‘Carl? Why don’t you and Sam go play some football outside?’ Jessie asks kindly while she does the dishes.
‘It’ll be dark soon. There’s no point.’
Jessie checks the sun by leaning forward, ‘it’ll go down slowly, and besides, we’ve got lights out now. You’ll still be able to see the ball.’
‘We’re not supposed to be outside when it gets dark, unless it’s necessary.’
Rick places a couple of plates back into the cupboard and looks back at his son, who is sulking at the table. ‘Who told you that?’
‘Daryl,’ Carl says with an annoyed expression and in a tone of voice that implies that he finds the question ridiculous and the answer obvious.
His father laughs, ‘since when do you listen to Daryl?’
Carl looks at him coldly. ‘The prison?’
It’s dark when the door to Carl’s cell is opened. Warm, soft light of a candle spills into the small room. It chases shadows up the walls, through the bars, away. The young boy is sitting on his bed, arms looped around his knees. With a small sob, he rubs at his wet cheeks to hide the tears. He doesn’t need to look up to know that it’s Daryl who’s leaning against the bars.
The hunter is silent now that his footsteps have died. Carl can only hear his breathing.
‘Maggie took her,’ the boy says. ‘I couldn’t get her to stop crying. I’m sorry.’
Daryl places the candle on the cardboard box that’s serving as a small table. He sits down next to the boy on his bed and doesn’t say anything.
‘Where’s my dad?’ Carl asks and he hates the way his voice breaks on the words. ‘Judith was crying and I didn’t know what to do. I tried, but… Where’s my dad?’
Daryl looks at him and doesn’t answer.
He doesn’t know, Carl realizes. He’s out there somewhere, in the pits of the prison, in the darkness with his own demons and the ones this world created.
The boy cries. Fat tears running down his cheeks, over his trembling lips. He feels useless. Alone.
Daryl gives a soft sigh and then carefully drapes an arm around his shoulders. The touch is light, easily shoved away if the boy wanted to. It’s hesitant, too, like Daryl isn’t quite sure whether he’s doing this right.
Carl gives in and buries himself in the hunter’s side. He cries until he can barely breathe.
‘Easy, champ,’ Daryl hushes. He tightens his hold on the small shoulders and scoots down the bed so he can lean back against the wall. Carl follows him eagerly, seeking out his body warmth and comfort. The hunter lets him. ‘You’ll be a’right. Your dad’s goin’ to be fine.’
Carl looks up through his tears and frowns.
‘Can’t promise that,’ Daryl says quietly. ‘But I’ll promise to do whatever it takes to bring him back, okay?’
Carl marvels at the words. Daryl might be the first adult who never lies to make things feel better. It’s not always pleasant. Sometimes his answers sound downright cruel and far too harsh for him or Beth, but he never lies. He doesn’t tell Carl that his dad is right outside, when he’s down in the bowels of the prison, slaughtering everything and anything in his path. He doesn’t make promises he can’t keep.
‘Okay,’ Carl nods before he closes his eyes again.
That’s how Hershel finds them the next morning. Daryl on top of the covers, carving something out of wood while Carl sleeps in his lap. The hunter looks up, arches an eyebrow and then glances down at the sleeping boy with a small shrug.
‘Breakfast is ready,’ Hershel tells him with a fond smile.
The older man laughs softly before he limps back to the kitchen and leaves them be.
Rick sighs and throws a dice, ‘not here. I don’t know where he is.’
Carl scowls. ‘You didn’t invite him?’
Jessie glances between father and son, and tries to make peace. ‘Daryl doesn’t need an invitation to come around on game night,’ she tells the boy gently. ‘He’s always welcome here.’
‘I know that!’ Carl bites out. ‘So where the hell is he?’
‘Language,’ Rick says as Sam giggles. ‘I thought it’d be nice if it was just us for once. A family game night.’
Carl gapes at him before he jumps to his feet. ‘You hypocrite! He was your brother when you needed him and your-‘
‘Carl!’ Rick’s voice is like a whip, striking down hard between them.
The boy reels back, swallows thickly and then runs out of the room.
It’s hours later when there’s a knock on the door. Rick opens it to find Daryl and Carl standing there. There’s mud on Daryl’s face, blood on his hands, and Carl looks like he’d rolled around in the dirt.
‘Get upstairs, clean yourself up and wait for your dad in your room,’ Daryl tells the boy as he shoves him over the threshold
To Rick’s surprise, Carl slinks away.
‘He’d gone outside them walls,’ Daryl tells Rick. ‘Enid must have shown him how to scale it. Good thing Glenn saw him go, came to get me. He figured you were already out there, looking for him. Ya weren’t.’
‘I didn’t know he’d gone over the wall.’
‘Next time your kid runs off angry in the middle of the goddamn apocalypse, you best run after him, Grimes,' Daryl growls, ‘I ain’t goin’ to tell ya twice. He’s a kid. He does stupid shit when he’s mad. What if he’d gotten lost, huh? Jesus.’ The hunter shakes his head and walks away.
Rick bristles at that, ‘you got lost. Found your way back.’
Daryl turns around on the garden path, ‘so did Sophia. And she didn’t find her way back. ‘s a different world out there.’
‘Don’t go tellin’ me, officer,’ Daryl scoffs, ‘I ain’t the one ya let go off.’
Rick watches him leave and is not so sure.
At first, it feels strange to seek the hunter out. Carl watches from under the brim of his sheriff’s hat how the older man balances Judith on his arm while he talks to Hershel and Glenn about the defenses of the prison. His dad is still lost in the darkness that lingers in the snaking corridors of the building they’ve conquered. Sometimes he emerges, covered in blood and with that dull look in his eye, to check on him. He’ll check whether he’s eaten, slept, and then just walks off again before anyone can reasonably object.
He never checks on Judith.
Carl hates that.
So he watches how Daryl cradles the little girl, gently swaying her on the spot as he tells Glenn to make sure everyone is aware of the new rosters for watch duty.
When the small group disperses, Carl bites the bullet and walks over to the hunter.
‘Hey,’ he mutters.
‘Hey, bud,’ Daryl answers. He’s experimenting with nicknames after ass-kicker has stuck with most of the group. Bud, champ, kid, it all rolls off his tongue easily when referring to him now.
‘Is she doing okay?’ He peers at the little bundle in the strong arms, standing on his tip-toes to do so.
‘Yeah, just a bit fuzzy. Thought I’d give Beth a break.’ Daryl glances at him. ‘You want her?’
‘No, I think she’s settling down. Best keep her calm while we can.’ Carl peeks up at his friend. ‘She likes you.’
‘’course she does, but she loves her big brother.’ The hunter sits down on one of the tables, feet on the chair. He gives the boy a small smile. ‘Back’s been hurtin’ something fierce.’
‘Gettin’ old,’ Daryl snorts. ‘We reinforced the gates. They needed some muscle. What about you? You all right?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Carl dodges as his mind still reels with the information that Daryl is, in fact, old. The man is made of muscles and he never complains about anything.
‘Fell outta bed the other night, that didn’t help neither,’ Daryl tells him now. ‘Dreamed something awful. Can’t remember now,’ he says quickly when Carl opens his mouth to ask. ‘Just a nightmare, though. You ever have those?’
‘Sometimes.’ Carl rubs at his nose to hide his face. ‘Last night.’
‘Dreamed about mom eating Judith.’
Daryl looks at him with a sad expression. ‘Didn’t happen, kid. You did right by her.’
‘Here, take her for a bit, my arm’s fallin’ asleep,’ Daryl shifts Judith to her brother and stretches. He leans back on his arms and watches how the boy awkwardly pulls the girl in his lap, smiling down at her.
The next day, Daryl lifts a water barrel to his shoulder with a grunt and not a grimace of pain. He carries it over to where Hershel wants it and goes to get the next one. Carl watches and realizes that Daryl does lie to him.
He probably never had a nightmare either.
He doesn’t mind.
The next time he has a nightmare he tells Daryl without having to be prompted by lies. The hunter always listens. He can’t make it better, of course, but it helps all the same.
Rick watches how Daryl leans over the hood of a car. Sweat runs down his filthy arms, the flannel shirt is clinging to his back and the jeans are sagging low, exposing just a sliver of skin. He curses under his breath, the words just a muddle of Southern filth Rick can’t distinguish. He snags his finger on something inside the car engine and sucks on the small wound, falling back to the heels of his feet and glaring at the machine.
Rick can’t help but smile. ‘Hey.’
Daryl glances over his shoulder, ‘hey, man. ‘s up?’
‘I need to talk to you.’
Daryl waves a hand like he wants to say; that’s what you’re doing right now, and wipes his hand on his jeans before leaning over the engine again.
‘It’s about Carl and Judy.’
The hunter steps away from the car at that. He gets his rag out and wipes his neck with it before throwing it onto his tools. ‘Something wrong?’
‘No.’ Rick watches how Daryl grabs a canteen filled with water and guzzles some down. The Adams apple bobs. Sweat runs down his neck. Rick has to look away.
‘Then what’s up?’ Daryl’s voice jerks his attention back. The hunter is holding the canteen out to him.
Rick takes it. He brings it to his lips, briefly marveling that Daryl had been drinking out of it before, and feels stupid for even thinking that. ‘Thanks. Nothing’s wrong. It’s just… They don’t like Jessie much.’
Daryl just looks at him.
‘I’ve been trying,’ Rick tells him. ‘She’s been coming over for dinner, you know? To get to know them, but Carl’s not having it. He keeps raising hell about every little thing she says, and it’s just been…’ Rick sighs and looks away.
‘So your son doesn’t like your girlfriend much,’ Daryl summarizes. ‘What do you want me to do about it?’
‘Nothing. Just, he’s been asking after you a lot and, I don’t know. Guess he just got used to having you around all the time.’
Daryl huffs and reaches for another tool before walking back to the car.
‘Maybe you can join us for dinner tonight?’ Rick asks. ‘It might help. Jessie is coming over too.’
‘Is that a yes?’ Rick urges with a grin.
‘Is that a free meal I don’t have to cook?’ Daryl bounces back.
‘Yes, yes it is,’ Rick laughs. Before he can think about it, he reaches out and puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder, squeezing gently. Daryl looks at him with wary eyes. ‘Good, that’s good, see you tonight then.’
The dinner is a success in terms of keeping the peace, but there’s a clear divide at the table. Rick’s at the head of it, and so is Daryl. Jessie is at Rick’s right hand, Carl on his left.
And Carl ignores Jessie completely.
He jokes around with Daryl, keeps stealing the meat from the hunter’s plate when Daryl tries to get Judith to eat some vegetables and Daryl pretends to raise hell about it while laughing at the boy’s antics.
Carl talks a mile a minute about his new comic, his back to Rick as he leans over to his friend to get his attention. Daryl nods and hums in all the right places while Judith giggles in his arms.
Rick can’t help but smile at the sight of them.
‘Carl,’ Jessie speaks up suddenly, addressing the boy directly. ‘Who’s your favorite cartoon character?’
Carl looks at her for a second and then turns back to Daryl, telling him about how Enid found another issue.
The hunter interrupts him. ‘The lady asked you something.’
Jessie seems a little surprised by that, glancing at Rick before smiling expectantly at the boy again.
Carl frowns at Daryl but turns to their company with a shrug. ‘They’re not cartoons. They’re comics.’
‘Carl,’ Daryl warns. ‘You’re bein’ rude as fuck.’
The boy sighs. ‘Sorry, Jessie,’ he mutters. ‘Cartoons are for kids. I used to like Science Dog, but now the Invincible ones are my favorite.’
‘Tell her about the one Michonne found you the other day,’ Daryl prompts as he stands up. Carl gives him a suffering look but then starts to tell Jessie about it. The story is much shorter than the time he’d told Daryl all about it, but Rick reckons it’s a start.
Daryl walks over to Rick and dumps Judith unceremoniously in his lap. ‘Your daughter won’t eat her greens. You deal with her.’
‘What?’ Rick asks, ‘she never eat greens when she’s with me. You got her to eat those carrots the other time!’
‘And now she’s bein’ a stubborn little thing,’ Daryl grouses as he falls back into his own seat. ‘Can’t blame her. Fuckin’ hate sprouts.’
‘See?’ Rick sighs, ‘you hate sprouts, she hates sprouts. Monkey see, monkey do.’
‘Callin’ me a monkey, ya pig?’
‘No, no,’ Rick hastily rectifies with a laugh. ‘Just eat your sprouts, then Judy will too. You’ll see.’
Daryl grins at him and pushes his plate away. ‘Hell, I grew up without them sprouts, she will too.’
Rick grins, ‘and what a fine young man you’ve become….’
‘Ain’t I just,’ Daryl leers back.
There’s a silence, the two of them seizing each other up. Rick feels a blush creeping up his neck and Daryl smirks.
Jessie clears her throat. ‘Dessert?’ she prompts.
‘We don’t have any,’ Rick dismisses with a wave of his hand.
‘Tea then?’ Jessie stands up to move to the kitchen, leaving the family at the table.
It’s late in the afternoon when Rick emerges from his latest slaughter-fest. He walks into the courtyard of the prison where several picnic tables are now pushed to host all of their family members during dinner time. Right now, they just host Daryl, Judith and Carl. The boy is reading a comic while the hunter is stretched out on top of one of the tables with the little girl asleep on his broad chest.
‘Daryl,’ Carl nudges the hunter’s leg without looking up from his comic. ‘What does atheist mean?’
‘Hmm?’ Daryl turns his head lightly so he can squint at the boy. ‘Someone who don’t believe in any kind of god.’
‘Thanks. Like Carol? She don’t believe in any god, I think.’
‘Doesn’t,’ Daryl corrects. ‘Carol doesn’t believe in any god.’
That makes Carl look up at him with a pinch in his eyebrows.
The hunter smirks and swipes at his head lazily, ‘don’t go soundin’ like redneck trash now, ya momma raised ya right.’
Carl snorts and looks back at his comic.
The sound of Rick’s voice causes the boy’s head to whip around. ‘Dad! Hey…’ He trail off, a little unsure and it breaks Rick’s heart. He slowly walks over to his son, puts his hands on the bony shoulders and presses a kiss to the crown of his head.
‘How are you?’
‘Good,’ Carl tells him.
‘Good,’ Rick echoes. He looks up at Judith, who’s sleeping peacefully on Daryl’s chest. A protective hand rests on her back, broad and scarred. It’s been so long since he’s held her. Lucid moments have been far and few in between now. He knows that. He remembers naming her with Carl, cradling her against his chest that first time in the prison, but after that… It hurts to see her. It hurts to see her without her mom and to know that Lori died thinking he hated her.
But she is beautiful. With her baby-white hair, wrinkly fists pawing sleepily at Daryl’s shirt, feet scraping over the man’s belly.
‘Can I…’ Rick glances up to meet Daryl’s gaze. ‘Can I hold her?’
‘Don’t got to ask, man,’ the hunter says as he sits up, cradling the baby for a second to get a good hold of her before transferring her to Rick’s waiting hands. It shouldn’t surprise Rick how used he seems to be to the motion, how comfortable he is with handling the girl, but he is.
And he’s slightly jealous of his ease when he himself feels nothing but nerves as he holds his daughter. He awkwardly wraps an arm around her.
‘There ya go,’ Daryl murmurs with a smile when he reaches over and places his hand over Rick’s, guiding it to the girl’s head to support it properly. ‘Like ya did with Carl, only she’s cuter.’
Carl sticks his tongue out at the hunter.
Rick laughs softly. ‘Carl was a cute baby, too. A screamer, mind, but cute when he was sleeping.’
‘She ain’t no screamer,’ Daryl says when he stretches out again, closing his eyes and enjoying the sunshine.
‘Thanks for looking after her.’ Rick swallows. ‘And Carl.’
One blue eye pops open. Daryl gives him a small smile as he holds one hand out to Carl, ‘weren’t no trouble.’ Carl claps their hands together. ‘Was teamwork. You look better.’
‘Good,’ the hunter closes his eyes again. ‘Glad you’re back, man. She needs a diaper change soon.’
Rick walks into Carol’s living room and finds her on the couch with Toby. They’re talking softly to each other, legs intertwined as they both lean back against one of the arm rests. His friend looks up at him and smiles.
Rick nods and heads up. When he reaches the top step, he realizes that he hadn’t even specified who he’d been looking for. It could have been Michonne, for all she knew. But she knew.
The sound of voices leads him to Daryl’s bedroom. The door is slightly ajar and he pushes it open.
The sight that greets him makes his mouth go dry.
Daryl is standing at the foot of the bed, a clean pair of rugged jeans slung low on his hips. He’s not wearing anything else. Barefooted and without a shirt, he stands there. There’s a towel in his hands. He uses it to roughly dry his hair, titling his head a little to the side in the progress.
Michonne is on his bed. Fully clothed, with her legs crossed at the ankles and her back against the headboard. She’s flipping through an old magazine, the pictures faded, and occasionally glances up to nod at something Daryl is saying.
Rick’s gaze wanders over Daryl’s back. The strong muscles move beneath the sun-kissed skin. The angel and demon chasing each other on his shoulder blade, tumbling out of heaven or rising out of hell, he’s not sure. That dip of his spine, the curve of his hipbones, the waistband of his jeans cutting off that promising slope of his lower back.
‘Rick,’ Michonne says with a sly grin on her face, ‘hi.’
Daryl whirls around, ‘Jesus, man. Make some noise when ya move.’
‘You’re one to talk,’ Michonne comments dryly, flipping another page. ‘Sneaking around like a damn alley cat every night.’
‘I don’t sneak up on people.’
‘Just sneak around them, then.’
‘Pff. Don’t need no eyeful of Tobin puttin’ his hands on Carol, thanks.’
‘That happened once, and I was right there with you.’
‘Whatever.’ Daryl snorts as he throws the towel onto the bed and moves to grab a shirt.
‘Earth to Rick,’ Michonne mutters with a pointed look his way. ‘Please respond.’
‘What?’ Rick tears his gaze away from the rippling muscles of Daryl’s chest when he puts the shirt on. ‘Oh – yeah, sorry. I was just….’He gestures uselessly towards the stairs.
‘At a loss for words,’ the woman nods. ‘He does clean up nicely.’
Daryl picks the towel up again only to throw it at her face. ‘Shut the fuck up. Did ya need something, Rick?’
‘A hand, maybe?’ Michonne smirks.
Rick blushes. At least Daryl is ignoring her comment in favor of putting some socks on. He sits down at the edge of the bed to do it. ‘No- yeah, I… Can you watch Judith tonight? I want to do something nice for Jessie.’
‘Sure, man,’ Daryl nods as he stomps his boots on next. ‘Carl too? They can sleep here, if you want.’
‘That’d be great.’
‘A’right,’ Daryl grabs his knife from his desk, ‘I’m just gonna check in with Glenn ‘nd Maggie real quick. Just drop them off here, Carol will watch them if I’m not back yet, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Rick echoes when the hunter moves past him. He smells like peppermint. Rick thinks he might prefer his usual blend of sweat and cigarettes. ‘Thanks, man.’ He listens to how Daryl runs down the stairs and calls out a greeting to Carol and Tobin, before the doors slams shut and he’s out.
Michonne sucks on her teeth and throws the magazine onto the floor. She looks at Rick and raises an eyebrow.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘You’re an idiot.’
‘You’re an idiot, Rick Grimes,’ she says as she gets up. ‘But sure, you go do something nice for Jessie. You might want to make a quick stop somewhere though. She might think you’re a bit too happy to see her.’
She laughs at that. ‘That’s Daryl’s line. You go and play house now.’ She slips past him. ‘Did you know Carl doesn’t like her, by the way?’
They find each other again in the worst and best circumstances.
There’s blood in Daryl’s mouth and on Rick face. They sit together, leaning against the car. The words don’t come easily. There’s too much guilt on Daryl’s tongue and Rick’s eyes are still far too black for it to be easy. But they talk and theirs shoulders touch and Carl’s safely locked in the car behind them with Michonne, so it might be a good talk regardless.
You’re my brother, Rick tells him but he doesn’t mean it. It’s the closest and furthers away from the truth he’s ever been. Sometimes he just isn’t sure what he wants.
He wants to have Daryl’s blood inside his own veins, the same blood, but only because it sometimes feels like he’s the only reason that old thing inside his chest keeps beating, so he might as well be the reason why and the reason how.
He wants Daryl to be his twin, too. He wants that special connection people keep talking about, the bond only two people being born together can have, that myth of being exactly the same and always knowing that there’s someone out there who understand with just a glance and raised eyebrow.
He wants to marry Daryl. He wants to hear and make promises about only death parting them, even though he knows from experience that not all vows are sacred. With Daryl, he knows it will mean more because he’s so greedy with his words and only ever says things he means and knows to be true.
He wants him to be his brother only because he knows that blood is blood, and you can’t ever break such a bond.
In short, he wants him to stay. Forever, if that’s possible. And if it’s not, then for as long as he can.
Of course, he can’t say that to Daryl.
So he tells him; you’re my brother, because that’s familiar and only causes the hunter to frown a bit, surprised or skeptical, Rick can’t be sure.
He nods, so that’s something.
‘Hey, Daryl.’ Carl comes up behind the hunter and leans against his back, elbows on his shoulders and his chin coming to rest upon Daryl’s head. ‘What’re you doing?’
‘Fletchin’ my bolts. Talkin’ to Ananda here,’ Daryl nods towards the woman who is sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him. There’s a bucket filled with potatoes next to her and a knife in her hands. She’s peeling them for tonight’s dinner.
‘Hi,’ Carl smiles at her before he lets his arms loop around Daryl’s neck, bringing their heads on the same level so he can see what the hunter is doing to his bolts. ‘Did they break?’
‘Some vanes are tearing a bit, had to replace them. They make the arrow fly straight,’ he tells the boy.
‘Why does one of them have a different color?’
‘’couse I’ve got a half-moon nock on my bolts. Put down the odd colored one and it’s gonna align with the string.’ Daryl sees Carl frown out of the corner of his eye. ‘Here, look,’ Daryl shrugs the boy off his shoulders and reaches for his bow, cocking it in seconds. ‘See? It slides into place like that. If I turn the bolt, put the wrong vane down, it won’t. Like this, see? Don’t fit right. So like this.’ He puts the bolt in right, hears it click, glances around the little area and takes aim. He fires the bolt into the ground a couple of feet from them. ‘Go get it?’ he asks the boy.
Carl nods and bounds over to grab the bolt, wrangling it out of the ground and handing it back to the hunter.
‘Doesn’t that damage the bolt? Shooting it into the ground?’
‘Yeah, but you can’t dry fire a crossbow, fucks it up, and I got enough bolts for now.’
‘Right.’ Carl leans on his shoulder again. ‘Is it okay if I go help Glenn in the greenhouse now?’
‘Got your knife on you?’
‘Then yeah. Be back home by dark, and let Rick know if you’re staying over at Glenn’s for dinner.’
‘Sure Dare, see you later!’ Carl runs away towards the greenhouses.
Ananda smiles at the hunter. ‘Your kids are so cute. Rick walked by with your little one the other day, she’s adorable.’
Daryl looks at her. Then he nods. ‘Yeah. Thanks.’
It’s dark. There’s nothing in the world but blackness and Daryl’s steady breathing next to him. The moon has died in the sky, leaving only stars in its wake.
They don’t know where they’re going. The road is endless.
‘What are we going to do?’ Rick asks his friend and he doesn’t care that the words are tainted by desperation. That guilt and shame and fear is rolling off his tongue.
‘Same as we’ve been,’ Daryl replies calmly. ‘Survive.’
Except they aren’t. They’re dying, every day a little faster, with their supplies running low and aching bodies starting to give up. Death calls for them, brings them home with its servants as well as the punishing heat of summer in Georgia. It could be hell, for all they know. It is hell, sometimes. He is sure of that, at least.
‘Okay,’ Rick says because he doesn’t have a choice.
Daryl turns to him, eyes glinting in the dark. It’s unfair. His eye are so small, how are they even able to catch the light of tiny stars? ‘You okay?’
‘No,’ the hunter answers because he hardly ever lies and never does it to spare one’s feelings.
They don’t add something hopeful either, no promise that they will be or sentiment of how they’re still together and how that must mean something. No, they’re not all right and they’re quite sure that this is how they are going to die. Out on the road, in the darkness between the hell of dawn and horror of twilight.
‘You’re not my brother,’ Rick tells him because he doesn’t have the energy to keep lying to the other man. He can’t afford to save his feelings, to make it sound like something acceptable to a man raised like Daryl. ‘You never were. I’m sorry.’
In the dark, Rick can’t be sure whether Daryl flinches at the words. Probably not, though.
‘Good,’ Daryl answers. ‘’cause you ain’t nothing like Merle neither.’
‘Good,’ Rick echoes.
Their shoulders press together while they stand guard over their family.
‘Come on, time to go.’ Rick pushes at the back of Carl’s head to get him to stand up but the boy whines low in his throat.
‘Can’t I just stay here? Dad, I’m so tired.’
Rick laughs softly, ‘no, you can’t sleep in the middle of the town square by yourself. Come on, it’s just a little walk.’
‘Our house is on the other side of town!’ Carl complains, ‘dad, please. I can’t…’
It’s been a long day. There’s been a party to boost morale and Carl had been so excited that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. He got up early to help with the decorations, helped in the kitchen to prepare the food and then danced and laughed with their entire family until the sun went down. Now its way past midnight and Rick curses himself for not going home sooner.
Jessie is watching them from the other side of the fire.
‘Carl, please get up now. You can sleep in tomorrow,’ Rick promises and he feels like that parent in the middle of a supermarket with a screaming child on the floor next to them. Helpless and out of his debt. He kisses Judith’s blond hair to keep her calm.
‘No, dad, seriously…’ Carl whines softly, hiding his head in his arms. ‘I don’t wanna.’
‘We need to get Judy to bed, Carl, come on.’
‘She’s already asleep! Why can’t I just sleep here? Dad, I’ll be fine just…’
There’s the sound of someone getting up. He half expects Jessie to come to his aid, but as soon as Rick looks up, he knows how ridiculous that thought was.
Of course it’s Daryl who kneels down next to Carl.
‘Hey, sport,’ the hunter gives the boy a small smile. ‘Man by day, man by night, right? Come on, up you get.’ He grabs his hands and yanks the boy up.
‘I don’t wanna…’
‘Yeah, I heard ya, ya pussy.’
Carl’s even too tired to get offended. He just groans and sways on his feet.
Carl blinks when Daryl turns around and offers his back. ‘Sure?’
‘You’re what? Ten pounds soaking wet? Yeah I’m sure.’
Rick watches how his son climbs onto the hunter’s back and then melts into his strong frame. His arm looped around his neck, head on that broad shoulder.
The cop bids everyone goodnight and follows the hunter. He listens to the mumbled conversations between the boy and his friend, catching tidbits about Enid, about crossbow bolts, about Judith. The conversation flows easily between them. Every once in a while Daryl will hitch the boy higher, patting the legs wrapped around his waist.
They reach the house and Rick unlocks the door to let them both in. Daryl finds his way easily in the dark. He goes up the stairs with Carl, now grunting a bit under his weight. Rick follows, silent like a shadow.
He watches how Daryl makes a stop in the bathroom. He lets the boy slip off his back, steadying him when he sways sleepily. To Rick’s amazement, he put the cover of the toilet down with his foot while grabbing Carl’s toothbrush.
‘Sit down before you fall down, champ.’
Carl hums and sits down.
‘Here,’ Daryl puts some toothpaste on the brush and hands it to the boy. He kneels down in front of him while Carl brushes his teeth. ‘Had a good time today?’
Carl nods with closed eyes.
Rick smiles at that.
‘Spit it out,’ Daryl coaxes after a minute. ‘C’mon, I got ya.’ He puts his hands on Carl’s shoulders and steer the boy towards his bedroom, throwing the blanket aside. ‘Don’t get shy now,’ he grunt when Carl sits on the bed and shakes his head. The boy smirks back and undoes his laces. It’s a slow progress but Daryl waits patiently until the sneakers are kicked aside, the shirt tugged over his head and knife put on the bedside table.
Carl shimmies out of his jeans and crawls under the blankets.
‘All good?’ Daryl asks as he sits down on the edge of the bed to tug the blanket closer around the boy’s shoulders.
‘Hmm-hmm,’ Carl smiles. ‘Thanks, Dare. See you tomorrow.’
‘G’night, kid.’ A hand brushes over Carl’s dark hair and then Daryl walks out of the bedroom, closing the door silently behind him. He looks up and is slightly startled to find Rick standing there with Judith still on his hip. ‘He’s all good,’ the hunter says with a vague gesture at the door, ‘I’ll just be…’
Rick puts a hand on the back of his neck and draws him close.
The kiss is so familiar and easy that it’s hard to imagine that it’s their first. It’s fleeting, just a brush of lips, a peck, really.
‘Thanks,’ Rick tells him.
‘Yeah,’ Daryl answers. ‘Is Judy good?’
‘Yeah,’ he echoes. ‘I’m just going to put her down.’ He brushes his thumb over Daryl’s jawline. ‘Want a beer after?’
Blue eyes meeting blue eyes. ‘Sounds good. Gotta piss, see you downstairs?’ Daryl brushes over Judith’s blond hair and leans close to kiss her temple.
‘Yeah, see you downstairs,’ the former cop nods. ‘You grab the beer.’
Daryl walks to the bathroom and snorts, turning and walking backwards, ‘how long does it take to put a toddler down, man. You grab the beer and meet me outside.’
‘You should really stop smoking.’
‘What, I taste like an ashtray now?’
‘No.’ Rick laughs at his own quick answer. ‘I mean, I don’t know, man. I’ll check that later for you.’
‘That smooth talk needs work, Grimes,’ Daryl snorts as he kicks the door closed between them.
‘It must have been hard, out there.’
‘I heard what happened to your mom. I’m sorry.’
‘They say your dad was… not well, after it.’
‘No. Mom had just died, of course he wasn’t… He’s fine now.’
‘Must have been tough,’ Deanna says, ‘without your dad for a while.’
‘We had Daryl,’ Carl finally meets her eye. ‘He looked after us.’ He wraps his arms tighter around Judith. ‘He looks after us, I mean.’
‘But your dad is fine now, right? That’s what you said.’
Carl frowns. ‘So? Daryl’s always been looking after us.’
Deanna nods her understanding and then smiles. ‘He doesn’t have to anymore. You’re safe now. We have walls here.’
‘So did the prison,’ Carl answers. ‘And he’s always going to look after us. Until he dies. He promised. And Daryl doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. Sometimes people do that because they think we won’t know.’ He gestures at his sister with his chin. ‘They lie because we’re kids. Daryl doesn’t lie.’
‘Sometimes people lie to protect other people.’
‘He does that without lying.’
‘I guess it was nice, you know,’ Jessie leans on the porch and watches how her oldest son chases her youngest. ‘To pretend.’
‘I thought we could make it work.’ Rick says.
‘But then you figured out you were kind of already seeing someone else.’
‘It wasn’t like that,’ Rick tries but there’s a smile playing around Jessie’s lips. It’s a teasing little thing, not quite there and certainly not reaching her eyes, just on the verge of breaking through. ‘I just… I didn’t…’
‘Didn’t what? Know you were in love with Daryl this whole time?’
‘Rick,’ she cuts in, ‘I thought we weren’t going to lead each other on anymore?’
The sheriff sighs and rubs his hands over his face, missing his beard for a second. Nails scratch over bare skin, leaving faint marks in their wake. ‘I’m sorry. I really am. I thought… I thought we could be like that, you know? A family, together. I wanted that for Carl and Judith.’
‘I know.’ Jessie says. She looks at him and smiles, ‘and you tried really hard.’
‘So hard that my kids started to hate me,’ Rick groans.
‘And me,’ Jessie laughs. ‘Carl’s actually really nice when he doesn’t think I’m trying to replace Daryl, did you know that? He was exceptionally polite the other day.’
‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
The woman knocks their shoulders together. ‘I really liked you.’
Rick’s face falls. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Yeah,’ Jessie nods, ‘any time I need a babysitter in the next ten years, it’s going to be you. And you do not get to say no. Got it?’
‘And you’re getting us some more of those cookies Carol makes, okay?’
‘Don’t push your luck, you didn’t like me that much, lady.’
‘Daryl? You have two visitors.’
The hunter frowns and leans back in the chair to see who’s at the door.
On the threshold, there’s Carl, holding a whimpering Judith. The sheriff hat hides the boy’s eyes, his chin on Judith blond hair as he mutters something comforting to his little sister. It doesn’t seem to be helping.
‘Carl?’ Daryl is out of his seat in a flash and striding over to the door, nodding at Aaron who has raised his eyebrows in surprise at the little scene on his porch. ‘Something wrong, kid? Come on in for a sec.’ He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder and guides him over the threshold, closing the door behind them.
Aaron says something about checking whether he closed the window upstairs, which is one of the fucking worst excuses Daryl has ever heard, but he lets it slide when he and Eric discreetly slink upstairs to give them some privacy.
‘What’s wrong?’ the hunter demands as he steers the boy over to the dinner table, where the spaghetti is going cold. ‘Give me her,’ he says when Judith reaches for him with tears on her chubby cheeks. ‘Hey ass kicker, what crawled up your little butt, hmm? There,’ he smiles when she settles against his shoulder. ‘Just needed some lovin’, huh? I got ya, baby girl. I got ya.’
Carl sighs and pushes the sheriff’s hat up before he falls into Eric’s seat. He pushes the plate away from him and plants his elbows on the table with a groan. The palms of his hands are pressed into his eyes.
‘Talk,’ Daryl orders.
‘Dad is so fucking stupid!’
‘Dad is so stupid!’
Carl removes his hands so he can glare at the hunter. ‘Because.’
‘Yeah, that ain’t much of a reason,’ Daryl tell him dryly as he sits down again and goes back to eating his spaghetti while balancing Judith against his shoulder. It’s not easy but he manages all the same.
‘Why are you here all the time?’ Carl suddenly demands. ‘You’re never over at ours anymore. You’re always here with Aaron and Eric. Why?’
Daryl narrows his eyes because he doesn’t feel like he has to explain himself to an angry teenager and shrugs. ‘I’ve been fixin’ to get that bike going. They got a garage with the stuff I need, ‘s easier here than over at yours. You know that.’
‘You’re not working on your bike now.’
‘So? Man’s gotta eat and Eric makes a mean spaghetti. Try it,’ he waves at Eric’s plate with his fork.
Carl gives him a cold look. ‘You just forgot about us.’
Daryl’s hand stills. He freezes for a second before he leans back in his seat, his gaze calculating. ‘Got some more bullshit ya wanna spew or was that the only thing you could think of just now?’
‘You dumped us inside these gates, that fucking house, and couldn’t wait to hightail out of there! And then you got all these new friends, that bike, and you just forgot about us!’
Judith whimpers at the sudden raised voice.
‘You’re upsetting your sister,’ Daryl tells him calmly. ‘And making yourself look like a damn fool. No, I haven’t been around your house much, sorry, but the good Lord gave ya legs, didn’t he? I’m four doors down.’
Carl crosses his arms and looks away. ‘Dad told us to give you some space.’ He spits the word out like it’s something vile. ‘You don’t want us coming over.’
The hunter frowns, ‘don’t know why your daddy said that. Didn’t ask for space or nothing. Just moved out when everyone else did, found my own place.’
‘With Aaron and Eric.’
‘With Carol and Michonne,’ Daryl corrects. ‘This isn’t my home. They just let me use their garage and eat their food when Carol and Michonne are on guard duty, like tonight. They’ll kick me out in an hour or so. It’s their place, and honestly? There are some things I don’t have to witness.’
Carl smiles faintly at that but then frowns, like he remembered he’s supposed to be mad. ‘Jessie is at our place all the time.’
Daryl nods and hums around a bite of spaghetti.
‘Judith doesn’t like her.’
Blue eyes flicker up from the pasta to the boy’s steady gaze. ‘That right, hmm?’
‘Yeah,’ Carl sets his jaw. ‘She hates her.’
Daryl snorts, shaking his head a bit. ‘Lettin’ ya sis do the dirty work for ya now?’
‘Fine,’ Carl smirks back, ‘I hate her. But Judith doesn’t like her, and that’s the truth! She’s always trying to pick Judith up and she gets all cranky, like, wrinkling her nose, crying like hell’s coming down on us, the whole shebang.’
The hunter reaches for his glass of water and lifts it to Judith’s lips, making her take a careful sip before gulping down some himself. ‘She always does that. She don’t know Jessie.’
‘Exactly!’ Carl says, like his whole point has just been proven solid. ‘We don’t know her! Why’s she hanging around us all the time? Dad let her babysit Judith this one time. We don’t know her!’
‘Kid,’ Daryl sighs, ‘that’s why she’s around all the time. Your dad wants you to get to know her.’
‘He likes her.’
The teenager blinks confusedly and then scrunches up his nose, ‘no he doesn’t.’
‘Newsflash,’ Daryl says as he gets up, ‘he does.’ He walks over to put Judith in her brother’s lap again so he can start clearing the table.
‘He doesn’t!’ Carl objects and he sounds extremely sure of himself.
‘Okay, fine, he doesn’t, whatever,’ Daryl shrugs as he leans with both hands on the kitchen island. He looks at the teenager. ‘Rick’s a family-guy, a’right? He loves you more than anything in this world and he wants you two to be as happy as you can be. The whole world’s gone to hell in a basket. This is just him, trying to make it a bit easier. Normal.’ He hesitates for a second. ‘Better.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Jessie’s a good mom.’
‘I guess, but-‘ Carl stops mid-sentence and gapes at him. ‘She’s not our mom!’
‘No, she ain’t,’ Daryl agrees. ‘He ain’t trying to replace Lori, it’s just… It’s just him now, right? Maybe it’d be easier if there were someone else too. For you, too. You take care of ass kicker all the time, you wouldn’t have to if she’d help out a bit. Could get more readin’ in with those comics.’
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ Carl breathes as he stands up, hitching Judith higher.
‘Are you leaving?’
Daryl frowns, ‘what? No, of course I ain’t leaving.’
‘Then why are you saying it’s just dad? That he’s on his own with us? Where are you going?’
‘I’m not going anywhere, kid. I just ain’t-‘
‘Ain’t what?’ Carl nearly shouts, ‘our… like, our second dad? Oh my God! You’re just dumping us on Jessie! What, you’re sick of us already?’
‘I ain’t your second anything!’
Carl looks like he’s been slapped. He gapes at the hunter before taking a stumbling step back as he hugs his sister close.
‘Carl-‘ Daryl tries but the teenager sets his jaw and storms out of the house with his sister, slamming the door behind them.
Carl is standing in front of a pile of rubble that used to be a home. He can still remember what it had looked like. White, big, with that large kitchen that could even host their family. Some parts of the walls are still standing but most of it has burned down. Maybe he should look through the rubble to find some small memorabilia to take back with him, to show that he went back and that some of it was still there.
Maybe that’s important to know; that some things survive even when it’s destroyed.
‘Can we go to the prison now?’
Carl looks over his shoulder at his sister, who is minding the horses.
‘I want to see the prison,’ she says.
‘Yeah, sure. It’s not far even though it took us months to find it.’
Judith swings herself back into the saddle and makes her horse do a tight turn so she can oversee the country side. ‘This is where Maggie grew up?’
‘Yeah. She met Glenn here. Do you remember him?’
‘I know him,’ Judith says because she knows a lot of people she can’t remember. Her dirty blonde is spilling over her shoulders, one part braided tightly by Michonne to keep it out of her face. There’s a machete on her hip, a gun on the other one and a recurve bow strapped to her back. Her brown eyes sparkle when they meet Carl’s blue ones. ‘Lead the way.’
The horses had been a gift from the Kingdom. A present from the King himself, for Rick’s efforts during the Great War. At least, that was the official reason. Unofficially, Carol had led the horses over to Daryl after the wedding, giving him the means to come visit her often even when their petrol would eventually dry up.
Hell-bringer and Hell-raiser, the two fastest and strongest horses bred inside the Kingdom.
Carl hoists himself onto Hell-bringer’s back and clicks his tongue. ‘Okay, come on, Kicker. Let’s go.’
‘This is where she died?’ Judith asks as they’re standing on the slope of a hill, looking down at the prison. Nature has reclaimed the site. Walls are crumbling, the metal leaving ugly stains of rust in the greenery.
Judith nods. ‘Can we go down? Inside?’
‘There’s no point. Everything is gone. I went back here a couple of years ago to try and find some things but… the walls are collapsing. If you want to go to the room, we might not get out. It’s not worth it, Jude.’ Carl strokes Hell-bringer’s neck as he leans forward in his saddle. ‘We buried her outside.’
‘I know. Is the grave still there?’
‘You can’t really tell but I know where it is. Do you want to go down there?’
It’s strange to lead his sister through the gates of the prison. This time she isn’t whisked away in a flurry of panic, isn’t crying, or screaming, isn’t a baby anymore.
Carl laughs when he looks at her, tall and proud on her beautiful horse.
Ass kicker and Hell-raiser, coming home.
‘But what happened?’ Judith asks as they walk through the large, empty halls.
‘They were just bad people, Jude.’
‘You always say that, but why were they bad?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Were they like the Saviors?’
‘The wolves?’ Judith prods.
‘No. Stop being so annoying. Let’s go, we shouldn’t even have come here,’ Carl mutters as he spots the train car. The letter A has been washed away.
It’s late in the afternoon when they finally arrive back at Alexandria. The large gates swing open to reveal the bustling community. People stop to greet them while children run out to demand stories from Judith, but the girl just kicks her horse gently to make it jump forward, galloping home just to show off.
Carl smirks and follows more slowly, calling out greetings to everyone he knows and promising to stop by later.
Rick is standing on the porch, smiling as he watches how his daughter handles her horse with easy grace she’s learned from Michonne and Maggie. It doesn’t worry him that there’s blood on her jeans or that a couple of arrows have gone missing from her quiver. There’s a broad smile on her face so none of that matters.
His gaze glides to his son, who has been a grown man for years now. Dark hair now cut short and an eyepatch made of leather covering the lingering wound on his face.
Rick leans back to open the door to his house, ‘they’re back,’ he calls out.
The only answer he gets is the sound of heavy footsteps coming towards the porch, and strong arms wrapping around his waist.