As Carl sits beside his father in the house that has become their hospital, he tells him aloud that he loves him. It’s the first time he’s said it in months.
Today it feels important.
There’s a depth to his voice that lends his words a newfound firmness and maturity, as though he’s the adult now – no longer saying it because he’s scared, because he needs his dad; simply because he does. Despite it all and because of it all, he loves him.
Right now, it’s Rick who’s scared. It’s Rick who needs Carl.
Perhaps it always was.
Rick’s eyes move from Michonne, lying unconscious and wounded, to Carl. His mouth hangs open as though searching for the words, for something bigger than, “I love you, Carl.” He settles on it anyway.
“You did the right thing today, not backing down. I wanted you to know that.”
Rick draws his head back, his eyes examining Carl’s fixed stare with the kind of awe he’s grown used to feeling when looking at his son. His lips part once more, as though to speak, but he just gives a weak nod.
“It’s bigger than us now, Dad,” Carl continues, a touching mix of naïveté and determination in his statement. “Fighting it – them, him. It’s the only way. Win or lose.”
“I know,” Rick says, barely above a whisper. A strained, aching whisper. He keeps his head bowed, looking somewhere between Michonne’s bed and the floor.
“We’re gonna win, though.”
Rick looks up slowly, hesitantly, with his head tilting sideways and eyebrows drawn together. “How do you know?”
Carl smiles brightly at his dad before looking back at Michonne, her body covered in swelling, bruises, blood – each marking her pain in cruel detail. It’s hard to take in, the trauma of her fight almost too much to bear for the two men who love her most in all the world. But she’s alive, still with them. Broken but not beaten. And Carl’s eyes scan back to his dad’s to say, as if of course, “We’re the ones who live.”
Rick’s eyes are rushed with tears. The kind that sit thickly over red lines before trickling down unnoticed and tracing the line of his nose, or escaping to pool inside the hoods of his eyes. Rick reaches a hand – bloodied and muddied – to Carl’s cheek. He holds his palm against it, his fingers curling gently around Carl’s neck before he pulls him warmly into his chest and places a kiss to his son’s head, thick hair pressed against his lips.
“I love you, Carl,” he says again, voice thick and heavy, as though the words have been scraped out of his throat.
Once the immediate aftermath of the battle has passed and once the Saviors’ retreat is certain, Rick grows impatient to see Judith again. To make his family whole again.
He and Michonne are quiet in their hours spent together at the infirmary, holding hands and communicating in silence. It’s when Carl’s with them that she truly brightens up. Rick’s certain it’s part performance more than it is a miracle cure, but that and having almost lost Carl is reason enough to keep the children close – closer than ever. Judith too.
It is at Rick’s urging that Jesus makes the journey to Hilltop and back again just to bring her home. When he arrives at the gates of Alexandria with the little girl in his arms, Rick’s there to meet him. It’s the same spot where he’d stood with Abraham not so long ago, waiting desperately for Michonne’s return.
“Hello sweetheart,” he says as Judith reaches out a grabbing hand to him, speaking in a voice that Jesus has never heard him use before: lilting and light.
She lights up at the sight of him, her dad. The only dad she’s ever known.
Rick sweeps her up in his arms, positioning her onto the hip that Jadis didn’t shoot and peppering her face with playful kisses. “I missed you,” he whispers softly, smiling with wide eyes entirely for Judith’s entertainment.
She combs her fingers through his beard roughly in response.
"Journey okay?” Rick eventually asks as he notices Jesus’ presence once more, his voice gruff and heavy again.
“No trouble for now,” is the reply. Cautious and wary.
The two men walk further into Alexandria, parting without words as they reach their respective destinations: houses on two sides of the street. On one side, Maggie and Ezekiel are leading the charge in yet another strategy planning meeting. On the other, Alexandria’s sanatorium.
Rick moves up the porch steps to visit his favorite patient, with Judith clinging to his side. She’s pulling at his t-shirt with balled fists, bursting with energy and affection. He bounces her in his stride and ignores the dull pain it brings from his bullet wound.
It's early evening, barely an hour since his last visit. Tara's left in the meantime and Rosita's sleeping now. Carl is exactly where he left him: at Michonne’s bedside. They’re laughing together, speaking hushed words that can’t be deciphered. It’s beautiful and light and the whole air of the place has altered. Looking at Michonne now, Rick’s not seeing the cuts and bruises on her body anymore, but the luminous way she smiles at his son – their son. She’s sitting up and carrying her shoulders with a strength that she had so briefly lost.
Somehow, in the short time since he’d left her to review plans with Maggie and to collect Judith, she looks renewed. And when she catches sight of him moving into the room with that special surprise in his arms, Michonne’s eyes brighten even more.
"Hey," he says softly. "Somebody missed you."
Judith, as if on cue, begins to wriggle and fidget in Rick’s arms as if urging him to move closer. He walks to the side of the bed opposite Carl, lifting his daughter so that she can balance on the edge of Michonne’s mattress with her fingers curled around his for support.
“Mi-ma-…” Judith murmurs sweetly.
Still wearing the smile he’d had fixed on his face since Rick had walked in, Carl abruptly says, “Can I… I wanted to talk to you guys about something.”
“Anything,” Michonne replies swiftly, almost cutting him off in her eager rush to reassure him.
“I think it might be nice if Judy… If she called you ‘Mom’. If you were okay with that.” He shrugs a little nervously.
Speaking directly to Michonne, Carl explains, “I want her to grow up with a mom. She deserves that; every kid does. And, umm… Our mom died for her,” his voice strains and he swallows to get it back, “and I would never let Judith grow up without knowing what Mom was like, how much she loved us both. But I was thinking it would be better for Judith to feel like she had two moms than none at all. I think Mom would want that for her, for all of us.”
Carl breathes out a heavy sigh and takes a pause to glance over at his dad, adding, “She’d want Judith to have everything she would’ve given her if she could have.”
Rick bows his head just a little, content to watch it play out between Carl and Michonne. His eyes move between them with an ease that Carl reads as endorsement.
While Rick’s caught up in what Carl’s saying, Judith’s hands break away from his to crawl her way closer to Michonne. She obliviously pads across bruised skin and bandages, with Rick moving after her to pull her back – but not before Michonne’s arms move up to embrace the loving little girl. She winces a little but fights it just to be able to hold Judith again.
“You’re family, Michonne. Everyone is family now – Daryl, Maggie, Carol, everyone. But you, you’re our mom,” Carl says, speaking quieter. “We would never have made it without you. When I thought it was you–”
Holding Judith on one side of her, Michonne reaches her other hand out to Carl.
“We need you,” is the last thing he says as she comforts him with acceptance, her arms wrapping him up the way mothers hold their sons and daughters. She doesn’t give a care for the pain of it.
With Judith caught in the middle, Michonne holds him tightly against her as her tearful eyes dart up to meet Rick’s. A question passes between them and then Rick nods. “We do.”