to receive his tongue. Her hands come up to bracket his cheeks as their lips fuse together, tongues dancing in a heated ballet.
She leans back, pulling him down with her to lie on the bed so they can truly celebrate his homecoming. As her back touches the sheets, he shifts his position over her, inadvertently depressing the edge of the mattress and causing Maggie to spill over the side, tumbling onto the area rug that covers the hardwood floor of her bedroom.
"Oh, shit! Are you okay?"
"Oww," she chuckles. "I haven't fallen out of bed in years." She reaches a hand out to him but instead of letting him pull her up, she tugs on his hand to pull him down.
He lands on his knee between her ankles and his face on her chest, which rumbles with laughter as she wraps her arms around him. "God, this floor is hard."
"Yes, but these are soft." She arches her back to press her breasts against him.
"Mmm… yes they are." He closes his mouth over a nipple, rolling it gently between his teeth through the thin fabric of her tank top and bra.
Needing to feel his tongue on her skin, she reaches down to grab the hem of her navy blue tank top and pulls it off over her head. Before she can remove her lacy, black bra – his favorite – he slips a finger inside the sheer lace and pulls it down, lifting her bosom and baring the tight bud for his mouth to suck and nibble while she weaves her hands through his thick, curly hair.
"Rick, the door." She pulls at his hair gently to get his attention when she realizes the bedroom door is wide open, inviting anyone who happens to come upstairs.
He lifts his head to glance at the door. "Don't move." He kisses her soft peak before crawling over to close and lock the door. Returning to her, he presses his lips against her taut stomach, removes her jeans and panties and then covers her body completely with his.
He feasts on her mouth, taking her breath away as she wraps her legs around his hips, grinding the stiff denim of the jeans encasing his erection against her most sensitive flesh.
Brimming with a powerfully urgent need, he lifts himself up and sits back on his heels to reach behind him for a condom from the nightstand. He places it on the bed and unfastens his jeans, pushing them down his thighs to free his engorged cock. "Come here, honey, lean over the bed."
She gets to her knees facing him, circling one hand behind his neck while the other strokes him smoothly, her mouth melting into his as she swallows his moans.
A minute later, she rolls the condom over his rigid length and turns around, placing her arms on the mattress and laying her forehead between them.
He positions himself behind her, kissing the back of her neck as he folds his left hand over hers, interlocking their fingers against the soft mattress while his right hand reaches underneath her, between her legs to caress her moist center. She spreads her knees further apart, flattening her back and groaning into the sheets at his touch. He kisses the side of her neck, up to her ear and then across her cheek until she turns her head to touch her lips to his. He takes her mouth a bit forcefully, plunging his tongue inside, demanding her attention in this life-affirming act, and then gently, tenderly as he rejoices in his love for her.
Her left hand is still entwined in his when he finally imbeds himself inside her, still with every glide in and out to create a wonderful friction of give and take, and even still when they burst through the heavens together in an explosive rhapsody of emotion, sensation, and hope.