A Breath of Hope
Rick turns his head at the sound of the creaky hinges to see Carl stepping out onto the porch to join him for the next three hour shift. The rest of the house is sound asleep at this midnight hour, and Michonne and Ty are soon to be after retiring just a few minutes ago when Rick came out to relieve them.
"Hey, Dad." Carl closes the door quietly behind him and steps over to the railing to stand next to his father.
"Hey. You sleep at all?"
"A little. Next time, can you be the one to wake me up?" he asks with a note of irritation in his voice as he zips up his sweatshirt against the chill of the night.
"Sure. Why – what did Michonne do to you?" Rick replies with a grin.
"She poured a cup of cold water on my face."
Rick laughs at her ingenuity. "Well, you probably didn't give her a choice. I'm sure that was a last resort - you are not an easy one to wake up, buddy."
"It's not funny, Dad. My pillow is soaked!"
"It'll be dry by the time you get back in bed."
"Can you please just do it next time?"
"Sure. So you prefer warm water then?" he teases.
"I prefer no water! Just roll me out of bed onto the floor if you have to."
"Fine. Come on, grab the lantern." Rick aims his flashlight on the floorboards in front of him as Carl picks up the lantern from the railing.
As they walk along the back stretch in the cloudy, moonless night, Rick puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out the ring he plans on giving to Maggie. "Carl, I want to show you something." He stops walking and shines his light into his open right hand, illuminating the engagement ring against the lines of his palm.
"What's that for?"
"For Maggie. I'm gonna ask her to marry me."
Carl looks at the pretty ring and feels deceived, angry. He knows that his father is not really cheating on his mom, but he can't help feeling that sense of betrayal. Worse is the guilt he feels because of how much he, himself, cares about Maggie, and how horrible he had treated his mom the last few months of her life. They cleared the air before she slipped away, thank God, but he will carry a morsel of guilt with him for the rest of his days. Just enough to keep from accepting Maggie wholeheartedly. "I'm not calling her Mom."
"Of course not. Nobody could ever take Mom's place in your heart and we wouldn't want that. I'm just asking that you make a little room for Maggie as my wife. A part of me will always love Mom because she gave me you and Judy. But we had our problems long before I got shot and the world went to hell. If I'm being totally honest, you were the only thing that kept us together."
"Oh great, so it's my fault you hated each other at the end," he says despondently, throwing his arms out in frustration.
"God, no! The feelings your mother and I had for each other - good, bad or indifferent, had absolutely nothing to do with you." Rick pauses, debating whether or not to tell his son that they'd come very close to divorce a few years early. Deciding he's old enough to understand, he takes a deep breath and continues, "The truth is - just before you turned nine, she told me she was taking you and moving back to her parents. I couldn't stand the thought of being three hours away from you so I begged her to stay and work things out. I will never regret making that decision."
Carl looks down at his boots as he rubs one hard toe against the bottom rail, remembering his ninth birthday party when his grandmother yelled at his dad for not making enough ice, not making the coffee strong enough and not replacing the patio furniture that she'd insisted was falling apart. He knew his father had put up with a lot of crap from his Mom's parents, but Carl always thought that it was to make his mom happy because he loved her. He never realized that his dad was doing it solely for him, and now that morsel of guilt rests itself uncomfortably on top of the other.
"How can you get married anyway? Don't you need a minister or something?" he asks glumly.
"That's not really possible these days, so we'll just write our own vows and have one of our group perform a small ceremony, maybe Carol or Tyreese, and then she'll be my wife." Rick explains gently, knowing that his son is having a hard time accepting the idea. "When you wake up the next morning, you probably won't even notice any difference. We'll still go about doing our normal routines - we'll just have a ring on our fingers while we do them." He smiles, trying to lighten the heaviness of the conversation as he curls his fingers back over the ring. "So, what do you say about being my best man?"
Carl closes his eyes for a moment as his shoulders sag with the regretful burden of hurting his father. He looks up at him with his heart in his throat. "I can't, Dad. I'm sorry. I'll come to the ceremony, but please don't ask me to stand up there with you. I can't do that to Mom," he says ruefully.
Rick is thankful for the darkness that hides the stinging disappointment in his eyes. "That's alright." He nods his head briefly as he looks out into the night. "I understand." He does understand but it still hurts as he puts the ring back into the pocket of his jeans, the sparkle slightly duller than it was a few minutes before.
Carl hates to deny his father's happiness, but feels it's his responsibility to defend the memory of his mom. "I'm sorry, Dad. I know Maggie makes you happy."
"I know, don't worry about it." Rick puts his arm across Carl's shoulders to lift his son's dejected spirit, trying not to brood himself as they continue walking once again.
"When are you gonna give it to her?"
"Soon. I'm planning a special night, a romantic dinner for just the two of us."
"She'll like that." Carl gives his dad a sincere smile and receives a tight squeeze of his shoulder in thanks.
"So what do you think of Kristy? Think she'll like it here with us?" Rick asks, steering the topic to more stable ground.
"She's okay, pretty quiet so far. Yeah, she'll like it here cause of the animals. She said she wanted to be a vet when she grew up and thinks it's cool that Beth's dad was one. Beth gave her a few of Hershel's books to look at."
"Oh, so that's where she disappeared to after dinner."
"Yeah, after she gave half her plate to Bailey under the table."
"You noticed that too, huh?" Rick laughs. "Well, we'll have to put a stop to that before she spoils that dog. I just didn't have the heart to say anything to her tonight."
"I know, she got upset a couple times this afternoon whenever she mentioned something her dad would do. Then Bailey would rub against her and she'd be okay again."
"The next few days will be hard for her. Maybe you and Bailey should stick close, help her through it."
Carl looks at his father soberly before responding, "It takes more than a few days, Dad." And just like that, Rick feels the ground shift beneath his feet unsteadily once again.
~ / ~
Four nights later, when the dinner dishes are cleared and Daryl and Carol are keeping watch as they stroll hand in hand along the wraparound porch, the rest of the group is gathered in the dining room playing their fifth game of Spoons, a fast paced card game that Kristy had taught them.
Beth begins the deal to Michonne on her left and card after card quickly passes from right to left around the table until Carl collects the ten of hearts to complete his set and quickly grabs one of the spoons placed in the center, creating a cacophony of slapping hands, screeching shrieks and sliding spoons, until everyone is holding a spoon except for Maggie, knocking her out of the game. "Ugh! I can never win this stupid game!" She leaves her seat with a laughing scowl and puts her hands playfully around Carl's neck in a mock choking gesture. "You didn't feed me any good cards."
"Hey, I don't usually win either! Dad's the one we can never knock out," he says as he shrugs his shoulders against Maggie's teasing grip.
"That's because I'm the fastest draw in the south," Rick drawls as he winks at Kristy sitting across from him with the tip of a spoon in her mouth.
"But you don't even look at your cards! How do you keep winning?" Carl questions with laughter in his eyes.
"I'm fast, and I'm smart." Rick explains. "Besides, I don't really need a set, I just need a spoon to keep me in the game."
"That's cheating – you can't play like that!" Carl complains with a chuckle as he argues with his father.
"Technically I can, until it's down to two people and then I'll have to look at my cards."
"Maggie, you gotta distract him so we'll have a chance to knock him out. If he doesn't play fair – neither will we," Carl strategizes as he gives his dad a challenging glare.
"Yes, sir." Maggie steps behind Rick's chair and places her hands innocently on his shoulders. He tilts his head back to look up at her and she leans over to plant a kiss on his forehead.
"Hey, baby, whatcha doin' back there?"
"Nothing, honey, just play your little game." She rests her chin on his head as five spoons are reset and Beth begins to deal to the remaining players. As Rick passes card after card from Carl on his right to Sasha on his left, and watching everyone's hands like a hawk, Maggie rubs his shoulders and whispers words of love in his ear until he grabs a spoon following Michonne's initial reach with her completed set.
"Shit!" Kristy cries when she is left without a spoon, then immediately covers her hands over her mouth, wishing she could yank the swearword back in. "Oh, God, I'm sorry." She looks at Rick with huge horrified eyes, waiting to be scolded for her language.
He holds in the laughter bubbling inside his chest as Maggie buries her face against his neck to hide her amusement. "It's okay, sweetheart. Just be careful not to do it again," he tells her in a soft but stern fatherly voice.
"I won't," she promises quickly, relieved that Rick hadn't yelled at her like her Uncle Albert used to whenever she said or did something wrong. "Please don't tell Carol I cursed. She won't let me have lunch with her and Daryl anymore if she thinks I'm pickin' up his bad habits. She always tells him to watch his language in front of me, but he usually doesn't, and I don't mind anyway."
Carol had quickly become a surrogate mother to the child and Kristy spent most of her time with the woman, proving herself to be an enormous help with the housework and taking care of Judy. They would have lunch with Daryl in the afternoons and with her quick wit and strong character, she had wormed her way into his heart, once he got over the fact that she'd tried to castrate him.
"Don't worry, honey, we won't say anything," Maggie promises on behalf of the entire room.
"Besides, even if Carol knew, she probably wouldn't be too upset about it," Beth tells her new roommate as she collects the cards for the next round. "She just wants you to be happy here. We all do."
Kristy gets up from the table with an unfamiliar pressure in her throat. She swallows it down and walks into the living room to play with Judy and Tyreese while the game continues.
"Thanks, Babe, that felt good. Keep going." Rick shrugs his shoulders and rolls his neck smugly, gearing up for the next round.
"Come on, Maggie, you can do better than that." Michonne advises her friend in her attempt to distract their leader in order to level the playing field.
As Beth deals the first card which eventually reaches Rick, Maggie leans down to nip the bottom of his earlobe as she snakes a hand inside the collar of his dark plaid button up shirt, coasting her fingers over his chest to secretly fondle a nipple while the game is played out in front of them. He sucks in a breath but gives nothing away, keeping his focus on the game as she glides her warm tongue along the ridge of his ear and then sweeps it inside. He fumbles the cards that Carl is passing to him, encouraging Maggie to press him further. She continues to tease the hardened nipple inside his shirt while she very quietly breathes erotic words into his ear about her own nipples. He coughs abruptly and completely loses his concentration as the cards pile up faster than he can pass them along. Before he can form a coherent thought that doesn't involve Maggie's beautiful breasts, Beth has her set of four and swiftly grabs a spoon, followed by Michonne, Sasha and Carl, leaving Rick empty handed while his jeans get tighter against his groin.
"Yes! We got him!" Carl celebrates as they all cheerfully applaud Maggie's efforts.
"Glad I could help." She removes her hand from beneath Rick's shirt and kisses the top of his head. "See ya." Maggie begins a slow, sexy strut into the kitchen until she hears the unmistakable sound of a chair scraping against the hardwood floor behind her. She turns to see Rick rise stiffly from his seat, eyes dark with desire above his devilish grin.
"Where do you think you're going?" He rounds the table and she dashes into the other room, laughing and shrieking as he gives chase. She darts behind the island in the center of the kitchen, but her illusion of safety is short-lived when a strong arm comes around her midsection, pulling her back against a solid chest. "Now, tell me again about your rosy nipples," he breathes into her ear, shifting them slightly so that his back is blocking any view from the dining room as he slips a hand over her shapely breast.
She turns in his arms as he backs her up against the refrigerator, capturing her mouth for a steamy, heart-stopping kiss. When she eventually breaks the connection to catch her breath, he rests his forehead against hers, gasping for his own supply of oxygen. "Sorry about the blue balls, honey," she pants, struggling to stream the words together, "but we'll have to finish this conversation later."
"Let's go to bed early tonight," he says softly as his hands caress her lower back just above the waistband of her jeans as their breathing begins to slow.
"I'm on watch with Sasha in another hour, remember?"
"Damn. Wake me up when you get in."
"You know I will."
~ / ~
Kristy sits on the floor next to Judy and picks up a couple of wooden blocks, clacking them together and then handing them to the baby when she drops her own blocks to upgrade to the squares that the older girl is holding.
"You're really good with her." Ty smiles at their newest addition to the family.
"I always wanted a little sister."
"Well, it looks like you've got one now."
"There was a little boy in our last group but his mama didn't let him play with me 'cause she didn't like my uncle. We lasted longer with them than the other groups though. 'Til uncle Albert got in a fight with Michael. I wanted to stay with Michael and his friends but Daddy said we had to stay with Uncle Albert 'cause his brother knew best."
Carol had told them that the girl's mother had been killed in a car accident when she was only three and she didn't remember much about her. They knew her father and uncle had been killed the night before Rick found her, but this was the first clue she's given about the kind of people they had been. Despite the rising temperature of his blood at the sheer stupidity of some people, he gives her a bright smile and says, "Well little lady, I'm sure glad you found Rick and convinced him to bring you back here to live with us."
"I didn't find him, silly - he found me!"
Her infectious laughter makes Judy giggle and Tyreese scoops up the baby to let her fly like an airplane above him as he lies on his back on the unforgiving floor. "Is that so funny, Judy? Is Kristy so funny?" He bends his elbows to bring her down and blows raspberries against her belly before lifting her up again as she squeals in delight.
Kristy lies next to the big man on the floor and smiles up at the little girl as a string of drool drips from her mouth onto his chest. Ty feels a slight pressure warming his shoulder as the ten year old tilts her head against him. He looks over at the little imp and sends a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens for letting Rick and Daryl find her.
~ / ~
"It's been pretty quiet around here, do you really think it's necessary to have that thing out, 'Chonne?" Ty asks his lover as they walk the perimeter of the house just off the porch after relieving Maggie and Sasha.
"This is my baby, she protects me." Michonne looks at her katana reverently.
"I thought I was your baby." He smiles sweetly. "I can protect you too, you know."
She gives him a sardonic look and bats her eyelashes coyly. "I know, babe. You are strong - but you're not as sharp as this baby." She holds up the weapon lovingly.
He rolls his eyes and tries to reclaim his masculinity. "I'm sharp enough, and I can take care of you, if you'd let me."
Not oblivious to the minds of men, she decides to stroke his ego a little and sheaths the katana as they continue walking along the edge of the woods, hearing an occasional animal scurry in the darkness behind the tree line.
"I know you're just humoring me, but thank you for trusting me."
"Sure." She trusted herself more but she kept that thought to herself, along with the notion that she could draw her weapon in a heartbeat if the need for it arose.
She had been in relationships before and had walked the line of compromise as one must in order to make it work, but she had been on her own for so long in this brutal world, relying on her own guts and guile to survive, that it was difficult to go back to the dance of give and take for the sake of another. But she would make the effort for Tyreese, he was a good man and she was deeply in love with him. She just hoped he wouldn't be too offended when the time came for her to protect him, as would most likely be the case.
On their fourth lap around the sleeping farmhouse, Ty glances over toward the rubble where a barn had once stood, thinking he'd heard a noise. "Hang on a second." He stops Michonne with a hand on her arm and listens intently to the stillness of the night, shining his flashlight in the direction of the pile of ash and charred wood.
"What is it?" she asks on high alert, hand reaching over her shoulder to grip the handle of her katana comfortingly.
"I don't know, but I thought I heard something out there. Come on, let's take a walk." He grips his gun as she draws her weapon and they head out to inspect the area.
They pass the large block of scorched ground without any signs of trouble, but then hear a dreadfully familiar sound of inhuman snarling as they near a section of trench that has been thankfully almost completed. They stride up to the edge to find two decaying walkers trying to claw their way out of the channel. The guardians look quickly around for any other walking corpses that may have wandered onto their land. Seeing no other threat of invasion, Michonne dispatches the two captives with an efficient slash to each head, ending their lives for the second and final time. She turns to her partner. "We've got to get this trench finished."
~ / ~
Hardworking hours turn into relentless days which become industrious weeks until two months have rolled by in a whirl of trenching, digging, tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting, until one early Saturday morning when Maggie wakes to find a note on the pillow next to her.